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“I Could Not Believe What I Was Seeing” – Missing Evolution Puzzle Piece Discovered in 130-Million-Year-Old Rocks

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Thursday, September 14, 2023

Scientists discover missing evolution puzzle piece in 130-million-year-old rocks. The discovery is a result of an international collaboration, in which the Faculty of Sciences of the...

Scientists discover missing evolution puzzle piece in 130-million-year-old rocks. The discovery is a result of an international collaboration, in which the Faculty of Sciences of the...

Rock Slab With the Earliest Evidence for Deep Sea Vertebrates

Scientists discover missing evolution puzzle piece in 130-million-year-old rocks. The discovery is a result of an international collaboration, in which the Faculty of Sciences of the...

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The ancient origins of cannabis and our changing attitudes towards it

Cannabis attitudes are undergoing a seismic shift but what do really know about the drug? Our three-part special podcast series is uncovering the science of marijuana

Cannabis related items on display at Housing Works, New York’s first legal cannabis dispensaryErik Pendzich/Shutterstock Cannabis is having a moment. Half of Americans live in a state with legal marijuana and 9 in 10 people nationwide support legalisation in some form. This is a stark difference from mere decades ago, when prohibition was the norm in the entire US. Meanwhile, if you live in Malta, Uruguay, Canada – and maybe soon, Germany – your entire country is one with legal recreational pot. And access to medical marijuana extends to even more countries, including the UK and Australia. But as medical and recreational use become more popular and increasingly accessible, how exactly did we get to this moment of change? What has research been able to tell us – so far – about how the plant produces its euphoric effects, or what medical purposes it may be able to serve or how it might be harmful? And how could our relationship with this unassuming leaf change in coming decades? In the first episode of a special 3-part podcast series, Christie Taylor and the rest of the New Scientist reporting team start at the beginning: 27.8 million years ago, when hops and hemp diverged in family Cannabaceae. A million years ago, when Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa diverged into two differently psychoactive strains. And 12,000 years ago, when humans first domesticated cannabis for mundane household use, not yet dreaming of the euphoric experiences to come. But of course, it all comes back to the high, and we go there too – the evidence, though still sparse, of drug-related use dating back at least to 500 BC. And, a thousand years later, perhaps the first recorded reference to a ritual not unlike hotboxing. To listen, subscribe to New Scientist Weekly or visit our podcast page. The science of cannabis As the use of marijuana and its compounds rises around the world, New Scientist explores the latest research on the medical potential of cannabis, how it is grown and its environmental impact, the way cannabis affects our bodies and minds and what the marijuana of the future will look like. Transcript Christie Taylor: It’s a sunny November morning in Manhattan and I’m buying weed for my job. Sasha Nugent: So right now, we have pre-rolls, tinctures, flower, edibles, and drinks, and that’s an array of things that we have. Vapes as well. We have flower and we offer it in eighth and one ounces, and we even have a three ounce bag, and three ounce is the max in New York that you’re able to purchase in a day. Christie Taylor: That’s Sasha Nugent. She’s the so-called ‘Budmaster’ at Housing Works Cannabis Co. It’s the retail extension of a local AIDS non-profit and also the first recreational dispensary to be licensed in New York City, and if you’ve never been inside a licensed dispensary before, you may be shocked at how normal a retail experience it feels like. Two big display cases wrap around the retail area filled with colourful packages of merchandise, like gummies infused with THC, the main ingredient that gets people high, or CBD, a secondary ingredient that seems to have a more calming, chill effect. Pastel rainbow signs next to the row of cash registers have slogans like ‘make love, not drug war’, and ‘spark up your inner activist’, and ‘we’re smoking out stigma’. The product labels range from slightly goofy and psychedelic to what I can only describe as a colourful fruit salad, and for the Apple Store types, there’s sleek and minimalist black and white packaging. Sasha Nugent: On a slow day, anywhere from, like, Sunday to Wednesday, we see about 550 to 700 people depending on the day. On our busier days, Thursday through Saturday, we can see upwards of 1,000 unique customers. Christie Taylor: The normality of this experience has only become possible recently. New York State only legalised recreational cannabis in 2021. Other states went sooner and there has been a dramatic wave of various degrees of legalisation across the US, and even across the world. We are in a new normal when it comes to cannabis, but what do we really know about the science of it? Where did the plant come from? What does it do to our health, for good or for bad? I’m Christie Taylor. I’m a podcast producer for New Scientist, and this is the first episode in our three-part series about the science of cannabis, how we got here, what we know, and what the future may hold. This is part of a huge month-long reporting effort from more than half a dozen journalists and you can read their work over at We’ve investigated cannabis and creativity, mapped the still languishing landscape of medical research, and questioned the environmental cost of industrial scale hemp harvests, but today I’m starting at the beginning, how we got to this moment where I can walk into a store, buy a federally controlled substance, and just tell you about it, and why our relationship with cannabis is possibly one of the oldest relationships our species has had with a domesticated plant.  If you want to feel really old, it’s been 87 years since the movie Reefer Madness debuted. It’s a hyperbolic fictional warning about young people driven to psychosis with multiple murders and deaths all because they had some weed. ‘These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda fountain, innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors.’ (Advert played 03.25-03.32). But now, walk through many neighbourhoods in New York City and you’ll see something you didn’t used to, storefront after storefront with names like ‘Magic Garden’, ‘Smacked Village’, ‘Weed World’, or just ‘Gotham’. The fonts run from cartoonish to classy, and storefront signs, as in other cities with legal recreational and medical weed, will advertise under no uncertain circumstances that they have THC, CBD, or just the unmistakeable green seven-pointed leaf shape that screams ‘marijuana’. In states with legal cannabis, medical or otherwise, you can speak frankly with salespeople about dosages and strains. Do you want help sleeping, or daytime relaxation, pain or appetite management, or a sense of calm while getting your work done? Or do you just want to get stoned off your ass, watch some dumb TV, and laugh uncontrollably while making up new words for hedgehog? No judgement. No, really. Please, no judgement. Sasha Nugent: I am just like you. I have trouble sleeping and I also have anxiety, so after, like, a day at work, I love the Offline from Off Hours. Like, they don’t pay me. That’s one of my favourite ones. Christie Taylor: Outside the dispensaries, at corner stores and bodegas, you can still buy THC-infused seltzers and mocktails, cannabis cocktails, and skin lotions featuring CBD. In states like Wisconsin that haven’t legalised cannabis, purveyors get around it with a less potent form of THC called Delta-8. It’s derived from non-psychoactive cannabis and so remains, for now, legal in the US through a loophole in a 2018 agriculture law. Some of the greater glow of legality is in the name of medical applications, which are very real but still under investigation in the case of some treatments. In states where weed is legal only in medical contexts, your doctor can still usually get you a dispensary card for ALS, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, cancer and chemo side effects, and mental health conditions like PTSD, and the number of people enrolled in medical marijuana programmes in the US? It more than quadrupled between 2016 and 2020 to a whopping 3 million. People use it for nausea, pain, and glaucoma symptoms. It’s showing legitimate promise as a treatment for multiple sclerosis and rare forms of epilepsy, but when we look at this moment in our relationship with cannabis, it’s also clear that the years of prohibition have cost us research. Because the US federal government still bans weed, scientists have struggled for funding, or simply a sufficient legal supply to study.  The late Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli scientist who first isolated THC from cannabis in the 1950s, he even had to get his first samples from the police, and as its therapeutic potential gains greater excitement, the federal ban on weed is still undermining scientific research that might bring clarity on both the benefits and the risks of its consumption. This research is needed more than ever. At Housing Works, I’m presented with three seemingly equal products, gummy edibles, that might help me sleep better. They all advertise their properties in terms of milligrams of THC and other calming compounds, so I pick one called Snoozeberry solely by the promise that it would taste like blueberry, a flavour I liked, and I’m charmed maybe just a little bit by the twinkling stars on the soothing deep blue packaging. Sasha Nugent: Perfect. So this is your receipt, and would you like a bag? Christie Taylor: Yes, I’ll take a bag. Sasha Nugent: No problem. I’ll grab one for you. Christie Taylor: Okay. Sasha Nugent: So we also offer delivery, so I put a delivery flyer in case you’re in one of our delivery zones, and I also put a little sticker with our QR code in case you want to order it in advance. Christie Taylor: Alright. Thank you so much. Sasha Nugent: Thank you so much. It was great meeting you. Christie Taylor: Yes, great meeting you too. You’re not high. A revolution has been baking toward the popularity and acceptance of weed. Legalisation of cannabis for recreational use has swung hugely into favour in the last 10 years. Uruguay legalised recreational use of marijuana in 2013, Canada in 2018, Malta 2021. Lawmakers in Germany may soon vote on a bill to do the same, and medical marijuana is even more widely legalised, including in the UK and Australia. In the US, there’s no national approval of cannabis in any context. Instead, it’s a state by state patchwork, but one that is increasingly pro-pot, with 38 states and Washington, DC all moving to legalise marijuana. Nearly half of those are states that support both medical and recreational use, including, just weeks ago, the state of Ohio, and if you ask we, the people, there’s overwhelming support for national legalisation. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans say ‘yes’. Alexis Wnuk: That’s actually triple what it was 30 years ago. Christie Taylor: New Scientist’s Alexis Wnuk dug into the data explaining this shift and she found the swing in attitudes is even more dramatic than that. Alexis Wnuk: So if you ask people specifically about recreational and medical uses, it’s more like 9 in 10 people in favour of legalising it in some capacity. Younger people and those on the political left continue to support legalisation in greater numbers than older people and people on the political right, but we’ve seen a surge in support across all age groups and the entire political spectrum. Christie Taylor: Republican support, while still quite a bit lower than other groups, tripled between 1990 and 2016. This also seems to align with a shift in how people perceive the dangers of cannabis. For the 50 years that the US has tracked these perceptions, people have always seen cannabis as less dangerous than drugs like cocaine or heroin, but in the early 2000s, that gap got even bigger. Alexis Wnuk: Around 20% of people surveyed in 1997 said that smoking marijuana once or twice a week posed minimal or no risk of harm, but by 2021, which is the most recent data we have, half of people surveyed thought this, and we know this wasn’t just because perceptions of all drugs were changing, because people still ranked other drugs at about the same level of danger as they did 30 years ago. Christie Taylor: So why have people swung so comparatively hard for cannabis in recent decades? The biggest reason is medical marijuana. If you look back at the surveys, 98% of people who supported legalisation said that medical use was a very important or somewhat important reason why. Alexis Wnuk: In the 1980s and ’90s, we started seeing studies that suggested cannabis could reduce nausea and improve appetite in people with HIV (TC 00:10:00) and in those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, and this started creeping into the national conversation on marijuana. I came across a study from 2019 by researchers at John Jay College here in New York City where they tracked media coverage of marijuana over the years. They took the New York Times, one of the most read newspapers in the nation, as a case study, and what they found was that in the late ’90s, articles about medical use of cannabis started making up more and more of the coverage. At the same time, there’s less and less coverage dealing with marijuana trafficking or abuse. Christie Taylor: Headlines about multimillion-dollar pot busts declined. You were more likely to see stories like the 1993 headline about a 79 year old woman who was growing weed to help her son, who had multiple sclerosis, eat better, or a pot-smoking club in San Francisco reserved for the sick and dying. 1996 is also when you saw California become the first state to allow cannabis for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s supervision. Alexis Wnuk: Obviously, we can’t know for sure whether the media coverage actually changed people’s attitudes or whether it was just following the shift in attitudes but what we do know is that, in this time period, we saw a big uptick in coverage of medical marijuana and the people who could benefit from it, so instead of fearmongering and crime, you were much more likely to see a focus on compassionate use for people who were critically ill. Christie Taylor: There are a lot of other reasons ranking highly as well. Nearly as important for some people was freeing up law enforcement to do other work, followed by the argument that it’s someone’s personal choice to consume it. Deeper in the survey data, there’s support for the argument that tax revenue from legal weed could support local governments, or that it just might be safer to have legal oversight for weed, and if you go back to the perceptions of risk, there were people that said that using weed is already safe and so there’s no reason to outlaw it. Half of Americans now live in a state with legal recreational cannabis and there’s no sign that the wave is slowing down. The thing is, the weed zeitgeist, this wave of stigma oscillating into mania, isn’t the first time that our species has used this plant, whether for highs or healing. It’s one of the first crops human beings ever cultivated, starting 12,000 years ago. Think the oldest profession but make it agriculture, and until 100 years ago, it was one of our species most important sources of fibre, shelved only thanks to the rise of synthetic fibres such as nylon, but what was cannabis doing before humans met hemp? First, we should also talk about humulus, marijuana’s cousin in family Cannabaceae. You know it as hops, which flavours our beer, but fossils of the two plants have been confused for each other numerous times over the years, which is why genetics may be the better arbiter of when hops and herb diverted in the evolutionary tree. The evolution of plants like cannabis is hard to study. You need fossils, and soft matter doesn’t make the same impressions in stone that bones or teeth might, but the traces do exist and modern genomic science is also increasingly helping us use living plants to scry backward in time. It’s a kind of timekeeping that relies on mutations. A molecular clock. Scientists can count how many mutations the two plants have gathered over time and use that to determine that hops and cannabis diverted into separate species around 27.8 million years ago. Hops went on to become a funky-smelling climbing plant integral to beer but not particularly psychoactive on its own, but cannabis? It’s a funky-smelling, wind-pollinated, herbaceous ground plant that’s rich in oils and protein. It gets you high and it slows you down, and as fossil pollen indicates, it may have originally evolved on the Tibetan plateau at dizzying elevations with an arid climate and harsh, inhospitable levels of UV radiation from the Sun. Chelsea Whyte tracked down this high-elevation history. Chelsea Whyte: This also may be why the plant possesses its calming properties. THC and CBD, as well as other cannabinoids, seem to protect plants from UV rays, and cannabis may have developed these compounds as an adaptation to its early habitat. Christie Taylor: And then there’s the question of cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. Seasoned pot consumers know these two psychoactive species of cannabis can feel very different in the body and brain but the fact that you can be discerning down to the level of Latin names might not have anything to do with human husbandry. The same molecular clock method of genetic analysis shows that indica and sativa diverged more than 1 million years ago, back when our distant ancestor, homo habilis, was hunting on the plains of Africa. Chelsea Whyte: We’d had tools for about 1.5 million years at that point. That’s what homo habilis was known for, but we haven’t found any evidence for those long ago ancestors consuming cannabis in any way, nor is there evidence that cannabis had particularly high levels of THC at the time, so while it’s fun to wonder if there were Stone Age stoners, there’s no actual sign of it. Christie Taylor: What we do find is evidence of human cultivation 12,000 years ago in East Asia, by people who seemed to use the plant for ordinary household needs. Oil, rope, bow strings. We know this because while the original wild strain we started with may be extinct, it’s closest living relative seems to be in Northwest China and the genomic record matches the archaeological. There’s pottery that’s been marked by hemp cords dating from the same millennium, for example, and once we began to cultivate cannabis, it spread, and spread, and spread. Chelsea Whyte: It’s almost cliché at this point to say there’s a reason it’s called weed because it flourishes in a wide variety of conditions and doesn’t need too much tending. Whenever groups of people exchanged goods with others, cannabis went too. Farmers, trade, conquest, you name it. Christie Taylor: It started about 5,000 years ago when the Yamnaya people migrated from the Eurasian Steppe and brought cannabis to parts of Europe and the Middle East. A thousand years later, pot entered Korea through trade with China, and South Asia via Indo-Aryan peoples migrating from central Asia. Chelsea Whyte: Around 2000 BC, the western Eurasian Steppe was home to a nomadic people called the Scythians, and they carried it on horseback from the Middle East to what is now Russia and Ukraine. Christie Taylor: Germanic tribes took it west to Britain as the Anglo-Saxons conquered. It was in Northern Africa by 1400 AD and spread from there to the southern tip, and then, as European colonialism so well facilitated, cannabis crossed the Atlantic and spread across North and South America. We’ll talk more in a future episode about the current state of medical uses of cannabis and what we know about them. At the moment, the earliest evidence of therapeutic use dates back to a Chinese shaman who was buried with a stash of cannabis sativa in 700 BC, but medical records suggest people have been trying to heal with cannabis for thousands of years, starting 5,000 years ago in the reign of Chinese emperor Shennong. He claimed cannabis could cure a wide range of ailments such as malaria, menstrual problems, and gout, and maybe paradoxically, he prescribed it for absent-mindedness as well. Western doctors weren’t using cannabis until much more recently, the late 19th and early 20th century, when one of Queen Victoria’s doctors used the plant to treat a wide variety of pain-related illnesses, including some of her premenstrual symptoms. The drug was even listed in the US Pharmacopeia, the country’s official compendium of medical drug information, but then it was outlawed in 1942, decades into a rising crackdown and prohibition of the plant. We wouldn’t come full circle again until 1996, when California residents passed Proposition 215 and made medical marijuana legal again. So when, you ask, did we start getting stoned? Was it the Stone Age or was it much later? Was there a single moment when early humans inhaled some skunky sativa smoke and realised they felt pretty dope about it? Chelsea Whyte: The evidence here is pretty spotty but we know that wild cannabis plants have only trace amounts of the psychoactive compounds that get us giddy, including THC and CBD, so researchers have looked for evidence of plants with higher concentrations which we would have had to cultivate specifically. Christie Taylor: We have a long, long history with this plant but only 4,000 years ago do we start to see the evidence of humans nurturing specific strains for specific purposes, whether for fibre or drugs. Chelsea Whyte: You can actually see in the way different strains diverge what uses they were bred for. Those bred for fibre have more gene mutations that inhibit the stems from branching out, so they have taller stems and more fibre in the main stem, but the plants that were bred for drug use have mutations supporting more branching, which also means more flowers. Those plants are shorter but they also tend to have more THC. Christie Taylor: Beyond Emperor Shennong’s medicinal mention 4,500 years ago, the first trace of toking only emerged in 2019 in the mountains of Western China. Researchers exploring ancient tombs found wooden fire pits called braziers with traces of THC at much, much higher concentrations than in wild cannabis. These date back to 500 BC, 2,500 years ago, and they suggest that people at that time were inhaling the potent smoke of a strain of cannabis that they had cultivated specifically for the high, but instead of the joints, pipes or bongs you may be familiar with, these braziers would likely have been filled with red hot pebbles that the cannabis was then put on top of. The smoke from the smouldering plant could then be inhaled. And remember those Scythians marauding through Russia and Ukraine on horseback? The Greek geographer and historian Herodotus, writing in the 5th century AD, describes a ritual that may be the first recorded instance of hotboxing. Herodotus: ‘They set up three poles leaning together to a point, and cover these over with woollen mats. Then, in the place so enclosed, to the best of their power, they make a pit in the centre beneath the poles and the mats, (TC 00:20:00) and throw red hot stones into it. The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and, creeping under the mats, they throw it on the red hot stones, and being so thrown, it smoulders and sends forth so much steam that no Greek vapour bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour bath.’ Christie Taylor: So weed has been with us for 12,000 years and we’ve found it at least some level of therapeutic for 4,500 of those years. People have used, and continue to use, it for physical ailments, emotional balm, and a certain mental letting loose, but as the wave of cannabis legalisation in the US and worldwide gathers momentum, what do we actually know about how it affects us, body and brain? Stay tuned for the next episode where we’ll look at what happens to your brain on drugs, and what the past prohibitions on pot have done to limit our knowledge of how it behaves, even as the need for that knowledge is greater than ever.  As I mentioned earlier, this podcast is part of a massive reporting effort, spanning many months of work from the New Scientist team. You can go to to read much, much more about the history of our relationship with weed and what research is starting to reveal. Thanks to Chelsea Whyte, Alexis Wnuk, and Grace Wade for helping me research and write this episode, and to Timothy Revell and Chelsea Whyte for edits. Thanks also to Timothy Revell for his expert voice acting. New York studio production is by Hugo Fonseca, and our audio and sound design is by Ollie Guillou. I’m Christie Taylor. Bye for now.

MIT’s Science Policy Initiative holds 13th annual Executive Visit Days

MIT students traveled to Washington to speak to representatives from several federal executive agencies.

From Oct. 23-24, a delegation consisting of 21 MIT students, one MIT postdoc, and four students from the University of the District of Columbia met in Washington for the MIT Science Policy Initiative’s Executive Visit Days (ExVD). Now in its 13th cycle, this trip offers a platform where university students and young researchers can connect with officials and scientists from different federal agencies, discuss issues related to science and technology policy, and learn about the role the federal government plays in addressing these issues. The delegation visited seven different agencies, as well as the MIT Washington Office, where the group held virtual calls with personnel from the National Institutes of Health and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. Visits to the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Environmental Protection Agency, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration then followed over the course of two days. The series of meetings, facilitated by the MIT Science Policy Initiative (SPI), offered a window into the current activities of each agency and how individuals can engage with science policy through the lens of each particular agency. The Science Policy Initiative is an organization of students and postdocs whose core goal is not only to grow interest at MIT and in the community at large in science policy, but also to facilitate the exchange of ideas between the policymakers of today and the scientists of tomorrow. One of the various trips organized by SPI every year, ExVD allows students to gain insight into the work of federal agencies, while also offering the chance to meet with representatives from these agencies, many of whom are MIT alumni, and discuss their paths toward careers in science policy. Additionally, ExVD serves as an opportunity for participants to network with students, postdocs, and professionals outside of their fields but united by common interests in science policy.  “I believe it is critical for students with vital technical expertise to gain a sense of the realities of policymaking,” says Phillip Christoffersen, a PhD student researching AI in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and SPI ExVD 2023 chair. “Due to the many complexities of modern life, we are simultaneously reaching tipping points in many fields — AI, climate change, biotechnology, among many others. For this reason, science and science policy must increasingly move in lockstep for the good of society, and it falls on us as scientists-in-training to make that happen.” One example of the delegation’s visits was to the White House OSTP, located directly next to the West Wing at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. This special agency of fewer than 200 staff, most of whom are either in rotation or on loan from other federal agencies, directly reports to the president on all matters related to science and policy. The atmosphere at the White House complex and the exchanges with Kei Koizumi, principal deputy director for policy at OSTP, deeply inspired the students and showcased the vast impact science can have on federal policy. The overall sentiment among the ExVD participants has been that of reborn motivation, having become inspired to participate in policy matters, either as a portion of their graduate research or in their future career. The ExVD 2023 cohort is thankful to the MIT Washington office, whose generous support was crucial to making this trip a reality. Furthermore, the delegation thanks the MIT Science Policy Initiative’s leadership team for organizing this trip, enabling an extremely meaningful experience.

‘They’re inherently charismatic’: the amateur sleuths hooked on sea slugs

More and more enthusiasts have fallen in love with this relative of garden dwellers, and are helping ocean science while they’re at itTwo years ago, Libby Keatley was diving off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland when she spotted something unusual. It was a sea slug – or nudibranch – whose transparent body had orange lines running through it and twiggy projections arranged along its back. “It was quite distinctive and not like anything I’d seen before,” she says.Keatley called over her diving buddy, Bernard Picton, a local marine biologist and pioneer in UK sea slug studies. He scooped it up in a plastic bag and, back at his lab, confirmed it was a newly discovered species. He named it in Keatley’s honour: Dendronotus keatleyae. Continue reading...

Two years ago, Libby Keatley was diving off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland when she spotted something unusual. It was a sea slug – or nudibranch – whose transparent body had orange lines running through it and twiggy projections arranged along its back. “It was quite distinctive and not like anything I’d seen before,” she says.Keatley called over her diving buddy, Bernard Picton, a local marine biologist and pioneer in UK sea slug studies. He scooped it up in a plastic bag and, back at his lab, confirmed it was a newly discovered species. He named it in Keatley’s honour: Dendronotus keatleyae.Facelina auriculata in its natural habitat. Photograph: Libby Keatley“Three years ago, I didn’t really know what a nudibranch was or I thought they only lived in tropical countries,” says Keatley. “It just shows you can learn – you don’t have to be somebody who’s been in a lab for 20 years to know that something looks a bit funny or different.”For a niche but growing group of amateur naturalists, sea slugs have become an ideal subject: as stunning as butterflies but with the good grace to sit still while you peer in close and take a photograph. Distant relatives of the slimy, drab land-dwellers that live in gardens, sea slugs are an altogether more endearing bunch. Many are daubed in jewel-like colours that warn off predators. Others take on hues to blend in with their surroundings, often gaudy seaweeds and sponges.There are also plenty of sea slugs to discover in UK waters, with about 150 known species across the north Atlantic. And being so small – generally under a finger’s width – there’s a thrill to be had in spotting one. “That’s what I love about them,” says Keatley.To show me why the hobby has attracted a worldwide community of scuba divers and amateur photographers – and how it makes important contributions to scientists’ understanding of how our oceans are changing – Keatley takes me diving in Strangford Lough. An hour’s drive south of Belfast, it is one of Europe’s largest sea inlets and a renowned wildlife spot, home to seabirds, seals and recently a pair of bottlenose dolphins.There’s even more going on beneath the waterline. At high tide, the Irish Sea brings in a soup of particles and nutrients which feeds a rich mix of underwater species – and a host of other creatures that feed on them.Keatley gazes out across the unpromising green, murky water. “There’s a whole other world just under the surface,” she assures me.Slideshow of different species of sea slugSea slugs: 1 Amphorina (orange with yellow-tipped cerata); 2 Facelina auriculata (white with pinkish cerata); 3 Hancockia uncinata (red); 4 Trinchesia caerulea (white with blue and orange cerata); 5 Diaphorodoris luteocincta (with a yellow ring pattern); 6 Coryphella chriskaugei (white with pink-orange cerata); 7 Polycera quadrilineata (translucent white with yellow spots); 8 Edmundsella pedata (bright pink).We are joined on the dive by Keatley’s partner and fellow enthusiast, Phil Wilkinson, and Picton, who recently updated a guidebook to sea slugs of the north Atlantic with Christine Morrow, who is keeping watch from the shore. “I think the nudibranchs are very easy to get people hooked,” she says. “There’s something inherently charismatic about them.”We squeeze into dry suits, neoprene gloves and hoods, heave on scuba gear and lead weights, then lumber into the water. Ten metres down, the sea is a face-numbing 10C and I can see no further than a few metres. But after a few minutes, Keatley points out a tiny sea slug that looks like a cluster of powder-pink raspberries.I think we’re in a golden age of really understanding the importance of citizen scienceTerry Gosliner, nudibranch expertWe find more sea slugs than I’ve ever seen, even in tropical seas: neon pink ones and transparent ones covered with finger-like projections with shiny turquoise tips; another is white with yellow specks and a pair of bunny ears that are for smelling not hearing. We encounter a gathering of sea slugs that look like miniature fried eggs splashed in chilli sauce, and Keatley points out a peach-coloured specimen hitching a ride on a hermit crab. It feeds on minute hydroids – stinging relatives of jellyfish – that grow on the crab’s shell.For Keatley, sea slug spotting was part of an unexpected reawakening of a childhood interest in nature. In January 2019, she learned to scuba dive and was an instant convert to the underwater world. “I couldn’t get enough,” she says. “The more I saw, the more I wanted to learn, and then the more I was seeing. So it just snowballed a wee bit.”Keen to share the enchanting wildlife with friends and family, Keatley got a waterproof camera and began posting images on Instagram. She gets help in identifying species from other enthusiasts and exerts on Facebook groups.Marine biologist Bernard Picton, Helen Scales, and sea slug enthusiasts Libby Keatley and Phil Wilkinson before their dive into Strangford Lough. Photograph: Christine PictonWithin a year she was a fully qualified diver and started volunteering with the Northern Ireland branch of Seasearch, a citizen science group of divers and snorkelers who gather information about species and habitats. Data from their surveys are checked for accuracy then fed into a national biodiversity database, NBN Atlas.“On the first dive I went on with Seasearch I thought, ‘I’ve found where I want to be. These people are interested in the same things as me,’” says Keatley. “I wanted to give something back and do something useful for this place that I love.”Throughout summer and autumn, she and fellow Seasearch divers carry out underwater surveys of the Northern Ireland coasts at least once a month. It was during one of these, in 2021, that Keatley found the new species of sea slug. Between dives, she helps organise online talks and workshops to teach volunteers identification and photography skills.Dendronotus keatleyae, the new species of sea slug Keatley spotted off the coast of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Libby KeatleyTerry Gosliner, a veteran nudibranch specialist from the California Academy of Sciences, has helped name hundreds of species. He champions ordinary people who are helping to find and study sea slugs. “We don’t have enough scientists to observe what’s going on,” he says.Citizen science has a long history, especially among British amateur naturalists such as Charles Darwin. It’s now taking off – for sea slugs and more generally – Gosliner thinks, because of all the internet forums, Facebook groups and online communities such as iNaturalist that allow experts and amateurs to work together to identify and map species. There are also underwater photographic competitions and “shootouts” with special categories for the best nudibranch pictures. Citizen scientists can see the direct results of their observations, which makes them more likely to stick with it, Gosliner notes. “I think we’re in a golden age of really understanding the importance of citizen science.”This is not just about finding new species but also documenting their movements as the planet heats – and sea slugs are on the move. In August 2022, a rainbow-coloured sea slug was seen by a Seasearch diver in the Isles of Scilly, a first for the UK. The species is commonly found in France, Spain and Portugal and was spotted again in May this year, in a rockpool on a beach in Falmouth.Last June, Keatley spotted a sea slug off the coast of County Donegal in north-west Ireland that previously was only recorded as far north in the UK as Pembrokeshire.“If you know your nudibranchs at all, it’s quite distinctive. It’s not as if you would confuse it with anything else,” she says.Gosliner says citizen scientists are often the first to notice species showing up in unexpected places. “We rely on ordinary people,” he says, “who have strong interests and strong expertise, to help make those observations and be the sentinels of environmental change.”

Merging science and systems thinking to make materials more sustainable

Passionate about materials science “from the atom to the system,” Elsa Olivetti brings a holistic approach to sustainability to her teaching, research, and coalition-building.

For Professor Elsa Olivetti, tackling a problem as large and complex as climate change requires not only lab research but also understanding the systems of production that power the global economy. Her career path reflects a quest to investigate materials at scales ranging from the microscopic to the mass-manufactured. “I’ve always known what questions I wanted to ask, and then set out to build the tools to help me ask those questions,” says Olivetti, the Jerry McAfee Professor in Engineering. Olivetti, who earned tenure in 2022 and was recently appointed associate dean of engineering, has sought to equip students with similar skills, whether in the classroom, in her lab group, or through the interdisciplinary programs she leads at MIT. Those efforts have earned her accolades including the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, a MacVicar Faculty Fellowship in 2021, and the McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2023. “I think to make real progress in sustainability, materials scientists need to think in interdisciplinary, systems-level ways, but at a deep technical level,” Olivetti says. “Supporting my students so that’s something that a lot more people can do is very rewarding for me.” Her mission to make materials more sustainable also makes Olivetti grateful [EAO1] she’s at MIT, which has a long tradition of both interdisciplinary collaboration and technical know-how. “MIT’s core competencies are well-positioned for bold achievements in climate and sustainability — the deep expertise on the economics side, the frontier knowledge in science, the computational creativity,” Olivetti says. “It’s a really exciting time and place where the key ingredients for progress are simmering in transformative ways.” Answering the call The moment that set Olivetti on her life’s journey began when she was 8, with a knock at her door. Her parents were in the other room, so Olivetti opened the door and met an organizer for Greenpeace, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of environmental issues. “I had a chat with that guy and got hooked on environmental concerns,” Olivetti says. “I still remember that conversation.” The interaction changed the way Olivetti thought about her place in the world, and her new perspective manifested itself in some unique ways. Her elementary school science fair projects became elaborate pursuits of environmental solutions involving burying various items in the backyard to test for biodegradability. There was also an awkward attempt at natural pesticide development, which lead to a worm hatching in her bedroom. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Olivetti gravitated toward classes in environmentalism and materials science. “There was a link between materials science and a broader, systems way of framing design for environment, and that just clicked for me in terms of the way I wanted to think about environmental problems — from the atom to the system,” Olivetti recalls. That interest led Olivetti to MIT for a PhD in 2001, where she studied the feasibility of new materials for lithium-ion batteries. “I really wanted to be thinking of things at a systems level, but I wanted to ground that in lab-based research,” Olivetti says. “I wanted an experiential experience in grad school, and that’s why I chose MIT’s program.” Whether it was her undergraduate studies, her PhD, or her ensuing postdoc work at MIT, Olivetti sought to learn new skills to continue bridging the gap between materials science and environmental systems thinking. “I think of it as, ‘Here’s how I can build up the ways I ask questions,’” Olivetti explains. “How do we design these materials while thinking about their implications as early as possible?” Since joining MIT’s faculty in 2014, Olivetti has developed computational models to measure the cost and environmental impact of new materials, explored ways to adopt more sustainable and circular supply chains, and evaluated potential materials limitations as lithium-ion battery production is scaled. That work helps companies increase their use of greener, recyclable materials and more sustainably dispose of waste. Olivetti believes the wide scope of her research gives the students in her lab a more holistic understanding of the life cycle of materials. “When the group started, each student was working on a different aspect of the problem — like on the natural language processing pipeline, or on recycling technology assessment, or beneficial use of waste — and now each student can link each of those pieces in their research,” Olivetti explains. Beyond her research, Olivetti also co-directs the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium, which has established a set of eight areas of sustainability that it organizes coalitions around. Each coalition involves technical leaders at companies and researchers at MIT that work together to accelerate the impact of MIT’s research by helping companies adopt innovative and more sustainable technologies. “Climate change mitigation and resilience is such a complex problem, and at MIT we have practice in working together across disciplines on many challenges,” Olivetti says. “It’s been exciting to lean on that culture and unlock ways to move forward more effectively.” Bridging divides Today, Olivetti tries to maximize the impact of her and her students’ research in materials industrial ecology by maintaining close ties to applications. In her research, this means working directly with aluminum companies to design alloys that could incorporate more scrap material or with nongovernmental organizations to incorporate agricultural residues in building products. In the classroom, that means bringing in people from companies to explain how they think about concepts like heat exchange or fluid flow in their products. “I enjoy trying to ground what students are learning in the classroom with what’s happening in the world,” Olivetti explains. Exposing students to industry is also a great way to help them think about their own careers. In her research lab, she’s started using the last 30 minutes of meetings to host talks from people working in national labs, startups, and larger companies to show students what they can do after their PhDs. The talks are similar to the Industry Seminar series Olivetti started that pairs undergraduate students with people working in areas like 3D printing, environmental consulting, and manufacturing. “It’s about helping students learn what they’re excited about,” Olivetti says. Whether in the classroom, lab, or at events held by organizations like MCSC, Olivetti believes collaboration is humanity’s most potent tool to combat climate change. “I just really enjoy building links between people,” Olivetti says. “Learning about people and meeting them where they are is a way that one can create effective links. It’s about creating the right playgrounds for people to think and learn.”

3 Questions: A new PhD program in computational science and engineering

Co-directors Youssef Marzouk and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou describe how the standalone degree aims to train students in cross-cutting aspects of computational science and engineering.

This fall, the Center for Computational Science and Engineering (CCSE), an academic unit in the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, is introducing a new standalone PhD degree program that will enable students to pursue research in cross-cutting methodological aspects of computational science and engineering. The launch follows approval of the center’s degree program proposal at the May 2023 Institute faculty meeting. Doctoral-level graduate study in computational science and engineering (CSE) at MIT has, for the past decade, been offered through an interdisciplinary program in which CSE students are admitted to one of eight participating academic departments in the School of Engineering or School of Science. While this model adds a strong disciplinary component to students’ education, the rapid growth of the CSE field and the establishment of the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing have prompted an exciting expansion of MIT’s graduate-level offerings in computation. The new degree, offered by the college, will run alongside MIT’s existing interdisciplinary offerings in CSE, complementing these doctoral training programs and preparing students to contribute to the leading edge of the field. Here, CCSE co-directors Youssef Marzouk and Nicolas Hadjiconstantinou discuss the standalone program and how they expect it to elevate the visibility and impact of CSE research and education at MIT. Q: What is computational science and engineering? Marzouk: Computational science and engineering focuses on the development and analysis of state-of-the-art methods for computation and their innovative application to problems of science and engineering interest. It has intellectual foundations in applied mathematics, statistics, and computer science, and touches the full range of science and engineering disciplines. Yet, it synthesizes these foundations into a discipline of its own — one that links the digital and physical worlds. It’s an exciting and evolving multidisciplinary field. Hadjiconstantinou: Examples of CSE research happening at MIT include modeling and simulation techniques, the underlying computational mathematics, and data-driven modeling of physical systems. Computational statistics and scientific machine learning have become prominent threads within CSE, joining high-performance computing, mathematically-oriented programming languages, and their broader links to algorithms and software. Application domains include energy, environment and climate, materials, health, transportation, autonomy, and aerospace, among others. Some of our researchers focus on general and widely applicable methodology, while others choose to focus on methods and algorithms motivated by a specific domain of application. Q: What was the motivation behind creating a standalone PhD program? Marzouk: The new degree focuses on a particular class of students whose background and interests are primarily in CSE methodology, in a manner that cuts across the disciplinary research structure represented by our current “with-departments” degree program. There is a strong research demand for such methodologically-focused students among CCSE faculty and MIT faculty in general. Our objective is to create a targeted, coherent degree program in this field that, alongside our other thriving CSE offerings, will create the leading environment for top CSE students worldwide. Hadjiconstantinou: One of CCSE’s most important functions is to recruit exceptional students who are trained in and want to work in computational science and engineering. Experience with our CSE master’s program suggests that students with a strong background and interests in the discipline prefer to apply to a pure CSE program for their graduate studies. The standalone degree aims to bring these students to MIT and make them available to faculty across the Institute. Q: How will this impact computing education and research at MIT?  Hadjiconstantinou: We believe that offering a standalone PhD program in CSE alongside the existing “with-departments” programs will significantly strengthen MIT’s graduate programs in computing. In particular, it will strengthen the methodological core of CSE research and education at MIT, while continuing to support the disciplinary-flavored CSE work taking place in our participating departments, which include Aeronautics and Astronautics; Chemical Engineering; Civil and Environmental Engineering; Materials Science and Engineering; Mechanical Engineering; Nuclear Science and Engineering; Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; and Mathematics. Together, these programs will create a stronger CSE student cohort and facilitate deeper exchanges between the college and other units at MIT. Marzouk: In a broader sense, the new program is designed to help realize one of the key opportunities presented by the college, which is to create a richer variety of graduate degrees in computation and to involve as many faculty and units in these educational endeavors as possible. The standalone CSE PhD will join other distinguished doctoral programs of the college — such as the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science PhD; the Operations Research Center PhD; and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Statistics and the Social and Engineering Systems PhD within the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society — and grow in a way that is informed by them. The confluence of these academic programs, and natural synergies among them, will make MIT quite unique.

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