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Science on a shoestring

Emma Marris, Nature Medicine
Since the late 1980s, the San Francisco-based Sustainable Sciences Institute has made it its mission to train scientists in resource-poor countries and help them cobble together low-cost devices-to “give people the tools they need and let them run with them,” as its ebullient leader Eva Harris says.

Among the institute’s most famous inventions, for example, are a centrifuge made from a blender and a no-frills PCR method that uses homemade thermal cycling equipment and ceramic dust instead of silica for purifying the DNA. A 1997 MacArthur fellowship allowed Harris to expand the institute from an informal setup to a more official organization.

Since then, with an annual budget of about $1 million that is coaxed from foundations and from individual donors, the institute has held more than 30 workshops, training mainly Latin American scientists in topics ranging from diagnostics to epidemiology to grant writing. The institute also gives out mini-grants to the most promising projects.

Here Harris talks about the philosophy behind the institute’s unique approach, its successes, its many ongoing projects and the eternal struggle for funding.

…Eva Harris: “In Nicaragua, there was running water maybe twice a week and roosters running everywhere, and 100-degree heat every day in the middle of an economic blockade. But together with my Nicaraguan colleagues, I created a series of workshops by listening to what they needed. They had a problem with leishmaniasis, and they wanted to learn molecular biology.

Through the workshops, I was able to teach them PCR right after it was invented, and it was the first time anyone in the country had seen DNA. We were able to diagnose leishmaniasis rapidly, determine the species of the parasite and develop diagnostic tools that were implemented immediately at the national level. I realized that the key to this kind of work is to understand the principles and partner with people in an equitable, respectful and long-term manner. We are still there.”
(October 2007 issue)
Original is behind a paywall.

Reader Michael Lardelli writes:
As a geneticist/molecular biologist I have been wondering how sustainable my own branch of science will be post-PO. Any eventual loss of computing will be a huge loss for modern genetics – e.g. the information we have on the human and other genome sequences will be essentially unusable without computers. However, there are some situations in which genetics techniques, especially the polyerase chain reaction (PCR, a central technique in modern genetics) could still be very useful. It is great to see an organisation making efforts to simply this “simple” technology even further. I suppose that the main hurdle to maintaining PCR will be the ability to synthesise the short DNA pieces (oligonucleotides) that it requires. It would be very interesting to see some discussion among geneticists/biochemists on the possibilities of generating oligonucleotides (possibly just for a few, particular common tasks) by “low-tech” means.

Note that the Sustainable Sciences Institute’s website address is

Global health relies on biomedical scientists and public health workers who can recognize and resolve infectious disease problems at a local level.

In developing countries, these investigators face tremendous challenges, including the lack of technical training, research tools, financial resources, and up-to-date scientific information.

The mission of Sustainable Sciences Institute (SSI) is to develop scientific research capacity in areas with pressing public health problems.

To that end, SSI helps local biomedical scientists gain access to training, funding, information, equipment, and supplies, so that they can better meet the public health needs of their communities.

Ideas on Enviro-Conscious Apartment Living

Emily Gertz, World Changing
… One thing about most of this “green home” information, though: it’s usually geared at people in houses. With yards. And their own water heaters. And funds to renovate entire kitchens. Qualities that many of us may not share, living as we do in apartments, with windowboxes, a clanky old boiler in the basement, and very modest amounts of money to spend on fixing up our kitchens (certainly not enough to go all HenryBuilt or Plyboo).

I’ve sought to redress this imbalance a bit with my periodic “Greening the Co-op” posts on Worldchanging NYC; even when there are not answers quite yet on how to do things more sustainably in apartment settings, I try to at least get thinking about it at the scale of an apartment, and through the lens of managing the wants and needs of the many residents of a multi-unit building. Here are some highlights:
(5 October 2007)

My Journey to Sustainability

Tom Nielsen, Truth to Power
I had an “aha” moment the other day. I was reading an interview of a couple with an organic farm who use draft horses instead of tractors. They were asked what other alternative energy sources they use. Their initial response was that they’ve been waiting for that question. Their real answer was: gasoline. When I read that I realized how I have been looking at energy in terms of what is most abundant and most readily available for use instead of looking at natural energy like solar and wind as resources that are even more readily usable and available.

I hope I can offer you a similar “aha” moment by telling you about my journey into sustainability, and through the telling, help you see how to start becoming more sustainable yourself. This journey is not one I took alone. My partner, Phil, was with me for the ride, so it’s really our journey, and it began around 1997. Both of us have always been environmentally conscious, but in no way were we activists. We didn’t belong to Greenpeace or the Green Party. We aren’t hikers (despite the large forested park directly behind our apartment building), nor are we tree huggers, or vegetarians. In fact, at that time we were somewhat oblivious to environmental concerns. We shopped at the local super-giant grocery store: bought their well-traveled, mass- produced and minimally- flavored tomatoes and strawberries, and satisfied our various food cravings: Mine was Pop-Tarts, and Phil’s was chocolate-stripe cookies. We would leave, like everyone else, with everything double-bagged.

…Between 2001 and 2003 though, things changed and so did we. We entered a kind of germination period where we started looking outward at what was going on in the world instead of fixing our gaze inward at ourselves and our possessions. Several things happened to bring about this change. 9/11 had a deep affect on our household, emotionally and financially. We felt helpless and angry but unable to direct that emotion anywhere.

..Does living sustainably require that we drive more? Yes, it does. Does living sustainably cost more than regular trips to the grocery store? Yes, it does. Do we feel less dependent and more fulfilled through the relationships we’ve established by living this way? Yes, we do. It gives us great satisfaction to know the farmers we buy things from. They are small producers and make a point of being organic and sustainable themselves. We feel fulfilled because we’ve taken our food purchases and health into our own hands. We also feel fulfilled by supporting a small local producer instead of a multi-national conglomerate. That multi-national won’t talk to us about the health of the cows and the pasture grass when we visit, or show us how to bottle-feed a calf or move a chicken tractor. Our farmer will.

So living sustainably has introduced us to a whole new world we barely knew existed, but it’s also helped us recover our sense of self and connect us with others who want to live sustainably. It’s also given us the confidence to go beyond food to try to affect change in a sustainable way in our local community. As part of this, Phil has created a not-for-profit focused on educating communities about food, energy and economic issues. He organizes film screenings for neighborhood groups in New York City, offering over 50 different independent films, mostly documentaries, such as, “The End of Suburbia”, “The Future of Food”, “Black Gold”, and “Maxed Out”.

We’ve also discovered permaculture which is a design system for creating sustainable human environments. Permaculture focuses on the beneficial relationships we can create with plants, animals, buildings and infrastructure that are ecologically sound and economically viable.

Tom Nielsen is a librarian, currently working for a library consortium in New York City, but dreaming of the good life outside the city, with books, cows, chickens, a couple good cast-iron pans and a small community of like-minded people.
(5 October 2007)
Recommended by Carolyn Baker of Speaking Truth to Power.

Documentary: Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp

Matt and Erica Hinton, film website
Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp’ is the first feature documentary about Sacred Harp singing, a haunting form of a cappella, shape note hymn singing with deep roots in the American south. Shape note singing has survived over 200 years tucked away from notice in the rural deep south, where in old country churches, singers break open ‘The Sacred Harp’, a 160 year old shape note hymnal which has preserved these fiercely beautiful songs which are some of the oldest in America. The film offers a glimpse into the lives of this ‘Lost Tonal Tribe’ whose history is a story of both rebellion and tradition. The filmmakers, Matt and Erica Hinton spent 7 years documenting this yet largely unknown art form.
(2006 release)
Click on the original website to hear a traditional “wall of sound” – powerful, archaic sounding, moving. The 2003 Civil War film Cold Mountain featured several Sacred Harp pieces.

Film trailer
Interview with the filmmakers (audio)
Am I born to die ? (Sacred Heart piece by musicians from Cold Mountain)
Sacred Heart (Wikipedia)

As our energy systems change, so will our society and culture. What will music be like in an energy constrained, more communal culture? Sacred Heart and other traditional choral music gives a glimpse of what might be. -BA