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Cafe Scientifique rocks the Bradbury

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By Carol A. Clark

A capacity crowd of teens with their enthusiastic, engaged conversation amazed a scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory during his presentation at Café Scientifique in the Bradbury Science Museum Thursday evening. “Before giving this talk, people told me the kids wouldn’t pay attention but that’s not true, they were amazing,” said Ruy M. Ribeiro. “This was excellent, the kids asked very good questions, they paid attention, it was very rewarding.”Ribeiro works in the Theoretical Biology & Biophysics section of the Laboratory’s Theoretical Division. In his talk, The Race for an HIV Vaccine, he explained Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).“Today, 33 million people are infected worldwide and more than two-and-a-half million die every year,” he said. “In the country where I was born, Mozambique, one in six adults is infected. In neighboring Botswana, life expectancy is only 36 years; in 1985 it was 65. Many young adults in these countries die of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), leaving behind a rising number of orphans.”Even in the United States, there are more than one million people infected with HIV, Ribeiro said. “We urgently need an HIV vaccine, yet, it has remained out of reach after 25 years of research,” he said. “HIV treatment is still very expensive, at least hundreds of dollars per person per year. In some of the poorer countries, a family can not afford more than a few dollars for health care per year, so the best hope for eliminating HIV is a vaccine.”Children get vaccinated because vaccines are one of the best health measures ever developed, Ribeiro said. In wealthier countries, vaccines have almost eliminated childhood diseases. But so far it has proven exceedingly difficult to develop a vaccine for HIV infection, he said, because HIV mutates rapidly so a vaccine will have to cope with its variability. HIV also infects and destroys the immune system, which vaccines are supposed to prime to fight disease, and HIV in general is not very susceptible to the effect of antibodies, the basis for the success of many other vaccines, Ribeiro said.In exploring the science of HIV and the importance of developing a vaccine for it, Ribeiro told the teens that “success in developing such a vaccine will represent one of the greatest achievements of medical research in human history.”Ribeiro studied HIV with expert Martin Nowak at the University of Oxford in England. He has worked at LANL for eight years and describes the lab’s HIV research program as the best in the world in vaccine analysis.“I work with an amazing group of people who have a passion to understand infectious diseases and the immune system, and realize that this work can have impact in improving lives across the world,” Ribeiro said.His talk to the teens launches the first in a series of monthly Cafés being presented by the stimulating new program brought to New Mexico by Los Alamos resident Michelle Hall. Hall is president of Science Education Solutions. Her company promotes science and technology literacy and she is project director and Los Alamos site coordinator for Café Scientifique. Hall also has developed Café Youth Leadership Teams in Española/Pojoaque, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. While other Café Scientifique programs are geared toward adults, Hall’s program is the first in the country devoted solely to teenagers.The National Science Foundation funded her program to determine if it will engage teens in science, engineering and technology issues and increase their knowledge of the role they play in the world, she said.“I’m just really impressed with these kids; they act like young adults,” Hall said Thursday. “Their excitement, their great questions and their enthusiasm made the night a lot of fun.”With the conclusion of Thursday’s Café, each team has completed its first Café and Los Alamos has won in terms of the team that drew the largest participation. “We’re so proud of our Youth Leadership Team,” said Sharon Stover, who was on hand to assist with Thursday’s event. “They’re going to receive a very nice surprise.”The young leaders summed up their thoughts on the overwhelming success of their first Café. “It was exciting and I liked it,” said Darrel Beckman, 17, a Los Alamos High School junior. LAHS junior Lorenza Bronkhorst, 16, praised Ribeiro’s presentation. “It was nice how well informed he was,” she said. “He could answer all of the questions. I didn’t know any of this before.” LAHS freshman Emily Tencate, 14, was clearly delighted with the evening, saying, “Mr. Ribeiro told us all the things he does and said coming here was the best part of his day.”LAHS junior Benigno Sandoval, 16, said he plans to attend every Café. “I like learning about science projects that affect your life or may hurt your life and then discuss them with your friends.”Teens 14-18 are welcome to join the Youth Leadership Team. There are currently 12 local teen leaders. They choose meeting topics, identify follow-up activities to speaker presentations and define the environment they want to create at each Café meeting.A follow-up to Thursday’s Café, The Race for an HIV Vaccine, is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the UNM-LA Lecture Hall in Bldg. 2. The meeting is open to all teenagers, whether or not they attended Thursday’s talk.Café Scientifique’s partners include LANL, Los Alamos Women in Science Math, Engineering and Science Excellence (MESA), UNM-LA, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Northern New Mexico College, Sandia National Laboratory and Santa Fe Community College.Science Education Solutions is located at 4200 West Jemez Road, Suite 301, in the Los Alamos Research Park. For information, contact Hall at hall@scieds.com or 663-5365, or visit www.scieds .com/cafe.