Friday, December 29, 2006

Everything in Moderation

Hormesis is a biological response to a substance at very low doses that is opposite the response of the same substance at high doses. In other words, substances that have been shown to be dangerous at high levels might actually be good for you at very low doses. Studies have shown that irradiating a mouse with a very low dose of gamma radiation before subjecting it to a high dose, actually protects it from developing cancer.

The link above is the wikipedia entry and goes into why this is not a popular theory at all. It's not like hormesis is hogwash, even you have heard of it. It is why very small concentrations of botulinum toxin (yes the stuff that causes botulism) injected into our faces makes us look years younger, instead of causing horrible pain and death. Scientists have also described the hormesis effect with opiates. Very small doses of opiate antagonists (pain killer blockers) actually enhance high doses of pain killers. And very small doses of opiates have been shown to induce pain.

There are a lot of government agencies that were designed specifically to protect us (no, not the FBI) that have presumed that the dose-response curves of many substances are linear. As a scientist, I can attest to the pain of measuring a dose-response curve at concentrations below the linear ranges. Still doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. A recent survey based on a review of more than 56,000 tests in 13 strains of yeast using 2,200 drugs indicates that hormesis may actually be a valid phenomenon and dangerous to ignore. Anti-cancer drugs that normally inhibit cell growth actually enhance it at very low concentrations.

Acknowledging the validity of hormesis comes with a whole mess of consequences, however. Environmental groups have advocated completely eliminating toxic substances when that may not be necessary.

But even harder for the government agency types to swallow may be granting credence to the entire field of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a medical practice entirely predicated on treating illnesses with very small doses of substances that at large doses mimic the disease being treated. Maybe there is something behind that whole "crack-pot" theory.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

OK, I've worked out this whole Intelligent Design thing...

I've been trying to ferret out this whole ID thing and it turns out, I've been going about it all wrong... it's not about ferrets, it's about squirrels.

Specifically, God designed squirrels intelligent enough to outsmart trees.

Bet you didn't know trees were smart, did you? Well, they are. To ensure the survival of their species against their major predators (which are squirrels, just in case you didn't know), they do not produce the same annual amount of seeds (the part of them that squirrels eat). They employ a "swamp and starve" strategy, which means that some years they hold back seeds - starving out the squirrel populations - and then swamp the land with seeds once they have starved out the hungry rodents. Pretty bloodthirsty if you ask me.

Turns out the red squirrel has foiled this carefully planned coniferous plot. In a manner that is - as yet - undetermined, the squirrels have worked out this seemingly random schedule and birth not one but two litters in these lean years. So they, and only they, amongst all their squirrel brethren decimate the unborn trees.

It's all starting to make sense to me now...

Friday, December 15, 2006

It is a toomah

This last month has been quite the experience. My grandmother died at the end of last month, she had senile dementia and didn't remember her kids before she died. She'd also been married to my grandfather for 69 years. When my father visited them about 8 months ago, my grandfather told him that the warranty on his heart was up. When my dad asked him what he was sticking around for, he said that Mother needed him. Less than three weeks later, my grandfather joined her. It was a really beautiful end to an amazing love story.

And it was a testament to mind over matter. Once grandpa had Thanksgiving dinner with all 7 of his kids (something that hadn't happened in decades) he was ready to go. I think he stayed alive out of sheer will-power. He was strong that way. It is unfortunate the way it came about, but it was great to see my relatives (my dad, his 6 siblings, and a myriad of offspring of the afore mentioned) two times in a month.

Which made this particular study stand out for me. Apparently the more siblings that you have, the greater chance you have of getting a brain tumor. Here's the cool thing, it only depends upon the number of younger siblings you have. Which seems like a very weird association. Unless, as these authors suggest, that many brain tumors might have an infectious disease origin. My dad is one of the oldest of the bunch so it seems kind of relevant, except he's just past 60 so unless it is a very dormant thing, it probably doesn't apply to him.

This observation makes identifying the vectors thay may cause tumors an important and unexpected line of research to follow.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Show of hands... how many knew it wasn't really junk?

In my last post I mentioned "junk DNA". If you don't know what that is... briefly, a lot (and by "a lot" I mean most) of our DNA seems to be non-coding or, it doesn't directly result in proteins. With the sequencing of the genome came a revelation on the order of Copernicus... (remember he said that the sun didn't revolve around the earth - which apparently downgraded our view of ourselves in the universe.) Our genome isn't much different from other beings on our planet, well, except for all the junk DNA. Apparently we have a lot more of it. Given that little piece of knowledge we've actually started looking at what junk DNA might be.

An article in (you can't see the link unless you have a subscription but here it is anyway) talks about what all this junk might actually be for:

'They found that these stretches of non-coding DNA tend to lie near genes involved in brain-cell function — specifically, in building connections between brain cells. This suggests that the non-coding DNA pieces might orchestrate the wiring of our brains'

How interesting is that, the junk DNA is likely to be responsible for how our brains are hooked up. Go figure.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Science on Tap October 2006

Last night Marja Brandon, the Head of School of the Seattle Girls School spoke to us about Women in Science. A lot of people know or have heard that girls love science up to about 5th grade and unless they are encouraged many do not make it past middle school with that love of science (math included) intact. Marja has taken a really exciting approach to attacking that problem, and the cool thing is what she has come up with doesn't effect only girls.

The fact that I have two girls entering this time of life concerns me, but I also have kids in the Seattle Public Schools and if you have seen the news at all over the last couple years, you know that there are reasons to be concerned with our children's education here in Seattle. School closures are not the solution to a criminal act that caused a fiscal shortfall. Teaching to the WASL doesn't work. Buying down the class size in the public school system borders on illegal. But mostly we have an antiquated system that isn't forwarding a society that is ready to take on the challenges of the future.

Marja feels that we should be taught in a manner that works for our brains. Novel idea. That means incorporating all those important topics (i.e. reading, writing, math, critical thinking, art, public speaking etc.) at the same time. You don't go to work and think... I'll start with my english, do math a little later on and leave the critical thinking part until after I've had my coffee...

Of course, anyone who incorporates brain science into teaching styles is my hero... but she does this in a section of Seattle known for it's lower income constituents, and the school isn't filled with smart white girls. Her intention is that anyone who wants a stellar education gets it. She shared with us that a girl called up the school and asked "I can only afford $90 a month, can I come?" Yes, this is a private school, but only because the public school system isn't up to taking on this teaching style.

Some of the novel approaches:
Teachers teach all subjects.
Invention Convention: students design, mock up, develop and present novel inventions to "mock" investors.
Grand Rounds: students learn a medical field and community physicians have them present to large groups what ailment the mock patient is suffering from.

I've probably butchered what actually goes on, but I would have loved learning this way as a kid. We've got to drop a big chunk of cash on this woman so that the rest of our kids (girls and boys alike) can benefit from an education that will make a difference and literally leave no child behind.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I knew nature vs. nurture was too simplistic

I learned something new today!

I love it when that happens! Too often I think I know it all and even when I know I don't know it all, I might know a little something of it, which - of course - makes me think I know it all.

I found out there is a field of study that I have never even heard about. I read about it in Discover, one of my favorite magazines (I am all about making science accessible and this magazine does that). Anyway, the field is Epigenetics, which has nothing to do with Eugenics (a black mark in the history of science that you should at least be aware of).

You've all heard of "Genetics" (the study of genes and heredity) and the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire human genome. That project was expected in some quarters to be the panacea - we could now develop designer drugs, or designer babies - and instead left us (as new discoveries are often wont to do) with a whole new set of questions. Like "How is it that humans only have about 50% more genes than a roundworm?" and "Wow, do you suppose 'junk DNA' might actually do something?... 'cause there's an awful lot of it".

Anyone who has ever thought seriously about DNA, has at one point wondered "If every cell has all the information in it to create every protein imaginable, how does a liver cell know not to make a brain protein?" Well it turns out that the protein environment that the DNA is in (chromosomes are only 50% DNA) makes some protein's information accessible and others not so much or not at all. What has mostly been assumed up until this point, is that only the DNA is passed down from parent to child; that the protein environment is a slate wiped clean once an egg or sperm is created.

Here is a shocking bit of news from the field of Epigenetics (epi - 'upon, near to, in addition' Greek Origin), the protein environment that the DNA is in, is also inherited from our parents (which is logical once you think about it, we inherit chromosomes from our parents, not just DNA). Even more shocking, the epigenetics may last several generations. Daphnia water fleas when exposed to predators, grow defensive spines that are heritable for several generations.

The Discover story starts off describing that a well-studied genetic defect in mice (causes mice to be obese and susceptible to life threatening diseases) can be completely erased with nothing more than a change in the mother's diet. When you consider that the epigenetic environment can be altered by diet or by social circumstances (war, famine, stress, love, joy), you start to get that how you see yourself really matters. In case I lost you with that last train of thought... how you see yourself determines what you do, and if you think that what you do only affects you, you may be way off.

The article in November's issue is really great, I highly recommend shelling out the twenty bucks it costs to subscribe to Discover (see link in sidebar).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The hygiene hypothesis

No, this doesn't have anything to do with washing any part of you, not directly anyway.

Have you ever wondered about asthma? Or hay fever? I mean, what is up with those afflictions? It seems in these cases our immune systems has run amok. There is a hypothesis that our bodies have a specific immune response to parasitic infection, and in environments that lack parasites, that immune response can get activated in the presence of otherwise innocuous substances (i.e. pollen, dust, etc.).

One of the observations that led to this hypothesis was that populations that have a high incidence of parasites, have a very low incidence of asthma and vice versa. This evidence is only correlational, however. In other words, just because asthma and parasites don't show up together, doesn't mean that the root cause is the same. Other factors may be at play, especially given that the major difference between the two populations is how developed the country is. Given that major difference - hygiene, vaccination and the use of antibiotics in more developed countries may also be factors. But let's say there is a correlation.

One interesting biological note, you can have a chronic parasitic infection... meaning that your immune system doesn't go haywire on you, and you and your bugs can live quite a while together (maybe not happily, but you get the picture). Prolonged asthma attacks; however, can send you to the emergency room. If this is the same biological response what is different that you can survive a parasitic infection and not asthma? Let's delve into the immunology behind this a little...

One of the kinds of antibodies floating around in your system, IgE, can bind to a type of cell that releases loads of sneezy, itchy chemicals... histamine is one of them, I'm sure you've seen the commercials. For that to happen; however, two IgE's to the same substance - let's say juniper pollen - have to be immediately next to each other on the cell. You'd have to flood your system with that particular IgE and sometimes it takes years for that to happen. That is a simple explanation for why allergies take a couple of years to show up. But when they do, you are a itchy red ball of mucous, or your lungs fill up with fluid, or your airways disappear.

Although IgE is also involved in a parasitic infection, you notice that the infection person's immune system doesn't go into overdrive. Hypothesis: It may be that the production of another antibody, IgG4, may inhibit the allergic response. Observation:IgG4 isn't present in asthma or hay fever like afflictions, although it is in parasitic infections. Since hearing about this problem in graduate school, I've thought that if I could develop something that would induce the production of IgG4, I'd be rich. Turns out for really bad allergies, people can undergo a form of immunotherapy where they get allergy shots every few weeks for 3-5 years. This kind of treatment in itself would suck, however, if you manage to stick with it, it does seem to induce the production of IgG4.

Well, there are scientists out there that are looking for ways to treat our over-active immune systems, and not just the symptoms either. A search of Peter Creticos' research over the last two decades culminating in a report that a 6-week inoculation protects the allergy sufferer for 2 hay-fever seasons (so far) demonstrates he is looking down this road for allergy and asthma sufferers. I'm hoping he gets rich from this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Power of LSD

Whatever your personal beliefs/preferences regarding the use of drugs might be, it is becoming alarmingly clear that a lot of our attitudes towards drugs aren't based in science, but in good ol' human fear and stupidity. The movie, Reefer Madness is an example of the kind of fear tactics used to rile up a population to fight a cause. Some call that propaganda, well actually the dictionary does too.

I'd like to draw your attention to a Canadian scientist, Erika Dyck, who has been digging into the history of psychedelic drug research and has unearthed a study from the 50's and 60's that indicates a single dose of LSD could effectively treat alcoholism. Now when I say "treat", I mean 65% of the alcoholic participants didn't touch a drop of the stuff for the remainder of the study, or 1.5 years. Given that 25% quit after group therapy and 12% quit after private psychotherapy, 65% is a stunning result.

So, you might actually be wondering "why 40-50 years later am I just now being informed of this?!"

There is this thing called credibility in the scientific world. Which basically means you have to know what you are doing. Apparently having a Ph.D. goes a long way in granting credibility. However, being popular also has it's merits (yes, even in the scientific world), and a more "credible" group tried to replicate the results with less than favorable results, and the study was buried.

Let me give you a bit on the background of this study.

The hypothesis that LSD may be a valid treatment for alcoholism came about because researchers observed that alcoholics described the DT's (hitting bottom) as similar to some LSD experiences. However, the DT's can kill you. They thought that maybe they could induce the DT's (often the turning point in a recovering alcoholics life) without the detrimental physical effects by giving alcoholics a dose of LSD - here is the important part - in a nurturing environment. Why? Good question. Because we are simulating the DT's, a BAD trip, not one of the good trips that keep psychedelic drug users coming back.

So, now we have a "more credible" group trying to replicate this amazing result. They felt that they should determine the effects of LSD on the alcoholics in isolation, so they blind-folded or tied up their participants before giving them the drug. They found in these cases that it had no effect on treating alcoholism.

Oh Come On... How could this possibly be considered a valid control?!

Do you have to know people who have tripped to understand that restraining someone on LSD is NEVER a good idea? If you are the kind of person who would never think of taking such drugs personally, can you even responsibly ask such questions?

If you didn't read the article I linked to, take a few minutes to go back and read it, it is an historical account and remarkably easy to read (for a scientific paper). And you may be interested to know that researchers at Harvard (read: credible) have been given approval to start experimenting with LSD. Maybe this study could make a real-life difference, even if a little late.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I'm still here

The Science on Tap event post Seattle Times article was a huge success, and a huge breakdown. We had over a hundred people crowded into our little pub, standing room only. Apparently as many people couldn't even make it in the door. We are working out getting the video of the talk on-line so people can at least see that portion of the event.

It was an extraordinary evening. If the crowds keep up; however, we may have to find a bigger venue. I love the Ravenna 3rd place bookstore for this event so the thought of leaving makes me sad.

Friday, September 22, 2006


I think one reason science, while admired and appreciated, gets such a bad rap from the general public is that anything that doesn't fall under the domain of the Scientific Method is summarily dismissed.

What I mean by the Scientific Method is first, your subject of interest must be observable, then you must be able to describe this subject with enough clarity to hypothesize how it works. From your hypothesis, you would then make predictions about your subject of interest, and you would create and carry out experiments to test your predictions. The experiment part is often repeated many times to determine if the hypothesis is accurate.

There are a lot of things that don't fall under the domain of the Scientific Method, which doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't true. It just means that it is silly to look at them from a scientific viewpoint. Now this little prelude is not leading up to some deep discussion of pseudoscience or religion or the paranormal.

Old Wives Tales.

There are reasons these things stick around.

1) They have been around for a while (hence "old")
2) Wives tell them so they should be believed
3) If you say something enough times it's gotta be true, right?

How about the one: "It's fun until someone loses an eye?"

Should we subject this one to the Scientific Method? Or should we just take it at face value?

Apparently we should subject it to the Scientific Method. Did you know that the seemingly playful activity of egging a person (throwing an egg at someone, i.e. a politician) can actually cause damage if it hits them in the eye? Warning: This link will take you to the actual article published in a british medical journal.

As a science communicator I constantly comb the scientific literature for what is going on and to see what is relevant to me and to you. I have noticed that - in this blog - I tend to pick on studies that seem ridiculous and "why botherish". I guess one of my big beefs is that not everything should be submitted to the Scientific Method. The Scientific Method is a good way to test a hypothesis, but some things just need to be taken on faith.

Also this kind of stuff is really easy to talk about.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Science on Tap in the news

...well in the Northwest Life section actually.

I'm so proud of this. I've got a couple accountabilities in my life that I love to do so much, I'd do them for free. This is one of them.

I'd love to see you at one.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Do plants feel pain?

I'm sitting here avoiding doing the work I'm supposed to be doing, but I've got a really good reason... Construction workers outside my window are tearing up the grounds around the building across the street. Watching them tear up the shrubbery this morning made me wonder if they were going to get to the 3 story tall cedar next to the building, and sure enough it just went down.

Watching the big truck with the shovel on the end (yea, I'm a scientist not an engineer) wrestle this thing to the ground was intense. I was actually saddened by the death of this tree and wondered if it felt anything as it was being ripped to shreds. Of course I have the internet at my finger tips and I found this video of a plant being tortured while hooked up to a polygraph.

A polygraph measures the galvanic skin response or the change in electrical resistance between two electrodes hooked to something (i.e. a liar, or in this case, a plant under duress). They measured a response whether the plant was merely being slapped, or was being blasted by a fire extinguisher. Now, a lot of work has been done by various men to show that when a human is distressed by something (even unconsciously) their galvanic skin response registers a change. I'm not sure enough work has been done in the field of plant psychology to say that this is also true of plants. Although, it makes absolute sense that a tree in danger would have some means to communicate to it's neighbors that something dangerous is happening.

This does bring to mind; however, an almost buried Deep Thoughts quote by Jack Handy:

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remember-Forget 9/11

Five years after that surreal day, I'm surprised at the upwelling of feeling. If you turn on the TV at all today, all you see are tributes and remembrances. We are flying our American flag, which only seems appropriate. And yet I'm curious at my own annoyance at being reminded of that whole day. I do remember thinking that I would never forget, and that it was horrifying and could only bring about a new era for Americans, I mean, look at how we pulled together after that day.

So why, a mere five years later am I scoffing at movies designed just to make sure we don't forget? I haven't seen United 93, have you? And it's not just that things don't look like I wanted them to look 5 years later, because I have the same feelings about the Columbine massacre. I don't want to hear about it.

Freud - no matter what you may think of him - did suggest that we humans have a unique ability to suppress memories that are unpleasant or highly stressful. That theory had been controversial until 2004 when we (not like I had anything to do with it, scientists just like to speak in the third person) found through neuro-imaging that we can suppress remembering the same way we suppress a voluntary muscle movement. So remembering the events of that day five years ago is going to take actively generating remembering.

And I did say I wouldn't forget... I guess I will be seeing United 93 after all.

Editor's note: Slate has an interesting take on a picture from 9/11 that hasn't been shown until now because of it's "disturbing" nature.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Walking... 60 miles

It's such a small thing, walking. I mean we do it everyday. Most of us don't even have to think about it, it's automatic. But I have to hand it to the folks who put on the Breast Cancer 3-Day here in Seattle, turning something so mundane into something so significant, so monumental... That was a work of art.

It is walking 60 miles mind you, which is pretty significant - 20 miles a day, for three days in a row.

I did this walk last year, and just like childbirth, I forgot the painful parts until I was there again this year. It's why I have three kids, and why I'll walk again next year too.

You have to be pretty determined, to ask people for money, to train, to be willing to ask for or just allow yourself to be helped along the way... of course then there is the determination to just keep walking. Although I promised I would train better (ok, train period) this year, I did not set up a plan to make sure that happened, and Friday I was in pain near the end of the route - turns out my IT band was snapping past a bone in my knee and walking downhill was unbearable.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Self, given what she has shared, why would she do it again next year?!"

Because when I walk across an intersection, I don't get a round of applause or a volley of horns. I don't have toddlers standing in the middle of the side-walk high fiving me and saying "good job". I don't normally have men giving me flowers just for walking. I don't have people handing me popsicles because I'm walking and it's hot outside. None of these things happen to me on an ordinary day, but they happened everyday for three days because I was walking. Walking on this event had me be part of something really extraordinary, something much bigger than me, and something that makes such a difference. It makes a difference not just to those who get the funds we raised, but it makes a profound difference for those of us who walk.

Walking and fund-raising makes abundantly clear how many people are touched by breast cancer. Not just those who lose someone to it, but those whose family member had to sit through the diagnosis and then who had to survive the treatment. And the treatment at this stage of our medical know-how consists of poisoning the patient with the intent of killing the cancer before the patient dies. The moment you are touched by anyone who has gone through this experience, walking 60 miles over three days - even with a sore knee - is trivial.

I was honored to have Doris Copenhaver on my team; a bunch o' boobs (that was our team name not just a description of us as a group). Doris' two daughters, Kirsten and Dana, her partner, Leslie, and I all walked in honor of her. There were 350 survivors on the walk with us, not only did they fight breast cancer, but they walked the 3-day as well. My hat's off to you, Doris.

The experience was amazing, fulfilling, completely confronting, and such an opportunity... an opportunity to see yourself at your best and your worst. My juvenile sense of humor could be said to be both. Somewhere past the 10 mile mark, I started to get delirious. Seriously, fart jokes can be funny again. One of my team-mates said at one point "she farted so loud, I had to check my own pants"! (yea, I guess you had to be there). And I probably don't need to tell you that there was a plethora of boob jokes, 'cause there were hundreds of boob jokes. The van with "SAVE THE TATA's" on the side, the man who filled our water and thanked us because he was "a big fan of breasts", they were so amazing to have out supporting us.

But when I say see ourselves at our worst, having to battle with my mind while walking that much, hoo! My mind is a big proponent of "I can't", and every time my mind said that, I couldn't. Funny how that works eh? I had to be transported a couple of times to have someone look at my knee, which of course separated me from my team, and I don't do well when I'm all by myself. Don't get me wrong, I THINK I can do all right by myself, so I left everyone behind and walked a two whole miles by myself. It was the slowest most painful part of the walk for me. And those of you who know me, know I'm pretty upbeat, but everyone who passed me on that short leg of the walk asked me if I was ok.

My team did catch up with me, Thank you Kirsten for being so great with me, and graciously showed me that nothing big I ever take on can be done all by my lonesome. Thanks bunch o' boobs, thanks Morgan, Scott, Alexis, Sydney and Cam for being there on the route to cheer me on, and thanks especially to all of you who supported me financially. It was extraordinary.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

When does Science Fiction become fact?

I am a big fan of SciFi. Good science fiction is my favorite way to escape from life's more pressing and mundane matters. Now when I say "good", I mean that there is real science in it. Nothing annoys me more that to have a character peer through a microscope to determine the chemical structure of some liquid they found, or some other such nonsense.

I'm also a big fan of having science be accessible to the general public. Which is often difficult given how pedantic and obsfuscating us scientists tend to be. Which is why I am an organizer for Science on Tap. At these events, we bring in a scientist and - if you are so inclined - we drink beer and ask the scientist all those questions we would never dare to ask in an academic setting.

Last monday, we didn't have a scientist at our event, we had Michael Laine, President of the Liftport Groups. Liftport is planning on building a space elevator. Now this is definitely science fiction, has been for over a century, yet we are now at a point where it is starting to encroach on the realm of the possible. All that means however, is now we can actually start to realistically ask the questions that will have this dream take on life and alter the way we see ourselves in the universe, or fade back into the realm of someday. One thing that is becoming clear, is that even if we don't/can't build one on earth, this is an entirely viable option for the other celestial bodies we colonize, oh wait, that part is still science fiction too.

At next month's event we delve back into the world of hard science, string theory. Actually that in itself is a little joke; a Columbia University Mathematician has come out with a book that poo-poos the whole theory, Not Even Wrong. Next months talk should be lively, yes even for those of you who can't possibly think of a talk about string theory being lively.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mean girls, it's not just a white thing you know.

Ok, maybe I do like to pick on "should this really be a study?" studies. I should have some compassion, I did get my Ph.D. on "A kinetic analysis of the novel states of the human formyl peptide receptor". Really. You can look it up if you want.

A grad student is studying the phenomenon of "mean girls", something we have all had experience with. She is studying in particular the fact that this is not just a white girl thing, apparently girls of other races do it too...

Hellooo. Didn't you see "Bring it on"? Yeah, probably not. I have the excuse of being mom to two pre-teen girls. So I can see bad movies and not look the worse for it. Both of my daughters are navigating the "mean girl" waters nicely. My problem is getting them to recognise that often they are the "mean girls".

She is also going to study this phenomenon in older women. I think the best thing about growing up is when we work out that we don't need that kind of interaction anymore. This weekend I won't be blogging as I am walking with thousands of women (and a few extraordinary men) in the Breast Cancer 3-day. I will be walking 60 miles over the weekend. I did this walk last year and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. The part that moves me the most is being thanked by women who have survived cancer, and families who have lost someone to it. It makes walking 60 miles seem trivial.

Here's to growing out of the "mean girl" stage.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dude... it's really not that big a deal.

Like I said earlier I'm not attached, but then I'm not in Prague this week settling the "is Pluto really a planet?" debate.

You know, there are other battles on the planet that we should probably be paying attention to... hell, lets pay attention to the one that might actually get resolved this decade.

Check this out, the battle is heating up - these normally stoic scientists are interrupting each other, generally getting huffy [committee member Richard Binzel of MIT told the delegates: "You can vote based on physics, or maybe you have some preconceived idea of what a planet should be."] and now they have to go into closed session to determine whether Pluto gets to stay in the club.

Please, what's the big deal? We've gone decades with this ambiguous definition of a planet, why be so exclusive? Of course, they are scientists, and we scientists do tend to be hard-core about some things. We tend to think that what we do is describe things as they really are. Oh come on, we make up this crap, just like everyone else. And although it may make no sense, physics-wise, to keep Pluto a planet, it is a sentimental thing. Oh yea, I'm a scientist, I have no sentiment.

But then, when I asked my daughter, she said it really is a big deal to ask her to memorize another two or three (maybe more) planets. Although she did come up with this... (said with a whatever attitude) My Very Excellent Mother Can't Just Serve Up Nine Crusty Pizzas...Xena.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The other sensory organ...

One of the things you will find out about me if you associate with me long enough, is my fascination with the immune system. The immune system is the element of the body that makes legitimate the adage "what doesn't kill you just makes you stronger".

Since I was in graduate school, I have followed the work of those in the field of Neuroimmunomodulation. A really big word that suggests that the immune system and our brain are intimately involved in each others workings. For those of you not in this line of work, that may seem obvious; however, once you are trained as a biomedical scientist you tend to think of the body as several systems working independant of each other. It makes it easier to study them. So those who study the connections between the brain and the immune system have often been relegated to the controversial or fringe sections of the party.

I tend to think of the immune system as a sensory organ for the brain. The brain doesn't get out much, it's pretty difficult to get past the skull and getting into the brain through the blood is highly regulated by the blood-brain-barrier. So if there really is a mind-body connection like so many of us granola types believe, the brain's gotta be getting it's information from somewhere. One place to look is for ways that the central nervous system and the immune system could communicate.

A recent Harvard study explains how a molecule that until now has been relegated to the immune system, plays an important role in the brains ability to make new connections. Something important only if you want to remember things. Not bad for a molecule thought only to train immune cells who to kill. This study is important because any molecule involved in regenerating neural pathways - say after an injury - is a hot topic (think Christopher Reeves). Of course I (and a few others) would think "what is a respectable immune protein doing in that neck of the woods?"

But even cooler than that (yes, I have been called a nerd for this kind of enthusiasm), immunological synapses (pretty picture too) - structures that were thought to reside only in the brain - have been found in the body. Of course it could be that my brain just looks for these connections cause I want to see them.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Unbelievable... TV dulls pain

This may come as a shock to those who have never owned (or seen, or been around) a television, but apparently watching tv is distracting enough that it can be called analgesic... it dulls pain.

It takes me back to those nights when I would watch 4 Tivo'd episodes of "24" in a row, just to forget that I didn't want to do my assignments and couldn't bear the thought of going back to work the next morning. 'Course having a beer always enhanced the experience I was going for... hmmm, maybe they should study the analgesic effects of beer...

Now, you may get the sense that I'm a little cynical; I am concerned about the kinds of studies that get funded, especially when funding is so hard to come by these days.* Actually, I can't help but pick fun at studies that maybe should remain anecdotal.

There is something good to say about this study, however; using tv as an analgesic for small children undergoing routine procedures (blood draws) is a cheap, non-invasive and apparently effective way to decrease the stress of the procedure. Finding another use for tv besides "babysitter" is laudable. Not that I do that, by the way.

* This study was performed in Italy, not in the U.S.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ceres, welcome to the cool kids table.

I'm not attached or anything, so I thought expanding the definition of a planet to include all objects big enough to be round was pretty cool.

Yes, it is a compromise between the hard-core planetologists - who insist that only objects that were involved in the formation of the solar system should be defined as planets - and the lay person - who cannot part with the idea that our beloved Pluto isn't really a planet.

It's a simple scientific definition of what a planet is, but it makes our solar system a whole lot more complex.

For instance... did you know that there is a planet - albeit a dwarf one - between Mars and Jupiter?! How cool is that? And were not sure yet, but there may be more dwarf planets in the asteroid belt. And what about Pluto and Charon (formerly known as the moon of Pluto)? They actually make up a binary planetary system! And apparently there are a whole schlew of planets - maybe hundreds - in the reaches beyond Pluto that include the recently found 2003 UB313.

Maybe it's just me, but I've got a new found interest in the solar system. It's like when I learned to ride the bike and found a much bigger world beyond my own little neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

This is the start of a discourse.

What?! Aren't there enough blogs out there talking about science? Of course there are, but I don't write any of them. So here's mine.