Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Von Boyage

So as fellows depart from Research!America it has become a tradition for them to write a sign off post. After doing a google image search using phrases like "goodbye" and "adios", I put in what I thought was how you say goodbye in French - Von Boyage. To my surprise, this phrase not only doesn't exist, but "bon voyage", the real phrase, doesn't mean "goodbye". Does this explain why Parisian's have always been so rude to me whenever I have visited their beautiful city? (My strategy to communicate with foreigners by speaking English loudly and slowly works pretty well in other countries.)

Writing this is bittersweet. I will not admit to how much I have learned as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at Research!America because it would reveal how little I knew three months ago upon arrival. Writing for the New Voices blog has been one of many fun responsibilities – what other forum would provide an opportunity to expound on everything from beer to brain tumors?

Between teaching, doing research, internships, and fellowships, I have had seven different positions in Washington since moving here a year and a half ago. While you learn a lot jumping from job to job every couple months, I am thrilled to be starting a permanent science policy position with the American Chemical Society. The ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a perfect environment to continuing advocating for research.

Goodbye to the great people at Research!America. It has been my pleasure to have been part of such a motivated and dynamic team this summer. I intend to stay a part of the New Voices community and look forward to seeing what exciting things lie in store for all of its members. ciao, sayanora, kamsahamnidah, l'hitraot, kol tuv, shalom, arrivaderci, do svidanja, au revoir, hasta la vista, bis freitagabend, and xi chien.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

A=B; B=A

Ever wonder how connected science policy and science research is? About as much as Siamese twins attached at the head. Look at some of the current policy issues that affect research (and vice versa).

Climate Change
Serious health and environmental concerns may be triggered by increases in UV radiation and a depleted ozone layer. A climate change bill passed through the House in ‘09 but is facing obstacles in the Senate. The success or failure of current and future climate change legislation will be influenced by scientists and researchers

Stem Cell Regulation
In ’05 and ’07 the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was passed by Congress but was vetoed by the President. Although President Obama has lifted some barriers to stem cell research, the ‘09 version of the Stem Cell Bill has not passed either branch of Congress.

Genetic Testing
Should consumers have the right to personally administer genetic tests on themselves? In 2008 the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) restricted employers and insurance company from discrimination based on results from genetic tests, but no federal policy regulates how the tests are conducted.

The Environment and Offshore Drilling
Researchers and engineers will play an integral role in determining the Congressional legislative reaction to the BP oil spill. In ‘08, a 27 year offshore drilling ban was lifted, which may now be reinstated.

The FDA allows animals to be cloned and their meat sold for human consumption - should scientists be allowed to clone human organs for research or transplant? Should we be allowed to clone extinct or endangered species? Legislation addressing such issues will be framed soon.

Health Records and Internet Privacy
Should restrictions exist when accessing health records electronically? Do search engines have the right to save search data? In ‘10 an online privacy bill was presented in the House, which will effect digital privacy laws and medical record storage. Doctors and researchers will dictate these quality of these regulations.

Tax Credit for Research
The Federal Research and Development tax credit was worth $5.6 billion to U.S. companies in ‘09. The credit includes qualified research, computer time-sharing costs, and a percentage of contract research expenses. It is a temporary program that has been renewed annually for 28 years, but whether it becomes part of the permanent tax code has not been decided.

The 2010 America COMPETES Act is currently being considered by Congress. It will not only affect NSF funding for the next five years, but legislate energy, STEM education, and technology transfer efforts.

No matter what field you're in or what type of research you do, you should work to affect the policies that affect research.

This is Part 3 of 3 in the Science of Advocacy series.
Part 1 - Senator PhD?
Part 2 - Baby don't cry, baby don't get no milk
Part 3 - A=B; B=A

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Baby don't cry, baby don't get no milk

Is it frightening to you that American's spend more money on their lawn and gardens than the National Institutes of Health receive to try and cure cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's and diabetes? How about that the budget of the National Science Foundation is a quarter of what we spend on video games? There are many reasons why researchers should be increasing their role in science policy, but perhaps the most relevant is economic.

Research funding is a constant and annual process and no amount of money is predictable or ever guaranteed. Researchers should be screaming from the rafters how badly they need money - hence the title of this post.

Want proof that advocacy works? The graph on the left demonstrates the changing budget of the NIH since 1970. Notice that from 2002 to 2008 the funding trend flattens out but then jumps up significantly during 2009 and 2010. This is due to the hard work of health research advocates such as Research!America. Being vocal and aggressive about the importance of increasing research funding resulted in the NIH receiving billions of extra dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. For this trend to continue, scientists and researchers must make a lot more noise than they are right now.

This is Part 2 of 3 in the Science of Advocacy series.
Part 1 - Senator PhD?
Part 2 - Baby don't cry, baby don't get no milk
Part 3 - A=B; B=A

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Comic Break

Comic credit: PhD Comics

We figured that if we needed a little laugh to get us through until Friday, you might too.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Meet Yung Lie, PhD, Scientific Director - Non-profit

Today we're introducing you to New Voice Yung Lie, Scientific Director at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

NV: What do you do?

Yung: I am the scientific director at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation. I oversee our grant-making programs for early career scientists. In addition, I am a liaison between scientists and the foundation as well as the donors. I’m the only scientist on staff, so I often answer questions about the research our scientists are doing. We’re working to better communicate the importance of scientific research.

NV: Why did you move into policy (from research)?

Yung: When I was in academia I was in an environment that was relatively stagnant and in this role I get to interact with both scientists and non-scientists and have a broader impact. It’s great to have the opportunity to talk to people about why it’s important to fund basic research, something I didn’t get to do when I was in an academic research environment.

NV: What limited your ability to do advocacy in your previous work?

Yung: Not knowing what opportunities existed for outreach and advocacy. I was always interested in the idea of it, but unless you’re presented with an opportunity you’ll find you just don’t take the initiative. Some labs are better at this than others, depending on whether lab heads and PIs are involved in outreach and advocacy.

NV: What motivates you to do advocacy?

Yung: You know, it’s an integral part of my job. And now that I’ve left my lab I see more why it’s so important to be out there talking about science. I see that there are so many non-scientists in the world who don’t understand why it’s important to have researchers working on many of these projects. Scientists need to be speaking about their work and the importance of it to the public.

NV: In what ways does your outreach affect those who receive it?

Yung: I think it’s an amazing opportunity for people to learn. I think that often people are basing their opinions on the articles they read in newspapers and magazines. And that reporting is often inaccurate and gives the wrong impression on research and money in research. Like with cancer, lots of false impressions have been given about how very little or no progress has been made despite how much money is put into research, when in fact, enormous progress has been made.

A lot of the responsibility to get the information out there falls on the scientists to not let the media give the wrong impression. The donors [at Damon Runyon] are always very pleased to have the opportunity to speak directly to scientists, to hear about their motivations for doing research and to learn why research is so important for understanding and treating human disease.

Thank you to Yung for giving us her time via phone so we could learn more about her and her career.

This is part of the ongoing Profiling New Voices series.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Senator, PhD?

This summer I created an outreach piece for Research!America that was aimed at motivating researchers to become more involved in science policy. It is not hard to identify reasons for researchers to increase their roles in policy. For me, one of the more salient reasons to get involved is how underrepresented they are in Congress.

Out of 100 senators, guess how many have a Ph.D.? If the number you guessed resembles a bird egg, you'd be correct. More than three quarters of those currently in the U.S. Senate were either lawyers or businesspeople before they were elected.

The House of Representative isn't much better. To the right is a map of the U.S. and all 435 of its Congressional districts. Districts that are represented by Ph.D level researchers are in red, and sadly in this Congress there are only six. It is even more bleak when we consider Vernon Ehlers of Michigan is stepping down this term, and Jerry McNerney of California and Roscoe Barlett in Maryland are both facing very tough races. This means the number of researchers in Congress could be getting cut in half.

While all types of outreach and advocacy from researchers is crucial, we need some to actually run for office. Isn't it frustrating to think that the lawmakers that control how you do your work have completely different background from you?

This is Part 2 of 3 in the Science of Advocacy series.
Part 1 - Senator PhD?
Part 2 - Baby don't cry, baby don't get no milk
Part 3 - A=B; B=A

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Monday, August 23, 2010

So Long, Farewell

Me and my daughter on a recent family vacation.

The Sound of Music
is one of my favorite movies, and the scene where the von Trapp children sing their goodnights has to be one of the most memorable. I've probably known the words to the song since I was about four, but saying them now to my colleagues at Research!America is one of the hardest things I've had to do.

I have learned and experienced so much in the past six years. I am so proud of what we at Research!America--and especially the Policy and Outreach team--have been able to accomplish. It's amazing what a small group of people can do when they're committed to a mission. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

To that end, I have decided to go back to school to be a high school science teacher. If all goes as planned, I should be in the classroom by next fall. I see teaching as a different path to accomplishing the same goal of making science and research a higher national priority. I will personally continue to be a part of the New Voices community, and I hope I can inspire some of my future students to be the next generation of researchers and science advocates.

So, to Stacie, Heather, Michelle all of the interns and fellows I've worked with over the years, my colleagues at Research!America and all of the New Voices, thank you.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Mystery Labs Revealed

Thank you to everyone who participated in the Mystery Lab Contest this week - submitters and guessers alike. The winning image is from Day 1!

Congratulations to Nicole, who describes her work as follows:

"My general field is engineering or biomedical engineering. This image is from an intermediate step in a computer vision project aimed at better detection of breast cancer in mammograms. The original image is an x-ray of the breast, or mammogram, and through automated image analysis my goal is to determine if the normal structure of the breast tissue has been disrupted by abnormal growth, for example cancer.

Radiologists train for years to be able to detect abnormalities in mammograms with their natural equipment, i.e. their eyes and their brain. The goal of my project, and projects similar to mine, are to teach computers to "see" images at least as well as a human can, and perhaps to add to human abilities with additional mathematical tricks that computers can use and are not easy for humans to do."

Nicole is currently a PhD working on her MD in Chicago. She'll be receiving her copy of Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future soon and we look forward to hearing more about her research and career. We already know she's a good communicator, because she got the message out and received 43 comments for a total of 9,847 points!

Our other contestants also deserve kudos for submitting amazing research images.
Remember you can always submit photos of your research to the New Voices Images from Around the Lab series by emailing an picture to hbenson at researchamerica.org. We look forward to seeing your research!

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mystery Lab Contest - Day 4

This week on New Voices we'll be sharing images of research submitted by readers. Help your fellow researchers win the contest by guessing what type of research is being done based on the image below. Can today's image beat yesterday's? Come back tomorrow to see who won and find out what's been going on in the Mystery Lab!

Today is the last day of the Mystery Lab Contest , but you can always submit photos of your research to the New Voices Images from Around the Lab series by emailing an picture to hbenson at researchamerica.org.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mystery Lab Contest - Day 3

This week on New Voices we'll be sharing images of research submitted by readers. Help your fellow researchers win the contest by guessing what type of research is being done based on the image below. Can today's image beat yesterday's or Monday's?

You can submit your entry into the Mystery Lab Contest by emailing an image to hbenson at researchamerica.org. If we receive more submissions than we have room for in the competition, those images will be considered for our Images from Around the Lab series.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mystery Lab Contest - Day 2

This week on New Voices we'll be sharing images of research submitted by readers. Help your fellow researchers win the contest by guessing what type of research is being done based on the image below. Can today's image beat yesterday's?

You can submit your entry into the
Mystery Lab Contest by emailing an image to hbenson at researchamerica.org. If we receive more submissions than we have room for in the competition, those images will be considered for our Images from Around the Lab series.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Mystery Lab Contest - Day 1

This week on New Voices we'll be sharing images of research submitted by readers. Help your fellow researchers win the contest by guessing what type of research is being done based on the image below.
You can submit your entry into the Mystery Lab Contest by emailing an image to hbenson at researchamerica.org. If we receive more submissions than we have room for in the competition, those images will be considered for our Images from Around the Lab series.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

No Paraskevidekatriaphobics Here

Paraskevidekatriaphobics is quite a mouthful. But what it means is relatively simple. An irrational, terrible fear of Friday the 13th. It's claimed by some to be the most widespread superstition in the U.S., even to the extent that studies have been done to try and confirm the fear. One in the UK showed a supposed higher risk of hospitalization due to car accidents on Friday the 13th as compared to other Fridays.

There are a lot of reasons people have for why the number 13 is unlucky. The two most common being that there were 13 at The Last Supper and Judas, being the first to rise, was the first to die. Also that the raid on the Knights Templar was planned for October 13, 1307, a Friday the 13th.

However, despite studies and reasons like these, I have no fear of this day. One reason? It's my birthday! I also turned 13 on a Friday the 13th, and everything was extremely pleasant. So whether or not you have triskaidekaphobia (and if you do, here's some helpful hints to get over it), make sure to have a safe and wonderful day!

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Can you identify the Mystery Lab?

Stop, wherever you are. Quick, grab your phone or closest camera and take a picture of what's in front of you. Send it to hbenson at researchamerica.org to enter the Mystery Lab contest.

What is the Mystery Lab contest? A chance to show off your research. Monday through Thursday next week the most creative four images submitted will be posted in the order they were received. New Voices readers will be asked to guess what field of research is being represented in the photo (biology, chemistry, marine science, physics, mathematics, etc.)

How to participate: Send an image of your work with the general field you work in as the subject to hbenson at researchamerica.org or via Twitter @NV4Research. Then encourage your friends to guess each day next week.

How to win: The winning entry will be determined using the following formula:
Number of guesses x total daily visitors

The prize: The submitter of the winning entry will receive a copy of Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. If the winner already has a copy of this fabulous book, we'll work something out.

Send your entries as soon as possible to be considered! Help us see what real science looks like.

Original image source

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Meet Jamie Vernon, PhD, Molecular Biologist

Today we're introducing you to New Voice Jamie Vernon, Postdoctoral Research Fellow with Dr. Lambowitz at The University of Texas at Austin.

NV: What do you do?

Jamie: I'm a Postdoctoral Fellow, NIH funded, and I work in a lab with Dr. Alan Lambowitz, a biochemist and microbiologist who studies mobile elements. Our lab is working on developing a gene targeting technology that could potentially be used for gene therapy and genetic engineering. This technology is based on something many people consider to be "junk DNA." These days it's becoming more and more evident that there is no such thing as "junk DNA." If it's conserved in our genomes, it probably serves a purpose.

Specifically, we study group II introns from bacteria and eukaryotic organelles. Our lab has determined that these mobile elements can be re-targeted to controllably insert into any DNA sequence. We call these re-targeted introns "targetrons" and they work very well in bacteria for creating gene knock-outs. My job is to make them target genes in eukaryotic cells, including human cells.

NV: How did you get started in outreach/advocacy?

Jamie: I think the Bush administration was a trigger. The policies related to stem cell research motivated me to act. I felt that the Bush administration's stem cell policies were not based on the best science. What was being touted was that we had all these existing stem cell lines, "why couldn't we do the research on those and get the answers we need?" But there were problems with those lines. We need a much broader collection of lines in order to deal with different diseases and different genomic backgrounds. There weren't adequate cell lines to address all these concerns. That's what sucked me in.

Now, climate change has become one area that needs to be addressed,the next calamity in science policy. Actually, there are countless science-related policy issues such as geoengineering, genomic privacy,forensic science and, of course the big one, alternative energy, that need to be carefully deliberated before we make the wrong policy decisions.

NV: What motivates you to do advocacy?

Jamie: My main motivation is that I think that science has so much to offer but it's being limited by the current policies. I truly believe that communicating science and gaining partnerships out in the public will have a positive effect on how much science is getting done.

The climate change bill is a huge issue for me. There's little room for compromise. If we don't act, the consequences down the road could be much greater than any financial investment we have to make today. You can't lose by investing in technologies that improve the environment. If the facts hold true, and I assume they will, the ramifications are dire for everyone.

NV: What limits your ability to do advocacy?

Jamie: I would say that I'm constrained by the same things as young professors. You have to produce to be considered effective. I have no incentive to do advocacy other my personal beliefs and desire to make science commonplace in the public discourse. I'm also limited by the fact that by the time I had graduated I had a family, a wife and a daughter, and that requires personal time. Mainly, I need to have a high level of productivity in order to compete and build my own research career.

There's little out there to support young scientists who wish to do outreach. For these reasons, I'm torn on which direction I want to go full-time. Science advocacy is very rewarding, but I'm a scientist at heart. It's difficult to be successful at both and it's almost an impossible decision to choose one over the other.

NV: Do you think outreach and advocacy should be required of scientists?

Jamie: No, I don't. I think there are enough scientists who care about outreach and have the communication skills to do it; rather, it should be incentivized in some way. If you force them, especially if they don't have the proper communication skills and don't want to be out there, they could make mistakes and say some stupid stuff. You need people who understand the sensitivities of the community and understand the arguments within the community. You need the public to feel that there position is being considered and appreciated when science policy decisions are being made.

Want to learn more about the issues Jamie mentioned above? Check out his blog!

This is part of the ongoing
Profiling New Voices series.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Basic Instinct

Basic v Applied Research:

Any experience in life can be reduced to groups of cells firing in your brain. Whether you move your foot, see the color green, smell a rose, or reflect on a childhood memory, neurons rapidly changing their electrical and chemical state are responsible.

In graduate school I had an opportunity to observe and record the firing patterns of individual neurons in a variety of brain regions. To measure the activity of a single brain cell in an non-anesthetized animal (which is important because drugs effect brain activity), an elegant technique called single-unit electrophysiology is employed. An electrode thinner than a human hair is slowly lowered into the brain, and the tiny changes in electrical properties expressed by neurons are amplified and recorded.

Over the course of a few years, and possibly at the expense of my sanity, I isolated and recorded the firing patterns of about three hundred visual neurons. This allowed me to characterize how cells in a specific brain region increased and decreased their activity, as well as better understand what nearby neurological areas the signals were transmitted to. Compared to trying to cure cancer or inventing a new fuel source, how important is this type of research?

Doing science for the sake of science is called basic research. It often has no obvious health or commercial application but is the source of most new scientific ideas. Basic research is usually descriptive or explanatory, and pushes a scientific or technical field forward by adding to the knowledge base and provoking new questions. Perhaps the most powerful example is modern computers, which would not exist without the 200 years worth of pure research in mathematics that preceded them.

In contrast to basic is applied research. Essentially, applied research is designed to solve practical problems of the modern world, rather than to acquire knowledge for knowledge's sake. Applied research is often aimed at somehow improving the human condition. Examples range from developing a drug that treats a specific disease to studying how urban environments can become more energy efficient. The benefits of applied research projects are more obvious and immediate, which helps them to be viewed positively by the general public and federal funding agencies.

It makes sense to want to improve health or stumble upon another multi-billion dollar commercial application (yes, we're looking at you Gatorade), but is it fair for basic and applied researchers to fight for money from the same source? In the days of Sputnik and the Cold War, funding for basic research thrived, but with a squeezed economy and a struggle for funding in all research areas are basic researchers suffering more? The need to advocate for research, both basic and applied is more crucial now than ever.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Words of Inspiration: Eleanor Roosevelt

At the United Nations in 1947

In my interactions with scientists, the reason I hear most for not being more engaged in advocacy and communication is that they just don't have the time to give. I hope you'll find inspiration in these words...

For more from Eleanor Roosevelt on a variety of political and cultural topics, check out her "My Day" columns.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Draft Beer, Not People

Did your pledge to celebrate international beer day yesterday result in waking up on a stranger’s lawn? Did your plan to just stop by happy hour to try the De Molen Donder & Bliksem Doppelbock later result in difficult questions like, “Where are your pants?" Did you sit down to a delicious breakfast of Tylenol and coffee this morning? If you answered yes to any of these questions, valuable information follows.

First the bad news - you have a hangover and no proven cure exists. The good news is that this is a research based blog and you owe it to the research community to try a few of the following possible hangover cures to confirm or deny these hypotheses.

Some ideas of known origins:
  • Everyone’s favorite Roman, Pliny the Elder - raw owl eggs, or fried canary
  • The Ritz-Carlton hotel, 1938 - Coca-Cola and milk
  • Big time drinker Earnest Hemingway – beer and tomato juice
  • The Paris World Exposition, 1878 – “The Prairie Oyster" (raw egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper)
  • Wayne State University Study, 1957 – fried food, tomato juice, and sexual activity
Ideas of unknown origins (or suggestions no one will admit to)

Hair of the dog – This is the common idea that a little more alcohol will make you feel better. Scientists will tell us that the body is going through alcohol withdrawal and introducing more alcohol will only delay the inevitable. Does this explain how I can eat an entire pizza and still want more pizza the next day? Probably not.

Artichoke – Trying to get into one of these damn things might make you forget about your hangover, but an actual scientific study in 2003 proved that “artichoke extract is not effective in preventing the signs and symptoms of alcohol-induced hangover."

Propranolol – LOL This classic beta blocker will steady your hands, (just ask North Korean pistol shooter Kim Jong Su who used it to win two gold medals in the 2008 Winter Olympics), but won’t do a thing for that tequila taste permanently lodged in the of the back of your throat.

Sugar – there are some suggestions that fructose and glucose inhibit metabolic disturbances induced by alcohol. Don’t be stingy with the maple syrup on your next day’s pancakes.

Want more suggestions? Check out this video.

Have any full proof method's of your own? It's the weekend - you should share!

Want to read more?
Check out these posts from the New Voices archives: The Science of Beer and St. Patrick's Day Special: Beer.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

More of the Greco Lab at Yale

Last week on Images from the Lab we took a look at the Greco Lab at Yale University. This week we're diving farther into their world and checking out some of the different things they use for their data collection and microscopy.

The -80 degree freezer

Blocks on ice waiting to be cut

The cryostat where blocks of mice tissue are cut into thin slices for imaging

Freshly cut slides

Microscope in cell culture room with a camera and fluorescent light to view green fluorescent protein (gfp) and red fluorescent protein (rfp) cells

Thanks goes out to Elizabeth Deschene for providing these images.

We want to see images from your workspace too! Email hbenson at researchamerica.org to share your photos in New Voices Images from the Lab.

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