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Talk nerdy to me

In this edition of Talk Nerdy to Me we look at ocean litter, broken relationships, sneaky wolves, and more.

Quantifying ocean litter

Researchers at the University of Barcelona have developed a web app that will enable conservationists to detect and quantify floating plastics in the ocean.

<strong>There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris</strong> floating in our world's oceans, and that number just keeps increasing.

MARLIT is an open access app built on deep learning techniques. The researchers used artificial intelligence to analyze more than 3,800 aerial images of the Mediterranean coast in Catalonia. The findings will help them assess the presence, density, and distribution of plastic pollutants in the world’s seas and oceans.

Combining automatic aerial photography with analytical algorithms makes the study of ocean pollutants more efficient. Conservationists can customize MARLIT to analyze images individually or divide them into several segments. Once floating litter is detected in a certain area, they can estimate its density using image metadata. The researchers plan to adapt the app to a remote sensor, such as a drone, to automate the sensing process.

The language of a breakup

Concerned your partner might be pulling away? Check their Reddit posts.

A team of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin looked at more than 1 million posts by 6,800 Reddit users. They analyzed the users’ language one year before and one year after news of a breakup was shared on the r/BreakUps subreddit.

<strong>Communication is important</strong> in a relationship. As it turns out, it's also important in pinpointing when a relationship ends.

The researchers discovered that increased use of the words “I” and “we” were signs of an imminent breakup. According to the study’s lead author, Sarah Seraj, our language becomes more personal and informal when we are working through personal upheaval.

The study found that the altered language patterns peaked on the day of the breakup and persisted up to six months later. The subjects used personal language even when discussing topics in other subreddit communities. Those users whose language did not return to normal after a year tended to linger in the r/BreakUps subreddit and retell their breakup story over and over.

Seraj and her team found similar language patterns for users going through divorce and other emotional upheaval.

Growing a love for vegetables

According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2017, only 1 in 10 adults in the US eat the recommended number of vegetable servings each day. With a number like that for adults, is there any hope for getting children to eat their veggies? Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are having some success.

<strong>Maybe kids don't hate veggies.</strong> Availability and a sense of control over food production seems to give kids the motivation to clean their plates.

The researchers partnered with 16 elementary schools across Central Texas, targeting schools with a high percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunch programs. They planted vegetable gardens and taught nutrition and cooking to students and parents for one academic year.

The team found that students who participated in the program ate an average of half a serving more of vegetables than they did before the study. The researchers also looked at the children’s weight, body mass index and blood pressure, but found no statistically significant changes in those measures.

Previous studies have shown that more fruits and vegetables may play a role in reduced obesity in adults, but the effects have not been well studied in children.

Hungry (and patient) like the wolf

Wolves are known as cursorial predators. They hunt in packs and succeed by outrunning and exhausting their prey (e.g. moose, deer, bison). But that’s not the only hunting method in a wolf’s repertoire. During the summer, wolves in the forests of North America and Eurasia are known to hunt alone for beavers.

Beavers are difficult to catch because they’re semi-aquatic and spend little time on land. But researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Voyageurs Wolf Project have discovered that wolves are patient. During the five-year study, data collected shows that wolves have evolved to use ambush-style hunting tailored for catching beavers.

<strong>If you're ever hungrily awaiting a meal</strong> try to remember that these researchers caught a wolf waiting to ambush a beaver for 30 hours. That's hungry!

Tom Gable, the study’s lead-author, says that the predators spend an average of four hours waiting next to areas where beavers are active on land. One wolf staked out a spot for 30 hours! Beavers have poor eyesight and depend on smell to detect danger. The researchers found that wolves have learned where to wait to avoid detection by sight. They even position themselves downwind so their scent isn’t detected.

The researchers observed these practices in wolves from multiple packs across several years. The findings indicate that the animals’ hunting strategies are highly flexible, allowing them to switch methods depending on the prey.

New hope for a deadly cancer

Pancreatic cancer is relatively rare, but it is the third leading cause of cancer-related death. The five-year survival rate is only eight percent. Thankfully, scientists at Georgia State University have developed a new drug that appears to be effective in treating the disease.

The drug, named ProAgio was created from a human protein. It targets the cell surface receptor, which is expressed on cancer-associated fibroblasts. Fibroblasts facilitate the growth of substances in the body that protect cancer and help it grow. ProAgio induces programmed cell death in those fibroblasts.

<strong>Pancreatic cancer</strong> has a very low five-year survival rate. Research like this could help us make patient prospects brighter.

Lead researcher Zhi-Ren Liu explains that the fibroblasts in pancreatic and triple-negative breast cancer contain structures that are too dense for conventional drugs to penetrate. The structures (stroma) also help hide the tumor from the body’s immune system. ProAgio targets only cancer-associated fibroblasts. This increases the drug’s effectiveness and reduces side effects.

The first trial to determine patient tolerability will begin in early 2021.

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