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Major science publications feature work by Vassar senior and a recent alumnus

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — In recent months research led by Vassar senior Matthew Winnick (Washington, DC) has been featured by the magazine Science News, and the leading journal Science has published a bioethics essay co-authored by 2007 Vassar graduate Jacob Moses. Winnick is majoring in both Physics and Earth Science, while Moses, who earned his Vassar degree in Science, Technology, and Society, is now a research assistant at the Hastings Center, a non-partisan bioethics research institution also based in New York's Hudson Valley.

MATTHEW WINNICK/"SALINITY SENSORS"

Concerned about the runoff effects from road salt usage on wintry roads, Winnick and his three co-authors researched pollution levels in four streams on or near the Vassar campus, and established the freshwater mussel Elliptio companata as an effective tool for tracking the chemistry of freshwater bodies over time. Their findings were initially presented on October 5 at the 2008 joint meeting of the Geological Society of America in Houston, TX, where they caught the attention of Science News reporter Sid Perkins (see Perkins's story "Salinity Sensors" in the November 8, 2008 issue of Science News, and at http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/37536/title/Salinity_sensors.

What did the scientists learn about the unassuming mussel as an environmental monitor? Science News explained that, "In general, the higher an element’s concentration in the water was, the higher the element’s concentration in the mussel shells. Because freshwater mussels can live as long as a decade, their shells – which sport growth rings that record changes over time just as trees do – could serve as long-term monitors of road salt pollution, the researchers contend." The magazine also described how the researchers used a dental drill to extract layers of mussel shell for their story, akin to the core sampling techniques used to research underground layers of geological history. In their paper "Freshwater Mussel Shells as a Proxy for Stream Salinization from Road Salt," Winnick and his co-authors lament that, "Despite knowledge of road salt pollution, records of stream salt concentrations are largely unavailable." And, they report, the water chemistry consequences from road salt runoff are not limited to salinity. "For example, considering an estimated 1500 metric tons of road salt are added annually to a neighboring watershed, this would also add 5000 kg of sulfur and 300 kg of strontium (based on the analysis of freshly applied road salt). Interestingly, the Casperkill [one of the streams they investigated] also has elevated concentrations of these elements."

David Gillikin, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Geology at Vassar, David Goodwin, an Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Denison University, and David Kesler, a Professor of Biology at Rhodes College co-authored the paper with Matthew Winnick. The researchers collected the data under Gillikin's grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Winnick is conducting further analysis of the data for his senior thesis.

JACOB MOSES/"SYNTHETIC BIOETHICS?"

According to the Hastings Center, the emerging field of synthetic biology, "aims to create new life forms that will produce medical therapies, inexpensive biofuels, and other beneficial products." As the institute begins to explore synthetic biology's ethical implications, Vassar alumnus Jacob Moses joined two of Hastings's research scholars – including Vassar adjunct professor Erik Parens – to consider "Do We Need Synthetic Bioethics?" in an essay for the September 12, 2008 issue of Science.

"Asking bioethical questions in the context of emerging science and technology is hugely important for our health, environment, and ultimately our democracy. But anyone who deeply engages with those questions must acknowledge the extent to which they are similar from one scientific arena to another," wrote Parens, fellow scholar Josephine Johnston, and Moses in Science. "After all, if synthetic biologists are able to create biofactories that make gene products, they are engaging in a form of genetic engineering that, presumably, could be considered in gen-ethics. Insofar as synthetic biologists work at the nanoscale, their work seems to fall within the purview of nano-ethics, and so on. Given the convergence of scientific investigations, it is not logical to separate the associated ethical inquiries."

The co-authors continued, "Some scholars, journalists, and public interest groups are asking whether synthetic biology amounts to an overweening ambition to shape ourselves and other life forms. We continue to see this question in the debates over assisted reproduction, genetic engineering, and surgical and pharmacological enhancement.  It is at core a question about what it means to be human."

Moses began contributing at the very ground level of this significant essay, among, as he described, "the 7-10 projects I’m working on at any given time." He was first asked to review the existing literature on the ethics of synthetic biology, to identify key issues that have arisen, gaps in the discussion, and other relevant biotech debates.  From that foundation, the Hastings Center co-authors began a series of conversations about the direction of their eventual Science essay, which Moses also helped write and edit. "They were very eager to hear what I thought, because of the ideas I'd developed during the literature review," he said.

After taking early classes at Vassar on a pre-med track, Moses became more interested in the social sciences, and eventually found his academic home in the college's multidisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program. And it was an STS course that his Hastings Center colleague Erik Parens earlier taught at Vassar – on the bioethics of "Surgically and Pharmacologically Shaping Selves" – that sparked Moses's significant interest in bioethics. In his senior thesis, he looked at the prospect of radical life extension and related ethical questions.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, December 17, 2008