NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Coastal carbon-sinks, mobile health, and Mileva Marić

Benjamin Thompson and Nick Howe bring you the latest science updates.

This week, wetlands’ ability to store carbon, mobile health, and the story of Mileva Marić.

In this episode:

00:46 Capturing carbon on the coast

What role might wetlands play in mitigating climate change? Research article: Rogers et al.

07:15 The future of mobile health

Combining smartphones with diagnostics could usher in a new era of connected healthcare. Review: Wood et al.

12:33 Research Highlights

Sleeping in at the weekend might not undo a restless week, and how polarised teams can have positive debates. Research highlight: Weekend lie-ins don’t compensate for week-long exhaustion; Research article: Shi et al.

14:22 The story of Mileva Marić

A new biography takes a look at the life of Mileva Marić. Books and Arts: The debated legacy of Einstein’s first wife

20:47 News Chat

A stem-cell transplant seems to have cleared a patient of HIV, and the University of California cancels its subscription with Elsevier. News: Second patient free of HIV after stem-cell therapy; News: Huge US university cancels subscription with Elsevier

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Transcript

This week, wetlands’ ability to store carbon, mobile health, and the story of Mileva Marić.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be weighing up wetlands’ ability to store carbon, hearing about the field of mobile health…

Host: Nick Howe

And learning the story of Einstein’s first wife. I’m Nick Howe.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Howe

First up this week, reporter Adam Levy has been getting his teeth into some climate change science and taking a look at wetlands.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Wetlands are… well, they’re kind of what they sound like – land which is wet, either permanently or repeatedly. They provide important habitats for species like fish and water birds, but their benefits don’t end with ecology. They also capture a lot of carbon. That’s because it’s harder for plant matter to decay in these wet conditions. For coastal wetlands – where the conditions are both wet and salty – organic matter can take a very long time to break down. This means that coastal wetlands are excellent at storing carbon.

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

If you compare the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent tonnes stored within a tropical forest per hectare to that of, say, oceanic mangroves, there’s three times as much CO2 equivalent storage within a hectare of oceanic mangroves than there is compared to tropical forests.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This is Kerrylee Rogers who’s at the University of Wollongong in Australia. But there’s a problem – rising seas could damage these coastal carbon sinks.

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

So, as we have sea-level rise, we’re going to have more energy at our coasts which perhaps could lead to some erosion of our carbon sinks at the coasts, so we might be losing some of our salt marsh mangrove areas.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This could be seriously bad news. It would mean that as we omit more carbon dioxide and the planet continues to heat up, sea-level rise would deplete coastal wetlands, leading to yet more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But this vicious cycle – or positive feedback to give it it’s more upbeat scientific name – might not be the end of the story for coastal wetlands. To find out more about the process, Kerrylee looked at two coastal wetlands in south-eastern Australia. The first has had stable sea levels for thousands of years, effectively acting as a control.

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

And we compared that to a place also in South-eastern Australia which has a coal mine beneath it, and in the 1980s when they wanted to stop using the coal mine, they pulled the pillars out and there was collapse of the coal mine which led to subsidence of the wetland. This subsidence in effect meant that the land surface fell by about a metre over the period of a few months, and this is what we refer to as relative sea-level rise.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Geoscientist Simon Mudd, who didn’t work on this study, says that other research looks at wetlands’ response to the relatively small amounts of sea-level rise that we’ve seen over the last few decades. This sudden drop that Kerrylee is investigating could provide unique insights into the responses of coastal wetlands to the accelerating sea-level rise we expect over the 21st century.

Interviewee: Simon Mudd

So, using past sea-level rise is maybe not the best predictor to what’s going to happen in the future because the future is going to look different to the present. So, this is a good way to look at what happens when you get a big change to the system. No one’s been able to drop a marsh by a metre before.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

By comparing the marsh that dropped to the wetland that stayed where it was, Kerrylee was able to look at the effects of sea-level rise. And her results didn’t indicate that the subsiding wetland was able to store less carbon. In fact, quite the reverse.

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

We found that that increase in sea level led to an increase in sedimentation and it also led to an increase in the amount of carbon being stored. So, in effect, by increasing the volume of space that could store mineral and carbon material because of sea-level rise, you actually had an increase in the amount of carbon sequestration at that site.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This suggests that sea-level rise would increase the amount of carbon that some coastal wetlands store, providing a negative feedback on climate change. But of course, this is just a single site. Both Kerrylee and Simon emphasise that other coastal wetlands, particularly those that have experienced less stable seas over the past few thousand years, would be likely to behave somewhat differently. But Simon remains confident that the mechanisms that this paper puts forward are still fairly watertight.

Interviewee: Simon Mudd

So instead of being kind of a numerical prediction, I would say what they’ve done is proven the idea that instead of killing all the mangroves and the marshes, which would be bad, you end up getting faster sedimentation rate and faster accumulation of carbon which is good. So, I think it’s kind of a proof-of-concept experiment.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Still though, how good is this good news? Do coastal wetlands becoming better carbon sinks mean we can breathe a little easier about climate change?

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

I wouldn’t say that, actually. The extent of coastal wetlands around the world is actually relatively small compared to the amount of carbon that we actually need to sequester from the atmosphere.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

So, while we should be grateful for coastal wetlands’ ability to suck up some of the huge amounts of carbon dioxide we’re emitting, they’re certainly not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Even so, Kerrylee emphasises that they might provide a useful tool in absorbing emissions. There are wetlands that have been converted or destroyed by human activities, and the benefits of letting these lands return to their former wet states might not end with carbon capture.

Interviewee: Kerrylee Rogers

So, by preserving coastal wetlands, potentially increasing their extent by allowing areas to reconvert back to coastal wetlands, we’re also providing a lot more fish habitat, a lot more water bird habitat, a lot more potential to purify waters. So, there’s a whole range of other ecosystem services that will come about from leveraging the capacity of coastal wetlands to store carbon and mitigate climate change.

Host: Nick Howe

That was Kerrylee Rogers from the University of Wollongong, and before her, Simon Mudd from the University of Edinburgh. You can read Kerrylee’s study at nature.com.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

This year, Nature celebrates its 150th birthday. To mark this anniversary, the journal is publishing a series of reviews that take a look at the past, present and future of science. The first review in this series looks at the field of mobile health, or mHealth for short. To find out what mHealth could mean for the future of medicine around the globe, I spoke to Molly Stevens from Imperial College London, one of the review’s co-authors.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

mHealth – mobile health – is essentially using mobile devices to help in healthcare. So, currently it’s being used for many things, essentially anyway you can use a mobile device and link it to care, and that can take many different forms. It can be the use of text messages, the use of phone calls, but also the use of smartphone systems.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Using phones to communicate with people may not seem especially radical, but it’s what most mHealth interventions have centred on thus far. Using the extra technology found in modern smartphone systems, however, is an idea that still needs developing. But in today’s internet-connected world, this tech could make a big impact on public health.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

So, within the UK, there’s an eSexual Health Clinic that’s been looking at patients with chlamydia and trying to help with diagnosing and medically managing them through an online clinical consultation system. So, patients there would have a kit, they can self-test at home, they can send it off to a lab and they’ll receive the result electronically, and that can then be followed up through getting their prescription straight away, also linking to some of their partners if they also need to be informed or they can also go through a traditional system.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The eSexual Health Clinic was trialled in 2014 and this approach to mobile health was shown to be viable. However, it did require people to send in swabs to be clinically tested in a lab. Molly hopes that future systems can be designed that don’t require this step.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

We are very interested in how you could develop point-of-care sensors that will tell us much earlier about whether a patient has a disease or not, and if you can develop those so that you can test a patient, for example, in the field, and then read that result on a mobile phone and then have it linked to care, I think that’s very, very exciting in terms of democratising the way people can get access to healthcare and also much more efficient, faster diagnosis and control of spread.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

While both rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests and mobile health interventions exist, it’s hoped that a combination of the two would be greater than the sum of its parts. A combined system would allow health data to be quickly gathered in the field and easily shared with doctors, clinics and the relevant public health systems. This would be a real boon, particularly in rural or resource-limited settings where patients don’t have immediate access to healthcare. An example of where the combined approach is showing promise is in self-testing for HIV. Social stigma can prevent people visiting clinics to be tested for the virus, so tests that can be done at home could help increase diagnosis rates. One app that’s currently being developed is called HIVSmart! and it’s designed to accompany at-home tests. The app provides instructions on how to perform these tests, as well as helping people to interpret their results and linking them to healthcare practitioners. As yet though, combined approaches like this aren’t ready to be rolled out into the field. There’s still a number of hurdles to overcome before the systems are ready to go.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

Some of the things we need to think about addressing are issues over data privacy – that’s a huge issue that people are rightly concerned about – and also, frameworks need to be set up by governments and the healthcare systems to enable mobile data information to be incorporated.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Other aspects need to be addressed as well. For example, if you want to make sure that everyone can benefit from these systems, you need to make sure that everybody has access.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

What we looked at was a mapping within Uganda of health centres but also where patients would have cell phone reception, and what you can see is that there are patients that perhaps would find it difficult to go to a health centre, that would have mobile phone reception, and so there’s an interesting opportunity there, but also some patients that would find it hard to go to a health centre and don’t have mobile phone reception.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And it’s not just access to phone networks that’s an issue across the world, it’s access to the phones themselves.

Interviewee: Molly Stevens

There’s a lot of access now to mobile phones, but not everyone has access. There’s even differences between men and women, so men are more likely to have access to mobile phones than women, certainly within the developing world situation and also there’s an age-related difference in terms of much older people perhaps having less access compared to some of the younger populations, and that’s something that really needs to be taken into account.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, there’s clearly many things that need to be addressed before the potential of connected mobile-health diagnostics can be unlocked. Our increasingly connected world offers some real opportunities to improve public health, but care must be taken to ensure that everyone can benefit. You can read Molly’s review over at go.nature.com/nature150

Host: Nick Howe

Later in the show, we’ll be hearing about how a stem-cell transplant appears to have cleared a patient of HIV – that’s coming up in the News Chat. Now, it’s time for the Research Highlights read by Shamini Bundell.

[Jingle]

Shamini Bundell

I love to sleep in, especially on a weekend after a long, tiring week. But research suggests that not getting enough sleep from Monday through Friday has some negative effects on your metabolism that can’t be undone with a weekend catch-up. A small study in Boulder, Colorado in the US found that participants who slept only five hours a night for nine consecutive nights showed more weight gain, reduced insulin sensitivity and more after-dinner snacking than those sleeping for longer. And these harmful health effects remained even when a week of five-hour nights was followed by a lazy weekend. Read more in the journal Current Biology.

[Jingle]

Shamini Bundell

Whether it’s Democrats and Republicans or Brexiteers and Remainers – when people’s views are very polarised it can be hard to achieve a constructive debate. But one place where people from opposite sides of an argument have to come to some agreement is in Wikipedia articles. A new study in the US looked at the behind-the-scenes work that goes in to writing and editing Wikipedia articles on often controversial topics. They found that very polarised teams of editors debated for longer and more constructively than teams where everyone tended to agree, and they found that polarised teams ultimately produced better quality articles. This may be because Wikipedia editors are working towards a common goal and have agreed to abide by a common set of rules. You can read more about that in Nature Human Behaviour.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Nick Howe

We all know the name Albert Einstein, but what if I said the name Mileva Marić? Well, Marić was a woman highly educated in physics and mathematics. She was also Albert Einstein’s first wife. As they both had similar education, there have been rumours for years that she made contributions to his work, including his famous theory of special relativity. This week in Nature, there is a review of a new biography of Marić. She was born in 1875 in what is now Serbia. Little is known about her early life, but what is known is she was determined to get a higher education. Sadly, in the late 19th century this was a rarity for many women, as Ruth Lewin Sime, a historian of women in science who contributed to the new biography, explains.

Interviewee: Ruth Lewin Sime

It was extraordinarily difficult. I mean the book details Mileva’s girlhood where she was a very bright student but education for girls ended usually at the age of 13 or 14.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Mileva’s resolve was recognised by her father, Miloš Marić, and he assisted her getting the education required to attend university, an education that was typically not accessible for women.

Interviewee: Ruth Lewin Sime

He helped push for her to be admitted to boys’ schools where she basically got the same education as they did, and that permitted her to go to Switzerland where the universities were open for women, and she entered the university in Zurich at the Polytechnic Institute.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

It was here at the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic, that Marić met a young Albert Einstein. The two had classes together in physics and mathematics and eventually fell in love. At first the pair did similarly academically, but Marić’s grades fell and she was not awarded a diploma. When she went to retake her exams the following year, she was two months pregnant the couple’s first child. This made things difficult.

Interviewee: Ruth Lewin Sime

A pregnancy out of wedlock for a couple that was still trying to get a job and had no security, that was just impossible for them at the time.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

In the end, Marić failed to get her diploma for a second time, deterring her PhD ambitions, and ultimately, she dropped out. The pair lived together and during this period, Einstein had some of his most famous ideas, including special relativity. As such, there are claims that Marić contributed to Einstein’s research by adding ideas and assisting with the mathematics, or that she co-authored some of the early papers, but was never credited. Many of the claims centre on love letters sent between the two. For example, there is one where Einstein refers to “our work on relative motion”, but historians debate the significance of this, as Marić never refers to the work in her responses. Allen Esterson is the co-author of the new biography and he is not convinced by these claims.

Interviewee: Allen Esterson

We do know that when he was working at the patent office, that was when he produced the great papers of 1905. He did have colleagues at the patent office that he exchanged ideas with, particularly Michele Besso who he acknowledged at the end of the relativity paper as someone who had made valuable suggestions. But as far as is known, we can’t say for sure Mileva made any contribution in that sense. I’m not saying she didn’t, but we simply have no evidence that she did.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Other historians have said the opposite, arguing that with the two living together, it’s reasonable to think they would have exchanged ideas. The truth is, we’re unlikely to find out the real story. Many of Marić’s letters to Einstein are missing and anyone who may have known more has long since passed away. What is known is that although Marić was a staunch supporter of Einstein, she became unhappy.

Interviewee: Allen Esterson

They were both in love with each other, but once they were married, Einstein soon got totally wrapped up in his work and neglected her. She remained staunchly supportive of him and supplied all his needs, bought up his children, while he was utterly immersed in his work to the extent that he neglected her and that hurt her very badly as we know from letters she wrote to her closest friend.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Marić wrote about enduring many “bitter and hard days” and with the release of Einstein’s famous work she wrote, “I only hope and wish that fame does not have a harmful effect on his humanity”. Marić also appears melancholy about her lost career in science, and reconciling herself to a domestic role. Their marriage declined to such an extent that Einstein sent Marić a draconian list of demands to allow her to continue to stay with him and the children. These demands included requirements for his laundry to be done and his desk cleaned and that she would, without protest, stop talking to him whenever he demanded it. The pair separated in 1914 and ultimately divorced in 1919. Marić never remarried. She died in 1948, after many years caring for their son Eduard who had schizophrenia and had been institutionalised. Whether or not Marić contributed to Einstein’s work, there is a lot we can learn from her story. Here’s Ruth again.

Interviewee: Ruth Lewin Sime

So, she was in many ways in the forefront of the generation of women that pushed for university education for themselves and of course for other women and it succeeded. By the time that Mileva had finished at her university in Zurich, was just about the time that universities in Germany and Austria were finally opening their doors to women, and it was the accomplishment of women like Mileva that they were able to make this happen.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

That was Ruth Lewin Sime. You also heard from Allen Esterson. You can find a review of their biography of Mileva Marić at nature.com/news.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Now it’s time for the News Chat, and joining me here in the studio is Nisha Gaind, European Bureau Chief here at Nature. Nisha, thanks for dropping by.

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Thanks very much for having me.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

For our first story today, we’re going to talk about HIV and a treatment involving stem cells.

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yes, this is a really exciting story. Researchers are reporting that for the second time ever they have cleared a person with HIV of the virus using a stem-cell transplant.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Wow, and how’s that happened?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, there’s a particular set of circumstances that has allowed this person to be treated in this way. Not only did the person have HIV, but they also had a type of blood cancer, and the treatment for that cancer required a bone-marrow transplant. Now, what’s interesting in this case is that rather than just choosing any old suitable donor, which by the way is pretty difficult to do in itself, they found a donor that has a natural resistance to HIV infection, and about 1% of people of European descent have that natural resistance. So, they transplanted stem cells from a person with natural resistance to HIV into the person who had HIV.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what’s happened to the patient involved?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, 16 months after the transplant, the patient stopped taking antiretroviral therapy which is the standard treatment for HIV, and then 18 months after stopping taking that medication, there is still no sign of HIV in the patient’s blood.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you said at the top there that this is the second time this has happened. What happened to the first patient who went through this?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, that’s right. So, this stem-cell technique was first used a decade ago for a person called Timothy Ray Brown and he’s known as the ‘Berlin patient’. He was treated in a similar way. He also had a blood cancer and a bone-marrow transplant. He also had a slightly more aggressive form of treatment, but now more than a decade later, he is still free of the virus.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, what does this mean moving forward, Nisha? I mean this does seem like a fairly unique set of circumstances for treating this virus.

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, this is a breakthrough that works in a particular set of circumstances, and this kind for treatment wouldn’t be suitable for most people with HIV because they probably don’t have cancer and so they don’t need a bone-marrow transplant, which in itself is a really serious procedure that can sometimes have fatal complications. So, even though this study is exciting and it holds promise for treatments in the future, we’re still waiting for the really big breakthrough.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on to our second story today then Nisha, and it’s the continuing saga of universities versus Elsevier.

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

Yeah, that’s right. This is a pretty big development in this saga which is essentially an escalating global row between scholarly publishers and academic institutions which are pushing to make more of the scientific literature freely available or open access, and they say that the cost of publishers’ subscriptions are becoming unreasonably expensive. And in this case, the University of California system, which is the largest public university system in the US, has opted to cancel completely its subscription with the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, last time we checked in on this story in the News Chat it was centred on Europe, but it’s spreading worldwide now then?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

This is the first big development that we’ve seen outside of Europe and it’s in a really large university network – the University of California together publishes about 10% of published research papers in the States – so it’s likely that this move will embolden other institutions in the US to take a harder line against publishers.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, what are Elsevier saying about this then?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, the background here is that the University of California’s latest subscription with Elsevier expired at the end of last year, and the two parties had been engaged in negotiations and the University of California just decided to walk away. Elsevier says its disappointed. It had hoped that they could reach some kind of agreement and it says that they were offering the University of California terms that would meet their demands but the University of California said that it was simply too expensive.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what were these terms then?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

So, a lot of these negotiations revolve around what’s called a ‘read-and-publish’ agreement. Now, in conventional licensing agreements, universities simply pay publishers to read academic papers that would otherwise be behind a paywall. Now, in a ‘read-and-publish’ deal, the university would not only pay to read paywalled papers, it would also pay for its researchers to be able to publish under open access terms, thus making a larger swathe of the literature open access, which is the ultimate goal of the university.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what about researchers in the US – how are they reacting?

Interviewee: Nisha Gaind

This is really interesting. It’s kind of a mixed bag. Some of the people say they’re ecstatic, they think it was the right move for their university to walk away, but others also have concern over how students and researchers at these institutes will be able to access articles. Now, because of a quirk in the way these contracts are written, even though the University of California has cancelled its subscription with Elsevier, researchers will still have access to a large amount of the back catalogue because of these clauses that cover post-termination access. So, they won’t have access to newly published articles but they will still be able to see old articles.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Nisha, thank you so much for joining me and listeners, as ever, head over to nature.com/news for more on these stories.

Host: Nick Howe

That’s it for this week’s show. Just time to let you know that Nature’s 2019 ScientistAtWork photo competition is open for entries.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, that’s right. If you’ve got an awesome image of your research, you should think about sending it in to the competition. Head over to go.nature.com/scientistatwork for the full details.

Host: Nick Howe

There’s no regular show next week – we’re off learning how to be even better podcasters. But don’t worry, we’ll return very soon with the latest from the world of science. I’m Nick Howe.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.