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A mentor can help bridge the gulf between having an interest in a subject and actually pursuing that interest through action. Above, a boy gazes up at an image of Albert Einstein on a wall in Tunis, Tunisia. (AFP/Getty Images)

Find A Mentor, Be A Mentor

by Marcelo Gleiser
Apr 16, 2014

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Marcelo Gleiser

Today I pay tribute to my mentors. You know, those rare people in life who take the time to help you, quite often redefining the path ahead. Mentors are people who selflessly give away two of their most precious commodities: wisdom and time.

Who hasn't been confused, unsure of which way to go, stuck between choices that would lead to very different futures?

We often want to go a certain way but can't, due to a variety of circumstances. Life demands commitment and sometimes these commitments are more like obstacles than opportunities. Maybe your parents don't want you to follow this career, or you are afraid of taking the plunge into a radical choice, or someone near needs you and you don't have the freedom to go your own unencumbered way. Maybe this is why some say that to be free is to be able to choose to what you will commit.

Like many young students, I went through a crisis when I got into university. It even started before, when my father "suggested" that I should go into chemical engineering instead of physics. It was a safer bet for the future, he argued, worried about my wellbeing. I see this often with my own students at Dartmouth. They come geared-up for a pre-med or pre-law degree, only to find out a year later that their passions lie with philosophy or drama.

So, I obediently followed my father's advice and started engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It didn't take long for me to realize that it wouldn't work. I loved physics and calculus. Problem was, I didn't know any physicist. I mean, how many people actually know one? The only fellows I knew were my teachers for intro physics courses. Not having much to lose, I knocked on the door of a teacher who had impressed me in the classroom with his passion for science. I guess today we call this bold outreach "networking."

He probably doesn't remember this, but he received me like an old friend and suggested I apply for a fellowship to learn the theory of relativity with Prof. Arvind Vaydia, a colleague of his. The Brazilian government had the wisdom to provide thousands of these "scientific initiation" grants to motivate undergrads to go into STEM-related disciplines. (Hello, Department of Education!) Well, it worked.

As a second-year engineering student, I was feverishly studying Einstein's amazing theory and nearly flunking chemistry, especially inorganic chemistry lab. Time was marching on and I had to make a choice.

The day of my very last exam in intro physics, the man proctoring sits back in amazement as I give him my exam: "Wait, do you know a guy called Luiz Gleiser?"

"Sure, my older brother", I replied.

This fellow, Francisco Antonio Doria, a brilliant mathematical physicist, and a man of extraordinary culture, who could read Marx in German and Proust in French, became my first true mentor and advised me in my master's thesis. (Here is a recent book about Gödel he co-authored with famous mathematicians Gregory Chaitin and Newton da Costa.) I'd go to his house in the town of Petropolis, the old imperial capital of Brazil, and spend whole days talking about quarks, galaxies and diffeomorphisms.

Today I understand how generous he was. Doria didn't have to do any of this; he did it because he wanted to, because he wanted to share his passion for learning with his students. He understood that when you love something you only give it full life when you share it with others. That's the essence of good mentoring.

The search for mentors continued when I went to London for my Ph.D. I wasn't as lucky there, despite trying. These were lonely years, when I used what I had learned from my previous mentors to stay afloat: follow your passion and the inevitable obstacles will look smaller to you.

Life changed when I got to the United States for my postdoctoral fellowship at Fermilab, a huge particle accelerator some 40 miles west of Chicago. The head of the theoretical astrophysics group was Edward (Rocky) Kolb, now dean of the Division of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago.

I learned a lot of about physics from Rocky. I was torn between doing research in what everyone else was doing at the time (supersymmetric dark matter particles and cosmic strings), or following my own interests in less popular areas. Rocky's lesson is one I pass on to my students all the time: Do what makes your heart beat faster, not what is fashionable. Only then you will give it your best shot; results and papers will follow.

It's hard to imagine someone successful who never had a mentor. Unfortunately, it's not so hard to imagine someone successful who quickly forgets about his/her mentors. Hey, they made time for you; now go and make time for others.


You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Diego Sanchez, the first openly transgender person to work as a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill, helped to develop a new Justice Department program that trains law enforcement to be more sensitive to the needs of transgender people. (AP)

Justice's 'Peacemaker' Unit Focuses On Transgender Rights

Apr 16, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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A groundbreaking survey reports that nearly 2 out of 3 transgender people say they've been victims of physical assault. Most of those crimes are never reported to police. This year, the Justice Department wants to change that by training law enforcement to be more sensitive to the needs of trans people in their communities.

Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole says its new training program is motivated by a simple yet powerful idea.

"The department recognizes what is often lost in the debates about transgender individuals, and it's that transgender lives are human lives," Cole told a group of about 130 police and community activists who recently gathered at the Justice Department to unveil the new program. "We heard you when you told us that we needed to establish a foundation of trust between those who serve and protect the public and those in the LGBT community, particularly the transgender community."

In charge of the project is Justice's Community Relations Service unit, known as CRS. The service came to life in the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a way to dial down desegregation tensions in the South.

"And for nearly 50 years CRS has served as America's peacemaker," says Grande Lum, who runs the unit.

Its lawyers, teachers and former police officers still work to keep the peace at racial hot spots around the country. But Lum says now they're focusing on civil rights challenges long in the shadows and only recently brought to general attention through the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

"CRS works with communities to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender and of course gender identity," Lum says.

Increasingly, that means doing more to reach out to transgender people.

Diego Sanchez, director of policy for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, helped to develop the new Justice Department training.

"It can be very difficult to interact with law enforcement officials," Sanchez tells NPR. "We're people like everyone else. We're not any different than anyone else. However, when we're encountered by law enforcement officers, we often find challenges both in being seen or respected."

And Sanchez says that's why many crimes go unreported. "While we are at greater risk perhaps for violence on the street, we're also less likely to report that to law enforcement officers," he adds.

Sanchez, the first openly transgender person to have worked as a legislative staffer on Capitol Hill, says those barriers can be overcome. It's as simple as using a person's preferred name, or gender pronoun, or asking for identification in a safe and respectful way.

"First thing they'll do is ask for the driver's license," he says. "If the gender that is indicated on the license doesn't match who the officer thinks they're looking at, if they say something loudly and then leave, they're leaving in danger that individual in their neighborhood."

Harper Jean Tobin of the National Center for Transgender Equality says too often, police treat trans people like they're doing something suspicious just for being themselves.

"Profiling by law enforcement, particularly transgender women of color, report that when they are walking in certain areas of a city, that they will get stopped for what they call 'walking while trans,' " Tobin says.

In one well-known instance, Tobin says, civil rights investigators found the New Orleans Police Department unconstitutionally profiled transgender women of color.

CRS has responded to several incidents of hate violence in recent years, including in Puerto Rico, where 18 LGBT people were murdered between 2010 and 2012. Sanchez says while chilling episodes of violence such as these still happen, awareness of transgender rights is growing.

"I've been working and being a trans person for about 30 years, and I will say that things are different today than ever," he says.

He hopes that better training for police and greater cultural sensitivity will eliminate what he calls useless and needless violence.

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Cherry Belle radishes grow super fast. (Flickr)

On Your Mark, Get Set, Grow: A Guide To Speedy Vegetables

Apr 16, 2014

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Sprouting broccoli will serve up florets in about 50 days. Not bad for this member of the brassica family. Bury a few Jerusalem artichokes in your backyard, and you'll have summer sunflowers, followed by a crop of tubers.

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Yes, it is true that gardening requires patience.

But face it, we live in an impatient world. And gardeners everywhere were depressed by the brutal and endless winter. (True story: The polar vortex killed my fall kale crop!)

So we are understandably eager to get sowing. And to see results by ... well, if not next Thursday, then maybe mid-May?

There are two ways to make this happen. Some garden varieties naturally have a short germinate-to-harvest cycle. Then there are the hybrids developed at universities and seed companies. They take two plants with great traits (like early arrival or cold tolerance) and forge an even hardier offspring.

For guidance on the world of speedy plot-to-table vegetables, we turned to Ryan Schmitt, a horticulturist and garden blogger in Longmont, Colo., and Westin Miller, a community and urban horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.

Superfast Salads

"Start with microgreens," suggests Schmitt. These are the tiny leaves less than 14 days old that some scientists believe pack a more nutritious punch that more mature greens. Pea shoots, sunflowers and beet greens are popular options. Sow seeds — which can be regular seeds, or designated microgreen seeds — in a sunny outdoor spot when the soil temperature is in the 50 to 65 degree range, or do it indoors in a tray with potting soil.

Sprouts should appear in three to six days. After a few more days, trim the micro-greens with a scissors and consume. To give the plants "a little extra boost" after that first harvest, Miller adds a water soluble fertilizer, like fish emulsion. Then you should get two or three cuttings before the greens become too bitter or fibrous.

Arugula is another brisk green, capable of morphing from seed to salad in three weeks. To protect seedlings for this or any plant from an unexpected spring chill, Schmitt covers them with black plastic or an overturned black container from a previous nursery purchase, checking daily for signs of germination.

Mustard greens are nearly as fast as arugula; Miller suggests the Osaka purple variety, which takes 30 days to yield spicy, salad-worthy leaves.

Radishes are "super, super fast" to grow, Schmitt adds. "Cherry Belle is about 25 days."

Sprouting broccoli wins his endorsement as well: ten days to germinate, at which point a little head starts to grow. In about 50 to 60 days — pretty fast for broccoli — the head reaches 2 ˝ to 3 inches across. Cut it off and side shoots will emerge to form "copious side sheets" the rest of the summer.

Faster Than Normal

Sadly for gardeners chafing for a taste of homegrown tomato in the spring, the 30-day tomato does not exist. But you can shave days, even weeks, off the 70-to-90 day wait for fruit.

The appropriately named Glacier tomato is cold tolerant, Schmitt says. It'll set fruit when temperatures are only in the 60s. "But if you get a frost," he warns, "game over." If all goes well, you'll have two-to-four-inch tomatoes in 55 days — and a steady supply late into the season.

Sun Gold tomatoes are equally fast. The bite-size, orange fruits are ready to pick 57 days after a seedling is transplanted, notes Miller, and "it just keeps kicking out the tomatoes."

To bolster your early bird home-grown salad, try the hybrid Yaya carrot. It's "very tasty and going to mature in about 56 days," Miller says. By contrast, a typical carrot takes 75 days.

Superslow ... Or Ahead Of The Game?

Maybe the best strategy for an early spring crop is to sow a year in advance. The knobby and nutty-tasting tuber known as the Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, is sold in farmer's markets and some grocery stores right around now.

You can roast 'em, sauté 'em, or toss 'em into rich soil warmed by eight hours of daily sunlight. It doesn't even matter if the tubers are horizontal or vertical. But location and sufficient space are important. "Put them where you want them to spread and persist," says Miller, since the plant is a perennial.

Sunflowers will grow from the tubers, eating up the starchy root in the process. In the fall the plant makes new tubers. Dig them up all winter, leaving a few behind for the next cycle.

And in spring 2015, when other gardeners are just starting out, you'll still be dining on freshly harvested Jerusalem artichokes.

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Though he's in his 20s, some are already beginning to think of singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen as a veteran musician. (Mountain Stage)

Noah Gundersen On Mountain Stage

Apr 16, 2014

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Gundersen recorded his first album at age 13, using a reel-to-reel tape machine. He has recorded solo albums, as well as music with his sister, Abby. In addition, the siblings have a band called The Courage. His latest album, issued by Dualtone, is Ledges. Noah Gundersen with his sister, Abby.

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Noah Gundersen makes his first appearance on Mountain Stage, recorded live at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, W.Va. Though he's not even halfway through his 20s, some are already beginning to think of this singer-songwriter as a veteran musician. A native of the tiny town of Centralia, Wash., Gundersen recorded his first album at age 13 on a reel-to-reel home tape machine. He further honed his craft through a series of albums. Some of this work was solo, some was with his sister, Abby, and other material was created with their band, The Courage. He appears on Mountain Stage with Abby on violin. They play songs from their latest album, Ledges.

Set List

  • Poor Man's Son
  • Boat House
  • Cigarettes
  • Dying Now
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This Mako shark looks like its ancient ancestors, but it's probably evolved to be even more terrifying. (Barcroft Media /Landov)

New Fossil Takes A Bite Out Of Theory That Sharks Barely Evolved

Apr 16, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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A 3D reconstruction of the skull of a 325 million-year-old shark. The braincase is light grey, the jaw is red, and the gill arches are yellow. Taken together, the skull shows that modern sharks have evolved significantly from their ancient relatives. He has recorded solo albums, as well as music with his sister, Abby. In addition, the siblings have a band called The Courage. His latest album, issued by Dualtone, is Ledges. Noah Gundersen with his sister, Abby.

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Sharks have looked more or less the same for hundreds of millions of years. But a newly discovered fossil suggests that under the hood, a modern shark is very different from its ancient ancestors.

The finding, published in the journal Nature, strongly implies that sharks are not the "living fossils" many paleontologists once thought they were. "They have evolved through time to improve upon the basic model," says John Maisey, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History who helped identify the fossil.

This newly discovered creature dates back 325 million years. It's no Megalodon. It was probably just two or three feet long and its teeth were tiny, "although there are rows of teeth in the mouth, so it would certainly give you a painful nip," Maisey says.

The fossil of this beastie is equally modest: it looks like an ordinary brown rock. But in recent years, paleontologists have begun using tools like CT scanners to look inside of fossils. When Maisey scanned the fossilized head of the new shark, he got a sharky shock. Inside, "it's not like the anatomy of a modern shark at all," he says.

The skeleton supporting this ancient shark's gills is completely different from a modern shark. In fact, the gill skeleton looks much more like that of an average modern-day fish.

The finding turns old ideas about sharks on their head, says Michael Coates, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. Previously, many scientists had believed that sharks gills were an ancient system that predated modern fish. But this new work suggests that modern-day fish may actually be the ones with the ancient gill structures. Shark gills are the gills that evolved.

"That bucks a trend that's been in the literature for years and years that sharks are somehow primitive living fossils," Coates says.

Why did sharks change the structure of their gills? Maisey suggests it might be to help them sprint after prey. Or to open their jaws more widely, so they could snap up bigger things, like swimmers.

Whatever the reason, sharks have been changing. Per Ahlberg at Uppsala University in Sweden says the new work is an important reminder that so-called living fossils like sharks and crocodiles aren't fossils at all. They are constantly adapting to the world around them. "We have to be very, very careful with the idea of living fossils," Ahlberg says.

This ancient little shark shows that evolution is always at work.

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