June 1999

Success flows for steam operators

This year’s operations of the year winners at Awards Night went to 21 steam power operators in the Plant and Equipment Division for their error-free operation of the Lab’s sewage treatment plant. Taking into account the stricter state discharge and reporting requirements that came down two years ago along with their other duties of operating ORNL’s Steam Plant and steam, natural gas, potable and process water and air production and distribution systems, their impeccable track record is particularly significant.

“The utilities are a seven-day operation with many moving parts; we’re at the wheel all the time,” says Jim Baxter, P&E’s facility manager over utilities. “If the level of professionalism isn’t there, it can get away from you. We’ve searched for continuous improvement.”

Apparently they’ve found it because the group has logged zero violations in the face of additional testing, more frequent reports and the setting up of their own analytical lab.“That’s the benefit of a good straight-line operation,” Baxter says.

That sort of performance pays dividends all around, from avoiding payouts in fines to earning the trust of regulators.

“The Lab expects us to be good stewards, and we’re trying to do that,” says Baxter, who nominated his crew for the award. 

PROSPECT for drug research

Acomputer package called the Protein Structure Prediction and Evaluation Computer Toolkit, or PROSPECT, recently scored in the top five percent of an international competition involving about 100 groups. The program predicts the shape and amino-acid positions of proteins, which is very important to drug researchers.

“Drugs that combat cancer often must bind to the cancer cells to kill them, and to do that they have to match the shape of the proteins in the cells,” says the Life Sciences Division’s Ying Xu.”

PROSPECT was developed in the division’s Computational Protein Structure group to help researchers learn the three-dimensional structures of proteins. Scientists know the amino-acid sequences of tens of thousands of proteins, but only know the 3D shapes of about 1,500. That’s because determining protein structure experimentally is time consuming and expensive.

PROSPECT’s success at modeling the structures shows that computers can quickly and accurately predict those protein structures, offering drug researchers crucial information for finding new therapies. “The competition ran over four months and took 10,000 hours of computer CPU time,” says Xu. “That’s how complex the problem is.”

Dobson fuels Neandertal debate

Jerry Dobson’s theory on the Neandertals continues to attract attention. Similarities between them and modern humans suffering from iodine deficiency “can’t just be a coincidence,” he says. He thinks the answer possibly lies in their thyroid glands, which may have processed iodine less efficiently than ours.

Dobson notes that modern humans possess exceptionally efficient thyroid glands, “an established medical fact, regardless how one interprets its relation to evolution. Daily doses of iodine remain essential for healthy maintenance of many gracile features that distinguish us from earlier hominids. Neandertals may have missed that crucial thyroid boost.”

Dobson’s work, which grew out of his geographic research at ORNL and consumed much of his personal time as well, has appeared in The New York Times, Sonntags Zeitung, Der Spiegel and other media. As one would expect of a view that jars established theories, it’s becoming controversial.

A recent Washington Post article included remarks from a detractor, Erik Trinkaus of Washington University, who dismisses Dobson as “outside the field.” Dobson replies, “Naturally, there’s sensitivity, even embarrassment, when ‘outsiders’ ask questions that should have been asked a century ago.”

Trinkaus points to the recent discovery near Leiria, Portugal, of a child who lived about 24,500 years ago and who exhibits traits of both Neandertals and modern humans. He claims the skeleton proves the races interbred.

Dobson counters, “That’s about 5,000 years after the last confirmed Neandertal, the skeletal traits match cretinism and the area was iodine deficient in modern times. Also, the body was buried in red ochre, similar to a site in the Czech Republic where 3,000 years earlier pathologically deformed, anatomically modern humans were buried.”

Dobson says the burden of proof is on those who say the new skeleton is not a cretin. Other scientists, including several who have praised Dobson’s theory for its thoroughness, are calling for more research.

Compiled by Bill Cabage

The forest endures along with some boyhood inscriptions

Ernie Shepherd
Ernie Shepherd points to his brother Henry’s inscription in a beech tree, carved nearly 60 years ago. The old farm is gone, but the tree still stands.
Daniel Boone killed a bear and marked the deed by carving his name in a tree. Retiree Ernie Shepherd and his brothers whittled on their own tree in 1940, shortly before his family had to leave their home to make way for the Manhattan Project.

Shepherd and his brothers carved their names and initials—along with some erstwhile girlfriends’—in a beech tree that sits along a steep creekbank near the Robotics and Process Systems Division facilities. That beech still stands, but most of the Shepherd farm has returned to forest. A nearby cemetery bears the Shepherd name, although none of Ernie’s family is buried there.

It was the second time the Shepherds had to move to make way for a big government project. They had formerly lived in Campbell County, until Norris Dam flooded their land in 1936. In 1942 they had to do it all over again.

In fact, Shepherd says the area was called Park City because many of the local residents had lived on land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Shepherd later worked as a carpenter and supervisor at ORNL before retiring in 1985.

“I told my son about the tree and got permission to bring him out to show him the tree and our old home for Decoration Day,” Shepherd says. “There’s not much sign of our place left, but I’d like to see the tree marked off so no one cuts it own.”


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