We Need More Conferences Like ISHI: Memoirs of a First Timer

Keynote speaker David O’Shea kicked off the ISHI 27 conference with his investigation on how DNA profiling is helping to reunite families in Argentina after the military coup in the late 70’s.

We shared in laughter and tears. We tempered our scientific pursuit of the truth with the story of an unimaginably strong survivor of rape. We witnessed the struggles of a man trying to find his identity and the joy of being reunited with real family members after 30 years of lies. I find it hard to succinctly describe to others what my first ISHI conference was like. There is perhaps nothing more personal than our own genetic identities. This conference didn’t shy away from the raw emotions that encompass the human experience. We define ourselves as employees of this company or researchers at that institution, competing for attention and funding, yet this conference reveals how limiting these preconceptions may be.

The desire to make the world a better place unites us. I spoke with analysts for hours about the challenges of overcoming the sexual assault kit backlog, I made a fool of myself dancing to musical bingo with new friends from the Philippines and Brazil, and I was inspired by the casual musings of a video journalist. We are sure to see countless more ethical debates on how we should be using DNA (or proteins!) for human identification. The field of science relies on the open sharing and exploration of new ideas, and as admittedly biased as I am to the conveniences of the digital age, there has never been a better time to come together in person.

Don’t just take my word for it, though.

There were some phenomenal talks each day, and I did my best to capture the essential takeaways from Continue reading

Science Is Not a Wet Blanket: A Marketing Plan for Antibacterial Soap

The relationship between science and marketing usually has great chemistry: effective marketing evokes an emotional response that compels people to buy something, which enables companies to research and develop new products. Let’s call this the honeymoon phase: things seem pretty great on the surface, yet they really need to sort out some uncomfortable truths. For example, don’t these two advertisements make you feel shocked that you aren’t sanitizing your hands before you eat? While cleverly executed, they are a little misleading because they paint a very stark picture of hygiene.

protex-ad-rock-paper-scissors

Ad text: “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Protex worked with the agency Y&R in Brazil to create this ad in 2012.

Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.

Ad text: “You eat what you touch.” Lifebuoy worked with the agency Lowe in Indonesia to create this ad in 2009.

These ads were created before scientific consensus was reached on the safety of 19 antibacterials. An earlier review of 27 relevant studies found that antibacterial soap was no more effective than regular soap and increases the risk of antibacterial resistance. Has science effectively put an end to antibacterial soap? What should a company that makes both regular and antibiotic soap do to comply with the new FDA ruling without losing revenue?

Identifying Marketing Opportunities

Adhering to good science doesn’t mean stomping out the creativity of your marketing team. Instead, marketers can gain inspiration from the diverse impact bacteria have on human health and present their products in the right context. Continue reading

The Scientific Case for Studying Chimeras

Chimera di Arezzo

Chimera di Arezzo was created by the Etruscans. Chimeras were established in mythology by Homer in Iliad as “a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The definition of humanity is sacrosanct to many people. As science does, that line continues to blur. Stem cells have long been an ethical minefield for scientists to navigate for funding. Even something as common as an organ transplant was initially met with significant ethical concerns.

Most recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has proposed changes to their policies controlling the funding for stem cell research creating human-animal chimeras. On the surface it may be hard for the general public to imagine that combining human and animal cells could result in anything other than mythical creatures of Homer’s Iliad. Human chimeras are much more common than one may believe, and the reason to allow studies on these models is to further our understanding of diseases and how to treat them. Continue reading

Discovering the Truth About the Dozier School for Boys

Dozier School for Boys gravesite

Photograph from The Tampa Bay Times

The Dozier School for Boys had cemeteries instead of playgrounds.

The stories of abuses that took place at the reformative school in Marianna, Florida are nothing short of a plot for the TV series American Horror Story. The beatings and other punishments administered to students throughout the school’s 111-year history contributed to the deaths for some of the nearly 100 deceased.

A 2010 investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not lead to criminal charges against the school because there was “no tangible physical evidence for allegations of physical and sexual abuse.” The full report is available on The White House Boys Survivors Organization’s website, a name derived from the shed where the boys were beaten with wooden panels and leather straps. At the time, only 32 unmarked graves were known in the school’s cemetery. Continue reading

Common Misconceptions About Scientific Terms: Volume 2

Misconceptions About Scientific Terms Volume 2Media coverage of the Zika virus and colistin-resistant E. coli have introduced new terms for some people. What do they all really mean? Even people with technical backgrounds may benefit from a refresher. This set of eight terms covers topics related to diseases and nutrition. This article is a continuation of my previous blog post about scientific words that are frequently misunderstood.

Epidemic

Common misconception: A disease that is going to kill all of humanity or turn us into zombies.

What it means for scientists: According to the Centers for Disease Control, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” This could happen with a new strain of the flu or with something more devastating like Ebola. There is an endemic level, or baseline, for the number of people affected by the flu at any given time, and an epidemic would be a significant increase from this level. The endemic level for diseases like Ebola would be zero. Epidemic diseases that spread across multiple continents are considered pandemic. Continue reading

The Reality of DNA Phenotyping

Reality of DNA Phenotyping

It is easy to get excited or frightened about the predictive powers of DNA phenotyping, depending on your perspective. Knowing what genes led to higher intelligence and athletic ability was the first step towards the designer babies of GATTACA. Is this knowledge worth having given the potential for misuse? Going to such extremes with genetic selection makes for a captivating movie, but it can lead to a flawed understanding of the science. The reality of DNA phenotyping is not so scary.

How does DNA phenotyping work?

DNA phenotyping is our attempt at replicating what our bodies do naturally: translating DNA into our physical appearances. It is an attempt because there is rarely a direct correlation between a single gene and a single physical feature. Forensic scientists are currently focusing on determining facial features. Much of our understanding has been gleaned from whole genome studies where scientists compare data from over 7,000 points on participants’ faces to sections of their DNA that contain single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs)—that is, sections of DNA that differ by a single letter of the genetic code. Comparing facial maps to genes allows scientists to calculate the probability of physical traits based on the presence of particular SNPs. Predictive algorithms are then used to render an image of a face based on those probabilities.

There is one question that really matters to most people: how well does this all work?

What can DNA phenotyping currently predict?

  • Eye color – 77 genes identified
  • Hair color – 32 genes identified
  • Skin color – 31 genes identified

Dr. Manfred Kayser neatly summarized the specific genes and their corresponding references in a single table from his 2015 paper. These three pigment traits are a good start, but they are a far cry from generating an accurate image of a face. Determining ethnicity is currently accurate at broader levels like European, African and so on. Dr. David Ballard has more to say in this video: Continue reading

Returning the Stolen: A Preview of the ISHI 27 Keynote Lecture

Abuelas-de-Plaza-de-Mayo-feature

Grieving Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo who have lost their children and grandchildren. Daniel Garcia / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Argentina is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think of dictatorships, yet the “Dirty War” of the late 1970s killed 10,000–30,000 citizens in an act of political repression by the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA). Among this figure includes some 13,000 people who disappeared overnight, sent to a network of hundreds of concentration camps.

Dirty-War-arrests

Citizen arrests made by the AAA. Click for full article from targina.net (Spanish)

The political landscape of Argentina was hardly stable at the time, supporting the idea that this was a civil war between the AAA and guerrilla militants. However it soon became clear that countless human rights violations were being conducted on anyone who held a contrary political ideology. Left-wing activists, trade unionists, students and journalists were subject to abduction, torture and assassination. Continue reading

Better, Faster, Cheaper: Measuring the Speed of Science

Are we better off now than we were 10 years ago? Often times this question is answered subjectively and will vary from person to person. We can empirically show how life expectancy has increased over the centuries thanks to advances in the fields of agriculture and medicine, but what about quality of life? Science affects our lives every day, and the general notion is that better science will (eventually) translate into better lives. There is a burning curiosity shared by myself and others to quantify how we have progressed in science over the years:

publication-growth

Click for full article. Source: Bornmann, L. & Mutz, R. (2015). Growth rates of modern science: a bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66(11), 2215–2222.

Bornmann and Mutz demonstrate in the image shown above how we have been doubling scientific output every nine years since the 1940s. That is not to say that we have become twice as smart or efficient; this phenomenon could be partially fueled by a desire to gain prestige through a high number of publications. To better assess the topic of efficiency, we can measure how long it takes to perform specific procedures and how much they cost. This article compares the rate of improvement for DNA sequencing, PCR, GC-MS and general automation to the rate of improvement for supercomputers and video game consoles.

Continue reading

United States of STEM Majors

Every child is a natural-born scientist. This idea was coined by Carl Sagan, who devoted his life to nurturing a curious mindset among the public. A raw appreciation of the natural world and a humble perspective of our position in it are two of the most powerful side effects of a scientific education. This does not mean that every person should be a scientist; only one in four college students who majored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) work in a STEM-specific occupation in the U.S., as you can see below.

STEM-majors-occupations

1 in 4 STEM majors work in STEM. Source: U.S. Census Bureau. Click for full interactive.

One challenge affecting many students is the amount of pressure to get into “the right” college. The truth is that there is no one path to take you to your dream job. You do not need to get into one of the top 10 business schools in order to build a successful business, and having a technical background in creative problem solving—a STEM education—will afford you new opportunities for the kinds of businesses you can create. The good news is that there are an incredible amount of colleges around the U.S. that provide great STEM educations, and this article seeks to explore the unique strengths in each state. Continue reading

A Social Media Perspective of AAFS 2016

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ 68th annual conference took place in Las Vegas February 22–27th, and those of you who did not attend, like me, had to live vicariously through the social media posts of those who did. The question on everyone’s mind: Who was up five hundy by midnight?

Vegas-baby-Vegas

Okay, okay, most people who went to AAFS went for scientific purposes, and in fact, @andycyim was the only one to post a tribute to Swingers with a #vegasbaby tweet. Tip of the hat to you, Andy. So what did the Twitterverse look like during the week of the conference? I analyzed nearly 600 tweets and found some interesting patterns of how scientists interact on social media during a conference. More on my methodology is at the end of this article.

Continue reading