Computer Science, Education, and Supply Chains: an Interview with PLOS ONE Academic Editor Sanaa Kaddoura

PLOS ONE is holding a Call For Papers on the topic of New Supply Chain Technologies to highlight the latest research in this field. We interviewed PLOS ONE Academic Editor Sanaa Kaddoura to learn about her research in this field and her perspectives on computer science education and the impact of this topic in wider society.


Photograph of PLOS ONE Academic Editor Sanaa Kaddoura
Academic Editor Sanaa Kaddoura

Dr. Sanaa Kaddoura holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Beirut Arab University, Lebanon. She is currently employed as an assistant professor of information security at the Department of Computing and Applied Technology, College of Technological Innovation, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates. She is also an assistant professor of business analytics for Master’s degree students in the UAE. She is a fellow of Higher Education Academy, Advance HE (FHEA) since 2019, which demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education. Furthermore, she has been a certified associate from Blackboard Academy since April 2021. In addition to her research interest in cybersecurity and Arabic NLP, she is actively doing research in higher education teaching and learning related to enhancing the quality of instructional delivery to facilitate students’ acquirement of skills and smooth transition to the workplace.

PLOS: Can you tell us a little about your career in science so far? How closely related is your research field to where you started out with your first degree?

SK: Currently, I am working in the education section as an assistant professor of computer science at Zayed University, UAE. Since I started my study of computer science, my career has gone through different stages. I worked as a programmer, technical support manager, and educator. After finishing my Ph.D., I decided to be an educator and researcher. Many other Ph.D. holders may decide to go into industry rather than educational institutions.

The computer science major is changing every day. Daily, new technologies, inventions, and algorithms bring new problems to solve and new research to investigate. Some research topics considered hot topics a few years ago are now considered mature and have less opportunity for research. This might be due to having the problem solved, or the problem has been made irrelevant due to technological changes. The computer science domain is exponentially changing. In previous research works we were required to create our own solution to problems; however, now, there is commercial software that can help us. This is taking the research in this domain to deeper and more advanced places.

From the jobs perspective, computer science is one of the fastest-growing professions in the global economy. One should keep learning new skills to compete in the job market and maintain position. Thus, computer scientists can’t keep doing the same activities they started with when they graduated. Unlike many other jobs in the market, computer science keeps moving people to a newer level with every new technology.

PLOS: What are you working on at the moment? What inspires you about your research and the things you get to do every day?

SK: The research project I started in September 2022, funded by Zayed University,  is about Arabic Natural Language understanding (NLU). NLU is a subtopic of natural language processing. It deals with a computer’s ability to comprehend and understand human language. NLU is considered an AI-hard problem due to the vast data required as training input to the algorithm. The solution to this problem has reached an advanced level in some languages, such as the English language. However, for the Arabic language, this problem still needs a lot of work to enable computers to comprehend Arabic text and voice accurately. The complexity of Arabic NLU is due to its complex syntactic structure, such as having a lot of irregular plural verbs. In addition to the problems in the formal Arabic language, the Arab world has a lot of dialects (spoken language). This makes NLU for the Arabic language more challenging, especially for speech recognition and chatbot applications. Moreover, the Arabic language still lacks the corpus data needed for such algorithms. Working on this problem requires computer scientists and Arabic language professionals to be involved to ensure accurate results.

As an  Arabic native speaker, I am enthusiastic about participating in the research efforts towards empowering the Arabic language in the new smart devices. It is essential to carry the Arabic language as an essential pillar in the 4th industrial revolution. We can improve machine translation systems, Arab robots, Arabic digital assistants, and others.

PLOS: A lot of your research has focused on the interface between computer science and education. Why is this topic so important, and how can computer science help us understand how to be better educators?

SK: No one can deny that computer science has become part of all other fields, especially education. Computer science contributes in many aspects to the teaching-learning process. Now, no educator can set up a class session without using interactive tools, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. All educators had to go online for their teaching/learning process to continue. To engage students in the classroom, educators are using online gaming platforms, for example. All these tools need computer scientists to create them. Computer science has become a major in demand.

Also, everyone must learn computer science, especially programming. It should be an essential subject in schools, just like math. There is a famous saying from Steve Jobs: “Everyone in this country should learn how to program because it teaches you how to think.” Programming teaches students logical thinking and provides them with problem-solving skills, such as learning how to break a problem into smaller chunks, solve each chunk, and then integrate them all into one complete solution.

Most occupations will soon require some familiarity with computer programming, and as technology develops, so will the skills needed for software engineering positions. In the coming years, computer science is expected to grow significantly. To sum up, a computer science major has become a core part of our life. No one can live without being part of it, either as a developer or a user.

PLOS: PLOS ONE currently has an open Call For Papers on New Supply Chain Technologies (https://collections.plos.org/call-for-papers/new-supply-chain-technologies/). How does machine learning and cybersecurity work in this field, and what open research questions do you foresee when it comes to the future of supply chains?

SK: Currently, machine learning is contributing as a tool for the prediction and classification of data for other domains. One of these domains is the supply chain. Machine learning can be used as a forecasting tool in the supply chain. A robust forecasting system in the supply chain allows a business to respond quickly, be prepared for any issues, and react quickly without disrupting the business. Another example of the power of machine learning in the supply chain is improving customer experience. A critical example of this area is the Amazon e-commerce website. Amazon employs machine learning to find the correlation between the customer and products for a better shopping experience for the customer.

The supply chain is similar to all other digitized domains in the 4th industrial revolution. It has cybersecurity issues that can disrupt its operations in the case of an attack, affecting the business’s revenue. The supply chain can be affected by ransomware, data breach, malware, and other attacks.

There is still a lot of research to be done in this area. The question is always: “what actions should be taken to secure a supply chain?” Although much research has been done in this area, this question will always be open because attackers are changing these attacking techniques and making the attacks more sophisticated. We are always in a race with attackers who want to disrupt business, gain money, and spread malware.


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

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An interview with Psychology Section Editor Andrew Kemp

PLOS ONE has published a Psychology Curated Collection to highlight the diversity of psychological research we publish. We interviewed Psychology Section Editor Andrew Kemp to learn about his research, his thoughts on the future of psychology, and the importance of open science.


Section Editor Andrew Kemp

Professor Andrew Kemp is a Professor of Psychology at Swansea University. His research areas include existential positive psychology, wellbeing science and climate psychology. Before taking up his current position, Professor Kemp worked at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and the University of Sydney in Australia. His qualifications include a BA(Hons) in psychology from the University of Melbourne, a PhD in neuropsychopharmacology from Swinburne University of Technology, and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Melbourne.

PLOS: Your early work was in emotion processing, and you have travelled—via anxiety, depression, and heart-rate variability—to wellbeing and climate psychology. Could you tell us a little bit about this journey, and how you became interested in these research areas?

AK: Fundamentally, my research focus has not changed, it remains and has always focused on emotion. For my PhD, I focused on the modulation of emotion by antidepressant medication, after which I began to explore the impacts of these medications on heart rate variability, a psychophysiological index of the capacity to regulate one’s emotion. More recently, I shifted my focus to wellbeing, a complex construct that includes hedonia (e.g., positive emotions) and eudaimonia (e.g., meaning and purpose in life) and I have begun to explore how we might facilitate wellbeing in a range of populations, including university students and people living with acquired brain injury in particular. This work has involved (re)connecting people to nature, which has obviously raised issues relating to the ethics of promoting wellbeing without also considering pro-environmental behaviours and the capacity for such behaviours to improve wellbeing. I am now very interested in the question of how to promote wellbeing during an era of climate catastrophe.

PLOS: You have held positions in universities on three continents. Do you think working in different countries has given you a broad perspective on science and collaboration? What have you learned that you may not have learned had you stayed in one place?

AK: Since my time as a PhD student, I have always been encouraged to extend myself with regards to the questions, methods and approaches I use in my research activities. In fact, when finalizing my PhD, research funders in Australia would not support applications for postdoctoral positions which involved working with our PhD supervisors. This also encouraged me to gain a wide range of experience working in different departments, institutions, and countries over nearly two decades. This background has certainly been influential in the way I now think about science and collaboration across disciplines to answer big questions.

PLOS: Can you tell us about any new and exciting projects you’re working on? What do you foresee as the next step in your research journey?

AK: I am now working on projects that involve thinking about how we might build wellbeing alongside hardship and suffering, focusing on people living with chronic conditions, with a particular focus on acquired brain injury (ABI). One of our papers published in PLOS ONE is  included in the curated collection. This paper explores the capacity for surf-based therapy to promote wellbeing in ABI. There is much to learn from people who have faced major adversity about emotional resilience and post-traumatic growth, and how these insights might be applied to the emerging discipline of climate psychology, which focuses on psychological responses to the climate emergency.

PLOS: Other than your own areas of specialism, what do you think is the most exciting area in psychological research at the moment?

AK: I am particularly excited by the rise of the emerging discipline of climate psychology, a relatively new field whose impact is growing quickly, alongside an acute awareness of the climate emergency. Historically, clinical psychological science has focused on the individual to resolve mental health crises. This is no longer appropriate in 2022 and has led to new frameworks for understanding how our emotional lives relate to wider socio-structural factors and challenges. This is a very exciting agenda for future research—and its applications—and is creating many opportunities to increase the impact of our discipline. Psychologists have a bag of tools that can be applied to research activities being conducted in many other disciplines.

PLOS: Since you started your career, what changes have you seen in challenges/barriers to conducting and publishing psychological research?

AK: The greatest challenge to psychological science in recent years has been the replication crisis, forcing us to rethink our assumptions, our practice, and what we teach. I have been inspired by how psychological scientists stepped up to meet this challenge, with some fantastic initiatives arising including preregistration, preprint servers, and communities of scholars focused on improving methods and practices in our discipline (e.g. Society for Improving Psychological Science). Open Science has played a key role in tackling the replication crisis, especially in regards to making data, materials and publications open and freely available.

PLOS: How has the publishing landscape changed, and what role do Open Access journals like PLOS ONE play?

AK: The landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade. I am pleased to say that many institutions, including my own, are now investing significant resources into agreements with open access publishers to support researchers to make their published research openly available, in line with initiatives such as Plan S. This initiative, supported by cOAlition S, requires scientific publications based on research funding from public grants to be published in open access journals or platforms. In the UK, our papers must be made publicly available to be valid for assessment in the research excellence framework assessment process.

PLOS: What are your thoughts on open science, and to what extent has your research community embraced open science?

AK: I have been a long-term advocate of open science, and my experience in Brazil was especially eye opening in regards to the impacts of research being placed behind paywalls. Colleagues simply did not have the resources that academics from developed countries have come to rely on to conduct and publish quality research outcomes. It really highlighted to me the gross inequalities between academia in the developed and developing world and reinforced the importance of making our research openly available and accessible to all.

PLOS: Why did you decide to become a board member and section editor?

AK: I wanted to play an active role in supporting the open science initiative and became an Academic Editor for PLOS ONE in 2011 and a Section Editor in 2013.   

PLOS: What are your thoughts on the Psychology Curated Collection?

AK: I am excited to see the range of articles featured in the Collection, including a broad range of methods, countries, and topics ranging from consciousness to climate change. It is also good to see the breadth of articles being featured, which span basic science (such as reporting on the validity and reliability of a set of multimodal, dynamic emotional stimuli) to applied science (including a focus on vaccine hesitancy). I hope this collection will inspire more psychology researchers to consider PLOS ONE as a journal for publishing their work. PLOS ONE is a multidisciplinary journal and psychological science is similarly broad in scope.

PLOS: Why should psychology researchers submit to PLOS ONE?

AK: PLOS ONE is a solid multidisciplinary journal with wide reach and is well regarded by colleagues in psychology. I have always found the peer review process supportive with an eye on improving the quality of the paper. While there is often much work required on part of the authors to improve their work to reach high editorial standards, the journal provides a rewarding experience from the point of view of the author as well as the editor.


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

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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.

The post Understanding Plastic Pollution: The potential health effects, abundance and classification of microplastics appeared first on EveryONE.

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.

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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.

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An interview with PLOS ONE Pediatric Section Editors Ju-Lee Oei and Ivan Florez

In this interview we speak with PLOS ONE Pediatric Section Editors Professor Ju-Lee Oei and Professor Ivan Florez. Here they discusses their important research and work with PLOS ONE. 


Image courtesy of Ju-Lee Oei

Ju-Lee Oei is a Neonatologist at the Royal Hospital for Women, Randwick; Conjoint Professor at UNSW Sydney; and Honorary Associate Professor at the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, University of Sydney. Her work focuses on the care of sick newborn infants, especially those with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)/perinatal substance use and infants requiring neonatal intensive care. A particular interest of hers is the use of oxygen in newborn delivery room resuscitation. She has an extensive collaborative network with researchers, clinicians and policy makers from Australia as well as overseas in more than 20 universities and 10 countries. She is also currently Visiting Professor to the University of Malaya and the North West Children’s Hospital and University of China. She also contributed to state and national guidelines for management of neonatal abstinence syndrome as well as guidelines for the American Breast Feeding Medical Association for maternal drug use.

Image credit

Courtesy of Ivan Florez


Ivan Florez is a Associate Professor at University of Antioquia and Assistant Professor at McMaster University. He is also a pediatrician at Clinica Las Américas AUNA with a Master in Clinical Epidemiology and a Ph.D. in Health Research Methodology. He also acts as the leader of the AGREE Collaboration and Director of Cochane Colombia. His research is focused on Evidence-Based Pediatrics, Knowledge translation, Systematic Reviews, network Meta-analysis, Clinical Practice Guidelines and the use of Evidence in all the levels of the Health Care Systems.


Why did you choose to enter pediatric research?  What do you like most about your field?

JU-LEE OEI: Keeps me from being bored! Serious answer: the most worthwhile thing about research is plugging in gaps in practice and knowledge and generating curiosity that really, is the driver of medical advances.

IVAN FLOREZ: I am a physician, I finished my Pediatric residency in 2006, and around 2008 I decided I wanted to do clinical research in my field. I found that there was a need for me as a Clinician to identify and try to answer urgent questions that I found in my clinical work

You have recently become our new Section Editors for Pediatrics. Why did you decide to join our Editorial Board and what motivates you about your new role?

JU-LEE OEI: A chance to draw attention to what the knowledge needs that will advance and improve child health.

IVAN FLOREZ: I have been the Academic Editor of PLOS ONE since 2018. Interestingly, I decided to be an Academic editor after I published my first paper in PLOS ONE, and after I reviewed several papers as a peer reviewer. I strongly advocate for Open Access, and I think PLOS ONE is one of the pioneers in Open Science. So why not join PLOS ONE and contribute to making better open-access science?

What do you think is the most exciting area in Pediatric research at the moment?

JU-LEE OEI: Personalized medicine – one size does not fit all!

IVAN FLOREZ: I think neonatology is the hottest topic field in pediatrics, followed by infectious diseases (including vaccines, antibiotic treatments, resistance and viral infections). Both are vibrant fields in which a lot of research is going on. COVID19 pandemic helped in increasing awareness about the ID field, and the neonatology field has been a key area for decades and will continue to be so as well. 

What are, in your opinion, the most important challenges for the Pediatric research community?

JU-LEE OEI: Addressing entrenched practices and lack of equipoise for interventions that have no evidence for benefit.

IVAN FLOREZ: I think the pediatric field has always been behind compared to adult clinical research for many reasons, including ethical  concerns. But, I think the gap between the two has been shrinking. In the last decade, clinical research in pediatrics has expanded, and more scholars are interested in this field. Some interesting fields are related such as mental health and also sexual and gender diversity, which had been neglected in the past, but they are gaining the space they deserve, and more and more research in these fields will be coming in the near future.

How important is Open Science for the Pediatric research community? What role can PLOS ONE play to contribute to Pediatric research?

JU-LEE OEI: Extremely  – many authors do not have access to paid journals and PLOS ONE allows free and equitable access to high level science. However, this needs to remain high level since many open access journals continue to publish manuscripts of questionable value.

IVAN FLOREZ: It is essential. We need Open science for all, and to reduce inequities, we need to encourage it. Pediatrics needs it even more than many other fields because most of the burden in pediatrics is in LMIC and by providing open science, we are facilitating access to knowledge without paywalls, and borders. This definitely reduces the gaps in child care across the world. 

Why would you advise authors to publish in PLOS ONE?

JU-LEE OEI: High impact, equitable access, rapid turn around!

IVAN FLOREZ: A very efficient and transparent publication process, with some of the lowest times between submission and publication. We make an effort in finding the best peer reviewers for the submitted paper. 

PLOS ONE is interested in very exciting papers in any pediatric-related field. 


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

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An interview with PLOS ONE Women’s and Maternal Health Section Editor Rubeena Zakar

In this interview we speak with Rubeena Zakar PLOS ONE’s new section editor for Women’s and Maternal health. Here she discusses her important research and work with PLOS ONE. Dr. Rubeena Zakar is currently professor of Public Health and Director of the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan. She earned her Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) from Sindh Medical College, Karachi University, Master’s in Population Sciences from Punjab University (2006); and Ph.D in Public Health from Bielefeld University, Germany (2012) with distinction (Summa cum laude).
Her research interests include gender-based violence, women’s health in developing countries, maternal and child health, inequalities in health care utilization, health and human rights, and gender and development. 


Why did you choose to enter Women’s health research?  What do you like most about your field? 

RZ: By training, I am a medical doctor. While I was doing my residency in Gynecology and Obstetrics, many a times I met with women who experienced violence and had sexual and reproductive health issues such as unplanned pregnancy due to violence. Having the thrust for research on maternal and child health since the third year of my medical education, this close interaction with women triggered me to do research in this area.  

For the last 20 years, I have been involved in a wide range of research activities focusing on women’s health, empowerment and enhancement of their social status and economic participation. My 80 plus publications in impact factor international journals mainly highlight women’s health and child health related issues. The central themes and primary focus of my research is that women’s meaningful participation is the key driver of country’s socio-economic development trajectories.  

As a Professor of Public Health, I have been assembling evidence to demonstrate that gender issues are critically important for Pakistani society. Getting inspiration from Robert K. Merton’s notion that ‘data has power’, I have been presenting empirical evidence to suggest that lack of investment in women’s health has serious negative implications on country’s economy, polity and global reputation. My research has also illuminated that if women are victims of violence, ignorance and social exclusion, country cannot attain economic prosperity, peace, stability and social harmony. 

My research on social epidemiology, infectious diseases (such as dengue and Covid-19), on child health such as breastfeeding practices,  child nutrition & Vitamin D deficiency have documented that social and health scientist must come forward to present out-of-the-box solutions to deal with social determinants of health instead of over-investing on hospital-based curative techniques.  

You have recently become our new Section Editor for Women’s health. Why did you decide to join our Editorial Board and what motivates you about your new role? 

RZ: I like my role as section editor for women’s health, as women’s health especially in LMICs is very close to my heart. As a section editor, I get to know new research in this area from different part of the world as it comes out. It helps me to understand and see the strengths and weaknesses of researches from all over the world. I am confident that my contributions as section editor will leave a positive mark in this area through reflecting high-quality work in this area. It helps me to get familiarity with ongoing research in women’s health, give me institutional credit, and above all gives me greater visibility within my research community which motivated me to work as Editorial Board Member.  

What do you think is the most exciting area in Women’s health research at the moment? 

RZ: Social determinants greatly affect women’s health particularly in developing countries. In some parts of the world, women are deprived of their basic rights including access to health services, appropriate nutrition and education. Socio-cultural practices such as child marriages, forced marriages, cousin marriages, female genital mutilation, and son preference undermine women health and wellbeing.  Additionally, various negative stereotypes such as pregnancy and childbirth related taboos, dowry and honor related violence, restrictions on women’s mobility and social participation are significantly associated with women’s health status. For improving women’s sexual and reproductive health, society needs to take comprehensive and integrated measures to address the cultural stereotypes and harmful sociocultural practices against women. 

What are, in your opinion, the most important challenges for the Women’s health research community? 

RZ: Still in many parts of the world, particularly in conservative areas, talking about women’s health, especially related to social issues, is considered a western agenda. Most of the research on women’s health is focusing on mortality and morbidity around maternal health and life course perspective is still lacking in this area. There is lack of adequately trained researchers in this field. In many countries, nationally representative data is not available on women’s health issues which lead to lack of evidence-based policies, planning and programs. And the results derived from local studies are rarely available to wider audience and are not widely circulated.  

How important is Open Science for the Women’s health research community? What role can PLOS ONE play to contribute to Women’s health research? 

RZ: Open Science for women’s health research community is very important to disseminate and share knowledge from all over the world especially for the researchers from low- and middle-income countries.  PLOS One is playing its great role by sharing and disseminating scholarship in women’s health with women’s health researchers’ community. In PLOS One, there is great representation of research on different issues related to women’s health from different countries across the globe. 

Why would you advise authors to publish in PLOS ONE? 

RZ: There are many valid reasons to advice authors to publish in PLOS One. I am sharing some points below: 

  • PLOS One is highly reputable journal in the field of Public Health with high impact factor. Journal’s citation and readership is spread all over the world.  
  • The process of manuscript review and feedback is very rigorous. The reviewers provide their detailed constructive feedback in timely manner, which helps to improve the research and writing skills of authors.  
  • Being a well-known journal in the field, publishing with PLOS One helps the authors to increase their visibility with relevant influencers.  
  • PLOS One also provides the opportunity to their authors to be a part of peer-review process for their manuscripts. To me, to be a reviewer is a win-win situation which helps the authors to learn new research from different perspectives.  
Image credit Courtesy of Rubeena Zuakr

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

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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

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Interviews with the lab protocol community — insights from an Academic Editor and a reviewer

PLOS ONE has published a Lab Protocols Collection to highlight this new article type launched in early 2021. This collection showcases a set of peer-reviewed lab protocols across our broad scope, including cell biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, biotechnology, structural biology, and archaeology. We interviewed Academics Editors and reviewers from the community, in order to learn more about the importance of lab protocols in their field and their thoughts on the benefits of this article type for open science. We also discussed the future development of open science to conclude this community engagement.

Academic Editor Ruslan Kalendar (RK)


Dr. Ruslan Kalendar is an Adjunct Professor of Genetics at University of Helsinki (Helsingin Yliopisto), Finland. His interests are molecular genetics, with a particular focus on the evolution of the genome, and, in particular, mobile genetic elements.

Reviewer Alison Forrester (AF)


Dr. Alison Forrester is post-doctoral researcher at Institute Curie (Paris, Île-de-France), France. Her interests are autophagy, endoplasmic reticulum, ER-phagy and membrane trafficking.

What do you think are the benefits of lab protocols for open science?

RK: PLOS ONE journal in collaboration with protocols.io has developed a unique and state-of-the-art platform for publishing lab protocols. This is a well-timed and useful innovation. The development of scientific knowledge is based on a variety of methodological approaches bordering on art. Because of the increasing complexity of scientific methods and their diversity, an appropriate forum or open science platform is needed, where the research community can present the best solution and point out the problems that may be encountered in other laboratories. Such a platform should of course be open, and in this form, it is really effective.

AF: Improving data reproducibility in research is one of today’s most important issues to address. Providing clear and detailed protocols, without limitation of words or space, is an effective way to communicate optimized protocols. This will directly help to improve data reproducibility between labs, as well as provide a thorough record of procedures that have been published in parallel. Improving communication of optimized protocols helps to drive robust research, allowing people to build their own research on already thorough studies, and not spend excessive time optimizing protocols based on poorly executed or explained protocols. 

How important are lab protocols in your field?

RK: In my research, I often encounter new problems for which solutions can be found in similar resources from other scientific publishers. Various publishers offer standard solutions for sharing laboratory methods and protocols. However, most of these solutions are only open to subscribers of a given publisher. PLOS ONE in collaboration with protocols.io offers a truly unique resource for open science for laboratory methods and protocols. This is a consistent step in promoting open science in all directions, sharing experiences and new knowledge for the research community.

AF: Having robust and reliable lab protocols on which to base our own research is of high importance to the field of cell biology. A good protocol can be the difference between efficient replication of a known experiment, leading to fast progress in a new direction using the protocol, and wasting months on trying to replicate a known experiment, sometimes leading to the unnecessary abandonment of threads of research.

Finally, Academic Editor Ruslan Kalendar provides his visions for future development in open science:

RK: The next step for open science, I see, is dynamic (as opposed to today’s static resource), updatable protocols and methods, and most importantly, directly updatable research results.  Working on a given problem is always a team effort. Therefore, researchers from different parts of the world can work together on a given problem, and add new ideas, knowledge, and new approaches to the overall mega-work. To this purpose, it would be more consistent to have a platform for mega-articles, with updated content, which is regularly improved by adding new results from different labs and researchers. Including methodological approaches and protocols could also be updated. In this way, each individual researcher’s work and contribution would be visible. The scientific activity would move to a new level of scientific data exchange and the number of scientific papers would move to a new quality. We would go from the number of publications to their quality.

Image credit: Megan Rexazin, Pixabay License (Free for commercial use, No attribution required)

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

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An interview with Ben Brown, Guest Editor of the PLOS ONE-COS Cognitive Psychology Collection

PLOS ONE, in collaboration with the Center for Open Science, recently launched a Cognitive Psychology Collection. It includes submissions to a Call for Papers in cognitive developmental psychology across the lifespan, with an emphasis on open science—transparent reporting practices such as pre-registration or iterative registration; data, code, and material sharing; and preprint posting. 

Ben Brown was one of three Guest Editors for this project, along with Nivedita Mani and Ramesh Kumar Mishra. Ben is Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College in Georgia, USA. Ben’s research interests are in developmental psychology: he has worked on autobiographical memory in populations, for instance in populations with autism spectrum disorder, and on children’s susceptibility to suggestion. 

Benjamin Brown, Guest Editor for the Cognitive Psychology Collection

Ben also has a long-standing interest in open science and the reproducibility and replicability of psychology research: he is a founding member of PsyArXiv, the preprint repository for the psychological sciences hosted by COS, and is a Senior Editor at Collabra: Psychology, the open-access journal of the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Sciences

I asked Ben about his editorial experience for this collection and his advocacy for open science more broadly.

Can you tell us about your interest in open science, what drew you to it and how that affects your own research?

My interest in scientific rigor and transparency began during my graduate training. During this time, I struggled to replicate well-known and highly regarded findings and found myself frustrated with the lack of transparent reporting in psychological research. As a result, I was eager for opportunities to contribute to improving psychological science.

When I learned of community efforts to address these same challenges I had faced in my own work, I happily and without reservation got involved. In doing so, I found a strong sense of camaraderie with other psychologists working on the issues that I felt so isolated grappling with in graduate school.

Preregistrations, including any modifications, help reviewers contextualize results and consider matters such as researchers’ degrees of freedom. I honestly would find it difficult to go back to a more traditional editorial experience.

Ben Brown, PLOS ONE Guest Editor

Throughout my involvement in the open science movement, I have been pleasantly surprised to find that helping to enable scholars to conduct science in more open and transparent ways can be just as if not more rewarding than conducting original research itself. 

A rationale for this Cognitive Psychology Call for Papers, with its emphasis on transparent reporting and pre-registration, was to help address difficulties in recruitment and planning that are particularly relevant to that field of research. Can you tell us more about it? How do these concerns affect your editorial work more generally?

Transparent communication about the process of scientific research – recruitment, protocol, data analysis – is central to the credibility of science as a field. Unfortunately, many factors make this challenging across subdisciplines within psychology.

With regard to cognitive development, scholars working in this area are often tasked with understanding how processes and abilities change over time and doing so often necessitates responsiveness to the practical demands of samples that inherently change over the course of their involvement in a given research project. Further, measuring cognitive processes is quite challenging and trial and error is often necessary to generate sound, reliable research protocols even in the best of scenarios. This is magnified when such protocols need to be adjusted to the needs of a sample whose abilities are also growing and changing. Thus, it can be very difficult to decide at the outset of large longitudinal studies, for example, every decision that will need to be made along the course of the project and to rigidly adhere to such decisions.

Transparently describing and reporting when decisions regarding research methods and analysis were made—at study outset, during data collection, after data analysis had begun—enables others to better contextualize and understand study findings.

Ben Brown, PLOS ONE Guest Editor

Nevertheless, transparent and complete reporting remains important. Given the challenges I described, some scholars working in this area have been hesitant to adopt preregistration due to concerns that this practice may reduce their ability to be creative, flexible, and responsive to their needs or the needs of their samples. What I am so excited about with regard to preregistration, however, is that I see it as actually enabling those things but doing so in a way that improves the interpretability of research findings as well as the cumulative nature of science. Transparently describing and reporting when decisions regarding research methods and analysis were made—at study outset, during data collection, after data analysis had begun—enables others to better contextualize and understand study findings. Further, preregistration and subsequent documentations of deviations from an original plan helps other scholars working in that area better plan their own research by being able to anticipate and proactively address challenges.

SIPS logo
SIPS

I have had some previous experience editing more transparent submissions at outlets like Collabra: Psychology and find it quite refreshing. Open data and code allow for easy verification of results. Preregistrations, including any modifications, help reviewers contextualize results and consider matters such as researchers’ degrees of freedom. I honestly would find it difficult to go back to a more traditional editorial experience.

How do you think some of the papers in this Collection illustrate good open science practices that can improve rigor and reliability in psychological research? For instance, the Collection includes a Registered Report Protocol on improving the diagnostic accuracy of Alzheimer’s disease, a hotly debated research topic, or another Registered Report Protocol on a user-friendly mobile application to assess inhibitory control (see an interview with the authors of this protocol on the COS blog). What role do you think a more transparent planning and reporting process can play?

I was delighted to see the open, transparent practices exemplified by the articles in this collection. I was particularly encouraged to see the Registered Report examining Alzheimer’s disease within the collection. Like I mentioned previously, I believe that preregistrations are among the best things we can be doing as a field and research area to improve rigor and transparency.

PsyArXiv
PsyArXiv

I was also happy to be able to suggest additional ways in which contributing authors might share their science openly. Namely, I personally suggested that we encourage all submitting authors to share their manuscripts as preprints on PsyArXiv. Sharing manuscripts in this way further ensures that findings are transparently disseminated, even if the work is ultimately less appealing to publishing outlets, such as when studies report null findings or when work is considered less novel. These studies are important components of the scientific record and sharing them openly can contribute to a more complete and cumulative science.

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An Interview with Biogeochemist Alex Cory


Alex Cory is a final-year PhD student in the department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science at Florida State University. She received her B.A. in geology (and music) at Lawrence University before pursuing a post-bachelors Research Associateship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Before entering grad school, she took a one-year break to travel around Southeast Asia. While in Indonesia, she witnessed some of the destructive impacts that agriculture was having on the natural landscape. The beautiful, diverse forests of Indonesia were being ripped up and replaced with rows of palm trees. The locals hated it. She would later come to learn that these alterations cause devastating effects on the climate because peatlands scrub C out of the atmosphere (and palm plantations do not). Now, as a PhD student, her job is to understand what drives the changes in peatland-climate interactions.


In this interview, we chat with Alex about her recent publication in PLOS ONE, life as an early career researcher, and the important role that peatlands play in sequestering CO2.

Your recent paper focuses on the biogeochemical components and processes involved in peatlands. Can you explain the role of peatlands in global climate change and why these carbon sinks (reservoirs that store carbon) are so critical? How much carbon do these bogs sequester?

AC: As carbon sinks, peatlands have a critical influence on the climate. Their ability to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere has facilitated the formation of mind-boggling amounts of organic carbon (60% – 134% of the current atmospheric carbon pool!). Throughout most of the Holocene, this C sink function enabled peatlands to effectively cool the planet. Unfortunately, this cooling effect has lessened over the last ~150 years due to a combination of rising decomposition rates and, in some regions, increasing production of methane (which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). This phenomenon can be attributed to rising temperatures and permafrost thaw (among other factors). Determining the extent of this change (and future change) is a top priority to peatland researchers like myself.

You have mentioned that in your travels you’ve witnessed the impact of deforestation on local communities. Do you think that industry-related climate change disproportionately affects certain regions and communities more than others?

AC: Absolutely. Communities with less money/fewer resources are typically the last to receive aid after extreme weather events (such as hurricanes), which are expected to increase in frequency as a result of climate change. Poorer communities also tend to have higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can be exacerbated by heat waves. Combined with the dearth of healthcare among these communities, these effects can be devastating. These are just a few examples of the inequities at play.

You’re investigating a number of really important questions regarding Earth’s carbon stores, but the day to day experimentation involves a lot of tedious processing. Did you expect so much of your PhD to entail sampling and filtering?

AC: I spent two years as a research associate before entering graduate school, wherein most of my day-to-day work involved weighing out samples on the microgram scale. (I listened to an impressive number of audiobooks during this time.) Because of this experience, the tedious aspects of lab-work did not come as a surprise to me. While they certainly do tend to lose their charm over time, I definitely find myself missing the lab more and more now that I am spending most of my time at a computer! I would advise anyone in the early stages of their career to embrace the hands-on nature of their work.

Alex in the lab in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of Alex Cory.

Your latest work found that soluble phenolic compounds may be a crucial reason that peat bogs are so recalcitrant (unchanging). Can you tell us a bit more about these important findings?

AC: While the ability for soluble phenolics to inhibit enzyme activity is well established, the importance of phenolics in regulating carbon mineralization in peatlands has been heavily contested. For example, some studies demonstrated that removal of phenolics resulted in significantly elevated rates of enzyme hydrolysis (which is the first stage of peat decomposition). Others, on the other hand, found no significant relationship between phenolic content and rates of hydrolysis.

In our study, we found evidence that the regulatory impact of soluble phenolics varies significantly between bogs and fens (which are two types of peatland habitats). Bogs have a topic of interest for decades due to their extraordinary recalcitrance—which becomes evident when you take a look at the perfectly preserved facial features of humans bodies that were buried in the bog subsurface thousands of years ago. This recalcitrance, combined with the generally high (relative to other peatland habitats) CO2/CH4 production ratios significantly lowers the global warming potential of bogs relative to fens.

In our study, we determined that soluble phenolics could contribute to bogs’ recalcitrance and relatively high CO2/CH4 ratios—at least at our study site (Stordalen Mire, Sweden).

Our evidence for this claim was threefold. First, we noted higher soluble phenolic content in the bog. Second, we found that removal of soluble phenolics results in a far more significant uptick in bog carbon mineralization rates. Third—we noted that while the impact of soluble phenolic content on methane production was negligible in the fen, it was significant in the bog.

A typical sample incubation. Image courtesy of Alex Cory.

You have mentioned that you are part of a research institute called EMERGE. Can you tell us more about that?

AC: EMERGE (“EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE”) is an NSF-funded research institute that works to understand (and predict) how ecosystems will respond to change. This is a tall order given the complexity of such interactions. To effectively carry it out, EMERGE brings in a diverse group of scientists, with expertise in 15 different subdisciplines (including, but not limited to biogeochemistry, ecology, remote sensing, modeling, and genetics). We all work on our ability to (1) communicate outside our areas of expertise and (2) function as effective team members.

One of the coolest aspects of EMERGE (in my opinion) is that we all get to learn about current research on team science (the study of teams). Through EMERGE workshops/meetings, I’ve learned that trust is a cornerstone to team success. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a number of activities aimed at building that trust. These experiences, combined with the supportive culture within EMERGE, have helped me to speak up more at meetings and enjoy my work that much more.

We have to ask! In addition to your undergraduate and PhD studies in the Geosciences, you have a degree in Music. Can you tell us more about that? Do you see any parallels between music and science?

AC: What I love most about music and science is that they both offer the opportunity to explore one’s curiosity. For me, this always comes back to the mysteries of nature. The more analytical approach that I employ during scientific exploration is nicely complemented by the world-building narrative that I get to create when writing songs. Engaging in both strengthens my drive to understand (and even help protect) natural habitats.

Here is an example of one of my favorite nature-based songs: “Trees are like icebergs, they sit on a mirror, reflecting the secrets beneath the veneer..”

As you may know, PLOS is a huge proponent of Open Science – including Open Access publications, open peer review, open data/code sharing, etc. How do you think Open Science plays a role in Earth Sciences and Climate research?

AC: The aims of climate research—to predict future change and discern viable methods to prepare for that change—can only be effectively approached if the community of climate researchers are able to stay up to date on one another’s research. Open Science does just that! It prevents redundant research (which wastes valuable time and resources) AND offers new questions/ideas for the research community. For these reasons, I am a HUGE proponent of open science. Thank you PLOS One for being a part of that movement!


Citation: Cory AB, Chanton JP, Spencer RGM, Ogles OC, Rich VI, McCalley CK, et al. (2022) Quantifying the inhibitory impact of soluble phenolics on anaerobic carbon mineralization in a thawing permafrost peatland. PLoS ONE 17(2): e0252743. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0252743

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

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An Interview with Palaeoclimate Modeler, Hu Yang

Here, we chat with Dr. Hu Yang about his recent publication in PLOS ONE and his predictions of the future of the Greenland Ice Sheet – the second largest body of ice on Earth, which has the potential to dramatically raise global sea level.



Dr Hu Yang is a research scientist in the Paleoclimate Dynamics group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. His research interests include climate dynamics, sea-level change and paleoclimate change. To gather his results, he is particularly focused on combining observations with numerical model simulations. Dr Yang’s studies, including the discovery of a poleward shift in major ocean currents, the interpretation of tropical expansion and reconstruction of the Greenland ice sheet evolution have gained widespread attention and recognition.


Your recent paper published in PLOS ONE focuses on the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) – can you tell us a bit about the ice sheet, how it is changing and what this means for global climate change? 

HY: The GrIS holds a huge amount of ice which has the potential to raise sea level by 7.3 m if it completely melts away. Understanding the GrIS’s response to climate change, therefore, is critically important for us to understand how future sea level will rise. In our study, we revisited the past evolution of the GrIS using numerical model simulations and compared it with geological reconstruction. The results show that the ice volume response of the GrIS (the amplitude of the melting and sea level rise) strongly delayed climate change, which is on the order of thousands of years. That means if we warm our planet within 100 years, the sea level rise within our generation will be minor. However, the rising sea level can last for quite a long period of time, with a much larger amplitude.

Could you explain, how does the response of the Greenland ice volume delay climate change?

HY: The Greenland ice sheet has been standing there for at least 3 million years. The mass balance of the ice sheet is determined by the surface mass gain (snowfall) and mass loss (melting and ice discharge) at its margin. Ice melt usually only takes place at the margins of the ice sheet during a few months in summer. The inner portion or the summit of the ice sheet almost never melts, because of high elevation and cold temperature. When climate warms, it removes the ice from the margin, then more ice will flow down to the margin and begin to melt. This process takes time – not a few decades, but hundreds or even thousands of years. According to the latest IPCC report, in the worst warming scenario, sea level rise within this century will be around 1-2 meters. But geological evidence suggests that the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets will both be melted away if that kind of worst warming stabilized. So, there is a delay for the melt of the ice sheet and sea level rise.

How does an understanding of past climates help us to better understand future changes to the Earth’s environment? 

HY: As a human-being, most of us believe what we see within our lifetime, which is usually less than 100 years. But, 100 years relative to Earth’s history is only equivalent to a minute of time in a person’s life. If we only check one minute’s behavior of a person, we will not be able to get a comprehensive understanding of his personality. For the same reason, an understanding of past climates informs us about the current status, and how it could evolve under the forcing of rapidly rising greenhouse gases.

In the case of the Greenland ice sheet, the past ice evolution tells us that the GrIS is currently at its biggest size within at least the past 7000 years. It will shrink in response to the committed warming. And this shrinking could continue for a long period of time, even if the warming stabilized at the current level.

We have recently seen examples where the unprecedented rate of change to a number of environments has in turn made it more difficult to study those environments – for example, ice breaking off of the Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic is preventing research ships from accessing it. Do you foresee similar challenges in studying the GrIS, as it continues to melt? 

HY: The Antarctic ice sheet is different from the GrIS. The Antarctic ice mostly terminates into the ocean, but most of the margins of the GrIS stop on land. So, I don’t see similar challenges. But unlike the Antarctic ice sheet, which has almost no surface melt, the surface melt of the Greenland ice sheet may produce large river discharge, which may cause problems, perhaps.

Your study utilized openly available models and data to simulate changes to the ice sheet – do you think that Open Data and code/model sharing is important for our improved understanding of global environmental change? 

HY: Definitely, open sharing of data, models and research outputs, accelerate the advance of science.  I can hardly imagine how scientists did research one century ago. I hope in the future, all the journals could make their publications open access, like PLOS ONE, to promote the transformation of knowledge.

Dr Yang holds ocean sediment, from which researchers can extract information about past climates.

Given new and unpredicted changes that have arisen on the GrIS – for example, last year, rain fell on the ice sheet for the first time that we know of – how will existing models account for this? Or do we need ever-changing models? 

HY: There is no best model, but always a better model. Model developing takes decades. Development of climate models started more than half a century ago, and are still developing with higher resolution and new physical parameterizations. Ice sheet modelling is relatively new compared to climate modelling. A lot of processes have not been taken into account, such as rain and the meltwater pool. However, the current ice sheet model can already simulate the general geometry and ice velocity resembling observations. And with more and more processes included in the system, we could expect to have more and more accurate results.  

Have you had an opportunity to do fieldwork on the Ice Sheet yourself? 

HY: Unfortunately, not yet. This seems odd for a scientist doing ice sheet research without ever doing fieldwork on it. But today, scientific research is so specialized. For example, in our team, we have colleagues who have a background in geology. We also have experts on climate dynamics and ice sheet dynamics and computer science. Cooperation between multidisciplinary fields will fill the knowledge gaps and make research easier.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being an Early Career Researcher? 

HY: Currently, I find the most challenging aspect is to find a good balance between funding and doing research. The best science is not planned, it needs time not only for developing the idea, but also for publishing. The newest idea usually takes more time to get published. But, a common working contract for an Early Career Researcher usually lasts for only 2-3 years. When I got my Greenland paper published, the project that supported this study had already been expired for two years already.


Reference: Yang H, Krebs-Kanzow U, Kleiner T, Sidorenko D, Rodehacke CB, Shi X, et al. (2022) Impact of paleoclimate on present and future evolution of the Greenland Ice Sheet. PLoS ONE 17(1): e0259816. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0259816

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

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Physical Oceanography – a chat with the Guest Editors of our upcoming collection

PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on Physical Oceanography, for which selected publications will be showcased in a special collection. This call for papers aims to highlight the breadth of physical oceanography research across a wide range of regions and disciplines. We welcome submissions including those that feature multidisciplinary research and encourage studies that utilize Open Science resources, such as data and code repositories.

The upcoming collection will be curated by three accomplished researchers in the field, all of whom additionally serve as Editorial Board Members for PLOS: Dr. Maite deCastro (University of Vigo, Spain); Dr. Isabel Iglesias Fernandez (CIIMAR, University of Porto, Portugal); and Dr. Vanesa Magar (CICESE, Mexico).


Here, we chat with Profs. deCastro and Iglesias to learn more about their research, their thoughts on the future of Physical Oceanography and how advances in this field can provide a better understanding of future environmental change.

Tell us about your research.

MdC: My research is clearly aligned with Climate and Renewable Energy, especially on the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems and on wind and wave renewable energy resources. It is also aligned with Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, and Environment, especially in the relationship between climate and species of commercial value.

II: I’d like to say that my research interests are multidisciplinary but always with something in common, and this nexus is physical oceanography. My main research topic is related with estuarine hydrodynamics. I work with numerical models, which are versatile tools that help to unravel the hydrodynamic patterns in these complex areas. Once these models are implemented for a specific region, they can be used for multiple purposes such as representation of sediment, contaminant and marine litter transportation patterns, forecasting the effects of extreme events, anthropic activities or climate change conditions, or even calculating the potential of hydrokinetic energy production. These are some works that I have performed in collaboration with several colleagues and in the scope of national and international research projects.

At the same time, I am also interested in coastal and oceanic dynamics. I have conducted research that related long-term variability sea level anomalies in the North Atlantic with teleconnection patterns; I supervised a study related with wave forecast, and I am collaborating in the generation of a tool to forecast the dispersion patterns of sediment plumes generated by potential deep-sea mining activities in the Atlantic region.

What new finding or growing research topic in the field of physical oceanography are you currently excited about?

MdC: I am very enthusiastic about the research I have carried out in recent years, as it has allowed us to delve into the effect of climate change on historical trends in coastal upwelling, sea surface temperature, and mixed layer, among others, and to analyze its biological impact on species such as sea bream, tuna, and algae. We have also analyzed the future projections of these variables under different climate change scenarios and their possible impacts on bivalves such as mussels, different clam species, and cockles in the Galician estuaries. This approach will allow us to know both the evolution of these ecosystems in the future and to determine what measures will be necessary to mitigate the effect of climate change in order to make these ecosystems more resilient.

II: Ecoengineering. In recent decades, the focus of coastal and estuarine engineering research has shifted from technical approaches towards the integrated combination of technical, ecological, and nature-orientated solutions to reduce environmental impacts. Practical ecoengineering solutions for estuarine regions should be based on numerical modelling tools, which can provide the necessary knowledge of the relevant hydrodynamic processes and an understanding of natural processes, hydrodynamic–ecological interactions, and the impacts of structures on the environment.

At the same time, deep-sea mining is a hot topic. In recent years, deep-sea mining has become an attractive and economically viable solution to provide metals and minerals for the worldwide industry. Although promising, a large proportion of these resources are located in the vicinity of still poorly studied and understood sensitive ecosystems. The generated sediment laden plumes and the trace elements released to the water column that are associated with the extraction procedures can change the biogeochemical equilibrium of the surrounding area. This can alter deep-sea life-support services, damaging the local ecosystems with potential impacts that can persist through decades. Reliable ocean numerical models reproducing the dynamics of deep-sea areas can help to mapping the potential scale of deep-sea mining effects, being one of the key technological advances needed to implement risk assessment and better anticipate possible impacts.

For each of you, your research features an exploration of the effects of wind and the role it plays in ocean and climatological processes. Can you discuss the close link between atmospheric and ocean sciences?

MdC: A part of my most recent research is closely related to the development of renewable energies as an alternative to burning fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. Specifically, my research analyzes future offshore wind and wave energy resources under different climate change scenarios. This research field is an example of the close link between atmospheric and ocean sciences.

II: The atmosphere and the ocean are two different parts of the same system, jointly with the lithosphere, the biosphere and the cryosphere. The atmosphere and the ocean are in contact, constantly exchange mass, momentum and energy between them. The wind is one clear example of this link between the atmosphere and the ocean, generating waves and currents and affecting the sea surface temperature. But there are many others: evaporation, precipitation, heating, cooling, … And these links are the bases of short- (meteorological) and long-term (climatological) processes as winter rainfall, hurricanes or ENSO events, among others.

Many physical oceanographers spend a lot of their time working at a computer – do you ever get to do field work or research cruises?

MdC: At the beginning of my research career, I carried out several oceanographic campaigns in the Galician estuaries to take field measurements that would allow us to characterize their hydrodynamics. These campaigns were carried out jointly with chemists and biologists who analyzed other aspects of the estuaries.

II: Yes! I was in field work in the middle of January and I am expecting to have more campaigns in March and June of this year. Most of the time I am in front of a computer, but numerical models need real data to be calibrated and validated. For that we must go out into the field and measure the physical variables that we need. And although sometimes it hard to start the campaigns at six in the morning, the truth is that it is a breath of fresh air.

There is an undeniable link between anthropogenic pressures on the global environment and changes that we are seeing in marine systems. Can you discuss how you have observed this in your own research and the implications your findings have for the future?

MdC: The enormous increase in global energy consumption, together with the need to avoid the burning of fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, has led the scientific community to make the development of alternative energy sources, such as renewable energies, a priority objective. This has motivated a part of my most recent research where the offshore wind and wave energy resource is analyzed both now and in the near future under different climate change scenarios that take into account different concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions, socioeconomic measures, and land uses. This renewable energy resource analysis is complemented, in some locations, with an economic viability analysis.

II: It is clear that something is happening. Now the effects of the anthropogenic pressures on the global environment are visible. In the Iberian Peninsula we are facing one of the most severe droughts in the last decades. But other recent signals are the floods in western Germany in July 2021, the record-breaking high temperature in Moscow during July 2021, the snowfall in Madrid in January 2021, heavy cyclones and dust storms, or a heavier-than-normal wildfire season. So it is not just something that scientists are saying. It is something that the non-scientific population can see now. And, as the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned, the world is reaching a “point of no return”.

The complex estuarine systems can be considered as one of the most sensitive areas to environmental stressors due to the strong coupling between physics, sediments, chemistry and biology. In this sense, the effects of the climate change conditions in estuaries can be diverse based on changes in river flow, in extreme events frequency, and in water temperature and water level, affecting the circulation, salinity distribution, suspended sediments, dissolved oxygen and biogeochemistry. I used numerical models to forecast the effect of sea level rise inside the estuarine regions. It was demonstrated that the sea level rise can cause more severe floods in some estuaries. However, what should be taken into account is that the sea level rise inside the estuaries will produce a change in the circulation patterns and in the water masses configuration. This will undoubtedly affect the ecological and socio-economic aspects, due to the great value of the estuarine ecosystem services.

Historically, women have had to push for equality, respect and recognition in the field of physics. Do you think that the field is changing to become more inclusive, and what do you think research advisors, university leaders and funding agencies can do to better support women in physical oceanography?

MdC: Personally, I have always felt treated exactly the same as any other colleague throughout my scientific career, both in my closest circle and at an institutional level. I think I’ve had the same opportunities and help. I think that in this sense the field of physics, or at least this is my personal perception, is a privileged field. Despite this, I consider that there are still few women in this field compared to men and any activity aimed at making women feel more attracted to the field of physics is necessary.

II: I must say that I never need to fight more than a “man” to achieve the same respect and recognition for my work neither in my research group, nor in my research institute, country or even internationally. I had the same opportunities as anyone being men or woman. And curiously, we are more women in my research group, which develop research topics that were traditionally associated with “man”, like physics, engineering, mathematics, algorithms, numerical modelling, computational sciences, etc. I know that I am lucky, because other women before me pushed hard for equality and recognition and there are other women in different areas that still need to push to gain respect and visibility.

The term Open Science has been used to highlight the fact that transparency in scientific research goes beyond just Open Access publications. In the field of physical oceanography how do you think that making code and data publicly available can benefit researchers and policy makers?

MdC: In general terms, for the sake of transparency and the progress of the investigation, I consider it important to be able to have all the necessary material (code, data) so that any researcher can reproduce the results of another.  We will move faster and save resources if the data generated by other entities are public and if we all have access to each other’s progress instead of repeating what other researchers have already done. All this, of course, is within a framework of respect for the work of each one.

II: In my opinion, the science needs to be open. We are paying science with public funds, and it is not ethical to keep our research only for us on a long term basis. Of course, there must be some nuances regarding data for articles or patents. But I think that, at the end, the generated research should be public available. And it is not only the Open Access publications, which guarantee the transparency and the replicability of the research methodology, but also the numerical codes, the tools and the data generated in the scope of public funded research projects. Only in this way will we manage to advance faster in science, sharing our knowledge with other researchers and supporting the policy makers with proper tools to ensure the safety of populations and the sustainability of ecosystems and services.

About the Guest Editors


Isabel Iglesias holds a PhD in Climatic Sciences: Meteorology, Physical Oceanography and Climatic Change by the University of Vigo (2010). Since 2011 Isabel is working as an Assistant Researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR) of the University of Porto, Portugal. Her main research topics are related with physical oceanography, atmosphere-ocean interaction, transport (sediments and marine litter), extreme events and climate change. Particularly she has experience in analysing the hydrodynamic behaviour of the water masses and in applying numerical models at oceanic, including surface and deep-sea areas, coastal and estuarine regions. Other areas of expertise include the performance and analysis of physical data obtained in sampling campaigns and the evaluation and analysis of remote sensing data for numerical modelling calibration/validation.


Maite deCastro is a Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Vigo. She obtained her PhD in Physics from the University of Santiago de Compostela (1998). The main focus of her research deals with (a) the study of hydrodynamics, waves and transport phenomena in shallow waters by means of in situ field data and numerical simulations; (b) the analysis of the variability (inter-annual and inter-decadal) of coastal and oceanic sea surface temperature (SST) using numerical and satellite data; (c) the analysis of the water masses around the Iberian Peninsula using salinity and temperature data obtained from the SODA base or ARGO buoys; (d) The effects of meteorological forcing on the ocean using satellite data or reanalysis such as: wind data, Ekman transport, sea level pressure (SLP), SST, teleconnection indices (NAO, EA, EA-WR, SCA, POL…); (e) The analysis of the plume development of rivers using radiance data from the Oceancolor MODIS base. (f) the influence of climate change on oceanographic variables, both present and in the future and, (h) the analysis of present and future wind, solar and wave resources for renewable energy production.


Vanesa Magar holds a BSc in Physics from UNAM, and a master’s in advanced studies in Mathematics and a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the University of Cambridge, UK. She has been working in coastal and physical oceanography since 2002, and in renewable energy research and development since 2008. She joined the Physical Oceanography Department of CICESE as a senior researcher in 2014, where she co-leads the GEMlab (Geophysical and Environmental Modelling Lab) with Dr Markus Gross. Her research interests include wind energy, marine renewable energy, coastal hydrodynamics, and sustainable development issues in relation to renewable energy project development. She is member of the Energy Group of the Institute of Physics (IOP), UK, and a fellow and chartered mathematician from the IMA. She served in the Mexican Geophysical Union director’s board (as Secretary General, Vice President, and President) from 2016 to 2021. Currently, she is part of the Executive Committee of the National Strategic Programme (PRONACE) in Energy and Climate Change of CONACYT (2018- ).

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

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An Interview with Dr. Travis Courtney – Marine Chemist and PLOS Author

Here, we chat with Dr. Travis Courtney about his newest publication in PLOS ONE, his exciting research on coral reefs, and his thoughts on equity and openness in science.

Dr. Courtney at Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area. Photo by Lark Starkey.

Travis Courtney (he/him/his) grew up in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, USA where he gained an intense appreciation for coastal ecosystems. He completed his BS in Geological and Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill while conducting research on the effects of ocean warming and acidification on a tropical sea urchin. Courtney later attended Scripps Institution of Oceanography for his PhD and postdoctoral research on quantifying the rates and drivers of coral and coral reef calcification. He is currently an assistant professor of marine chemistry in the Department of Marine Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez.


PLOS: You currently head the Biogeochemistry and Ecology Research Group (BERG) at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. Tell us all about your research.

My previous research has largely focused on understanding the drivers of the growth and maintenance of coral reef structures under environmental change. While I plan to continue this research here in Puerto Rico, the BERG lab is also looking to broaden our research goals to include research themes that will be most beneficial to Puerto Rico through conversations with local governmental and non-profit agencies. Climate change, coral diseases, land-use change, fishing practices, and degrading water quality are all potentially important research themes impacting the health and functioning of coastal marine ecosystems here in Puerto Rico. By understanding how these driving forces are influencing coastal ecosystems, we can also work with local agencies and community groups to develop and implement evidence-based conservation, restoration, and remediation efforts.

Travis Courtney setting up a photo quadrat as part of coral reef benthic survey work with Heather Page in Kāne’ohe Bay, Hawai’i. Photo by Andreas Andersson.
Travis Courtney setting up a photo quadrat as part of coral reef benthic survey work with Heather Page in Kāne’ohe Bay, Hawai’i. Photo by Andreas Andersson.

PLOS: Your research has ranged from fieldwork-centric studies (in Bermuda, Belize, etc.) to more data and/or mesocosm-based approaches. Tell us why both types of approaches are needed to create a comprehensive understanding of environmental impacts on coral reefs?

There’s always a trade-off between working in the field vs working in controlled laboratory settings such as mesocosms. On one hand, field-based studies allow us to directly quantify how coral reefs are changing but attributing these changes to individual environmental drivers can be difficult. There are often so many co-varying environmental factors impacting reefs, which makes it challenging to determine the direct and indirect effects of any single variable in the field. On the other hand, mesocosm-based studies allow us to precisely test how selected environmental variables influence coral reefs while keeping all other variables constant. However, controlling for so many variables means that these types of mesocosm studies may not necessarily mimic the true responses of coral reefs occurring in the field. By combining the data and insights gained from these field and mesocosm-based approaches, we can test hypotheses in a controlled setting (mesocosms) and see if those hypotheses are supported in the real world (fieldwork) to increase our understanding for how environmental change impacts coral reef systems.

PLOS: As many researchers know, community-wide adherence to protocols and standards can be critical for temporal research and the intercomparison of results. This is especially true for ocean and atmospheric measurements, where the lack of a uniform approach can impede the identification of long-term trends. In your recent paper, published in PLOS ONE, you discuss the implications of total alkalinity data with respect to salinity. You simulated the potential uncertainties associated with salinity normalization of coral reef total alkalinity data and propose a series of recommendations to reduce these uncertainties in future studies. What was your motivation for pursuing this research, and how do you think it will influence the research community’s approaches to salinity normalization of total alkalinity data on coral reefs?

The original motivation for this study was to develop user friendly tools to rapidly assess coral reef calcification tipping points under climate change as part of a project funded by NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program. For example, our first ecology-based tool estimates coral reef calcification from coral reef images in CoralNet. When developing the chemistry-based tool, we found a lack of clear guidelines in the literature describing the various assumptions and resulting uncertainties associated with normalizing coral reef total alkalinity data to a common reference salinity. Salinity normalization is an important step that is used to isolate the effects of coral reef calcification on total alkalinity from other processes such as freshwater dilution, evaporation, and mixing. Repeated measurements of coral reef calcification through time are one tool we have as researchers to quantify the impacts of environmental change on the growth of coral reefs so increasing the precision of these measurements is important for detecting any changes in coral reef calcification through time.

The primary goal of this study was to test how the salinity normalization process potentially influences measurements of coral reef calcification derived from seawater total alkalinity data. I hope that by providing a discussion of the uncertainties associated with salinity normalized total alkalinity data and suggestions to reduce these uncertainties, this study will increase our capacity as a research community to reliably detect any potential changes in coral reef calcification under ongoing environmental change.

PLOS: There is a close link between coral reef research and a better understanding of global climate change – how have your findings on reefs contributed to our knowledge of Earth’s rapidly changing climate?

Coral reefs are often called the canaries in the coal mine, owing to the widespread observed declines in global coral cover associated with climate change and other local factors. They can provide unique insights into our knowledge of Earth’s changing climate by quantifying the impacts of climate change on present-day coral reefs as well as historical coral reefs preserved in the geologic record. Additionally, geochemical analysis of calcium carbonate from reef environments can generate useful reconstructions of historical climate change.

For example, my first experiment as an undergraduate researcher cultured sea urchins under various ocean warming and acidification conditions. We quantified changes in growth rates to see how ocean warming and acidification might influence the growth of sea urchins under climate change. Additionally, we quantified how sea urchin skeletal geochemistry was influenced by ocean warming and ocean acidification. This allowed us to develop proxies that could be used to estimate historical seawater temperatures and carbonate chemistry from the skeletal geochemistry of sea urchin spines preserved in the rock record. I’m currently involved in a range of other projects quantifying the impacts of climate change on coral reef calcification and reconstructing historical seawater temperatures from coral skeletons. I hope these ongoing projects will continue to increase our collective understanding for how the Earth’s climate has changed and how these changes influence coral reef structures and the ecosystem services they provide to humanity.

Dr. Courtney setting up instruments to record seawater parameters at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology. Photo by Andreas Andersson.

PLOS: Some people have expressed the belief that the ocean will simply uptake and offset increased carbon emissions, providing a natural solution to the problem of elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Some have even posited that the dissolution of corals and other calcium-rich organisms could create a negative feedback loop, increasing ocean pH and offsetting ocean acidification. Can you discuss the limitations to these theories and why we cannot rely on the ocean to sequester CO2 without making changes to emissions?

While there are a range of feedback mechanisms in the Earth’s climate system that can mitigate climate change, there are also feedback mechanisms capable of accelerating climate change. In the context of global climate change, the current input of CO2 to the atmosphere is more rapid than the rates of CO2 uptake by these naturally occurring CO2 uptake mechanisms. As a result, atmospheric and oceanic CO2 concentrations are currently increasing, and we are experiencing unprecedented ocean warming, acidification, and deoxygenation in response to greenhouse gas emissions. Current estimates suggest we’ve lost approximately 50% of global coral cover in recent decades, and widespread coral bleaching events are expected to continue to intensify in the coming decades and drive further declines in coral reefs. While researchers continue to explore various natural and artificial climate regulatory mechanisms further, the best way to mitigate climate change, and the negative impacts for coral reefs and people around the world, is to reduce emissions of CO2 to the atmosphere as soon as possible. Project Drawdown has many resources for further details on addressing the global climate crisis.

Dr. Courtney sampling a coral core in Bermuda. Photo by Andreas Andersson.

PLOS: The BERG lab’s website has a section titled “We believe” which outlines your support of equity and inclusivity in science (and other realms). Can you talk here in a bit more depth about your views on equity in science and research and how your lab supports efforts to promote this?

I witnessed the “leaky pipeline” throughout my studies with decreasingly diverse classrooms and academic environments as I progressed from high school to undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate work. How can we, as a research community, promote the importance of diversity for improving success of ecological communities and fail to do the same to promote success within our own research communities? I believe we must do better to promote a more just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive research community.

Maintaining a commitment to these principles of inclusion and equity is an important part of developing a supportive lab environment that actively promotes the success of students to the next stage of their careers. I’m also working on developing relationships with local governmental and non-governmental organizations to identify research needs where our work in the BERG lab can be most beneficial to the coastal ecosystems and people of Puerto Rico. Outside of the lab, I teach a class on ethics that focuses on principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, where we discuss some of latest scientific literature on these issues within academic science and debate how we can work to improve academic culture.

PLOS: As you may know, PLOS is dedicated to advancing not just Open Access, but Open Science, which includes transparency and equitable access to data, code, protocols, preprints, etc. What are your thoughts on Open Science and how does this ethos fit in with your research?

I believe science should be freely accessible to everyone. Especially since so much research currently remains behind internet paywalls, I think we as a scientific community really need to ask ourselves who this paywalled research benefits and explore Open Science options to share the knowledge and resources we produce. Much of this science is also funded by taxpayer dollars, so I believe publicly funded researchers owe it to those taxpayers to make our research outputs accessible to the people who paid for it. Moreover, the data and code we produce for any given publication or project can often be incredibly useful to other scientific research projects and monitoring efforts for community, non-profit, and governmental organizations so having that data openly available can help to accelerate new discoveries and improve policies. Open science also increases transparency and trust in the scientific process by making everything freely available for review to ensure that any conclusions in the published papers are adequately supported by the data and analyses. Overall, I think that the increased accessibility provided by the Open Science movement has been an incredible step forward in the scientific process and making science more accessible, and I look forward to continuing to educate myself and the students here at UPRM on the latest Open Science best practices.

Citation: Courtney TA, Cyronak T, Griffin AJ, Andersson AJ (2021) Implications of salinity normalization of seawater total alkalinity in coral reef metabolism studies. PLoS ONE 16(12): e0261210. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0261210

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Music based brain-computer interfaces – an interview with Stefan Ehrlich and Kat Agres

Music can evoke strong emotions and affect human behaviour. We process music via a series of complex cognitive operations. Consequently, it can be a window to understanding higher brain functions, as well as being used as a diagnostic and therapeutic tool. So how can we understand the way music evokes emotions and effectively use this in healthcare technologies?

Recently PLOS ONE launched a collection on “Affective Computing and Human-Computer Interactions” and we discuss with Stefan Ehrlich from the Technische Universität München and Kat Agres from the National University of Singapore their paper on a music-based brain-computer interface for emotion mediation.


PLOS – In your paper “A closed-loop, music-based brain-computer interface for emotion mediation” you present a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) pilot study that uses an automatic music generation system to both affect users’ emotional states and allows them to mediate the music via their emotions. What would you say are the key points of your work?

Stefan Ehrlich – Our work focuses on the integration of music with healthcare technology to mediate and reinforce listeners’ emotional states. The key point we see is in providing a novel automatic music generation system that allows a listener to continuously interact with it via an “emotion display”. The system translates the listener’s brain activity, corresponding to a specific emotional state, into a musical representation that seamlessly and continuously adapts to the listener’s current emotional state. Whilst the user listens, they are made aware of their current emotional state by the type of generated music, and the feedback allows them to mediate or to regain control over the emotional state. Many of the neurofeedback applications that have been already proposed often only have one-dimensional feedback provided to the to the subject. For instance, a levitating ball is displayed on the screen, and the subject is asked to control it up or down. The advantage of using music is that it’s possible to map a relatively complex signal, in this case brain activity, in a multi-dimensional manner to a cohesive, seemingly only one- dimensional feedback. It’s possible to embed different information in a single cohesive BCI feedback by using the different features of music, such as rhythm, tempo, the roughness of the rhythm or the harmonic structure.

PLOS – Were there any particular health care applications that you had in mind when designing this pilot study?

Kat Agres – I tend to think of music as being a sort of Swiss army knife where there are lots of features that can come in handy, depending on the scenario or the clinical population. For example, it’s social, it’s engaging, it often evokes personal memories, and it often lends itself to rhythmic entrainment. It’s these properties or features of music that lend itself particularly well to health care applications. Our main focus is on mental health and emotional wellbeing, and teaching people how to control their own emotions. And I think that’s the really interesting part about this study, that the music is a sonification of the listener’s emotional state, as measured via their EEG. It is meant to influence their emotional state, and helps teach the listener how to mediate their emotional states as they interact with the music system. This sonification can show the listener both what’s happening emotionally but it also allows them to mediate the sound of the music by affecting their own emotional state. The music is being created in real time based on the brain activity. We’ve recently been awarded a fairly large grant in Singapore to develop a holistic BCI system that we’re actually calling a Brain-Computer-Brain Interface. The project will cover different aspects, e.g., motor skills, cognition and emotion. We’ve already started developing the 2.0 version of the automatic generation system, and we are about to validate it with a listening study with both healthy adults and depressed patients. Once all these validation steps have been completed and we can effectively say that the system is flexible enough to induce different emotion states in a depressed population, we will be applying this to stroke patients who are battling depression.

PLOS – What do you think the main differences will be in the ability of depressed and healthy populations to affect emotions with this system?

Kat Agres – The number one reason people listen to music is to enhance or modify their emotion state or their mood. There is very significant literature now supporting the use of music for various mental health scenarios and for people who are struggling with various mental health conditions. I think that music is particularly well positioned to help people when other things are not helping them. The first group of depressed patients that we will be testing our system on is made up of many young people who actually think of their identity in part in terms of their music. Based on the literature and unique affordances of music, I think that we have a decent shot at reaching these individuals and helping them figure out how to gain better control of their motion states. In our pilot study, some individuals really got the hang of it and some had a harder time figuring out how to use the system. I think we’ll find the same thing in this population of depressed patients. I’m cautiously optimistic that this system will be effective for this population.

Stefan Ehrlich – When using the system, different psychiatric and neurological populations will probably elicit different patterns of interaction. These will lead to the next steps in understanding how to modify the system in order to better help the patients. At the moment it’s a system that can help them gain awareness of their emotional state and that allows us to measure the variations between the different groups.

Kat Agres –And one of the interesting directions we are exploring with the automatic music generation system is the trajectory of taking someone from a particular (current) emotional state to another, target emotional state. It will be interesting to compare whether the optimal trajectory through emotion space is similar for depressed patients and healthy adults.  

PLOS – Was there anything that particularly surprised you?

Stefan Ehrlich – A surprise for me was that without telling the listeners how to gain control over the feedback, when asked, all of them reported that they self-evoked emotions by thinking about happy/sad moments in their life. I want to emphasise that the system triggered people to engage with their memories and with their emotions in order to make the music feedback change. I was surprised that all of the subjects chose this strategy.

PLOS – What was the biggest challenge for you?

Stefan Ehrlich – The most difficult part was developing the music generation system and the mapping with continuous changes of brain activity. In the beginning we wanted to map brain activity features with musical features and the idea of focusing on emotions as the target only came during the development of the system. Constraining the system to emotional features and target variables helped to reduce the dimensionality and the complexity, while clarifying the main objective (emotion mediation) of the eventual system.

Kat Agres – Creating an automatic music generation system is not as easy as it might sound, especially when it has to be flexible to react to changes in brain state in real time. There’s a lot of structure and repetition in music. So when the participants try to push their emotion state up or down the music has to adapt in real time to their brain signals and sound continuous and musically cohesive.

Stefan Ehrlich – Yes, and there can’t be a big time-lag with the generated music, as this would compromise the sense of agency participants have over the system. If the system does not react or respond accordingly, people would lose faith that the system actually responds to their emotions.

PLOS – This work is very interdisciplinary with researchers from many different backgrounds. What are your thoughts on interdisciplinary research?

Stefan Ehrlich – I think it is more fun to work in an interdisciplinary setting. I’m really excited to hear and learn about the insight or the perspective of the other side on a topic or problem. It can be occasionally challenging. You have to establish a common ground, values and methodological approaches to a problem. You need to be able to communicate and exchange in an efficient way so that you can learn from each other. It’s important that all of the involved parties are willing to understand to a certain degree the mindset of the other side.

Kat Agres – I feel quite passionately about interdisciplinary research, especially as a cognitive scientist working at a conservatory of music. One of the obvious things that comes to mind when you’re working with people from different disciplines is how they use different terms, theoretical approaches, or methods. And yes, that can be a difficulty. But as long as everyone is clear on what the big challenges are, have the same high-level perspectives, values, and a shared sense of what the big goals are, it works well. In order to collaborate, you have to get on the same page about what you think is the most important issue, and then you can decide on the methods and how to get there.

PLOS – Considering your original research backgrounds, how did you end up doing such interdisciplinary research?

Stefan Ehrlich – I have a very non-interdisciplinary background in a way (electrical engineering and computer science). During my masters I attended a lecture called “Introduction to computational neuroscience” and it was really an eye opener for me. I realized that my background could contribute to research in neuroscience, engineering, and medicine. From then I started developing a strong interest in research at this intersection of topics.

Kat Agres – I specifically chose an undergrad institution that allowed me to pursue two majors within one degree programme: cognitive psychology and cello performance. I found it really difficult to choose one over the other and eventually I realised that I could study the cognitive science of music. And then I did a PhD in music, psychology, and cognitive science. I consider health to be yet another discipline that I’m interested in incorporating into a lot of my research. I am very grateful that recently I’ve been able to do more research at the intersection of music, technology, and health.

PLOS – In the field of affective computing and human-computer interactions, what do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities?  

Stefan Ehrlich – I think one important aspect is the human in the loop. The human is at the centre of this technology, as important as the system itself. Often the transfer from the lab is very difficult to do due to the variables associated with humans. Ultimately, we want to see people using these technologies in the real world, and this is the main challenge. 

Kat Agres – I agree that human data can be messy. Physiological signals, like EEG, galvanic skin response, heart rate variability, etc., are all pretty noisy signals, and so it’s just difficult to work with the data in the first place. We see daily advancements in AI, medical technologies, and eHealth. I think the future is going to be about merging these computational and engineering technologies with the creative arts and music.

PLOS – Do you see Open Science practices, like code and data sharing, as important for these fields?

Stefan Ehrlich – Yes absolutely. When I started working in research there were not many data sets available that would have been useful for my work. I think researchers should upload everything – from data to code to a public repository. I personally use GitHub, which currently has the limitation of not allowing very large files, e.g., EEG data. It’s not an ideal repository for this kind of data at the moment, but there are many other platforms being developed and will hopefully be adopted in the future.

Kat Agres – I wholeheartedly agree that Open Access is extremely important. I am glad that a discussion is happening around not all researchers having access to funds to make their work Open Access. I’m lucky that I’m attached to an academic institution where one can apply for funds for Open Access. My concerns is that policies requiring authors to pay might create elitism in publication. Academic partnerships with journals like PLOS ONE can help researchers publish Open Access.

PLOS – What would be your take home message for the general public?

Stefan Ehrlich & Kat Agres – I think that the public currently perceives music predominantly as a medium for entertainment, but music has a much bigger footprint in human history than this. Historically, music served many important roles in society, from social cohesion, to mother-infant bonding, to healing. In ancient Greece, Apollo was the god of Music and Medicine. He could heal people by playing his harp. They used to think that music had healing properties. The same is found in Eastern cultures, where for example the Chinese character for medicine is derived from the character for music. There is a very long-standing connection between these areas. In more recent years music has taken this more limited role in our society, but now more and more people are beginning to realise that music serves many functions in society, including for our health and wellbeing. We hope that music interventions and technologies such as our affective BCI system will contribute to this evolving landscape and provide a useful tool to help people improve their mental health and well-being.

References:

1. Ehrlich SK, Agres KR, Guan C, Cheng G (2019) A closed-loop, music-based brain-computer interface for emotion mediation. PLOS ONE 14(3): e0213516. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0213516


Author Biographies


Stefan Ehrlich is a postdoctoral fellow in the Dystonia and Speech Motor Control Laboratory at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, USA. His current research is focused on brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for the treatment of focal dystonia using non-invasive neurofeedback and real-time transcranial neuromodulation. Formerly, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair for Cognitive Systems at the Technical University of Munich, where he also obtained his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science in 2020. His contributions comprise research works on passive brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for augmentation of human-robot interaction as well as contributions to the domain of easy-to-use wearable EEG-based neurotechnology and music-based closed-loop neurofeedback BCIs for affect regulation.

ORCID ID0000-0002-3634-6973.


Kat Agres is an Assistant Professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YSTCM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and has a joint appointment at Yale-NUS College. She was previously the Principal Investigator and founder of the Music Cognition group at the Institute of High Performance Computing, A*STAR. Kat received her PhD in Psychology (with a graduate minor in Cognitive Science) from Cornell University in 2013, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology and Cello Performance from Carnegie Mellon University. Her postdoctoral research was conducted at Queen Mary University of London, in the areas of Music Cognition and Computational Creativity. She has received numerous grants to support her research, including Fellowships from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US, postdoctoral funding from the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program, and grants from various funding agencies in Singapore. Kat’s research explores a wide range of topics, including music technology for healthcare and well-being, music perception and cognition, computational modelling of learning and memory, automatic music generation and computational creativity. She has presented her work in over fifteen countries across four continents, and remains an active cellist in Singapore.

ORCID ID0000-0001-7260-2447

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