Behind the scenes at NASA: The HERA project

Side view of the HERA project facility. The hygiene module, where bathrooms and showers are housed, is in the foreground.


What happens if you put a group of adults together in a confined space and leave them isolated for weeks? Can they get along? Can they work together to productively carry out complex tasks, stay in shape, and conduct scientific research?

This sounds like the premise for a reality show (minus the scientific research part, which sadly doesn’t play well on television). And in a way it is: these adults are filmed every second of the day. But instead of entertainment, this project has one very serious goal: develop strategies for keeping humans healthy, sane, productive, and safe for long duration voyages into space.

The Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) project is a critical component of NASA’s Flight Analogs Project, which carries out research on different aspects of human long-duration spaceflight. I recently visited NASA to give a talk on genetics to ISS scientists, and was able to tour the HERA facility and talk about the project with its former director, Joe Neigut. Because this isn’t the sort of thing that one gets to access on the regular Johnson Space Center tour, I asked the NASA officials if it would be all right for me to write a blog about my experiences to share with readers, and they kindly agreed, stipulating only a few restrictions on what I was allowed to share in the interests of research integrity.  So here’s what I saw and what I learned.  Continue reading


Another open thread on vaccines

IFLS has reposted my “Dear Parents” article this morning, with a very kind note (thank you!). This means that we have a lot more traffic on the site than is usual, and I want to extend my welcome to all the new followers, commenters, and curious onlookers.

A couple of things:

  1. I know that there are several broken links in the article. Since I wrote it about two years ago, I’ve occasionally gone back and tried to update them. But I haven’t done it recently, and today I’m pretty swamped with work and meetings. I will try to get to it throughout the day, but it may take a little while. I’m very sorry about that!
    Edit: Broken links should now all be updated, thanks for your patience.
  2. The comments section of the Dear Parents article and the Open thread (both linked to in the IFLS repost) are getting extremely full, and it can be difficult to read very threaded comments. If you would like to start new comment threads here, please feel free. I only ask that you abide by the commenting policies of my site, and have patience if your comment doesn’t show up immediately–it is being held in moderation until I can get to it. I try to approve comments as fast as they come in, but there will be occasional delays.
  3. If you write to me asking for a copy of my guide to reading scientific papers, I apologize if it takes me a few days to get it to you. Moderating comments is taking a lot of my free time today, but I will try to respond as quickly as possible.

I’ve been working on a response to some of the recent events about the Vaxxed documentary, and I believe that Colin has a piece he’s working on as well, so please check back for more throughout the week. Alternatively, you can subscribe to the blog to get email updates, like our Facebook page (see the right hand side of this post for links), or follow me or Colin on Twitter if you want notifications of new posts. As always, thank you so much for reading!

No, We Don’t Actually Know That Modern Humans Killed Off The Hobbits

This article is cross-posted from the Social evolution forum where I occasionally write about issues in human evolution.

A new paper out last week in Nature by Sutikna et al. has generated a great deal of excitement, by reporting a revised date range for the diminutive hominin, H. floresiensis, nicknamed the “hobbit” because of its stature (just 3.5 feet for adults). The previous accepted date range for H. floresiensis (95,000-12,000 YBP) implied that humans and hobbits co-existed on Flores for some considerable period of time, prompting fun analogies to the setting of J.R.R Tolkien’s legendarium, Middle-earth, in which humans, hobbits, dwarves, and other races co-existed and interacted. (I actually love this comparison, because it really resonates with my students and makes teaching human evolution easier.)

The original dates for H. floresiensis were based on the (then reasonable) assumption that the depositional sequence in one part of the cave was representative of other parts of the cave. But caves are very active geological systems, and it often turns out—as in this case—that stratigraphy isn’t uniform. When researchers excavated elsewhere in the Liang Bua cave, they found new stratigraphic details (erosion of older deposits followed by filling in of younger deposits) that prompted them to redate the sequence. These new data gave a range of 100-60,000 YBP for the skeletal remains of H. floresiensis and 190,000-50,000 for floresiensis-associated artifacts. The end of this date range—50,000 YBP—happens to be close to the estimated appearance time of modern H. sapiens on the island, which raises some intriguing questions.  For those of you interested in a detailed analysis of the errors of the original dates, and a discussion of some still-unresolved issues with the paper, I highly recommend John Hawks’ post What the revised Liang Bua chronology leaves unanswered.

The cave at Liang Bua. By Rosino - [1], CC BY-SA 2.0,

Unfortunately, some in the media have gone beyond discussion of those questions and breathlessly reported that these new dates likely mean that our species wiped out the hobbits. While that hypothesis certainly remains a formal–and fascinating– possibility, it’s only one of several. It’s based simply on the observation that under the current chronology, approximately the same time modern humans got to Flores, we stop seeing hobbit tools in the deposits at Liang Bua.

But I want to point out that we have no direct evidence (as yet) showing any interaction between H. sapiens and H. floresiensis, as the authors noted in the closing sentence of their manuscript:

“Parts of southeast Asia may have been inhabited by Denisovans or other hominins during this period, and modern humans had reached Australia by 50 kyr ago. But whether H. floresiensis survived after this time, or encountered modern humans, Denisovans or other hominin species on Flores or elsewhere, remain open questions that future discoveries may help to answer.”

So as of right now, we actually don’t know that humans killed off (either directly or indirectly) hobbits. But this is probably the interpretation that the interested public has walked away with after this week. Call me conservative, but I’m a bit uncomfortable that our speculation might have given people the impression of greater certainty than we actually have.

There are two other aspects of this new finding that interest me. The first is the implication that these older dates have for the debate over whether H. floresiensis was a pathological modern H. sapiens or a separate species with distinctive morphology, likely caused by insular dwarfism. The older date range for these fossils suggests that H. floresiensis was indeed a separate species. Furthermore, as Kristina Kilgrove discusses, these new dates also undermine cryptozoological interpretations of the Indonesian legend of Ebu Gogo as deriving from sustained interactions between humans and H. floresiensis as recently as 12,000 years ago.

The second aspect of these new dates that I find interesting is that although they mean that the hobbits were older than we initially thought, they still fall within the range of time in which it’s possible to obtain ancient DNA from skeletal remains. I have no idea whether there will be further attempts to extract aDNA from the hobbits (previous attempts were unsuccessful), but I continue to be hopeful that someday we will have hobbit DNA. If H. floresiensis is, as some suspect, a descendant of H. erectus, then their genomes could give us a glimpse of that species’ genetic diversity and help us better understand the evolutionary history of ourselves, Neanderthals, and Denisovans.


Surviving my first year as a new professor: Tools of the trade

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot less frequently since last August. Between teaching, setting up my lab, training students, applying for grants, and getting some papers finished for publication, I’ve had very little time to write more than about 1 post a month. (I’m hoping to publish a bit more frequently in the near future, as I have some exciting things to write about. Fortunately, Colin has had a bunch of interesting experiences with the ConspiraSea cruise recently, and a lot more free time than I do, so I hope that’s helped to fill in the gaps a bit. Thank you, Colin!).

I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs about new faculty experiences (The New PI Sets Up A Lab is one of my favorites) and I’ve found them to be tremendously helpful in both advice and in assuring me that I’m not alone in feeling pretty constantly overwhelmed. And while this blog’s focus is not going to change to be a “new professor blog”–our scope is broader than that–I do want to write an occasional post about my current experiences that I hope might be useful (?) someday to any aspiring new PI. This will be one of those posts, and its emphasis will be on some of the tools I rely on consistently for managing my life.*

(If you’re here mostly for the vaccine talk or general science stuff, there are some new posts on these subjects in the queue for VM in the next two weeks).

  1. Staying organized

One of the biggest challenges of my new job is having so many different obligations throughout the day. It’s not just that I have a lot of things to do–it’s that I have many, many different types of things to do. I’m constantly having to switch roles: lecturer (and entertainer) one hour, collaborator on a grant in progress the next, writer the next, advisor to a student the following hour, reviewer of a manuscript immediately after. Having to switch my brain rapidly from task to task, keeping just enough focus for each so I can get them done quickly and move on to the next without wasting time is really difficult for me. My time is valuable in a way that it’s never been before, a fact which is really sobering and a tiny bit scary.

On top of that, I’m incredibly distractable, so trying to figure out how to manage that while still being productive has been a challenge. I talked to my dear friend Lyn Christian, who’s a business/productivity coach, and she told me to quit beating myself up for letting myself get distracted and accept that it’s part of being human. Instead, she urged me to work around the inevitability of interruptions by quitting multitasking, scheduling out larger blocks of time for each task than I think I’ll need, schedule in “play time” on the internet, and ruthlessly prioritizing tasks. (Maybe these are things that people already know, but in my case her advice really helped). I started using her productivity app (Today and Not Today) and it has seriously made a difference. These days I use it together with my google calendar; I figure out what’s absolutely critical in a given day, schedule a block of time for it on my calendar, and then let my apple watch remind me when it’s time to switch tasks. Technology!

2. Staying positive

I’ve often finished the day feeling like I haven’t gotten anything meaningful done, even when I know that I’ve worked a solid 9 hours. I read some piece of advice somewhere that one should track one’s tasks throughout the day, both because it makes faculty evaluations a little easier, but also because it gives a solid metric for how the day was spent. So I’ve been doing that this year, and it does indeed help me appreciate just how many different things I do in a day (see #1 above). I’ve been using “Day One” as a journal, and I have it set to remind myself to start an entry in the mid-afternoon. I’m *mostly* good about doing this on weekdays.

3. Outsourcing everything

My partner travels A LOT for work, and so most weeks I’m juggling work and household without any extra help. I really just can’t do it all by myself, so I’ve accepted that I have to outsource as much of the non-essential stuff as possible, even if it seems a little extravagant. I’m still figuring out how much of this is reasonable, but for now I’m using a cleaning service every couple of weeks (I think I need this more often, to be honest), and delivery services for as much as I possibly can. I really like cooking and I find it relaxing, but I hate taking the time to plan meals and shop for ingredients, so I use Blue Apron every week. Although it’s probably interchangeable with any other similar service, I really love it. I also use Stitchfix for clothes, although that one can be REALLY hit or miss.  And for regular household stuff, I’m using Amazon delivery services a lot more than I probably should. But they’re incredibly convenient, and that makes a huge difference to my sanity. I would totally use Task Rabbit as well, if it was available in my area.


So I’m curious what tools other folks use. If you have a recommendation for either a tool or a good new professor/new PI blog, please drop a link in the comments!



*I want to note that although I get offers for sponsored posts all the time, I uniformly reject them all–I don’t want this to become that kind of blog. I haven’t been paid to mention anything on here, and the only thing that I received for free was the Today/Not Today app.

Sexual harassment in physical anthropology


Astronomy again.

Molecular biology.

Story after story about sexual harassment of students and trainees by professors has been coming out recently. Today Michael Balter has just published an important news piece about the same thing happening much closer to home–in my discipline, physical anthropology. Specifically, in the subfield of paleoanthropology.

The story is very complex, but the gist is that a young research assistant has come forward with allegations that she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor, Brian Richmond, in his hotel room at a European conference.

Outsiders may never know for sure what happened in that Florence hotel room. But the incident ultimately triggered a cascade of other allegations against Richmond and a resolve by some senior paleoanthropologists to do battle against sexual misconduct, hoping to change the climate of their field. The charges and the community’s response also roiled two leading institutions, which struggled with shifting cultural expectations, inadequate reporting and disciplinary tools, and the challenge of treating all parties fairly.

Please read the entire story, carefully reported by Balter here. Continue reading

A skeptic on the ConspiraSea cruise, day 5: I Just Can’t Do Another Nautical Pun

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fifth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here.  If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

So that was the state of affairs going into Friday. I was generally aware of what happened, as were a lot of people on the boat; the reporters made it pretty clear that Thursday’s events were bizarre and alarming. As I’ve said, I haven’t ever felt unsafe on this ship. But I also haven’t been ambushed in any sessions, had anyone pop up by surprise, or been singled out and yelled at. (With one exception, which we’ll come to—and even that wasn’t in a threatening context.) I know the journalists have asked organizers whether they’ll be safe, and there’s been some discussion of having security available if it happens again. I would be surprised if it were necessary—but not quite as surprised as I would have been on Wednesday. Continue reading

Troubled Waters: ConspiraSea Cruise Day 4(ish)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the fourth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here.  If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

When I started this project, many (many many) people warned me to be careful and that I might be in danger. I didn’t take that possibility seriously then, and I don’t take it seriously now—I personally have never felt unsafe at this conference. But I am not the only writer here. And the others, who unlike me are professional journalists, will tell their stories eventually. Until then I’d like to share the events of the last couple of days. This is a story about a long series events taking place at a confusing and busy event; it’s going to be long and busy and confusing at times. Sorry.  (Note: Colin emailed me two days’ worth of material in a single batch, and I split them up by day to make this post more manageable. You can read part 2 here.–Jennifer). You want clear and concise and comprehensible stories, read about a conference that doesn’t feature an antivaccine guru, a pistol-packing presidential candidate, a self-employed and self-declared “international judge” and an alchemist all on the same boat. What I’ve got is what they gave me. Continue reading

Nothing to fear: ConspiraSea cruise day 3

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the third day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, the second day’s report here, the fourth day’s report here, the fifth day’s report (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

Today’s post will be relatively short, for a few reasons. Primarily it’s because even though I’m on a cruise ship, this is exhausting! Everything starts around 8 am and ends around 10 pm. The ship is full of amenities—bars, restaurants, minigolf, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, a library, coffee shops, massages, shopping, comedy shows, movie theaters, and god know what else. I don’t, because I haven’t used any of those things except a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, and the treadmill. I’m not complaining, though, because the important stuff is here. I’m meeting fascinating people, and that’s not a euphemism. For the most part, the people here are pleasant and engaging and well worth getting to know. Continue reading

Reverse the Constitutional Polarity of the Baryonic Trustee Matrix: Legal Gibberish on the ConspiraSea Cruise (Day 2)

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the second day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

This is Jennifer’s blog, and Jennifer is a scientist. So most of the posts here are about science in one way or another. And I love that, because I love science—the idea of it, the practice of it, and the success of it. So when we talk about irrationality and pseudoscience, it’s only natural that we’re mostly focused on pseudoarchaeology, pseudogenetics, anti-vaccine and anti-GMO irrationality. There’s plenty of that on this boat and I’m going to write about it, but so far it’s nothing new.

This post isn’t about pseudoscience. Not about anti-vaxers or GMO fearmongering. Lots of our readers come here for those topics, but don’t turn away just yet. I want to talk about something most of you have barely thought about, but something that may be more important than anti-vaccine pseudoscience—at least for its victims.

As much as I love science, I’m not a scientist. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from Harvard Law School, served as a staff clerk for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and clerked for a very respected federal judge in Texas. Before I left the practice I spent years litigating cases for an international law firm, doing things like suing a hedge fund for committing fraud in the securitization of esoteric financial instruments. I don’t say any of this stuff to put on airs. It never once got me a date when I was single. I just want to establish that while I’m not a famous legal scholar or law school professor or distinguished expert, I know more than a little something about how courts and laws work. That’s why this post isn’t about pseudoscience but pseudolaw.

And it matters. Pseudolaw isn’t harmless. It ruins lives. It sends people to prison. People die behind this, as you’ve seen happen in Oregon. The pseudolaw that’s happening on the boat is tame by comparison, but still has the potential to wreck the lives of well-meaning people. It’s important to take a break from pseudoscience to see how this slow-motion disaster is happening in front of our eyes, and then we’ll take a look at how it’s affecting the anti-vaccine movement.

This is a harsher post than I expected to write, and much harsher than I’ll be writing about the rest of the cruise. If you’re on the cruise with me and reading this, please do it with an open mind. This is what it means to seek the truth, which is what the cruise is supposed to be helping us all do. Continue reading

A skeptic on the Conspira-Sea Cruise: Day 1

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the first day’s report. You can find day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, day 5 (part 1) here, and day 5 (part 2) here –Jennifer

Welcome to the first daily update on the ConspiraSea Cruise! This is the first full day of the cruise and we’re well underway. (That is a boat joke. I will make more. None of them will be very funny. That is how boat jokes work.) I’m going to try to write an update for every day of the cruise, with some final and more polished observations after I’m home. These updates will be relatively short given how much is happening simply because there’s not that much time to write. It’s well after midnight now, and since we cross a time zone and lose an hour tonight I’m not expecting much sleep. That’s OK, this isn’t a vacation!


Economy Cabin
The ship is luxurious. The cabin is not.

If you aren’t familiar with the ConspiraSea Cruise, the organizers still have their promotional site up here. I’m sure they’ll take it down eventually though, so for archival purposes you can check out my GoFundMe page or our prior coverage at Violent Metaphors. And before we go any further, THANK YOU to all the GoFundMe supporters! Your interest in the culture of conspiracy theories not only made this trip possible, it’s inspirational as I continue to make slow but steady progress on my book about the dissemination of and debate over irrational ideas. Continue reading