The World at Home in Lindau

For nine years, host families from Lindau and the surrounding area have welcomed young scientists from all over the world who are participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Through their engagement, the young scientists avail of the unique opportunity to get to know Lindau and its people in personal surroundings and learn more about their lives and culture first-hand. 

 

Reunited After Six Years – Elom Aglago and His Lindau Host Family Trojan

Brigitte Trojan and Hans Schweickert have been participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings as a host family since 2011. They have already welcomed seven young scientists from all over the world (Egypt, Japan, Georgia, Chile, Iran, Lebanon and Togo). In 2011, young scientist Elom Aglago from Togo was their first guest. They have kept in touch during the past six years, and this year, Elom came back to Lindau to meet his host family again.

 

Elom Algago and his host family in Lindau. Credit: Christoph Schumacher/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Elom Aglago and his host family in Lindau. Credit: Christoph Schumacher/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

How did you decide to become a host family?

Brigitte Trojan/Hans Schweickert: We had just moved here to Lindau, into a new house with garden, when we thought that we might welcome a young scientist from abroad. We love being at home, we love living here in Lindau, but we are also open to new cultures and perspectives. In addition, we are very enthusiastic about the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. So, for us, it was a perfect opportunity to meet people from all over the world. It is also a great way for us to improve our English.

For us, it was a perfect opportunity to meet people from all over the world

How do you remember Elom’s first stay here in Lindau?

BT/HS: We felt happy and privileged to host Elom here in 2011. We had breakfast together every morning and talked about the daily programme. And every evening, he gave us a briefing about the day at the Lindau Meeting. We got lots of inspiration from him. He always liked to discuss things with us, and we truly appreciate that.

 

How did you stay in contact over the past six years?

BT/HS: We occasionally exchanged e-mails. For example, we wished each other a Merry Christmas each year. We sent him the news from Lindau, told him about the new young scientists, and in return received news from Togo, Morocco or France, depending on where he lived at the time. He shared the progress of his scientific career with us, the papers he published and his most important findings. Two years ago, we had the idea that he could visit us again. Last December, we have planned his visit for this summer – and now he is here again.

 

How was it to see each other again?

BT/HS: We met at the railway station and were happy to see each other again. Immediately, there was the familiar warmth and the same spark. We right away started again to discuss differences and in our philosophies, and to talk about the roles of family and parents in our different cultures and so on. We missed him, and our cat missed him as well (laughs).

 

Is he the same as you remember him?

BT/HS: Yes and No. He is as young and lively as he was then – but also a little bit more serious; it seems as if he has arrived where he wants to be.

 

Elom at the Bavarian Evening during the Lindau Meeting 2011. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elom Algago

Elom at the Bavarian Evening during the Lindau Meeting 2011. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elom Algago

Elom Aglago: I have become wiser; I’m not as childlike as I was then. I think that my host family contributed in some way to that; they helped me to understand differences in cultures, to respect other cultures and learn from them. I think it all started with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. I experienced for the first time that we are all different but unique and special. We have to take that into account.

 

Are you closer to getting the Nobel Prize now than you were back in 2012?

EA: Personally, getting the Nobel Prize is not on my agenda at the moment (laughs). I would like to take on administrative position from which I can improve the transfer of knowledge, technology and responsibility to Africa. Many Africans get lost in their ambitions, not aware of the correct procedures. I plan to do this and continue with my research at the same time.

 

Did you have such good experiences with every young scientist you welcomed?

BT/HS: It is always a great opportunity to meet people who are able to bring the world forwards. All young scientists were very polite and got along well in our home. They were always very thankful; and were eager to engage in dialogue and to take in all information.

 

 

 The First Access to the World – Host Family Ober

The Ober family has been welcoming young scientists in Lindau since 2013. Thus far, all of them have been from Asia: Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. Often, two young scientists stay at their holiday apartment at the same time. Their son David enjoys the company of the foreign visitors and helps his parents as host.

 

Host family Ober with their two young scientists Nopphon Weeranoppanant (“Nop”, left) and Cholpisit Kiattisewee (“Ice”, second from right) and guest Pree-Cha Kiatkirakajorn (“Joe”, right). Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Catharina Ober

Host family Ober with their two young scientists Nopphon Weeranoppanant (“Nop”, left) and Cholpisit Kiattisewee (“Ice”, second from right) and guest Pree-Cha Kiatkirakajorn (“Joe”, right). Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Catharina Ober

 

Why did you become a host family for the Lindau Meetings?

Cathrin Ober: My niece Theresa came up with the idea of acting as a host family for young scientists. We wouldn’t have thought about if it wasn’t for her; she was the driving force behind our decision. She already knew five years ago, when she was 14, that she would become a physicist and had been at various events of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, for example, at the Grill & Chill or at the Matinee. She convinced us to volunteer as a host family and promised to care for the young scientists during their stay. When the first young scientists came to our home, our son, David, also became enthusiastic about the visitors. For example, he prepared the breakfasts for them. He was only five years old! If he wouldn’t have been that committed, we may have stopped after my niece had left Lindau. […] The Lindau Meetings are wonderful for our city. Everything is always working out that well, because everyone plays their part to the full. We are happy to contribute our bit.

Our son also became enthusiastic about the visitors

How is it to be a host family during the Lindau Meetings, especially with a young child?

CO: It is always a lot of fun! We benefit from the tightly packed programme of the young scientists. I mean, my husband and I are both fully employed; we’re doing this alongside our day jobs. Although we don’t have much time, the young scientists were always very grateful. We do have the mornings together, and on the only free evening, we are always cooking a German meal for our guests. This year, we made Kässpätzle, sautéed onions and Sauerkraut. Up to now, the two Thai boys we had here this year have been the most fun, it was amazing with them. They played tabletop soccer with David. They always tried to chat with him. In previous years, it was only sign language, but now he knows a few words in English. I think that it is a good thing for him and the other children in host families. It is his first access to the world. He has always joined when we spent time with them, and it is always him who first finds the young scientists at the train station. He looks at their photos before we pick them up at the station, and he always spots them right away!

During the interview, their son David enters the room, wearing a jumper with the inscription ’Time to go and change the world’. When asked how it is to have young scientists at their home every year, he simply replied: “Quite cool!”

 

Have you stayed in contact with the young scientists you have welcomed here in Lindau?

CO: We have never stayed in contact with any of our guests. I really do think that it is hard if you only get to know each other for one week. But if we’d like to get in touch again, it would surely be possible with all of them. Our young scientists this year were quite direct and said that all hell would break loose if we were to set foot into Thailand without getting in touch with them (laughs). We show them the beauty of Lindau and that’s all. We’re not well versed in natural sciences. That’s why we never really talked about their disciplines. We talked about their countries and customs, about their focuses in life.

The two young scientists were also enthusiastic about their stay at the Ober’s house. They told us about the “incredible experience” (Ice) with “an amazing host family” (Nop). They were particularly pleased with the exchange of their cultures. The conversations during the meals were “very important parts of my memory of Lindau. And Spätzle was my favourite! :)” (Nop)

 

 

Lindau Family for Life – Host Family Heller

Mrs. and Mr. Heller are a host family since 2012. Every year, they welcome at least one young scientist at their home.

 

Host family Heller and Alumna Dissaya in Lindau. Credit: Courtesy of Dissaya Pornpattananangkul

Host family Heller and Alumna Dissaya in Lindau. Credit: Courtesy of Dissaya Pornpattananangkul

 

Why did you decide to host young scientists?

Mr. Heller: I have spent ten years of my life abroad. I know what it’s like to be a foreigner in another country and how nice it is to get access to the local people and to get their support. Everybody wishes to enjoy hospitality: this means that you have to offer it yourself. In that way, you can get to know the world without stepping onto an airplane.
In addition, I do have a special interest in science in general and in astrophysics, medicine and economic sciences in particular.

In that way, you can get to know the world without stepping onto an airplane.

What is it like to be a host family?

H: Being a host family means to be tolerant and open. It implies to be considerate of others and to give someone you don’t know the benefit of the doubt. It is always exciting when a completely unknown person becomes part of your family from one minute to the next. In general, it is always an enrichment to spend time with those guests. The young scientists that come to Lindau are global elite. It is thus not surprising that they are pleasant, interesting, capable and astonishingly mature personalities. Unfortunately, we have not yet succeeded in persuading one of our guests to move to Germany and work here, although each of the scientists would mean an enormous gain for our country.

 

Were there huge differences between the different young scientists you have welcomed in Lindau up to now?

H: In our experience, the young and mobile generation in a global world is coming closer together. Their dreams and wishes are – despite all cultural differences – the same: they want to start a family, to develop professionally, to travel as well as to live in wealth, peace and security. Although there might be a loss of cultural diversity, I believe that the positive impact of this is predominant due to the fact that homogeneity has a connecting effect.

 

Is there a key moment you remember with one of the young scientists?

H: In 2013, we welcomed a young scientist from Thailand: Dissaya. With her, we immediately had a special connection. She really became our friend even though thousands of kilometers are dividing us. During the Lindau Meeting, we had some deep conversations over a glass of red wine. We talked about the important things in life: for example, about what it means to grow old. Those moments were quite touching. I also took her out on a motorcycle tour once to show her the surroundings. A few months later, Dissaya came back to Lindau to stay with us for a two-week vacation. She also invited us to her wedding a few years ago; unfortunately, we weren’t able to go.

 

After the interview with Mr. Heller, we asked Dissaya to also comment on her experience with her host family.

Dissaya Pornpattananangkul: Before meeting with the family, I was only expecting to exchange experiences with the local people. The first time I arrived in Lindau by train, Mr. Heller was there waiting to pick me up. From that moment onwards, my host family took care of me so well. They showed me many places in Lindau. It was one of the most valuable experiences abroad for me. Staying with the host family, I gained a family in Lindau for life. […] The whole time I was there, every moment was very special. Mr. Heller took me out to ride a motorcycle in the mountains. The view was fantastic. It was really one of the most beautiful sceneries I have ever seen.

 

Alumna Dissaya at the motorcycle tour. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mr. Heller

Alumna Dissaya at the motorcycle tour. Photo/Credit: Heller

We thank the Lindau host families for their engagement as well as the open and interesting conversations.

The Hungry Brain

Gut brain Axis Feature Credited

 

Under normal, healthy conditions we eat whenever we are feeling hungry. In addition to the feeling of hunger, we also often have an appetite for a specific kind of food, and sometimes we simply crave the pleasure a certain food like chocolate or pizza may provide us. This pleasure is part of the hedonic aspect of food and eating. In fact, anhedonia or the absence of experiencing pleasure from previously pleasurable activities, such as eating enjoyable food, is a hallmark of depression. The hedonic feeling originates from the pleasure centre of the brain, which is the same one that lights up when addicts ‘get a fix’. Hedonic eating occurs independently of the gut-brain axis, which is why you will keep eating those crisps and chocolate, even when you know, you’re full. Hence, sayings like “These chips are addictive!” are much closer to the biological truth than many realise.  

But how do we know that we are hungry? Being aware of your surrounding and/or your internal feelings is the definition of consciousness. And a major hub for consciousness is a very primal brain structure, called the thalamus. This structure lies deep within the brain and constantly integrates sensory input from the outside world. It is connected to cognitive areas such as the cortex and the hippocampus, but also to distinct areas in the brainstem like the locus coeruleus, which is the main noradrenergic nucleus in the brain and regulates stress and panic responses. Directly below the thalamus and as such also closely connected to this ‘awareness hub’ lies the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is a very complex brain area with many different functions and nuclei. Some of them are involved in the control of our circadian rhythm and internal clock – the deciphering of which was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But the main task of the hypothalamus is to connect the brain with the endocrine system (i.e. hormones) of the rest of the body. Hormones like ghrelin, leptin, or insulin are constantly signalling your brain whether you are hungry or not. They do so via several direct and indirect avenues, such as blood sugar levels, monitoring energy storage in adipose cells, or by secretion from the gastrointestinal mucosa.

There are also a number of mechanosensitive receptors that detect when your stomach walls distend, and you have eaten enough. However, similarly to the hormonal signals, the downstream effects of these receptors also take a little while to reach the brain and be (consciously) noticeable. Thus, the slower you eat, the less likely you will be to over-eat, because the satiety signals from hunger-hormones and stomach-wall-detectors will reach your consciousness only after about 20 to 30 minutes.

Leaving the gut and coming back to the brain, the hypothalamus receives endocrine and neuropeptidergic inputs related to energy metabolism and whether the body requires more food. Like most brain structures, the hypothalamus is made up of several sub-nuclei that differ in cell-type and downstream-function. One of these nuclei, the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus, is considered the main hub for feeding and appetite control. Within it there are a number of signalling avenues that converge and that – if altered or silenced – can induce for instance starvation. Major signalling molecules are the Neuropeptide Y, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and the peptide hormone melanocortin. The neurons in the arcuate nucleus are stimulated by these and other signalling molecules in order to maintain energy homeostasis for the entire organism. There are two major subclasses of neurons in the arcuate nucleus that are essential for this homeostasis and that, once stimulated, cause very different responses: activation of the so-called POMC neurons decreases food intake, while the stimulation of AGRP neurons increases food intake. And this circuit even works the other way around: researchers found that by directly infusing nutrients into the stomach of mice, they were able to inhibit AGRP neurons and their promotion of food intake.

Given this intricate interplay between different signalling routes, molecules, and areas it is not surprising then that a disrupted balance between all of these players could be detrimental. Recent studies identified one key player that can either keep the balance or wreak havoc: the gut microbiome

 

Bacteria colonising intestinal villi make up the gut microbiome. Picture/Credit: ChrisChrisW/iStock.com

Bacteria colonising intestinal villi make up the gut microbiome. Picture/Credit: ChrisChrisW/iStock.com

 

The gut microbiome is the entirety of the microorganisms living in our gastrointestinal tract, and they can modulate the gut-brain axis. Most of the microorganisms living on and within us are harmless and in fact are very useful when it comes to digesting our food. However, sometimes this mutually beneficial symbiosis goes awry, and the microbes start ‘acting out’. For instance, they can alter satiety signals by modulating the ghrelin production and subsequently induce hunger before the stomach is empty, which could foster obesity. They can also block the absorption of vital nutrients by taking them up themselves and thereby inducing malnutrition. A new study which was published only last month revealed that Alzheimer patients display a different and less diverse microbiome composition than healthy control subjects. Another study from Sweden even demonstrated that the specific microbiome composition occurring in Alzheimer’s patients induces the development of disease-specific amyloid-beta plaques, thereby establishing a direct functional link between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s disease – at least in mice. Similarly, the composition and function of the microbiome might also directly affect movement impairments in Parkinson’s disease. In addition, there is also mounting evidence that neuropsychiatric diseases such as anxiety or autism are functionally linked to the microbiome

Moreover, even systemic diseases such as lung, kidney and bladder cancers have been recently linked to the gut microbiome. Albeit, in this case, not the disease development and progression seem to be directly related to our gut inhabitants. Instead, the researchers found that if the microbiome of the cancer patients was disrupted by a recent dose of antibiotics, they were less likely to respond well to the cancer treatment and their long-term survival was significantly diminished. It seems that the treatment with antibiotics disrupts specific components of the microbiome, which then negatively affects the function of the entire composition. 

While the cause or consequence mechanisms between these different afflictions and an altered microbiome have not been solved yet, it seems certain that it is involved in more than digestion. Hence, the already intricate gut-brain axis is further complicated by the gut microbiome, which not only affects when and what we eat, but can also determine our fate in health and disease.  

The Workings of Our Inner Clock – Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017

2017 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2017

2017 Nobel Laureates in Physiology or Medicine: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2017

 

Our body functions differently during the day than it does during the night – as do those of many organisms. This phenomenon, referred to as the circadian rhythm, is an adaptation to the drastic changes in the environment over the course of the 24-hour cycle in which the Earth rotates about its own axis. How does the biological clock work? A complex network of molecular reactions within our cells ensures that certain proteins accumulate at high levels at night and are degraded during the daytime. For elucidating these fundamental molecular mechanisms, Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2017.

Already in the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacque d’Ortous de Mairan observed that plants moved their leaves and flowers according to the time of the day no matter whether they were placed in the light or in the dark, suggesting the existence of an inner clock that worked independently of external stimuli. However, the idea remained controversial for centuries until additional physiological processes were shown to be regulated by a biological clock, and the concept of endogenous circadian rhythms was finally established.

 

Simplified illustration of the feedback regulation of the period gene.  Illustration: © The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. Illustrator: Mattias Karlén

Simplified illustration of the feedback regulation of the period gene. Illustration: © The Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine. Illustrator: Mattias Karlén

The first evidence of an underlying genetic programme was found by Seymour Benzer and Ronald Konopka in 1971 when they discovered that mutations in a particular gene, later named period, disturbed the circadian rhythm in fruit flies. In the 1980s, the collaborating teams of the American geneticists Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash at Brandeis University as well as the laboratory of Michael W. Young at Rockefeller University succeeded in deciphering the molecular structure of period. Hall and Rosbash subsequently discovered how it was involved in the circadian cycle: they found that the levels of the gene’s product, the protein PER, oscillated in a 24-hour cycle, and suggested that high levels of PER may in fact block further production of the protein in a negative self-regulatory feedback loop. However, how exactly this feedback mechanism might work remained elusive.

Years later, the team of Michael W. Young contributed the next piece to the circadian puzzle with the discovery of another clock gene, named timeless. The protein products of period and timeless bind each other and are then able to enter the cell’s nucleus to block the activity of the period gene. The cycle was closed when, in 1998, the teams of Hall and Rosbash found two further genes, clock and cycle, that regulate the activity of both period and timeless, and another group showed that vice versa the gene products of timeless and period control the activity of clock. Later studies by the laureates and others found additional components of this highly complex self-regulating network and discovered how it can be affected by light.

The ability of this molecular network to regulate itself explains how it can oscillate. However, it does not explain why this oscillation occurs every 24 hours. After all, both gene expression and protein degradation are relatively fast processes. It was thus clear that a delay mechanism must be in place. An important insight came from Young’s team: the researchers found that a particular protein can delay the process and named the corresponding gene doubletime.

It has since been discovered that the physiological clock of humans works according to the same principles as that of fruit flies. To ensure that our whole body is in sync, our circadian rhythm is regulated by a central pacemaker in the hypothalamus. The circadian clock is affected by external cues such as food intake, physical activity or temperature. But how does the circadian clock affect us? Our biological rhythm influences our sleep patterns, how much we eat, our hormone levels, our blood pressure and our body temperature. Dysfunction of the circadian clock is associated with a range of diseases including sleep disorders, depression, bipolar disorders and neurological diseases. There is also some evidence suggesting that a misalignment between lifestyle and the inner biological clock can have negative consequences for our health. An aim of ongoing research in the field of chronobiology is thus to regulate circadian rhythms to improve health.

 

Tackling the Intractable

Depression is one of the most common and debilitating illnesses worldwide, especially because many sufferers do not respond adequately to any of the currently available treatment options. Picture/Credit: SanderStock/iStock.com

Depression is one of the most common and debilitating illnesses worldwide, especially because many sufferers do not respond adequately to any of the currently available treatment options. Picture/Credit: SanderStock/iStock.com

 

The scourge of depression affects more than 300 million people worldwide, and is the leading global cause of disability. The Nobel Prize-winning research of Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard and Eric Kandel among others, paved the way for effective drugs to treat the condition.

How do nerve cells communicate with each other? This was the question that fascinated Paul Greengard and which led him to unravel the biochemical basis for how dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter between nerve cells. His scientific discoveries provided part of the underlying scientific rationale for drugs such as Prozac that act to increase the levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter whose levels are implicated in depression. Indeed, several so-called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have been developed for the treatment of depression and other disorders, and they are the most commonly prescribed anti-depressants in many countries.

However, even though these compounds provide relief to many, a substantial proportion of individuals with depression do not respond adequately either to these drugs or to cognitive behavioural therapy, the other common first-line treatment for depression.  In fact, about one third of people with severe depression do not initially respond adequately to any currently available therapy. Recently revived research into the medicinal potential of psychedelic drugs, which include LSD and psilocybin from mushrooms, indicates that such substances, when combined with appropriate psychiatric care, may be an effective tool in combatting depressive disorders. The stage is now set for the largest ever clinical trial examining the effectiveness of a psychedelic substance to treat depression.

Although psychedelic drugs may revolutionise the treatment of depression, at a molecular level, their mode of action is very similar to that of traditional SSRIs: they decrease the amount of serotonin that is “resorbed” by the signalling neuron and thus increase the amount of the neurotransmitter that can be taken up by the neuron which is receiving the signal. The key difference is that psychedelics primarily engage different serotonin receptors, which means that different regions of the brain are affected leading to very different physiological effects. Thus, while traditional SSRIs act to reduce stress, anxiety and aggression and to promote increased resilience and emotional blunting, the goal of treatment with psychedelics is rather to dissolve rigid thinking and provide environmental sensitivity and emotional release. The proponents of psychedelics thus claim that the cumulative effect is to increase well-being, while more traditional medications seek to rather simply decrease the symptoms of depression.

The potential of psychedelics to tackle depression head-on and “wipe the slate clean” instead of simply addressing the symptoms almost sounds too good to be true. Psychedelic drugs are strictly prohibited in most countries around the world. In the UK, for example, both LSD and psilocybin are classified as Class A drugs (those whose consumption is deemed most dangerous). With good reason: in particular, LSD abuse is linked with a range of adverse consequences, including panic attacks, psychosis and perceptual disorders. Many users apply Paracelsus’ maxim: “The dose makes the poison.” The regular ingestion of LSD at amounts that are not sufficient to elicit full-blown hallucinations, but which users claim improves focus and creativity, referred to as micro-dosing, has attracted a huge amount of attention in recent times, in large part due to anecdotal evidence that the practice is rife in Silicon Valley. Micro-dosing with psilocybin is also increasing in popularity. The use of psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms”, was an element of some pre-historic cultures, and, as with other psychedelics, its use both recreational and medicinal was popular in the 1960s. Prohibitive anti-drug legislation across the globe meant that in subsequent decades research into the drug was severely curtailed. However, the last 20 years have witnessed a gradual renaissance of psilocybin research.

 

Psilocybin, a psychedelic substance found in “magic mushrooms”, has shown promise in tackling treatment-resistant depression and in alleviating the anxiety and depressive symptoms of cancer patients. Picture/Credit: Misha Kaminsky/iStock.com

Psilocybin, a psychedelic substance found in “magic mushrooms”, has shown promise in tackling depression and in alleviating anxiety. Picture/Credit: Misha Kaminsky/iStock.com

 

While regular small doses appear to be one potential approach, most recent clinical studies that have tested the effects of psilocybin for depression in a controlled set-up have adopted a strategy in which a single higher dose of the substance or several such doses are administered over a short period of time. This approach is in sharp contrast to the one taken for classical anti-depressants, which are consumed daily. The single high dose strategy has yielded promising results for patients with treatment-resistant depression and also for those suffering from the anxiety and depression often experienced by individuals with cancer. The majority of patients treated with psilocybin in this way exhibited an improvement in the symptoms of depression for up to six months. However, even though these recent studies have shown positive results, there remain a number of significant caveats: firstly, one of the most recent trials was open-label, meaning that the participants knew in advance that they would be receiving a psychedelic drug; secondly, most of the studies to date have been small with only 50 subjects or less; finally, as in most other trials of this kind, the reporting measures are very subjective in nature and rely upon observation by health care professionals, friends or self-reporting by the patients themselves.

It is thus still too early to draw any definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of psilocybin in alleviating the symptoms of depression. This might be about to change, however: the British start-up company Compass Pathways is close to sealing final approval to carry out what would be the largest clinical trial to date looking at the efficacy of psilocybin in treating depression. As well as incorporating far more subjects than in previous trials (approximately 400) the scientists involved also aim to use more objective digital tracking methods to monitor the effects of psilocybin. In common with previous smaller-scale studies, careful psychological support and monitoring will be crucial in future trials. Research has shown that simply administering psychedelic drugs without providing a proper supportive environment, including counselling, greatly reduces the efficacy of psychedelics against depression and may even be counter-productive.

Even though the first clinical data suggest promising effects of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of depression, several questions remain open: it is unclear how representative the study populations have been, as there may have been a bias toward recruiting those who are more favourably disposed to using psychedelics, and positive prior experiences with such substances may affect treatment outcome. Furthermore, it has yet to be determined at which point substances should be introduced as therapy – as a front-line therapy before depressive symptoms become too ingrained and before long-term therapy with classical anti-depressants, or rather as a treatment of last resort when all else fails.

Young Women Economists in Lindau: Powerful Encounters

One of the reasons I applied to attend the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences was the expectation of coming back brimming with self-motivation. Moreover, I expected to be deeply fascinated by the commitment of the pioneers of economic sciences, by their bravery in addressing world issues and by their lives as common individuals facing successes and failures. My expectations were by far exceeded.

I have always genuinely aspired to become an active participant in economics and to make a difference. My passion for the subject started with my postgraduate studies and further developed during my work at the United Nations and my academic experiences. A special opportunity offered by this meeting is the possibility of interacting with Nobel Laureates and other young academics, while sharing passions and values, understanding different cultures and exchanging ideas and future collaborations.

But what also fascinated me and made this experience even more magic and overwhelming was the passion, the eagerness and the determination of the many young women economists I had the pleasure of meeting in Lindau.

 

Zeinab Aboutalebi (left) and Angela De Martiis during the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences. Picture/Credit: Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Zeinab Aboutalebi (left) and Angela De Martiis during the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, Picture/Credit: Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

One of the ideas that particularly got my attention during the meeting is what Nobel Laureate Bengt Holmström called serendipity. Among the various questions to the laureates, many young economists were eager to know the secret of their success: how did they do it?

A common answer was indeed serendipity. An unexpected discovery that occurs by chance, a valuable finding that was not looked for by others, being in the right place at the right time, or simply luck. Nevertheless, the role of chance – or luck – in science is also driven by passion and determination. Often, such unexpected findings come from an error in the scientist’s own methodology, according to scientists Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang. Passion and determination were in fact the two main elements that I sensed when talking with young women economists about their research interests.

During my week at the meeting, I had the honour of presenting my research in front of five Nobel Laureates – an invaluable experience – and the pleasure of interviewing several young women economists from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. They came from Africa, Russia, Iran, China, the United States, Germany and Italy, and they all have one element in common: passion.

When I asked them about their motivation for doing academic research, the first answer was indeed passion, eagerness to learn, to understand and provide valuable results to inform some of today’s most debated issues – such as climate change, economic sanctions, information asymmetry, inequalities, labour markets, growth theory and monetary policy. The women economists, and women’s participation in the economy more generally, provide a diversity of economic thinking, as Janet Yellen recently emphasised in a speech at Brown University.

This diversity of thinking comes from the fact that, as one of these women economists told me, economics is not just economics. Being an economist implies knowing about mathematics, statistics, natural sciences, law, politics, psychology, history, sociology and more. Economics means dealing with issues that involve institutions and individuals. All these elements together make it a powerful tool for improving people’s welfare and lives.

On the one hand, welfare is one of the motivations driving Linda Glawe, a young German economist from the University of Hagen, to focus on prolonged growth slowdowns in emerging market economies and on the concept of the middle-income trap. In a world in which more than five billion people live in middle-income countries, representing more than 70% of the world’s poor population, a slowdown in emerging markets will have strong implications for low and high-income countries. Therefore, the danger of a middle-income trap is of great relevance for future welfare. After publishing a literature survey on the middle-income trap, Linda’s current research aims to provide a theoretical contribution to discussions of future growth in China.

On the other hand, when we talk about welfare we often refer to the fact that countries have unequal living standards that makes them grow faster or slower than others. Therefore, some countries display higher inequalities in incomes, wealth and human capital. These issues are among the main research interests of Rong Hai, a Chinese young assistant professor in economics at the University of Miami.

In one recent paper, she and laureate James Heckman investigate the determinants of inequality in human capital with an emphasis on the role of credit constraints. The results show that both cognitive and non-cognitive abilities are important determinants of human capital inequality. In addition, credit constraints are important because young people cannot borrow enough against their future human capital and thus suffer from lower consumption when they are in school.

In a second paper, Rong finds that reducing income inequality between low and median income households improves economic growth. But reducing income inequality through taxation between median and high-income households reduces economic growth.

 

Angela De Martiis and other young economists during the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences,  Picture/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Angela De Martiis and other young economists during the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, Picture/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

When investigating economic inequalities, there are many reasons to explore inequality within cities or states, especially if we consider that individuals move across space. Thus, the disparity of a particular area is also a reflection of the skills of these individuals as potential workers. From a labour economist perspective, Sarah Bana, an American Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is interested in understanding the returns to skills and the role that skills play in earnings inequality in the US labour market.

One of her current research papers looks at displaced workers, those who lose their jobs as a result of a firm or plant closing. Analysing comprehensive occupational employment data, the results of her research suggest that vulnerable displaced workers’ difficulties in the labour market are a function of their skills and less related to the goods and services they were previously producing. This is due to the fact that the same set of tasks can be applied in the production of various goods and services, but there appears to be little scope for workers from shrinking occupations to find work with similar earnings, which may help to explain the large earnings losses.

As a researcher in labour economics, Sarah thinks of an individual’s work as their contribution to their family, community and society. But this may be hard for those workers who are displaced in worse labour market conditions.

Several studies investigate the effects of the global financial crisis on the labour market. The data from the displaced workers survey from 1984 to 2014 clearly show a sharp increase in the rate of job loss. Besides the effects on the labour market, the long-lasting impacts of the financial crisis on the economy and wider society have questioned the adequacy of the traditional tools in explaining periods of financial distress as well as the adequacy of the existing policy response.

At the same time, the financial crisis has shown that complex interconnections among financial institutions represent a mechanism for the propagation of financial distress and they are nowadays recognised as one of the key elements of potential financial instability or systemic risk.

This is one of the crucial issues that the young Italian economist Chiara Perillo, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Zurich, is investigating. In particular, she is exploring the implications of the unconventional monetary policies (such as quantitative easing) in the euro area by combining financial network analysis with econometric methods. Using the time evolution of loans granted from euro area banks to different institutional sectors operating in the euro area, her results show that since the beginning of quantitative easing there has been an increase in bank lending, but mostly addressed to the banking system itself.

Another element that drew my attention while getting to know the young women economists was their diverse backgrounds, another powerful tool for academic research in the diversity of thinking. Being Russian by origin and doing research based in Germany, Maria Kristalova, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bremen, investigates the impact of the mutual sanctions between the EU and Russia, followed by the escalation of the Ukraine conflict in 2014. Her results show a division pattern of all EU-27 countries in two groups: the West European countries that recovered from the sanctions shock, and the East European and Baltic countries, which are still suffering with negative consequences.

Angela De Martiis (right) and Maria Kristalova during the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences

Angela De Martiis with Maria Kristalova, Picture: Courtesy of Angela De Martiis

According to Maria, this topic is of crucial importance for gaining a better understanding of the costs of political decisions that might affect the aspired convergence of Europe. In a second research topic, Maria also looks at long-run co-evolution of innovation activities and public funding in German regions. The results show strong empirical evidence of its existence.

Another issue of crucial importance, one of the most controversial, is climate change. According to Jennifer Uju Okonkwo, a young Nigerian economist based at the University of Kiel, regardless of what sceptics think, research shows evidence that the climatic system is changing and this change has several negative consequences, such as rising sea levels, coastal flooding, droughts, global warming and changes in precipitation. Hence, there is a dire need to understand optimal ways to adapt to the changing climate. Her research thus aims at finding cost-effective strategies to manage climate change that could be beneficial to developing countries with limited adaptation funds.

When investigating the issue of climate change, we immediately come across divergent views and an asymmetry in information, thus generating inefficiencies in addressing and solving such a phenomenon. As a young Iranian economist working on applied microeconomic theory at Warwick University, Zeinab Aboutalebi is investigating the role of information asymmetry.

Her research is dedicated to tracing inefficiencies created through the strategic interaction among economic actors. The role of information asymmetry is crucial in shaping the resulting consequences and in reducing the inefficiencies using, for example, different incentive schemes, designing incentive mechanisms, delegation or persuasion techniques.

Zeinab is currently working on feedback in experimentation and how the goodwill of a principal to not discourage an agent, while providing him/her feedback about the result of the experiment, could cause large inefficiencies and uninformative communication between the principal and the agent. Information asymmetry and the lack of informative communication are thus the building blocks of most of today’s big phenomena.

From climate change, to inequality, displaced workers, sanctions, growth, monetary policy and information asymmetry, it was a pleasure to make this journey into the lives and research interests of seven young women economists – to discuss new research ideas, exchange views and laugh while talking about science and about a world that is a fascinating place still to be discovered with a pinch of serendipity and a lot of determination. Thank you for sharing your passion!

Only as Strong as the Weakest Link: Global Food Supply Chains

This article appeared in a shorter form in the German newspaper Handelsblatt on August 24, 2017.

A ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’ – 300 million Euro in total. This is Angela Merkel’s bold development promise ahead of the Federal election. Germany has also placed Africa at the heart of its G20 presidency. So the future chancellor, whoever it is, needs a solid development strategy. This strategy should put farmers’ needs first and leverage the scientific expertise of companies, like Mars, that are networked throughout Africa through their supply chains.

As Bill Gates has said, “if you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture.” This is why I am joining the best economists in the world at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings in Germany 22—26 August. We are convening an event to discuss economic inequality, agriculture and the role of businesses.

 

I was discussing economic inequality at the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences with economists Romesh Vaitilingam, Eric Maskin (Nobel Laureate) and Devaki Ghose.

I was discussing economic inequality at the 6th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences with economists Romesh Vaitilingam, Eric Maskin (Nobel Laureate) and Devaki Ghose.

 

Why is this such an important issue? Over 475 million of the world’s 570 million farms are smaller than two hectares. Even though these smallholder farms produce over 80% of the world’s food, 80% of the global population deemed “chronically hungry” are farmers. This is the 80-80 paradox.

Agricultural supply chains in food-insecure regions like Africa need an upgrade — but this won’t happen without a concerted and long-term effort. Look at China, where they managed the ‘structural transformation’ from a mostly farming to a mostly industrial economy well. From 1952 to 2004, the structure of China’s economy shifted, from agriculture providing half the country’s GDP to providing only 14% in 2004. During this transition, the non-farm rural sector boomed – services, transport, processing, etc. The rural non-farm sector went from providing almost none of the GDP to more than one-third. Importantly, the Chinese government sent engineers and scientists into the countryside to transfer knowledge and technology to farmers and encourage non-farm business growth. Knowledge sharing combined with better infrastructure linkages between small farmers, processing facilities and retailing companies lies at the core of China’s success.  

Yet, while we can take inspiration from China, replicating the transformation process of a highly regulated, state-managed economy is not feasible elsewhere. Many governments do not have the capacity to effect these changes. I believe multinational corporations can fill this void. Companies need to be part of the international development strategy and leverage their unique position at the apex of global supply chains to share technical skills and cutting-edge innovation.

Indeed, this is already starting to happen. For example, the staple food crops grown by African smallholder farmers are finally getting attention. Traditionally, crops suited to Western climatic conditions, like potato, wheat and corn, have received all the scientific investment. Their yield, for example, has increased by a factor of five or six since the 1930s. The yield of traditionally African crops, on the other hand, is much the same as it was 100 years ago.

 

The average yield of maize and wheat has tripled since 1961 whereas the yield of millet, a crop traditionally grown in areas of Africa and India, has only increased by 50 percent

The average yield of maize and wheat has tripled since 1961 whereas the yield of millet, a crop traditionally grown in areas of Africa and India, has only increased by 50 percent.

 

Through a lack of R&D, finger millet, Bambara groundnut, teff and other staple African crops are still vulnerable to disease, pests and drought. The resulting low yields mean that African farmers have too little food to feed their families. It is no wonder that 80% of the global population deemed “chronically hungry” are farmers.

When we saw that this was happening, a group of uncommon collaborators came together for one of the most ambitious projects in the history of plant science. Mars, NEPAD, Illumina, BGI, WWF, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Agroforestry Centre and others partnered to sequence 101 African orphan crop genomes to accelerate breeding programs and improve food security for the farmers who depend on these crops. The genomes are being made available to the public so that plant breeders everywhere can breed new cultivars of the African crops with higher yields and more resistance to disease, pests and climate change. Better crops create jobs and can stimulate the rural non-farm sector in Africa. African seed companies will spring up to distribute the new cultivars to farmers; transport companies will bring surplus to markets; processors will take on the role of making food ready for the consumer, and so on.

 

Taro is a traditional crop in areas of Africa and one of the 101 crops whose genomes we are sequencing to improve nutrition, yield and resistance to drought, diseases and pests. Picture/Credit: karimitsu/iStock.com

Taro is a traditional crop in areas of Africa and one of the 101 crops whose genomes we are sequencing to improve nutrition, yield and resistance to drought, diseases and pests. Picture/Credit: karimitsu/iStock.com

 

We welcome the German government’s initiative to boost development aid to Africa, but to maximize the impact of taxpayers’ money, we need more inclusive private-public partnerships to play their role and bring the Marshall Plan for Africa to life. An inclusive approach is the only way to address one of the travesties of our age: people who grow food that don’t have enough to eat.

Choosing the Right Mentor is Most Important, Says Lindau Alumna

Interview with Lindau Alumna Floryne Buishand

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Floryne and get inspired.

 

Floryne Buishand, 30, from the Netherlands, is a postdoctoral researcher at the National Cancer Institute/NIH, Bethesda, USA, studies genomic changes associated with endocrine cancers with the ultimate goal of identifying novel diagnostic and prognostic markers, as well as novel therapeutic targets. One of her special interests is the field of veterinary comparative oncology: the study of naturally occurring cancers in pet dogs provides a suitable model for the advancement of the understanding, diagnosis and management of cancer in humans. Floryne participated in the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

 

Floryne Buishand

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My background is in veterinary medicine. When I started at vet school, I was convinced that I would become a small animal veterinarian in private practice, because this had always been my dream. However, during college I was selected to participate in the Honors Program of Utrecht’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. This program is an additional year on top of the normal curriculum, and it is 100% research focused. During that year I got inspired to pursue a career in translational science. I realised that solely practicing veterinary medicine would eventually become too much of a routine for me; however, research would always stay challenging. The combination of clinic and research was very appealing to me, because on the one hand I could immediately contribute to curing small animals by practicing, and on the other hand I could contribute to potential future anti-cancer therapies through my research. Also, it would allow me to formulate fundamental research questions based on clinically relevant problems, take these to the lab, and eventually translate the research findings back to the clinic. Since I was fortunate enough to get good results from my Honors Program research, after obtaining my DVM degree, I was able to continue this research project as a Ph.D. candidate. I obtained a grant from The Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development, and this allowed me to perform my Ph.D. research alongside my clinical residency in small animal surgery.

 

Who are your role models?

Obviously, I’m thankful to my parents. Without their support I wouldn’t have been in the position that I am in now.

On a professional level, I have many role models. To name a few that I have met personally, I’d like to start with late Prof. Wim Misdorp, who was one of the founding fathers of veterinary comparative oncology. He was the first veterinarian to receive a grant in comparative cancer pathology at the Dutch Cancer Institute and the Queen Wilhemina Cancer Foundation, which resulted in his Ph.D. thesis in 1964 “Malignant mammary tumors in the dog and the cat compared with the same in women”. During his impressive career he has established collaborations between human hospitals and veterinary practices and he was the first to get a dual professorship at Utrecht’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, both in the Pathology Department as well as in the Small Animal Medicine Department. Standing with one leg in the pathology lab and with one leg in the clinic, he was able to further integrate these two disciplines. Other role models are Profs. Douglas McGregor and David Fraser, who have established the Veterinary Leadership Program at Cornell University. This unique summer research experience combines faculty-guided research with student-directed learning through participation in modules, workshops and group discussion that encourage responsible leadership, critical thinking and the development of teamwork skills. Over the last 28 years, Douglas McGregor and David Fraser have inspired many veterinary medicine students, including myself, facilitating career counselling and promoting the professional development of programme alumni as independent scientists and public health professionals.

Finally, thinking of strong women in science, I consider late Nobel Laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini as a role model. She was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor. At the time of her death, aged 103, she was the oldest living Nobel Laureate. Besides her outstanding research accomplishments, she also served in Italy’s Senate as Senator for Life and she has a foundation to support African women with potential for scientific accomplishment. I like her quote: “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.”

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

During the final phase of my Ph.D., I realised that it would be important to gain research experience abroad, in order to build a successful scientific career. I always had NCI/NIH at the back of my mind, since I had visited NIH once in 2009, as part of a workshop of the Veterinary Leadership Program.

When I participated in the 2014 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, I met Prof. Jens Habermann from Lübeck University. We shared similar research interests, so he invited me to give a lecture in Lübeck in 2015. It turned out that he had performed his postdoc at NCI and when he learned that I was looking to do a postdoc abroad, he connected me with Dr. Thomas Ried, his former postdoc supervisor at NCI. I applied for a Rubicon grant from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research, and luckily this grant was honoured to me. That allowed me to start my postdoc at the Ried lab in 2016. Later this year I will start a new challenge at NCI as postdoc in the lab of Dr. Electron Kebebew.

 

Promotie Floryne Buishand (2)

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Each project is different and has its own charm. Something that I very much enjoyed was one of the final projects during my Ph.D. In this project, we identified CD90 as a putative cancer stem cell marker in pancreatic endocrine cancer. Using a zebrafish embryo xenograft model we also demonstrated that anti-CD90 monoclonal antibodies decreased the viability and metastatic potential of insulinoma cells, suggesting that anti-CD90 monoclonals form a potential novel adjutant therapeutic modality. Obviously, this therapy is still far from the clinic. However, with my clinical background I also tremendously enjoy projects that are closer to the clinic. Therefore, I enjoyed my recent rotation at NCI’s Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program (CTEP) very much, too. During my time at CTEP, I reviewed letters of intent for clinical trials and clinical trial protocols, and made improvement recommendations. It was very satisfying to realise that many people could already benefit from these clinical trials within 1-3 years, and even more people in the future if these drugs make it through Phase III trials.

 

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

It’s not my personality to feel immensely proud of what I do, or maybe this moment is yet to come. However, I’d like to rephrase: if that moment comes, I would be proud of the team work and not of my work alone, since science is ultimately a team effort. I tend to be my own devil’s advocate, always critically reviewing my work, looking for ways to improve. Although, I don’t feel pride, I can be very happy about work-related things. The happiest moment was during my Ph.D. defence. It was wonderful to end a period of hard work with a ceremonial defence in the midst of family, friends and colleagues.

 

Floryne Buishand (2)

 

What is a “day in the life” of Floryne like?

On a regular day I get up at 6 am, eat breakfast and go to the gym. I have started going to the gym every morning – weekends and holidays included – after I arrived in the U.S., and I haven’t missed a single day since. It’s a great way for me to wake-up and get energised for a productive day. I bike to NIH and normally start around 8 am. In the lab I am able to immediately start with my experiments, since I plan them ahead of time. I try to get as many experiments running in parallel in the morning. During protocol waiting steps I send emails, search papers or write manuscripts or grant proposals. However, if I really have to focus on writing, I’d rather do that at home, where I can focus better. If I am not having lunch with co-workers, I eat lunch in 5 min at my desk; it’s a habit that still persists from the time I was on clinics. I could probably make more time for lunch, but I like to keep going. During the afternoon I am finishing my experiments. The time I actually finish depends on the things I am working on that day, but usually I don’t have to work late on experiments. When I am finished I go home, make dinner or go out for dinner to meet friends. Bethesda is well known for its many restaurants, and I have made it my goal to eat at every one of them – I am getting there. After dinner I usually work a little more on emails, manuscripts or grants, and often my husband and I finish the day watching a good series. It’s too bad that we have to wait until 2019 for the final GoT season…

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

My short term goals for my postdoc are to identify novel diagnostic and prognostic markers, as well as novel therapeutic targets, leading to several high impact first authored publications. Also, I am aiming to establish an endocrine cancer comparative oncology consortium. Clinicians and investigators in the fields of veterinary and human endocrine oncology, clinical trials, pathology, and drug development will be joined in this consortium, in order to improve knowledge, development of, and access to naturally occurring canine endocrine tumours, as a model for human disease. Canine and human comparisons represent an unprecedented opportunity to complement conventional endocrine tumour research paradigms, addressing a devastating group of cancers for which innovative diagnostic and treatment strategies are clearly needed. A clinical trial testing an agent in dogs can run between one and three years, whereas human clinical trials stretch between 10-15 years. Comparative oncology research could help by integrating results from canine trials into human trials, thereby speeding up the whole drug development process.

In the long term, I would like to keep contributing to the improvement of current cancer treatment modalities, either by running my own lab, or by coordinating a clinical therapeutics development program, like the work that is being performed at NCI’s Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program.

 

Floryne Buishand

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Back in The Netherlands, I used to play the piano a lot. I have been playing since I was five years old and although I did get the chance at the conservatory to pursue a career as a professional pianist, this has never been my dream. It’s great as a hobby, and I do miss having a piano here in the U.S. Furthermore, I love to be active: besides going to the gym, I am playing tennis and I love to hike, especially in the National Parks. So far, I have visited ~35 of them, and I am looking forward to add two more during our upcoming road trip through Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming Utah and Arizona.

 

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Historically, gender stereotypes in science have impeded supportive environments for women faculty. Stereotypes not only affect the social interactions and external evaluations of a stereotyped individual, but can also affect that individual’s performance. Social science research suggests that women’s perceptions of their environments are influenced by stereotype threat: the anxiety faced when confronted with situations in which one may be evaluated using a negative stereotype. For instance, it has been demonstrated that women perform worse on math tests when reminded of their gender, like older adults perform worse on memory tests when reminded of their age. So first of all, women should try to prevent that stereotype threat influences their perception of the environment. Since gender stereotypes should not be an issue, I would give women the same advice as men: the most important thing that someone interested in science should think very carefully about is who they will choose as a mentor. A mentor will have a big impact on the future career of a young scientist, both through an inspirational experience and through the practical benefits of vocational planning. Training decisions should only be made after discussing scientific interests and objectives with trusted advisors and individuals currently in training. Individuals contemplating graduate training should be advised to seek relevant information concerning prospective mentors, including a prospective mentor’s training record, his or her academic progression and productivity, the journals in which he or she has published, and peer regard as reflected in the frequency with which his or her published papers are cited in the scientific literature.

 

Promotie Floryne Buishand

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

CRISPR/Cas9 is a hot genome editing tool that was first reported in 2010 as a programmable system for creating DNA cuts at desired locations in prokaryotes. Since then, the system has been adapted enabling its use in eukaryotic cells. So far, CRISPR/Cas9 has been successfully used in vitro and ex vivo for editing, regulating and targeting genomes. The next step would be to use CRISP/Cas9 in vivo, because it could be the next breakthrough in cancer treatment. All cancers harbour multiple mutations that cause uncontrolled cell proliferation. With CRISPR/Cas9 these mutations could be corrected directly in cancer patients. However, before CRISPR/Cas9 makes it to the clinics, obviously some challenges still need to be solved, like off-target effects and efficiency and specificity of in vivo CRISPR/Cas9 delivery methods.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

During the last two decades, women have already made substantial progress in several science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Female assistant professors are now at or above parity in psychological science and in most social sciences, and they are approaching parity in biological sciences. However, women remain less numerous at senior ranks in all fields. For example, females make up more than half of biomedical science undergraduate (58%) and postgraduate (53%) degrees but only 18% of full professors in the biomedical science. Apparently, women leave science at the transition from a mentored to an independent stage of their careers. These transition points along this career path offer a target to prevent the loss of highly trained women scientists.

One strategy to keep women on board is to provide specific “women in science fellowships”. At NCI the Sallie Rosen Kaplan postdoctoral fellowship for women in cancer research, provides additional mentoring opportunities, seminars, and workshops designed to strengthen leadership skills over a one-year period, which should enable female postdoctoral fellows to feel better equipped to transition to independent research careers.

Other strategies that could stimulate women to stay in science are a) various forms of flexibility with federal-grant funding designed to accommodate women with young children keeping these women in the game; b) increasing the value of teaching, service, and administrative experience in the tenure/promotion evaluation process; c) providing on-campus childcare centres; d) supporting requests from partners for shared tenure lines that enable couples to better balance work and personal/caretaking roles; e) stopping the tenure clock for one year per child due to childbearing demands; f) providing fully-paid leave for giving birth for tenure track women for one semester; g) providing equal opportunity for women and men to lead committees and research groups.

Blockchain Technology: ‘Proof-Of-Work’ Versus ‘Proof-Of-Stake’

Bitcoins. Photo/Credit: skodonnell/iStock.com

Bitcoins. Photo/Credit: skodonnell/iStock.com

 

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and the blockchain technology that underpins them are gradually becoming household words. Although peer-reviewed research is only just beginning to develop on the topic, the cryptocurrency ecosystem is growing at an exponential rate. Everyday, new businesses, investors and researchers enter this dynamic space.

At the University of Liechtenstein, I have been working on an experimental blockchain project with Professor Dr Martin Angerer and Jonas Gehrlein, MSc from the University of Bern. Our research on blockchain technology has been an educational, demanding and exciting journey.

The terms ‘blockchain technology’ and ‘distributed ledger technology’ refer to a variety of different technologies that attempt to solve different problems. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology emerged after the 2007/08 global financial crisis. The most popular example of these technologies is Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a decentralised and open-source digital currency that stores transactional data in a distributed database that is maintained by computers all around the world. The creator of Bitcoin, who is still unknown but goes by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, wanted to provide a decentralised, private and secure means of transferring value online that did not rely on trusting sovereign entities, central banks or financial intermediaries.

A major discussion in the cryptocurrency realm relates to the optimal algorithm for achieving a collective agreement on which transactions are valid and which are invalid within a distributed network. Currently, the two most popular methods are known as ‘proof-of-work’ and ‘proof-of-stake’.

Bitcoin’s proof-of-work algorithm uses large quantities of energy and hardware equipment, which have been estimated to cost approximately $400 million per year. Proof-of-stake is a newer invention that has not been rigorously tested in the market.

When my colleagues and I began our research project, we wanted to investigate the differences between these two consensus mechanisms in a laboratory environment. Our motivation was simple: if both systems achieve the same outcome but one system (proof-of-work) incurs a negative externality on the environment, then why are people still using it?

Despite the seeming superiority of proof-of-stake, market participants prefer proof-of-work. Using market capitalisation as a proxy for demand, the highest market capitalisation coins all rely on proof-of-work. But proof-of-stake is gaining popularity: Ethereum, the second largest market capitalisation coin, is expected to switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake during the next year.

Our research uses game theory and behavioural economics to study the strengths and weaknesses of these two competing systems in a lab environment with students.

Our first step was to boil down the complex nature of these consensus mechanisms into abstract concepts that could be easily modelled in a lab. We spent months reviewing the research literature and brainstorming possible set-ups for the experiment.

The lab setup for proof-of-work was relatively straightforward. We planned to draw from the public goods literature on network externalities. Students would be given the option to use a medium of exchange that incurred an internal personal cost or a medium of exchange that incurred an external cost for the environment.

Essentially, this represented the current fiat system versus the energy-guzzling Bitcoin. At this point, we were very excited about the direction of our research and about the contribution that it could make to the fields of economics and information science.

Unfortunately, our research hit an insurmountable obstacle when we tried to model proof-of-stake: we could not find a way to do it easily in a lab. We discussed potential drawbacks of the proof-of-stake system such as 51% attacks, deflationary spirals and uncertainty stemming from ambiguity. But we came to the conclusion that Bitcoin’s proof-of-work suffered from the same drawbacks, albeit to a lesser degree.

During my own reflection on the differences between proof-of-work and proof-of-stake, I came to the conclusion that these systems resemble our transition from a gold standard to a fiat standard. Like gold, Bitcoin uses electricity and capital equipment to mine new coins. The probability of randomly being chosen to create a block and receive a reward is equal to each miner’s amount of mining power divided by the total amount of mining power on the network.

On the other hand, proof-of-stake allows the users with the largest holdings to create coins out of thin air. In a proof-of-stake system, the probability of receiving a reward is equal to the fraction of coins held by the user divided by the total number of coins in circulation.

Following this logic, proof-of-stake would appear to be superior to proof-of-work because economic theory argues that the fiat system is superior to the gold standard due to deflationary spirals caused by hoarding. (Note, however, that my late uncle, the American economist Larry Sechrest, argued in his 1993 book, Free Banking: Theory, History, and a Laissez-Faire Model that the problems associated with the gold standard actually stemmed from regulation and not from the scarcity of gold.)

To date, my reflections have not helped us find a suitable set-up for the lab experiment: we have been unable to find a major setback of the proof-of-stake consensus mechanism. The only problem that I could find was quite philosophical in nature and too complicated to be easily modelled in a lab.

The twentieth-century Austrian logician, Kurt Gödel, argued that no system can prove its own correctness from within itself. In reference to proof-of-work and proof-of-stake, the former appears to solve Gödel’s incompleteness theorem while the latter relies on external truth to achieve consensus.

In a proof-of-work system, anyone can join the system and immediately determine the correct history of transactions in the blockchain because the correct chain is the longest chain by default. In comparison, proof-of-stake has not developed a method for ensuring that every computer in the network comes to the same conclusion on the correct history of transactions from within the system.

Instead, proof-of-stake relies on an external third party or host of third parties to establish agreement on the history of transactions. In plain terms: proof-of-stake establishes truth by appealing to an external anchor while proof-of-work establishes proof from within. Although the introduction of counterparties may not be a problem in every case, the original goal of the blockchain technology was to create consensus without intermediaries.

In the end, we could not find a suitable way to model proof-of-stake in a lab with humans. In our own analysis of this problem, we realised that there was a fundamental problem with the premise of our study: we were trying to model a lab experiment with humans based on a technology that was designed to minimise human interaction.

Although we have encountered this major setback in our study, we have learned a tremendous amount about blockchain technology and about our own strengths and weaknesses as researchers. Instead of giving up, we are going in a new direction with our blockchain research. After all, the journey for pioneers is never paved.

Winners and Losers From a ‘Commodities-For-Manufactures’ Trade Boom

 

Soy planting in Parana, Brazil.  Photo/Credit: alffoto/iStock.com

Soy planting in Parana, Brazil. Photo/Credit: alffoto/iStock.com

 

The rise of China has been one of the most important events to hit the world economy in recent decades. Rapid economic growth has had enormous implications within China, lifting millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. But China’s rise has also deeply affected the economies of other countries in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

One fact that economists have learned from studying China’s impact on other countries is that competition from the booming Chinese manufacturing sector has had a big effect on manufacturing workers elsewhere. According to research by David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson, manufacturing employment has declined much more quickly in parts of the United States that produce goods imported from China.

These findings of negative impacts of Chinese competition for manufacturing workers have been corroborated by studies of European countries. For example, research by João Paulo Pessoa finds that UK workers initially employed in industries competing with Chinese products earned less and spent more time out of employment in the early 2000s.

But China is not only a competitor for other countries’ industries; it has also become an increasingly important consumer of goods produced elsewhere. In particular, China’s rapidly growing economy fuelled a worldwide commodity boom in the early 2000s.

This had an especially big impact on developing countries, whose swiftly rising exports to China became dominated by raw materials such as crops, ores and oil. Exports from low- and middle-income countries to China grew twelvefold from 1995 to 2010, compared with a twofold rise in their exports to everywhere else, so that China became an increasingly important trade partner for the developing world.

In 1995, commodities made up only 20%of these countries’ rather limited exports to China. But by 2010, nearly 70% of exports to China from developing countries were commodities (Figure 1A). Meanwhile, these countries’ rapidly growing imports from China consisted almost entirely of manufactured goods (Figure 1B).

 

Figure 1: Share of commodities in trade of developing countries Notes: ‘Commodities’ include products of the agricultural, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture and mining sectors. ‘Developing countries’ include non-high-income countries as defined by the World Bank, excluding countries in East and Southeast Asia, which tend to participate in regional manufacturing supply chains. Trade data is from CEPII BACI. Credit: Francisco Costa

Figure 1: Share of commodities in trade of developing countries. ‘Commodities’ include products of the agricultural, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture and mining sectors. ‘Developing countries’ include non-high-income countries as defined by the World Bank, excluding countries in East and Southeast Asia, which tend to participate in regional manufacturing supply chains. Trade data is from CEPII BACI. Credit: Francisco Costa

 

This swift transition to a new kind of trade relationship has sometimes been unpopular with China’s trade partners. For example, before a visit to China in 2011, Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff promised that she would be “working to promote Brazilian products other than basic commodities,” amid worries about “overreliance on exports of basic items such as iron ore and soy” (Los Angeles Times).

So for countries like Brazil, how did the benefits from the China-driven commodity boom compare to the costs of rising competition from Chinese manufactures?

In my research with Jason Garred and João Paulo Pessoa, published recently in the Journal of International Economics, we look at how the steep rise in ‘commodities-for-manufactures’ trade with China affected workers in Brazil. It turns out that Brazil’s evolving trade relationship with China in the early 2000s echoed that of the rest of the developing world:

  • First, trade with China exploded: just 2% of Brazil’s exports went to China in 1995, but this had risen to 15% by 2010.
  • Second, exports to China became increasingly concentrated in a few commodities (Figure 2A). In 2010, more than 80% of Brazilian exports to China were commodities, mostly soybeans and iron ore. In the first decade of the 2000s, almost all of the growth in export demand for these two Brazilian products came from China.
  • Finally, like the rest of the developing world, Brazil’s imports from China rose quickly but included almost exclusively manufactured goods (Figure 2B).

Our study analyses the 2000 and 2010 Brazilian censuses to check how the fortunes of workers across different regions and industries evolved during the boom in trade with China.

 

Figure 2: Share of commodities in trade of Brazil. ‘Commodities’ include products of the agricultural, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture and mining sectors. Trade data is from CEPII BACI. Credit: Francisco Costa

Figure 2: Share of commodities in trade of Brazil. ‘Commodities’ include products of the agricultural, forestry, fisheries/aquaculture and mining sectors. Trade data is from CEPII BACI. Credit: Francisco Costa

 

We first confirm that during this time, there was a negative effect of Chinese import competition on employees of manufacturing firms. Specifically, in parts of Brazil producing manufactured goods imported from China (such as electronics), growth in manufacturing workers’ wages between 2000 and 2010 was systematically slower.

But our findings also suggest that growth in trade with China created winners as well as losers within Brazil. Wages rose more quickly in parts of the country benefiting more from increasing Chinese demand, which were mainly regions producing soy or iron ore.

We also find that these regions saw a rise in the share of employed workers in formal jobs. Unlike jobs in the informal economy, jobs in the formal sector come with unemployment insurance, paid medical leave and other benefits, and so this increase in formality can be seen as a rise in non-wage compensation.

So while Brazil’s manufacturing workers seem to have lost out from Chinese import competition, rising exports to China appear to have benefited a different subset of Brazilian workers.

Our study concentrates on the short-run effects of trade with China on Brazilian workers. This means that our results don’t provide a full account of the trade-offs between the twin booms in commodity exports and manufacturing imports. For example, we don’t know what happened to the winners from the commodity boom once Chinese demand slowed in the mid-2010s.

We also do not consider the benefits to Brazilian consumers from access to cheaper imported goods from China. But what we do find suggests that trading raw materials for manufactures with China may not have been a raw deal for developing countries like Brazil after all.

Housing Talk: Why You Should Never Trust a House Price Index (Only)

An ever growing housing market? Picture/Credit: G0d4ather/iStock.com

An ever growing housing market? Picture/Credit: G0d4ather/iStock.com

 

Whenever I attend a dinner party or wedding or just meet old friends for coffee, at some point the topic turns to house prices, real estate investment and what seems to be generally perceived as a boom in the housing market. It seems that almost everyone is interested in buying a house or apartment. Often the aim is not just to cover the basic human need for shelter, but also to participate in the assumed never-ending boom and grab a small piece of the rapidly growing housing cake. House prices never fall, right?

People enthusiastically tell me stories of friends (or friends of friends) who finance multiple properties entirely via loans with zero down-payment. After all, real estate investment is a safe haven, isn’t it? And the expected rent will more than cover the monthly loan instalment, won’t it?

The figure show a rental price (right) index for Sydney together with quality-adjusted rental and sales price distributions. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

The figures show a rental price index (top) for Sydney together with its quality-adjusted rental price distribution (bottom). Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

But wait, my experience of obsessive ‘housing talk’ may be biased in at least three ways. First, I’m in my late twenties and so are my friends. Thinking about buying property is common, even necessary, for my age (and socioeconomic) group. Key decisions for the rest of our lives need to be made: should I stay in my first job or get (another) postgraduate degree? Should I go abroad and try out the expat life? Should I marry or break up with my long-term boy/girlfriend? What about kids? And hey, where and how will I live? Which leads to the obvious next question: to rent or to buy.

Second, I wrote a PhD thesis about housing markets. Although I focused on better ways of measuring dynamics in housing and rental markets and mainly dealt with technical problems in statistical modelling of such markets, most of my friends tend (wrongly) to conclude that I am an expert in real estate investment. Naturally, I end up being asked for advice about housing markets more often than most.

Third, as a native Austrian currently living in Germany, I mainly come across people for whom dramatic changes in house prices are a new phenomenon. After years of generally flat house prices, these countries have only recently seen bigger shifts.

Still, housing markets seem to be a hot topic and I rarely meet someone who’s not at all interested. I believe that widely reported changes in house price indices are the main reason for that.

In his famous book Irrational Exuberance, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller describes how first the US stock market (near its peak in 1999) and then the US housing market (around 2004) became socially accepted topics of conversation with broad media coverage. In fact, he writes, whenever he went out for dinner with his wife, he successfully predicted that someone at an adjacent table would speak about the respective market.

Shiller is well-known for his analysis of markets driven by psychological effects, which help to explain observed developments that a theory based on full rationality would rule out. Although most people are aware of housing bubbles of the recent past – for example, in Ireland, Japan, Spain and the United States – the belief in real estate as a quasi risk-free investment seems to remain unquestioned. The fact that sharp and sudden drops in prices are possible and happen regularly is widely ignored. 

The figure shows a sales price index for Sydney together with quality-adjusted rental and sales price distributions. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

The figures show a sales price index (top) for Sydney together with its quality-adjusted sales price distribution (bottom). Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

Everyone is affected by movements in housing and rental markets. If someone owns a property, it is usually her single largest asset; if someone rents, the cost often takes up a large fraction of her monthly income. This is why turbulence in these markets has larger effects on households than, for example, swings in the stock market (Case et al, 2005). The social implications of skyrocketing house prices and exploding rents but also of crashing markets are huge – which means that these markets need to be closely watched by policy-makers.

A house price index measures average movements of average houses in average locations belonging to an average price segment – a lot of averages! It is usually heavily aggregated, which implies that just because a national house price index reports rising prices, not every house will benefit equally from these increases. In fact, there is large variation in the distributions of prices and rents, and these distributions also change significantly over time.

Houses are highly heterogeneous goods (particularly compared with shares or bonds): no two houses are the same. Therefore, house price indices should be quality-adjusted, with differences in house characteristics taken into account. Still, changes in house price indices are often driven by developments in certain sub-markets, which are mainly determined by the three most important house characteristics: location, location, location. 

Hence, house price developments are extremely heterogeneous even within urban areas (see McMillen, 2014, Guerrieri et al, 2013, and Waltl, 2016b), and thus the interpretation of aggregated national or even supra-national indices is questionable. For example, the S&P/Case-Shiller US National Home Price Index reports changes for the entire United States, the ECB and EUROSTAT publish indices for the European Union and the euro area, and the IMF even produces a global house price index.

Missing bubbly episodes in sub-markets when looking at such heavily aggregated figures seems unavoidable; and basing an individual investment decision on them is dubious. Similarly problematic is the assessment of a housing market using such aggregated measures for financial stability purposes.

Price map showing the average price (in thousand AUD) for an average house for different locations over time in Sydney. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

Price map showing the average price (in thousand AUD) for an average house for different locations over time in Sydney. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

A typical pattern is that markets for low-quality properties in bad locations experience the sharpest rises shortly before the end of a housing boom. Look at the lowest price segment in Sydney’s suburbs (black, dashed line) compared with the highest price segment in the inner city (orange, dotted line) around the peak in 2004. It is also this segment that experiences the heaviest falls afterwards.

A possible behavioural explanation is as follows: the longer a housing boom lasts, the more people (and also the more financially less well-off people) want to participate in this apparently prosperous and safe market. Steady increases reported by house price indices give the impression that the entire market is booming with no end in sight. Whoever is able to participate becomes active in the housing market and investments boom in yet more affordable properties – the lowest segment in bad locations.

A common misconception is the assumption that rising house prices necessarily translate into higher rents almost immediately. But when the price contains a ‘bubble or speculative component’, this is not always the case.

In general, economists speak of a bubble whenever the price of an asset is high just because of the hope of future price increases without any justification from ‘fundamentals’ such as construction costs (Stiglitz, 1990). Investing in over-valued property and hoping for the rent to cover the mortgage is thus more dangerous than it might appear (see Himmelberg et al, 2005, for the components of the price-to-rent ratio measuring the relationship between prices and rents; and Martin and Ventura, 2012, for asset bubbles in general).

 

The figure shows location- and segment-specific indices for Sydney. CBD refers to the Central Business District. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

The figure shows location- and segment-specific indices for Sydney. CBD refers to the Central Business District. Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

 

While we’ve already seen that price developments are very diverse, the same is also true for the relationship between prices and rents. Thus, simply looking at average price-to-rent ratios may miss the over-heating of a sub-market and its associated risks.

Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

Credit: Sofie R. Waltl

Buying property is thus more delicate than urban legends about the safety of real estate investment suggest. Above all, developments in housing markets are diverse even within small geographical areas and one number alone can never appropriately reflect what is going on. A complete picture of the dynamics in housing markets is essential from the perspective of an investor as well as a policy-maker.

And in case you’re hoping for investment advice, here’s the only piece I can offer: just because everyone buys does not mean that YOU should go out and buy whatever you can afford. In fact, when everyone (including your friend with questionable financial literacy) decides to invest in real estate, it might be exactly the wrong moment. Never rely on house price indices only, but go out and collect as much information as possible. And don’t forget: location, location, location… 

 

 


The figures show quality-adjusted developments in the Sydney housing market, and are part of the results of my doctoral thesis Modelling housing markets: Issues in economic measurement at the University of Graz under the supervision of Robert J. Hill. I am very grateful for his valuable support and advice. Calculations are based on data provided by Australian Property Monitors. Results, which this article is based on, are published as Waltl (2016a) and Waltl (2016b). The part about price-to-rent ratios is currently under review at a major urban economic journal (here is a working paper version). My work has benefitted from funding from the Austrian National Bank Jubiläumsfondsprojekt 14947, the 2014 Council of the University of Graz JungforscherInnenfonds, and the Austrian Marshallplan Foundation Fellowship (UC Berkeley Program 2016/2017). The views presented here are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any past, present or future employer or sponsor.