A chance chat with a colleague pulled social psychologist Kieran O’Doherty into the realm of human microbiome research. O’Doherty’s colleague was organizing a workshop on human microbiome research and needed a social scientist, so he asked O’Doherty to join in. Captivated by the sea of questions facing microbiologists as they made their first forays into a field with novel human health implications, O’Doherty found much to investigate at the intersection of people and research. One of his current projects focuses on women’s health and the vaginal microbiome. His microbiologist colleagues focus on correlating microbiotic profiles with outcomes like preterm birth, while O’Doherty surveys the women about their sex lives, diet, and hygiene behaviors, hoping to ferret out what activities led to their specific profiles in the first place. In this issue’s Thought Experiment, O’Doherty enumerates the ethical questions posed by human microbiome research, such as designer babies created via microbiome manipulations and implications for the privacy of health-care data.
Jordi Vives i Batlle fell in love with marine radioecology during his thesis work, which examined radionuclide discharges from Ireland’s Sellafield nuclear facility into the Irish Sea. The opportunity to board research vessels and perform complicated techniques to extract minute amounts of radionuclides from seawater and ocean sediments got him hooked, Vives i Batlle says. Originally trained as a mathematical physicist, he began “converting” from physicist to biologist as his work on the marine environment stimulated his interest in modeling the “integration of radionuclides into the cycles of nature,” he says. This work has led him to investigate radionuclide cycles in animals as diverse as lobsters and sea snails.Vives i Batlle first collaborated with Nick Beresford on the international FASSET/ERICA projects, which developed tools for assessment of radiological risk to wildlife. Beresford has been researching radionuclides in the environment for more than 20 years, initially focused on radionuclide contamination of farm animals. After the Chernobyl accident, he studied the impact on sheep in the United Kingdom and worked in the Chernobyl exclusion zone to measure the transfer of radioactivity to cow milk. Beresford invited Vives i Batlle to collaborate on their Critic at Large article calling for more research into Fukushima’s impacts on the nonhuman environment. Though efforts to monitor human safety are to be lauded, they argue that ecological contamination also needs comprehensive assessment.
Nicoli Nattrass began studying economics as an undergraduate at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She continued investigating labor economics through one honors degree, two master degrees, a Rhodes scholarship, and a doctorate from Oxford University. Nattrass has focused on unemployment and inequality, including her thesis work on the economics of apartheid. Nattrass had no background in the economics of health care when she heard South Africa’s Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang declare it too expensive to provide HIV-positive pregnant mothers with antiretroviral therapy to prevent transmission to their babies. In response, Nattrass calculated the cost of caring for HIV-positive children and found that it easily outstripped the cost of providing the drugs. This began a long struggle against the AIDS denialism then prevalent in South Africa’s government. Nattrass founded the Centre for Social Science Research at the University of Cape Town in 2001, the same year she was awarded its Distinguished Teachers Award. Four of her five books have focused on the economics of AIDS. In this issue’s Reading Frames, Nattrass introduces her latest, The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, a discussion of the AIDS denialism movement and the counterstruggle by scientists and AIDS activists.