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The American Museum of Natural History Showcases a 100-Year-Old Partnership With Cuba

In 1910, a renowned Cuban scientist named Carlos de la Torre y la Huerta ventured into the Ciego Montero hot springs region of the island nation and found the fossilized remains of a giant Cuban ground sloth, extinct for thirty thousand years at least. The sloth was the size of a bear. Wanting to find more, de la Torre contacted the fledgling American Museum of Natural History in New York. At the time the AMNH was pouring its resources into wildly ambitious expeditions: Between 1880 and 1930, museum staff were venturing to the North Pole, exploring unmapped areas of Siberia, and traversing the Gobi desert, where a team from the museum was credited with discovering the first nest of fossilized dinosaur eggs. Upon receiving de la Torre’s invitation, they dispatched Barnum Brown, who’d become the museum’s most famous paleontologist for his discovery of the first Tyrannosaurus rex bones less than ten years prior.

Together, the Cuban-American duo pieced together two composite skeletons of the giant mammals: one for Cuba’s National Museum of Natural History in Havana, and the other for the AMNH, where it has been on display in the museum’s hall of primitive mammals for much of the past 100 years.

Their collaboration was among the first of the nearly thirty joint expeditions AMNH and its Cuban counterpart would pursue, the most recent taking place just last year; ¡Cuba!, AMNH’s newest offering, is a showcase of that century-old partnership, which has managed to endure every crest and trough of Cuba-U.S. relations in that time. The giant sloth, along with a model of Cuba’s other extinct giant, a three-foot-tall owl that roamed the island until seven thousand years ago, sits prominently at the center of the fully bilingual exhibit, which not only celebrates the vast range of lifeforms native to the island — the largest and most biodiverse of any in the Caribbean. It is also part of a larger five-year commitment to continue joint work and extend AMNH’s research into Cuban society itself — something that would have been much more difficult two years ago, and may become difficult again, if Trump has his way.

 

Water on all sides meant that evolution in Cuba progressed cut off from the rest of the world. The island had no major land-dwelling carnivores, allowing some prey species with mainland varieties to evolve into giants, and others to become highly specialized, free to find a very specific ecological niche and adapt exclusively to it. This yielded a kaleidoscopic menagerie found nowhere else. Some creatures look like they’ve leapt from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch; on display is a Cuban solenodon, for example — a tawny, round-rumped two-pound relative of the shrew that secretes venomous saliva from its front teeth. A hutia, a massive, twenty-pound rodent, sits beside it. A few native frogs and Technicolor lizards are also housed in the exhibit, beside a live iridescent Cuban boa coiled demurely in its tank. In the same room, a taxidermied bee hummingbird, smaller than any other bird — and, in fact, some bees — is perched daintily on a branch.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Madagascar, and I think of Cuba as the Madagascar of the Caribbean,” says Christopher Raxworthy, a curator of the museum’s department of herpetology and of the new exhibit. This summer, he spent a month alongside Cuban researchers in the remotest parts of Humboldt National Park, a 275-square-mile rainforest on the easternmost end of the island full of undescribed creatures. “To a biologist, it’s like being a kid in a candy store,” Raxworthy says.

The exhibit delves into Cuban cultures as deeply as into wildlife. It opens with large photographs of the many Cubans interviewed for it, the accompanying wall text expressing hope or affection for their resilient homeland. The very first is a portrait of a Cuban tattoo artist: “I would define the Cuban as a brave person who has learned to live with many problems, who laughs at all those problems, who lives each day in order to try to live the next.” Another area is dedicated to Cuban graphic art, and another to Cuban food; when the Voice visited, a blonde elementary-school-aged girl sat down at one of the display tables and stared at a plate of rice and beans sealed under a plastic case. “You’re so lucky to be Cuban. This food looks so good,” she said to another grade-schooler, a boy who’d taken a seat beside her in front of a plate of fried malanga root. “I’ve never been, though, but my dad has,” he replied.

 

The Cuban knight anole, a large and territorial tree-dwelling lizard.
The Cuban knight anole, a large and territorial tree-dwelling lizard.

The young attendees likely don’t know about the Cold War, or that Cuban relations have been a talking point for every White House in the past half-century. They don’t remember the Bay of Pigs, the causes of the embargo, the deportation of Elián González. And yet the exhibit comes just as international affairs threaten to seesaw yet again: just over a year after President Obama restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, and just before the inauguration of a president who promises to abridge them, wielding vague threats about extracting “better deals” from Havana.

But the ambient optimism of the exhibit has managed to infect some scholars’ view of the political situation. Julia Sweig, a scholar on U.S.-Cuban relations at the University of Texas at Austin, said she is betting that the sheer velocity of the past year’s changes, including easier travel between the two countries, will be enough to make them unstoppable. “We will hope that they will continue to go forward, she says, “and [that] the momentum of connectivity is inexorable.”

For now, the business of enumerating Cuba’s natural wonders continues apace.

The final papers from last summer’s expedition won’t be ready for publication until next year, but Raxworthy, the herpetologist, is confident that trip will have found and named more than a hundred new species of frogs, lizards, and invertebrates. “We might even have a new species of mammal,” Raxworthy says, grinning. This is the kind of thing biologist dreams are made of. And the discovery is not about to stop: Raxworthy says the next joint research expedition is being planned for summer 2017.

“This is really the start of a much longer period of engagement,” he continues. “Cuba’s such a big place — it’s the kind of country you can spend your whole lifetime studying.”

 

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Can City Hall’s Revved-Up Biodiesel Mandate Live Up to Its Own Expectations?

New York City is on a carbon-cutting bender. When Mayor de Blasio announced in 2014 that the city would cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by a whopping 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050, you would be forgiven if, hands still clapping, you looked around sheepishly and thought, Jesus, how?

But little by little, various aspects of NYC’s carbon bloat are being nipped and tucked. Buildings with inefficient heating systems are getting retrofitted, building codes are being updated to become more energy-efficient, $1 billion in capital is flowing toward making city-owned buildings run cleaner, and New York has committed to adding 100 megawatts’ worth of solar upgrades to public buildings by 2025. A tax abatement program for commercial and residential buildings hopes to add another 250 megawatts derived from photovoltaics, more than quadrupling the roughly 54 megawatts that were installed on homes and offices as of last year.

Now City Hall has introduced another green-energy gambit: Signed by the mayor last month, a new law requires dramatically more biodiesel be blended into petroleum-based heating oil than the current 2 percent. The new mandate, sponsored by Councilman Costa Constantinides, requires that share to rise to 5 percent by next year, then 10 percent by October 2025, 15 percent by 2030, and 20 percent by 2034 — eventually reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons per year, or 4 percent of the city’s total output. The plan is hugely ambitious. There is no guarantee that biodiesel production, which will have to be increased by an order of magnitude, will be able to keep pace, nor is it certain that biodiesel is the clean-energy panacea it would appear to be on its face, given its ties to industrial agriculture. And you have to wonder, who’s going to pay for it?

 

First, the basics: Since 2012, New York City has required that all heating oil used in the city, in all buildings that use oil heat, contain some biodiesel. (As of 2014, about a quarter of all buildings in the city were heated with oil, while most of the rest used natural gas.) The ultimate trash-to-treasure fuel, biodiesel can be recycled from cooking oil collected from restaurants like McDonald’s and Shake Shack — any place that fries food in large quantities. When the city instituted the requirement, companies popped up to collect the used cooking oil and bring it to refineries across the Northeast.

Burning it generates much less carbon dioxide and asthma-aggravating particulates than does burning traditional petroleum diesel. Heating oil that contains 20 percent biodiesel produces about 10 percent less particulate matter and carbon dioxide than oil that doesn’t, and 20 percent less sulfur dioxide, a powerful toxin, according to a report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And although biodiesel generates more smog-causing nitrogen oxides than normal diesel when burned in engines, it generates less of the offending chemical when burned in boilers: For every 1 percent of biodiesel added to a heating oil blend, nitrogen oxides (NOx) drop by 1 percent — so a 20 percent biodiesel blend would emit roughly 20 percent less NOx than standard heating oil.

The trouble is, few places have successfully managed the transition to cleaner fuel. Massachusetts tried to implement its own version of a biodiesel mandate in 2008, but walked it back to a “voluntary” mandate in 2010, citing how hard it would be to get a dispersed industry of heating oil companies all on the same page: Enforcement would prove to be too costly. “It has been delay, delay, frustration,” Brooke Coleman, the director of a biofuels advocacy group, told Boston.com at the time.

Now, six years later, Massachusetts biodiesel companies are still struggling. Lynn Benander, the CEO of Northeast Biodiesel, an energy collective that collects cooking oil from restaurants to sell to a biodiesel plant, says business is slow.

“Because the mandate didn’t go through, there’s no incentive locally for people to use biodiesel,” Benander tells the Voice. “It would have helped us build our market. Without the policy incentives, it’s hard.”

What’s more, the environmental repercussions may not be unambiguously positive. Even if biofuels could shrink New York’s immediate carbon footprint, they may in fact place a higher carbon burden on the planet overall. Only about 30 percent of biodiesel is made from used cooking oil in the U.S. What doesn’t come from used fry grease largely comes from other vegetable oils, like palm oil. Palm plantations, based largely in Southeast Asia, are notoriously polluting, releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide every year. And soybean oil, which is used to make 52 percent of all biodiesel in the U.S., is associated with both industrial cultivation and glyphosate, an herbicide the World Health Organization labels a “probable” carcinogen.

Constantinides, though, seems sure that the city’s oil collection system will grow fast enough to make the point moot. “There is already a robust industry in New York City of grease collection,” the councilmember says, pointing to the fact that the city has gotten along just fine since the 2012 mandate.

Still, 2 percent is a long way from 20; how demand will be met — and who will end up footing the bill — are open questions. To incentivize production, federal law grants $1 in tax credits to the manufacturer for every gallon produced, and state law an additional $0.15 per gallon. What share consumers will have to kick in is less clear. Biodiesel prices, on average, have stayed roughly equal to those of regular diesel in the past few years, according to federal statistics, and the way the city bill is written, it does not appear that costs to consumers will rise. But that’s partly because it offers exemptions if the “price of the required biodiesel blend significantly exceeds the price of oil,” or if “there is an insufficient supply of biodiesel to satisfy the relevant mandates.” In other words, it’s free to you if the subsidies hold.

At the moment the biggest biodiesel plant in the region is the United Metro Energy Corporation, built in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, by grocery store baron and onetime mayoral hopeful John Catsimatidis, who currently has a $62 million home heating oil contract with the city. Catsimatidis once lobbied for a mandate like the one the council just passed — around the same time that de Blasio received a $50,000 donation from him in 2014, sparking accusations of a conflict of interest.

Constantinides avers that neither the new plant nor lobbying efforts had anything to do with the bill: “That was not something that was heavy on my mind. I never had a conversation with Metro.” Instead, he says simply, “We’re going to burn hundreds of millions of gallons less of petroleum.” And who can argue with that?

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Counting Nemo: A Marine Life Population Tally Reintroduces NY to the Rivers That Run Through It

Just a few yards off the coast of a sandy sliver of beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park, directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge and its clattering trains, six people in Cabela’s coveralls and black rubber waders stand waist-deep in the river, holding up the poles of a net. The seining crew, a group of volunteers for the fifth annual Great Hudson River Fish Count, bob in the wake of a tugboat muscling a barge northward; eventually they slosh back toward shore with their catch, and one woman begins plucking glassy translucent blobs the size of ping-pong balls from the rope. They look like cartoon water droplets, clean little orbs. She gently plunks one into my hand — it feels like a giant bubble-tea tapioca ball. “Comb jellies! They don’t sting,” she says.

We lower the creature into a plastic tank, then place it beside the other specimens at the demonstration table that Peter Park, a biology professor at Nyack College, has improvised to show off the animals to the gathered sunscreen-coated children. Fully immersed, the jelly opens into a diaphanous bell jar; a six-year-old from Park Slope named Aidan paws at a tank full of the shimmering creatures, and stares.

The volunteers haul in an uncounted multitude more of the comb jellies, as well as 413 Atlantic silversides, twelve baby black sea bass, and at least one sea robin, a bottom-feeder with dorsal fins like birds’ wings, over the course of the day. And the Brooklyn Bridge Park fish count is just one of the event’s seven locations, which range from Valentino Pier down in Red Hook all the way up to Randalls Island, where the Little Hell Gate salt marsh meets the Harlem River. At each site, volunteers and biologists with the New York State Department of Conservation and local conservancy groups net fish and bring them ashore, where onlooking kids, most between the ages of six and eleven, can get up close and personal with these residents of waterways just next door to their own familiar blacktops.

The kids at Brooklyn Bridge got a hands-on demonstration of “gill rakers,” bony toothpick-like protrusions inside the gills of Atlantic menhaden that filter small prey with each underwater breath; they might come across the oyster toadfish, a creature whose disproportionately large head resembles that of its amphibian namesake. “Oyster crackers,” as they’re sometimes called, lie perfectly still between rocks until an oyster or other mollusk happens by; attendees can even go hunting for the Asian shore crab — the city’s beaches literally crawl with the invasive species. As DEC estuary education coordinator Stephen Stanne says, the point is simply “to convince people, yes, the river is alive.”

The Hudson River system supports a 13,400-square-mile watershed from the Adirondack Mountains way upstate to New York Harbor south of Battery Park and includes the East River, which is actually not a river but a tidal saltwater estuary of the Hudson itself — as though the Hudson draped its arm over and around Manhattan to nestle the island in its crook. Indeed, Many New Yorkers think of the East River as the armpit of the five boroughs, and for good reason: Not far from the knoll where the children ogled the latest catch is one of New York City’s largest sewage discharge points; when it rains, polluted stormwater flows directly out of a pipe into the East River (and out of another 459 sewage outflows that dot the New York Harbor system). The city has spent upwards of $2.1 billion over the past decade to cut down on that sort of discharge, yet 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage still wind up flowing directly into the harbor each year. (No one mentions this to the kids.)

While the cleansing effect of saltwater tides shields the East River from the worst of this stuff, the churn doesn’t quite flush the crap that clogs the waterway. For this year’s fish count, the conservation department included sites along the East to prove that its waters weren’t just “full of tires,” as Stanne puts it, but also replete with baby fish; the river is a nursery for species like striped bass, herring, and the baby flounder, pearly gray and the size of a rose petal, I watch Park cradle in his hands at a beachside demonstration table before returning to the murky, brownish water.

Yet sewage is only the beginning of the Hudson estuary’s problems. Industrial pollution has plagued most of the system for the better part of a century. Between 1947 and 1976, General Electric dumped nearly 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river from two capacitor manufacturing plants located 50 miles north of Albany. The spillage traveled all the way downstream, and to this day 200 miles of the 315-mile river system remain classified as Superfund sites. There are no safe levels of PCB: Exposure to the compound may lead to cancer, cause neurological damage, and impair reproduction in both fish and humans — it can also enter breastmilk and has been linked to learning disorders and developmental disabilities.

But in 2011, a group of researchers at New York University made a remarkable discovery: The tomcod, a smallish olive-colored fish toward the bottom of the Hudson River food chain, had evolved resistance to PCBs in as few as twenty generations. “Evolutionary change can happen very, very quickly,” says Isaac Wirgin, a population geneticist at NYU and the lead author on the study. But this turn of events could come with its own perils: Because the fish remain in the food chain rather than dying out from PCB exposure, Wirgin says, the toxin can more successfully make its way into animals that eat the tomcod, traveling up the food chain toward us. Just like in the fish that ingest it, the contaminant accumulates in humans’ fatty tissue and muscle to sit there, compounding, forever.

The waterways are so foul that during last year’s fish count, someone, mistaking the heads and shoulders of the seiners for hapless children, called the police. The NYPD, the Coast Guard, and even the fire department descended on the scene, only to find adults willingly wading into the surf. The cops wanted to know what they were doing there, so Isa Del Bello, education director at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, told them about the fish: the blue crab, the silverside, the baby striped bass. “There’s seahorses, too,” Del Bello says. “No one can believe that.”

Over time, that kind of surprise has become a recurring theme of the event, hooking a class of dedicated amateurs who return year after year. Most do not have a background in science, but they keep coming back anyway — for sentimental reasons, maybe, or from feeling duty-bound to teach the next generation of naturalists. After all, ecosystem conservation is the work of a lifetime, so best to get ’em started while they’re young.

“When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘Whaaaat?’ ” says Kathy Gurland, laughing, holding the tank with the comb jellies. She’s a psychotherapist with spiky reddish hair who has volunteered for all five fish counts and works with the park conservancy on other educational programs throughout the year. Her apartment is down the street from the park; Gurland keeps coming back because it feels like tending to a communal backyard of sorts. “I’m not afraid of all this water,” she says. “It’s my way of giving back.”

Gurland rushes over to the demonstration table, holding a little tank filled with small, wriggling fish. “We hit the jackpot, kids! Look at this!” she says.

The small crowd of children, by now clutching laminated taxonomy charts, flutters around Gurland and Park. “Northern pipefish! Northern pipefish!” squeals Iroha Tokumoto, a ten-year-old from Queens, pointing to the chart and then at a yellow sticklike creature about three inches long. “You got it,” Park says. He then gingerly places a pinkish lady crab — yes, that’s its official name — on top of a pile of sand. Instantly, the crab scuttles backward and directly down, disappearing into the sand butt-first. “Whoa, it totally just, like — whoosh,” says a mother this time.

“I’m afraid of crabs,” says Daniel Chen, watching Park fish the lady crab back out of the sand with a bare hand. Chloe, Chen’s six-year-old daughter, watches the crab fold itself into a disk and wait, arms crossed in impatience, to be plopped back in a bin of river water.

“I’m not,” she says finally.

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A Summer Camp for LGBTQ Young Adults Hopes to Debug the Industry’s Diversity Problem

On a sweltering July Monday at Google’s New York headquarters, in a conference room four floors above Chelsea Market, a dozen queer teenagers were introducing themselves to one another. “Danny, he/him pronouns,” said a seventeen-year-old from Queens with long hair and fingerless gloves. He’d been writing video game storylines since he was eight; this was his second time at Maven, a week-long free summer camp held in San Francisco, Boulder, Austin, and New York for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults interested in tech. As an icebreaker, the teens had been told to name a genderless green fuzzball with eyes — and to give it a backstory. The fuzzball had to have a weakness, and Danny decided that it was compulsive reblogging. The team named it “dat boi” after a viral image of a cartoon frog riding a unicycle; it was their homage to a “dank meme.” The rest of the room fluttered in approval.

These are kids of the internet: They grew up on YouTube and Wi-Fi-connected multiplayer games and most of them have Tumblrs and think Facebook is for old people. In other words, your average crew of teens in 2016. But in the offices of the tech elite where the campers would spend the next week learning how to build a video game, they were not exactly the typical constituency. Both Silicons — Valley and Alley — are notorious for hiring a miniscule number of people of color or from low-income backgrounds, let alone gender-nonconforming and queer people; each young person selected for Maven is a member of at least one of those communities. Most are all three.

At the front of the conference room, a camp leader was going over a poster of camp rules; “check your privilege” was near the top. In red lipstick and a backwards baseball cap, Je’Jae Cleopatra Daniels, a twenty-year-old Hunter College student who hopes for a career in media and marketing and uses they/them pronouns, smoothed their dashiki and began to describe the term: “There’s cis privilege, male privilege, white privilege,” they explained. “The list goes on and on.”

Having a bunch of queer teens talking about privilege in the middle of Google’s offices — blocks from the piers where queer people of color used to gather and socialize before the average neighborhood rent was $3,800 — is exactly the kind of incursion activist Monica Ann Arrambide had in mind when she started Maven four years ago. She’d worked for years in LGBT youth centers; over time she grew frustrated as the centers, which are often the only places queer kids can access healthcare or social services in their communities, botched their attempts to reach kids online. “This is what young people live and breathe,” she said, and the centers just weren’t getting it. “At the end of the day, youth need to be served. They’re committing suicide.”

Despite having no background in tech herself, Arrambide started Maven not only to teach the kind of basic digital literacy those youth centers sorely lacked, but also to show kids who go through the program just what it would be like to become tech workers themselves. Throughout the week, different tech companies host participants at their offices: Besides Google, the New York campers had stops at Pandora and Tumblr before spending the last two days at Microsoft. At each office, employees mingled with the campers, offering technical instruction and career advice. By the end of the week, campers learn how to build video games on open-source software they can use at home.

Participants have to apply for the limited number of slots, which Arrambide prefers to fill with applicants who would likely never have otherwise gotten close to tech’s centers of power. You can tell when a kid has practice filing applications, she said. (“They write a lot; they say all the right things.”) Arrambide sifts the applicant pool for students like Je’Jae, who had been thrown out of their home the month before, during NYC Pride. Their mother, a Yemenite Orthodox Jewish wigmaker living in a predominantly white, Ashkenazi-Jewish community on the Lower East Side, had previously been supportive of Je’Jae’s incremental steps in recent years to live as a gender-nonconforming person — even tolerating Je’Jae’s break from the tight-knit, religious community. But one night, Je’Jae said, “She made a U-turn” and kicked them out. They applied for and got into a “transitional housing” shelter program at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a center for at-risk LGBT youth in Astor Place. If all goes well, Je’Jae will graduate in the fall into a public housing program that’ll only cost $200 or $300, which they’ll scrape together somehow.

Je’Jae was the oldest person at camp; they didn’t get in on the first try. Once accepted, the program tries to eliminate as many of the burdens of participating as possible. In addition to declining to charge the kids a fee, Arrambide asks tech companies for their old laptops, to give to those she figures probably don’t have one at home. “I’m sure if there were costs to Maven, the demographic would be totally different,” Je’Jae explained. “It’d be all cis white gay boys, like everywhere else in tech.”

 

No good industry-wide data exist that count LGBTQ people in the tech workforce, but the indications aren’t promising: Apple CEO Tim Cook and PayPal founder and Silicon Valley shogun Peter Thiel, both only recently openly gay (and both cis and white), are virtually alone in the highest tiers of the industry. Maven hopes to see that number grow: The organization is just one of a expanding cohort of programs that have decided that increasing diversity in the tech sector can only happen if typically excluded young people are granted the means to break into it. Similar programs like Black Girls Code, Girls Who Code, and Code2040, named for the year minorities will overtake whites as America’s majority demographic, have risen up to puncture the rhetoric of meritocracy that dominates what is a starkly homogeneous profession: Black people and Latinos make up fully 28 percent of the American workforce but just 6 percent of Twitter’s U.S.-based employees, for example; that share diminishes to just 5 percent at Google, where 70 percent of workers are men. The Obama administration has even identified lack of diversity in tech as a problem robbing the U.S. of potential innovation, which translates to a significant chunk of missed economic growth: In June, the White House announced it would back new initiatives to promote tech diversity, citing a report released that month by Intel Corporation and Dalberg Global Development Advisors that estimated “an additional $470 to $570 billion in new value for the U.S. technology industry” if it diversified its workforce.

Not all of Arrambide’s fellow activists understand why she works with tech companies. “In my personal circle,” she said, “there’s a judgment of it.” To some, tech companies’ drastic diversity problems suggest the issue may be long past fixing: As Mitch Kapor, a startup investor, put it in a post on Medium last year, in a lineup of startups worth more than $1 billion, “you won’t see any African American or Latino/a faces, and you will see hardly any women.” Some feel the tech industry, as it eats up whole cities and spits out the queer and low-income people who can no longer afford to live there, must be overtly opposed. As Isa Noyola, a transgender Latina activist in San Francisco, told the Guardian earlier this summer about why she wouldn’t walk in the city’s Pride parade, which was filled with floats from Google and Facebook: “It’s ironic to walk alongside tech companies that have displaced us.”

But Arrambide is more optimistic. Maven operates on the belief that it’s possible to transform tech from within, placing the onus of change on the companies themselves instead of forcing the kids to adapt to business as usual. The camp is entirely funded by gifts from the tech companies, and during the tours of various headquarters, employee volunteers teach computer science skills. Before any of them interact with campers, Arrambide sends out a sheet with best practices that’s similar to the information she gives all the kids at the start of camp: For example, pronouns are important and misgendering hurts, so if you don’t know a person’s preferred gender pronouns, default to their name, or just use the neutral “they.”

Some companies rise to the challenge — Tumblr, for instance, volunteered its space for one day of the camp and bought rainbow bagels for the kids for breakfast. But others, predictably, flounder: One of the tech companies Arrambide had scheduled for the camp one year (she won’t say which) got cold feet after reading the sheet, worried that its employees might “mess up.” “If they mess up, they’ll get called out on it,” Arrambide said. “That’s good for them — it’s how growth happens.” From what she can tell, Maven has forced at least a few places to acknowledge and fix the problems that create obstacles for LGBTQ workers. One tech company, which she also declined to name, eliminated gender from its job application forms after Maven’s office visit. Another, indeed.com, said it would add a gender-neutral bathroom to its offices in Austin after holding camp there.

But the program works just as hard to get these kids into tech careers as it does to remind them that they form a community of their own. In a post-Orlando world, more people are beginning to realize that being queer means you aren’t really safe anywhere — but being visibly genderqueer or trans every day as a teenager is an especially courageous shade of lipstick to wear. Just being in a room together is like breathing fresh air. “Everyone came here with their own emotional package,” Je’Jae said. “But people really help each other here. There’s a feeling that we should be here. How often does someone my age get to hear that from the world?”

The kids are all right: Young participants, with host Evan Palmer (in pink shirt, at right), kick off the morning of social-media tech workshops on the rooftop at Tumblr.
The kids are all right: Young participants, with host Evan Palmer (in pink shirt, at right), kick off the morning of social-media tech workshops on the rooftop at Tumblr.

On the last day of camp, the campers were sprawled out in a conference room at Microsoft’s Times Square offices, on the same floor as a gender-neutral restroom. As the clock wound down to demo time, the soundtrack to the video game Undertail was piped in through the room’s speakers and, at each crescendo, the whole room would start humming along. Arrambide had ordered extra pizza for lunch, anticipating that it might be the only food some of the attendees would have access to that day. “Some of these kids might take a whole pie when they leave,” she explained. Je’Jae came in late: They’d had an appointment that morning they had to attend in order to get public assistance. They’d wanted to make a Sims-like game where people could play as gender-nonconforming characters and be faced with situations like the ones they face every day — finding a gender-neutral bathroom, being misgendered — but there hadn’t been time. They finally rushed in and grabbed a few slices.

By the afternoon, most of the other students were finishing up. Across the room, three teens were hunched over laptops. “I made my character trans, because I’m trans,” Sam Gonzalez, a high school junior from Brooklyn, said giddily, pulling up a rendering of the character he’d drawn on his laptop. Sam likes anime best — he’s been drawing in the style since he was eight — and, after five days at Maven, he now knows how to use an illustration pad and to use a program called FireAlpaca to integrate his creations into a game. Sam did all the drawing; Kyle Figueroa, fourteen, did the coding; and Danny Geraldi, seventeen, wrote the dialogue and storyline.

Final Night features six gender-ambiguous anime figures in futuristic clothing. Each character is accused of a crime they didn’t commit — so while they try to stop villains, they must also avoid being detained. Players trying to save the world must contemplate whether that world is really worth saving after all.

“The characters don’t have any gender,” Kyle, who is also trans, said. The team wanted to make them relatable, so that people like them could see themselves reflected in the game’s heroes: the main character dressed in knee-high white boots, a magenta-and-white cloak; the tuft of magenta in his hair a perfect match for Sam’s.

 

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The Slime Whisperer: One Biologist’s Instagram Disguises Civic Science Lessons as Visual Art

Sally Warring has promised me a peep into a hidden universe. In her laboratory on the fifth floor of the NYU genomics building, Warring, a Ph.D. student in biology, prepares a microscope,
pipetting a single drop of green pond water into a dimple at the center of a petri dish. She focuses and refocuses the lens, and
at first nothing resolves. Then, suddenly, the viewfinder explodes in green stars — tiny bright orbs, clustered in twos and threes, their contours blurring and resharpening in an endless succession of little visual ripples. The whole scene quivers like a mirage. We’ve reached 100-times magnification — about the same as Warring’s followed/following ratio on social media, where this tableau will likely end up. Just like Taylor Swift’s friends at the beach, Warring’s waterborne scum samples are Instagram-famous.

For the past year, Warring has run @pondlife_pondlife, a collection of lovingly captured images of freshwater-based slime. Sometimes her photos and videos reveal the microbes’ Lilliputian dramas of survival, with captions providing harrowing detail — amoebas hastily building houses to shelter themselves from predators; diatoms, sleek and sticklike, huddling in tight colonies that look like Lincoln Logs. Sometimes the posts offer lighter fare, like the hulking ciliate that resembles a “brontosaurus” or the group of lissome cyanobacteria filaments that “woke up like this.” There’s even the odd wonky dick joke. “Oh my, what is this?” begins one video caption describing a stentor Warring found in the water by the Prospect Park boathouse, which slowly elongates its translucent brownish body into something rather
penis-like. “Here we can see it opening up again to its ‘trumpet’ form,” the caption reads. “Though one might also describe it as looking a little phallic.” The effect is as contagious as some of Warring’s subjects: Her 34,000-strong following is up more than 400 percent since February, when an Atlantic blog post went so far as to compare one of her images to the work of
Gustav Klimt.

Pondlife is intended to educate as much as delight: Warring almost exclusively features bodies of water in and around the city so that residents might learn a thing or two about the tiny creatures we rarely think about — but that nonetheless influence our health and the environment in innumerable ways. Wherever the tiny beasts are, Warring finds them. (“I’ve definitely jumped a few fences to get to a good pond.”) She’s the Neil deGrasse Tyson of swarming
invisibilia, and her message is: You’re
surrounded.

That fact will be evident this summer as nearly every pond in the city blooms a crown of green muck. That scuzz likely contains cyanobacteria, single-cell organisms that were, some 2.3 billion years ago, the first living things to figure out how to turn sunlight into food and expel oxygen — like all plants now do — resulting in what biogeochemists call “The Great Oxygenation Event”: Without pond scum, there would be no air to breathe on Planet Earth, much less a city called New York.

“Even today, about half of the oxygen production on the planet is coming from algae,” says Andrew Juhl, a marine biologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. The tiny creatures also play a big role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “In a global sense, they are responsible for various transformations that explain how our world works. Algae are like the grass and the trees of aquatic environments. You can imagine what the world would be like without those.”

If you were to accidentally swallow
microbes, they’d find themselves in good company, joining an internal
fiesta that never stops. Every one of us carries millions of microorganisms in our guts and mouths and on our genitalia. Most of the time we live in harmony —
intestinal E. coli has long been known
to aid digestion — but sometimes the
human microbiome, as it’s called, runs amok. Warring herself studies things that live in human vaginas, and her doctoral work focuses on Trichomonas vaginalis,
a sexually transmitted parasite that can cause nasty infections yet is carried by as many as half of all humans on Earth. We don’t really know much about why, says
Warring, “because it used to just be
considered a sort of women’s nuisance.”

Over the past several years, however, scientists have learned more and more about the microbiome, and they now suspect that it might be responsible for more than simply helping us break down food or causing disease. The small symbionts may in fact play powerful roles in our mental health, our risk of certain types
of cancer, and possibly even who we’re attracted to. Capitalizing on the frenzy
of scientific interest, the American
Museum of Natural History’s ongoing special exhibit “The Secret World Inside You” showcases the flourishing research into just how deep our dependence on the microbiome goes (a few of Warring’s Instagram videos are featured).

Warring harvests samples from a trash-ridden pond in Queens.

When it comes to enjoying a personal cocktail of unicellular creatures, humanity is not special. Algae are the base of every aquatic food chain on the planet; any life-form that lives in water either eats them or eats something else that does. But over the course of hundreds of years, industrial pollution and ramshackle waste management systems have
decimated algae populations across the world, including around New York. By the 1980s, water contamination in the city’s streams and bays had devastated the local marine microorganism population. Since then, New York’s water quality has improved in fits and starts, and the evidence that life is returning is all over Warring’s Instagram: Shimmering dinoflagellates spin like tops beneath the placid surface of Harlem Meer; the whip-tailed euglena — a vivid-green photosynthesizer scientists believe might one day be farmed for food — gyrates in samples from Corona Park.

But threats to the recovery remain. Among the greatest is the city’s severe sewage overflow. New York’s wastewater infrastructure is so feeble that whenever it rains more than one-twentieth of an inch, untreated human waste bypasses the region’s overwhelmed sewage plants and sluices directly into the city’s waterways. (Recently, environmental activist Christopher Swain went for a swim in the Gowanus Canal; after the stunt, he told gathered reporters that the water had tasted like “mud, poop, ground-up glass, grass, and gasoline.”)

That noxious slurry not only harms
the organisms already living there; it is also the New York Harbor system’s single largest source of pathogens harmful to
humans, including the bugs that cause dysentery and gonorrhea. So far no gonorrhea bacteria have flitted across any of Warring’s samples from the Gowanus. But it’s a fair wager that seeing a hairy, double-sphered infectious agent furiously swimming through social feeds might prompt her followers to wonder why there’s such toxic water in their backyards, and who is doing something about it.

Spreading fear, however, is never
the goal of a Pondlife post; rather, it’s to foster a healthy respect for the creatures that hold the world up. In one recent example, a video showed a “trumpet”-form stentor “juggling” a cyanobacteria colony as if it were playing with its food. One commenter was unimpressed (“how gay lol”), but clearly @thebarefootdesigner was moved. “I was breathless for a
minute thinking that wee spinning guy was going to get swallowed!” they wrote. “You’ve got me forming emotional
attachments to these guys.”

Back in her lab, Warring cranked the magnification to 400x — she’d risked straying from the path to get to an
ornamental pond in a West Village
community garden and now meant to
get her money’s worth.

A chartreuse star appeared, its center a matrix of symmetrical holes like sliced lotus root. “That’s a pediastrum,” Warring said. “It’s a colony of green algae.” Something else, an amorphous single-celled body, darted across the field of view. “There’s a few swimmers in there, too,” she quipped, grinning. A whole ecosystem, in fact, small but undeniably alive.

“It’s almost like they have personalities,” Warring told me. “And they’re beautiful as well. It’s easy to be attracted to beautiful things.”

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In Brooklyn, Even Genetic Engineering Has Gone DIY

“HACKING IS NOT A CRIME,” blasts a block-lettered bumper sticker slapped on the door to the laboratory on the fifth floor of a sprawling former factory building in Downtown Brooklyn. “Hacking,” in this case, is shorthand for “bio-hacking”; it’s a kind of half-motto, half–bill of services for Genspace NYC, New York’s first and only DIY biological laboratory. For a monthly fee, anyone from credentialed scientists to mere enthusiasts can get access to the biotechnology equipment it houses, as well as classes on genetic engineering and lab techniques. Tonight’s workshop had drawn an enthusiastic crowd; Genspace’s little communal kitchen was full to the brim. (The session sold out in two hours.) “This could change everything!” said a pharmacy student with unbridled excitement. A few people in the kitchen nodded meaningfully.

They’d all come to learn how to use CRISPR, molecular “tools” derived from the chemistry of microbes that have taken the bioengineering world from messing with yeast DNA to editing human embryos in four years flat. Advances keep arriving at light-speed, but fear of unintended consequences has followed close behind. Some fret that in the future, the new technique might unwittingly (or wittingly) unleash diabolical bioweapons or inject some loathsome modification into the human gene pool. But tonight, attendees were just learning how to make yeast turn red.

We piled into the freight elevator, sank down one flight, and funneled into a little classroom, where Ellen Jorgensen was cuing up a PowerPoint. Jorgensen, a co-founder of Genspace, is a molecular biologist and a veteran of the DIY biolab movement. Meddling with yeasts’ genetic material in order to, say, turn the single-celled organisms pink, or make a colony of them glow fluorescent green in a petri dish is the “Chopsticks” of learning to unleash CRISPR tools on living DNA, said Jorgensen. That bumper sticker upstairs points to the unthreatening nature of the project at hand: “If you’re doing these things to modify cells in a dish,” she reminds the room, “those cells aren’t going to jump out of the dish and get you.”

Jorgensen opens her slides with a quote from a 2015 Wired cover story she rather liked: “Depending on what kind of person you are, CRISPR makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs.” It might also make you see the end of the world as we know it, a Wild West of genetic modification without limits, a god in every micropipette. It’s the agony and ecstasy of the brave new world of CRISPR. Jorgensen captures the room with her stare: “We’ve never really had this kind of power before.”

CRISPR Cas-9 is the full name for the biochemical scissors some bacteria use to snip out damage done to their genes by invading viruses. By studying “wild” CRISPR Cas-9 molecules, scientists figured out how to program the molecules to cut DNA at any two locations they desire. The DNA’s host cell, reading the excision as a gaping wound needing to be fixed, goes looking for other scraps of DNA that might fill the gap. Scientists supply the cell with a strip of genetic material of their choice: Easily duped, the cell will patch the DNA strand with it, integrating all that new information into its genome.

That, let me tell you, is the simplified version. And yet the basic procedure for exquisitely targeted gene insertion is only getting simpler — it isn’t hard to imagine a future where we’ll fix everything from eye problems to liver disorders to muscular dystrophy with targeted genetic tweaks. (Three companies have already made deals to begin developing therapeutics based on CRISPR.) The technique might even lead to cheap and abundant transplant organs. “We want to use pigs for replacement parts, because they’re so much like us,” Jorgensen explains to the room. “One of the problems is that there are certain types of retroviruses embedded in the genomes for all pigs.” But George Church, a geneticist at Harvard, was recently able to edit those retroviruses out using CRISPR.

In fact, improvements to the system — as well as to the software and lab devices that enable it — are rolling in so quickly that regulations clarifying who should have access to the technology, and how far is too far, have not kept up. That lag hasn’t been helped by the fact that two parties, the University of California, Berkeley and the Harvard- and MIT-affiliated Broad Institute, are currently locked in one of the most contentious patent wars in living memory, arguing over who actually discovered CRISPR — and thus who has the right to make money off of it.

The oversight gap has also led a group of scientists and ethicists, including Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the technology, to issue a letter last year urging the whole CRISPR train to slow its roll until everyone could agree on some limits.

“It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future…and in a sense take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity,” George Q. Daley, a stem cell expert at Boston Children’s Hospital who signed the letter, told the New York Times at the time.

All Jorgensen had to do to get her hands on CRISPR was order the materials from a wholesaler — at a cost of about $60 — and sign a contract promising she had no commercial intentions and wouldn’t let any of the material leave her laboratory. That makes some people very wary of DIY labs like Genspace. The facility is not affiliated with any university or research institution — nearly unheard of for a biolab — and members simply pay $100 a month for access, “like a gym membership,” Jorgensen says. Nor does one need to have a Ph.D. to join up. “People assume that when somebody has a Ph.D., what they’re doing is going to be safer,” Jorgensen says. “I’m not so sure about that.”

In today’s class, we all logged on to a website to download and fiddle with the yeast genome — a plain-text file with a bazillion combinations of the letters G, A, T, and C — but it wouldn’t load for half the room. It felt entirely plausible that two dozen people had never tried to access the yeast genome site at the same time. “I think we crashed it,” someone said. “I could read it out one letter at a time,” quipped Adam, a computer scientist at a financial services firm, who came with his boyfriend on a double date. “It’s so cool how the language of computer science is coming to genetic engineering,” he said. “We’re literally copying and pasting here.” Hacking with code can be a crime when it’s done to computer databases. Genetic “hacking” laws, however, are still in the making.

Jorgensen deadpanned to the class about all the calls she’s been getting from journalists hoping to braid CRISPR fears and longstanding suspicions about labs like hers into one angsty story. “Inside the garage labs of DIY gene hackers, whose hobby may terrify you,” reads one particularly lurid headline at Fusion.

“We decided to teach this class mainly because we were forced to by the press,” Jorgensen laments. “It seems like every time something new and potentially scary comes up, the press gets it in their head
to write, ‘Well, what if the DIY people get to it?’ ”

Genspace has strict safety rules — no handling anything that might infect a human, for example — and the membership’s interests lean more twee than nefarious. One man uses the lab to DNA-sequence mushrooms he finds around New York. An artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg used the lab to extract genetic material from chewed gum and cigarette butts she collected off the sidewalk, and then used that data to 3-D-print portraits of people she’d never met. A fifteen-year-old diagnosed with ADHD is using the lab to investigate whether it can be linked to a specific genetic variant — he uses Genspace’s equipment to analyze DNA he
collects from his own body and, with permission from his high school, has begun collecting samples from other kids in his class, too. It’s a place for hobbyists, sure, but hobbyists can make meaningful discoveries, too: A high school sophomore made national headlines last year for inventing a new means of detecting pancreatic cancer; he’d written two hundred sanctioned laboratories asking for a place to do that research, and only one said yes.

The lab, stuffed with used machines and stainless steel workbenches scavenged from a closed restaurant, isn’t exactly the sort of place where malevolent amateurs could manage to edit a human embryo and unleash a designer baby, or even a designer squirrel, on the gene pool. “As far as I know none of us are practicing small animal surgery,” Jorgensen assures me. “Everyone understands that that’s just nuts.” Besides, in New York City, there are laws against conducting experiments on anything with a backbone without proper facilities, permits, and rigorous inspections. “You can’t just take your pet goldfish out of its bowl and start messing with it.”

That doesn’t mean some people aren’t, of course: In February, the U.K. granted the first researcher permission to use CRISPR to modify very early-stage human embryos, no older than seven days. “It’s not like it looks like a baby yet,” Jorgensen says. The research could unveil clues as to what factors are critical to human development, and how they can go wrong. We’re not terribly far off, Jorgensen adds, from being able to edit a fetus that may otherwise be born with a genetic abnormality. “If you could have a kid who could, at a very early stage, be tweaked and made whole, you’d probably do it.”

Oliver Medvedik, a visiting bioengineering professor at Cooper Union and another co-founder of Genspace, led the technical portion of the evening. At an hour in, Medvedik turned to the audience and asked, “I figure everyone here is up on their codons?” The computational chemist to my right chuckled lightly, like he’d just asked a roomful of teenagers whether they’d ever used Snapchat. (A
codon is “a triplet of adjacent nucleotides in the messenger RNA chain that codes for a specific amino acid in the synthesis of a protein molecule,” Google later reveals.)

“Now you just oligo-anneal them and do straight-pour cloning,” Medvedik said a few minutes later, finishing a deck of slides. “That’s all there is to it.” Sure.

After the presentations, one question hovered the room: How do I get started?

“If I wanted to build this in my house, how much would it cost?” asked Adam, the double-dater, gesturing at the lab equipment.

“You can get one of these for $500 on eBay,” replied Medvedik, pointing to a DNA-copying machine the size of a toaster oven. Adding the cost of pipettes, centrifuges, and precision scales, he explained, anyone could get going for about $5,000. If you can afford a used Honda, you can afford your own garage gene-editing lab.

“Not bad,” Adam said, taking notes.