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Frontiers of Science 2021

Sustainability: How Science Can Help Achieve
the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

The 2021 Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures in the Eberly College of Science focused on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The title of the 2021 lecture series is “Sustainability: How Science Can Help Achieve the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.”

Each of the 2021 lectures will link to one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

Building Healthier Food Systems for Sub-Saharan Africa With Nutritious, Resilient Orange-Fleshed Sweetpotato

January 23, 2021
Presented by Jan W. Low

Jan Low for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

Many are calling for us to learn from the pandemic, and build back a better, healthier, more inclusive food system in sub-Saharan Africa. Few crops are as genetically diverse as hexaploid sweet potato. In sub-Saharan Africa, it can grow from sea level to 2,400 meters. Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) types, which have only been heavily promoted during the past two decades, are very rich sources of provitamin A and many other vitamins and minerals. Just one small root of OFSP meets the daily vitamin A needs of a young child, and a plot of 500 square meters can meet the needs of a family of five under rainfed conditions. This presentation will describe how OFSP can contribute to and fit into an improved food system, noting the bottlenecks that still need to be addressed to unleash its full potential.

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Therapeutic Intervention Strategies of SARS-CoV-2

January 30, 2021
Presented by Joyce Jose

Joyce Jose for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is underscoring the urgent need to develop effective antiviral agents for SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. The rapid identification of effective interventions against SARS-CoV-2 has been proven to be a significant challenge. The SARS-CoV-2 proteases Mpro and PLpro that cleave the viral polyproteins are excellent antiviral targets to prevent SARS-CoV-2 replication. Based on the success of protease inhibitors against HIV and the proven efficacy of protease inhibitors against related members in the Coronaviridae family, we are developing protease inhibitors as antiviral agents to tackle COVID-19. My laboratory has established an in-cell protease assay system that allows us to screen hundreds of small-molecule inhibitors and identify compounds that inhibit SARS-CoV-2 replication in human cells tested in the BSL-3 facility. Along with determining the mechanism of protease inhibition by targeting its active site using biochemical and structural biology approaches, our goal is to optimize the inhibitors by synthesizing derivatives with improved on-target biological activity and limited cytotoxicity by an iterative process of computational chemistry, structural biology, and antiviral activity. I will discuss our findings in drug repurposing for SARS-CoV-2, the development of novel viruslike particles as vaccine candidates, and screening SARS-CoV-2 entry inhibitors.

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Educational Disparities Are Not Sustainable

February 6, 2021
Presented by Nate Brown

Nate Brown for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

Educational disparities by gender and race and ethnicity are well documented and associated with other disparities such as health and wealth. In this talk, I will review some of these disparities, discuss how events of 2020 exacerbated them, and suggest things we can do to correct course.

As a child, Nate Brown was one of eight children raised in a blue-collar family. As a first-generation college graduate, education has shaped his life. As a father of three, equity in education could not be more important to him. Indeed, he is a theoretical mathematician by trade but now devotes all his energy toward social justice in the context of education.

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Sunshine Into Wood: How Plants Build Their Cell Walls, a Gigaton Source of Renewable Materials and Energy

February 13, 2021
Presented by Daniel J. Cosgrove

Daniel Cosgrove for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

Plants possess the truly astonishing ability to convert sunlight, air, and water into complex polymeric materials such as wood, a global-scale source of renewable materials and energy. Wood has many aspects: In trees, it functions as structural support and water-transport system between the roots and the leaves; it is made of cell walls that when young can grow and extend but later become thick, stiff, and inextensible; in human commerce, wood is the raw material for production of lumber, paper, cellulose-based polymers, charcoal, and other materials; as a rich source of stored solar energy, it is used to produce heat, electricity, and transportation fuels. Wood is a complex material, made of different types of polymers fashioned at the nanometer scale in a complex manner. What is its structure? Why do different woods have different properties? How do plants make it? What are the remaining unsolved scientific mysteries in wood formation? How might we tailor wood for special purposes? I will address these questions and along the way introduce some of the state-of-the-art methods used in the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to uncover the secrets of how plant make their cell walls.

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How Coral May Survive Climate Change

February 20, 2021
Presented by Iliana Baums

Iliana Baums for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

High human population densities on the world’s tropical shores and changing environmental conditions such as a warming global climate have had significant and detrimental impacts on coral reefs. It is imperative that we take immediate action to reduce carbon emissions to slow down the rate of global warming. Meanwhile, it is in our best interest to ensure the continued existence of functioning coral reef ecosystems because they provide important services to local and global economies, including food and shoreline protection. In the Baums lab, we use molecular techniques to answer fundamental questions about marine evolution and ecology to guide coral reef conservation efforts. I will discuss our research that underscores the importance of preserving the genetic diversity of coral populations to enable their adaptation to changing conditions, and how our results provide a clear and hopeful path forward for coral restoration and conservation.

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Mapping a Just and Sustainable Future for Pennsylvania

February 27, 2021
Presented by Peter Buck, Nebraska Hernandez, and Nyla Holland

Peter Buck for the 2021 Frontiers of Science.

Penn State’s Environmental Justice Project puts science in the service of fundamental rights to achieve just and sustainable development. Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees that every citizen of the commonwealth has “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” This requires that we focus on environmental justice: “equal environmental protection regardless of race, color or national origin.” Currently, cumulative health impacts on Pennsylvanians by environmental hazards vary widely, with Black and poor communities placed at the greatest risk of environmental injustice. In this presentation, the Penn State Environmental Justice Project team’s work on a cumulative health impact map in Pennsylvania. We will explore environmental justice, how we can measure and track its impacts, how those impacts can be visualized using geographic information system (GIS) mapping, how historical legacies from policy and culture have created disparities in environmental justice in different communities, and what that means for just and sustainable governance.

Learn more about the lecture by Peter Buck, Nebraska Hernandez, and Nyla Holland

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