She’s Going Soft! – A commentary on “hard” and “soft” sciences

scientific-methodThis week I gave notice that I would be terminating my employment at Promega. This was a very difficult decision as I have really enjoyed the past six years here.  While I am leaving Biotech, I will not be leaving science all together.  Over the past few years, I have used my research, analytical, and organizational skills to assist various non-profit organizations in the community.  My primary focus will be on reform of the criminal justice system and racial disparities.  Spreading the word about this decision has resulted in a number of responses (overwhelmingly positive) including the comment that I am going soft! This got me thinking about where the terms hard and soft science came from. Continue reading

What are you so worried about?

stress ropeThe world we live in is increasingly high-paced and demanding of time and attention. Cell phones and social media keep us constantly stimulated. This kind of environment can lead to stress. Stress is a normal reaction to high-pressure situations and can be a healthy mechanism to help us increase performance for a short period of time.

While stress is a response to a specific situation, anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness that may not trace back to an identifiable source. Anxiety is a perfectly normal feeling to have once in a while, especially during or just before or after periods of prolonged stress. This feeling can be beneficial in some cases by creating a heightened awareness and preparing us for what is to come. Continue reading

A Closer Look at Mental Illness

brainOver the past year, there have been numerous debates about mental illness in this country. Unfortunately, most of the discussion has surrounded incidents like mass shootings and gun control. Mental health has also been in the news as studies reveal that an increasing number of people in US jails and prisons have a mental illness.  Because of this portrayal in the media, it is not surprising that the general public has such a misunderstanding and obvious negative bias of the spectrum of mental health conditions and their effect on society.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. This includes anything from depression and anxiety to autism spectrum disorders to schizophrenia to addiction.  According to NAMI, 1 in 4 US adults experience mental illness in a given year and 1 in 17 adults suffer from a serious mental illness (e.g. major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.).  With numbers this high, it is difficult to see mental illness portrayed solely in tandem with violence in the media when there are millions of people working and contributing to society daily with their illness properly treated.  Although the high incidence of mental illness has been recognized by a federal requirement for insurance companies to cover mental health treatment, it has not improved the public perception of mental illness. Continue reading

5 Signs You’re Ready to Earn that Ph.D.

confused5. No one in your family bothers to ask you what you’re studying anymore.

The longer you spend in a Ph.D. program the more opportunities your family has to ask you what you’re doing in school. No doubt, you’ve spent the first couple years of graduate school going to family functions and trying to explain to your grandma what a molecule is. She will eventually come up with an explanation of what you are doing that she can share with her friends. Her description of your work may or may not be correct, but she’s not going to bother trying to understand it anymore. “Good for your honey, you’re so smart!”

4.  Your former life as a bartender or grocery store clerk starts to sound really appealing. Continue reading

E-Cigarettes: For the Smoke-Conscious Smoker

Smoking Rate (%) for US Adults (1997The perils of smoking are well known worldwide and recognized by the Centers for Disease Control as “the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States.” But like most addictive substances, even the threat of death is often not enough to break the addiction.  A dramatic shift in public perception that smoking and exposing others to second hand smoke is bad seems to have contributed to decreasing smoking rates along with implementation of a number of restrictions. In a state like Wisconsin, which has a statewide ban on smoking in public, indoor spaces, it is rare to find someone smoking anywhere except a street corner or a bar patio. Even in below zero weather.  Insurance companies are even applying premiums to smoking customers to offset increased healthcare costs. And in a bold move this week, CVS Pharmacies announced that they will no longer sell tobacco products because it is contrary to their mission as a healthcare store. Continue reading

Patiently Preparing for the Pitch Drop

Shattered pitch with hammerA career as a scientist is many things: it is fascinating, ever-evolving, intense. Whatever images came to your mind when reading those words are probably nothing like the images a scientist would paint for you about his/her work day. Along with investigation and discovery, one of the major themes in a scientific career is patience. Some experiments are faster than other, e.g. one assay to measure enzyme kinetics can take less than seconds to achieve results (not including prep time), whereas it may take months to observe a mouse phenotype that may or may not change following a gene mutation. No matter what the experiment, scientists spend a considerable portion of their careers waiting.

However, no amount of waiting I have experienced in my scientific career can quite compare to the waiting that must be endured by the scientists monitoring the Pitch Drop Experiment in progress at the University of Queensland in Australia. Pitch, which is a derivative of tar, appears to be a solid and even brittle at room temperature. In 1927, scientist Thomas Parnell decided to create a demonstration to show that things are not always what they seem.  He heated up some pitch and placed it in a glass funnel with the bottom fused so it could not leak through. Professor Parnell let the pitch settle into its new formation for a full three years (!) at which point he cut the bottom of the funnel stem and the experiment began to prove that pitch is a highly viscous liquid. Now here is an important lesson about patience and perseverance: the first drop did not fall from the funnel until 1938- a full eight years after the stem was cut! 86 years after the Pitch Drop Experiment began, only eight drops have fallen from that funnel, about one drop each decade. A record and proposal for modeling pitch drops can be found here: http://www.physics.uq.edu.au/physics_museum/pitchdrop.shtml

Professor Mainstone with Pitch Drop experiment

Professor Mainstone with Pitch Drop experiment

Professor John Mainstone began supervising Queensland’s Pitch Drop Experiment in 1961. He missed drop seven by about five minutes when he stepped out for a refreshment. Although a camera was set up to capture the eighth drop fall in 2000, equipment malfunctioned while Professor Mainstone was overseas and the data were lost. Sadly, Professor Mainstone passed away in August of 2013 without ever witnessing a drop fall.

No one has ever witnessed the drop of pitch actually fall from the funnel, but you could be the first! In, perhaps, the best way to help non-scientists understand the excitement of waiting, there is a live webcam recording “The Ninth Drop” as it descends into the beaker below. It was expected to fall in late 2013 (13 years after drop 8), but is still hanging on.  If you want to be part of history, be sure to register on the website!

Researchers in Dublin, who began a similar pitch drop experiment in 1944, scooped the Queensland scientists. They first witnessed a drop of pitch fall from their funnel in July of 2013 collecting the first official evidence that pitch is, indeed, a liquid. You can catch a time lapse video of the drop falling below.

Dethroning the Almighty Snooze Button

12_06_13aMy mother told me I could do anything I put my mind to. She was wrong. I cannot wake up early easily. I confess: I am a chronic snoozer. My sister is the same way. We set our alarm clocks and can press the snooze button for up to an hour! The funny thing is that I can set my alarm with the best of intentions of getting up on the first ring. I try to get the intention in my mind before I go to sleep by repeating the mantra of “I will wake up on time and be productive,” and meditate on the specific task that needs to be done early in the morning (like writing this post). Inevitably, the alarm goes off, and in the fog, I manage to justify why just 10 more minutes of sleep will be okay. My morning mind precisely contradicts my night mind. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I have slept for 10 hours or 3 hours. When I really think about this scientifically, it makes no sense. Hitting the snooze button every 10 minutes for an hour is really doing me no good. Why don’t I just set my alarm an hour later?

It turns out there are many articles on this subject, and it turns out there really is no benefit in terms of sleep that comes with a snooze function. To understand why, let’s take a look at what sleep is all about. Continue reading

5 Signs/Symptoms of Science Hoarding

The bag drawer: complete with random, old empty glass vials.

The bad drawer: complete with random, old empty glass vials.

As defined by Mayo Clinic, “hoarding is the excessive collection of items, along with the inability to discard them. “  Symptoms include: cluttered spaces, inability to discard items, moving items from one pile to another, without discarding anything, difficulty organizing items, excessive attachment to possessions, including discomfort letting others touch or borrow possessions, limited or no social interactions. (Although the last one is a stereotypical trait, that many misinformed people associate with scientists.)

Note: Compulsive hoarding is a very serious mental health condition that we have seen exploited, in recent years, on reality TV. I don’t mean to make light of that condition, but I do want to have a little fun here.

If you have ever walked through a research lab you have probably seen most of these symptoms piled on lab benches and consuming storage space.

  1. Your lab bench is 10 feet long, but you only have two feet of work space.  You have every possible reagent or kit out on your bench, including solutions you used five projects ago.  All of these items must be out on your bench (instead of in cabinets and drawers) so you can see them and access them instantly when inspiration strikes. Besides, they wouldn’t fit in the cabinets even if you tried to put them there.
  2. Continue reading

Cholesterol Management and the Importance of Diversity in Clinical Trials

Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Source: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (1), 50% of women in the US have high or border line cholesterol levels and cholesterol level tends to increase as we age. Most of you are probably aware that cholesterol levels are important for health. Cholesterol is a waxy, sticky molecule that is a very important part of your cellular make up, so cholesterol is essential for life. However, if we have too much cholesterol circulating in our blood, it can build up along artery walls and create blockages (plaques) leading to heart attacks or strokes. Continue reading

What Is the Physiological Basis for Acupuncture?

acupuncture dummySociety in the United States has been long focused on what we call Western medicine. We treat medical conditions, often conditions identified by analytical blood tests or characterization of symptoms, with drugs. These drugs are developed based on rigorous research and development and their risks:benefit ratios have been determined to be acceptable by the Food and Drug Administration. However, in the age of increasing stress and development of chronic conditions such as chronic pain and digestive disorders, people have begun to turn to techniques that are rooted in what we call Eastern medicine, such as acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a technique used in traditional Chinese medicine usually used to treat pain. This is done by inserting long, thin needles into the skin in strategic locations. Chinese medicine explains that our bodies have channels through which energy flows that is responsible for our life force. This energy is called Chi or Qi and the channels are called Meridians. Meridians originate in our organs and connect to a particular point in the skin. When a person is ill, Chinese medicine says that Chi has been disrupted. Acupuncture needles are used to clear the obstruction and allow Chi to flow in a balance manner. A very good description of these principles can be found here: http://www.drmanik.com/chap2.htm.

Being a spiritual person, the concepts of energy and life-force do make sense under certain circumstances; however, such forces still must be able to be explained when it comes to physiological effect on the body. Of course, the physiologist and Western upbringing in me says, “Okay, that’s cool and all, but what exactly are these needles doing to body systems and biochemistry?” Continue reading