Thursday, December 30, 2010

Editor's Pick

BioTechniques has compiled a list of the top five methods newsletters of 2010 as chosen by their editorial staff. My article from August, Ending Cell Line Contamination by Cutting Off Researchers made the cut for their cell culture category.

Methods newsletters were a new endeavor for BioTechniques in 2010, and they were such a big hit that in 2011 the topics (currently microscopy, sequencing, cell culture, antibodies, and PCR) will expand to include cell biology, DNA sequencing, epigenetics, proteomics, and translational research. You can sign up to receive them as an email blast on the BioTechniques website.

Polar Bear Officially Not On the Brink

The status of the Polar Bear under the Endangered Species Act was up for review this past week, and despite campaigning by environmental groups the Polar Bear retained its designation of threatened, instead of being bumped up to endangered.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The article, Polar bears not endangered, US confirms in the BBC is interesting because it very much takes the view that the ruling is incorrect and that the polar bear should have an endangered ranking. The tone of the article puts a lot of stress on the fact that the Bush administration had the polar bear listed as threatened, and makes a point of saying that the Obama administration is keeping in line with Bush-era policies.

Greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are a big part of the arctic melting that has caused the destruction of polar bear habitat. If the polar bear was listed as an endangered species, the US would have to assess the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on polar bear habitat. The BBC's article explicitly states that environmental groups believe the government doesn't want to have to assess emissions and that is why they didn't bump up the polar bear's status to endangered.

The article doesn't give much voice to the government perspective, or explain what kind of analysis was done to arrive at the conclusion that the polar bear is only threatened. Because of this, the article is one sided and I think takes too biased a point of view. This is surprising from the BBC, because in general I think they do a good job staying balanced in their reporting.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Results Are In

Well my first semester of Grad School is officially closed. Grades came out today, and for the first time in my 17 years of schooling, I managed to pull off a 4.0!

When my Dad retired he went back to school to get his Master's degree and he graduated with a 4.0, so I made a bet with him that I could pull off grades like that too.

I'm glad I didn't fail at our bet in my first semester, that would have been a disappointment. I still have three to go, but at least I'm starting off in great shape to have a GPA I can be proud of. Now I can turn my attention to getting ready for school to start again in mid-January.

Food Printing

Whenever I think about the food of the future, I think about Star Trek (I know, I know... I'm a nerd in a sorority girl shell) and how in the show their food is created by a machine that assembles the molecular composition of whatever food you order right in front of you. Needless to say like my hover car and robot maid, such things are still far in the future, but an interesting new way to prepare food is channeling this type of future food.

Food printing is a new technology that follows a recipe all on its own to come up with different meals, all you need to input are the ingredients. The technology is being developed by a team of researchers at Cornell University's Computations Synthesis Lab as part of the Fab@home project. The 3D food printer only requires users to put in the ingredients and program the recipe, and the machine will do the rest. It can even be adjusted for picky eaters -- making food moister or crispier, depending on the tastes of the consumer.

The technology would be especially beneficial for people won't don't either know how to cook or who don't have the time to prepare big meals. It could also cut down on costs by limiting production waste during food preparation.

I'm pretty amazed by the creativity that researchers have shown in utilizing printing technology for new applications. In addition to 3D food assembly, printers can also be used for 3D cell culture. I wrote and article about 3D cell printers for BioTechniques last year, and I was amazed by the machines' capabilities.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Eight Year Olds Under Peer Review

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A group of elementary school children from the UK have achieved a world's first by having the research they conducted for their school science project accepted into the peer reviewed journal Biology Letters. The group of 8-10 year olds was investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns.

The kids worked on their science project with Dr. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientists at University College London's Institute of Opthamology. Under his supervision the kids discovered that bumblebees learn and remember based on color and pattern cues.

The kids' paper successfully made it through peer review, and so was eligible for publication in Biology Letters. Unlike other papers featured in the journal, it doesn't include citations to other relevant work because knowledge of the other scientific literature aren't available to 8-10 year olds so they couldn't have used them.

The kids' work was published accompanied by a commentary by Laurence T. Maloney from New York University's Center for Neural Science and Natalie Hempel de Ibarra from Exeter University's Center for Research in Animal Behavior.

Solar Powered Surveillance

A solar airplane built in the UK recently set a new record for the longest unmanned autonomous vehicle (UAV) flight. The Zephyr, built by Qinetiq stayed aloft for 336 hours, 22 minutes, and eight seconds. The previous record was established in 2001 by the Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman. Zephyr bested the Hawk by eleven times, making it a big success.

The advantage that solar planes have is that they have the ability to hover over a location without having to orbit like a satellite or return to base for refueling like another plane. According to Qinetiq, solar airplanes are exciting because they have a variety of uses, including monitoring forrest fires, military communications, and tracking (locating pirates off the coast of Africa maybe?)

Even though this is unrelated to the concept of solar planes, I have to admit that what drew my attention to this article was the fact that the winning airplane was named Zephyr. I love that word, so for those who don't know a Zephyr (noun) is 1 poetic/literary a soft gentle breeze. 2 historical a very light article of clothing. Its origin is late old english zefferus, denoting a personification of the west wind, via Latin from Greek zephuros (god of) the west wind.

It also happens to be in the title of one of my favorite songs. So here's the Zephyr Song, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

What Is The What?

While I was snowbound I read Dave Eggers' What is the What. I'd read his book Zeitoun for J669 this past semester, and I'd heard a lot of good things about What is the What so I decided to check it out for myself. Ultimately I liked Zeitoun more, but I do think that What is the What is a great read, especially for someone who knows little about the civil war in the Sudan.

The novel tells the story of Valentino Archak Deng's life, (note: he is a real person) from the years before Sudan's civil war reached the southern region where he lived - which were prosperous and happy, to his experiences after he fled his village and left his family (whom he believed were dead) to seek refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya, before being chosen to be resettled in America.

What is the What is a novel, because Eggers was forced to reconstruct scenes based on Deng's memory of events that began when he was only 7 years old when he fled his home in the Sudan and became one of the Lost Boys. The book flips back and forth between Deng's present life (at 27) and his childhood. Having to go back 20 years, Deng couldn't remember all the details that would have been necessary to write the book as is. But don't let the novel status fool you, What is the What is a true story. I have a lot of faith in Eggers as a writer, so I'm confident that the events described are as close as can be to the real events experienced by Deng.

I learned a lot about African history and the civil wars and conflicts that have plagued the continent in my J620 international communication class, but I still wouldn't say I'm well informed. Reading What is the What solidified my opinion that the majority of conflicts are incredibly complex politically, economically, and socially, which few clear cut solutions.

The writing is clear cut and easy to understand, because Eggers does a really good job at explaining complex situations in a concise and comprehendible way. The sheer volume of death and violence witnessed by Deng and the other children of southern Sudan is rattling and reading this book has certainly made me want to find out more about what the current situation is in Sudan.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Technology Takes A Look At A Pliosaur Skull

Source: Flickr
The article "Colossal pliosaur fossil secrets revealed by CT scanner," caught my attention because it describes an interesting new use for existing technology. Researchers took the skull of a pliosaur, a creature that lived in the oceans during the Jurassic period, and scanned it to learn more about the fossil remains - which may belong to the largest pliosaur yet to be discovered.

The creature is estimated between 10-16m, based on the skull which is 2.4m long. By comparison, a killer whale is 5-8m and a human is only 1.5m. Needless to say, these things were big. According to the BBC article, a pliosaur would have had the jaw strength to bite a car in half.

The CT scanner used for the research belongs to the University of Southampton in the UK. The machine is one of the largest of its kind, which was necessary to beam through the dense fossil to form a 3D image of what the inside of it looks like. The findings may be able to help researchers establish if their fossil is a different species, or just an abnormally big example of a pliosaur. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Elephant Species

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photographer: Johnny Liunggren.
Researchers have put an end to debate about whether the African Elephant is one species, or two. New findings published in the journal Public Library of Science Biology show that the African Elephants that dwell in the savannah are a distinct species from those that dwell in the forests.

Loxodonta africana, the savannah dwellers, are much larger and in some cases twice as heavy as Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest dwellers. The debate about whether the elephants were separate species has been going on for at least a decade. The research shows that the two species diverged from their common ancestor around the same time that humans and chimpanzees evolved. How long ago the species split was a surprise for the researchers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Bones found on an island in the South Pacific are being tested against surviving members of Amelia Earhart's family to see if the remains could belong to the famous aviator. Earhart disappeared in 1937 during an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. Her mysterious disappearance has been the topic of books, movies, and enough speculation to make her a household name - even today.

Along with other artifacts found on the island including makeup and glass bottles, a DNA confirmation that the bones belong to Earhart would finally put to rest the mystery of what happened to her. If the bones are Earhart it would be valid to conclude that her plane crashed, and that she survived as a castaway for some time before dying on the island.

If DNA can give an ending to the story of Amelia Earhart, it will definitely be a win for genetics, and scientific research in general. The question that would be left (at least for me) is what happened to her plane (or her navigator for that matter)?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Woodpeckers From Space

The article Space Laser Spies for Woodpeckers by Jonathan Amos for the BBC caught my eye today due to the way that I woke up this morning. I'm home in New Jersey for the holidays, and the back side of my parents house is wood so we've had a few woodpeckers stop by in the past.

Source: New Jersey
This morning I fell out of bed, startled by what sounded like an attack from robotic woodpeckers. I stumbled out into the hall, only to figure out in my half-asleep state that the noise was radiating from the inside of the house, from the plumbing. Following the noise, I found my Mom in the basement doing laundry. Apparently the noise the sink next to the washer makes is very similar to a robotic woodpecker attack. I know you all appreciated that little anecdote, but now on to the scientific side of woodpeckers.

Researchers at the University of Idaho are developing lasers that can be attached to satellites to woodpeckers in the state to determine which parts of the forests they favor. The researchers hope the satellite guided lasers will be a better way to track the woodpecker, which is an indicator species. Being an indicator species means that if the woodpecker is healthy and thriving in different parts of the forest, then it is likely that the forest itself is healthy and doing well.

If the laser-satellites prove to be a successful way of surveying for a species, it could eliminate more labor-intensive and costly means of surveying like sending people into the forest on foot to assess the environment's health. This is an instance where I have to say, even though we still don't have flying cars, we are definitely living in the future.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do Flies Exercise Free Will?

The question of whether or not organisms with less brain power than humans can exercise free will, essentially the ability to think for themselves, has long been a scientific curiosity. New research out of Berlin Free University suggests that fruit flies may have some level of free will.

Drosophila melanogaster. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The idea is that an organism that doesn't have free will, always reacts in the same way to stimuli due to the way their brain has programmed them to react. Yet, experiments with fruit flies show some unpredictability to the way that fruit flies react. This suggests that fruit flies "think" on a different level that previously believed.

Now the ability to react differently to stimuli, does not mean that organisms with less brain power than humans are sentient. Sentience is the ability to be self aware, and to understand and think critically about yourself and what goes on around you. Whether or not organisms are sentient - and to what extent they may be so, remains a controversial topic.

Flying left instead of right when poked isn't the same thing -- at all. But it does suggest that we still have a lot to learn about the brain, even in teeny tiny organisms, because researchers have only scratched the surface of understanding the ability to make choices, and what it means about the capabilities of the brain.

Glow in the Dark Snails

Bioluminescence is such a cool natural phenomenon. Victoria Gill's article for the BBC, Snails flash a green alarm light, discusses the newest organism to be discovered with bioluminescent abilities. Basically, bioluminescence is the ability to glow neon colors like a living glow-stick.

Organisms use their glow to scare off predators, and when that doesn't work, to put the spotlight on the organism that is attacking them so that perhaps another predator will come after it.

The bioluminescent snail are interesting because the actual part of the snail that glows is located inside the shell. The opaque nature of the shell amplifies the color so that its glow is increased and the glow spreads to the entire shell.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Ever Important Role of Facebook

Given that I check my Facebook at least a dozen times a day, I think its safe to say that I'm an addict. The more Facebook changes and expands, the more addictive it seems to become - especially with the evolution of the news feed.

This week my professors and colleagues pointed out several examples of social media, particularly Facebook, playing a role in how hard news stories are reported. I think it is definitely safe to say that Facebook is another tool in a reporter's arsenal to get the scoop on a story, or even just to get a good feel for a situation.

One article that I found particularly jarring because of the way it used Facebook is Ian Shapira's article for The Washington Post, A Facebook story: A mother's joy and a family's sorrow.

In addition to seriously pulling on the heartstrings, I think Shapira's article also dances around the issue of what happens to your online presence after you die. The issue of "digital death" was raised by my colleague in the UW pro-track program, Marianne English in the article: Madison startup Entrustet helps people control their digital assets from The Isthmus.

Things to think about.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide

Every year BioTechniques publishes a list of holiday gifts for scientists, or just science lovers. From the 2010 Holiday Gift Guide my favorite is definitely the microbe ornaments! But check out all the options, there are definitely some cute ideas for either your own little scientists or your co-workers.

Source: GIANTmicrobes.

Leaving the Solar System

There was an interesting story today in the BBC about the NASA space probe Voyager 1, and how it is nearing the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 has traveled the farthest of all the vessel to be launched from Earth. It will be the first space probe to ever leave our solar system.

Launch of Voyager 1.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. 
What I found so interesting about the Voyager 1 probe is that it was launched in 1977, making it 33 years old. This machine has been collecting and transmitting data about space back to Earth for longer than I have been alive. I think that is pretty amazing, and it is a testament to engineering that NASA's scientists were able to make a machine that could still function properly after all this time.

Voyager 1 and its partner Voyager 2 were initially launched to survey the outermost planets in our solar system: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Voyager 2 is nowhere near the edge of the solar system however, because after it was finished with the outer planets in 1989 it was put on a much slower course than Voyager 1.

According to researchers, Voyager 1 should cross the threshold outside of our solar system sometime in the next five years, so this story will definitely be coming up in the news again in the future.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advantages to Being on the Left

As a left handed person I found this article: 'Left handed' coiling snails survive more snake attacks by the BBC's Victoria Gill, pretty interesting. I love hearing stories of left handed superiority. According to this article, a certain species of snail that has shells that coil either clockwise or counterclockwise is experiencing natural selection due to their shell orientation.

Due to the way snakes suck a snail out of its shell, and the way snakes jaws are formed, only snails that have shells that coil to the right are susceptible to predation. Snakes just can't suck a snail out of a shell that coils to the left. Ha! Left handed dominance! According to researchers, the snails are starting to branch off into their own species, because eliminating the threat from snakes has been really beneficial for their population.

I'd also like to take a moment to point out that the idea that left handed people are sadistic is a myth. The word sinistrality is used to refer to left handed people because it is derived from the Latin word sinestra which means left handedness. Nothing to do with demons, sorry.

I take pride in being left handed but it can be a pain at times (like when I was learning how to write). Apparently left handed people have a shorter life span than right handed people based on accidents caused by using tools, and equipment designed for right handed people. I guess I better watch out.

But I do have good company in my left handed ways: Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (the likable Presidents!) Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Paul McCartney, Charlie Chaplin, Robert DeNiro, Cary Grant, and Marilyn Monroe (lots of others too I just found these the most interesting.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Diamond Planet

New research using NASA's Spritzer Space Telescope has shown that planets in our galaxy may be more carbon based than others meaning that the ground would be made of diamonds instead of sand (rocks, dirt, essentially what our soil is made of.)
The new planetary discovery, Wasp12b, is a gas giant like Jupiter, and wouldn't have the water necessary to sustain life. But, just the idea that a planet made of diamonds could exist is definitely fun. Its strange how something that is such a hot commodity on Earth could be so ordinary somewhere else with just a few changes in chemical composition.

I couldn't do a post about diamonds and not include a little Marilyn Monroe, after all Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Devil in the White City

Yesterday I spend five hours writing my final paper for J669. It still needs some work but I'm very happy to have a first draft, at 12 pages (3,955 words) it is a relief that all I have left to do is edit it. The assignment was to read a literary journalism book and then write a report on it, critiquing its success.

I chose to read Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Although it came out in 2004, I actually hadn't heard of it until I moved out to Wisconsin. I guess because the book is set in Chicago and Madison has a close proximity to the Windy City it is more popular out here. Overall I really liked the book, but I did sort of question whether or not it should fit into the category of journalism.

The book brings together two stories, the architects designing the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer H. H. Holmes who lured women away from the fair and killed them in his hotel just outside of Chicago. The stories do go together, but there is far more factual evidence for the actions of the architects and the events leading up to the fair, than there is a record of Holmes actions, because after all what kind of killer would leave evidence of his crimes to public record.

The reason that I'm not sure Devil in the White City should count as journalism is because Larson recreates some of the murders committed by Holmes in great detail, including what the victims were thinking at the time. There is no way Larson could have known what they were thinking, certainly not in a way that could be backed up by concrete evidence like letters or a journal. The recreation of scenes in this way is my biggest problem with the book.

Other than that, I enjoyed the book. I thought the amount of detail that Larson was able to dig up regarding the fair was pretty incredible. I loved learning the background to things that I hadn't known before, like that Walt Disney's father was a carpenter at the fair (which probably inspired Disney World,) or that the Ferris Wheel was developed to trump the Eiffel Tower.

I thought it was very compelling for a historical account, but then again adding a few gristly murders can go a long way to sucking in a reader (especially one like me who loves a good murder mystery.)

Fun fact: the book is going to be made into a movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio as Holmes, which I think has the potential to be a pretty good film (if it actually gets made that is.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Titanic Rusticles Home to New Species

An example of rusticles. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
I pretty much picked this story to highlight as today's science find because I like the word rusticles, also the history of the Titanic. A rusticle is an icicle-like formation made by rust that forms on iron. Researchers have discovered a new type of bacteria in the rusticles that were formed by the wreckage of the Titanic.

New species of bacteria found in Titanic 'rusticles' explains that the Halomonas titanicae bacterium actually feeds off the rust formations. The bacteria are of interest because they could help researchers understand how bacteria participate in the breakdown of metal, which could have an impact on the safety of offshore oil drilling rigs and pipelines. After the BP Gulf Oil spill that was in the headlines all Summer, I'm sure we all want safer drilling mechanisms.

The story is also notable because the researchers sequenced the bacteria's genome to establish that it is in fact a new species. Genome sequencing is a relatively new tool for establishing taxonomy.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Who Doesn't Like Baby Pandas?

I'm really not sure who reads this thing anymore, but I know at least one person (my mom) is unhappy with my lack of posting in the last week. Sorry friends, I promised I would pick up my posting, so here is a little science fix for you from the BBC.

Source: Telegraph UK
Giant Panda Breeding Breakthrough in China by Ella Davies, is a good short news piece about recent success breeding giant pandas in captivity. Pandas are endangered largely due to destruction of their habitat, but the complex factors that have to fall into place in order for them to reproduce haven't done their population any favors either. Researchers have struggled to induce pandas to breed in captivity, but a new understanding of panda lovin' (pregnancy and childcare as well) has led to increased rates of panda baby survival.

Most pandas give birth to two cubs at once, but abandon one and only care for the other. After observing this behavior in panda mothers, researchers started stepping in to put abandoned cubs in an incubator and swap the babies in and out of the mother's care so that she unwittingly cares for both of her cubs. This has led to a significant increase in panda baby survival, and who doesn't like a baby panda, they're just too damn cute.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How the Honey Bee Got Its Sweet Tooth

I love when people send me interesting science articles, especially ones in the New York Times since I still haven't figured out how to get into my account, and therefore still do not have access to their web content. Thanks to Endri for this one, about honey bees in NYC.

The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook by Susan Dominus is about the feeding habits of honey bees, but it also offers a comedic commentary on health and nutrition as an added bonus. Bees that are being raised in Red Hook (Brooklyn, NY) and on Governor's Island have been showing up in their hives with red bellies, and have been producing bright red honey combs.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The bee keepers were perplexed about what would turn the bees and their honey bright red, so they decided to investigate. The culprit turned out to be the Dell's Maraschino Cherry factory. The bees have been feeding on the syrupy-sweet red liquid that you see in the containers of cherries that you can buy in the grocery store. Researchers tested the honey for the red dye (No. 40) used in the cherry liquid, and confirmed that the bees have been bingeing on the liquid produced at the factory.

The mystery that remains is how the bees are getting access to the liquid. Neighbors have reported seeing the bees in unusually high numbers around the factory, but no one has pin pointed how they are getting to the liquid. The cherry factory declined to comment for the article, but did hire the New York City Beekeeper's Association to help find a solution to the problem.

What I like most about Dominus' treatment of the honey bees in the article is the way she paints them as disobedient children. Her opening centers on the fact that if the bees were raised right they wouldn't be straying from home to go eat junk food. It's a whimsical way to approach the topic, while inserting a little bit of her own commentary on human health and nutrition.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Polar Bear Protection

Polar bear at the Henry Vilas Zoo
Madison, WI August 2010
It's Thanksgiving! But instead of talking turkey, I'm going to talk about polar bears. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently designated an area twice the size of the United Kingdom as protected habitat for Polar Bears to help combat the effects of global warming and the reduction of sea ice on the polar bear population.

Setting aside the land is important, because some of it was previously open to and slated for oil drilling by Shell. The only reason Shell hasn't already drilled in that spot is because of a temporary stay due to the BP oil spill that occurred earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico, (Shell still intends to drill in other parts of the Arctic starting in 2011.)

For those who don't know, Polar Bears are my favorite animal so I've done several reports on threats to habitat prevention in the arctic for school. It is amazing the amount of wildlife that depends on the arctic.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sebastian Junger's War Zone

Last week I read Sebastian Junger's War. I think that because of my close proximity to September 11th, I feel pretty strongly about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet reading this book made me feel like I don't actually know a damn thing about them. Even from Junger's point of view as an embedded journalist, I feel like I learned a lot about the war.

When I was at Lehigh I met a veteran named Matt that I though was amazing for his willingness to talk candidly about his tours in Iraq. He was from New York and joined after September 11th, he told me he joined because you can't let something like that happen in your backyard, you have to stand up and fight back. Talking to him was my first real glimpse of what war is like.

We talked about what it was like to go from being in a war zone to suddenly being transplanted onto a college campus, especially one like Lehigh. In the land of polo shirts and flip flops all of his tattoos and his combat boots certainly didn't fit in. He got called back to Iraq in 2009, and I graduated and left Lehigh so I've lost track of him since, but I still really appreciate everything he was willing to share with me about his experience.

My memories of talking to Matt definitely shaped the way I viewed Junger's reporting. From what I already knew about what Matt said being in the Army was like, I have to say I think that Junger did a great job of accurately relaying what he saw and experienced. I don't doubt what Junger says happened during his visits to Afghanistan, he was able to paint scenes in a way that conveyed not only the action, but the emotion (or lack there of) of each situation.

War is a good read, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to get a glimpse of what Afghanistan is actually like. But, I also recommend talking to veterans themselves, no one else can tell their stories the way they can, not even Sebastian Junger.

Also for anyone interested, Junger did make a documentary about the unit that he embedded with (the same one in the book) called Restrepo. It won the 2010 Grand Jury prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

Blood Drops Determine Age

Most science writers are well aware of the CSI effect, the idea that television shows that show "forensic science" are actually pretty misleading, and cause the public to believe certain things about forensics that are simply not true. Because of this I think that articles about developments in forensic science are very important because they help shed light on the actual capabilities of tools like blood tests, and DNA analysis.

An article published in Current Biology this week describes a recently developed way to use blood drops to determine age. This capability will most certainly be useful in developing a profile of victims or criminals in cases where blood is a part of the evidence but identity is unknown. The BBC article: test tells age from blood drops.

The technique utilizes a specific type of immune cell, called a T cell. This is a significant development because to date the information contained in a blood sample can only be used to confirm the identity of a known person. With this new technique, researchers can describe characteristics of an unknown person to help identify them.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What's the Matter with Antimatter?

Now I'm not really a physics person, considering my less than stellar attempt at high school chemistry, I have never attempted a physics class, though I know enough to get by with my writing. The holy grail of physics these days in the large hadron collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. This week researchers from CERN are reporting that they have successfully captured the first antimatter atom (of antihydrogen.)

This is important because antimatter is a largely unexplored field in physics. The idea is that each atom has a counter particle made of antimatter (sort of like having an evil twin) but these antimatter particles have been difficult to study because they are typically destroyed by coming into contact with their real matter counterpart. Researchers don't know why the universe is largely made of matter instead of antimatter, but with the ability to trap and study these particles, they may be able to find out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Encouragement From Jim VandeHei

Today for J800 my class attended a lecture and question and answer session with Jim VandeHei, the co-founder of Politico. Politico is a web and print based media outlet for national political news, that has been pretty successful in the last few years when other media outlets have been struggling (by that I mean they are actually making money instead of bleeding it, hiring young reporters instead of closing ranks on not letting anyone new in).

It was really encouraging to hear someone say that Journalism isn't dead, and that if you are bright and driven you'll be OK. The main thing that I took away from his talk was that if you know what you want to do and what you want to report on, you should  just be out there doing it. Don't take any job that doesn't have to do with your field, don't settle. Make yourself known, and just keep calling until someone gives you a chance.

Even though I'm still leaning more towards a public information officer position than a full blown journalist position, it was nice to hear that it can be done. Not finding a job after going through all the effort of moving to Wisconsin to get my Master's degree is definitely something that scares me. Listening to VandeHei made me inspired to start looking for an internship for next summer (which is my Thanksgiving break goal).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stem Cells On The Brain

Human Embryonic Stem Cells. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An interesting clinical trial just began in Russia, where doctors intend to inject stem cells into the brains of stroke patients to see if the cells can serve as a potential cure for the negative effects of a stroke. The BBC article: Stem Cells Used in Stroke Trial

So far only one patient has been injected with the stem cells (which are embryonic pluripotent cells) but it is notable because he is the first patient to ever have stem cells injected into the brain as a potential cure. It is also controversial to use humans for this type of study considering how much still remains to be learned about the brain and about stem cells.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Great Unknown

I find it astounding that even with all of the technology we now have there are still parts of the world that have yet to be explored. Even today, new species are still being discovered, which just makes me wonder how many species we have killed off without even knowing what they were.

I remember when I was in Costa Rica in 2005, our guide was pointing out species of plants that he said were new and waiting to be classified. He was hoping to get credit for finding one of them, and thus get the naming credits. It made me feel so small that there are so many different organisms in the world. I think it is the little kid in me that just wants to poke and prod and understand all the amazing new things there are to study. 

In the last week a new species of bat (that was actually first sighted in the 1970's) was discovered to be a distinct species in Ecuador, and a new species of squid was found in the Indian ocean. I find it pretty exciting that there are still things to explore. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rolling Nowhere

Today my group in J669 gave our midterm presentation on Ted Conover's Rolling Nowhere. The book is Conover's first, which was published in 1984. The premise is that as a young anthropology student, Conover spent four months riding around the county in empty boxcars with the homeless. He did it as an experiment for his thesis, but after he returned from the trip and finished his degree, he decided to turn his personal narrative of the experience into a book.

I am pretty happy with the way our presentation went. I have an unfortunate cold, so I was a little worried I would lose my voice or have to keep blowing my nose and be obnoxious while the members of my group were presenting, but Robitussin (arguably one of the worst tasting substances known to man) kept my symptoms in check long enough to get through our 1 1/2 hour discussion.

My contribution to our analysis was to compare and contrast Conover with the other authors that we've read as part of our class work for J669. I also contributed a little to the questions and discussion that we had after we all presented the parts we prepared individually. We talked a lot about the ethics involved in immersion reporting, and whether or not it would even be possible to give an accurate portrayal of homeless life given that Conover was an upper middle class college kid.

Overall I think it was a success, the class definitely helped us out by participating in the discussion and bringing up issues of their own to talk about. After I asked the first question, they really ran with it (prompted by Deb) and we didn't have to add much more to keep the class talking for another 15 minutes. Its always good when you can fill the entire time you are allotted and we did that, so I'm optimistic.  I also got another paper back in J620 today and it was another A so I'm two for two in that class, which is also good.

I'm definitely headed into the home stretch of this semester. The only assignments I have left are my finals, and one more book for J669 (Sebastian Junger's War). It has gone incredibly fast!

What Makes A Cat Tongue News?

Ok, so earlier this week I questioned what made the study on cricket testicles news, and now here I am again questioning why a scientific find is in the news, courtesy of the BBC.

Mystery of how cats lap is revealed by Rebecca Morelle is really stretching it in my opinion. I can understand how you might observe a cat lapping up water and be curious about how they do it so well, but I really don't see why this is breaking news. Perhaps it is a slow day for science?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
When did the biggest scientific discoveries become cricket balls and cat tongues? Can't we do better than that? Aren't we? We spend millions of dollars on research, how are these the best stories out there (and I assume these must have been best as they led the BBC's science coverage on the days they each ran)?

I am going to go out on a limb and say that stories like this are caused by the need to publish something (ANYTHING) quickly. With the internet it is shifting from the quality of a story to the number of stories that you can produce. I think its sad that the best the BBC is putting out is high speed video of a cat drinking as their science news. This isn't going to entice readers to start giving a damn about science.

We can't just cover every single scientific finding. As journalists it is our job to determine what stories are the most interesting, to track down obscure threads and follow them until you get a story that no one else has, and to inform the public about the scientific findings that they need to know about. I think there are very few people out there that would say they really needed to know about cricket testicles and cat tongues.

Seeing stories like this makes me want to change the journalistic system. I don't blame the writer, she wrote the story she was assigned. I blame the fact that no one is willing to spend the money on investigative, in depth reporting anymore. Give reporters the resources, and we'll deliver the goods. Without the support journalists need to get the good stories, you're gonna get cricket balls.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scientists Peer Into Their Crystal Ball

One of the stories highlighted on the science pages of the New York Times this week is a multimedia piece called Voices: What's Next in Science by Carl Zimmer. I think the piece is interesting to note because it uses audio clips, pictures, and short write ups to give an overview of what scientists in a variety of disciplines predict will be hot topics in their field in the coming year.

The scientific areas featured are Space Science, Conservation Ecology, Ocean Science, Game Design, Climate Change, Genomics, Neuroscience, Engineering, Biotechnology, and Mathematics. I found these choices a little puzzling. What about stem cells, or biomedical research as a whole? The piece includes engineering and mathematics but ignores physics and chemistry, why? Also, while I find science gaming interesting and I think its a great new field for encouraging people to become interested in science, I don't see how it fits in with the other specialities.

I also find it interesting that they use the term conservation ecology, which is specific and scientific, but then they use the term ocean science as a lump term for all the specialities that involve the ocean, and the same for space. It doesn't really seem cohesive for me to flip flop between specific and general.

The audio clips, and the fact that the write ups are so short make this a very accessible article that I think even people who don't typically read science news could be interested in. It is a good example of how to use multimedia, without having to go terribly out of your way as a journalist.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Creepy Crawlies On the Brain

Tarantula at the DaVinci Science Center, Allentown PA
Credit: Erin Podolak,  July 2008
I'm not scared of many things. I love snakes, heights, roller coasters, and being in the dark. Most of the typical things that freak people out don't have much of an effect on me. Except spiders. I can't stand spiders.

I think my fear of spiders stems back to being told that every year in our sleep humans EAT an average of eight spiders without even knowing it. Imagining a spider creeping along my skin and the way their little legs would feel definitely freaks me out. I'm not so afraid that I'll run away or anything, but some shrieking is usually in order.

Researchers are now using tarantula's to help study fear reactions in the brain. I think brain research is really interesting, considering how little we actually know about how the human brain works. Figuring out how the brain controls all the things we think and do can tell us a lot about ourselves. I feel the same way about genetics and studying our genetic code.

Tarantula helps scientists map how brains process fear was featured in the LA Times.

Promiscuous Crickets

The article: Cricket testicle size clue to promiscuous mating in the BBC was just too good to pass up for a blog post. I mean come on, cricket testicles? Who wouldn't chuckle.

Source: eHow
The researchers found that bushcrickets have the largest testicles of any organism, accounting for 14% of the cricket's total body weight. The study correlated the large testicles with the promiscuity of the organism. The more the organism gets around, the larger the balls. 

That this is news, and that thousands of dollars were probably spent determining this makes me laugh, and then makes me question why we spend our time and money investigating some things. I want to know what good is going to come of knowing that crickets have the largest testicles, because aside from just expanding humanity's knowledge of insect sex I don't really get a lot of value out of this. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sea Anemones

There is no real point to publishing this image other than that I just think it is cool and very pretty. It was on Wikipedia Commons as the picture of the day, which is how I found it. (Side note: has it become obvious yet how much I love Wikimedia Commons?)

This image is from the book The Royal Natural History by Richard Lydekker, which dates back to 1893.

A Little Politics

Since this is a science and journalism blog I try to stay out of politics. That is why I didn't offer my commentary on Tuesday's midterm elections. Most of the attention in the California election went to the defeat of Proposition 19 (legalization of marijuana) but I think the defeat of Proposition 23 is also important to note.

The proposition was a move to suspend California's regulations on green house gas emissions, backed by oil companies. According to the LA Times, industry in Silicon Valley (which is investing billions in clean energy) opposed the propositions, and may have added to the surprising defeat.

The LA Times article Prop 23 battle marks new era in environmental politics is an interesting read for the way it chronicles the cross over between science, environmental activism, and politics. I have a particular interest in the way that scientific information can shape policy through informing the public. As one of the first major public votes on issues related to climate change and global warming I find these results surprising, but encouraging.

But then again, it is just California. When Texas stands up to oil companies and makes moves to reduce green house gas emissions and invest in alternative energy, then I'll be impressed. But for now, we have a small political victory for climate science.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Help Me Obi Wan Kenobi

My experience with holograms doesn't extend much farther than Princess Leia's secret message to Obi Wan Kenobi, entrusted to R2D2 in the first Star Wars movie released (but really the fourth story in the series) A New Hope. Yeah, Nerd Alert, I'm OK with it. Anyway, Star Wars has shown us that holograms are something used in a galaxy far far away, certainly not here on Earth, and certainly not in present day. But alas, Star Wars has led me wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
New research from the University of Arizona is close to making holograms a reality. So far, the group is able to film a video image and beam it to a new location where it updates in "near" real-time. The research team has been working to improve the speed at which the images are conveyed, and has gotten them as fast as every two seconds. Video with a continuous flow of images, like Princess Leia's famous message, is just around the corner.

The BBC article by Jonathan Amos, "Hologram messaging coming of age," breaks down the process like this:
1. A series of cameras arranged in a semi-circle take multiple images of a person or object from lots of different angles.
2. The images are fed into a computer, where they are processed and then sent to another computer at a different location
3. A specially designed 3D printing system receives the images and based on the information contained in them, controls a laser that "writes" the images onto a screen made of a special plastic.
4. The special plastic screen can update every two seconds, but a light source is needed to be able to see the changing holograms.

The researchers say that holograms will be useful for manufacturing, to update plans or blueprints as workers are designing new models. I think it has value simply for being cool and for proving to Star Wars geeks that IT COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN, well at least the hologram part.

That's Not Your Real Name Is It?

Aloysius Hoffenhorse. It was then that I knew this guy was feeding me bull shit.

My J800 teacher is pregnant, and went into labor this morning so rather than cancel class, she sent us out at 9am to go on a journalism scavenger hunt. While interviewing people on the street to see what they thought of the election last night (as was required for the assignment,) I met the afore mentioned Mr. Hoffenhorse.

He looked perfectly inconspicuous, nicely dressed in jeans and a button down shirt with a sweater over it. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, sitting on a cement planter up near the capital. I approached and asked if he would mind answering a few questions about the election. I explained that I was a journalism graduate student, and I would appreciate it if he could provide a few comments to help me with my assignment.

He agreed to talk to me, but as soon as I asked him his name I knew he was just going to feed me a bunch of crap. Before I gave up he also told me that he learned who won the election based solely on his instincts (no media necessary) and that if I needed to reach him I could feel free to email him at

Why must people fuck with me? I just wanted to know what newspapers or TV stations he followed. He could have said he didn't want to be interviewed, instead he wasted my time for his own entertainment. It  was pretty funny, but at the same time I was really frustrated with the assignment.

I don't think I learned ANYTHING from doing it. I already knew that the world is full of characters, that often make your job more difficult. I didn't need to freeze my ass off scrambling around for three hours to learn that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Harry Potter: Scourge of the Owls?

New research out of India is drawing a correlation between a spike in the black market trade of owls and the popular Harry Potter books and movies. Apparently the stories, which feature a white owl (named Hedwig,) have led to a surge of people seeking owls as pets, as well as for what the BBC calls "black magic" rituals.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
As a reader, I am interested in the research methods used to draw the correlation between the loss of owls and Harry Potter. I wish the article talked more about how the researcher came to his conclusion, because simply noting the popularity of a series that features an owl as a minor character (I think its minor, I've never actually read a single one of the Harry Potter books) is a far cry from actually quantifying its connection to a decrease in owls.

This type of investigation reminds me of the correlations made between video games and violence, or metal music and violence. I think that how studies of this type are conducted is a pretty important component to the story, because simply stating that something is a significant relationship doesn't make it so, I want to see the numbers.

From the BBC: Harry Potter blamed for fueling India owls' demise

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rally to Completely Bash the Media

Last weekend was the Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or) Fear in Washington D.C. led by John Stewart (the sanity part) and Steven Colbert (the fear part.) While Stewart did make fun of society in general, most of his ire was directed at the media. As a member of the media, it made me want to hang my head, not in shame, but in frustration.

Every profession has to have its wackjobs, weirdos, and complete morons, right? So why pick on the media? Well, mostly because not every profession has the power to sway public opinion like journalism. So when we get a nut job among our ranks it does a lot more damage. But I don't think that journalism's faults can be attributed solely to people who have lost their marbles (you know, those "Fair and Balanced" people.) Like most things in America, journalism is a competition. The best story wins, whether or not it has been fact checked and verified. The nature of the field itself, works against those in it.

The struggle to attract viewers or readers has a lot to do with why the media sensationalizes stories. If John Stewart wants the media to shape up and do a better job of reporting honestly and clearly, it would be good if he could provide an audience that has a longer attention span than a two year old. We're all guilty of it, if a story isn't flashy or scandalous we aren't going to read it. So how are journalists supposed to find a balance between going over the top and having readers, or being true to the impact of the story and risk having no one give a damn? 

I appreciate the message of the Rally to Restore Sanity, I wish that journalism wasn't so over the top sometimes, but what are we supposed to do? No one wants to pay us to put in the kind of hours and dedication it takes to chase down a compelling story. Unless I want to live in a box under a bridge I'm going to need to find a way to turn out stories like a machine. Being a hamster in a wheel isn't a good way to inspire great reporting. 

There are a lot of young and seasoned journalists out there that can do great journalism. I'd like to know what John Stewart's answer to the problems in the journalism industry would be. Its all well and good to indite the media, but he didn't offer any solutions on how to fix things. You don't have to be special to step up to a microphone and start pointing fingers. Finding a way to support innovation and help cultivate ideas about how to improve an entire industry, now that would be helpful.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

1000 Genomes Project

For as long as I can remember my parents have been telling me that I'm special (in a good way, not in the derogatory way the kids are using the term these days). Most of us start life out thinking that we're unique and the more we learn about life, and the more it kicks out asses we become so disillusioned that we cease believing we're really all that special.

But, new data generated by the 1000 Genomes Project recently confirmed that our parents have been right all along. The 1000 Genomes Project is an effort to sequence the genes of 2,500 people from around the world in an attempt to fill the gaps in the draft sequence of the human genome left by genetic variation. 

The draft sequence was established in 2000 by teams led by J. Craig Venter and Francis Collins. While that was a breakthrough moment in the field of genetics because it enabled the study of diseases caused by changes in our DNA, it only took us so far. 

Genetic variation refers to the differences in the human genome between individuals (ie: if my code is AGTCAGTC, yours might be AGCCAGTC). That kind of a difference can have a huge impact on how disease manifests itself, therefore studies looking for treatments for genetic-based disorders (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's Disease, Cancer, etc.) are hindered by these variations. 

The new data obtained by the 1000 Genomes Project, is a 95% map of human genetic variation. The results of the study show that each individual person has an average of 75 variations (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which are changes in the code like I described above). These variations are essentially what makes each of us different from everyone around us. My parents were right, I am special, but something tells me they weren't referring to my genes. 

This is exciting for a few reasons:
1. Millions of dollars have been invested in this project, it is good to see something actually come of it. 
2. A better understanding of variation can enable more progressive research on genetic disease, from causes to treatments. 
3. Genome sequencing technology is advancing quickly, and making interesting research like this a reality. Expect more projects like 1000 Genomes, it's definitely about to get ambitious in here. 
4. A project like this sets important standards for open access information and data sharing among researchers for genetic studies at this scale. 

Read more: 

Lobster Lovin'

Go ahead, ask me about lobster sex. I know far more about lobster love than I ever really wanted or would need to know thanks to Trevor Corson's book The Secret Life of Lobsters. I read Corson's book for J669 and I have to say, it was a struggle to get through even though I did find a lot of elements in the book compelling.

Corson interweaves lobster research in with the lobster fishing industry of Maine to drive the book forward. The personal stories of the lobster men and their families add a lot of interest to the book. But, toward the end I really found myself struggling to finish the last few chapters because the research was so boring.

Homarus Americanus (The species found in Maine)
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The first few chapters about scientific research focus on how a lobster molts (sheds it shell so it can grow) which I found really interesting, and about how lobsters mate. Is it stereotypical that I was entertained by the chapters about lobster sex, but once the book started focusing on lobster habitat and the lobster's life cycle I found myself hopelessly bored?

I really pushed myself to get through all of the pages of description detailing the fluctuations in the lobster population and how lobsters migrate and where lobsters live during certain parts of their life. The hardest part about those chapters was that Corson never arrived at any conclusions. The researchers he wrote about work really hard to pinpoint why the lobster population fluctuates, and after all those pages they don't reach a conclusion. Ending with the idea that populations naturally vary was so anti-climactic. I was disappointed.

Actually, the book officially ends with a discourse on whether or not it is humane to boil lobsters live, which I find sort of perfect. But the rather piddly end to the scientific research was still a let down.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trouble in MarieClaire's Blogosphere

Now, I'm not a fashion or lifestyle writer but I think the controversy over MarieClaire blogger Maura Kelly's post "Should 'Fatties' Get A Room (Even On TV)" is worth mentioning. Kelly is a professional blogger, her career is posting her opinions on the internet. But, by coming out with the opinion that fat people shouldn't be shown in intimate scenes on TV because it grosses her out, she has caused a firestorm. The controversy has raised a lot of questions about professionalism in the blogging community.

I suggest you read her article, and then review the comments posted below it by readers. As a blogger it is all well and good to share your opinions, but where do you draw the line? Kelly is a representative of MarieClaire - not just of herself. By branding MarieClaire with her opinion she has apparently cost them a tremendous amount of business (if you believe the comment writers, at least). What standards do magazines and other companies use to hire bloggers? Are there any standards?

In the apology that she added to the original article, Kelly brings up that she suffers from anorexia and has had a life-long obsession with being thin. Hmm. That might have something to do with why she finds it unacceptable for overweight people to get romantic. Crazy thought, that MAYBE her personal background should constitute a conflict of interest and she should never have be allowed to blog about weight issues in the first place. As a writer, it was her responsibility to identify that conflict of interest.

Even if you feel you can be objective, you just can't write about issues with which you have a personal connection without disclosing that information properly. I can't write about issues involving law enforcement because so many members of my family are involved in that career field -- it is the reason I will always get tossed off jury duty. It gives me bias. As a writer you have to know yourself, and be honest with your readers about your personal conflicts of interest when they are applicable to the subject you are writing about.

But is a blogger really a professional writer? I am very interested in Ms. Kelly's background. Does she have a journalism degree? Does she do any research, or does she just spit out her own opinions? Why should anyone care what she says? Who is Maura Kelly? What makes her qualified to eschew her thoughts on an issue like popular conception of body image in the entertainment industry?

I wish someone would pay me to say whatever thoughts cross my mind. Maybe they'll be an open position for blogger at MarieClaire sometime soon? I wonder if they need a science writer...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Immortal Life of Rebecca Skloot

Today I met Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, mentioned in my previous blog post. Skloot's book is the UW Madison Go Big Read program's selection for this year, so she gave a public lecture last night, and visited the journalism school this morning to take questions.

As far as author presentations go, I loved this one, because Skloot pretty much just plopped down in a chair and said what do you want to know? It was a small group (25-30 people) but the discussion kept up for over an hour just based on audience questions. My question for her was whether she was prepared for the Lacks family's lack of science education and how she viewed her role as a journalist but also as their teacher. Her response was that the two roles were essentially one because her reporting style is based around an informal conversation, but that she wasn't really prepared for how confused they were about what HeLa is.

Other questions that were asked ran the gamut from the business of publishing a book, to how Skloot handled Deborah's death and incorporated it into the book, how she decided on the structure of the book, and how she handled (and organized) 10 years worth of notes. She was an engaging speaker, and was even willing to talk about some of the criticisms of her that have come up since the book came out.

The biggest criticism of Skloot out there is that she isn't doing enough to help the Lacks family. But, she has set up a foundation for them -- and I think its important to remember that for 10 years Skloot was accumulating debt chasing down this story, if the book hadn't been a success she'd definitely be in the hole so I agree with her unapologetic attitude toward the money she's made from the book's success.

She also mentioned that she sometimes gets push back from people who don't agree with the fact that she kept all of the interviews in their original dialect (people saying it puts down the lesser educated black people who don't speak with proper grammar) but Skloot points out that she kept the dialect and "broken" English of European and Asian researchers as well as the Lacks family.

According to Skloot the biggest problem she's encountered so far has been from the white members of the Lacks family. In the whole two pages that the white Lackses are discussed, they definitely appear as racists. But, it is Skloot's word against the word of the children of her sources (her sources are now dead) who have argued that Skloot couldn't possibly have done the interviews because their parents wouldn't have said the things Skloot says they did.

Considering how utterly unimportant the white Lacks family is to the story, it's sort of absurd to think that Skloot didn't really do the reporting. It would be such a dumb part of the story to make up, so I'm inclined to believe that the interviews are true.

This book is undoubtedly going to be Skloot's literary legacy, so overall it was fun to get another first hand perspective on what it takes to research, write, and market a successful science book.

Cell Culture's Dirty Little Secret

My last assignment for BioTechniques web news was a cell culture themed newsletter article on the status of cell line contamination. It was while researching that article (Ending cell line contamination by cutting off researchers) that I got my first real education about HeLa cells. I recently added to that education by reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for J669.

I already had a firm grasp on the science of cell culture and contamination of cell lines, but the book gave me a lot of background about Henrietta Lacks, the woman the HeLa cell line was harvested from (and thus named after). Cell line contamination is the dirty little secret of the biological research community, and the story of the Lacks family certainly doesn't make the research community look any better.

HeLa Cells. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
One thing that I like about Skloot's book is that she doesn't look at either the family or the researchers involved in the HeLa controversy with rose colored glasses. I think the book is fair because it drives home the point that the researchers involved in cell culture in the 1950's all followed protocol at the time. There isn't a single person to blame for the fact that Henrietta Lacks' cells were cultured without her consent or that no one ever bothered to educate her family about cells, what it means to grow them in culture, and the research that cell culture enables.

It wasn't standard practice back then to tell research subjects much of anything. Not that I think what happened to the Lacks family is ok, I believe in informed consent - even if that means giving someone the basic science education they need to understand what will happen to their tissues once they give them up to science. But, hopefully publicizing more stories like the Lacks family's will help people speak up and learn more about biological research.

I found Skloot's book compelling, but my biggest problem with it was the ending. To me, it just ends abruptly. The death of Lack's daughter Deborah (who is a major character in the book through her interactions with Skloot) gives the book an ending of sorts, but something is still missing. I wish that there was something that could tie the book together like a change in policy or new regulations put in place, but sadly no such changes have occurred.

Cell line contamination is a rampant problem in the biological research community, and currently in the United States there are no regulations that force researchers to verify the origin of their cells lines or identify the contaminants they may have been exposed to. Cell line contamination pisses me off. We spend billions of tax dollars on research -- that may end up completely worthless because researchers have no incentive to check and make sure that the cells they are working with are what they think they are. What good is research for treatments for blindness when you aren't working with corneal cells, you are actually working with cervical cancer cells?

If you want to learn more about cell line contamination, a search in PubMed (a database of academic research papers) for Roland Nardone will yield several academic papers on the issue, but I suggest reading "Recommendation of short tandem repeat profiling for authenticating human cell lines, stem cells, and tissues," because it actually offers a solution to the problem of how to authenticate cells.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Water on the Moon

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Since I was a little kid, I've loved space. The whole idea that there are other worlds surrounding us has always fascinated me. But, alas I am not so good with chemistry, physics, and math so studying space was never really within my academic dreams. I still got to daydream though, and who doesn't love imaging what it would be like to live in space?

Well, NASA scientists are one step closer to colonizing the Moon, according to research reported earlier this month. Researchers performed experiments that used rockets to collide with lunar craters to loosen rocks and dust that could be evaluated for their chemical compounds, and found a significant amount of water in the craters.

Access to water would be necessary to sustain a colony anywhere, so the discovery that there might be water resources on the moon that could be used by people is a step in the right direction toward people branching out and living on the moon.

The BBC article by Johnathan Amos: Moon's water is useful resource, says NASA

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Commercialized Space Flight

NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis. Source: Wikimedia Commons
People have been taking about commercializing space flight for years, but according to the BBC article "Runway opens at worlds first spaceport" Sir Richard Branson (the Virgin group) is going to make it a reality within the next few weeks.

Of course you don't get to spend any real time in space, they are marketing a three hour journey where you get launched into space and then come back. If you have the money though it would be pretty cool to be able to say that you've been to space. At least 300 people at $200,000 each think so, and have already signed up for the flight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Long Run

As this is a personal blog, I have no qualms about shamelessly promoting people (and writers) that I like, as long as I give full disclosure as to how I know them and why I want to promote them. One of those people that I am going to promote now is Charlie Butler - he was a professor of mine from Lehigh and was tremendously supportive of my quest to get into grad school. He is an editor at the magazine Runner's World, and has just released his first book, which I remember him working on when I was his student.

The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter's Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete is about Matt Long, a firefighter who was in prime shape in 2005 when he was riding his bike to work because of the NYC transit strike, and was hit by a bus making an illegal turn. He was impaled by his bike, and dragged by the bus. His doctors thought he'd never walk without a cane again, but he surprised everyone by dedicating himself to recovery and coming back to run the NYC marathon in 2008. It is a classic comeback story of triumph against the odds.

When I was in his class at Lehigh two years ago, Charlie would occasionally talk about the story, and what it was like to interview someone who had been through so much. He was drawn to the story for Runner's World because of how amazing it was that Long was able to run the NYC marathon after the injuries he sustained. As he was reporting, Charlie developed a relationship with Long and his friends and family and was able to get a great picture of what it was like to work through that kind of recovery.

I have not had a chance to read the book yet, it is going on my list of things to read once the semester is over, but I have read magazine pieces by Charlie and I can attest to the fact that he is a great writer, so I encourage everyone to check out his book, and of course let me know what you think if you do!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blending In

The BBC is reporting new research on why certain species of wild cat have the color patterns in the fur of their coat that they do. Its long been claimed that the patterns (spots, stripes, etc.) help the animals blend into their surroundings, but the new study goes into more specific detail about how these new patterns actually help the cats blend in.

The research was published in Royal Society Journal, and conducted by a team from the University of Bristol. The BBC article by Katia Moskvitch is, "On how the leopard got its spots."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bait and Vaccinate

Island Scrub Jay. Source: Flickr
Researchers are working to save the island scrub jay, a bird native to Santa Cruz Island (part of California). By luring the birds with peanuts, and then trapping them under a wire basket the researchers are able to vaccinate the birds against the West Nile Virus. The virus has been deemed a serious threat to the birds, because they all live on a single island so an outbreak would spread quickly.

The LA Times article: Taking a rare jay under their wing, tries to get an interesting hook in by describing the simple way (like a Wile E. Coyote prank) the researchers are undertaking such a complex conservation effort. I think it draws you in enough, although the article is a little long, and I did find myself skimming toward the end. I was able to skim it though- which means that the writer did a good job of explaining the science in a clear way.

Sleepy Skyping

This morning I got up at what I consider an un-godly hour (6am) to call a researcher in Wales for my last article for J800, before going to class. Business hours in the UK run from the very early hours of the morning here until around noon, which left before class as the best time to do the interview.

I wanted to just use Skype to call his landline, but when he found out I was using Skype, he suggested that we video chat. It is a good thing that I decided to get ready for class and got dressed before I contacted the researcher, otherwise he would have seen my pajamas. I do 90% of my interviews by phone, and probably the other 10% by email. I haven't interviewed someone face to face in over a year. So compounded by the fact that it was really early, I was caught off guard with the fact that he could see me, and that I was talking about some really complex genetics - I am fairly certain I sounded like a babbling moron.

I think I got a few good quotes though, so at least it was worth it, though the more I write them, the more I dislike feature-length issues pieces. They are unruly to say the least, but I hope I am becoming better at wrangling information.