2015 has been full of scientific and technological innovation. From self-teaching robots to gene editing technology, here are the women who made it happen.
One of the most compelling stories of the year was Baxter, a robot. Baxter learned to pick up unfamiliar objects and navigate unfamiliar environments via a number of cameras and infrared sensors, which allowed it to analyse the situation from different angles. It’s a process that takes many attempts and sometimes several hours. Once Baxter has learned something, however, it can ‘teach’ other robotswith the same sensors and grippers by encoding the information in a format that can be uploaded to their systems.
Baxter was designed by Stefanie Tellex, assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Brown University, who says her aim is “to construct robots that seamlessly use natural language to communicate with humans”.
“In twenty years, every home will have a personal robot which can perform tasks like clearing the dinner table, doing laundry and preparing dinner,” she told WIRED. “But to achieve this aim, it is essential for robots to move beyond merely interacting with people and toward collaboration”
“As these machines become more powerful and more autonomous, it is critical to develop methods for enabling people to tell them what to do. I’m creating methods for enabling a robot to learn to perceive and manipulate the objects in its environment that are most important to its human collaborator”.
Teller’s other work includes programming forklifts and mini-helicopters to follow instructions — and in her spare time, works on reinforcement learning as applied to human/cat communications.
Melissa Little, head of the Kidney Research Laboratory in Melbourne, was responsible this year for the growth of mini-kidneys from stem cells. The kidneys, unlike previous incarnations, form all of the cell types found in the human kidney and performed two main functions — fluid balance and blood filtering.
The process, guided by the team, was similar to that of an embryo developing foetus. Although the kidneys are not yet ready for human transplantation, they will be used for disease modelling and cell therapy, and will be a vital part of the development of building human organs in a lab. They will also be used to screen drugs for kidney disease.
“The mini kidney is very complex and more like the real organ than ever before,” said Little. “It’s important for drug testing, and also opens the door for cell therapy and bioengineering of replacement kidneys. One day this may mean new treatments for patients with kidney failure”.
Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — or the slightly more catchy CRISPR for short — have been dominating the headlines this year. A gene-editing technology, CRISPR has been variously described as a “game changer” and as a “disruptor” in biomedicine. And Jennifer Doudna, who was an early trailblazer of the technique, has been described by the New York Times as “a pioneer”.
CRISPR is a genome editing tool more precise, efficient and flexible than previously existing technology. Essentially allowing scientists to ‘cut and paste’ pieces of DNA sequence into a genome, CRISPR transforms Cas-9 enzymes into precision engineers, matching DNA in particular cells and either cutting or repairing it.
So far, CRISPR has prevented HIV in human cells, reversed mutations that cause blindness, stop cancer cells from multiplying and more. The technique isn’t just used in humans, either — bioengineers can use CRISPR to alter plant matter, and agronomists can protect crops from viruses.
Doudna was one of the early pioneers of the technique, and was recently awarded a $3million (£2million) Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Congenital heart defects in children are incredibly common; congenital defects are the number one birth defect in the UK, affecting around 8 in 1,000 births. Because children’s hearts are so small, suturing tissue can be incredibly dangerous, and it can be hard to prevent further damage to already weak hearts.
This is where Maria Pereira stepped in. Head of Research at Gecko Biomedical, Pereira wanted to develop an adhesive that would replace stitches but would be able to survive the harsh environment of the heart and would be far less intrusive than traditional heart surgery.
The glue created fulfils all of these criteria; biodegradable, “biocompatible” and elastic, it’s also as soft and dynamic as human tissue, so is able to withstand the wear and tear of the body. The glue only adheres when a UV light is shone on it, meaning that surgeons have complete control over surgery to patch holes in the heart, and is expected to be in widespread use by early 2017.