Understanding Plastic Pollution: The potential health effects, abundance and classification of microplastics

PLOS ONE recently published a new Collection of research entitled Recent Advances in Understanding Plastic Pollution. Given the broad scope of this collection, and the potential implications this research has on both humans the rest of the biosphere globally, we are digging deeper into the findings with some of the authors from papers included in this collection. In this third installment of interviews, we learn more about how microplastics may affect metabolism, and how it is getting easier to use machine learning to analyse samples containing microplastics.


CJ O’Brien, Plastics Campaign Associate, Oceana


CJ O’Brien has worked in research and advocacy to protect the ocean from plastic pollution in the United States and Zanzibar, Tanzania. She is currently the Plastics Campaign Associate at Oceana where she works on policies to reduce the production and use of single-use plastic. Before joining Oceana, she earned a master’s degree in Development Practice from Emory University with a focus on Environmental Conservation and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). There, she grappled with the complex interactions between marine conservation, plastic pollution, and international development. CJ also has a B.S. in Biology from California Lutheran University. Her honors thesis explored the impacts of plastic on the digestive enzyme activity in marine mussels which is the study highlighted here.

CJ O’Brien’s paper in this collection: O’Brien CJ, Hong HC, Bryant EE, Connor KM (2021) The observation of starch digestion in blue mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis exposed to microplastic particles under varied food conditions. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0253802. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0253802

PLOS: In this paper, you studied the effects of microplastics on blue mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis during different food regimes. Why is this species particularly interesting to study in order to understand plastic pollution?

CJO: Mytilus galloprovincialis are small but mighty in their importance to the marine ecosystem and to plastic pollution research. Many researchers study this species because they are bioindicators which means they help us monitor the overall health of the environment. Mytilus galloprovincialis filter feed and are sessile creatures, making them extremely sensitive to pollution and other anthropogenic changes. Studying this species and its physiological reaction to the exposure of microplastic allowed us as researchers to get a better look at how microplastics are not only impacting them as a species, but how microplastic might be impacting the ecosystem as a whole. 

Additionally, Mytilus galloprovincialis are crucial to the marine environment and to humans as well. This species is constantly filtering the water column in which they live, creating more clean environments for their marine neighbors. They are also found all over the world and are cultivated for food in many different regions. Not to mention they make great lab subjects as they are easy to care for. I would say that intertidal filter feeders in general are extremely fascinating organisms and crucial in our understanding of plastic pollution, the health of the ocean, and the health of humans. 

PLOS: You found that enzyme activity was affected by the presence of microplastics in the high-food regime only. Was this a result you had foreseen? How is the high-food regime reflected in the real lives of this species?

CJO: This outcome was shocking to me. I expected amylase activity to be negatively affected by the presence of microplastic in both feeding regimes. I thought that since microplastic holds no nutrition for these organisms, that filtering microplastic particles would take up a large proportion of their energy to filter, increase toxicity, or reduce available organic content available for digestion. Theoretically, these perturbations could hinder their ability to make or secrete amylase and survive. However, mussels evolved a range of digestive related characteristics to cope with fluctuations in nutrients and understanding how they modulate them when exposed to microplastic pollution is an emerging field of science.

In our experiment, we subjected mussels to fluctuating feeding environments that differ, similar to that to mussels at different shore levels. Mussels fed high food concentrations represented mussels that live lower in the water column and are exposed to more feeding options than mussels high on the shore due to daily tidal variation. With that context, I thought that the amylase activity in mussels in the low food group would be impacted more than mussels in the high food group. This inference was not observed and in fact high microplastics led to unpredictably high amylase activity.

This was interesting to me because food digestion is positively related to food abundance–the digestive modulation hypothesis–and microplastics is not food. Mussels are adapted to conserve energy as much as they can due to unpredictable environments, such as tidal, thermal, and pH variation. Any change to their energy reserves in nature could impact their growth, survival, and fitness. However, our study showed that it is possible that even under very high microplastic exposures and presumably less organic content ingested, amylase activity was actually increased to compensate for diluted food. 

PLOS: Working to combat plastic pollution must be endlessly inspiring but occasionally daunting. What motivated you to work in this field, and what are the rewards that keep you going?

CJO: Growing up in Florida, I’ve always had a deep curiosity and connection to the ocean. My motivation for getting into this field was fueled by wanting to protect the place that I loved most. I increasingly saw plastic pollution on beaches that I spent time at and as I started to learn more, I realized just how big this problem is. I was utterly fascinated that a man-made material, made to last forever but oftentimes only used for a few moments has caused so much harm–especially microplastic which can be microscopic. It is so insidious!

Currently, I work on policies that reduce the production and use of single-use plastic. While I don’t work in research anymore, I’ve seen firsthand how research influences policies that reduce single-use plastic. It is so crucial that researchers continue to investigate how this pollutant impacts the health of our oceans and the health of us as humans. Plastic production is expected to increase and if we are to have any chance in fighting the plastic pollution crisis, we will need all hands on deck from scientists, policymakers, as well as artists, musicians, community members, and young people. I feel hopeful when I see collaborative, creative, and equitable approaches to this problem.

PLOS: Several other studies in this Collection also look the effects of plastic pollution on living species. Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

CJO: Our study subjected mussels to high concentrations of spherical microplastics that may have an effect on mussels in future microplastics conditions. Our results showed that these types of microplastics are not lethal over short exposures. I continue to monitor studies of microplastics on bivalves and other marine organisms in general in my role as the Plastics Campaign Associate. The Connor Lab at University of California-Irvine continues to deeply study how bivalves work from genome to phenome.


Ho-min Park, PhD Student, Ghent University


Hello, my name is Ho-min Park. I am currently pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science engineering from Ghent University, Belgium. In this context, I am working as a teaching assistant for the Informatics and Bioinformatics courses at Ghent University Global Campus in Incheon, Korea. This extended campus of Ghent University offers educational programmes in Molecular Biotechnology, Food Technology, and Environmental Technology. As a dry lab scientist, I am conducting convergence-oriented research that applies artificial intelligence to predictive tasks that have been put forward by the different wet labs at Ghent University Global Campus.

Ho-min Park’s paper in this collection: Park H-m, Park S, de Guzman MK, Baek JY, Cirkovic Velickovic T, Van Messem A, et al. (2022) MP-Net: Deep learning-based segmentation for fluorescence microscopy images of microplastics isolated from clams. PLoS ONE 17(6): e0269449. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0269449

PLOS: You studied various machine learning techniques for annotating microplastics from fluorescence microscopy images, which is very promising for reducing the time and effort it takes researchers to analyze microscopy images. How close are we to where machine learning can truly analyze microscopy images as well as a human can?

HP: I think we are getting very close. For quite a few image analysis and annotation efforts that take up a lot of time, I even believe that machine learning techniques are already better than humans, given that humans tend to suffer from visual fatigue rather quickly. Furthermore, when targeting high-speed and high-quality image analyses, the ideal approach will most likely consist of first having machine learning analyze an image of interest, and then ask a domain expert to validate the analysis performed.

However, we still need to obtain a better understanding of the inherent limitations of data-driven approaches. Human-made data often contain biases and errors, and where these biases and errors can propagate to machine learning models that were trained on these human-made data. For example, while annotating our microscopy images, we were able to spot several image blobs that made it hard for humans to determine whether these blobs were denoting microplastics or light bleed artifacts, and where such ambiguities typically also affect the training and decision-making capabilities of machine learning models.

PLOS: You made all data and code publicly available for the software you developed for this project. What motivated you to do this? Do you know whether other researchers have used your code or software, maybe not yet for this project, but perhaps for any other code you’ve made available in the past?

HP: In imaging of microplastics, the acquisition of data requires several steps, and where most of these steps can be considered time-consuming and labor intensive, especially when they involve chemical processes. In particular, to obtain a set of microscopy images, we had to collect numerous clam samples, subsequently digesting the proteins and lipids, staining the remaining microplastics pieces, and performing image capturing with a microscope. As a result, most studies only make available the amount and the type of microplastics, and not the original images. However, this makes it challenging for other researchers to cross-validate experimental methods and results. We therefore took the decision to open up our data and our software, thus making it easier for other researchers to build on top of our work. In this respect, we also plan to post an introductory article on our work to the Papers with Code platform in the near future. Finally, although our paper was published only recently, we already received several inquiries regarding the usage of our data and our software.

PLOS: For this paper, you had two collaborating institutions and three “first authors” who contributed equally. Can you tell us more about how this collaboration worked?

HP: The idea of building a machine learning tool first came about when Maria Krishna, who is a PhD student in Food Chemistry at Ghent University Global Campus, encountered difficulties in manually counting microplastics in the fluorescence images she collected. After discussing these difficulties with me (Maria Krishna knew about my computer vision research), and after encouragement from our doctoral advisors, we decided to experiment with a few images and a number of deep learning models. This required a lot of work, both on the chemistry side (for the acquisition of microplastics from shellfish until image collection) and on the machine learning side (for model training and development of the GUI). In this context, we received a lot of help from two student interns, Sanghyeon Park and Jiyeon Baek, with Sanghyeon even staying on for the entire duration of the project.

PLOS: As a researcher, how do you hope to inspire other researchers, and the general public, to focus on plastic pollution as a social issue? What are some ways in which researchers who do not work directly in this field can help?

HP: With increasingly better methodologies to quantify microplastics pollution, including computational methodologies that leverage machine learning, we believe it will be easier to raise awareness about the seriousness of the spread of microplastics, and where this increased awareness will hopefully trigger more research and development efforts. These research and development efforts could for instance target the creation of biodegradable plastics, the discovery and possible engineering of organisms that can break down microplastics, and a better understanding of the risks posed by microplastics and their impact on human health, and where the latter effort would be of high interest to law and policy makers.


Cover image: Port of Dover, 2014 Beach Clean (CC-BY 2.0)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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Understanding Plastic Pollution: Consumer attitudes and knowledge

Last week, PLOS ONE a new Curated Collection – Recent Advances in Understanding Plastic Pollution. In this second installment of our Q&A with authors from this collection, we speak with author groups who study consumer knowledge and attitudes toward plastic products and the ease of recycling.


Emma Berry, Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast


Emma Berry is a Health Psychology Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. Emma’s research interests include psychological adjustment to long-term conditions, health and environmental behaviour change, and psychosocial and behavioural intervention development. Emma is also interested in creative modes of communicating information and providing education, particularly in the format of comics.

Emma Berry’s paper in this Curated Collection: Roy D, Berry E, Dempster M (2022) “If it is not made easy for me, I will just not bother”. A qualitative exploration of the barriers and facilitators to recycling plastics. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267284. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267284

PLOS: You carried out a study to investigate motivations and barriers to recycling plastics, and the title of your paper is quite telling – it needs to be easy for people to recycle. Was there anything about the results of this study that surprised you?

EB: A novel element of this study was to qualitatively explore how the dexterity of plastic packaging can influence recycling behaviour. It was interesting to find that, in spite of environmental concern, participants openly recognised that the complexity of recycling, which is influenced by both the packaging and the accessibility of recycling resources i.e. bins, is an important barrier to recycling behaviour. Even when people are motivated to recycle, this does not always translate into action. Moreover, experiencing environmental concern does not necessarily make recycling a priority. For many people recycling is one of many competing life priorities, so if it requires too much cognitive and/or physical effort, other competing behaviours will take precedent. Of relevance to plastic manufacturers and retailers, our study reaffirms the usefulness of simplicity in the design of plastic packaging, with clear visual cues to aid decisions about what, how, where, and when to recycle.

PLOS: It is mentioned in the paper that some of the original intentions on how the data was to be used changed. Can you elaborate on how some of these changes occurred? Sometimes it can feel like a lot of pressure for research to always work out like we hoped or planned, so it is nice to hear how things can be adapted or altered for various scenarios during an ongoing study.

EB: The value of qualitative designs is that we can adopt an inductive or bottom-up approach, enabling us to be more receptive of new and unexpected findings. This also means that we can be more flexible (within the realms of the research question) about how the data is interpreted and used, depending on the emergent themes. The decision to integrate the survey data was post-hoc, based on the qualitative themes extracted. The survey work was conducted separately and was intended to provide an overview of recycling awareness, knowledge, and behaviours in a cross-section of people living in Northern Ireland. However, following the analysis of the qualitative findings, we felt that the frequencies observed in the survey data corroborated the salience of themes relating to physical opportunity and motivational factors underpinning intentions to recycle.

PLOS: You chose to publish the peer review history of your paper online together with the paper itself. Can you tell us what motivated you to do this? Was there anything in particular about the peer review process or recommendations from the editors or reviewers that felt especially useful for enhancing the paper?

EB: Publishing the peer review history of the paper supports an open science approach and allows readers to acknowledge how the paper has evolved from the original submission. However, we also wanted to acknowledge the specific recommendations provided by peer reviewers. In particular, the helpful recommendations to improve the structure and reporting of the interview and survey findings, in order to strengthen the narrative and make the most of the data available. Moreover, the peer review process prompted us to clarify the theoretical framework applied to the methodology (the COM-B model), which is a novel and valuable element of the study. We felt it was important to acknowledge the value of the peer review process to reaffirm this.

PLOS: Two other studies in this collection also look at consumer attitudes to recycling and waste, and the use of bioplastics. These are “Chukwuone NA, Amaechina EC, Ifelunini IA (2022) Determinants of household’s waste disposal practices and willingness to participate in reducing the flow of plastics into the ocean: Evidence from coastal city of Lagos Nigeria. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0267739. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267739” and “Filho WL, Barbir J, Abubakar IR, Paço A, Stasiskiene Z, Hornbogen M, et al. (2022) Consumer attitudes and concerns with bioplastics use: An international study. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266918” Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

EB: Our paper, in conjunction with the two other studies in this collection support the need for research that focuses on the design and evaluation of interventions to support appropriate recycling behaviour and minimise inappropriate disposal of plastic waste. The paper by Filho et al. (2022) is interesting as it considers how plastic material can be altered to improve the ecological footprint of the production and degradation of packaging, and this resonates with a previous paper we collaborated on by Meta et al. (2021: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2020.12.015). All three papers collectively affirm the need to provide more behavioural scaffolding to assist recycling in day to day life. This means adjusting the choice architecture by focusing on the design of plastic packaging and the availability of cues and resources required to recycle more effortlessly.


Stay tuned for more interviews with authors from this collection.

Cover image: Port of Dover, 2014 Beach Clean (CC-BY 2.0)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

The post Understanding Plastic Pollution: Consumer attitudes and knowledge appeared first on EveryONE.

Understanding Plastic Pollution – How do our clothes contribute?

PLOS ONE is delighted to introduce a new Curated Collection – Recent Advances in Understanding Plastic Pollution. This global challenge may have not been the biggest fixture in the media during the past couple of years, but researchers, governments, volunteers and the public have all been working hard on ensuring that it is easier than ever to be a part of the movement to reduce plastic pollution. Many of us will now be used to receiving take-away food in paper bags or boxes and being equipped with wooden forks and spoons instead of the traditional plastic ones. The PLOS ONE community of researchers working on plastic pollution have been busy reporting new results on identifying microplastic prevalence in various organisms and habitats, understanding how members of the public understand recycling and bioplastics, and how clothes shed microfibers during washing and drying. You can learn more about all of this in our new Curated Collection.

In this first installment of our Q&A with authors from this collection, we speak to some of our researchers working on how clothes may contribute to microfiber pollution during washing and drying.


Neil Lant, Research Fellow, Procter & Gamble


Dr Neil Lant joined Procter & Gamble’s Newcastle Innovation Centre in 1997 after completing a chemistry degree and PhD in bioorganic chemistry. For the past 25 years he has worked in fabric and home care product development for all regions of the world, with a strong emphasis on applying new enzyme technology to improve product performance and sustainability, resulting in over 150 families patent applications. He also leads P&G’s microfiber research program, as part of his broader interests in the role of fabric care products in improving textile sustainability.

Neil Lant’s paper in this Curated Collection: Lant NJ, Defaye MMA, Smith AJ, Kechi-Okafor C, Dean JR, Sheridan KJ (2022) The impact of fabric conditioning products and lint filter pore size on airborne microfiber pollution arising from tumble drying. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0265912. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0265912

PLOS: Your studied microfiber shedding from clothes during various washing and drying conditions. You made a distinction between European and North American washing routines. What is the main difference between these? How do they differ from those in other parts of the world that were not studied?

NL: The washing machines used in Europe are almost exclusively front-loaders with a wash water volume of around 13 litres. However, in North America several very different appliance types are being used, broadly falling into three types – (i) front loaders that are essentially larger versions of European machines, (ii) traditional top-loading machines that have a large water volume of around 64 litres and (iii) high efficiency top-loading machines with a water volume of around 32 litres. We have found that microfiber release is driven by many factors but our previous publications were the first to recognise that the ratio of water volume to fabric weight was particularly important with high water to fabric ratios causing the highest levels of release. For this reason we run testing in both European and top-loading North America machines to check that the same trends are observed in very different conditions. Other appliance types are used in different regions of the world, and many consumers still wash by hand, but the European and North American washing machines are good representatives of those used in markets where tumble drying is common, as in this paper we were mainly interested in microfiber release during the drying step.

PLOS: You mention in this study that the only real solution to microfiber shedding may be to design a completely different type of dryer. What would need to be the key differences, and how close are we to being able to developing something like that?

NL: The study was focused on airborne microfiber pollution arising from vented dryers which have a air duct to the outside of the building, which is the most important type of dryer in North America with over 95% of the market. The airborne microfiber release can be eliminated by either improving the removal of fibers from that air flow (e.g. using the cyclonic filtration process used in many vacuum cleaners) or moving to fully sealed condenser dryers that collect all fibres and moisture within the appliance. The only problem with the latter is that the fibers can end up in the condensed water or on the condenser which is typically washed in a sink, running the risk of solving an air pollution issue by increasing water pollution! This suggests that we might need to redesign all tumble dryers to ensure that all fibers can be collected and disposed in household waste, with no opportunity for fibers to be released to the air or water.

Chimdia Kechi-Okafor, co-author of this study in PLOS ONE, inspects one of the filters used to better understand microfiber shedding during tumble drying. Chimdia Kechi-Okafor is a PhD student in Fibre Evidence at Northumbria University.

PLOS: You studied how clothes shed during washing and drying. We also know that clothes shed microfibers whilst we wear them. Do we know how the microfiber release for a certain garment differs during washing vs drying vs wearing?

NL: Forensic scientists have known for a long time that fabrics lose fibers when they make contact with other surfaces, but loss of fibers to the air and their transfer to other surfaces has now been proven. We also know that fibers will be lost during line drying of clothes. Although textile scientists are gaining a better understanding of the relationship between fiber, yarn, and textile construction and microfiber shedding during washing, more research will be needed to understand whether the same principles apply to other modes of microfiber release. And we still don’t have a clear understanding of the relative quantities of microfibers being released from textiles to air and water from these sources nor the ultimate fate of these fibers. However, there is a clear consensus that steps to reduce the intrinsic ‘sheddability’ of clothing will be a move in the right direction and we anticipate future government legislation to drive any changes needed in textile manufacturing, in line with proposed legislation in several markets to include microfiber filters in new washing machines.

PLOS: Several other studies in this Collection also look the effects of plastic pollution on living species. One of these is “Kapp KJ, Miller RZ (2020) Electric clothes dryers: An underestimated source of microfiber pollution. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0239165. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0239165” Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

NL: Kapp and Miller’s article was a breakthrough in being the first to recognise, and begin to quantify, the contribution of vented tumble dryers to airborne (and subsequent terrestrial) pollution. Their methods involving use of snow to collect deposited microfibers were fantastic. As their study only involved two dryers and didn’t measure the relative quantities of microfibers being released during washing and drying, we were keen to build on that study with a more extensive program spanning different markets, impact of fabric care products, and evaluating some potential solutions. The quantity of literature focused on tumble drying is still very limited so we would like to continue researching this area with an emphasis on condenser dryers which are already very common outside of North America and, when integrated with heat pump technology, are much more energy efficient resulting in lower operating costs and reduced carbon footprint.


Stay tuned for more interviews with authors from this collection, including Kapp and Miller who contributed Electric clothes dryers: An underestimated source of microfiber pollution

Cover image: Port of Dover, 2014 Beach Clean (CC-BY 2.0)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

The post Understanding Plastic Pollution – How do our clothes contribute? appeared first on EveryONE.

What the Kalahari can tell us about humans and climate – Interview with researcher Jessica von der Meden

Today, PLOS ONE is publishing a paper entitled “Tufas indicate prolonged periods of water availability linked to human occupation in the southern Kalahari” by a group of researchers from the Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI), based at The University of Cape Town. In this interview, PLOS ONE Associate Editor Katrien Janin (KJ) speaks to first author Jessica von der Meden (JV) about her experiences conducting this study.

KJ: “Your recent paper focuses on reconstructing the paleoclimate in the southern Kalahari, to evaluate the impact of environmental change on human evolution in this region. Can you explain the link between climate change and human evolution, and the role of southern Africa in the human evolutionary story?”

JV: Climate is a major driver of human evolution. There are debates about the extent to which climate influenced human evolution, but it is generally accepted that changing climatic conditions did influence early human movement, adaptations and behaviour, and there is growing evidence of this link. This doesn’t seem hard to imagine as we feel the effects of the changing climate even today, and at a time when humans were tethered to and dependent on the environment for survival, for example relying on fresh water and conditions conducive to hunting and foraging, it is likely that the climate played a prominent role in human evolution.

However, sites with both archaeological and geological records, underpinned by a reliable chronology, are needed to better understand how climate change impacted early humans. Datable archives of palaeoclimate, associated with well-preserved archaeological material are rare, particularly in arid interior regions. Ga-Mohana Hill is one such locality, providing a valuable opportunity to investigate the impact of climate change on human evolution. The climate system in South Africa is complex; unravelling how it was different in the past, and how this influenced human-environment interactions, is a major challenge, but it is important for understanding how our species adapted to changing climatic conditions, and what this can tell us about climate change in the future.

There are debates about the extent to which climate influenced human evolution, but it is generally accepted that changing climatic conditions did influence early human movement, adaptations and behaviour, and there is growing evidence of this link.

A time of particular interest in human evolution studies is the Middle Stone Age, during which early human populations developed behaviours characteristic of Homo sapiens, e.g. an ochre drawing at Blombos Cave, and collections of crystals at Ga-Mohana Hill. In South Africa, many archaeological sites dated to this period that preserve evidence of these behavioural advancements are situated along the southern Cape Coast, which is argued to have been a nexus for these behavioural developments, in part due to the favourable and stable climatic conditions that prevailed.

Archaeological sites with evidence for similarly advanced behaviours exist in the interior parts of southern Africa, and these sites are receiving renewed attention; however, the associated climate conditions are still poorly understood. Our research contributes important information to what is developing as a complex, multi-factorial picture of early human-environment interaction, and our results challenge the notion that humans only occupied arid regions when they were humid.

KJ: “What are tufas, and why are they such a good indicator of humidity levels and paleoclimatic conditions?”

JV: Tufas are rocks that form from ground waters that emerge at the surface as springs. These fresh spring waters are rich in dissolved calcium, typically sourced from carbonate bedrock, in this case 2.4 billion year old dolomites from the Palaeoproterozoic era.

Tufas are similar to stalagmites or stalactites that form from drip-waters in caves – the big difference is that tufas form from ground waters that emerge at the surface of the landscape, not inside a cave environment, and so they are exposed to light, dust and plant matter, making them slightly more complicated deposits.

Tufas form when particular climatic conditions are met, the most important being sufficient rainfall to recharge the underground aquifers. The groundwaters dissolve calcium from the dolomitic bedrock, and when the aquifers are full, these calcium-rich waters overflow. In addition to sufficient rainfall, higher levels of humidity, and moderate temperatures are necessary to maintain the conditions that are favourable for tufa formation (too hot and this would create too much evaporation, reducing the amount of water available; too cold and the levels of carbon dioxide in the soil through which the rain water infiltrates will be too low, making the waters less efficient at dissolving calcium from the bedrock). As such, the presence of relict tufas points to periods in the past when this balance of sufficient moisture, humidity and temperatures existed. Today, the tufas at Ga-Mohana Hill are mostly inactive as the area experiences a semi-arid, evaporative climate, with only little rainfall during the austral summer months (December – February).

Through field observations, we determined that the tufa deposits represent past periods of flowing water in the form of shallow streams, standing pools and waterfalls cascading down the hillside.

This means that in the past, Ga-Mohana Hill would have been an oasis of fresh water, likely supporting plant productivity, and providing a crucial resource for early human populations active in the area. Despite their complexity, tufas are amenable to dating, which is important for constraining the timing of this wetter environment.

In our study, we use the uranium-thorium dating method to obtain ages for the tufa deposits at Ga-Mohana Hill. Knowing the ages of the tufas allows us to constrain times in the past that fresh water was available on the landscape. We determined that there are at least five distinct episodes of tufa formation during the last 114 thousand years. Three of these times coincide with the timing of archaeological horizons, dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to approximately 105, 31, and 15 thousand years ago, which indicates contemporaneous human occupation and tufa formation.

KJ: “Working in the Kalahari must come with its challenges. Tells us about the logistics involved with conducting fieldwork in such a remote place. What does a typical fieldwork day look like, and what were your most memorable fieldwork moments?”

JV: Field work in the Kalahari is wonderful – it really is a special place and the landscape is beautiful, with big open skies and bare land that stretches as far as the eye can see.

I’ve been fortunate to conduct my field work with an experienced team of archaeologists, who are well-organised and efficient. Ga-Mohana Hill is also located close to a town, Kuruman, and so we have been lucky to enjoy relatively luxurious field accommodation at a local B&B.

A typical day of field work involves an early start and a substantial breakfast to get us through the day. We then drive to Ga-Mohana Hill, where we all pitch in to assist with carrying the equipment needed for the archaeological excavation up the hill to the rockshelter (it is then that I am thankful that geologists in the field only really need a hammer and a notebook!). The archaeologists set up their excavation, and I am often reminded not to walk too close to the excavation pit as I peer in with interest to see the archaeologists at work.

We reached the shelter just as the cloud burst, and watched in awe from our vantage point as a large curtain of rain drenched the valley below us. The downpour didn’t last very long, and after a few minutes the storm clouds rolled on, with the rain curtain stalking across the landscape like a giant figure. The air felt extra clear, like it had been rinsed clean, and a sweet, warm smell floated up from the freshly wet earth. It was a beautiful moment.

After examining the map and a discussion on the days plans, our survey team then embark on foot to explore the area. Sometimes this also involves visits to local farmers to request permission to survey their land for archaeological material. We traverse the hills, observing the geology, looking for secondary carbonates to sample, and identifying stone tools, which are photographed and georeferenced, but left in their place to preserve the material culture. I use a geological hammer and chisel to sample the tufas, but sometimes power tools are necessary to better extract samples, and in those instances I have fun wielding an angle grinder or diamond-tipped drill.

Around lunch time we find a spot in the shade to eat our melted cheese sandwiches, and then continue with our survey and sampling in the afternoon. If our survey is close to the rockshelter, we join the excavation team for mid-morning tea and biscuits. Despite being in a fairly remote location, we still enjoy some creature comforts! Most of the field seasons are conducted in winter, when the mornings are crisp and the days are warm and clear. We have conducted shorter field seasons during the summer months, and then an earlier start to beat the heat, and carrying enough water is essential.

One of my most memorable field moments was during a visit to Ga-Mohana Hill in January which is the height of summer and also the rainy month. We were there to collect rain and drip water from the rockshelter and surrounding areas. As we were walking up the steep hillside to the shelter, we heard rumbling and a large, low storm cloud appeared. We observed the clouds roll across the valley in front of us, and felt the first big warm drops of rain on our skin. We reached the shelter just as the cloud burst, and watched in awe from our vantage point as a large curtain of rain drenched the valley below us. The downpour didn’t last very long, and after a few minutes the storm clouds rolled on, with the rain curtain stalking across the landscape like a giant figure. The air felt extra clear, like it had been rinsed clean, and a sweet, warm smell floated up from the freshly wet earth. It was a beautiful moment.

KJ: “As you may know, PLOS is dedicated to advancing not just Open Access, but pushes the boundaries of “open” to create a more equitable system of scientific knowledge and understanding. Our global research inclusivity policy promotes not only interaction between researchers from all over the world, but also encourages local engagement where we conduct our research. Archaeology and anthropology have been historically vulnerable to ‘parachute research’, where researchers from other nations arrive at a country of interest and conduct research without consulting or crediting any of the local population. What are your thoughts on global research inclusivity, and how does this ethos fit in with your research?

JV: That’s absolutely right, and such parachute practices are very apparent in a place like South Africa, where we have a rich and abundant archaeological and geological heritage that has mostly been researched by foreigners. This was jarringly evident to me when I attended a Palaeoanthropology conference in Austin, Texas; the majority of posters and oral presentations on Stone Age archaeology were on sites from southern and eastern Africa, but the authors were American. I found this so strange, as I hadn’t quite grasped the uniqueness of our heritage and the extent to which this was being investigated by people from around the world, very few of whom enter into collaborations with researchers at local institutions. This system robs local researchers of the opportunity to work on artefacts and collections in their own country, and it excludes the local population from being involved in the process, as foreigners generally don’t know how (or can’t be bothered) to engage with local communities. This creates a division and mistrust between scientists and local communities, who are the true custodians of the heritage. The research also suffers because local knowledge, customs and practices are not taken into account, and so interpretations are made through a narrow and foreign lens, without consideration of local perspectives. As such, the local population are unaware of the scientific publications produced, and are excluded from the knowledge and the conversation.

The research also suffers [when local collaborators are excluded] because local knowledge, customs and practices are not taken into account, and so interpretations are made through a narrow and foreign lens, without consideration of local perspectives. As such, the local population are unaware of the scientific publications produced, and are excluded from the knowledge and the conversation.

The authors of this study are a diverse interdisciplinary team with researchers from South Africa, Australia and North America. The lead archaeologists, Dr Jayne Wilkins (Canadian) and Dr Ben Schoville (American) are now based in Australia at Griffith University and the University of Queensland respectively, but both spent time at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, where they trained South African students and continue to involve them in field work and projects in the Northern Cape. They also maintain a close collaboration with Dr Robyn Pickering, a South African geologist at UCT, who conceptualised the tufa study and facilitated my training on U-Th methods. Through her, I had the opportunity to visit the Isotope Geochemistry Group at the University of Melbourne, where Prof Jon Woodhead and Dr John Hellstrom trained me in analysing the tufas using laser ablation and U-Th dating, with help from Dr Alan Greig, Dr Helen Green and Dr Rieneke Weij. It is through global collaborations such as this, where a diverse range of expertise, knowledge and perspectives are shared and combined, that inclusive, quality research can be produced.

In conducting our research at Ga-Mohana Hill, it was important for us to involve the local community as much as possible. We engaged with the Baga Motlhware Traditional Council to speak with them about the work we were interested in conducting and to request permission to carry it out at Ga-Mohana Hill, which is a place of spiritual and ritual significance.

To respect the ritual significance, I took a low impact approach, sampling the tufas carefully with targeted methods (e.g. using custom-made core barrels attached to a hand-held drill) and in unobtrusive locations, taking care to leave very little trace. Also, the archaeological excavations are back-filled and covered at the end of each season, so that no trace is left. These protocols were established shortly after we began investigations at Ga-Mohana after discussions with local community members about the best way to respect local traditions. The project is always working toward improving our understanding of the ways in which we can better engage with and involve the local community.

Image credit: Anse Nke

KJ: “You (have mentioned that you) are part of the Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI –https://www.heriuct.co.za/). Can you tell us more about that? And how do you think institutes like HERI help to address the important issue of research inclusivity?”

JV: HERI is doing important work in bringing attention to palaeoscience research in South Africa, and the people behind it. Through financial aid and media engagement, HERI provides support to researchers, particularly African womxn and people of colour, to promote transformation and the inclusion of diverse skills, backgrounds and perspectives in the palaeosciences. I am grateful to HERI for supporting my research and granting me opportunities to kickstart my career.

About the author:


Jessica von der Meden is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, interested in Quaternary geology and palaeoclimates related to human evolution. She is working on the occurrence, formation and dating of tufa (secondary fresh water carbonate deposits) at the archaeological site of Ga-Mohana Hill in the southern Kalahari. She is first author of Tufas indicate prolonged periods of water availability linked to human occupation in the southern Kalahari

The post What the Kalahari can tell us about humans and climate – Interview with researcher Jessica von der Meden appeared first on EveryONE.

15 Years of PLOS ONE – Author Perspectives

This December marks 15 years since PLOS ONE published its first papers. As we celebrate this milestone, we invited authors of some of the first papers to be published, as well as an author of a more recent paper, to share information about their careers, their perspectives on Open Science, and their experiences as PLOS ONE authors.

We spoke with Miriam Kolko (University of Copenhagen), Matthew Goddard (University of Lincoln), Andrej A Romanovsky (Arizona State University) and Seppo Ylä-Herttuala (University of Eastern Finland).

Their perspectives provide a fascinating insight into how their research careers have progressed in the past fifteen years, as well as the changes the research world has experienced. We hear about the importance of open science practices, and how open access publishing has gone from a relatively new idea fifteen years ago to an almost ubiquitous endeavor in the present day. They also discuss their experiences of both expected and unexpected discoveries, how they have stayed on track in pursuing their research goals, and the importance of being a good collaborator and keeping flexible in a dynamic research landscape.


Miriam Kolko


Miriam Kolko is a chief physician and glaucoma specialist at the Copenhagen University Hospital, Rigshospitalet-Glostrup and an author of the PLOS ONE paper “The Prevalence and Incidence of Glaucoma in Denmark in a Fifteen Year Period: A Nationwide Study [1]”.

Could you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment? What does your lab group look like?

MK: I am in the fortunate situation of leading the research group Eye Translational Research Unit, EyeTRU. We work with different aspects of glaucoma. All our research projects have the patient in mind and we thus have preclinical and clinical models to explore the pathophysiology behind glaucoma. In addition, we work to stratify and optimize existing treatments for glaucoma patients. We are particularly aware of the inappropriate side effects that occur with preservative-containing eye drops as well as the sparse regulation of generics. Finally, we work with big data to identify predictive factors for risk assessment and earlier detection of sight-threatening diseases, such as glaucoma. Currently, EyeTRU consists of 2 postdocs, 8 PhD students, a laboratory technician and several master’s and bachelor’s students.

It is essential to share knowledge, including sharing data, so that the most knowledge is obtained that can benefit patients

Miriam Kolko

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

MK: I am a clinician-scientist and spend half my time with patients and half time with teaching and research. I treat patients with glaucoma medically and surgically twice a week. The remaining time goes with research teaching and multicenter studies.

In your field, how important are open science practices? Do you have any success stories of having shared or re-used data, code, a preprint, or something else?

MK: Transparency is really important and creates the environment for original ideas and collaborations. The ability to publish preprints is one of many ways to share research at an early stage. Another very important prerequisite for knowledge sharing and innovative research is a safe working environment. Sure, competition is important, but teamwork is the key to ground-breaking research. In general, I believe that it is essential to share knowledge, including sharing data, so that the most knowledge is obtained that can benefit patients.

Can you tell us about an important moment in your career as a scientist, which helped shape you as a researcher?

MK: My research career started in the United States as a Fulbright scholar and later as a PhD student Under Professor Nicolas G Bazan. I spent a total of 5 years in the USA, which shaped me as a basic science researcher and has since given me the foundation to create a translational research environment in my research group Eye Translational Eye Research, EyeTRU.

PLOS ONE is celebrating 15 years as a journal this year. Can you tell us where you were in your career 15 years ago? If you could give advice to your former self as a researcher, what would you say?

MK: Believe in the impossible and keep going. Life as a clinician-scientist or full researcher is fantastic, but you face challenges along the way. The environment is harsh and the best advice is to stay behave as one would like others to behave.


Matthew Goddard


Matthew Goddard is a professor at the University of Lincoln and an author of the PLOS ONE paper “Invasion and Persistence of a Selfish Gene in the Cnidaria [2].”

Looking back at your paper, which was one of the first papers published in PLOS ONE, what did you learn from this study? Did you continue to work in this field and build on these findings?

MG: This paper was the first report inferring the dynamics of the evolution of homing endonuclease genes (HEGs: a type of ’selfish’ gene or non-Mendelian element) in metazoans. The surprising finding was they appear to have horizontally transferred between Cnidarian species. This was one of the final papers in my line of enquiry into HEGs and I moved on to other areas after this.

To meaningfully translate science done in university labs to the outside world is a hard but rewarding activity.

Matthew Goddard

Do you remember when you first heard of PLOS ONE? What made you first interested in publishing with PLOS ONE?

MG: This was back in the days before the explosion of journals occurred and most were still only accessible via subscriptions. I recall hearing the news of a new type of journal that was completely open access being suggested and I liked the idea of this very much. It was a gamble publishing in a new journal with a new format with no impact factor etc. but this was worth it as the ethos of the open access idea sat well with us.

Could you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment? What does your lab group look like?

MG: Mostly studying the effects of agricultural management (i.e. conservation agricultural approaches) and land-use change on soil biology (using DNA and classic methods) and physiochemical attributes (mainly C-sequestration and water retention). These are important areas, especially for the UK, to help understand how to best manage land given climate change and the desire to move to more sustainable agricultural approaches. There is a lack of data in this area.

In your field, how common are open science practices? Do you have any success stories of having shared or re-used data, code, a preprint, or something else?

MG: Very common, and pre-prints of any publication must be available to evaluated via the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) system. I tend to conduct studies that generate data but we have used whole genome DNA sequence data from various microbes that are publicly available to better understand the genomes that we have sequenced. Such resources are invaluable to help understand the larger ecological and genetic picture.

PLOS ONE is celebrating 15 years as a journal this year. Can you tell us where you were in your career 15 years ago? If you could give advice to your former self as a researcher, what would you say?

MG: I had just completed my first post-doctoral position at the NERC centre for population biology at Imperial College’s Silwood Park in the UK. I am not sure about advice to my former self, but to someone at the first post-doc stage of their career it would be to expose yourself to and learn from as wide a diversity of scientists, ideas and places as possible.

Publishing papers is crucial to a career in research. Can you tell us of an event or memory that was not a paper, which influenced your career as a researcher?

MG: Hard: probably moving from the ‘blue-skies’ area where I mostly just interacted with other researchers during my PhD and post-doc to interacting with farmers/agricultural workers and gaining an appreciation of how to attempt to meaningfully translate science done in university labs to the outside world is a hard but rewarding activity.


Andrej A Romanovsky


Andrej A Romanovsky is a founder of Zharko Pharma and an Adjunct Faculty member at Arizona State University, and author of the PLOS ONE paper “Neural Substrate of Cold-Seeking Behavior in Endotoxin Shock [3]”.

Looking back at your paper, which was one of the first papers published in PLOS ONE, what did you learn from this study?

AAR: Actually, that was the very first paper published by PLOS ONE [3]. That study was conducted by two brilliant researchers, Camila Almeida and Alex Steiner, who at that time were postdocs in my FeverLab. Both were trained by Professor Guillermo Branco, a patriarch of Brazilian thermophysiology, and both have become highly productive independent scientists. Camila, who played a leading role on that study, and Alex made a remarkable discovery by showing that behavioral thermoregulation does not require the integrity of the brain structure called hypothalamus. Many textbooks on thermoregulation state that body temperature is controlled by a “central government” located in the hypothalamus. This widely spread erroneous view is allegedly supported by the fact that rats with lesions in a certain part of the hypothalamus cannot defend their body temperature against heat or cold. Camila and Alex reproduced these experiments. They found that rats with lesioned hypothalami indeed could not defend themselves against thermal challenges – but only when they were restrained in little cages and could not use behavioral thermoregulation. When the same rats were allowed to move freely and select a warmer or cooler environment, they exhibited fully competent thermoregulatory responses – no weakness whatsoever! That study was a blow to the idea that the hypothalamus is the “chief commander” of thermoregulation. If the readers of this blog are interested to learn more about how this idea was discrowned and what replaced it, please go to my review [5].

But most importantly, we enjoyed – and still enjoy and are proud of – being a part of the open access revolution.

Andrej A Romanovsky

Do you remember when you first heard of PLOS ONE? What made you first interested in publishing with PLOS ONE?

AAR: The history of science is the history of illusions (like the one about the hypothalamus controlling body temperature)… In 2006, we published in PLOS Biology a study conducted in FeverLab by Alex Steiner (mentioned above) and Andrei Ivanov (now Professor at Cleveland Clinic), with the help of multiple collaborators [6]. This study, which found that fever is initiated outside of the brain, in the lungs and liver, was well-received. Encouraged by this success, we submitted our next study to PLOS Biology – again! Soon we received good reviews and an invitation to move the paper to … PLOS ONE. At that time, PLOS ONE did not exist, and this is where illusions enter our story. Listen, everybody knows that there are many Nature journals, right? Nature Neuroscience, Nature Immunology, Nature This, Nature That… But among all the Nature journals, there is one that stands like Gulliver among the Lilliputians: Nature! Camila, Alex, and I tried to imagine what type of journal PLOS ONE would be. And we came to the conclusion, or should I say illusion, that PLOS ONE would be the same to the PLOS journals as Nature was to the Nature journals! It was due to this illusion that we accepted the invitation, and this is how the very first PLOS ONE article [3] was born! And although PLOS ONE did not turn into the most prestigious PLOS journal (and was not designed to do so), our article seeded what has grown to become the Gulliver of all Gullivers in scientific publishing – the journal that has published more papers than any other academic journal in the history of mankind. But most importantly, we enjoyed – and still enjoy and are proud of – being a part of the open access revolution.

Could you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment?

AAR: I retired from laboratory research in 2019 to dedicate my remaining professional life to making several new drugs. The ideas for all these drugs came from or are closely related to my past research. Together with my colleagues, we have launched a couple of startups, including my favorite, Zharko Pharma. The name is a transliteration of the Russian adverb жарко (žárko), which means hot, like in feeling uncomfortably hot. Zharko’s goal is to develop a drug for treating the thermal discomfort experienced by menopausal women – hot flashes. Hot flashes are a widely spread condition that are debilitating in some women, and no effective non-hormonal treatment is currently available.

Publishing papers is crucial to a career in research. Can you tell us of an event or memory that was not a paper, which affected your research?

AAR: Yes, I can tell you about a silly event in FeverLab’s life that gave us a cover of the Journal of Neuroscience. When Andras Garami (now Head of Thermophysiology Department at University of Pécs Medical School in Hungary) worked with me as a postdoc, we were studying the role of the so-called TRPV1 channel in thermoregulation. The latest Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian “for their discoveries of receptors for temperature…”, including TRPV1. This channel is expressed on sensory nerves and is responsible for the burning sensation we have while eating chili peppers. Being a Hungarian, Andras was not a stranger to spicy foods, but he wanted to experience first-hand how spicy “spicy” can be and was looking in grocery stores for the hottest peppers. Eventually he found a habanero so spicy that blisters covered his lips after he tasted it. Not a surprise that many mammals avoid eating spicy peppers! Soon thereafter we needed to confirm the absence of the TRPV1 channel in TRPV1-knockout mice. We realized that these mice should not feel the hotness of habanero and would be expected to be able to eat this pepper, whereas “normal” mice (those with a functional TRPV1) should avoid this blister-inducing “poison”. Andras then ran experiments in mice, and these experiments confirmed our expectations. We later published an article about thermoregulation in TRPV1-knockout mice in the Journal of Neuroscience [7], a knockout mouse devouring a habanero stares out at you with hungry eyes from the cover of this issue.


Seppo Ylä-Herttuala


n Academy Professor at the University of Eastern Finland and author of PLOS ONE paper “Short and Long-Term Effects of hVEGF-A165 in Cre-Activated Transgenic Mice [4]”

Looking back at your paper, which was one of the first papers published in PLOS ONE, what did you learn from this study? Did you continue to work in this field and build on these findings?

SYH: We have a long history in therapeutic angiogenesis studies and this PLOS ONE paper was one of the first to realistically study long-term safety concerns of VEGF-A overexpression in vivo. The results were very important since they showed that even a low-level VEGF-A expression in vivo for an extended period of time (> one year) can cause significant side effects, such as cancer, thus preventing the use of vectors leading to long-term transgene expression in clinical VEGF-A studies. Also, Cre-loxP technology was quite new at that time and the paper showed how useful it is for in vivo safety and efficacy studies. We still use this mouse model for retinal angiogenesis studies.

Do you remember when you first heard of PLOS ONE? What made you first interested in publishing with PLOS ONE?

SYH: I think that it was from PLOS website.

For younger researchers, I would say that “Be brave and aim high to reach your vision and goals but be also realistic and prepared for sharp turns and surprises in your research”.

Seppo Ylä-Herttuala

Could you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment? What does your lab group look like?

SYH: We are continuing our pioneering work in cardiovascular gene therapy. After several advances in vector design, transgene optimization and improved local cardiac delivery methods, we have continued to apply therapeutic angiogenesis for the treatment of severe myocardial ischemia and have now conducted five clinical phase 1 and 2 trials with adenoviral vectors. Our most recent multicenter trial is currently recruiting patients in five cardiology centers in the EU for the treatment of severe coronary heart disease. We also have a very active research program for new vector development and in VEGF signaling mechanisms. My research group currently has 35 members.

In your field, how common are open science practices? Do you have any success stories of having shared or re-used data, code, a preprint, or something else?

SYH: Open access practices are very common in biomedical and clinical research. Most of our papers are now open access. This is also a requirement of EU and ERC grants which we have had during the last 10 years. Also, we have used open access data archives to identify new non-coding RNAs and gene expression profiles in mouse, pig and human heart and other tissues. From these sources we have identified new short hairpin RNAs and miRs which can regulate endogenous VEGF expression.

PLOS ONE is celebrating 15 years as a journal this year. Can you tell us where you were in your career 15 years ago? If you could give advice to your former self as a researcher, what would you say?

SYH: Fifteen years ago I was a just-appointed professor of Molecular Medicine with a very enthusiastic research program in angiogenesis and cardiac ischemia, extending from VEGF signaling studies to translational and clinical studies. Most of these goals have now come through, albeit with several surprises and new turns in the research direction over the years. For younger researchers, I would say that “Be brave and aim high to reach your vision and goals but be also realistic and prepared for sharp turns and surprises in your research”.

Publishing papers is crucial to a career in research. Can you tell us of an event or memory that was not a paper, which influenced your career as a researcher?

SYH: I so well remember the moment in 1996 when we, as the first in the world, did the first adenoviral gene transfer to human arteries with percutaneous catheter technique. This paved the way for my further research career in angiogenesis and cardiac ischemia.


Author biographies

Miriam Kolko

Miriam Kolko is chief physician and glaucoma specialist at the Copenhagen University Hospital, Rigshospitalet-Glostrup. She is also professor in translational eye research at the Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology at the University of Copenhagen. Prof. Kolko is president of the Danish Glaucoma Society and board member of Fight for Sight, Denmark. During medical school Prof. Kolko completed a Fulbright Scholarship at the Neuroscience Center of Excellence, Louisiana State University, US. Here she became interested in basic neuroscience. After medical school, she completed a Ph.D. and a postdoctoral position in the same laboratory. In 2003, Prof. Kolko returned to Denmark after a total period of 5 years in the United States. She completed another postdoctoral position, after which she underwent residency in ophthalmology followed by a 3-year glaucoma fellowship. From 2014 to 2017, Prof. Kolko directed glaucoma in the Region of Zealand until she was assigned to her current position. At the University of Copenhagen, Prof. Kolko is heading the research cluster “Personalised Medicine”. In addition, Prof. Kolko is heading the research group, Eye Translational Research Unit (EyeTRU). The research in EyeTRU concerns cellular, translational, epidemiological and clinical models for understanding glaucomatous neurodegeneration. Prof. Kolko has received more recognitions. Among these, she has received the first “Award of excellence” from the Danish Ophthalmological Association and the Lions Prize. Prof. Kolko is co-chair of the neuroprotection SIG in the EGS and member of the EGS membership and national society committee. Recently, Prof. Kolko was elected to the WGA, Associate Advisory Board and as EVER glaucoma chair. Finally, Prof. Kolko was elected member of the board of directors of ACTA Ophthalmologica. All in all, Prof. Kolko is one of the few clinician-scientists that bridge between a clinical career with medical and surgical treatment of glaucoma patients and basic and translational research models to understand the pathophysiology behind as well as the current management of glaucoma.

Matthew Goddard

Professor Matthew R Goddard, PhD, BSc hons, DIC, FHEA undertook a PhD and post-doctoral fellowship in evolutionary and ecological biology at Imperial College (Silwood Park), then moved to a Faculty position at University of Auckland (New Zealand) in 2004 and then gain a Professorial position at the University of Lincoln (UK) in 2015. Mat has worked extensively with the agricultural sector and spearheaded microbial ecology revealing the differential distribution of microbes associated with agriculture and how this may effect agricultural outputs. Mat now has a strong focus on soils and runs large scale agri-ecosystem projects fusing next-generation DNA sequencing to evaluate biodiversity (not just microbes) with soil physics and chemistry to both understand the effect of agricultural managements and land-use change to provide evidence to inform decisions by land owners that aim to minimise disease and elevate agricultural and ecological health and quality.

Andrej A. Romanovsky

Andrej A. Romanovsky, MD, PhD, FAPS, is a physiologist and neuroscientist with primary expertise in body temperature regulation. In 2019, he left his Professor position at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, to work on the development of drugs for disorders of thermoregulation and hot flashes. Dr. Romanovsky helped to found the pharmaceutical startups Zharko Pharma, Catalina Pharma, and Synventa and currently works with these companies as an officer, Board member, or consultant. His current primary affiliation is with Zharko Pharma in Olympia, Washington; he also holds an Adjunct Faculty position at Arizona State University. Dr. Romanovsky has published more than 130 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Temperature and the Editor of two volumes on Thermoregulation: From Basic Neuroscience to Clinical Neurology published by Elsevier within the Handbook of Clinical Neurology series in 2018. In 2019, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Physiological Society. Andrej’s hobby is tree farming. He has co-founded the family partnership Tree Fever: Forestland Conservation and Development and since 2011 has been operating a Douglas-fir tree farm growing timber in western Washington. He is married to Nancy L. Romanovsky, an oil painter, and they have four children and two grandchildren.

Seppo Ylä-Herttuala

Dr. Seppo Yla-Herttuala, MD, PhD, FESC is a world leader in cardiovascular gene therapy for ischemic diseases. His team was the first to use adenovirus-mediated gene transfer to human arteries already in 1996. Since then, he has conducted five phase 1-2 clinical trials in cardiovascular gene therapy. He is also the originator of the concept of epigenetherapy. His group has been widely recognized for basic biology, translational and epigenetic research of the vascular endothelial growth factors (VEGFs), especially focusing on the new members of the VEGF family. Previously he worked with oxidized LDL and atherosclerosis and was the first to show that OxLDL exists in human atherosclerotic lesions. His list of publications includes over 600 peer reviewed scientific articles.


References

1. Kolko M, Horwitz A, Thygesen J, Jeppesen J, Torp-Pedersen C. The Prevalence and Incidence of Glaucoma in Denmark in a Fifteen Year Period: A Nationwide Study. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(7): e0132048. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132048

2. Goddard MR, Leigh J, Roger AJ, Pemberton AJ. Invasion and Persistence of a Selfish Gene in the Cnidaria. PLoS ONE. 2006;1(1): e3. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000003

3. Almeida MC, Steiner AA, Branco LGS, Romanovsky AA. Neural Substrate of Cold-Seeking Behavior in Endotoxin Shock. PLoS ONE. 2006;1(1): e1. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000001

4. Leppänen P, Kholová I, Mähönen AJ, Airenne K, Koota S, Mansukoski H, et al. Short and Long-Term Effects of hVEGF-A165 in Cre-Activated Transgenic Mice. PLoS ONE. 2006;1(1): e13. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000013

5. Romanovsky AA. The thermoregulation system and how it works. Handb Clin Neurol. 2018;156: 3-43. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63912-7.00001-1

6. Steiner AA, Ivanov AI, Serrats J, Hosokawa H, Phayre AN, Robbins JR, Roberts JL, Kobayashi S, Matsumura K, Sawchenko PE, Romanovsky AA. Cellular and molecular bases of the initiation of fever. PLOS Biol. 2006;4: e284. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040284

7. Garami A, Pakai E, Oliveira DL, Steiner AA, Wanner SP, Almeida MC, Lesnikov VA, Gavva NR, Romanovsky AA. Thermoregulatory phenotype of the Trpv1 knockout mouse: thermoeffector dysbalance with hyperkinesis. J Neurosci 2011;31: 1721-1733. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4671-10.2011

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0000009

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Introducing the PLOS ONE Energy Materials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 2


New and modified materials for future energy production, storage and use is an active area of research, where the progress made will shape society and support a sustainable future.  In August of 2021, PLOS ONE published a new collection of Energy Materials papers, showcasing state-of-the-art research in this exciting field. We interviewed some of the authors whose research is part of this collection, in order to shed further light on the discoveries they have made and the challenges they continue to tackle.


Sascha Raufeisen


Sascha is currently a PhD student at Institute of Technical and Environmental Chemistry at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany. B.Sc. in chemistry (topic bachelor’s thesis: “Synthesis of a thiofunctionalized phosphoramidite for DNA synthesis”). M. Sc. in environmental chemistry (topic master’s thesis: “Investigation of the pyroelectrocatalytic oxidation capability of lithium niobate and lithium tantalate in an aquatic system“). Research focus: new advanced oxidation processes (AOP’s) and combinations (e.g. ultrasound with electrochemistry or photocatalysis) and pyrocatalysis (mechanism elucidation, modelling, application, catalyst development/synthesis) analytical chemistry and water analytics.

Sascha Raufeisen’s paper in this collection: Raufeisen S, Stelter M, Braeutigam P (2020) Pyrocatalysis—The DCF assay as a pH-robust tool to determine the oxidation capability of thermally excited pyroelectric powders. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0228644. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0228644

Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of this project that led to your PLOS ONE paper? If you weren’t involved in the study from the start, what was your first impression of the study?

SR: In 2014, I worked on a research module on the topic of electrochemical COD determination as part of my master’s degree in environmental chemistry. During my literature research, I read a lot on the topic of new and innovative advanced oxidation processes. By chance, I came across an article by Gutmann et al. In this article, they presented for the first time a wastewater treatment process based on thermally excited pyroelectric materials. I was immediately fascinated by the underlying mechanism and the prospect of exploiting the huge residual heat potentials in industry for the purification of wastewater. When, by chance, the first author of this study was also working in Jena and we exchanged ideas with him about the topic, I was hooked. I decided to change the topic of my master’s thesis and set out on the stony path of working on a completely new topic. After many missteps, corrections, and minor successes, I finished my master’s thesis with ten times more questions than when I started. Consequently, I decided to investigate pyrocatalysis further as part of my doctoral thesis. In the course of this work, I came to the conclusion that the methodology of the DCF assay needs to be fundamentally revised, which eventually resulted in my PLOS ONE paper.

Pyrocatalysis is a very exciting new research area. Do you envision that it will be possible in the future to apply this to energy generation applications of different kinds, in addition to wastewater remediation?

SR: In my opinion, further potential fields of application are H2 generation and the disinfection of (waste)water. Pyrocatalytic H2 generation could contribute to the supply of industry (e.g. steel production) with sustainably produced H2. Pyrocatalytic disinfection may gain importance especially with regard to future pandemic prevention. At the moment, however, the application of pyrocatalysis in all these three fields of application is highly dependent on the further development of pyroelectric catalysts. The DCF assay presented in the PLOS ONE paper can make a valuable contribution here.

As an early career scientist, how did you prepare yourself for the review process when submitting your first few papers? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known before that first submission?

SR: In order to prepare myself, I consulted more experienced scientists at our institute. They explained what I had to pay attention to in the cover letter, the abstract and the introduction. They also helped me with the suggestion of reviewers. The communication with the reviewers went smoothly. The most challenging part of my first two publications was choosing the right journal. With such a new topic at the cross section between environmental/water chemistry and materials science, I received many rejections due to the lack of fit.

What hopes do you have for the future of research into sustainable energy solutions? Do you have a clear sense at this point where you would like to go in your career?

SR: I hope that all industrialized countries will finally recognize that we must increase our efforts extremely in order to slow down climate change as much as possible. An essential point here is the conversion of our entire energy demand (electricity and heat) to a regenerative basis. Since this is not possible with current technologies, research in this area must be accelerated. In addition to storage technologies, I believe that concepts for the use of residual heat must also be further developed. One technique could be pyrocatalysis, which could be used for wastewater treatment and H2 generation at the same time. I want to contribute to this transformation with my research.


Jeremi Dauchet


Jeremi Dauchet is a physicist who received his PhD in chemical engineering in 2012. He is expert in transport physics and radiative transfer in particular (including electromagnetic theory applied to the determination of radiative properties), with special emphasis on the Monte Carlo method. Associate professor at Pascal Institute (France), his research is applied to photoreactive processes engineering.

Jeremi Dauchet’s paper in this collection: Supplis C, Dauchet J, Gattepaille V, Gros F, Vourc’h T, Cornet J-F (2021) Radiative analysis of luminescence in photoreactive systems: Application to photosensitizers for solar fuel production. PLoS ONE 16(7): e0255002. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255002

Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of this project that led to your PLOS ONE paper? If you weren’t involved in the study from the start, what was your first impression of the study?

JD: This work was initiated by experimental results obtained by Caroline Supplis during her PhD. We observed unexpected yet significant impact of luminescence when studying bio-inspired H2 production in a benchmark photoreactor. The analysis of those experiments led us to carry the thorough radiative study presented in our PLOS ONE paper.

We noticed that you shared your Monte Carlo algorithm with your PLOS ONE paper. What motivated you to do this? Do you have any experience of using other researcher’s code from publications, or know of anyone who has used the code you’ve shared?

JD: Indeed, we are dedicated to open research and distributing open source codes and databases is part of that approach. We often provide the codes used in our publications as supplementary material or as links directed to our websites. Ensuring that these codes and databases will be available to readers in the long run is a concern. We know that our codes and databases are used by other researchers because they contact us when they need advises (or when it is no longer available at the provided url!). When those codes are mature enough, we work with Meso-Star for software development, support, maintenance, integration and distribution under GNU general public license (www.meso-star.com/projects/misc/about-en.html). Conversely we routinely use other researcher’s codes, for example the famous Mie code for electromagnetic scattering provided by Craig F. Bohren and Donald R. Huffman as an appendix in their book “Absorption and Scattering of Light by Small Particles”.

Was there anything that surprised you during this study, or did everything go exactly according to plan?

JD: This entire study had not been envisaged when Caroline’s PhD research-plan was being drawn up! Photoreactive processes are controlled at different scales by radiative transfer and therefore, we knew that radiative analysis will be an important part of the work. But we did not anticipate such significant effects of luminescence, which led Caroline to 3 years of investigations.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243296

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Introducing the PLOS ONE Energy Materials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 1


It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the role that advances within the science of energy materials may play in our lives over the next few decades. As the world grapples with the challenges of increasing energy demand and dynamic usage patterns, the community of scientists developing materials for future energy production, usage and storage are a vital part of building a sustainable future. In August of 2021, PLOS ONE published a new collection of Energy Materials papers, showcasing state-of-the-art research in this exciting field. We interviewed some of the authors whose research is part of this collection, in order to shed further light on the discoveries they have made and the challenges they continue to tackle.


Rosa Mondragón


I have a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Universitat Jaume I in Castelló (Spain). I defended my PhD thesis about spray drying of nanofluids in 2013 and that was my first experience with the amazing field of nanofluids. I am currently Associate Professor in the Fluid Mechanics area of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Construction in Universitat Jaume I and I belong to the Multiphase Fluids research group. My research is focused on the synthesis and characterization of nanofluids for heat transfer, thermal energy storage and solar radiation absorption applications. I have been participant member of the COST Action “Overcoming Barriers to Nanofluids Market Uptake – NANOUPTAKE” (2016-2020) whose objectives were the development of a common understanding about nanofluids preparation and characterization and the acceleration of the transfer of knowledge from fundamental research to industrial applications.

Rosa Mondragon’s paper in this collection: Mondragón R, Sánchez D, Cabello R, Llopis R, Juliá JE (2019) Flat plate solar collector performance using alumina nanofluids: Experimental characterization and efficiency tests. PLoS ONE 14(2): e0212260. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212260

Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of this project that led to your PLOS ONE paper? If you weren’t involved in the study from the start, what was your first impression of the study?

RM: I began my research on nanofluids for heat transfer applications in 2010 but after some years doing experimental characterization of thermophysical properties at the lab scale (thermal conductivity, viscosity, specific heat, etc.) we needed to move towards the analysis of its use in real applications. The only difficulty was to find any research group having the suitable facilities to start a joint collaboration. Besides, most of the facilities required quite a big volume of fluids making also a challenge sending the nanofluid to a different research centre. Fortunately, we found out that the Thermal Engineering research group of our department had recently acquired a flat plate solar collector that could be used. That was the beginning of the project that led to the paper published and some lessons learnt.

What is it about nanofluids that make them such a good candidate for use in solar collectors?

RM: The term nanofluid was coined to refer to the mixture of nanoparticles dispersed in a base fluid with improved thermal properties, specifically thermal conductivity. This thermal conductivity enhancement achieved due to the higher thermal conductivity of the solid nanoparticles leads to an increase in the heat transfer capacity of the fluid and the efficiency of the solar collector. However, there are more variables involved in the process such as the decrease in the specific heat capacity or the increase in the viscosity. As a result, a combined experimental analysis of all the nanofluid thermophysical properties is necessary to ensure a better performance of the nanofluid in transferring the thermal energy obtained from the absorbed solar energy, compared to the base fluid. It is also worth mentioning that there exist a wide variety of nanoparticles with good thermal properties, inexpensive and non-toxic that can be selected.

Was there anything that surprised you during this study, or did everything go exactly according to plan?

RM: Of course not everything went exactly according to the plan but it comes with the experimental research. We had a previous experience using the nanofluid in a thermohydraulic loop and we knew that the compatibility with the materials in pipes and pumps was very important to avoid oxidation and corrosion. If the solar collector was made to transport water, the addition of the nanoparticles should not have caused any problem. However, the acidic conditions needed to stabilize the nanoparticles in water promoted the oxidation of the materials and the corrosion of the copper tubes. Moreover, the contact of the concentrated nanofluid with the hot surface of the tubes caused a deposition layer as is shown in the paper. As a result, the enhancement theoretically predicted for the solar collector efficiency was not achieved due to the thermal resistance caused by the nanoparticle layer. The nanofluid initially white became orangish after the tests which confirmed that is highly recommended to check the compatibility of the nanofluid with the materials of the experimental facilities to ensure a good performance and to achieve the best results.


Bernhard Springer


Bernhard Springer, M. Sc. is currently a research associate at University of Applied Sciences Landshut (UAS Landshut) and a PhD student at Technical University Munich (TUM). He studied physics at the TUM from 2011 and finished his Bachelor’s degree in 2015. From 2015 till 2017 he studied Applied and engineering physics at the TUM and finished with a Master’s degree. Since 2017 he is working as a research associate at the Technology Centre Energy affiliated to the UAS Landshut. In 2018 he started with his PhD studies at the chemistry department of the TUM. Since 2019 he is working with his colleagues on the Project “SpinnAP”. His fields of research include Electrospinning, Lithium-Ion-Batteries  and solid-state electrolytes.

Bernhard Springer’s paper in this collection: Springer BC, Frankenberger M, Pettinger K-H (2020) Lamination of Separators to Electrodes using Electrospinning. PLoS ONE 15(1): e0227903. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0227903

Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of this project that led to your PLOS ONE paper? If you weren’t involved in the study from the start, what was your first impression of the study?

BS: The project leading to my publication is “Spinning Technologies for Advanced Battery Production” (SpinnAP) and is funded by the Bavarian Research Foundation. The project aims to improve lithium ion batteries, both liquid and solid electrolyte systems, using electrospinning. An example for such an improvement is to enable lamination on different separators using electrospinning, like described in my paper. In addition, suitable production processes as well as an improved nanofiber output for industrial applications are part of our development focus. To achieve this, we also develop our own high-output electrospinning machine within the frame of the project. We are supported by our project partners 3M Dyneon GmbH, AKE Technologies GmbH and Brückner GmbH with their respective expertise.

Electrospinning seems like a very promising method for the future of lithium ion batteries. What do you think are the main advantages this can bring to the consumer or user of lithium ion batteries?

BS: For lithium ion batteries using a liquid electrolyte, lamination can achieve two main advantages: First, lamination is able to improve the charge and discharge capability, as shown by Frankenberger et al (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jelechem.2019.02.030). Unfortunately, not all separators are capable for lamination. Using electrospinning we want to enable lamination for all types of separators to combine the advantages of lamination with the advantages of the respective separators, e.g. lower production costs or safety enhancement. Second, lamination creates a firm connection between the electrodes and the separator. This can be positive for the production speed of the cells, since the individual layers can not be displaced during the following production steps. This can lead to an increased production output and more inexpensive battery cells.

As an early career scientist, how did you prepare yourself for the review process when submitting your first few papers? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known before that first submission?

BS: In preparation to my first submission, I intensely discussed with my colleagues from the Technology Center Energy, a research facility of the University of Applied Sciences Landshut, about their previous experiences. In addition, I read the guidelines provided by PLOS regarding the submission process carefully.

What hopes do you have for the future of research into sustainable energy solutions? Do you have a clear sense at this point where you would like to go in your career?

BS: I do not have a clear sense where I would like to go in my career yet, but I do intend to pursue an industrial career path. At the moment I strongly focus on my dissertation.


David López Durán


David is Professor in the Department of Physics of the University of Córdoba (Spain). He obtained the MSc degree in the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain), and his PhD in the Fundamental Physics Institute (FPI) of the Spanish National Research Council (SNRC) in Madrid. He has developed his work in La Sapienza, University of Rome (Italy), Argonne National Laboratory, IL (USA), and CIC Nanogune, San Sebastián (Spain), among others. His research topics are: weakly bound molecular clusters, collisions of molecules at low and ultralow temperatures, and potential energy surfaces of small molecular aggregates. Some recent scientific contributions are: (1) “The CECAM electronic structure library and the modular software development paradigm”, J. Chem. Phys. 153, 024117-1/024117-23 (2020) article promoted as part of the “Chemical Physics Software Collection” of the Journal of Chemical Physics (September 2021), and (2) interview in TV (May 2021): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HJ71JPVdhtw

David López Durán’s paper in this collection: López-Durán D, Plésiat E, Krompiec M, Artacho E (2020) Gap variability upon packing in organic photovoltaics. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0234115. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234115

Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of this project that led to your PLOS ONE paper? If you weren’t involved in the study from the start, what was your first impression of the study?

DL: This article came up as part of the work supported by the “Centre Européen de Calcul Atomique et Moléculaire” (CECAM), which is formed by several institutions in Europe and funds multiple activities, one of them a partnership between some of these institutions, network called “E-CAM”, and to which I belonged. One of the targets of E-CAM was to bring closer the academic and the industrial worlds through several initiatives, for instance a collaboration between two nodes with different profiles. This manuscript came up due to the work developed in my former institutions, CIC Nanogune (San Sebastián, Spain) and University of Barcelona (Barcelona, Spain), and the industrial partner Merck Chemicals Ltd. (Southampton, United Kingdom). The climate change and global warming are, unfortunately, a hot topic in science and we tried to contribute to its solution studying organic photovoltaics. Specifically, we addressed the problem of the arrangement of the molecules in order to maximize the electric current.

How do you think that the results you obtained in this study will impact the development of organovoltaics in the future?

DL: The design of a device to generate energy based in any kind of photovoltaic molecules must include the analysis of several factors in order to obtain the maximum performance. One of them is the HOMO-LUMO band gap of the constituent molecules, which are usually a donor-acceptor pair, magnitude which dramatically depends on the geometry arrangement of these pairs. As this gap becomes smaller, the electronic transference is easier and, therefore, the generation of electric current. But to be small this gap is necessary that the molecules were arranged in a convenient way one with respect to the others, i. e. with their active electronic areas clearly accessible. In this work we study a great number of configurations of an organic donor-acceptor pair in gas phase, as previous step before moving to the solid phase of a real device. Our study will impact the subsequent research because now there are available some hints about the optimal geometry configuration of the molecules.   

Was there anything that surprised you during this study, or did everything go exactly according to plan?

DL: The donor-acceptor pair that we studied is 4modBT-4TIC, molecules which are based on others extensively employed in the organic photovoltaics field. We found several surprises, the first one being that the variation of the gap in all the studied configurations was around 0.3 eV, which is significant considering that the gaps in this context are not larger than 1 eV. The second surprise was the lack of correlation between the binding energy of the pair and the HOMO-LUMO band gap: the arrangement with the maximum binding energy was not that with the maximum gap and, in turn, the configuration with the maximum gap was not that with the maximum binding energy. A third surprise was that the arrangement with the maximum binding energy were much more bound that the rest. All these findings pose new questions and, therefore, further research is needed.

What’s the most unusual or unexpected collaboration you’ve been a part of during your research?

DL: I have never had an unusual or unexpected collaboration during my scientific career. However, I would like to mention that I feel very lucky because I have known people from all over the world. These experiences enrich you and make you think in a more broad and comprehensive way.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243296

The post Introducing the PLOS ONE Energy Materials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 1 appeared first on EveryONE.

Updating the PLOS ONE Nanomaterials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 3


In July, we updated our Nanomaterials Collection, featuring papers published over the past few years in PLOS ONE. This collection showcases the breadth of the nanomaterials community at PLOS ONE, and includes papers on a variety of topics, such as the fabrication of nanomaterials, nanomaterial-cell interactions, the role of nanomaterials in drug delivery, and nanomaterials in the environment.

To celebrate this updated collection, we are conducting a series of Q&As with authors whose work is included in the collection. Next out is our conversations with Roberto Vazquez-Muñoz from the University of Connecticut Health Center, Roselyne Ferrari from Université de Paris and Yerol Narayana from Mangalore University. They discuss the future potential of nanomaterials research, the value of open science practices, and their experiences of pursuing unexpected effects seen in the lab. We will be adding more author interviews over the next few weeks, so please do keep checking back.


Roberto Vazquez-Muñoz – University of Connecticut Health Center


Currently, I work at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UConn Health), USA. I’m a nanomedicine scientist with a multidisciplinary background: B.Sc. with a concentration in Biology, with postgraduate education in Microbiology (M. Sc.) and Nanotechnology (Ph.D.). My research focuses on the complex systems’ interactions between antimicrobial nanomaterials (nanoantibiotics), microbial cells (pathogens and probiotics), antibiotics, and the environment. My goal is to develop affordable, novel nanotechnology-based solutions to combat multidrug-resistant infectious diseases, particularly for communities under limited resources. My network includes international and transdisciplinary research teams to develop applied nanotechnology solutions for the agricultural, veterinary, and clinical sectors. My work has been published in international peer-reviewed journals, and I have developed patented and commercial products. I’ve been awarded by different institutions such as The Ensenada Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education (Mexico), Rotary International’s Rotaract, the International Network of Bionanotechnology, and the New England I-Corps (MIT)/Accelerate (UCONN) program.

Roberto Vazquez-Muñoz’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Vazquez-Muñoz R, Meza-Villezcas A, Fournier PGJ, Soria-Castro E, Juarez-Moreno K, Gallego-Hernández AL, et al. (2019) Enhancement of antibiotics antimicrobial activity due to the silver nanoparticles impact on the cell membrane. PLoS ONE 14(11): e0224904. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0224904

What motivated you to work in this field?

RVM: My motivation to work in this field comes from my interest in the impact of infectious diseases through history and our ability to create solutions to combat them. This interest led me to focus on the interactions between nanomaterials, microbial cells, and antimicrobial substances for combat infection. Additionally, as current treatments are less and less effective against pathogens, nanotechnology has proven to be an effective strategy to fight the crisis of infectious diseases.

Nanomaterials research has increased in popularity over the past few years as a research topic. Do you envision that the field can continue to grow this way, and do you see any challenges on the horizon?

RVM: Yes, nanomaterials research has increased in popularity worldwide, and we have seen exponential growth in publications. The field will continue to grow for years as we constantly discover nanomaterial’s novel structures, properties, and applications. Additionally, we continuously develop novel synthesis methods and understand the interactions between nanomaterials and other systems (organisms, materials, environment, etc.).

However, there are several challenges on the horizon. A critical challenge is understanding the impact of nanomaterials on living organisms and the environment. It is crucial to expand the research on human and ecological nanotoxicology and the fate of “nano-waste” on the environment. Another challenge is the standardization of research data. As nanomaterials research is a multidisciplinary field, there is still a lack of standard criteria for conducting and publishing research, leading to difficulties in comparing data from different studies.

Can you tell us about an experience during your research, whether in the lab or at the computer or in conversation etc., where something finally clicked or worked?

RVM: One of my experiences during my research is when I was working on how nanomaterials increase the antibacterial activity of antibiotics. Different published studies showed the impact of nanomaterials on cell structure and metabolism. At the same time, other studies reported synergistic – or antagonistic – activity between nanomaterials and antibiotics; however, their explanations about the mechanisms were primarily theoretical. Unfortunately, there was no apparent connection between the proposed mechanisms and the synergistic activity reported by other groups. To fill that knowledge gap, we conducted experimental work to evaluate the physical and chemical interactions in the nanomaterials-antibiotics-microbial cell complex system. Then, when we compared our data with the literature, we started to see the connecting dots that could explain the synergistic activity of antibiotics. Moreover, our model could also explain some results published from other groups. That project was a stimulating and satisfactory experience and contributed to a better understanding of the synergistic activity of nanoparticles with antibiotics.

Is there a specific research area where a collaboration with the nanomaterials community could be particularly interesting for interdisciplinary research?

RVM: There are many research areas where interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration with the nanomaterials community is exciting. Nanomedicine is my first pick. The novel properties of nanomaterials have raised a lot of interest from the medical community, particularly for drug delivery, controlled release, reducing toxicity, among others. Additionally, beyond treatments, the development of new instrumentation, biosensors, analytical kits, sanitizing formulations, and other related applications for the healthcare sector is on the rise, creating more opportunities to work in diverse, interdisciplinary environments. In this regard, I have an interdisciplinary background (microbiology and nanotechnology), and my work focuses on medical applications, which allows me to participate in different research groups.


Roselyne Ferrari – Université de Paris


I am an Associate Professor in the Paris Diderot University (now Université de Paris) since 1994. I defended my PhD thesis entitled “Investigation of foliar lipid peroxidation in higher plants and evaluation of antioxidant capacities of sensitive or drought-resistant plants” in 1992 (Paris Diderot University, France) in the field of Tropical Plant Biology. I then got interested in microorganisms and studied a class of enzymes capable of detoxifying fatty acid hydroperoxides: “the alkylhydroperoxide reductases”. I then investigated the ability of Escherichia coli to detoxify emerging pollutants in aquatic environments and in particular man-made metal oxide nanoparticles. I participated for 10 years in the development of laboratory tests to assess the toxicity of zinc oxide and titanium nanoparticles in natural aquatic environments. I showed, through metabolomics and proteomics, that E. coli tries to overcome the stress caused by nanoparticles by increasing its oxidative and respiratory capacity. More recently, I started to work again on polyunsaturated fatty acids and peroxidation phenomena, but this time on fungi. Recently I am also interested in the ability of some microscopic coprophilous fungi to destroy lignocellulose. These ascomycete fungi are over-equipped with hydrolytic enzymes, such as oxidases or oxygenases.

Roselyne Ferrari’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Planchon M, Léger T, Spalla O, Huber G, Ferrari R (2017) Metabolomic and proteomic investigations of impacts of titanium dioxide nanoparticles on Escherichia coli. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0178437. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178437

What is your favorite thing about nanomaterials?

RF: I am interested in the toxicology of nanoparticles in the environment and more particularly in their dissemination in the 3 compartments (soil water air). I am also interested in the fixation of environmental metal oxide nanoparticles by the bark of urban trees.

Have you had any surprises in your research recently, where the result was not what you expected?

RF: I did indeed have some surprises in the results I got in the paper I published in PLOS ONE. I did not expect that the amount of ATP would increase in Escherichia coli bacteria after they were brought into contact with the titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Unfortunately I did not pursue this line of research and I remain on this question.

Did you have to adapt your work in light of the pandemic, and if so, how?

RF: I adapted like many researchers and continued my work following the recommendations of my University.

What do you see as the greatest opportunities for disseminating research in your field, or for communicating science in general?

RF: Social networks, media in general have allowed us to continue to disseminate to our fellow researchers as well as video conferencing.


Yerol Narayana – Mangalore University


Obtained MSc and PhD from Mangalore University. Presently the Professor and Chairman, Board of Studies, Department of Physics of Mangalore University.  Area of research include ‘Environmental Radioactivity, ‘Radiation Biophysics’ and ‘Nanoparticles for Biomedical Applications’. Published more than 150 research papers in International Journals and presented more than 250 research papers in conferences. Completed five major research projects and one major research project is ongoing. Guided 13 students for PhD degree and 8 students are currently working for their PhD degree.  Received ‘Commonwealth Fellowship Award’ for Post-Doctoral research in the United Kingdom during 2000-2001, ‘Wington Tiular Fellowship award’ from ACU in 2013, ‘Dr A K Ganguly Award’ from Indian Association for Radiation Protection, India in 2016, ‘Best Teacher Award’ from Mangalore University in the year 2017 and ‘Best Research Publication Award’ from Govt. of Karnataka, India, in 2019.

Yerol Narayana’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Suvarna S, Das U, KC S, Mishra S, Sudarshan M, Saha KD, et al. (2017) Synthesis of a novel glucose capped gold nanoparticle as a better theranostic candidate. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0178202. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0178202

What route did you take to where you currently are in your career? 

YN: I obtained my Masters degree in physics from, Mangalore University in 1989 and PhD degree from the same University in 1994. I joined the Physics Department of Mangalore University in 1995 as Assistant Professor and subsequently became Professor in 2010. I have done my Post-doctoral research at BGS, UK during 2000-01 under the commonwealth fellowship and subsequently at University of Stirling, UK in 2014 under Wighton-Titular Fellowship. Currently I am working as Professor of Physics at Mangalore University.

How important are open science practices in your field? Do you have any success stories from your own research of sharing or reusing code, data, protocols, open hardware, interacting with preprints, or something else? 

YN: Open science practices are very useful in any field of scientific research.  In my field, open access to published scientific materials have helped in a big way in designing experiments, data analysis and furtherance of research.

If you could dream really big, is there a particular material, function or material property that seems far away at the moment, but you think could be attained in the future?

YN: At present the major challenge in Radiotherapy is the radio-resistance of tumor cells and protecting the normal cells. Researchers are working on a concept of multiple therapy i.e. simultaneous chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hyperthermia therapy and radiotherapy to overcome the radio-resistance and it has been proved to be effective. Live tumor imaging is another big challenge. Some nanoparticles have shown potential to improve the aforesaid individual treatment and imaging techniques. At present, individual nanomaterials are being tried for treatment and imaging. The usage of multiple nanomaterials simultaneously would not be safe as their unique interaction mechanism may create unforeseen problems. Therefore, we need a single nanomaterial that is capable of supporting multiple therapy and live imaging to reduce the side effects and to assure safety. We believe that it will be a reality in the near future.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0133088

The post Updating the PLOS ONE Nanomaterials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 3 appeared first on EveryONE.

Updating the PLOS ONE Nanomaterials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 2


In July, we updated our Nanomaterials Collection, featuring papers published over the past few years in PLOS ONE. This collection showcases the breadth of the nanomaterials community at PLOS ONE, and includes papers on a variety of topics, such as the fabrication of nanomaterials, nanomaterial-cell interactions, the role of nanomaterials in drug delivery, and nanomaterials in the environment.

To celebrate this updated collection, we are conducting a series of Q&As with authors whose work is included in the collection. Next out is our conversations with Lauren Crandon from OnTo Technology and Robert Zucker from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In this Q&A, they discuss the importance of understanding the environmental fate of nanomaterials, new technology development, and their experiences of making new discoveries in the lab. We will be adding more author interviews over the next few weeks, so please do keep checking back.


Lauren Crandon – OnTo Technology


Lauren Crandon is a Research and Development Engineer with OnTo Technology in Bend, OR. She develops technology to recycle lithium-ion batteries, including nanomaterials. She received her Ph.D. from Oregon State University in Environmental Engineering, where she researched the environmental fate and impacts of nanomaterials.

Lauren Crandon’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Crandon LE, Boenisch KM, Harper BJ, Harper SL (2020) Adaptive methodology to determine hydrophobicity of nanomaterials in situ. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0233844. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0233844

What motivated you to work in this field?

LC: I knew I wanted to study the environmental implications of emerging contaminants. When I first walked into the Harper Nanotoxicology Lab at Oregon State, I got so excited about nanomaterials. I learned that more and more fields in technology, medicine, and industry were using nanoparticles and that these would all be eventually released into the environment. In our lab, we looked at the implications of this at both the small scale (within individual organism) and the large scale (how far downstream nanoparticles will end up). If we can develop a good understanding of fate, transport, and toxicity, we can responsibly develop nano-enabled technology for the future.

Nanomaterials research has increased in popularity over the past few years as a research topic. Do you envision that the field can continue to grow in this way, and do you see any challenges on the horizon?

LC: I absolutely believe the field of nanomaterials will continue to grow. For example, lithium-ion batteries are starting to use nanomaterials to improve performance and nanoparticle-based sunscreens are becoming more popular due to concerns with their chemical alternatives. I think we will also see exciting breakthroughs in nanomedicine, among other fields. The main challenge will continue to be evaluating human and environmental safety at end-of-life for these applications. It is difficult to establish standards and regulations, since the fate and behavior of nanomaterials depends on their environment. However, this will be important for sustainable use.

Can you tell us about an experience during your research, whether in lab or at the computer or in conversation etc., where something finally clicked, or worked?

 LC: Yes! I was collaborating with a toxicology graduate student in my lab to compare the toxicity of Cu and CuO nanoparticles in zebrafish. The CuO NPs were much less toxic, but we could not explain why. They dissolved more Cu+2, which was generally accepted to be the toxic mechanism. When I applied one of the standard assays I was working on to measure reactive oxygen species (ROS), the trends matched! Cu NPs generated much more ROS than CuO, which explained the higher toxicity. Applying a standardized test to NPs in a specific testing environment allowed us to model and predict toxicity. I spent the rest of my graduate work continuing to standardize rapid assays for commercially used nanoparticles and correlating my results with their toxicity. I hope this can help us predict the potential risks of materials as they enter the market.

Is there a specific research area where a collaboration with the nanomaterials community could be particularly interesting for interdisciplinary research?

LC: I am very excited about applications of nanomaterials in energy storage devices and medicine. I hope that as these materials continue to enter the market, nanotoxicology research will continue to be funded and part of the story. Nanomaterials offer novel properties that bring major benefits but also do not always follow conventional toxicology. I would like to see collaboration with the technology industry and environmental toxicology to responsibly produce the next generation of novel materials.


Robert Zucker – U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Dr. Robert Zucker is a Research Biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment. His research involves applying biophysical technologies of imaging and flow cytometry to reproductive toxicology questions.

Robert Zucker’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Zucker RM, Ortenzio J, Degn LL, Boyes WK (2020) Detection of large extracellular silver nanoparticle rings observed during mitosis using darkfield microscopy. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0240268. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0240268

What route did you take to where you currently are in your career?

RZ: I obtained a BS in physics from The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and obtained a master’s degree at UCLA in the Laboratory of Nuclear Medicine and Radiation Biology in the field of biophysics and nuclear medicine. I also received my PhD in biophysics at UCLA studying biophysical separation and characterization of hematological cells. After graduating from UCLA, I did a two-year Post-Doc at the Max Planck Institute in Munich Germany in immunology.  When I returned to America, I became a principal investigator at the Papanicolaou Cancer Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Miami for 12 years. In this position, I was involved in cancer research and was a member of the Miami sickle cell center. My next position was at the EPA in Research Triangle Park, NC, applying biophysical technologies of imaging and flow cytometry to reproductive toxicology questions.

What emerging topics in your field are you particularly excited about?

RZ: Flow cytometry has been around for over 50 years. Recently, the technology has been improved by using five lasers with 64 detectors. This provides a system with better resolution. In addition, the software incorporated into the system allows the removal of autofluoresence noise to increase the detection of cells or particles. 

Optical microscopes, cameras and equipment have improved to allow scientists to easily obtain digital images, which are high resolution. The new microscopes are automated allowing the scientist to design and achieve experiments that were not previously feasible. For example, the current microscope allows us to use widefield confocal microscopy on 2D images that can be deconvolved with software built into the system for higher resolution. It is quicker than point-scanning confocal microscopy.  The machines can obtain sequential measurements over time on one field or take images from multiple fields.

How important are open science practices in your field? Do you have any success stories from your own research of sharing or reusing code, data, protocols, open hardware, interacting with preprints, or something else?

RZ: It is important to follow one’s scientific instincts—the EPA is an organization that allows this freedom to their investigators to research projects of interest to the Agency. I have two success stories to share from my own research.

Success story #1: In the field of nanoparticles, I observed that TiO2 was extremely reflective using darkfield microscopy. Using flow cytometry, granulocytes, monocytes, and neutrophils can be identified based on size (forward scatter) and internal structure (side scatter) from the granules contained in the neutrophils.  Can this scatter signal be used to detect a dose response of uptake of nanoparticles by a cell? To try to answer this question, we used two concentration of TiO2 in an experiment, and a dose response was observed with these two-concentration compared to controls.  This procedure has subsequently been reproduced by a number of investigations with various types of metal nanoparticles. One of our papers was published in PLOS One and compared the effect of different coating of silver particles coatings on uptake and toxicity by mammalian cells.

Success story #2: The confocal microscope allows scientists to see embryo and reproductive structures in 3D using fluorescence staining technology. By applying very old technologies used to clear tissues,  we were able to see very deep into tissues. This procedure allowed the internal structures of reproductive tissues and developing embryos to be observed. The data were used to support the hypothesis that studied how the chemicals affected these tissues.

If you could dream really big, is there a particular material, function or material property that seems far away at the moment, but you think could be attained in the future?

RZ: My dream would be to use the current spectral flow cytometer to predict 1) the effects of microplastics on mammalian cells 2) to detect the effects of climate change on cyanobacteria growth and toxin production 3) to spectrally detect microplastics in water.  I would want to provide a simple imaging test to 4) detect microplastics in water by their higher reflectivity 5) to provide an instant imaging quantitation of the amount of Algae and Cyanobacteria in a water sample based on differential excitation fluorescence, and 6) use spectral features of photosynthesis fluorescence and autofluoresence to determine the health of plants and cyanobacteria and then relate this data to the environment. 


Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0133088

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Updating the PLOS ONE Nanomaterials Collection – Author Perspectives, Part 1


In July, we updated our Nanomaterials Collection, featuring papers published over the past few years in PLOS ONE. This collection showcases the breadth of the nanomaterials community at PLOS ONE, and includes papers on a variety of topics, such as fabrication of nanomaterials, nanomaterial-cell interactions, the role of nanomaterials in drug delivery, and nanomaterials in the environment.

To celebrate this updated collection, we are conducting a series of Q&As with authors whose work is included in the collection. First out is our conversations with Stacey Harper from Oregon State University, David Estrada from Boise State University and Vernita Gordon from The University of Texas at Austin. They provide thought-provoking insights into the future of nanotechnology, the environmental impact of nanomaterials, new ways in which scientific advances can be shared and disseminated, and how being a researcher means being open to work taking unexpected directions. We will be adding more author interviews over the next few weeks, so please do keep checking back.


Stacey Harper – Oregon State University


Dr. Stacey Harper is a Professor in the School of Chemical, Biological & Environmental Engineering and the Department of Environmental & Molecular Toxicology at OSU.  Studies in the Harper laboratory use rapid assays with whole organisms and communities of organisms to evaluate the toxic potential of diverse nanomaterials, including nanoplastics.  Dr. Harper is the President for the Pacific Northwest Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), a member of SETAC Nano Interest Group Steering Committee, a leader of the Pacific Northwest Consortium on Plastics, and was recognized by the US National Nanotechnology Coordination Office as one of the outstanding women in nanotechnology in 2019.

Stacey Harper’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Crandon LE, Boenisch KM, Harper BJ, Harper SL (2020) Adaptive methodology to determine hydrophobicity of nanomaterials in situ. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0233844. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0233844

What route did you take to where you currently are in your career?

SH: The path was clearly not straight, nor was it really planned.  I found that at every decision point in my career that I would choose the path that I found most rewarding.  Starting my graduate career in comparative physiology gave me a lot of perspective and opportunities to explore the science that I was interested in. I moved into a post-doctoral position with the Environmental Protection Agency and explored a diverse array of projects and was intrigued by the newly emerging field of nanoscience and nanotoxicology.  I enjoy the challenge of finding answers to questions and solving issues that others would pass over for something guaranteed to succeed.

What emerging topics in your field are you particularly excited about?

SH: The application of nanotechnology solutions to nearly all of the issues with water sustainability seems unlimited.  However, with any new technological solution, we need to consider the potential unintended consequences of the materials we design.  It gives me great pleasure to work in partnership with materials designers to ensure that the safety of their products during the research and development phase of product development.  It is extremely rewarding to provide manufacturers with the information they need to make the best environmentally responsible decisions.

How important are open science practices in your field? Do you have any success stories from your own research of sharing or reusing code, data, protocols, open hardware, interacting with preprints, or something else?

SH: Open science is critical to ensuring that information scientists generate are useful to the community of people that need that information.  Data sharing is one of my priorities, as such, I established an open source database (Nanomaterial Biological Interactions knowledgebase, nbi.oregonstate.edu) for data from my research group on the toxic potential of a wide range of different nanomaterials that vary in composition, size, shape and surface chemistry.  As a leader of the National Cancer Institute Nanotechnology Working Group, we developed a standard for describing nanomaterial characteristics in a detailed fashion (ASTM E2909-13):

Standard Guide for Investigation/Study/Assay Tab-Delimited Format for Nanotechnologies (ISA-TAB-Nano): Standard File Format for the Submission and Exchange of Data on Nanomaterials and Characterizations

Such standards enhance our ability to share and integrate data across the many diverse fields that make up nanoscience and nanotechnology, which is necessary to advance the field in an evidence-based manner.

If you could dream really big, is there a particular material, function or material property that seems far away at the moment, but you think could be attained in the future?

SH: Point of demand materials that could capture the energy from sunlight, even in low light environments, and convert it to usable energy without the need for energy storage.  Think about a car painted with photovoltaic paint that could do this without the need for battery storage or fuel.  That would be a game changer.


David Estrada – Boise State University


David Estrada received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013 before joining the faculty at Boise State University. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering and holds an appointment as the university’s Associate Director for the Center for Advanced Energy Studies. He is the recipient of the NSF and NDSEG Graduate Fellowships. His work has been recognized with several awards, including the NSF CAREER Award, the National TRiO Achievers award, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Innovator of the year award. He is a Senior Member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and his research interests are in the areas of emergent semiconductor nanomaterials and bionanotechnology.

David Estrada’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Williams- Godwin L, Brown D, Livingston R, Webb T, Karriem L, Graugnard E, et al. (2019) Open-source automated chemical vapor deposition system for the production of two- dimensional nanomaterials. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210817. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210817

What motivated you to work in this field?

DE: The field of 2D materials is a rapidly expanding and exciting field. The ability to control the properties of materials based on their chemical composition, atomic thickness, and by surrounding environment is fascinating to me. Understanding how to leverage these attributes for specific applications is both intriguing and rewarding.

Nanomaterials research has increased in popularity over the past few years as a research topic. Do you envision that the field can continue to grow in this way, and do you see any challenges on the horizon?

DE: Absolutely. With the discovery of 2D materials and their heterostructures, pioneered by Geim and Novoselov, there is a lot of room for growth in the field of nanomaterials. I believe the greatest opportunities for discovery lie at the nexus of artificial intelligence, computational materials science, and applications in microelectronics, quantum computing, and biotechnology. The biggest challenges will be in developing scalable and reliable synthesis methods to fully leverage the unique physics and chemistry of nanomaterials.

Can you tell us about an experience during your research, whether in lab or at the computer or in conversation etc., where something finally clicked, or worked?

DE: One of my favorite memories as a graduate student was being in the lab and imaging power dissipation in graphene transistors via IR microscopy with our Postdoctoral Scholar – Dr. Myung-Ho Bae. We were able to electrostatically control the temperature distribution in graphene transistor, which was a direct observation of tuning the Fermi level across the band structure of graphene. It was truly exciting to be among the first in the world to observe such phenomena in a material that was only 1 atom thick!

Is there a specific research area where a collaboration with the nanomaterials community could be particularly interesting for interdisciplinary research?

DE: I personally believe that energy, water, and healthcare will present some of the greatest engineering challenges in the future. Understanding how/if nanomaterials can help solve some of the pressing challenges in grid level energy storage, water purification, and regenerative medicine will require teams of interdisciplinary STEM researchers working alongside policy makers and social scientists. As Herb Brooks told the 1980 Men’s US Olympic hockey team, “Great moments are born from great opportunity”. That is what scientists have today, an opportunity for enormous societal impact by leveraging our collective expertise and knowledge to solve these grand challenges. If we are successful, history will recognize our generation as a great moment in time that changed the course of civilization.


Vernita Gordon – The University of Texas at Austin


Vernita Gordon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at University of Texas at Austin, where she has been on the faculty since 2010.  Her research group studies biofilm-forming bacterial systems, with a view toward understanding how physics and biology interplay and how they impact disease course.  She did undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University and graduate work at Harvard University, as well as postdocs at University of Edinburgh and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.  She likes doing science, most of the time.  She also likes running, science fiction, singing, knitting, and spending time doing fun things with her family.  She wishes the pandemic were over already.

Vernita Gordon’s paper in the Nanomaterials Collection: Kovach K, Sabaraya IV, Patel P, Kirisits MJ, Saleh NB, Gordon VD (2020) Suspended multiwalled, acid-functionalized carbon nanotubes promote aggregation of the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0236599. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0236599

What’s your favourite thing about nanomaterials?

VG: I’m not really a nanomaterials researcher.  I’m a biological physicist, with my roots in soft-matter physics, but I keep bumping up against nanomaterials in random ways.  I think my favorite thing about nanomaterials is the way their small size gives rise to applications that wouldn’t be possible for the same material in a larger size.  I’m thinking here of nanoparticles for drug delivery (I work a lot with pathogenic biofilms, which tolerate a lot of conventional antibiotic treatment, so people have to put a lot of creativity into finding ways to treat biofilm infection) and the work we recently published in PLOS ONE, which started when we were wondering how stray nanomaterials in aqueous environments might affect the mechanical strength of biofilms, and wound up with the unexpected discovery that suspended nanotubes can promote bacteria aggregating into sort of proto-biofilms.

Have you had any recent surprises in your research, where the outcome wasn’t what you had expected?

VG: Yes.  This happens all the time.  It is far more common for me to be surprised and a project take a direction that I had not anticipated than it is for everything to move forward steadily the way I thought it would.  The PLOS ONE paper I mention in my previous answer is one example of this.  Of the roughly 20 papers I’ve published since starting a faculty position, I think maybe 4 told the story I had anticipated when starting the project.

Did you have to adapt your work in light of the pandemic, and if so, how?

VG: We first had to shut down our research labs completely, I think for 2-3 months, and then we were allowed to re-open slowly, at very limited capacity.  I had graduate students who were not able to be in the lab for months.  To deal with this, we started a new modeling project, to study biofilm growth and mechanics in vitro, with colleagues at University of Edinburgh.  We also greatly extended a modeling project that we had started before the pandemic, so that what had been a small side project for a student became his only project for nearly a year.

What do you see as the big opportunities for research dissemination in your field, or how science is communicated in general?

VG: I think more-informal communication is becoming increasingly important, both for scientists learning about each other’s work and for the general public.  Platforms like Twitter and Facebook can rapidly spread “snapshots” of scientific advances, with the possibility for interested parties to dig much deeper into the actual research publication (things like Instagram and whatever else the young people are using can probably do that too, but I’m not on Instagram or TikTok so I haven’t experienced that directly).  This is one of the major ways I learn about scientific papers that I should read.  I think there’s a gap between the social-media “snapshot” and the thorny research publication that still needs to be filled with good communication of science to the general public.  YouTube and blogs seem good for this, and are already doing some good things, but I’d like to see even more of this.  One thing the pandemic has really shown is that we need to do a better job of communicating, to a broad audience, how science is done and what science is saying.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0133088

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Introducing the Modeling Cell Proliferation and the Cell Microenvironment Collection


In 2020, PLOS ONE announced a Call for Papers on Modeling Cell Proliferation and the Cell Microenvironment. This week, we celebrate the launch of this collection, which includes a number of papers offering new insights into this vital topic. Understanding the cellular microenvironment and how cells proliferate has a number of useful applications, and this collection showcases the breadth of this research area. We are immensely grateful to Guest Editors Aurélie Carlier (Maastricht University), Ravi Iyengar (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai), Padmini Rangamani (University of California, San Diego) and Vivek Shenoy (University of Pennsylvania), who were instrumental in curating this collection at PLOS ONE.

Bacterial biofilms are present in many different environments, and are important to understand both in order to utilize their properties as well as combating them in problematic settings. Jin and Marshall extend an existing model of biofilm formation to study for the first time how the fimbrial force and extracellular polymeric substance (EPS) flow affect the growth of biofilms. The model incorporates both continuous elements, for modeling the water and EPS, and discrete elements, for modeling the interaction between individual cells. They find that the total cell number is a main driver for colony morphology, and the findings are in good agreement with existing experimental work. The study concludes that the ultimate structure of a bacterial colony is dependent on the interaction of the opposing effects of cell drag from EPS production and the fimbrial force.

The forces that are exerted by cells play a major role in the mechanisms by which cancer metastasis, angiogenesis and other processes operate. Hervas-Rayul and colleagues explore cell surface traction through an experimental study followed by solving the inverse problem iteratively using a finite element model. The model utilizes the displacement field for 3D traction force microscopy as an input for the inverse problem solver. In this way, this study provides a concrete link between experimental and modeling work in the field, and can be applied to any material and geometry.

The shape of a cell is influenced both by its cytoskeleton and the surrounding environment. In a new study, Eroumé and colleagues model the effect of cell shape on cell polarization, specifically by studying how cell shape influences Cdc42 patterns. They find that cell shape and aspect ratio both influence Cdc42 patterns, and that some of these influences are non-intuitive. They find evidence for ‘reverse polarization’ in which the maximal Cdc42 concentration can shift in the direction opposite the initial polarization gradient. Their results call for future experimental validation of the predictions that come out of this work.

Metastasis can arise when circulating tumor cells are transported through the bloodstream to a new secondary location. Understanding how this process works can aid the development of various therapies that block the transport of these circulating tumor cells both as single cells and as clusters. In an effort to study these processes in more detail, Marrella and colleagues have developed a microfluidic device which mimics the wall shear stress experienced in the human vascular system. The device is 3D-printed using a biocompatible photopolymer resin, and their investigations show how increasing wall shear stress can influence morphology and disaggregation of cell clusters.

Uncontrolled cell proliferation is a major factor in tumor growth and progression of colorectal cancer. Vundavilli and colleagues present new results on the underlying mutations that may be influencing colorectal cancer cell proliferation through mathematical and experimental work. They use publicly available gene expression data to identify pathways and mutations that are deregulated in colon cancer, and then apply Boolean modeling to search for drug combinations that may induce cancer cell death.

Taken together, these papers provide new insights into cell signaling, biofilms and cancer metastasis, and provide suggestions for future lines of research within these broader research areas. We will add papers to this collection over time as they are published, so please do keep checking back.

References:

Eroumé K, Vasilevich A, Vermeulen S, de Boer J, Carlier A (2021) On the influence of cell shape on dynamic reaction-diffusion polarization patterns. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0248293. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0248293

Hervas-Raluy S, Gomez-Benito MJ, Borau-Zamora C, Cóndor M, Garcia-Aznar JM (2021) A new 3D finite element-based approach for computing cell surface tractions assuming nonlinear conditions. PLoS ONE 16(4): e0249018. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249018

Jin X, Marshall JS (2020) Mechanics of biofilms formed of bacteria with fimbriae appendages. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0243280. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0243280

Marrella A, Fedi A, Varani G, Vaccari I, Fato M, Firpo G, et al. (2021) High blood flow shear stress values are associated with circulating tumor cells cluster disaggregation in a multi-channel microfluidic device. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0245536. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245536

Vundavilli H, Datta A, Sima C, Hua J, Lopes R, Bittner M (2021) Targeting oncogenic mutations in colorectal cancer using cryptotanshinone. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0247190. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247190

Image attribution: Ricardo Murga and Rodney Donlan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Plastics in the Environment – Author Perspectives – Part 2 of 2


In 2020, PLOS ONE published a Collection of research articles entitled Plastics in the Environment, submitted to a Call for Papers on this important topic. A year later, we are checking in with some of the authors who are a part of this collection, to hear their thoughts on where this research field is headed, and what all of us can do to support their work.

In this second installment of two, we hear from Lars Hildebrandt (Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon), Bishal Bharadwaj (University of Queensland) and Anton Astner (University of Tennessee, Knoxville). They discuss the importance of open sciences practices to tackle global challenges, sustainable alternatives to plastics in various settings, and the challenges posed by the lack of methodological standards.

What inspired you to want to work in this field? What path did you take to where you are today?

LH: I am inspired by the fact that sound research into environmental particulate plastics, i.e. nano- and microplastics, is extremely demanding analytically on the one hand and highly relevant to society on the other. The social consequences are less abstract than with respect to other chemical-analytical topics. From my point of view, the biggest problems for nano- and microplastics research is the lack of methodological standardization. Consequently, the available studies are hardly comparable. To draw an accurate picture of the real environmental situation, scientists focusing on particulate plastics need to agree on high chemical-analytical and metrological standards. It inspires me to contribute one small piece to this important step: the method that my colleagues and I published in PLOS ONE enables the accurate and metrologically-traceable analysis of trace metals in/on plastic particles. I originally studied Chemistry and Business Studies and entered the field of particulate plastic monitoring through my master thesis. During my PhD thesis at the Helmholtz-Zentrum hereon, I deepened the work and added more aspects to it such as interactions between particulate plastics and trace metals.

BB: After graduating from school in 2001, I proposed my to friends that we do a volunteer cleaning campaign in Ilam (my hometown). We cleaned several places and realized plastic is a menace. It blocks drains and pollutes water sources. This realization motivated us to work against plastic pollution. Then we registered a youth-led NGO with an objective to lobby for a plastic bag ban and work for a clean and green city. Ilam municipality declared a ban on the use of single-use plastic bag in 2010. Other municipalities followed suit. However, the effect was mixed. I was intrigued by the question of ‘why does a plastic ban works in some municipalities and not in others?’ In 2013, SANDEE—a research network in South-Asia, provided a research grant to investigate the question. The study result showed that appropriate policy and its enforcement are key to the effectiveness of the ban. From this study I learned that the ban is helpful but not sufficient to tackle plastic pollution. Working to reduce plastic encouraged me to learn about other aspects of plastic pollution such as the circular economy and behavioural change.    

I am inspired by the fact that sound research into environmental particulate plastics, i.e. nano- and microplastics, is extremely demanding analytically on the one hand and highly relevant to society on the other. The social consequences are less abstract than with respect to other chemical-analytical topics.

Lars Hildebrandt

AA: My early life’s first strong impact was in first grade in Elementary School when our General Biology teacher took our class out for a field trip to collect disposed environmental trash in our town. This hands-on experience opened my eyes, and I realized that plastic debris disposed into the environment is not only aesthetically disturbing; it also may pose harm to terrestrial and aquatic habitats, wildlife, and humans. At this point, I started realizing how biodegradable engineered plastics derived from natural resources could help to reduce the environmental impact through pollution. Another part of this sustainable thinking I have experienced through the family-owned sawmill business. The conversion of logs into lumber yields virtually 100% product recovery by utilizing the main products, slabs, and sawdust. This experience instilled in me to learn more about renewable materials and natural resources.

The following education in Forest Products Technology & Management at the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences (SUAS), Austria biobased materials, improved my sustainable thinking by efficiently converting and utilizing the lignocellulosic materials.

I have learned the crucial steps for successfully conducting research and developing new products by collaborating with companies during this study. An internship at the Center for Renewable Carbon at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), was one element of my overall academic highlights as an undergraduate student from the SUAS, which has paved the way for the joint venture graduate degree between UTK and SUAS for the following years.

In the subsequent years, I have researched as an associate at the Center for Renewable Carbon and the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science (BESS) department at UTK. Under the supervision of Professor Dr. Hayes, I have gained excellent expertise in conducting research, the publication of research results, and collaborating with a team of students, faculty, and staff.

What do you see are the biggest hurdles that we need to overcome in order to tackle plastic pollution in the environment?

LH: A broad understanding is required that we, humanity, have to stop handling giant masses of plastic waste too carelessly and recklessly. Only global attempts to foster real circular economies, wide usage of biodegradable plastics for packaging and omission of persistent plastic products with a very short lifetime can solve the problem. I want to underline that the plastics used for products with short lifetimes should be really biodegradable and not only a “smart marketing trick”. Additionally, we have to find a way to produce them efficiently in terms of resource consumption.

Only global attempts to foster real circular economies, wide usage of biodegradable plastics for packaging and omission of persistent plastic products with a very short lifetime can solve the problem.

Lars Hildebrandt

BB: When I was a kid plastic was not as common as it is today; people used paper pouches, jute bags, iron buckets and wooden chairs. All these things are made of plastic these days. This rapid increase in plastic use with no concrete action is a concern.    

We use plastic for short-term convenience, then throw it away for long-term harm. Plastic looks cheap and convenient. But what about the social cost associated with its carbon emission and the environmental damage for centuries? There is a lack of global commitment against plastic pollution. Although diverse sets of programs are under implementation, many of these are local in scale. For instance, bans or levies on single use plastic bag are typically implemented at the municipality level. We do not see any countrywide regulation or agreement at regional level. Is the knowledge that there are micro-plastics in table-salt insufficient to act against plastic pollution at a global level? If so, until when will we be able to ignore this problem? Why are governments allowing this rapid march to common tragedy? We do not have clear answer to so many questions. This poor understanding is a known challenge.     

AA: Most important is to understand all phases of the plastic materials’ “life cycle” — from creation to utilization to disposal. Therefore, it is crucial to find new ways to reduce waste and better protect the environment and communities. In this context, scientific research can contribute to understanding the critical aspects of the plastic problem. New technologies and product designs, such as developing novel and environmentally benign biodegradable materials, will also be an inherent part of reducing plastic waste.

In agriculture, plastics are frequently used for the cultivation of plants and to increase crop yields. Plastic mulch films are essential materials for the sustainable production of vegetables and other specialty crops by elevating soil temperatures, conserving soil moisture, controlling weed growth, and providing protection against severe weather impacts. However, polyethylene mulches are the most used conventional mulch film materials and are lacking sustainable disposal methods. Improperly disposed materials form smaller particles through environmental impacts (sunlight, wind) and trigger gradual fragmentation into micro- (MPs) and nanoplastics (NPs). These small particles may remain in the soil, be mobilized, and distributed by wind, transported via surface run-off to the aquatic environment posing a severe threat to ecosystems.

In recent years, biodegradable plastic mulches (BDMs) became important in the sustainable production of vegetables and other specialty crops, designed to be inexpensively plowed into the soil, where they will fully biodegrade into carbon dioxide, water, and cell biomass.

Our current research focuses on understanding the implications of biodegradation in the field during and after the growing season, the formation of MPs and NPs, and the fate and impact on terrestrial ecosystems.

What are the areas where you see promise for helping us deal with plastic pollution? Either in the short term or long term?

LH: The research about the presence and toxicity of particulate plastics as well as their interactions with co-pollutants is important since it increases the awareness of plastic pollution in general. However, only the consumers and politics can initiate action by the decisive economic sectors. On the one hand, the products should be designed in a smart way that facilitates recycling, which is definitely possible. On the other hand, we have to streamline the recycling system and expand its capacities – especially in countries with alarmingly low recycling rates and high shares of plastic waste discharged directly into the environment.

We use plastic hundreds of times a day without knowing we used it. What this indicates is that plastic use is deep in our habits and replacing it needs convenient but environmentally friendly substitutes. Finding a substitute is not easy because plastic provides a wide range of advantages to different sectors.

Bishal Bharadwaj

BB: Inaction against plastic pollution is partly contributed to by the poor knowhow about the social cost of plastic use. We use plastic hundreds of times a day without knowing we used it. What this indicates is that plastic use is deep in our habits and replacing it needs convenient but environmentally friendly substitutes. Finding a substitute is not easy because plastic provides a wide range of advantages to different sectors. We need more research in all aspects of these aspects. However, having a substitute is not enough; economic incentives and behavioral measures are equally important to replace plastics in daily life. Therefore, an integrated approach is crucial. An integrated approach demands a collaborative engagement of researchers from different fields. Behavioral science, for instance, may suggest an intervention to change the plastic use behavior whereas chemical engineering can provide insights about the sustainable substitute of plastic. We need industry, policy makers and civil societies to take the innovation from labs to our households.    

AA: In many countries worldwide, governments, communities, businesses, academia, and researchers work diligently to find solutions and new ways to tackle our global plastic pollution problem. The short-term actions reach from the reduction of single-use-plastics (banning plastic straws, styrofoam containers), implementing efficient waste collection, and conducting research in terrestrial and marine habitats.

In the long term, it will be required to include all “players” in a joint effort to increase awareness of plastic pollution and its consequences by shifting from typical one-way commodity plastics to more environmentally benign materials such as biodegradable/compostable materials.

For agriculture, in the face of increased interest in organically-grown plants and crops, I see a considerable potential for sustainable-oriented farmers who are also encouraged to employ environmentally friendly farming practices.  

How important are open science practices in your field – e.g. data sharing, code sharing, protocols sharing, preprints etc.?

LH: I hold the opinion that open science practices are mandatory in environmental research to maximize its outreach. Ultimately, taxpayers finance most of the work. Thus, access to the results must not be denied to anybody.

This synchronized effort needs open science practices. I am impressed with our open science practice in COVID-19 research and information. The main takeaway from this COVID-19 practice is that open science is crucial to tackling global problems.

Bishal Bharadwaj

BB: Plastic use behavior is a mix of interlinked factors. We cannot tackle plastic pollution only through local action such as municipality bans or product-specific intervention such as targeting plastic straws. These small-scale initiatives are helpful, but plastic has now become a major element of global trade.  Therefore, research and collaboration among all concerned stakeholders is necessary. Research from one field will become a steppingstone for other fields to develop a workable solution. For instance, a chemical engineer can use social science on consumer preferences for a bag to find an effective substitute. This synchronized effort needs open science practices. I am impressed with our open science practice in COVID-19 research and information. The main takeaway from this COVID-19 practice is that open science is crucial to tackling global problems.

AA: Data archiving and sharing with the scientific community is an inherent part of conducting successful research. Therefore, data storage and preservation, and publication will be essential. I believe that data sharing can catalyze new collaborations, increase confidence in findings, and serves as a basis for making progress in specific research areas. Our fundamental research area is essential since the detection and characterization of MPs and NPs lack standards. Therefore, data and information exchange are crucial to building on implementing standardized procedures for peer researchers gradually.  Furthermore, using a digital object identifier (DOI), data sets are becoming easier to cite and independently discoverable. This “citability” gives researchers credit for their data sets and allows researchers to list them on job, tenure, and promotion applications.

How does interdisciplinarity fuel your work? Do you often collaborate with researchers from other fields or others outside of academia?

LH: Working in an interdisciplinary network fuels the overall impact of research on particulate plastics. For instance, analytical chemists must collaborate with biologists and toxicologists since a risk assessment comprises assessment of the exposure and evaluation of the toxic effects as well as effect levels (e.g. LOEC) of a pollutant. In a larger context, microplastic researchers should also cooperate with social scientists to convey the key messages that can be derived from their specific findings. Even if we massively reduce the global discharges of plastic waste into the environment, the fragmentation of the giant amounts of plastics present in all aquatic compartments will continue. One of these messages could be: Action that we take today to tackle plastic pollution might need decades to “become visible”.

BB: Like other environmental problems, the fight against plastic pollution also requires a) identification of workable solutions and then b) their implementation. Initially I started my journey from civil society where we lobbied for a ban and worked on social mobilization against plastic bags. While working in the environment management section of the Ministry of Local Development I realized the complexities of environmental policies and its implementation. That is why, as a researcher, I tried to answer questions that are helpful for policy makers. However, collaboration between academia, industry, civil society, and governments will expedite the fight against plastic pollution. If policy makers or industry, for instance, identify the knowledge gaps on plastic pollution, then researchers can help to fill them.       

AA: Collaboration across different disciplines is crucial in our field of research. In particular, our research areas involve the scientists’ expertise in biosystems and biomolecular engineering, soil physics, polymer science, chemistry, statistics, and nuclear engineering.  Our research team regularly interacts and collaborates with researchers within our academic departments across campus. Our particular research also involves collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, focusing on NPs detection in soil by employing Small-Angle Neutron Scattering (SANS) techniques. Interdisciplinary research allows the synthesis of ideas and characteristics from many disciplines, developing essential, transferable skills.

Data and information exchange are crucial to building on implementing standardized procedures for peer researchers gradually.  Furthermore, using a digital object identifier (DOI), data sets are becoming easier to cite and independently discoverable. This “citability” gives researchers credit for their data sets and allows researchers to list them on job, tenure, and promotion applications.

Anton Astner

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in helping with the efforts to reduce plastic pollution – whether as a researcher or a private citizen? How can the rest of the world support the work that you and your colleagues do?

LH: Every private citizen as a consumer has an impact. If we start being very critical about our own behavior when it comes to single-use plastics and plastic beads in cosmetics, for example, the companies will adapt their practices. Actually, there are many parallels to other topic such as the interlink between meat consumption and animal welfare. Sustainability might be an “overused” word in a way. Nevertheless, it starts with everybody’s (consumer) behavior.

BB: We can contribute in several ways. First, being a responsible consumer, we can make a difference. Using reusable bags will reduce the billions of single-use plastic bags. This behavioral change is possible in many dimensions of our day-to-day life, such as straws and coffee cups. Second, even if it is necessary to use plastic, it does not take much effort to make sure the used plastic enters the recycling process. Thirdly, we can contribute from where we are working. For example, an agriculture scientist can investigate the ways to reduce or replace plastic wrapper for cucumbers. Fourthly, being a responsible human being lets us gather evidence and raise our voices for global treaties against plastic pollution as we are doing for climate change. To summarize, let us take plastic pollution seriously and try our best to fight plastic pollution before it is too late.     

AA: An annual amount of eight million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year, and predictions estimate by 2050 that the amount of plastic in the oceans will have more mass than all fish. The consequent reduction of plastic product utilization can avert this concerning prediction by employing reusable shopping bags, opting for clothing made of cellulose, hemp, wool, and other natural fibers, and choosing products packed in natural raw materials such as corn starch or cotton, just to mention a few options.

The consequent reduction of plastic product utilization can avert this concerning prediction by employing reusable shopping bags, opting for clothing made of cellulose, hemp, wool, and other natural fibers, and choosing products packed in natural raw materials such as corn starch or cotton, just to mention a few options.

Anton Astner

As a researcher, I encourage farmers to employ sustainable farming by opting for sustainable plant cultivation using environmentally benign materials such as biodegradable plastics (mulches) to reduce waste.  Furthermore, I motivate communities to avoid plastic waste by creating public awareness and implementing recycling practices, e.g., rigorous waste separation.

In recent years, MPs and NPs have received considerable attention regarding fate and pollution to the various environmental compartments. The long-term fate of plastic fragments in the soil is unknown. Our fundamental research aims to understand the life cycle, the ecotoxicological fate of MPs, and NPs for plant and soil organisms in subsurface agroecosystems. The outcome of our research may provide a pathway for current and prospective researchers interested in understanding the implications and fate of MPs and NPs in the terrestrial environment. 

About the authors:


Lars Hildebrandt: Lars studied Chemistry and Economics at Kiel University (B.Sc. and M.Sc.). In 2017, his master thesis dealt with microplastics in marine sediments. During his PhD work, which he finished in March 2021 at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht, he focused on Nano- and Microplastics as well as the particles’ interactions with trace metals. Currently, he works as a postdoc at the Helmholtz-Zentrum hereon and his research focus is still on environmental particulate plastics as well as trace metals.


Bishal Bharadwaj: Bishal Bharadwaj has worked in environment management and policy for more than a decade. In 2001 Bishal and his friend established an NGO, with the aim to lobby for a ban on plastic bag use and mobilize youth to tackle plastic pollution. Bishal also served in the Government of Nepal, and worked on the Initial Environmental Examination Review committee of Ministry of Local Development and supported drafting of the Environment Friendly Local Governance Framework in 2013. Bishal’s research interests is in the evaluation of environmental policies. He is currently doing PhD at the University of Queensland, where his research aims to understand the influence of decision context on energy access at the subnational regions of Nepal.


Anton Astner: As a native Austrian born in Salzburg, Anton graduated from the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences (SUAS) in 2009, and with a master’s degree in Natural Resources at the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at the Center for Renewable Carbon in 2012. In 2017, he started as a Research Associate in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science (BESS) at the Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee Knoxville, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Douglas Hayes in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with the focus on the formation and dynamics of micro- (MPs) and nanoplastics (NPs) in the agricultural soil environment. In the fall of 2018, he started pursuing a Ph.D. degree at the BESS department in a joint effort with ORNL, investigating the interactions and fate of MPs and NPs in the terrestrial environment.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured image: Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands NationalWildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. (Susan White/USFWS) CC-BY

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Plastics in the Environment – Author Perspectives – Part 1 of 2

In 2020, PLOS ONE published a Collection of research entitled Plastics in the Environment, submitted to a Call for Papers on this important topic. A year later, we are checking in with some of the authors who are a part of this collection, to hear their thoughts on where this research field is headed, and what all of us can do to support their work. They discuss their motivations for going into this field in the first place, the importance of reliable data, the collaborative nature of their work, and how recycling might change in the future.

In this first installment of two, we hear from Amanda Laverty (NOAA), Lauge P W Clausen (Technical University of Denmark) and Elisabeth von der Esch (GEOMAR).

What inspired you to want to work in this field? What path did you take to where you are today?

AL: Growing up appreciating the outdoors by way of camping and hiking, I’ve always had a passion for protecting and preserving the environment. Over time, I developed a particular passion for the ocean – likely stemming from my parents’ love for scuba diving. My path wasn’t necessarily linear, but once I discovered that I could go to school to study the ocean, I was all in. Lab research with my undergraduate advisor – and co-author on this paper – Dr. Fred Dobbs, fueled my interest in aquatic microbial ecology and inspired me to attend graduate school. For my master’s thesis, I was determined to incorporate my long-term interest in marine debris with Fred’s background in microbial ecology, and that combination is what ultimately led us to this niche research.

Following graduate school, I headed to Washington, D.C. after receiving Virginia Sea Grant’s John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship — a year-long fellowship that brings approximately 65 post-graduate students from across the United States to the Nation’s Capital to experience the science-policy interface. During my fellowship, I worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program and learned about marine debris prevention, removal, research, emergency response, and regional coordination at the federal level. The fellowship was a pivotal point in my life, and ultimately led me to where I am today.

LPWC: The abundance of plastic pollution in the environment has been a main motivator for why I want to address the issue. Also, being part of the solution to a “real” problem and help solve it is of great motivation to me.

I was raised by passionate biologist and thus my interest for nature was nourished in my childhood. As an adult, I pursued a career as an environmental engineer to help solve the many environmental issues we face. After I graduated, I went into consultancy but returned to academia to pursue a Ph.D. within the field of phytoremediation – studying uptake of pollutants to plants and their use for remediation of contaminated sites. During my Ph.D. I grew more and more interested in the regulatory aspects of environmental management and stakeholder inclusion. Using the blatant cases of plastic pollution and nanomaterials as an outset, I got involved on two large projects, MarinePlastic and Mistra Environmental Nanosafety Phase II, providing funding for a 3-year postdoc position at the Technical University of Denmark exploring the topics.   

EvdE: Today I am a Postdoc at GEOMAR and develop sensors to explore the ocean. The path was of course filled with many adventures in chemistry and occasional expeditions. In my PhD at the Technical University of Munich, I chose to work on automating the quantification of microplastic as sometimes the best thing that you can contribute to a problem is reliable data.

Without ‘turning off the tap’ on plastic pollution, we will never be able to adequately address the issue. In order to begin effecting change, efforts should focus on behavior change at the individual, community and industry levels, as well as radical policy change at the state, national, and international levels.

Amanda Laverty

What do you see are the biggest hurdles that we need to overcome in order to tackle plastic pollution in the environment?

AL: In my mind, the biggest hurdle to overcoming plastic pollution in the environment is preventing its accumulation in the first place. Removal and research are unquestionably important pieces of this very complex puzzle, but the issue will undoubtedly persist and intensify without prevention. The NOAA Marine Debris Program has a great analogy for this: if we walked into our home and found that our kitchen sink was overflowing, our first step would be to turn off the faucet – not to begin mopping up the water. Without ‘turning off the tap’ on plastic pollution, we will never be able to adequately address the issue. In order to begin effecting change, efforts should focus on behavior change at the individual, community and industry levels, as well as radical policy change at the state, national, and international levels.

LPWC: The transition to a circular plastic economy will be the main obstacle to overcome. To achieve this, a fundamental change to our society will have to be implemented in a scale that have not been seen before. This includes behavioral changes at all levels of the society (industry, policy and consumer level) but also changes in perception and mindset. 

The circular plastic chain is a subtle thing, requiring that one part of the chain deliver services to the next. Failure at one part leads to a break in the chain, making the system fragile. E.g. a producer of a plastic component require a reliable flow of recycled plastics in sufficient quantity and quality to deliver their service to consumers, which must be facilitated by the society. This dependency makes the implementation phase challenging, as implementation at one stage only can be successful when the previous and subsequent steps are mature and ready for the transition.  

EvdE: I believe that plastic is essential for our modern world, as there is just no alternative as versatile and cheap as plastic. This is also true for the packaging industry. Here plastic serves as a very lightweight, durable, safe and recyclable solution to keeping products fresh. The problem however arises, when we don’t recycle our plastic and instead deposit it in landfills, form where it can enter the environment in large quantities. Therefore, improving the recycling of polymers is a key hurdle to overcome. Another large source of microplastic in the environment is the abrasion of car tires, which is unfortunately exactly what we want tires to do to provide grip.

In my opinion, we need to stop designing non-recyclable products and we need to factor in the disposal/recycling cost into the price of a product.

Elisabeth von der Esch

What are the areas where you see promise for helping us deal with plastic pollution? Either in the short term or long term?

AL: I see a lot of promise and hope for our future in younger generations. Young people across the globe are taking ownership of our crises, forming innovative solutions, and calling for urgent action in areas such as plastic pollution, climate change, environmental justice, and many others. With impassioned, dedicated, and emboldened youth, I see real promise in dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale. I’m hopeful that we can each do our parts in lifting up and creating space for the next generation of bright young minds to succeed.

LPWC: My research focuses on bridging societal and regulatory needs. I hope to help regulators identify and address important issues related to plastic pollution and the society by pinpointing where changes can or should be implemented. Also, I hope to raise the citizen awareness and stakeholder engagement with respect to plastic pollution and its consequences, thereby preparing the ground for a smooth(er) transition to a circular plastic economy.    

EvdE: In my opinion, we need to stop designing non-recyclable products and we need to factor in the disposal/recycling cost into the price of a product. As I worked with yogurt cups in my research, I asked myself why these cups are made from Polyethylene, Polyethylene terephthalate and Polystyrene among other polymers if the function of the cup “keeping yogurt fresh” is the same in all instances. Therefore, I would assume that these polymers are equally suited to the task. The recyclability of these polymers however differs. In instances such as these the more recyclable alternative should always preferred by the manufacturer. Applying this mindset or reevaluation could potentially, among many other advancements, help us get towards a more circular economy.

Sharing knowledge is a fundamental prerequisite for transparency, which again is paramount for trust making and stakeholder engagement. Further, open science is of major importance for reproducibility of science.

Lauge P W Clausen

How important are open science practices in your field – e.g. data sharing, code sharing, protocols sharing, preprints etc.?

AL: Open science practices are extremely important in this field. Open science improves the quality of work, increases the reproducibility of findings by other researchers, promotes collaboration, and builds greater confidence in science overall. Without a solid understanding of how other researchers are conducting experiments and collecting data, comparison of our datasets may be ‘apples to oranges’, ultimately proving of little utility in a broader context, limiting understanding, and creating inefficiencies in resource utilization. 

LPWC: In my opinion, the most important thing about open science is that knowledge gets free to everyone – scientists, regulators and not least, the public. Sharing knowledge is a fundamental prerequisite for transparency, which again is paramount for trust making and stakeholder engagement. Further, open science is of major importance for reproducibility of science.

EvdE: Open science is very important to me, as the goal is to solve problems and everyone should be welcome to contribute. Form my experience there is more to research then can ever be achieved by a single person or research group and everyone can benefit from working together on fair and quality controlled terms.

How does interdisciplinarity fuel your work? Do you often collaborate with researchers from other fields or others outside of academia?

AL: The research we published with PLOS ONE included an important collaboration with our coauthors from the Alfred-Wegener-Institute to perform Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) analysis. Without this collaboration, we would not have had the tools to examine and determine microplastic sample types, which was a vital component of our study.

Though I’ve left my university, I think that if I had decided to pursue a career in academia I would have continued to seek out collaborations with other researchers who could contribute tools, analyses, and varying perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Additionally, I would be certain to engage with policy makers at all levels of government in order to help inform research questions that could prove useful in decision making.

LPWC: My research works at the interface of policy and society. It requires a detailed understanding of the regulatory landscape as well as the societal needs and perceptions. As an environmental engineer working within regulatory engineering, I work with social and environmental scientists and sometimes directly with citizens themselves.

EvdE: I love working with colleagues from other fields! They provide different viewpoints and solutions to questions. For me this is a very important source of inspiration and provides excellent learning opportunities.

You might sort all of your recyclables and think you are contributing to the solution, but that does not guarantee that there is a demand for your recycled plastic and that it gets recycled at all, as only a fraction of plastic that could be recycled ends up recycled. This needs to change on a systemic rather than individual level.

Elisabeth von der Esch

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in helping with the efforts to reduce plastic pollution – whether as a researcher or a private citizen? How can the rest of the world support the work that you and your colleagues do?

AL: I would say that each of us play a critical role in the reduction of plastic pollution. It is our job as researchers, global citizens, and change-makers to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. It is important that we aggressively avoid or limit our use of plastic products, particularly single-use plastics and plastic packaging materials, which contribute to much of the plastic we find in the environment. We can also educate our loved ones, participate in citizen science efforts, and advocate for better policies to help create change beyond our own individual behavior. Solutions to this global issue are challenging and multifaceted, but one thing is certain: our success is hinging on our collective and active participation. 

LPWC: My best advice is to be curious. This entails to stay updated and engage actively in the plastic debate – in the media, on online media and in the scientific literature. Raise questions whenever something is unclear and spread the knowledge gained on the platforms available.

EvdE: The best way to change the lifecycle of plastic from production to disposal is for manufacturers to design more sustainable products and manufacturing chains. Therefore, it is important to demand this change, as it seems that the blame for plastic pollution has been more on the consumer side for a long time and has only recently been shifting towards producers. Because even though all plastics have the recycling logo and a number indicating the polymer type that does not mean that they are collected for recycling. You might sort all of your recyclables and think you are contributing to the solution, but that does not guarantee that there is a demand for your recycled plastic and that it gets recycled at all, as only a fraction of plastic that could be recycled ends up recycled. This needs to change on a systemic rather than individual level.

If you are interested in supporting researchers that want to know where the plastic ends up in the environment, you could join a citizen science project. E.g. https://www.plastic-pirates.eu/en/about. And even though it would be best not to make a mess in the first place you could always join a plastic cleanup near you, as every little bit helps.

About the authors:

Amanda Laverty: Amanda Laverty is a budget analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS). In her current role, Amanda primarily assists in the development of the annual NOAA NESDIS President’s Budget and works to ensure timely and effective presentation and use of budget information in support of NESDIS performance, goals, and objectives.

Before coming to NOAA, Amanda obtained her B.S. and M.S. in Ocean and Earth Sciences from Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, VA. She focused her master’s research on plastic pollution as a potential vector for bacteria and human pathogens. Following graduate school, Amanda moved to Washington, D.C. to join the NOAA Marine Debris Program as a 2017 Sea Grant John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. During this time, she served as the lead on developing content for outreach products, supported regional partner planning workshops, and led the zero-waste initiative for the Sixth International Marine Debris Conference, held in March 2018.

Lauge P W Clausen: As a Ph.D. student, Lauge studied plant and soils science, with special focus on uptake of pollutants to plants and the use of plants for remediation purposes of soil and groundwater. As a postdoc he has moved into the field of regulatory engineering, studying regulation of plastics and microplastics and nanomaterials with focus on stakeholder analysis.

Elisabeth von der Esch: Dr. Elisabeth von der Esch completed her PhD in analytical chemistry at the Institute of Hydrochemistry of the Technical University of Munich in 2021. Within her work she combined reference material production, statistical sample size reduction and image analysis to enable the development of a Raman Microscopy based automated quantification of microplastic. Based on her interest in automation of analytical chemistry she joined the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel, to develop sensors for biogeochemical parameters in the ocean.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Disclaimer from Amanda Laverty: All views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.

Disclaimer from Elisabeth von der Esch: All views and opinions expressed here are her own and do not represent the views of her employer.

Featured image: Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. (Susan White/USFWS) CC-BY

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Infectious disease modeling in a time of COVID-19 – PLOS ONE authors’ perspectives – Part 2

In February 2020, PLOS published a Collection entitled “Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Disease Dynamics” which includes papers from PLOS ONE, PLOS Biology and PLOS Computational Biology, on a variety of topics relevant to the modeling of infectious diseases, such as disease spread, vaccination strategies and parameter estimation. As the world grappled with the effects of COVID-19 this year, the importance of accurate infectious disease modeling has become apparent. We therefore invited a few authors featured in the Collection to give their perspectives on their research during this global pandemic. We caught up with Verrah Otiende (independent researcher, Pan African University Institute of Basic Sciences Technology and Innovation), Lauren White (USAID), Jess Liebig (CSIRO) and Johnny Whitman (The Ohio State University) to hear their reflections on this collection and the time that has passed.

In this second blog post of two, we hear from Jess Liebig and Johnny Whitman, who discuss the modeling of human movement, the assumptions that go into creating a model, the virtue of simpler models, and the importance of understanding under-reporting in disease modeling.

What is your research focused on currently?

JL: Since September 2017 I am part of CSIRO’s DiMeMo (Disease Networks and Mobility) team. The aim of DiNeMo is to understand how human infectious diseases might arrive and spread in Australia. We analyse various sources of data and identify patterns of people movement both internationally and domestically in order to forecast the risk of disease spread. Initially I worked on modelling dengue importations via air travel. However, since the beginning of the pandemic the focus of my work has shifted to COVID-19. I am currently studying the effects of international travel restrictions on COVID-19 importation risk. The results of this study shed light onto how many importations a country can expect when opening its borders and can guide authorities in making decisions.

JW: My research is currently split between two main thrusts: the first is a collaboration with Battelle Memorial Institute, working on comparisons of codon usage in certain classes of proteins. The second is investigating methods of identifying parameters in biological signaling networks using the supercomputing cluster at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Finally, I am finishing my PhD this spring semester and my current research for that deals with the design and verification of biological circuits for intracellular signaling, as well as developing methods to coarse-grain out complicated host-virus interactions in simulations of dendritic and epithelial cells.

We analyse various sources of data and identify patterns of people movement both internationally and domestically in order to forecast the risk of disease spread.

Jess Liebig

What do you think are the lessons we can learn from the research in your field which will help us to better model infectious diseases in the future?

JL: We need high quality datasets to accurately model the spread of infectious diseases. In reality, the datasets that are accessible for researchers are often biased, incomplete and erroneous. While the process of data collection can be tedious and expensive it can add much value to the research community when done in an organised and purposeful manner.

JW: A trend in current modeling is to hyperfocus on fitting parameters in a model in order to precisely match available data; with advances in artificial intelligence and neural networks, researchers are quick to use these overparameterization models to get very good fits to the data. I would argue that we should instead focus on identifying important qualitative features of data or populations – a difficult and careful human process – and implementing simpler models around these features. To be concrete, if a complex model of American COVID-19 cases from January to May fits the data extremely well, but offers 500 parameters to change to predict future behavior, it is very difficult to make any form of meaningful prediction or understanding of what the model is actually saying about the underlying population, whereas a simpler model with directly interpretable parameters may perform worse quantitatively, but be much more expressive overall.

I think the pandemic has (or should have) focused researchers more on making observations in real populations and taking note of how real behavior patterns can make fundamental difference in model predictions.

Johnny Whitman

Have your motivations, direction or the way you conduct or disseminate your research changed in 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, either for yourself or the field as a whole?

JL: My work is motivated by several studies that have shown that the structure of the global air transport network as well as the increasing volume of international travellers has contributed to the large-scale spread of infectious diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unpalatable reminder of human movement being able to rapidly spread a disease across the globe. While the motivation and direction of my work has been reinforced as a consequence of the pandemic, there have been changes to the way I disseminate my research. With travel restrictions and lockdowns in place, conferences, research meetings etc. have moved online, giving rise to new challenges. For example, it can be more difficult to clearly communicate your ideas to collaborators in a teleconference as opposed to a face-to-face meeting. What I find particularly challenging is to give online presentations where you cannot see the reaction of your audience.

JW: I think the pandemic has (or should have) focused researchers more on making observations in real populations and taking note of how real behavior patterns can make fundamental difference in model predictions. A simple example is a very good group at the University of Illinois put together an intricate and well-thought out model, which ultimately failed. The failure was due to not including the possibility that a contagious individual who knew they were contagious would continue to be social. Clearly, they are not at fault for using a rational actor assumption, but the lesson is that we should always remain grounded in the people and phenomenon we model if we hope to make any progress.

It is very important to understand what exactly these assumptions are and how they affect the results of the modelling study. Any conclusions have to be drawn carefully, taking into consideration the set of assumptions that were made.

Lauren White

If there was one thing you wished that the general public understood better about modeling infectious diseases, what would that be?

JL: Naturally, when modelling the spread of infectious disease (or any other process), scientists have to make certain assumptions due to incomplete data and knowledge gaps. It is very important to understand what exactly these assumptions are and how they affect the results of the modelling study. Any conclusions have to be drawn carefully, taking into consideration the set of assumptions that were made.

JW: Partially due to the manner in which models are presented to the public and also how researchers have positioned their work, I think that the public believes that models are intended to exactly predict the course of a disease. Rather, I wish we collectively understood the role of modeling more as a probe into the possibilities of a system; I would never trust a model to truly predict the number of COVID cases, but they can give us the possibilities of recurrent infection waves, how the dynamics depend on observable parameters like recovery time and incubation period, and other broad qualitative features that can influence public health decisions. A more technical wish would be that the public understood model predictions in the same sense that they understand weather predictions; most complex systems modeling is stochastic in some sense, so I would prefer that reporting on modeling emphasized the possibilities of events more than definitive statements. We’ve seen public support unnecessarily erode due to unrealized model predictions, and I think this could be avoided if communication was clearer.

Are there any unanswered research questions in this field that you would really like to see us make progress on?

JL: A key ingredient to modelling the spread of infectious disease is the incidence rate. Unfortunately, the incidence of most infectious diseases is under-estimated, which is due to under-reporting and under-ascertainment. Under-reporting refers to positive disease cases not being reported, for example due to mis-diagnosis. Under-ascertainment occurs when infected individuals do not report to a health professional, for example due to the absence of symptoms. Reporting and ascertainment rates vary across time and space and depend on the disease itself. A model that requires incidence rates as input can only be accurate if we have a good understanding of the level of under-estimation surrounding the incidence rates. Unfortunately, current techniques for determining the level of under-estimation are time consuming, expensive and often biased.

JW: The physics background in me would like to see a more general study of disease modeling in the spirit of field theory models; due to the much simpler nature of interactions in theoretical physics problems, we have done a careful and systematic investigation of how essentially every class of interaction type affects the macroscopic behavior of the model, e.g. if there is some symmetry, what types of particles are allowed, if this interaction is strong, it suppresses that behavior. I would like to see a similar-minded effort in disease modeling, so that researchers in this community build up a common base of tools and understanding. As it stands, the field is so fragmented in terminology and approach that it is difficult to quickly agree about what the setup of a problem is, much less the implications of the model.

About the authors:


Jess Liebig: Jessica Liebig is a postdoctoral fellow at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency. She received a BSc(Hons) and a PhD in Applied Mathematics from RMIT University in 2013 and 2017, respectively. Her primary research interest lies in the area of network science and is directed towards the study of infectious disease spread. She is part of CSIRO’s Disease Networks and Mobility (DiNeMo) project, an interdisciplinary research initiative that aims to understand how human infectious diseases might arrive and spread in Australia. As part of her work she identifies patterns of people movement, both internationally and domestically, to forecast the risk of disease spread.


Johnny Whitman: John Whitman graduated from the University of Illinois in 2016, and is currently finishing his PhD in Physics at The Ohio State University with Prof. Ciriyam Jayaprakash. His research interests include stochastic modeling of systems at all scales, from intracellular signaling pathways to large scale population epidemiological modeling. He is most interested in problems which exhibit some form of complexity, since he really enjoys scientific programming and visualization/animation of processes.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Featured Image : Spencer J. Fox, CC0

The post Infectious disease modeling in a time of COVID-19 – PLOS ONE authors’ perspectives – Part 2 appeared first on EveryONE.

Infectious disease modeling in a time of COVID-19 – PLOS ONE authors’ perspectives

In February 2020, PLOS published a Collection entitled “Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Disease Dynamics” which includes papers from PLOS ONE, PLOS Biology and PLOS Computational Biology, on a variety of topics relevant to the modeling of infectious disease, such as disease spread, vaccination strategies and parameter estimation. As the world grappled with the effects of COVID-19 this year, the importance of accurate infectious disease modeling has become apparent. We therefore invited a few authors  featured in the Collection to give their perspectives on their research during this global pandemic. We caught up with Verrah Otiende (independent researcher, Pan African University Institute of Basic Sciences Technology and Innovation), Lauren White (USAID), Jess Liebig (CSIRO) and Johnny Whitman (The Ohio State University) to hear their reflections on this collection and the time that has passed.

In this first blog post of a set of two, we hear from Verrah Otiende and Lauren White, who discuss the modeling of other infectious diseases such as HIV and TB during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of good data, the increasing focus of incorporating human behavior in disease models, and more. Please check back in a couple of weeks for the next installment of this blog post series.

What is your research focused on currently?

VO: Currently, I am independently researching the spatiotemporal patterns of successful TB treatment outcomes for HIV co-infected cases in Kenya. The motivation of this study is mainly the convergence of TB and HIV epidemics that threatens the management of TB treatment. This is evidenced by various spatial studies that have described how HIV co-infection propagates unsuccessful TB treatment outcomes. I am using the Bayesian Hierarchical Modeling approach to generate the estimates for each of the 47 counties of Kenya. These estimates will help identify the high-risk counties with successful TB treatment outcomes and deliberately prioritize other counties with an increased risk of unsuccessful treatment outcomes.

I believe that we will continue to improve disease models as we learn more about the ways that individual contact patterns, behaviors, and immune responses affect epidemics.

Lauren White

LW: I am a quantitative disease ecologist interested in developing and improving mathematical models of disease to assist in prediction and prevention of emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases in the context of rapidly changing, human-impacted environments. The overall objective of my research is to explore the effects of heterogeneity in behavioral and immune competence on disease modeling predictions within and across populations. I use mathematical modelling approaches, integrated with empirical data, to explore three different types of heterogeneity that can alter individual transmission rates: (i) within-host heterogeneity; (ii) contact heterogeneity and group structure within populations; and (iii) spatial heterogeneity across landscapes. My work also has broader implications for understanding human disease risk within the One Health framework, which includes human, animal, and environmental health.

What do you think are the lessons we can learn from the research in your field which will help us to better model infectious diseases in the future?

VO: Applying Bayesian algorithms to modeling multiple related infectious diseases is critical for quantifying both the joint and disease-specific risk estimates. The flexibility and informative outputs of Bayesian Hierarchical Models play a key role in clustering the geographical risk areas over a given time period. This would further provide additional insights towards the collaborative monitoring of the diseases and facilitate the comparative benefit obtained across the disease populations.

LW: Before this year, “superspreader” was considered a technical term, but COVID-19 has really highlighted the role of individual behavior in community spread.  I believe that we will continue to improve disease models as we learn more about the ways that individual contact patterns, behaviors, and immune responses affect epidemics. These are still very open questions, especially for less-studied livestock and wildlife, host-pathogen systems.

It is critical not to ignore other life-threatening infectious diseases while working towards managing COVID-19.

Verrah Otiende

Have your motivations, direction or the way you conduct or disseminate your research changed in 2020 as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, either for yourself or the field as a whole?

VO: I am still enthusiastic about conducting and disseminating research work on infectious diseases. The direction has changed as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during dissemination. But the most positive effect of this change was reaching a wider audience virtually than I have ever thought of.

On case notifications, my worry is on underreporting and data capture processes of other infectious diseases since most efforts have been directed towards controlling and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Probably the non-pharmaceutical practices like physical distancing and lockdowns have kept some infectious diseases from spreading for now but there is still a vacuum for certain diseases to rebound and spread which could have much more severe consequences to millions of humans for a very long time. It is critical not to ignore other life-threatening infectious diseases while working towards managing COVID-19.

LW: I have just recently started a position through the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship program. This means that I am spending less time researching questions around COVID-19 directly but learning a lot more about program planning and implementation, as well as the effects of COVID-19 on other public health efforts like epidemic control for HIV/AIDS. This is an important career opportunity for me to see what makes science actionable and useful for stakeholders, policymakers, and other end users.

Disease models are only as good as the information or data that we put into them—often times in new situations we end up using “best guesses.”

Lauren White

If there was one thing you wished that the general public understood better about modeling infectious diseases, what would that be?

VO: Modeling the joint dynamics of infectious diseases and human behavior is fundamental in understanding and quantifying the risks and effects associated with their global spread.

LW: COVID-19 has highlighted some confusion in how disease models are used for decision making. Disease models come in many types, but especially those that aim to predict or forecast the future function as thought experiments, not as written-in-stone prophecies. Disease models are only as good as the information or data that we put into them—often times in new situations we end up using “best guesses.” As our information and estimates improve, so can the accuracy of our models. This is not, by default, bad science; it simply reflects an iterative process.

It is also important to note that sometimes models can show as the worst case or “do nothing” scenario. Again, such an outcome is not a forgone conclusion. Public health interventions can help us do better. So better outcomes are not necessarily a failure of modeling or an overreaction to an epidemic, rather they are an indication that we, as a society, are doing something right.

Are there any unanswered research questions in this field that you would really like to see us make progress on?

VO: Numerous unanswered research questions would be of interest to progress on. A quick one that comes to my mind would be incorporating human behavior in the spatiotemporal joint modeling of infectious diseases to understand the possible effects of such behavior. This would require rich behavioural datasets and developing unsupervised ML algorithms to automate and predict the risks of joint infections over spatial and temporal dimensions.

LW: There will always be more to discover with regards to infectious diseases, but I actually think that the most pressing question is how we, as a scientific community, will do a better job in this current crisis and during future epidemics. I have faith that we will be able to answer research questions as they arise, and in fact, we have increased our understanding of a completely novel pathogen incredibly quickly. But we need to think more critically about how we are communicating results and making our work actionable: How do we maintain and build trust in a climate where scientific expertise itself is controversial? How can we better engage with the communities that we live in and serve? Are we communicating results thoughtfully and responsibly? These are by no means “new” or “novel” research questions, but COVID-19 has starkly highlighted their importance. 

About the authors:


Verrah Otiende: My name is Verrah Otiende and I am a statistician and an ML enthusiast with proven expertise in data governance concepts and using Big Data platforms to efficiently store and manage large amounts of data. I am an independent researcher and currently working on building, evaluating, and integrating predictive models on infectious disease case notifications using unsupervised ML algorithms to optimize intervention options and public health decisions. Besides infectious disease modeling, I am also working on the Named Entity Recognition (NER) datasets to build translation models for African languages through the MASAKHANE research initiative for Natural Language Processing (NLP).


Lauren White: Dr. Lauren White is a first year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the Office of HIV/AIDS in USAID. Dr. White has a background in infectious disease modeling and epidemiology with an interest in the intersections of human, animal, and environmental health. Most recently, she worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland. Dr. White finished her Ph.D. in 2018 at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Ecology, Evolution & Behavior.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Disclaimer from Lauren White: The views in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of USAID, PEPFAR, or the United States Government.

Featured Image : Spencer J. Fox, CC0

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