Monthly Archives: June 2020

Ending H-1B Visas is Wrong

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) don’t attract enough Americans with advanced degrees to staff our universities and research facilities, both private and public. Many with this training come from overseas. They gain entry to the United States via an H-1B visa. This visa can last six years, and with support from the hiring institution can lead to a green card and a path to citizenship.

The value of immigrants to our scientific efforts are immense. We lead the world in Nobel Prize winners, aided by immigrants. Over a third of the Nobel Prizes awarded in the STEM fields of Chemistry, Medicine and Physics here in the United States were awarded to immigrants.

These immigrant scientists are not taking jobs from residents, as a condition for the visa is sponsorship by an agency that has stated that they can’t otherwise find suitably trained people. In the United States, we follow the money and apparently science is not where the money is. The study of STEM fields is an arduous task, frequently requiring long hours in a laboratory above and beyond class time. This is exactly the talent we need to address our fight with the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 as of this writing has infected over 2 million and killed over 122 thousand. We are adding around 30,000 thousand cases a day. Obviously we are not out of the woods with this infection yet. For the short term we need to develop therapeutic agents that will reduce the deaths and damaging symptoms of SARS CoV-2, and in the long term develop an effective vaccine.

To accomplish these goals we need an “all hands on deck” effort by those trained in STEM fields. The pandemic has greatly slowed the number of highly trained immigrants so logic would suggest that we should be taking steps to bring in more STEM immigrants. But that is not what is happening. President Trump has taken the opposite tack. He has halted the issuance of H-1b visas! In his anti-immigration zeal, he is acting to prolong, not shorten our time of troubles with the pandemic.

While most of the rest of the world is acting with science bolstering their effort, our politics is getting in the way. Even though we represent a scant 5 % of the world’s population, our deaths account for 1/3 of all COVID-19 deaths.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

Processed Food

Today we think of processed foods as a relatively recent innovation with rather negative connotations, think chicken nuggets, Cheetos and diet sodas. However, the reality is that humans have been processing foods long before we settled into agricultural societies.

The first obvious innovation was the use of fire to cook. It takes less work and provides more calories to eat cooked food such as meat and root vegetables. Some authors have suggested that the use of fire to prepare food was integral to human development, allowing for enlarged brains, and resulting in the more gracile facial characteristics of smaller jaws and teeth.

The timeline for the adoption of the use of fire to prepare foods ranges from suggestions that H. erectus used fire 1.8 million years ago. Others suggest that the real control of fire and frequent use of fire in food preparation dates roughly to the time of a later relative H. neaderthalensis, about 400,000 years ago. Others say it is as recent as 20,000 years ago. Whichever timeline you choose, processing food with fire began long before what we describe as civilization, the transition from isolated hunter-gatherer groups to larger agrarian societies.

Agriculture was the great transition to move towards larger social groups, but there is evidence that making bread preceded the active cultivation of grain crops. Wild grains are nutritious but difficult to consume without processing. By grinding grains to produce a flour, and then baking that into bread provided a relatively calorie-dense, environmentally stable and easily transportable food. As we became more dependent on bread, cultivation became necessary and drove the transition towards agriculture.

The shift to agriculture produced new demands. Crops are seasonal but our diets are daily, hence the need for storage at least on an annual cycle. The next technical advance was quite likely the invention of beer. Traces of a residue from beer on pottery have been found dating back to over 7,000 years ago.

During the Middle Ages, much of Europe was probably mildly drunk – men, women, and children alike. Hygiene not being the strong suit at the time, water sources were invariably polluted with human wastes. To brew beer however required boiling the wort, a mixture of malted barley and water. This produced a potable beverage with considerable nutrition to boot. Later hops were found to improve the flavor and increase the storage life, making beer all the more valuable.

Europe, especially northern Europe saw the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults. Milk is an extremely nutritious source of protein and fat and therefore a complement to bread and beer. But milk doesn’t store well. Cheese on the other hand has a considerable shelf life, months to years.

Cheese was first made by storing mike in a natural container, a stomach removed from a ruminant. A substance known as rennet present in the lining of the stomach caused the milk to clabber. Add various bacteria to produce lactic acid for increased digestibility and you have a flavorful, stable, fat and protein laden foodstuff.

A diet of “processed food” – Cheese Whiz on a cracker washed down with a beer – is a truly ancient meal. With the macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate, and the micronutrients both fat and water-soluble vitamins, it’s all there. Bon appetit.

Flowering Plants

This time of year there is an explosion going on. The woods around my house are exploding with flowers. Flowering plants, known as angiosperms, are one of natures great inventions. Of course I use the phase loosely, flowering plants came about due to evolution.

The first life on the planet was a very simple single-celled organism. Life was simple and relatively unchanged for a billion or two years until the evolution of a specialized type of organism known as cyanobacteria, often improperly referred to as blue green algae. These “critters” changed the world.

They were the first photosynthetic organisms which means they used sunlight to fix carbon from the atmosphere, producing oxygen in the process. It took another couple of billion years for the oxygen produced by these organisms to saturate the atmosphere to anything like the concentration that exists today.

It took another billion years for more complex, multi-cellular plants to show up on land, something that we would recognize as plants. Simple organisms such as mosses and liverworts were the first. Plant complexity expanded over millions of more years to include the gymnosperms. A giant leap evolutionarily occurred with the plant sex. This favored more rapid evolution and greater adaptability of plants. Pollen from pines is the male part of plant sexuality. I mean really, do the males have to coat everything for miles around with their sperm?

Last to show up evolutionarily in the plant kingdom are the flowering plants – the angiosperms. They date to about two hundred million years ago. The flowering plants including trees and grasses that now dominate much of the land surface of the globe. A key to the success of flowering plants are the symbiotic partnerships which form between pollinating organisms and the plants. Plants produce sweet nectar, attractive colors and odors all to attract pollinators. Some produce odors resembling that of a decomposing corpse to attract flies for pollination.

Hummingbirds just arrived at my feeder a couple of days ago. They always arrive with the blooming of trumpet honeysuckle. These long tubular flowers are adapted to and provide nectar for hummingbirds who act as the primary pollinators.

Some orchids induce pollination via male bees by producing a flower that actually stimulates the bee to have sex with the flower. The attraction is both physical and by odor – the orchid produces a pheromone used by female bees to attract males.

Seed dispersal is important to the success of flowering plants. The energy a plant expends to produce a succulent fruit will go a long way to aid reproduction via seed dispersal by the animal that consumes the fruit. Many plants produce attractive nutritious fruits but toxic seeds. The fruit is eaten but the seed then excreted undigested, with added fertilizer from the animal excreted with the seeds.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.