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Tracking the Migration of a Strange Animal: The Scientist

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We have a lot of outdated notions of what a scientist looks like. Among them: that scientists stay in one laboratory room, bent over the same Bunsen burners, for decades. Now a new study suggests that researchers are far more mobile than we realized—and that this mobility is hugely beneficial for science. The research is part of a special issue of Science focused on human migration.

“Ideas do not carry passports,” the Science editors note in their introduction to the issue. “But lines on maps, as well as policies and pressures that influence who does or does not cross them, can be powerful determinants of whether and how ideas and skills align to advance scientific discovery and technological and economic progress.”

Like the naked gecko, which squirms out of its skin when cornered, the movements of individual scientists are often difficult to keep hold of. There are so many of them, many with the same names, often affiliated with multiple institutions. And while there have been studies of scientists’ travels, these are conducted anonymously, which makes it impossible to track any one person’s migration patterns.

Fortunately, a nonprofit organization called ORCID is now making the process a whole lot easier by offering each researcher their own unique ID code. In the nine years since its launch, ORCID has registered more than 3 million scientists, each with their own story and dashed line across the globe.

This is great for researchers with common names. It’s also great for social scientists, who used the data to survey 17,852 scientists working in 16 countries to find out where their careers were taking them.


Graphic: G. Grullón and J. You/Science; Data: ORCID

The answer seems to be “everywhere, man.” Survey respondents were highly mobile, often moving among several countries as their research progressed. Many of these moves were driven by necessity, author John Bohannon writes in Science. “You spend your days at the border of human knowledge. Depending on the topic, only a dozen people may deeply understand your research—let alone help you push it further—and they are scattered across the world. For many, completing a Ph.D., doing postdoctoral research, and landing a permanent job all in one country is impossible. And so you wander.”

But rather than disrupting the scientific enterprise, the researchers found, migration actually seems to enrich the quality of research. Survey respondents who moved more often were more successful in their research and publication, and departments with higher proportions of migratory researchers thrived. Conversely, countries hostile to immigration—including a post-9/11 U.S.—have taken a hit.

More research is needed to confirm these findings. The survey participants were not a representative sample, rather a self-selected group of researchers who use ORCID. Like many online database users, they’re younger than average, and it’s not clear how this affects the study results.

But individual researchers say the trends mirror their own experience of migration and its benefits, both professional and personal.

“Living and working in another country … makes you more humane and understanding,” biological engineer Helena Pinheiro told Bohannon. At the same time, she says, “crossing borders has always left me with the wish that borders would cease to exist.”

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
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Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

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