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Our World — 1 March 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... safeguarding our agricultural heritage in a remote arctic seed vault ... mapping malaria ... and how students and teachers use high-technology at a brand-new high school ...

BRODOWSKI: "I can zoom in on one particular cell and enlarge it. That has really been great! And then they can go back to their microscopes and actually check it out themselves. So that's a lot of fun."

Smart Boards, computers and more, plus the story your hair tells. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Norway this week opened what some are calling the "Doomsday" seed vault — an agricultural seed bank to ensure the preservation of valuable food crops in case of disaster.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to hold more than two billion seeds representing 4.5 million species.

It's located underground, on a remote island north of the Arctic Circle and is intended as an emergency back-up to national and regional seed collections.

Using a well-known Biblical reference to an earlier preservation effort, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg Tuesday called the new seed vault a "Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."

As construction got underway last year, my colleague Rosanne Skirble spoke with the head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which will help run the facility. Cary Fowler explained why they chose Svalbard.

FOWLER: "There are a couple of reasons. One is that it's remote and so remoteness gives us some safety, but one of the big reasons is that there's permafrost. And inside the mountain where the vault will be placed is currently minus 6 [degrees Celsius], and this provides great protection for long-term conservation of seeds. We'll lower the temperature even further to the absolute optimal temperature, but if the refrigeration units fail, it will take months, maybe years — who knows? — for it to warm up to the minus 6 level, which is just fine for storage of most seeds for even decades."

SKIRBLE: Why is it critical that this seed vault be built now?

FOWLER: "Well, we don't know if it is critical right now, but I will say that in the last ten years I know that if we had had the seed vault, we would have used it several times. The seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were both destroyed in the aftermath of wars there. And there's a sort of daily loss of crop diversity in existing seed banks because of simple poor conditions. So, if one is concerned, for example, about climate change; if you're concerned about water or energy constraints, then you have to be concerned about conserving this crop diversity, because without this crop diversity, agriculture will not be able to adapt to climate change, will not be able to produce food to feed growing populations with given water and energy supplies. It's really vital to solving virtually every major problem on earth."

Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust describing the new global seed bank that opened this week in Norway.

Our next story is about another kind of repository, this one as nearby as the seed vault is remote.

CERLING: "Our study was on hair. And what we were interested in doing [was] seeing what sort of history is preserved in hair. And it's been known for a while that diet is preserved in hair. And what we were interested in doing is trying to see if the geography is recorded in hair. And that would be because the water that you drink, the hydrogen and the oxygen, some of that ends up in hair."

Prof. Thure Cerling of the University of Utah and his colleagues describe in a paper published this week how they took hair cuttings from barber shops in 65 American towns and compared the chemical composition of that hair with the local tap water. In particular, they were looking at the relative amounts of particular isotopes, or chemical variations, of oxygen and hydrogen.

The relative abundance of the various isotopes in water accounted for about 85 percent of the isotope differences found in the hair. And because tap water varies from place to place, it's possible to link a particular isotope profile in a hair sample with a particular area.

And there's more. Because hair is constantly growing, the new hair emerging from the skin is a record of what you've just consumed, meaning every hair on your body contains a record of months, maybe even years.

CERLING: "So the hair that you form today is going to record what the chemistry of your body was on that particular day. And so as the hair grows longer and longer, that little bit of history is preserved. I like to think of hair as being a tape recorder, and the tape recorder is running all the time and recording things about your history. And it's our job just to figure out how to understand the tape recorder."

And this isn't just a laboratory curiosity. About two years ago, Prof. Cerling and his colleagues described how they could track an elephant's movements by analyzing the isotopes of the hair in the animal's tail.

CERLING: "In that particular case this elephant was migrating from high on Mount Kenya down to the hot desert — actually during the breeding season, so probably to see lady friends. And there was part of the year where he was actually raiding crops. And we were able to see both his movements and also his crop raiding behavior."

And there may be some application in law enforcement, too. You've probably seen TV shows where they solve the crime by extracting DNA from hair. Possibly the isotopes in an unknown murder victim's hair could help identify the body, or at least point the cops in the right direction.

CERLING: "The first question would be, is it a local person. Did this person travel a lot? We know that hair grows at about one cm. per month, so if you see a change three or four centimeters from the end, then you can say, oh, three or four months ago the person came into the area."

Prof. Thure Cerling of the University of Utah. His research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Anti-malaria drugs, combined with aggressive mosquito spraying once seemed likely to eradicate malaria. But the effort seemed to have lost its way, according to University of Florida infectious disease researcher David Smith.

SMITH: "There was a time, starting in sometime during the '70s, when the level of activity in malaria research and malaria control reached a low that lasted for several decades until people started to notice again, what a horrible toll falciparum malaria has on the world."

The malaria parasite developed resistance to drugs, and spraying campaigns were phased out due to cost and environmental concerns. Rates of infection began to increase. Health reporter Rose Hoban picks up the story.

HOBAN: The 1970s is when the last global map detailing malaria prevalence was created. Now Smith and colleagues from the Wellcome Trust in England have created a new malaria map that's available on the Internet. Using simple colors and points to mark where the data come from, the map details where many people have malaria. The map uses darker colors to note where the disease spreads most frequently — a measure called transmission intensity.

SMITH: "The area that has the most high, uniformly high transmission intensity is tropical Africa, but there are stable areas of transmission intensity in the Amazon basin, in coastal South America stretching from sort of Ecuador, north, and some areas in Central America, and some areas of the island of Hispaniola, and then throughout India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Sri Lanka. It's basically between the tropics, and all of the areas that are wet, and reasonably poor, have got it."

HOBAN: Smith says he and his colleagues spent three years examining more than 5,000 studies and plotting the data on the map. Much of that data came from clinic counts of patients with malaria. Smith says they found the risk for transmitting the disease was not as high as many had suspected.

SMITH: "In fact, there weren't that many places in the world where 50 percent or more people were infected. Though, broadly speaking, the rule outside of Africa, was that most places that have malaria, there's sort of less than 10% of the population that's infected. And this is a lower risk of transmission than most people [expected] … they wouldn't have guessed that it was commonly that low outside of Africa."

HOBAN: Smith says there are plans to keep this new map updated. He says maps such as these are an important tool in helping target malaria hotspots and directing resources to those places where the disease poses the most risk. I'm Rose Hoban.

And the map and a companion article are published online in the journal PLoS Medicine.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

March is Women's History Month, and the theme this year is "Women's Art: Women's Vision," so this week we highlight the National Museum of Women in the Arts, online at

The museum was established in the 1980s to redress the second class treatment women artists have often received from museums, galleries, and art historians.

WHITE: "There's an under-representation of women, and there were lots and lots of holes in art histories. There were prominent women artists, starting probably in the 15th and 16th centuries, but if you had read any of the standard art texts prior to about 1985, 1990, you would never have known it."

Howard White is the communications director at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened its Washington building two decades ago and now extends its reach internationally; one out of five web visitors comes from outside the U.S.

The museum's website includes the work of women artists featured in the temporary exhibits — currently, Portuguese painter Paula Rego and American sculptor Louise Nevelson. In addition, you'll find a good sampling of works from the museum's extensive holdings.

WHITE: "There's of course the permanent collection, so you can go in and take a look at some of the representative samples of everything from probably the 15th century on."

Dig a little deeper at and you'll find an extraordinary database called CLARA, which includes 18,000 women artists.

WHITE: "This is an ongoing project that will bring together every major woman artist in Western and, hopefully at some point, Asian history so that people will have a one-stop resource — everybody from art history professors down to elementary school art teachers."

Teachers may also find it's worth checking out a section called Arts, Books and Creativity, where there are lesson plans and other materials to help teach about art.

Experience some exceptional work by women artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts online at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Waterlillies — "I Am Woman"

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

A new study indicates that smoking and other tobacco exposure during pregnancy is higher than expected in low- and middle-income countries, and that could threaten the health of women and their babies. VOA medical correspondent Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: An international team of researchers, wanting to get a first glimpse at the magnitude of the problem of tobacco use and exposure in pregnancy, surveyed eight-thousand pregnant women in five countries in Latin America, two countries in Africa and three countries in Asia.

Researchers, led by investigators at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, found that the highest levels of smoking were in Latin America, with 18 percent of pregnant women in Uruguay and 10 percent of women in Argentina lighting up.

Investigators found smokeless tobacco was popular among up to one-third of pregnant women in some parts of India.

The highest levels of secondhand smoke exposure were found in Pakistan, where nearly half of all pregnant women reported that both they and their children were regularly exposed to someone else's smoke.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, investigators say 40 percent of those surveyed said they had tried smokeless tobacco at lease once, while fourteen percent of pregnant women had tried cigarettes.

Michele Bloch is with the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Tobacco Control Branch and the study's lead author.

Bloch says the findings are unexpected because traditionally, tobacco use among women in developing countries has been almost non-existent.

BLOCH: "These are countries with high levels of tobacco use by men, general high levels of tobacco use by health professionals and, I mean, these are places where knowledge of the health hazards is generally very low. So, we think that the women's lack of use is more based on economic factors or especially cultural factors. And were these to change, we'd be looking at a very different and a very threatening situation for women and their children."

BERMAN: Women who smoke during pregnancy are more likely to go into labor prematurely and give birth to low weight babies.

Linda Wright is Scientific Director of the Global Network at National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which coordinated the global research effort.

The good news, according to Wright, is other studies have shown that women in developing countries are receptive to programs to help them quit tobacco products.

WRIGHT: "Women are very concerned about their fetuses and children, so that if you intervene early in pregnancy with a short counseling period — it can be as short as five to fifteen minutes and then follow up with print material if they are literate or more advanced counseling — then about 20 percent of women will stop."

BERMAN: The study on tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure during pregnancy is published in an early online edition of the American Journal of Public Health. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Just across the river from the nation's capital, Arlington County, Virginia, is a small but densely populated suburban community. It's home to a busy airport and the Pentagon, and a public school system that serves over 18,000 students, who come from 127 countries and speak more than 100 languages.

About one-third of the students come from families poor enough that they qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, yet Arlington is prosperous enough to have just spent around $95 million to build a state-of-the-art high school. It replaced an aging facility whose alumni include Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Richardson and Hollywood stars including Warren Beatty.

To see how technology is being woven into American public education these days, I paid a visit to the new Washington-Lee High School. I expected to be wowed by the computers, but what really surprised me was how the iconic chalkboard has been replaced in every classroom by a high-tech, multi-purpose display device.

MUNNELL: "The Smart Board is an interactive whiteboard that allows you to control your computer by being up at that board and touching it. It is a splendid way for a teacher to share a single computer with a whole class of kids."

It took a while for technology coordinator Sandy Munnell to explain the various capabilities of the Smart Board because it can do a lot. It looks like a plain white panel on the wall. It's actually a touch-sensitive surface with a video projector sticking out of a stubby arm at the top.

It can show the morning announcements beamed from the school's small television studio. You can surf the web, and using special electronic markers you can circle part of a web page to highlight it. Those markers work like chalk on a blackboard, too, with the added plus of handwriting recognition software that makes even my writing legible.

Jason Brodowski uses the Smart Board to help his biology students learn how to use a microscope.

BRODOWSKI: "By simply having it connected to the digital camera, I can bring it up onto Smart Board, where the whole class can see everything that I am seeing. And when I finally get the image [in focus], they go, like, Oh!, I know what you're talking about. And then they can go back to their microscopes and actually check it up themselves. So that's a lot of fun."

The kids like the Smart Boards, too. But not all teachers are equally comfortable with them, says student Frances Roberts-Gregory.

ROBERTS-GREGORY: "The teachers have to get used to it, like some teachers are very adept at using them. Other teachers are like, what am I doing? But I mean they're versatile, like you can play movies, DVDs, basically do everything. It's like chalkboard and dry erase board and computer all in one."

The school has almost 600 computers for student use — more than one for every three students. There are computer labs throughout the building, and computer workstations coexist with books in the spacious and cheerful library.

Washington-Lee students have access to online encyclopedias that are continually updated along with other subscription reference material, which they can use out of school, too.

Of course there's lots of valuable material on the Internet, but also lots of web content that's not appropriate for teenagers. So the school uses software to prevent students from visiting websites that feature, for example, pornography. But librarian Lynette Constantinides says Arlington's incredibly diverse student body makes it difficult to protect the youngsters.

CONSTANTINIDES: "You can get a kid who lands here from Mongolia — yes, we have a significant little Mongolian population here in Arlington — or the Middle East, and we can walk behind them and they're on the computer looking at websites in their native language that we can't even tell what they're doing. You know, we have a Spanish-speaking librarian (we're about 30 percent Latino), but we have a significant number of kids whose other language is not Spanish or English, so — "

Q: Right, do your filters work in Urdu or Pashto?

CONSTANTINIDES: "No. And filtering doesn't work terribly well even in English."

The library stays open for a couple of hours after classes end, which is when I found Sahand Minaie, a student whose parents came to the U.S. from Iran.

MINAIE: "I'm searching for sheet music for my guitar class. I'm trying to find some music for us to play that we're going to play in the Cyber Cafe for a concert in March. We're trying to get music from all over the place, from classical, folk, modern. We're going everywhere."

Although the school has standardized on Dell Windows PCs, there are also some Apple Macintosh computers, mainly used for multimedia projects, like a video Sahand is making for a university-level history class.

MINAIE: "Right now I'm actually working on an iMovie in my AP US-VA class. My topic is forgettable presidents, (LAUGHS) which we have quite a few of them, I would say."

Sandy Munnell takes me downstairs to show off the Cyber Cafe, with its 28 computers, a variety of places to sit and work, wireless Internet access for kids with their own computers. Comfortable and inviting but, despite the name, no coffee. She says it's designed as a place where students — particularly those without computers at home — can hang out.

MUNNELL: "The county put a lot of money into this facility to make it as comfortable as all this because we know there's a digital divide and we want to address that. We have plenty of access to computers in the whole building during their regular instructional time, but it's not the same time as when you can do it in a social atmosphere."

Washington-Lee High School has some other features that are less obvious than the Smart Boards and all the computers. There's a green roof covered with grass that absorbs rainwater and helps insulate the building. Motion sensors turn off lights in empty rooms. There are even carbon dioxide detectors that trigger the ventilation system if classrooms get too stuffy.

Amid all this cool stuff I asked technology coordinator Sandy Munnell how they guarantee that this new state-of-the-art building doesn't become obsolete as new technology becomes available.

MUNNELL: "There's no guarantee. It's moving so fast for everybody. We have to deal with that when the time comes. I mean, there'll always be a refurbishment of technology down the road, and as it evolves we need to evolve along with it. We won't keep pace with it, but I think we need to do as much with what we have now. To not have said, we're starting here and we're starting now, I think would be a huge mistake."

She added that the high-capacity cabling throughout Washington-Lee High School should be serviceable for years to come, and anyway, wireless communication is likely to be used even more widely by future generations of students here.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.