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SPARKS Plugs Gap in Caribbean Climate Research

by Zadie Neufville


The following was published by IPS on March 11, 2017

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Mar 11 2017 (IPS)
– On Nov. 30 last year, a new high-performance ‘Super Computer’ was installed at the University of the West Indies (UWI) during climate change week. Dubbed SPARKS – short for the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing – the computer is already churning out the ‘big data’ Caribbean small island states (SIDS) need to accurately forecast and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region.

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Principal of UWI Mona,  Professor Archibald Gordon.

Experts are preparing the Caribbean to mitigate the devastating impacts – rising seas, longer dry spells, more extreme rainfall and potentially higher impact tropical cyclones – associated with climate change. The impacts are expected to decimate the economies of the developing states and many small island states, reversing progress and exacerbating poverty. Observers say the signs are already here.

The system will help scientists to “better evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure.” –UWI Professor Archibald Gordon

Before SPARKS, regional scientists struggled to produce the kinds of credible data needed for long-term climate projections. Only a few months ago, UWI’s lack of data processing capacity restricted researchers to a single data run at a time, said Jay Campbell, research fellow at the climate research group . Each data run would take up to six months due to the limited storage capacity and lack of redundancy, he said noting: “If anything went wrong, we simply had to start over.”

Immediately, SPARKS answered the need for the collection, analysis, modelling, storage, access and dissemination of climate information in the Caribbean. Over the long term, climate researchers will be able to produce even more accurate and reliable climate projections at higher spatial resolutions to facilitate among other things, the piloting and scaling up of innovative climate resilient initiatives.

Scientists in the region are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry sells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

So, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces its next global assessment report in 2018, there will be much more information from the Caribbean, making SPARKS a critical tool in the region’s fight against climate change.

Not only has the new computer – described as one of the fastest in the Caribbean – boosted the region’s climate research capabilities by plugging the gaping hole in regional climate research, UWI Mona’s principal Professor Archibald Gordon said, “It should help regional leaders make better decisions in their responses and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change”.

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Photo: Zadie Neufville: Caribbean scientists are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry spells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

The expert underscore the need for “big data” to provide the information they need to improve climate forecasting in the short, medium and long term. Now, they have the capacity and the ability to complete data runs that usually take six months, in just two days.

The system will help scientists to better “evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure,” Gordon said.

As the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported in June 2016 as “the 14th consecutive month of record heat for land and oceans; and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average,” regional scientists have committed to proving information to guide Caribbean governments on the actions they need to lessen the impact of climate change.

The region has consistently sought to build its capacity to provide accurate and consistent climate data. Efforts were ramped up after a September 2013 ‘rapid climate analysis’ in the Eastern Caribbean identified what was described as “a number of climate change vulnerabilities and constraints to effective adaptation”.

The USAID study identified among other things “the lack of accurate and consistent climate data to understand climate changes, predict impacts and plan adaptation measures”. To address the challenges, the WMO and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), with funding from USAID, established the Regional Climate Centre in Barbados.

The launch of the new computer is yet another step in overcoming the constraints. It took place during a meeting of the IPCC at UWI’s regional headquarters at Mona – significant because it signalled to the international grouping that the Caribbean was now ready and able to produce the big data needed for the upcoming 2018 report.

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UWI Mona Campus, Jamaica

Head of the Caribbean Climate Group Professor Michael Taylor explained in an interview that the credibility and accuracy of climate data require fast computer processing speeds, fast turn-around times as well as the ability to run multiple data sets at higher resolution to produce information that regional decision-makers need.

“Climate research and downscaling methods will no longer be limited to the hardware and software,” he said, trying but failing to contain his excitement.

SPARKS also puts Jamaica and the UWI way ahead of their counterparts in the English-speaking Caribbean and on par with some of the leading institutions in the developed world. This improvement in computing capacity is an asset for attracting more high-level staff and attracting students from outside the region. Crucially, it aids the university’s push to establish itself as a leading research-based institution and a world leader in medicinal marijuana research.

“This opens up the research capability, an area the university has not done in the past. Before now, the processing of big data could only be done with partners overseas,” Professor Taylor said.

Aside from its importance to crunching climate data for the IPCC reports, SPARKS is revolutionising DNA sequencing, medicinal, biological and other data driven research being undertaken at the University. More importantly, UWI researchers agree that a supercomputer is bringing together the agencies at the forefront of the regional climate fight.

What is clear, SPARKS is a “game-changer and a big deal” for climate research at the regional level and for UWI’s research community.

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New Approach to Funding Tertiary Education: Shaping the 21st Century Mona Campus

KINGSTON: Nov 2016 [MONA News}: The leadership of The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, is on a mission to make this the region’s most modern and sought-after institution, using a development model which could become the go-to for other campuses and institutions.

In recent years, there have been several changes: a new medical building, new halls of residence, restaurants and banking facilities. Strapped for cash but determined not to borrow, Mona’s Principal Professor Archibald McDonald and his team are pursuing a series of public/private Partnerships that have breathed new life into the 68 year-old institution.

The slow steady pace of development is being ramped up: old buildings are giving way to new ones, old facilities refreshed and equipment upgraded. The plans are as ambitious as they are optimistic and expensive, but the University is racing full speed ahead. Surprisingly, the institution is not spending a single cent. Speaking with Mona Magazine recently, Professor McDonald outlined a raft of initiatives that aim to reshape the sprawling Mona Campus into an ultra-modern institution offering its students a world-class education in line with corporate needs, the very best in accommodation, student services and comfort.

Mona’s student housing development model is now seen as the standard for cash-strapped colleges and institutions, and is to be rolled out across the entire UWI system. Who would have known that a rather contentious induction speech just over three years ago would result in a prolific and rewarding relationship between the Mona Campus and the private sector.

“During my induction speech I noted that governments over the years had not done enough for the University… and I challenged the private sector to do more. It has paid off,” Professor McDonald said with a chuckle. He noted that the “relationship between the private sector and the university has never been closer”. On one hand, UWI is getting what it needs in development: technological and industry support through several Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) and Private/Public Partnerships, while the investors salve their corporate responsibility needs and makes a profit.

A partnership between The UWI, Mona and 138 Student Living – a subsidiary of K-Limited – to refurbish, remodel and operate its halls of residence, has revolutionised the management of student housing. Irvine Hall is being refurbished, demolishing some of the old buildings to make way for new ones, adding another 1,100 rooms to bring world-class accommodation and ‘home comforts’ to campus living. And this is only the beginning.

The agreement for the construction of 1,584 houses at a cost of $4 billion over three years should increase the number of rooms on the Mona Campus to about 6,000. The first 480 units have already been delivered, 500 will be handed over soon and the balance, scheduled for handover in 2017. This makes the University the largest single owner of ‘hotel’ rooms on the island.

“Because of the cash flow problems we have not been able to maintain the facilities properly, so outsourcing gives us the opportunity to do the renovations which are necessary and have world-class accommodation for our students,” Professor McDonald explained.

New housing is only one component of the overall strategy to increase revenues, Mona’s principal continued: “We are trying to increase the number of international students. It has been slow, but what we have done is to attract more regional students especially from Trinidad and Tobago. Whenever you bring students from outside of Jamaica, you need to provide accommodation for them”.

K Limited and UWI’s other partners will recover their investments from the savings and earnings. Ambitious as this is, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The next three to five years will see major changes on Campus, among them the conversion of the 15-room Mona Visitors’ Lodge & Conference Centre into a 150-room hotel; and the development of College Common. Replacing the Mona Visitors’ Lodge will improve the offerings at what is already a “very nice place for weddings” to provide modern conference facilities and a one-of-a-kind wedding location.

Over at College Common, the UWI-owned residential property, things are about to change. The 100-acre property which is currently home to some of the University’s senior academic and adminstrative staff, is a laid-back community of colonial-style homes on up to an acre of land. Its current layout makes it difficult to secure and maintain, Professor McDonald said, noting: “College Common has been there for 60-odd years, it is exactly as the British left it, only it is much worse as the houses are in disrepair.”

A mix of town houses, apartments and up-scale homes, some of which will be offered as high-end rentals to companies and Embassies, will replace the run-down old houses, provide staff with updated facilities and the university with much-needed revenue to continue funding the extensive development plans that are being rolled out.

There is no doubt this project could reap big benefits. After all, the Mona Campus sits on some prime lands, in a coveted zip code. And pulling everything together, an ultra-modern Campus/Student centre housing a modern auditorium for university functions including the annual graduation exercise, the housing of the students’ union, a place where students meet, study or just hang out. In addition to the coffee shops, meeting and reading rooms, the centre is expected to be a hub of activity for the 18,000 students on roll.

But plans would not be complete without an adequate supply of water and cost-effective energy. In fact, the co–generation plant that is already cooling several of the buildings on campus will also provide electricity. Once completed, the plant is expected to only reduce the campus’ dependence on the national grid, and slash energy costs by as much as 50 percent – that translates to roughly $50 million dollars in monthly savings.

In addition, the University’s well-publicised water woes are about to disappear. A new well providing 750,000 gallons a day will more than satisfy the campus’ 500,000-gallon daily requirement, saving an additional $20 million in water charges. With all these coming together, Professor McDonald is delighted.

“If you were to look at our audited statements we would not be able to afford all of this,” he said. But the private/public partnership agreements have allowed the University to improve campus facilities and the value of the services on offer.

“I see this as a new model for the funding of tertiary education,” McDonald said, noting that institutions need money to stay competitive amidst growing competition.

And how much will all this development cost? On the conservative side, more than US$2 billion. What is important, however, is that The University will not spend ‘one red cent’, as the saying goes. As Professor McDonald puts it, Corporate Jamaica is finally seeing the value of partnering with the institution.

The benefits are mutual, ranging from product design, development and testing to skills transfer, professional development and income generation; and for students, industry-specific training, internships and scholarships.

Investors including local corporations like the Jamaica Public Service, the French giant Total, and US marijuana company CITIVA, all fund projects that improve their products and outputs, and add to their bottom line. And the improvements to the Mona Campus are not all.

Over at the University Hospital of the West Indies, in addition to the installation of a fully computerised medical filing system, slated for completion early next year, architectural designs for a major rebuilding project are on the ‘drawing board’. Several buildings will be demolished and replaced, Professor McDonald said.

This year, as the University prepares to begin clinical trials of marijuana extracts to treat epilepsy in children and chronic pain; the expansion and relocation of the Western Jamaica Medical Campus has begun and negotiations are underway for the construction of a modern medical facility on the site of the new campus to take advantage of the growing medical tourism market.

Even so, The UWI Mona continues to look for ways to leverage the many opportunities available, with entrepreneurs with the acumen and fortitude to take up the challenges. Take the Usain Bolt Track for instance. There are plans for a gym and winter sports centre around the state-of-the art running track.

“We just need someone to manage the process, but then that might be for my successor,” Professor McDonald said thoughtfully.

And there are so many things to do. With world-class athletes and universities lining up to experience the training that made the ‘Big Man’ a legend – and the opportunities presented by an Olympic-sized swimming pool –Mona’s standing as the home of the athlete dubbed the ‘Living Legend” is destined to soar.

-Zadie Neufville

Air Pollution Leaves Traces In The Brain

by Zadie Neufville

The following was published in Spanish by SciDev.com
Researchers at UK’s University of Lancaster have found toxic nanoparticles similar to that associated with Alzheimer’s disease could come from industrial air pollution which may enter the brain by the nasal passage, suggesting a new environmental risk factor in neurodegenerative diseases.

Traces of magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide compound and a very common air pollutant, are known to be present naturally in human brain and derived from the iron used in normal brain function.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Sept 5, researchers measured magnetic samples and examined their sizes and shape to determine the source of the particles.

In analysing brain tissues from 37 people in Manchester, England, and Mexico City, aged between 3 years old and 92, the researchers observed that most of the magnetite particles were rounded small nonosphere (ranged from less than 5 nanometers to more than 100 nanometers), while biological magnetite are angular crystals and with a diameter from 50 to 150 nanometers.

The shape responds to the origin of the particles, “because they were formed as molten droplets of material from combustion sources, such as car exhausts, industrial processes, open fires,” Barbara Maher, lead author of the study, told SciDev.Net.

In the study, researchers also detected other metal particles like platinum, cobalt and nickel, and since none of them occurs naturally in the brain, their findings suggest that those particles could come from motor vehicle exhaust.

“Scientists have always believed the metal was formed in the body. The surprise is finding that they can enter the brain via inhalation,” Maher said.

Earlier studies suggested possible links between high levels of toxic magnetite in the brains of people who lived in highly polluted areas and Alzheimers disease and dementia. She noted: “These findings do not particularly prove that air pollution will cause brain diseases”.

“We need to do more work to see if this is a cause of brain disease,” Maher added.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution kills 1.3 million people globally each year.

Denise Eldemire-Shearer, a professor at the University of the West Indies, said the study raised the need for critical research given the “ageing populations and the increased importance of dementia research, the cost and the possible associated social costs”.

“We look forward to the wider study”, she said noting that the numbers of the individuals involved in the study were small.

Link to PNAS study

More than two billion people at Zika risk

Mapping Zika

Mapping the “environmentally suitable” areas where the Zika Virus could take a foothold.

 

More than two billion people who live in “environmentally suitable” areas around the world are at risk at of being infected by the Zika Virus, a study  from Oxford University in England suggests.

The team of researchers including Oxford’s Moritz Kraemer and Jane Messina concluded that the likelihood of the disease getting a foothold in vulnerable areas from the United States to China, is extremely high. The researchers combined climate data, mosquito prevalence and the socio-economic makeup of each region in the study: Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus.

With the state of Florida already caught up in its own mosquito eradication programme after several infections, researchers have also identified the states of Texas, sections of Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas as vulnerable.

‘Environmental suitability’ also extends to large areas of sub-Saharan Africa, to more than two million square miles of India “from its northwest regions through to Bangladesh and Myanmar”; the Indochina region, southeast China and Indonesia. The study which was  published April 19 this year noted: that roughly 250,000 square miles of Australia are also at risk.

According to the researcher: “Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission”.

The researchers mapped data on the virus from its emergency in 1947 to the present and into the future. The findings indicate that a global area inhabited by 2.17 billion people is ‘highly suitable’ for the transmission of the Zika virus.

2006 Prof. Frank Hadley Collins, Dir., Cntr. for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, Univ. of Notre Dame This 2006 photograph depicted a female Aedes aegypti mosquito while she was in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host, who in this instance, was actually the biomedical photographer, James Gathany, here at the Centers for Disease Control. You’ll note the feeding apparatus consisting of a sharp, orange-colored “fascicle”, which while not feeding, is covered in a soft, pliant sheath called the "labellum”, which retracts as the sharp stylets contained within pierce the host's skin surface, as the insect obtains its blood meal. The orange color of the fascicle is due to the red color of the blood as it migrates up the thin, sharp translucent tube. The first reported epidemics of Dengue (DF) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) occurred in 1779-1780 in Asia, Africa, and North America. The near simultaneous occurrence of outbreaks on three continents indicates that these viruses and their mosquito vector have had a worldwide distribution in the tropics for more than 200 years. During most of this time, DF was considered a mild, nonfatal disease of visitors to the tropics. Generally, there were long intervals (10-40 years) between major epidemics, mainly because the introduction of a new serotype in a susceptible population occurred only if viruses and their mosquito vector, primarily the Aedes aegypti mosquito, could survive the slow transport between population centers by sailing vessels.

This 2006 photograph shows a female Aedes aegypti mosquito getting a blood meal from her human host, who in this instance, was the biomedical photographer, James Gathany, at the Centers for Disease Control.

The efficiency of the mosquitoes at spreading disease in urban areas plus population densities are reportedly the main factors contributing to this estimate. The study pointed out that the Zika Virus has been isolated in 19 different species of the Aedes family, although the virus was most prevalently found in the Aedes aegypti.

Other studies into the distribution of vectors have found that the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) – which is also responsible for the spread of the Chikungunya virus -has increased its territory and can now be found in Europe. Other Aedes species have also been found to spread the Zika virus, although to fewer people.

Health authorities are scrambling to produce a vaccine as other recent studies have indicated that ZIKV could lead to more severe complications than those already identified.

The Zika virus was first identified in Uganda and is transmitted by Aedes aegyptai mosquitoes, also the vector insect for the dengue and Chikungunya viruses. Prior to an outbreak in Micronesia in 2007, the virus was only known to cause illness in Africa and parts of Asia. In 2013 it began spreading outside its usual areas until the first outbreaks in Latin America in 2015 with Brazil bearing the burden of infections.

Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito

Aedes albopictus also known as the Asian tiger mosquito, one of the most effective vector insects for mosquito diseases

The rapid spread of the virus raises concern that it could quickly impact vulnerable areas around the globe, leading to its declaration as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization.

In addition to the UK, researchers also came from several prominent universities in the USA, Canada, Sweden, Australia and Germany.
-Zadie Neufville

The study Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus is online

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