PBS’ Saving the Ocean


Watch the shows online at http://www.pbs.org/savingtheocean

Immediately after graduating from Boston University’s Science and Medical Journalism program, I joined The Chedd-Angier Production Company as an associate producer on a ten-part documentary series for PBS, Saving the OceanDirected by Scientific American Frontiers’ Director John Angier, and hosted by author and marine biologist, Carl SafinaSaving the Ocean, traveled to oceans around the world to bring back good news stories of solutions that work.

Saving the Ocean premiered on PBS in April 2011 with just two pilot programs. Its first full season of ten episodes opened in October 2012.

You can watch Saving the Ocean online at pbs.org and on the show website. 

You can also download the shows on iTunes and Amazon Video.

Buy the DVD on shoppbs.org

Buy the DVD on shoppbs.org

Saving the Ocean- ‘Scourge of the Lionfish’: The story behind the show

Here’s a brief extract from the research conducted for Saving the Ocean’s show ‘Scourge of the Lionfish‘. The show is part of the ten-part PBS series hosted by author and marine biologist, Carl Safina, and is dedicated to exploring the extent of the problem along with identifying and crediting those who are pitching in to curb it.  
Click here to watch Saving the Ocean on PBS. 


Credit- Saving the Ocean

Credit- Saving the Ocean

In the last couple of years, the Atlantic Ocean and its neighboring Caribbean Sea has come under siege from a population of brightly colored invasive fish, the Lionfish. They are terrific breeders, have a voracious appetite and are armored with spiny, venomous dorsal fins– all high-ranking markers on the ultimate-predator checklist. Native to the Indo-Pacific, Lionfish are the first highly predatory fish to become an invasive in Caribbean coral reefs, an extremely delicate and highly threatened ocean habitat.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines ‘invasive species’ as any plant, animal or other living organism that is alien to an ecosystem and whose introduction is likely to cause economic harm, environmental damage or harm to human health. Deliberate or otherwise, human actions are the primary reasons for invasive species introduction.

It was no different for lionfish. Lionfish didn’t swim their way across the oceans- people brought them here and released them into Atlantic waters. Their flaming colors and unique spiny appearance made them a favorite among aquarium fishes which was the main reason for their trade.  Scientists speculate that their introduction was a result of hurricanes and aquarium releases. Today, their invasive range extends from as far north as Rhode Island, all the way south to Columbia, and what’s worse is that it’s expected to expand further south until the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean dissuade them. Lionfish are densely populated in the Caribbean Sea due to their affinity to coral reef structures. Their range is not only wide it’s also deep. Submarines have reported spotting these fish at depths of 1000 ft.

Lionfish range map. Credit-USGS

Lionfish range map. Credit-USGS

Native to the Indo-Pacific, lionfish were first spotted off the coast of South Florida in 1985, and were sporadically seen for 15 years following that. But experts say that the real invasion began at about the turn of the 21st century. By 2005, they were spotted in the Bahamas and in the Caribbean, around Florida Keys and in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then their numbers have grown exponentially and research shows that their growth has led to a sharp decline among native fishes. Lionfish feed on all kinds of small reef fish and juveniles of larger species like groupers.  They also don’t spare tiny coral-cleansing fish like parrotfish that feed off algae growing on corals. Other favorites include tiny parasite fish that clean larger species. They can eat upto 5-6 times of their body weight in a year. “In the Bahamas alone, there has been a reduction in populations of 60 species of prey fish in the last two years,” says Stephanie Greene, biologist from Simon Frasier University. Mark Hixon, zoologist at Oregon State University, backs up those figures with his own studies on lionfish’s insatiable feeding behavior. “We have witnessed colorful cardinalfish, parrotfish, damselfish all going down the lionfish’s gullet. One consumed 20 small fish in 30 minutes.” In a controlled experiment conducted in 2005, Hixon recorded that a single lionfish can reduce the number of other fishes by 79 percent in as few as five weeks.  Underwater footage from the Caribbean show coral reefs poxed with lionfish, bearing testimony to his claim. With a strong density of 400 individuals per hectare in the Caribbean (ten times as much as in their native ecosystems), lionfish pose a catastrophic threat to reef ecology and commercial fishing.

Lionfish are accoutered with unique anatomical and behavioral characteristics that make them the ultimate predator in their alien surroundings. Their modified dorsal fin forms a series of venomous spines that can ward off even large predators like sharks and groupers. James Morris, an ecologist at NOAA, discovered that even when starved, sharks reject a lionfish meal. When force-fed, sharks have shown visible signs of discomfort sometimes even resulting in regurgitation of the venomous fish. It’s assumed that this defense mechanism has given lionfish the needed confidence to drift languidly in their Caribbean surroundings. Their unusual movement pattern along with their spiny, colorful appearance might be the reasons why native species don’t recognize lionfish as predators, prey, or even just fish. Hixon’s team discovered yet another interesting feeding behavior unique to lionfish– they blow jets of water in the face of their prey. As fish naturally swim upstream, a confused prey fish will dart towards the source of the jet stream presenting itself as an easy meal. Lionfish also use their dorsal fins to herd prey fish into corners before swallowing them whole.

In addition to their entitled appetite, Lionfish are endowed with an indefatigable reproductive rate. They reproduce every 3-4 days and females can produce a couple of million eggs every year. Juveniles reach sexual maturity when they are less than a year old, a stark contrast to other predators their size. Females release eggs in a gelatinous mass that is speculated to contain a chemical deterrent to ward off predators. Even if the speculation proves wrong, no Caribbean fish has thus far recognized this floating gelatinous mass as food. This could be because no native fish releases eggs in such a manner.  Lionfish larvae are equipped with venomous spines and adults do not feed on their young. They live long, some even longer than 30 years. All these traits cumulatively allow them to multiply at an alarming rate. Morris says that it’s impossible to remove lionfish completely from the Caribbean. “ We’ll have to remove a quarter of the population every month for a whole year in order to bring it down to a point where the population is no longer increasing,” said Morris. “It would take armies to remove them.”

Lionfish are much less abundant and threatening in their native ecosystems of the Indo-Pacific. Hixon’s team is studying lionfish and their native environment to compare it to lionfish in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Their studies are still nascent but the team assumes that it could be combinations of natural diseases, parasites and predators that are absent in the Atlantic but keep lionfish in control in the native surroundings. The largest lionfish in the Pacific, thus far is 38 cm while in the Atlantic, they have found individuals that are 45 cm long.

With all odds in favor of the invasion, scientists have concluded that the only immediate way to control lionfish is manual removal. This task is made complicated by the fact that lionfish dwell close to reefs, ruling out trawling as an option. They don’t bite so it’s impossible to fish them using hook and line. This leaves just one option that is both successful and dangerous- spear fishing. Lionfish are naturally inclined to be calm and unafraid of predators, which make them easy targets for divers. The incentive for this dangerous task is a tasty lionfish meal. The fish, once de-spined is noted to be very mildly flavored, easy to cook with a variety of marinades and is delicious on its own as a sashimi. Non-profits like REEF host diving derbies and cook-outs all over Florida Keys and the Caribbean. They routinely hold training workshops for fishermen to teach them careful spearing, without destroying corals, and lessons on handling and cleaning the venomous fish. Lionfish are often caught in lobster traps too, lured in by their affinity to structure. REEF is encouraging lobstermen in the Florida Keys to supply their lionfish to local restaurants and is hence, turning their bycatch into profit.

Restaurants all over the Caribbean and in major cities in the US now feature lionfish on their menus. Traditional Fisheries, the only wholesale distributor of lionfish in the US, sources its fish from the mesoamerican reefs off Puerto Morelos in Mexico. David Johnson, president of the company, is married to a Mexican woman whose five brothers are all spear-fishermen. With the help of his brothers-in-law and local fishing coops, Johnson has established a flourishing lionfish fishing and packaging industry in Puerto Morelos, supplying fish to casinos and restaurants in Vegas, NYC and other big cities. Johnson is currently experimenting with alternative methods to harvest the invasive by using vacuum pumps that can hopefully reduce the amount of time spent on each dive.

Although successful, these curative methods are a mere drop in the ocean. Lionfish are found at great depths of 1000 ft whereas scuba divers can safely dive down to only 300 ft. In order to catch several lionfish at a time, divers have to stay underwater for a dangerously long time. If not done skillfully, spearing could also damage delicate coral structures and organisms. This, however, is not discouraging researchers and conservationists who are working hard to create reef pockets that are completely devoid of lionfish. Their hope is that by creating a safe haven for native species, the ocean will have a chance to recover and defend itself from the invasion.

Free Radicals – On the Water

  FREE RADICALS- On the Water

   A Boston University Science Journalism Webmagazine  

class pic

Boston University’s 2011 Science Journalism Cohort

The final, and one of the most interesting projects I worked on during my Masters program at Boston University, was a webmagazine titled Free Radicals It was a group assignment that involved all seven students in our cohort and our chosen theme was On the Water, a dedication to Boston’s location on the Atlantic Coast, and our common love for ocean critters and seafood.

All of us sci-jos (as we jocularly called ourselves) assumed different roles to pull of this webmagazine, of course, picking and choosing what we liked and did best. My run, as you will see, demonstrates a penchant for audio-visual elements to communicate science, and my fascination for whales. Listed below are my stories for Free Radicals:

Boston’s Leaky Legacy


Boston’s old and decaying natural gas infrastructure has the potential for huge economic, health and environmental impacts on the residents of the city.

Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States and aging with the city is its infrastructure. Above the ground, stretches the Freedom Trail and epic architecture, but about three feet under, the city shrouds a network of leaky natural gas distribution pipelines. Some of these pipes are made of coated steel and plastic, indicating that they have been laid in the last three to four decades, but most are made of cast iron, dating as far back as the late 1800s when natural gas distribution first began. And some of those old pipes leak.

To some urban dwellers, leaking natural gas pipes may not come as much of a surprise, or even much of a worry. But that changes when losses are quantified. Nathan Phillips, professor of geography and environment at Boston University, has estimated that unaccounted-for gas in Massachusetts which amounts to eight billion cubic feet  or $40 million worth of natural gas per year. Of this, an estimated $4 million is being lost in Boston alone. Worse yet, methane, escaping from a punctured pipeline, is no longer a valuable domestic fuel but instead it’s a potent greenhouse gas, an explosive fuel and a health hazard.

Climate scientists have deduced that 7 to 15 percent of the global human-caused loss of methane comes from cities and urban centres. The main sources of urban methane are landfills, sewage treatment plants and natural gas distribution pipes. While expectations to reduce greenhouse gases are set globally, mitigation needs to happen locally. But in order to reduce levels researchers need first know how much methane is being released into the atmosphere from targeted sources. In the last few years, scientists have started measuring methane levels from individual targeted sources in cities and discovered that, in Boston, a significant amount is released from natural gas pipes. Leaking pipes are low hanging fruit, as compared to other urban methane sources. They are easy to identify and arguably simple to fix.

Phillips heads the Urban Metabolism project at BU to monitor greenhouse gas emissions in Boston. He started exploring methane leaks when his path serendipitously crossed that of Robert Ackley, owner of Gas Safety USA. One fall morning in 2010, Ackley was perusing the streets of Newton, MA with his flame ionization detector to find leaks in distribution pipes. The detector works on a simple principle- it uses a tiny flame which spikes upon contact with methane, a highly flammable gas. Phillips, who was taking his 5-year-old son for a stroll, had never seen the detector before and asked Ackley about it. The two researchers got talking and Phillips, immediately spotted a missing link in his own work. He used an instrument called the Picarro gas analyzer on the roof of a BU building to determine levels of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor, in well-mixed samples of air. But if he could calculate the amount of methane leaking from distribution pipes, then his research could estimate the total amount of methane in Boston from independent human-caused sources. So Phillips, Ackley and Eric Crossan, Chief Technical Officer at Picarro took a drive through Boston in a car fitted with a Picarro greenhouse gas analyzer. Over the next ten months, Phillips patrolled the streets of Boston and its neighboring suburbs detecting and monitoring levels of methane from natural gas pipe leaks. One October morning, I joined the professor on a leak-detection tour in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

“Watch out, it’s hot in there,” said Phillips, as he opened the door of an SUV crowded with four Boston University students, lots of wires, some computer screens and other assorted gadgets. A baritone hum emanated from the back of the vehicle where a Picarro greenhouse gas analyzer sucked out the car’s energy to warm itself up to 1040F, its desired start up temperature.  The analyzer is a large metallic box with lots of buttons and blinking lights. A pipe, dangling from Picarro’s gas inlet, was waiting to feed it with air samples. At 7 am on a frigid Saturday morning, the BU crew looked surprisingly alert and ready for their mission.

Phillips quickly explained the rules of the hunt. “Baseline methane levels in Boston are about 2.1 ppm right now. When those numbers jump higher than that, it means that we are driving over a leak.” He twisted around under the tight grasp of his seat belt and tapped the corner of a computer screen resting on his student- Nurika’s, lap.  The students nodded their heads in acknowledgement and started parallel conversations about the impacts of methane on trees.  Methane molecules are lighter than oxygen so they easily rise and displace oxygen in porous soil, hampering respiration in tree roots.  Methane is a dry gas and also displaces moisture in the soil. An affected tree may die of methane asphyxiation. Researchers suspect that plants tolerant to swamp conditions have greater resilience to methane leaks in cities, as swamps naturally produce huge quantities of methane. “Honey locus trees are more resilient too,” Phillips said. Before he could explain why Nurika called our attention to the numbers on the screen that had suddenly jumped to 3.0 ppm.  The car had just turned around Kenmore square and onto Beacon Street, and the students were excited. Phillips nodded in acknowledgement and kept driving.

A study from The Netherlands published in 1986 established a connection between dying street trees and natural gas leaks. The Dutch researchers worked with municipal bodies and found that most trees in their cities died in the latter half of the 1960s, after the country made a switch from coal gas to natural gas. Ackley explains that city trees are exposed to several threats- road salt, insects and storms. Methane makes these trees more vulnerable to such threats. Some neighborhoods can afford  active replanting of dying trees. “But the damage has been going on for 30 years,” said Ackley “there are some places which have not re-planted for 20 years because of lack of funding.” Ackley is working with environmental attorney Jan Schlichtmann to represent the towns of Hingham, Nahant, Milton, Saugas and Brookline which are suing their natural gas distribution companies for tree damage from gas leaks.

Driving down Beacon Street, Phillips explained how to identify locations of gas pipes. “Those yellow spray painted arrows mean that there are gas pipes underneath,’ he said, pointing to the road-“Blue means water and red refers to electricity.” Again, he was interrupted by Nurika who called attention to a 5.3 ppm reading at the intersection of Park and Beacon streets. “Ooh that’s a big one,” said Phillips rolling down his window and sniffing violently. Phillips called gas companies, like N Star, efforts to repair leaks “Band-Aid solutions”, there are so many leaks in a given pipe that fixing one leak is almost never a solution.  Entire pipe systems needed replacement. The numbers on the screen jumped all over the place in testimony to the professor’s words.

The troupe headed towards Brookline reservoir, down Walnut Street. The well-to-do neighborhood offered a welcoming view with sprawling houses and cascading lawns. But the numbers on the computer screen presented a different picture.  Nurika read them out like a mechanical countdown that never reached below 3.  A 12.1ppm- reading stopped the car in its tracks and a pungent odor of gas wafted in as Phillips rolled down his window in front of a brick-fronted house, with pumpkins in its well-manicured yard.

Natural gas is colorless, and it’s rendered odorless after sulfur and water are removed from it to make it easier for distribution. Because it’s highly flammable, mercaptan- a chemical odorant is added to it to help identify leaks. Mercaptan smells like rotten eggs. Though he has smelt and identified leaks in many parts of the city, Phillips has been judicious about the ones he calls out. “I’d be stopping every couple of miles if I were to call out all dangerous leaks,” he explains “besides, most of these leaks have already been called in before and have not been fixed.” Earlier this year, Phillips called in a leak in Back Bay when the Picarro registered an explosive reading of 30 ppm. He added that he tries to call in most leaks that have a building foundation within a five foot radius from the leak to mitigate the threat of an explosion.

Methane’s flammability makes pipeline leaks a threat to climate-change deniers too. Since methane is lighter than atmospheric air, it rises from punctured pipes and collects in enclosed spaces like manholes and building foundations. If a manhole has 4 percent methane, gas companies grade it as a level 1 leak, which is dangerous and needs immediate attention. Phillips has seen manholes filled with 10 percent concentrations of natural gas. Ackley estimates that it costs about $3000 to fix a leak in a pipe. In most cases, gas companies don’t replace the worn-down pipe but replace the manhole cover with a slated one. A slated cover allows the collected gas to escape but the space created is immediately replaced with more leaking gas.  The result is either an explosion or a large consumer gas bill. In Massachusetts, both have happened.

In the last decade, there have been 19 gas explosions in the state of Massachusetts. Four blasts took place in 2009 alone, killing a 62-year-old resident in Somerset and critically injuring three others.  Ackley says that “no one cares unless someone loses an eye.” He had just returned from Allentown, Pennsylvania exploring a leak which had led to an explosion in February 2011, killing five people. When asked what prevents explosions from happening everyday in Boston, his response is authoritative- “Luck! Pure luck.” Soon after, he learned that I lived right off of Boylston aka Route 9 in Boston. “It’s a mess over there! All the trees are dying and Route 9 is crazy and filled with leaks.” The Cupertino, CA, gas explosion in September 2011 that destroyed an entire condominium is a clear indication that even plastic distribution pipes are not leak-proof.

Gas companies have few incentives to repair these leaks. The ‘cost of gas adjustment clause’ in the state of Massachusetts charges the consumer for lost and unaccounted for gas.  Massachusetts has the second-oldest pipe system in the country after Delaware but has the highest per capita distribution of cast iron pipes in the country. Shanna Cleveland, an attorney with Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), notes the presence of wooden pipelines in Downtown Boston dating back to the pre cast-iron pipeline era. “Everyone’s concerned about the cost of repairing leaks,” she says “but we forget that tax payers are already paying for lost gas.” Cleveland explained that CLF is working with Phillips and his team to understand the magnitude of the problem and to create policy solutions. Phillips too feels that the problem is larger than the costs involved in fixing leaks- “The real question should be how much it costs us not to fix leaks- $40 million per year.” Using the Picarro, he had recently picked up a leak with a methane reading of 7 ppm in his own house in Newton.

This year, Massachusetts state representative, Lori Ehrlich filed four bills demanding more inspection transparency and environmental responsibility from gas companies in the state. She explains that the Department of Utilities pays gas companies to replace entire pipe systems and not for repairing leaks. Hence, unless there is a high threat of explosion, private companies don’t have any incentive to repair leaks. “But leaks don’t repair themselves, they only get worse over time,” said Ehrlich. This is the first time a representative has filed these bills in the state and they have received bipartisan and bicameral co-sponsorship from over 40 Massachusetts legislators. The bills will be out of legislature next summer and Ehrlich is hoping for constructive measures.

Explosions are only one of methane’s health hazards. In confined spaces inhaling methane can have the same effects as other forms of asphyxiation like carbon monoxide poisoning. Once it’s released into the air, methane is a key ingredient in a toxic soup of chemical reactions that lead to the formation of ground ozone.  The other ingredients for this reaction are nitrous oxides and light- both readily available in urban settings. Ozone molecules in the stratosphere are pivotal to protecting human health and other organic matter from the sun’s harsh rays, but- closer to the Earth’s surface-in the lower troposphere they do just the opposite. They are highly reactive molecules and corrode any biological tissue they come in contact with. The internal linings of lungs are extremely vulnerable to ozone-induced degeneration. For this reason, the EPA monitors ozone levels and calls for Ozone Code Orange Days when levels rise beyond safe limits (101-150 on the Air Quality Index). On such days children, the elderly and people with asthma or other respiratory disorders are advised to stay indoors and avoid heavy physical activity.

J. Jason West, Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences & Engineering at the University of North Carolina has found a direct correlation between morbidity and mortality rates and ozone levels. “Ozone is listed as one of six urban particulate matter that is regulated by the EPA but none of ozone’s regulatory factors include mitigating methane levels,” he said. Methane has a long lifetime in the atmosphere which means that it can contribute to the formation of ozone over a longer period of time even though the reactions are slow. “I wouldn’t want to put words in the EPA’s mouth,” said John Levy, professor of Environmental Health at Boston University “Methane is a very challenging pollutant to control emissions and, given its diversity of source, it’s much harder to mitigate.”

On Earth Day 2011, Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino released new goals for Boston’s Climate Plan. Heading the list was an optimistic endeavor to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions -25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. But how does one find out if these reductions have been met? Lucy Hutyra, assistant professor at BU’s department of geography and environment argues that “we need to have a framework to validate whether regulations are being met.” Hutyra represents a larger scientific community concerned about the 80 percent of the country’s greenhouse gases that come from urban centres.

Methane’s greenhouse gas potential is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide when measured over a 100 year period. This is a very worrying and frustrating fact for climate scientists who recognize that not enough is being done to mitigate human-caused emissions of methane.  According to Phillips “the best way to reduce the greenhouse gas potential of these leaks is to light them all on fire (which will break methane down to CO2 and water). Boston will be ablaze but at least the planet will have fewer greenhouse gases.”


  • Nathan Phillips: Professor, Geography and Environment, BU.
  • Robert Ackley: Gas Safety USA.
  • Eric Crosson: Chief Technical Officer, Picarro.
  • Lucy Hutyra: Assistant Professor, Department of Geography & Environment, BU.
  • Arlene Fiore: Physical Scientist, Atmospheric Chemistry, Physics and Climate Group, Princeton, NOAA.
  • Shanna Cleveland: Staff Attorney, Conservation Law Foundation.
  • J. Jason West: Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences & Engineering, University of North Carolina.
  • Jonathan Levy: Professor, Environmental Health, BU.
  • Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, CPA, MPA, Vice Chair Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, MA
  • Frank Gallagher- editor@naturalgaswatch.org

Written for an ‘Advanced Science Writing’ class at Boston University with Ellen R. Shell. 

What’s in a name? Apparently a lot.

A Boyer Family Picture taken in the late 1980s. Credit-Unknown

My name is Anne-Marie and as far back as I can remember, people have asked me why that is. Their question is justified. With black hair, dark skin and South Asian features, I would have been better off with a name straight out of a Bollywood film. Ergo, the answer for this seemingly simple question has always been long and elaborate and the only way to explain is by delving back into my country’s colonial past.

The British ruled India for about  100 years, a significant amount of time considering that we have been independent for only 64. In that while, they brought railroads and Christianity and looted away spices and indigenous sovereignty. But what often does not make it to history textbooks is that they brought thousands of young English soldiers who left their lives and families at a tender age to fight for their country in a foreign land. Those who survived malaria and heat strokes stayed in India long enough to learn the language and figure out its culture. Some of those unfortunate young soldiers even fell in love with Indian women, often forgetting fiancés and wives back home. It was after all the late 19th century and Skype hadn’t yet been invented.

As such unions proliferated, the country was dotted with light-skinned and brown-eyed babies who grew up to form the Anglo-Indian community.

They spoke only English and cursed a lot. The women wore dresses and hats. On Friday evenings, the Anglos (as they are colloquially called) played cards; on Saturdays they danced the Fox Trot and on Sundays they attended mass. They ate rice and kofta curry with spoons, forks and serviettes. They had western names and knew they were pretty. They took pride in their ‘half-bloodedness’ and felt superior as compared to their darker country cousins. They were good musicians and bad students. The men drank too much and the women smoked too much. But they were the community that raised my grandmother, my mother and then me.

My great grandfather was a French soldier in the First World War. He brought his wife and three kids with him to Burma and left them there as he travelled around the Indian subcontinent. He would often visit his sister, a missionary, in India. On one of these visits, he successfully impregnated an Indian lady. His wife back home succumbed to one of the many deadly tropical diseases, and maybe even grief, and he conveniently brought his three children over to his mistress’ house to give them a new mother. My grandmother, Edna St George- white skinned, and dark -haired found herself a place in the bastard Anglo-Indian community and gave up speaking French for English. She loved being French and baptized her four daughters with names rather uncharacteristic to the rest of India- Genevieve, Marcelle, Marie Antoinette and Patricia. The latter three were born with creamy white skin and black hair.

As a child I always struggled with the name Anne-Marie.  I grew up in New Delhi, the capital, and despised being introduced to new people. For a long time, one of my neighbours called me ‘animal’, as he truly believed that was my name. While studying grade two arithmetic, my best friend asked me why I had a minus sign in the middle of my name. I had no clue why.  Grade three was worse. It was the year my mother revealed to me that I had a middle name too- Patricia. And when you’re Roman Catholic, it doesn’t just end there. I was given my second middle name- Claudelle, during my Confirmation ceremony at the impressionable age of 13.

I did well at school but didn’t like it much. My friends thought that I was a snob when I spoke English with ease and struggled with Hindi. That’s why weekends with Nana were so special. Nana always smelt of perfume and cigarettes, and I loved it. After she turned completely grey, her crimson lipstick was the only speck of colour on her white face. She was beautiful. She would sit me down on her knee and teach me Eenie meenie miney mo- the uncensored version, of course. She also taught me Yankey Doodle and other rhymes which I never learned in school. She made the best pork roast and she taught me how to pray the rosary.

I wish I got to spend more time with my grandmother. When I was five, she left for Australia with my three aunts. They weren’t the only ones, most Anglos have migrated to Canada, Australia and England, and only a handful remain in the homeland. Intermarriage is widely practised so third generation seed, like myself, only bear the fading echo of a once robust community.

As I grew, I soon learnt to laugh at the various mutilations my name went through and the reactions it solicited. At my last job in India, I received a bill in the name of ‘N. Marry’. I preserved it carefully. Here in the US, I am frequently asked for my ‘real name’.  On some of these occasions, I give the inquirer what they want to hear- something straight out of a Bollywood film.

Read a related article  on the Anglo-Indian Community from The New York Times

Written for an ‘Opinions and Editorials’ class at Boston University with Boston Globe Columnist, Adrian Walker.

Cancer-Fighting Cells Get Boost from Viagra

Sildenafil in Viagra can fight more than just erectile dysfunction. 

Viagra may provide more than a wake-up to a man’s sex life — it may help the body’s immune system fight cancer, a new study involving mice suggests.

Scientists in Germany genetically engineered mice to develop melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, and found that when these mice were given Viagra in their drinking water, they lived twice as long as untreated mice.

The drug works because it “wakes up” the immune system to fight cancer, said study researcher Viktor Umansky, an immunologist at the German Cancer Research Center, in Heidelberg.

Viagra and cancer

Researchers from John Hopkins University had discovered in 2006 that Viagra (which is drug manufacturer Pfizer’s brand name for sildenafil citrate) boosted the activity of T cells in mice with cancer. T cells are part of the immune system, and they fight tumors.

The new study showed how this may work. Most tumors release chemicals that inhibit T cells, but “sildenafil switches off these suppressor cells and wakes up the sleeping T cells,” Umansky said.

Umansky used mice that were altered to develop malignant melanoma, mimicking the way the cancer develops in people.

From laboratories to people

Dr. Adam Lerner, a professor of medicine and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine, who was not involved with the study, agreed that the study showed mice “have a stronger immune system under the effects of sildenafil.”

Umansky said most current cancer treatments have the effect of tamping down the immune system, and Viagra might offset this effect. But years of further research would be needed before Viagra could become a cancer treatment, he said.

The study was published Oct. 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the story online on MyHealthNewsDaily’s website

Voice of the Oppressed

Socialism Iron Fist

Credit: Creative Commons

“The comrade in the black hat please”- These were the first words I heard when I entered the New England Marxism Conference on Saturday, November 12, 2011. Though I find it unsettling that I can use the terms ‘Marxism’ and 2011 in the same sentence, I found it more uncanny that the socialists decided to hold their conference in the Science Center of one of the top Ivy league colleges in the country, Harvard University.

The two day conference was broken into workshops, which discussed subjects like the working class and oppression, Black Liberation and Socialism, and objectives of Marxism. Though I have never felt marginalized as a non-white before, my curiosity forced me to check out the Black Liberation conference. As I settled down on the stairs of the auditorium, as all the seats were filled out, it tickled me to notice a handful of Asians, and a Rasta black guy with a big Afro.

“Capitalism forces to compete. It creates the potential to pitt working classes against each other, and forces racism, ethnic and gender divides”, yelled out Jonah Birch from the podium. Birch had taken the time out from his busy Occupy New York schedule to attend this conference in Boston. After he finished his energetic rant where he ripped apart Ron Paul, bank and mortgage companies and the media all with equal fervor, Birch open the floor to his comrades. One of the initial participants who spoke brought up the issues of foreclosures and stated that there had been 10 million foreclosures since 2008, and most were affecting homes of black and Latino people. Another lady brought the injustice against Troy Davis to the floor. For the next hour, people from all over New England, each representing an occupy movement, expressed dissatisfaction in almost every aspect of public structure. If it wasn’t the occupy movement that brought them together, it was their hatred for White people, antagonism towards “American Apartheid”, and amazing ability to find oppression hidden in every mundane social process.

Unable to contribute much to the discussion, I flipped over the reading material handed out to all participants of the conference. The last two pages had listings of various food and refreshment venues in the area. Starbucks and Dunkin headed the list.

Figuring that I had nothing in common with black oppression and slavery, I waltzed off to check out the conference on women’s oppression. At least this room had a significant number of women, most of whom sat holding hands and nuzzling each others hair. The speaker, a daunting tall white woman with a booming gospel voice had enamored her audience with speeches on sexual liberation, right wing politics, the church, the criminal justice system and what have you. I learnt new phrases that day, ‘Power Feminism’ being my favourite one. The term simply means that women in politics, or in high ranks of business and power are capitalists themselves. In this room, Michelle Bachmann and Hillary Clinton got their fair share of mud slinging.

“The comrade with the anti-NATO pins”, yelled the chair allowing the young man his turn to speak. He got up in his place, scratched around his bull ring and smoothed the crease of his plaid shirt, before he mumbled a few words of gratitude to the speaker.

As I got up to leave a pretty young comrade winked and waved a peace sign at me. I departed the conference and went Christmas shopping at Macy’s.


Written for an ‘Opinions and Editorials’ class at Boston University with Boston Globe Columnist, Adrian Walker.

Salsa Engineering

Salsa Matei

Credit: Anne-Marie Boyer

It was an unexpectedly cold and snowy October evening in Boston and I was pleasantly surprised that Matei Livianu didn’t call a rain check on our appointment. As I approached our meeting venue, a restaurant in Cambridge, I saw him standing outside wearing his characteristic pin-striped bowling hat and an irritated expression on his face. He arrested his annoyance and courteously smiled when he caught my eye. “They shut an hour early,” he explained pointing to the restaurant, “I hate bad service”. As we crossed the street to find another venue, an oncoming car made a rude turn and scraped my side as it recovered speed. Matei spun around and pranced over to the driver’s side. What passed between him and the driver was drowned out in the snow and noise from honking cars, though I do remember seeing a bird and hearing some French. A few minutes later we settled down in another restaurant. Matei took off his hat, apologized for his outburst and repeated that he hated bad service.

29-year-old Matei Livianu has made it his life’s goal to deliver good service to the people who approach his dance school in Cambridge, MA. Named after the founder, Salsa Matei offers a range of Latin dance lessons including Salsa, Bachata, Cha-cha and special choreographed pieces for performance events. Several dancers at the school are engineers, researchers, computer scientists or are studying to be one of those. That’s not much of a surprise since Salsa Matei is located in Central Square, six steps away from MIT and half a dozen from Harvard.

Matei came to Boston in 2006 after graduating with a Masters in electrical computer engineering from Georgia Tech. His move here was in response to a job offer as a controls engineer from Boston Dynamics, a company that specializes in making biped and quadruped robots that can walk through mud pits or on steep staircases where wheeled robots would fail  “It’s all about balance and movement,” said Matei, a statement that could have just as easily described salsa. He was cut short by a phone call from his wife, Hirlley, a certified aircraft mechanic working with the MBTA and a teacher at Salsa Matei. The two met in Boston while dancing at a local Latin dance club.

Matei was born in Montreal into a family of immigrant Romanian engineers. His parents moved to Los Angeles when he was five and enrolled him and his brother into piano and tap dancing lessons. Matei remembers hating tap dancing as a child. “I was a nerd surrounded by ten girls,” he chuckled as he nudged a plate of oysters towards me. In high school he turned down an offer to join a swing dance club, fearing that he was nerdy enough and didn’t need more. Balance, however, seemed to come naturally to Matei as he took to skiing and ice skating like hot knife to butter. His brother grew up to be the sporty one in the family.

Matei was introduced to salsa during his undergrad at Harvey Mudd Technical School when he finally decided to overcome his shyness and joined the ballroom dance club. In the following few years, he speedily progressed to an advanced performer and then a teacher. Engineering helped him dance. He could not have understood balance and weight if he wasn’t an engineer. Dancing, in turn, provided stress relief from studying. Politics between dance directors and judges prevented Matei from entering professional dancing and he stuck to learning and dancing in school. He never had much luck at dance clubs though as “no Latin girl wanted to dance with a scrawny white guy.” Matei’s old-school Romanian mother once told him that if a girl said no, she really meant yes. Those words came back to him in dance clubs as he would shamelessly ask the same girl over and over again till she would give in. Once young Matei had the chance to show off his moves, he never found it hard to find partners to dance the night away.

Matei started dance schools wherever he went, including one at Georgia Tech. He first paying students, however, were a young married couple in Georgia who were struggling to find ways to spend quality time together.  One evening Matei had dragged them, along with a few others, onto a makeshift dance floor in a local restaurant and taught them some salsa steps- something he often did when he went out. By the end of the evening the couple begged him to give them formal lessons as they needed to find an activity together to fuel their marriage. Charging a humble fee that paid his gas money, Matei found a new calling- to provide good service as a dance teacher. Today, his school in Cambridge has an average attendance of 90 students and four full time teachers. He responds to every email personally, teaches every dance move professionally and emphasizes his hatred for bad service passionately.


Written for an ‘Opinions and Editorials’ class at Boston University with Boston Globe Columnist, Adrian Walker.

Lobstering in Maine- in conversation with Buddy Poland

New England lobsters are a delicacy enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in the area, especially during the brief summer. Lobstering is one of the main occupations here and is often a legacy passed on from one generation to another. Here is a brief glimpse into the life of a lobsterman as told to us by Buddy Poland from Round Pond, Maine.

Produced by Hillary Hoffman and myself for ‘Free Radicals- on the water’

Estimating methane from livestock (LOE)

Close to the end of my internship with Living on Earth, I worked on a short story which I got to narrate myself. Not only was I excited about my voice being carried on a Public Radio International show, I also got to say “poop” on the radio. I doubt that will ever happen again.

The story describes a study by researchers from the University of Bristol and the Teagasc Animal and Grassland Research Centre in Ireland. According to the study, quantities of a compound, archaeol, in cow dung, is directly proportionate to the amount of methane released by the animal. If such is the case, then climate scientists will no longer have to rely on rough estimates for methane from livestock.

CLICK HERE to listen to the story.