Graduate Students

If the United States wants to keep its place on the forefront of scientific discovery, one of the most important aspects is the supply of quality STEM graduate students.  Late last year, this came into question when a controversial aspect of a tax bill was unveiled.


One aspect of the proposed tax bill would particularly hurt graduate students in STEM, where their education is usually subsidized with grants and stipends.  Last time, I mentioned budget cuts to the NSF, which also decreases the available funding for graduate students. With these programs, a graduate student in STEM usually will not pay for higher education, with tuition and fees paid for through various scholarships, and a stipend provided to cover food and housing.  Only the stipend is considered a taxable income, whereas the rest of the subsidies are considered scholarships.


Consider a graduate engineering student heading to Stanford University.  They’ve been given grants to cover their education, and a stipend of $35,000.  They will only pay taxes on the $35,000 stipend, even though the total tuition is $50,424 per year.  The proposed tax would force graduate students to pay taxes on the entire lump sum, some $85,000. If students are paying 20% taxes, that’s a jump from $3500 to $8500.  Often, it will bump these students into a higher tax bracket as well, hiking their tax bill ever higher.


The problem with this is that graduate students never see the majority of the money they would be taxed for.  Tuition and fees go straight to the university, and stipends aren’t designed for luxurious living, just as enough for students to get by.  When we force students to spend more of their stipend on taxes, it makes the already difficult task of completing graduate school even harder.  It also dissuades others from following that path.


Pursuing a graduate degree in STEM not only means sacrificing years of your life, but also living on a budget for all that time.  With this new tax bill, grad school becomes even less appealing to students who otherwise might have considered this career option.  Already, only 2% of Americans have a doctoral degree, and with a tax bill like that, the number could decrease even further.


Luckily, after massive protests, this tax proposition was defeated.  Graduate students will still pay taxes on just their stipend, but the whole process calls the administration into question on its consideration for the next generation of professionals.  Blatant disregard for the impacts of their actions, as was seen in this case, could have disastrous implications, and the future of this country is unarguably intertwined with the future of STEM.


Until next time,



The NSF: Who is She?

For the past few months, there’s been an overarching challenge facing our nation’s government: the federal budget.  Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on simple legislation these days, so it’s no surprise that they couldn’t agree on how to allocate funds for the next fiscal year.  In addition to catering to their parties’ and constituents’ demands, senators and representatives are also given suggestions by President Trump. Inevitably, numerous controversial pieces of the budget caused stalemates, and our government shut down.


Now, a government shutdown may not seem like a big deal; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, and there’s no noticeable difference when our government is technically “out of service”.  Some agencies which rely on federal funding, however, are hit hard by both the shutdown and the possible lack of funding that eventual budget cuts might bring.


One such agency is the NSF, the National Science Foundation.  The NSF’s mission is to support the development of scientific knowledge in all fields but medicine, from astronomy to zoology.  You may not have heard of this agency, but it has almost definitely impacted your life. NSF support has made possible the discovery that our universe is expanding and accelerating, and NSF scientists have proven the existence of black holes.  In addition to these cosmic revelations, NSF support is also responsible for bar codes, the Internet, and web browsers. Science isn’t all deep space and subatomic particles, it is ingrained into the daily life of each and every individual, whether we recognize it or not.

Image result for nsf logo

As an agency which funds so many discoveries, this agency also invests in undergraduate students, holding summer research opportunities called REUs at universities around the globe.  As my friends and I applied for these opportunities, there came a point when the NSF database listing these opportunities became unavailable, and many REUs closed their doors altogether, citing lack of funding.  I wondered where this drastic change had come from, and I did a little research. The answer, ultimately, was not too surprising.


During budget discussions, President Trump submitted a plan of what his goals for the budget were, and one of these goals comprised cutting the NSF’s budget by 30%.  It marked the first time in the NSF’s history that a president had ever suggested giving less funding to the agency than the year before.  Trump, after significant backlash, eventually rescinded this request, but the budget was still decreased.  This year’s budget is $6.653 billion, down 11.2% from last year.  Now, I know that $6.653 billion sounds like a lot, almost like an unusable amount of money.  But consider how much we spend on our military. The 2018 budget for defense spending is just under $700 billion, more than 105 times higher than that of the NSF.


So where did this 11 percent go?  After Trump was elected, NSF officials knew that a funding cut was possible, and did everything they could to prepare themselves for this potential dilemma.  Some departments planned out what they would do if faced with a 20 percent budget cut, for example, but they viewed this as an extreme hypothetical. No one expected a budget cut would be so drastic, and the agency was sent scrambling after the news was finalized.  Individual departments had to target what their core research was, and decide what cuts could be made without jeopardizing what makes their disciplines important. The NSF supports many graduate students through fellowships, and one of the biggest cuts the agency had to make reduced the number of these fellowships by two.  Many NSF employees are still hopeful about the work that can be accomplished, even with an 11% cut, but others hope that this lack of funding will show how important this agency is, and inspire a boost back to previous funding levels in future years.


I think that many people don’t realize the impact that the NSF has.  Its grants are one of the biggest sources of support for research labs across the country, and it fuels the scientific developments that help our country to remain globally competitive.  The world we are entering is becoming more scientific and more technological, not less. If we continue to decrease the funds that we allocate to scientific development through programs such as the NSF, we will begin to fall behind in the global race for new discoveries.  Innovation is one of America’s best known principles, and it would be a shame to lose that trait thanks to a poorly allocated budget and a misunderstanding of the importance of some federal agencies.

Give Me Some Space

Outer space.  The final frontier.  Black holes, massive stars, planets which may harbor life, and numerous galaxies.  It’s endless and unknown, which is why it sparks such interest within people.  We’ll never run out of things to learn about that mysterious space beyond our atmosphere.  And once we’ve solved some of the mysteries of the cosmos, we’ll still have the challenge of transporting humans to these far reaches of the universe.  With regal goals like these, you would think everyone would be interested and passionate about these topics, but in fact this is not the case.  Only 22 percent of Americans are strongly interested in space travel.  I posit that we should foster this interest because, after some recent legislation, it is entirely possible that the trajectory of discovery we have been working towards for decades could be thrown entirely off track.

The Space Shuttle, ready to take off, in Cape Canaveral Florida

In 2011, the space shuttle program was discontinued, the end of an era of space exploration which had put the first men on the moon.  This wasn’t seen as such a defeat, however, because the new focus was on space exploration farther than the moon.  Our sights were newly set on Mars.  At the moment, it has been 45 years since a human was present on the moon.  But a new legislative act from Trump could change that.  In December 2017, Trump issued a directive that NASA should refocus its efforts on the moon, and that the US would cease funding of the International Space Station by 2025.  The ISS has been one of the most successful efforts in international research collaboration, and has allowed numerous experiments on the effects of near-earth atmospheric conditions.  With the end of this program, human presence in low-orbit space would decrease, as would the science being done there.

Trump after signing the new NASA directive

In this same directive, though, Trump did emphasize that new low-orbit programs should be developed, but as collaborations with private companies.  This change in financial strategy is aimed to free up the massive budget needed to revive the moon-based missions.  Finances have often been a problem with presidential lofty dreams of outer space based success.  President George W. Bush also pushed for increased Moon presence, but failed to set aside sufficient funds in the budget.  It has yet to be seen if Trump will face this same issue.  The question remains, though, where does a moon-based approach get us?  One strategy is that the Moon can be used as a more efficient departure point for a journey to Mars, after (of course) significant development there to allow for this type of usage.  Whether or not this strategy will prove effective, only time can tell.

Our moon, new potential launching pad for space missions

Perhaps the worst of all, even beloved Bill Nye is getting caught in the crosshairs.  Trump’s recommended new leader of NASA, Senator Nelson, is a fairly controversial figure.  Any association with Trump can be damning these days, but his views on climate change have also alienated many citizens who care about science.  Recently, Nelson invited Nye (President of the Planetary Society) as his honored guest to the State of the Union Address.  As a result of his post within this organization, Nye accepted the offer, and the clapback was strong.  Many saw this move as an alignment with the Trump administration, and some science advocacy groups called him out on his decision to attend.  He later defended his actions on Twitter, citing his responsibility as leader of the Planetary Society, which collaborates frequently with NASA.  Luckily, any Bill Nye hate seems to have died down.

Bill Nye, a true American hero

In these crazy times, we all need to take a step back and remember what’s important.  Priorities of NASA may be shifting, but space exploration is still being funded by our government.  We may not get to Mars as quickly, but surely we’ll learn some things about our cosmic neighbor, the moon.  Perhaps the commercialization of this research will aid it as well, accelerating what would otherwise have been a slower process to gain knowledge.  But most importantly, let’s not jump to attack Bill Nye.  He’s a national icon.


To the moon and back,


Natalie Cummings


On President Trump’s fourth day of office, he signed an executive order which prioritized the completion of two pipelines: the Dakota Access and the Keystone XL.  This controversial mandate undid months of work and protests, and led to a surprisingly quick reversal of policy.  By June 1, the Dakota Access pipeline was complete, and the Keystone XL was in continued states of discussion.


A map showing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines


Before last year, we rarely heard about pipelines in the news, unless it was to detail a spill.  Recently, though, all that changed.  The Dakota Access Pipeline was close to completion when it reached Lake Oahe, which flows directly into the Standing Rock Reservation and serves as their only water source.  Other arguments included the proximity to the freshwater Ogalalla aquifer, as well as the cultural significance of the land.  Residents of the reservation, pushed back, demanding a full environmental impact study of this area of the pipeline.  The massive protests worked, and construction halted.  That is, until Trump came along.  With a swoop of a pen, the gears were set back into motion; the impact study was rushed and construction was soon completed.


Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline


So, why are pipelines so important, and what do they have to do with science?  I believe this quote says it all.

“It’s inevitable that as pipelines age, as they are exposed to the elements, eventually they are going to spill, they’re ticking time bombs.”- Tony Iallonardo

One of the most major factors working against these pipelines’ survival is corrosion.  These pipelines all have some aspect made of metal, and something as simple as a chip in a coating could lead to massive corrosion throughout.  This corrosion can compromise the structural integrity of the device, which can lead to the ultimate failure: an oil spill.  Others factors coming from the aging of pipelines can also lead to catastrophe.


Oil spills can have massive environmental impact, which is the main reason these pipelines’ construction was halted.  Time and time again, we’ve seen pipelines spill, and we’ve seen the immense damage they cause to their environment.  Oil molecules take a very long time to break down, and so they can accumulate in the environment and in organisms like plants and animals.  This means that an oil spill is not just a temporary problem, but a longstanding one with severe effects.  Another important consideration is the impact oil can have on water.  Because of pipelines’ underground placement, often close to groundwater aquifers, it can be simple for a spill to send oil into an important water supply, one of the main concerns about the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Safety measures are being implemented, though.  Robotic devices called “smart pigs” move through the pipelines, seeking out problems, and they often find them.  Recently, a smart pig found something concerning in the Keystone XL pipeline, and it was shut down for a brief time to address the problem.  These safety measures reduce the chance of a large scale spill, but the potential for crisis is still present.


“Smart Pig” robotic device


On the other hand, though, the alternative method for transporting oil is via trucks, which have a higher failure rate.  This lower rate of catastrophe in pipelines is sometimes offset by the volume of the spill.  One source likens it to the difference between a car crash and an airplane crash.  Car crashes happen more frequently, but an airplane crash would hurt many more people and warrant further investigation.  When a truck goes down, it maybe spills 10,000 gallons of oil.  A pipeline can easily spill 210,000 gallons before it gets repaired.  Where am I getting this number from, you ask?  This statistic comes from the Keystone XL Pipeline, which has already spilled, leaking oil into the Canadian environment.


Pipelines are not without their benefits, they create jobs and move large quantities of oil very efficiently, but we need to reconcile these benefits with their potential risks to the environment.


What do you think?  Can a cultural heritage significance override the potential economic benefit of a pipeline?  Should the president have the authority to rush something as important as an Environmental Impact Study?  Do you think new technologies to avoid spills will be developed?


Until next time,



Climate Change

When Donald Trump was elected as our 45th president, there were a lot of conflicting opinions flying about.  More people attended the Women’s March than the inauguration, and the phrase “This is Not Normal” was gained popularity.  

Women’s March in NYC

At the same time, many Americans were celebrating what they saw as a shake-up in the administration, and an opportunity for change.  Today, we are nearly a year into his administration, and I think it’s important to look at one aspect of American life which has been significantly affected, but infrequently discussed: science.  From climate change to pipelines to opportunities for future scientists, I want this blog to explore the ways in which science and its impacts have been altered during the Trump administration.

“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”- Donald Trump

Climate change is one of the biggest issues our world needs to tackle in order to become more responsible citizens of this planet.  For a while, it seemed like progress was being made.  The Paris Agreement seeks to bring together every country, all agreeing to significantly reduce carbon emissions within the century.  These changes hoped to limit the global increase in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.  Sounds great, right?  Until Donald Trump decided to take the United States out of the equation.

“The Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries…so we’re getting out…I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris ”- Donald Trump

Trump speaks about the Paris Accords

With the United States leaving the deal, other major players, such as China, also expressed interest in leaving the negotiations.  Just because the Paris Accords won’t factor into the policy of our nation as a whole doesn’t mean that no changes will be made.  After Trump referenced Pittsburgh as a reason for leaving the deal, mayor Bill Peduto asserted that the city would be keeping up with goals set by the Paris Accords to reduce their carbon emissions.

“Pittsburgh stands with the world and will follow (the) Paris agreement, … I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris agreement for our people, our economy and future”- Bill Peduto

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

After intense backlash from within the US and globally, Trump posited that there was a possibility of the US rejoining the Paris Accords, but he clarified that this would only happen if it allowed US businesses to remain competitive.

I certainly don’t agree with this withdrawal, but there are pros and cons of both sides.  One thing that has no foreseeable benefit is the removal of information about climate change from government websites.  After Trump’s inauguration, government agencies like the EPA removed pages about climate change, or even the phrase “climate change” was replaced with words like “sustainability” or “resiliency”.  In other cases, websites concerning the subject were taken down entirely.

This is a completely unsustainable way to confront a real, environmental problem.  If there is no information about a topic, especially one which sparks so much discussion, people cannot be expected to make educated decisions or opinions.  Taking away good information from reliable sources like government agencies only fuels the propagation of fake news and rumors, not to mention the fundamental wrongness of this withdrawal of information.

None of these issues are completely clear cut, and they have sparked a lot of debate.  Whether you’re on the side of Trump, or agree more with Peduto, there are pros and cons of each side, but also a lot of aspects to consider.  How has the environment changed so far in this era of populism?  How much more do you think it will change before the end of Trump’s administration? Do you think the Paris Accords will work out?  Will we be a part of that movement?  Will other superpowers, like China, participate?  Will good information on climate change become available as time goes on?  Which should take priority: business or the environment?

For me, I think that the first priority should be taking care of the planet on which we live.  We’re not ready to colonize other planets, so we need to respect our Earth, and protect the environment for future generations.  Big negotiations like the Paris Accords can be stepping stones for global change, and I believe that it is important for the US to set an example in these types of things, rather than dropping out and reneging on our commitments.  In addition, I think it’s almost impossible to improve our nation’s position on and knowledge about climate change and other environmental issues if reliable information from credible sources is not available; the removal from government agencies is disheartening.  It’s crazy to think how much the environment could have changed in less than a year, and due to the contributions of (mostly) one person.

As always, remember, This is Not Normal.