printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

From Proteins to the Pacific: Science Diplomacy in East Asia and the Pacific

Office of the Science and Technology Adviser
Dr. Norma M. Allewell, Professor, Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, University of Maryland
Washington, DC
May 22, 2012


William Colglazier:

Welcome everybody, my name is Bill Colglazier. We’re going to do a two part introduction this morning. We’re very pleased to have the person I’m going to introduce to actually introduce our speaker. The Science and Technology Adviser’s office actually is the steward for this wonderful Jefferson Science Fellowship program, which is over eight years old, for those of you that aren’t familiar with it, there are 13 distinguished scientists, tenured faculty at universities this year, eight serving in the State Department and five in USAID. And we have the opportunity to sort of showcase each one of them at one of these public lectures. The person I want to introduce, however, is Tanya Anderson, she’s the director of the office of Regional Security and security policy in the East Asia pacific bureau. She’s going to introduce our speaker, but I want to tell you just a little bit about Tanya, she’s a graduate of Georgetown University and the National War College, she joined the foreign service in 1993, she served in embassies the Philippines, Egypt, Ahman, Morocco, Kuwait, Baghdad, and she’s going to be going in August to be the Counsel General in Barcelona, so we’re very happy to have her here, and I’ll turn over the introductions next to her.

Tanya Anderson:

Thank you very much. Good morning everyone. It is my distinct pleasure in my capacity as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategy and Multilateral Affairs, to introduce Dr. Norma Allewell, who has been with the bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, as a Jefferson Fellow and a Senior Science and Technology Advisor for our bureau for the last year. Dr. Allewell joined us last August from University of Maryland where she is a professor in the department of cell biology and molecular genetics, and an affiliate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry. Her research focuses on proteins, and their role in metabolic regulation and disease. In addition to her broad scientific expertise, Dr. Allewell also brings senior management experience to the bureau. Having served as Dean of the College of Chemical and Life sciences at the University of Maryland and as interim Vice President for Research in 2010 through 2011. Dr. Allewell is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, published by the American Society for Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, a major medium for publications in those areas of science. She has served on many national review panels and advisory boards for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and Howard Hughes Medical Center. And she is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, Dr. Allewell has become an integral member of our leadership team. As Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. Allewell is involved at some level in almost all of the activities in science and technology in the bureau, and works closely with the desk officers of our 14 different desks, other bureaus such as OES, and with ISN, within a department and with other agencies. Dr. Allewell’s work has encompassed several different areas of science and technology including bio engagement, biosecurity, biodiversity, climate change, which is extraordinarily important in our region, and adaptation. Excuse me. Cyber security and nuclear security. Dr. Allewell has represented the department on inter agency committees on biosecurity and synthetic biology she is also representing the bureau on a department-wide working group on atrocity prevention. To aid the bureau in developing regional perspectives and strategies for science, technology, environment and health, and to maintain a running record of events and issues. Dr. Allewell has developed bi-weekly science and technology newsletters that widely circulate within the department, as has become an important resource. She also has organized the ESTH officers throughout our bureau, into a science and technology working group, so I would like, at this moment, to thank Dr. Allewell for her extraordinary contributions to the work of our bureau and our mission, and to welcome her to the stage. Thank you.


Norma Allewell:

Sorry. Tanya, thank you very much for that generous introduction. It’s very heartwarming to see so many friends and colleagues here, including faculty from the University of Maryland, some of whom I haven’t seen in almost a year, and what I want to do today is take you on what has been a very challenging, exciting and rewarding journey for me. About eighteen months ago, when I decided to apply for a Jefferson Science Fellowship, I embarked upon a journey from the fascinating, challenging, and beautiful world of proteins, most of you probably don’t think of proteins as being beautiful, probably don’t know what they look like, but I think I’ll be able to persuade you that they are indeed very beautiful. To the equally fascinating and challenging and dynamic East Asia and Pacific region, as well as the world of science diplomacy, and what I want to do today is to share some of the experiences that I’ve had along the way, and some of the things that I’ve learned.

So let’s begin with proteins, first of all, what to proteins do? Proteins are exquisite macromolecular machines that perform all of the tasks in the cell that is necessary to keep the cells alive, and therefore to keep the organism alive. Enzymes catalyze chemical reaction, membrane transport proteins move molecules and ions through membranes. Motor proteins drive muscle contraction, cell movement and transport of materials within cells, signaling proteins transmit signals within and between cells, and the immune system proteins recognize and disable foreign molecules and microorganisms.

So as you are sitting there, quietly listening to this lecture, all of these processes are going on in your body at a very rapid rate. Just think of those particles popping around in your cells. It’s enough to make anyone nervous. So then, what are proteins made of and how are they made. So proteins are polymers made up of small molecules called amino acids that are hooked together by macromolecular machines called ribosomes, which translate the genetic information in a molecule called messenger RNA, which is of course derived from DNA into the sequence of amino acids in the protein. There are 23 different kinds of amino acids in the protein, and I’ve tried to indicate with these arrows that they all have something in common. They have functional groups that either end that are able connect to the next amino acid in the chain, but they also have a distinct chemical group, which confers unique chemical properties on that particular amino acid. Now, although proteins are linear polymers, they don’t exist in this shape within the cell, instead they fold up into compact structures and this folding process is driven by weak interactions between the different functional groups of the different amino acids, plus some of the groups located right on the backbone. Despite their very diverse functions, all proteins have some fundamental physical properties in common, which enable them to perform all of the functions that they are capable of. So first of all, when the protein folds up creates a unique surface on the protein which allows it to selectively and specifically interact with the molecule that nature evolved the protein to interact with. So this is the surface of a sub-unit of a protein called NAGS which you’ll hearing about later. And you can probably see that it has peaks and valleys, it’s not a flat surface, but in addition it has positively charged groups coded in blue, negatively charged groups coded in red and oily groups, surfaces, coded in green. And so, when the protein meets up with its partner, as you would expect, blue is coupled with red, red is coupled with blue, and the oily patches come together because they don’t like to be in contact with water. Proteins are also flexible, this folded shape that they assume is not fixed, but undergoes changes depending upon environmental condition, so here for example is the entire NAGS molecule, it’s made up of six of these sub-units which are coded in different colors.

This is the shape of the molecule, in the absence of one of the amino acids called arginine, which not by accident is the amino acid that has the most nitrogens of any amino acid. And when arginine binds, it causes the protein to flip its overall structure, just as, as this is baseball season, when a ball hits a catcher’s glove, the catcher’s glove changes shape. And then finally, these structures are dynamic, this structural change that I have shown here, occurs fairly slow for molecule’s time scale perhaps, tenths of seconds, but the structures are also in constant dynamic motion, breathing, we call it. And what that does it to allow small molecules to enter the protein and then to get out again. What I’m going to illustrate that with in just a minute or so is -- in fact less than a minute -- is a very short video of this particular protein: the potassium channel. And the structure of two of its subunits is shown here. Each sub-unit has two long helices, this is one of the structures that the proteins tends to form when it folds. One short helix up here, and the helices are connected by loops, so here we have one sub unit, here we have a second sub unit, and the potassium ion is able to make its way through this channel between the two sub units, and what controls the entry of the potassium ion to the channel is the movement of theses loops.

Other ions, so potassium is a positively charged ion, other positively charged ions are not able to enter because they don’t fit the dimensions of the channel. I think I’ve told you everything that is on these three. So the potassium channel is located in the cell membrane of the cell. The cell membrane is largely made up of lipid biolayer which binds other charged pieces cannot get through, but putting the channel in the lipid membrane allows potassium to enter the cell, and potassium is required for many cellular functions. And I’ve already said that the flexible loops regulate that. Okay, so here we have the lipid bilayer of the cell membrane, so this would be the outside of the cell, this would be the inside of the cell, these are water molecules, and the bilayer is made of molecules that have long, floppy oily tails and then positively and negatively charged groups on the surface, to enable the cell to coexist comfortably in its aqueous environment. And this is the inside of the cell, with basically a mirror image of the top half of this structure, with again, fatty tails and charged ionic groups on the surface. Here are -- the green balls are two potassium ions which would eventually make their way though -- you will see a lot of motion of these fairly fluid fatty side chains here, you will see occasionally the helices flex, and you’ll see a little bouncing around within the channel, the two potassium ions and water molecules bounce like tennis balls.

Okay, so having talked about proteins in general I’d like to talk a little bit, a very little bit, about how a few proteins are involved in disease. This is actually one of the most important and exciting areas of protein science, so this is work that I’ve carried out over a period of close to 20 years, it started in Minnesota with a colleague of mine Dr. Mandel Tuchman, who is a pediatric geneticist, and as you can see an international team, all of us migrated from Minnesota to this area independently, I came by one path, Mandel came by another. He is at the Children’s National Medical Center at Irving in Michigan, it’s an absolutely wonderful place if you ever have an opportunity, I encourage you to visit it. And so what -- as I said, Mandel is a pediatric geneticist, and what he’s been interested in all of his life is diseases of a nitrogen metabolism. When we eat food, nitrogen is released when the food is broken down in the form of ammonia, the active ingredient of bleach, and some of it enters the bloodstream. You can imagine that if too much of it enters the bloodstream that this would not be a good thing, and what it does most prominently is to cause neurological symptoms which in severe cases will result in comas or even death. To regulate the amount of ammonia in the blood, nature has evolved a biochemical pathway called the Urea cycle, which takes ammonia in and converts it to -- ammonia is also positively charged -- converts it to a neutral molecule containing two nitrogen atoms which is called urea, which is excreted from the urine in the kidneys. The urea cycle is primarily located in the liver.

Now believe it or not, Mendal and I have spent most of this time looking at two enzymes in this pathway, the first is an enzyme called OTCase which helps to drive the pathway converting ammonia to urea. The second enzyme, NAGS has a different role, you’ll notice that it’s right up here at the beginning of the transition from ammonia to the intermediates of the urea cycle. This is an example of a feedback system, which is enormously important in biological and biochemical functioning, and so as the arrows indicate, when nitrogen is plentiful a certain amount of that nitrogen will be incorporated into this amino acid arginine which I showed you previously. And so arginine is a measure of how much nitrogen is in the system at any given time. NAGS controls the input of ammonia into the urea cycle and so if you follow these rows around, the nitrogen released from food, turns into arginine, which binds to NAGS through a selective and specific interaction, increasing its activity, and then NAGS produces another small molecule which increases the rate at which ammonia enters the urea cycle, so this siphons off ammonia so that it’s level in the bloodstream doesn’t get above the normal limit in normal patients.

If there are mutations in any of the proteins involved in this process, of course it will slow down, and that will cause this hyper ammonemia, the raising of levels of ammonia in the bloodstream, and as I say, very severe consequences for a patient. So, we begin by studying the mutations in OTCase’s. It turns out that more mutations have been identified in OTCase’s than in any other enzyme of the urea cycle, so it’s the most common cause of hyper ammonemia. And we really took it from a disease, finding the gene, cloning it, producing the protein in bacteria, understanding the protein, crystallizing it and determining its three dimensional structure and mapping all of those mutations on the protein. We then moved on to NAGS which has proven to be much more challenging, it’s probably associated with the membrane, it’s kind of floppy, it’s probably stabilized by other proteins. We’ve now cracked it. We now have taken five NAGS proteins from different species through that whole process and we’re hoping that we will get the human enzyme to the same point within the next year or so. So, this last little addendum just makes the point that when a NAGS is mutated it will interfere with this feedback loop, ammonia will not be able to enter the urea cycle efficiently, and will instead end up in the bloodstream.

So this is just a pretty picture of most of the structure of OTCase’s with all of the mutations Mendel and colleagues identified. The reason there are red and blue balls, is that depending on the severity of the effect of the mutation on nitrogen metabolism, the consequences of a mutation may show up in severe cases right: when a baby is born, because it can no longer use it’s mother’s systems to clear ammonia from the blood, or so those are shown in red of course, whereas mutations that don’t have such deleterious effects may not show up until adulthood, the patient may be walking around having no idea that they have this particular mutation, and then it often manifests itself under stress, odd kinds of stress, childbirth is one, accidents, like car accidents is another, and eating 24 eggs at a fraternity initiation probably also would not be a good thing to do.

NAG deficiency and OTC deficiency are examples of orphan diseases, they affect only small populations which often live in isolated circumstances, the Faroe Islands, for example has a large distribution of one of these diseases, and there are of course many other proteins that have major global consequences, so I just thought I would show you the three proteins involved in three of the major health issues of our time, obesity, hopefully not yet influenza, and senility. So on the left is the insulin receptor. Insulin is a protein hormone that signals cells in the liver to absorb glucose and store it in a polymer called glycogen. And the way this works is that that the insulin receptor, you can probably recognize as another membrane protein embedded in the cell membrane of liver cells with large external globular domain, a trans membrane region, and then an internal sub unit. Insulin binds to this globular sub unit on the surface, which transmits a signal through the cell membrane to the beta subunit, which in turn alters its interactions with cell signaling proteins within the cell that says: absorb glucose and turn it into glycogen.

On the right are two proteins that are involved in neurodegenerative diseases that cause senility and perhaps other diseases. So, this is the amyloid pre -- this orange structure is the amyloid precursor protein -- which is found in the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease, more conspicuous in a way. Purple protein is called presenilin, it has eight helices which allow it to loop back and forth through the membrane. Now as long the precursor protein stays safely in the membrane, we will not come down with neurodegenerative diseases. However, when protein’s enzymes that are able to clip pieces of protein away, nibble away at both ends of the amyloid precursor protein, it’s released from the membrane and seeks out other amyloid proteins to form the amyloid plaques which we hear so much about. It appears that the senilin’s role in this is that this particular loop is required in some way for the functioning of this particular enzyme at the intracellular surface of the lipid membrane.

Okay, well, moving on from proteins, let’s embark to East Asia and the Pacific and science diplomacy. Now it will probably come as surprise to some of the Foreign Service Officers in the room to know that some parts of this map were almost as unfamiliar to me when I began working in EAP this fall, as the protein structures that I’ve been showing are to you. So, for those of you who also may be geographically challenged I’m just going to walk through this map. Actually, at the time that I interviewed, I recall asking Tanya Anderson and Melissa Sweeney how they managed to simultaneously think about 23 different countries that are so diverse, and one of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s very helpful to think of sub regions, so probably obvious to you, wasn’t so obvious to me eight months ago. So up here, of course, we have North Asia, with three economic giants, China, South Korea and Japan as well as Mongolia, which is proving to have very large mining resources, below North Asia we have the Mekong peninsula, with Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Here we have the maritime states, beginning with Malaysia, and Singapore, moving on to Indonesia, the country with the third largest population in the world and the leading Muslim majority country. Timor-Leste, which has only been in existence for ten years, just had a democratically run election. Then we move on to -- I didn’t mention Taiwan actually here, off China -- or Hong Kong as a matter of fact. But then we move on to the Pacific Islands, beginning with the Philippines, Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Fiji. And then of course down here in the south we have Australia and New Zealand. One of the things that’s very obvious on this map is the amount of water bed is present, this water has a profound effect on many of the geopolitical issues that the bureau deals with. It’s not only the ocean, the Pacific Ocean but also the major rivers. For example, the Mekong river in the Mekong Peninsula, the Yangtze River over in China, and to the east, not part of our bureau, but not too far away the Indus river in India.

Well this has been a truly wonderful year to be in East Asia and Pacific. I think all of us who came in felt that we had really hit the jackpot when we learned that the United States Government had decided to emphasize building its relationships in Asia. As Hilary Clinton said in a very influential article in Foreign Affairs back in November 2011, “We are proud of our European partnerships and all that they deliver, our challenge now is to build a web of partnerships and institutions across the Pacific that is as durable and as consistent with American interests and values as the web we have built across the Atlantic.” And so here is Secretary Clinton meeting the director of the Foreign Ministry of Indonesia, just before meetings of ASEAN and EAS and then at the APEC meeting where President Obama rolled out a Trans-Pacific Partnership among other things. This has also been the year that the winds of political change blew through Burma. It’s been very very exciting to follow that and the admission of Aung San Suu Kyi to the lower House of the Burma Parliament together with 43 of her colleagues in the New Democratic Party. This is a hugely challenged region, first there is its physical scale, 24 million square kilometer, its huge and rapidly growing population, 2 billion now, predicted to go to 2 and a half billion by 2020. Enormous geographic, economical, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, centuries of wars and conflicts, three major international wars within the 20th century, important and severe trans-boundary conflicts, and then internal conflicts within various countries, often large scale and with very tragic consequences.

Human rights are also somewhat of an issue, of course fundamental human rights are freedom of expression, association and religion. One of the things I didn’t know when I came to the State Department is how actively the State Department is involved in informing Congress, which of course makes funding decisions about the status of human rights within the region. And three of the areas that I believe we have to produce reports on are first trafficking in persons, secondly child labor, and third violence against children and women. I don’t really need to talk about the expansive and explosive development that’s going on, economic development that’s going on in much of the region, which creates great opportunities but also great challenges. And finally the subsuming challenge, global climate change, which of course is affecting every part of the world, but is a particular threat to east Asia and the Pacific for several reasons, which I’ll talk about a little later. This will just give you an example of the diversity. This happens to focus on health and economic issues. I decided to include a Western style democracy, very well developed, Australia, China, which is of course unique, Indonesia I’ve mentioned is a huge population and majority Muslim. And then, one of the countries of the Mekong peninsula. Off to the right are Timor-Leste and also the Pacific islands, even more challenged than the Mekong Peninsula countries.

However, challenges also present opportunities, as is often said, and these are I think, the major challenges in science diplomacy in this region, again they are unique to this region, but I’m using this as an introduction to telling you about some of the efforts in science and diplomacy which are taking placed around these topics. So the grand challenge is clearly climate adaptation, which of course has a ripple effect on the environment, especially water issues and biodiversity, energy needs, which in turn propagates to nuclear security, environmental changes affect food security, and of course all of these have an impact on health. Underpinning all of this is the importance of STEM education and innovation and we have very robust programs supporting efforts in those areas in this region.

So, how do we deal with these very large challenges, well the answer is here, we work through partnerships. So this slide will show you the national and international partnerships that the State Department is involved in, again I didn’t understand that all of these partnerships existed, when I came here, but most of these and their acronyms have become pretty familiar. So we worked, first of all, very extensively with the other federal agencies. Interagency working groups they are called, or IPC’s at a higher level. And the principal Federal agencies that we work with in terms of health issues are of course the Center for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, again something that I was not entirely aware of, National Science Foundation and USAID, and we have several people from USAID here today. In terms of the environment of course, USAID and NSF are also involved, but in addition we have the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and NOA.

Public private partnerships are becoming a very big deal, as there’s concern about the future of the budget, and as corporations become more interested in the opportunities in East Asia and the Pacific, there are many opportunities. We also work with Civil Societies, numerous NGO’s, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy for example, also the Asia Foundation which receives Congressional funding and is an important player. We’ve had of course bilateral interactions with the countries in the region for many many years, in fact at one time that was the most prominent form of diplomacy. It’s become apparent as I’ll say more about later, that in fact bi-lateral partnerships have many advantages. In terms of science, one of the ways in which goals are established is through joint commission meetings of the leaders of the various technical agencies in both the United States and also the partner country, so called JCM’s. We’ve just had JCM's with both China on the margins of the SNED meeting and also with Indonesia, and there are more coming up. The goal is to do these on a two year cycle.

Here are some of the organizations within the region that we work with multilaterally. I’ll be showing you a diagram of this in just a minute, but since not all of these are shown here, I’ll just step through it. ASEAN is the oldest and has the most comprehensive agenda of any of these bilateral or multilateral organizations, the association for South East Asia Nations, APEC: the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, East Asian Summit, the Asia Regional Forum, the Lower Mekong Initiative, the Pacific Island Forum, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which I mentioned earlier. And then in terms of international organizations of course we worked closely with several of the UN bodies, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, UNESCO, Education Science and Culture, the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank which is a big player in terms of funding.

So this is a diagram of the relationship between the countries in the region, broadly defined, and each of the organizations that I just listed, and it’ll be helpful to think of this as superimposed upon a map, and so the circles and ellipses that are over here include many countries in eastern Asia, of course closer to the United States, and similarly of course, this particular organization, which I don’t hear much about, involves South and Northern Asia. And then, so as you move out in these concentric circles, here we have the members of ASEAN, five maritime states and five mainland states. ASEAN +3 includes the economic powerhouses South Korea, Japan and China. The East Asia Summit brings in New Zealand Australia. And APEC brings in Hong Kong, China, Chinese Taipei or Taiwan, Mexico, Peru and Chile. Not shown here is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which will link more North, South and Central American countries with East Asia and the Pacific. You can probably read this, it’s a little hard to do on an eight by eleven sheet of paper, but this diagram also includes the FOSI of the various multilateral organizations, so as I said, ASEAN has a very broad mission that includes all of the top seven, whereas the Asia Regional Forum is focused almost exclusively on security with of course a big political dimension.

So now moving on to science and technology activities in the region, I’ve said before that this is a very vulnerable regions, in terms of climate adaptation for at least three regions, as illustrated by this aerial view of the Mekong Peninsula, there are many islands, there are very long coastlines, there are major rivers, as is the case everywhere there are very high population densities, and many coastal regions. The East Asian Pacific region includes five of the world’s largest megalopolis, and they are all located right on the coastline. There are other, of course, cities located on the major rivers, and these will also be challenged by flooding. And then third the region has very meager economic, institutional and technical resources in many areas, and so this makes it difficult to cope with the upcoming challenges which include disappearing landmass. The Pacific Islanders are just distraught about this, but of course much larger regions along the coast is also likely to disappear. Catastrophic flooding, both from extreme weather and also from too much water running down the rivers. Increased disease susceptibility, because the uncontrolled spread of water will create both sanitation issues and also fantastic breeding grounds for insect vectors for insect-borne diseases. Increased energy needs, primarily because of the breathtaking development that’s occurring but also as the temperature rises of course there will be more need for cooling, and then finally major threats to biodiversity that I’ll be saying more about in just a minute.

So the next few slides will just describe very briefly what for me have been the highlights in climate energy and biodiversity within the last year. First of all I was just so interested in learning about the Durban Agreement which took place in the fall, which fundamentally begins to plan, it is an agreement to begin to plan how to reduce the disparity between developed and developing countries in terms of carbon emissions and the release of gases that produce global warming. This is a wonderful program which one Jefferson Fellow and one Triple E Fellow, in the office in which I worked, were involved in its early years. As you probably know, the use of traditional cook stoves releases massive amounts of carbon particles and also gases that warm the climate. And they are used by 3 billion people, bureaucracy and they cause 2 billion deaths a year. A group of very talented people got behind trying to --and visionary people -- got behind trying to replace the traditional cook stoves around the world with modern cook stoves which have much reduced emissions. This will have the effect of both mitigating climate change and also saving lives and empowering women. This figure is of cook stoves I believe in Mongolia, you can see that these are two dollars apiece, and can replace the noxious ones that have been in use previously.

Third, I was very interested to learn about the tension between the use of hydroelectric power as a source of clean energy, and the effect of the dams that are required to produce it. The dams have, of course, very deleterious effects on water flow and therefore the environment downstream. My first inkling that things were about to change in Burma was when I read that in fact, Thein Sein had decided to stop the construction of a dam funded by China along the Irrawaddy River, in part because of protests from the people of Burma. This figure of course shows a bridge over the Irrawaddy River right in Rangoon. And then finally, energy and nuclear security has been the focus of a lot of attention, partly because of Fukishima, but also because increasing energy needs have created concerns in both Korea and Taiwan specifically, as to the extent to which they should use nuclear energy to meet their growing energy needs. There are many programs working to conserve the environment and protect biodiversity in the East Asia and Pacific Region, many of them funded primarily by USAID. These programs, the Asia region and endangered species trafficking, is funded by USAID to the tune of over in the last decade tens of millions of dollars. And the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network is a sort of a homegrown program, both with the same goals, of combating illegal wildlife trafficking by reducing consumer demand and strengthening law enforcement, regional cooperation and then an anti-trafficking network. Many of the iconic species as you know have only a few thousand members still in the wild: the pandas, the rhinos and the tigers, but there are many other species that are also threatened. For example a reptile called pangolin, which is a major source of meat, other reptiles are also used in the same way. Birds, flowers, plants and so on and so forth. So this program is multifaceted, it does a lot of training of both law officers and people who work directly on protection of both wildlife and forests, developing a legal structure and then also developing ways of -- using the Internet actually is quite a big tool -- and other strategies to slow down the destruction. This picture of course is a rhino who has had his horn removed and is clearly pretty badly infected. Both tiger bones and rhino horns are very important in traditional medicine, they are believed to have magical powers. So this is a mainland program, there is also the Coral Triangle Initiative, which is working to protect coral reefs, fisheries and food security in six regions that form a triangle. One of the strategies is to plant mangroves along the coast to prevent flooding and the figure at the bottom just shows a relatively mature mangrove growth.

Moving on to health, there are three major challenges. First of all in infectious disease, the big three: tuberculosis, malaria and HIV. Tuberculosis and HIV used to kill a few million people every year, those numbers are declining fortunately. Malaria has declined even more sharply, in part as a result of the efforts of USAID. Neglected tropical diseases, these are diseases that affect millions - billions of people in the underdeveloped regions around the world. Many of them are parasitic worms, leprosy is one for example, [unintelligible] is another. Emerging disesases, there’s a constant concern about new diseases that we have no idea how to deal with emerging from this region. For a few reasons, one actually is that it’s warmer and therefore genes mutate more rapidly so there’s more opportunity for new organisms to arise. The avian flu has been in the headlines all year long because of the experiments that produced an airborne flu that infects ferrets. There are many others to be concerned about. Pandemics that spread around the world, perhaps as a result of emerging diseases. And finally, bioterrorism, which fortunately so far we’ve done pretty well with. The three major health challenges, from environmental factors are: air quality, which is a major concern in the very large cities of the region, food and water security and nuclear security, I’ve talked about those before, and then non-communicable diseases: diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease and so on and so forth.

Highlights in health for me were first the development of a very large consortium called Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases, I don’t see how you turn that into an acronym, but maybe there’s a way, with governmental partners, both United States, Europe and Saudi Arabia, corporate partnerships, many of the big international corporations, and then foundations, particularly the Gates foundation. And the goal is to eliminate five NTD’s by 2020 and to control five others. This would improve the lives of 1.4 billion people. Non-communicable diseases got a lot of headlines right at the beginning of this year, as a result of discussions that took place around the United Nations General Assembly, and a resolution was passed to set the stage for doing more to reduce the spread of non-communicable diseases around the world.

Biological threat reduction is a huge activity, and I was actually very comforted to hear that it is such a vigorous effort of the United States government. One component of this is the World Health Organization International Health Regulations which I think were put in place maybe around 2005. And the goal is to have all countries conform to these health regulations by this June as a matter of fact. The goal is to make sure that the infrastructure is in place to diagnose, to prevent when possible, to treat, and importantly to communicate about diseases in every country in the world. Biological threat reduction got a lot of help this year when Congress authorized the Cooperative Threat Reduction Dollars, which had previously been used to deal with nuclear and infectious disease issues in the former Soviet Union for biological threat reduction around the world. And I’ll show you a slide that expands on that in just a minute. This picture is of the USS Mercy which is an example of many vehicles and many activities that are involved in East Asia and the Pacific in working to promote health and to help countries deal with the issues that they face.

So, just to give you an idea of sort of the magnitude of the bio engagement efforts this is a list of partners that are involved in this. So there are a bunch of countries, a bunch of organization in the East Asia and the Pacific that focus on implementing the IHR regulations. There’s an initiative in the Lower Mekong Delta, funded by USAID, the Asian Development Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation. PACOM is a major player, the Pacific Fleet with AFRIMS and NAMRU-2 is an example of military to military collaboration to develop bio-surveillance capacity. There are other NAMRU’s in other parts of the world. Finally, just a couple of examples of our efforts to promote STEM and innovation activities. GIST is a very successful program that comes out of NIT that works to promote innovation around the world but has a couple of countries in the East Asia and Pacific, Malaysia and Indonesia as a special focus right now, and so it does all of the things that people who want or organizations that want to promote innovation do. We have three finalists from this region, out of the ten competing for an award from GIST, and we’re hopeful that all three will win.

NeXXt is an exciting program developed by Sandra Laney who is in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science, to develop partner programs between US women’s colleges and other countries. And part of the motivation for developing this program was to, because it is thought and it is proving to be the case, a way to overcome the concerns that Muslim parents might have about sending their girls to co-educational schools, and the likelihood that parents will believe that women’s colleges will provide a more protected environment.

Finally, just a couple of slides about science diplomacy in general. I liked the suggestion of Vaughan Turekian and Norman Ryder from the AAAS Science and Diplomacy Center that science diplomacy -- there are basically three kinds of science diplomacy. On the one hand, there’s science for diplomacy, using science as a way to establish a dialogue with countries that may not be aligned with us on some other issues, but are comfortable engaging in scientific discussions and activities because science is relatively value neutral, and also the countries of the Pacific are very firm believers that science and technology is going to be a big part of their future. Diplomacy for science is the flipside, this is when the State Department is needed to help launch large international ventures, so an example of both the Coral Triangle Initiative and the USAID ARREST program are examples of this. And finally in an ideal world, at least from my point of view, science is an integral part of diplomacy. You don’t do science and separately do diplomacy. In every conversation, science and diplomacy are interwoven, and that’s the kind of relationship that we have with most of the developed countries. So, for example, the Australian radar telescopes are an example of that sort of thing. When the leaders of Korea, China, and I’m sorry, Korea, Japan and Australia come to the United States or vice versa, the conversations weave back and forth between science and diplomacy.

Finally, the last slide are some of the thoughts I’ve had about the challenges of science diplomacy. First it requires a deep knowledge of both science and diplomacy. Few of us have both, and so it usually requires partnerships between scientists and diplomats. In every situation, there will be a right balance between science development and diplomacy, which are three very different approaches, and with people representing all of those points of view in one room together, it’s important and necessary to reconcile the three agendas. As we move forward with science diplomacy efforts, there are almost always international diplomatic challenges, countries that are maybe a little nervous about us getting too involved in their business and access issues. And to sustain the programs a lot of work needs to go into building partnerships and institutional supports of the types that I described and then working to sustain the resources the infrastructure and the funding that is needed to keep them going. So it’s a big challenge, but it’s also very rewarding, and I think very important in the toolkit of American diplomacy.

And so I’ll stop now, thanks to everyone not only the people who are here today, but also the wonderful leaders that I’ve worked for this year, starting with Hilary Clinton and her fantastic vision, and Kurt Campbell the Assistant Secretary for the bureau, and Tanya, who has been a great pleasure to work with. So I’ll stop now and take questions.

Sharon Hrynkow:

Well I’d like to ask the first question, Norma, I’m Sharon Hrynkow, and thank you very very much for a wonderful presentation and also thank you for diving in on so many S&T issues in the region. It really was a wonderful presentation.

Norma Allewell:

Thank you.

Sharon Hrynkow:

My question is about protein science, and I’d like to know where you see protein science going. But also if we could tie that back to EAP region, where are the opportunities for partnerships within EAP for US scientists like yourself? You have been working in this arena for so long. Thank you.

Norma Allewell:

So the trajectory of protein science, going back to about the beginning of the 20th century, was moving from very basic studies that needed to be done just to understand what proteins were, at one time it was thought that they weren’t well defined protein entities. And then moving through the kind of physical and mechanistic work that I’ve described, getting a better understanding of how they do what they do. Then the Recombinant DNA Revolution of course gave us a much bigger toolkit, and we now have a pretty broad and deep understanding of how proteins work.

As a result, there are two frontiers that are particularly exciting right now. The first is translational medicine, where instead of focusing primarily on studying proteins in labs, it’s very tightly coupled to clinical needs, you’ll be very familiar with this from your work at NIH. This has arisen in part because the funders gradually caught on to the fact that putting a lot of money into basic science as wonderful as it is, didn’t necessarily produce the kind of clinical results that we had promised. So there are great efforts, motivated now by dollars, to ensure that basic scientists work with clinicians in order to take the discoveries of the lab to the bed, some people say to the bedside, some people say to the trench, all the way through the life cycle. This work that I described with Mendel was actually a pretty early example of this, but the work that I’ve described is actually commonplace now in many many labs, and moving on to much broader questions. Secondly, synthetic biology offers tremendous opportunities, so as a result of our knowledge of not only proteins but also the nucleic acids, I can’t, but young people can construct little circuits that can be put into cells and basically make cells do anything you want them to do. It’s very elegant and very exciting and clearly has great potential. It’s also one of these dual use situations, it can be used to do a lot of good. It can also be used to do great harm. And so both the science funding agencies and the security agencies have a great interest in synthetic biology.

Diana Rhymes [spelled phonetically]:

So I was going to say that, it occurs to me that-

Norma Allewell:

You are?

Diana Rhymes:

I’m Diana Rhymes, sorry.

Norma Allewell:

I did that not for my benefit, for the members of the-

Diana Rhymes:

I’m a Franklin Fellow in the EAPK at the Korea desk. I was going to say, it occurs to me that a nice match between your interests, your scientific interests and the EAP region, is as you were saying, there’s going to be a lot of tropical diseases-

Norma Allewell:


Diana Rhymes:

-as the climate changes.-

Norma Allewell:


Diana Rhymes:

-More flooding and more water, there are going to be a lot of diseases coming up, and I’m wondering if you were able to or if you foresee the United States developing partnerships with the region in trying to combat, trying to predict and combat some of these diseases, if you were able to make any partnerships of your own to continue to the future?

Norma Allewell:

That’s above my pay grade at the present time, I certainly do work to support some of those efforts, but I have not gone out on my own to the region to start one. I was pretty heavily involved in things that are happening in Singapore, which is actually one of our very important bases. So a couple of things happened this year. First of all there was a ready center, the Emerging Disease Institute, in Singapore, which was funded during the Bush Administration, which has now been absorbed into the National University of Singapore. This is actually a terrific thing, because it gives it a permanent home and a place within the Singapore system. So that will be very useful I think. Secondly, NAMRU-2 has been working throughout the year on a very complex problem, how to move its command group out of Hawaii, where they have been for a number of years, into the region so they can work more effectively. And that has involved very complex diplomatic issues, requiring a close partnership between the Department of Defense and the State Department, and I’ve participated in all of those discussions. Many of the projects that I described deal with exactly what you’re talking about, making sure that the country is prepared for, as you say, the increase in infectious diseases, which is very likely to occur, and in fact could potentially affect the rest of the world. But these are very large-scale programs which require many individuals working as a team rather than one individual going alone. Although of course there is always a leader. I hope that’s helpful.

William Colglazier:

Let’s thank her for her lecture.


[end of transcript]

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.