Archive for January, 2008

January 2008 Rap-Up

A lot has happened in the world of science since the New Year and the only way to really express the discoveries and controversies is through a free-form rap.

Science Metropolis
is growing in fits
and there’s more to come 
if I can get more than three hits.
In the past four weeks
as the daily planet turned
methadone deaths rose
and humans were cloned
An outbreak of staph
was found in gay men
and a cholesterol debate
was sparked by Vytorin.
Cholera is spreading
through birds at Salt Lake
and a doctor in Boston can
now transplant kidneys that take


A bacteria was built
from artificial genes  
and cases of autism
linked to chromosome 16.
Meat from cloned animals
passed the test,
though the general population
doesn’t think it’s the best.
Henry Fountain at the Times
wrote about two new species:
A snail with several coils
and a kamikaze tree.
The trend of stem cell banking
is growing in the U.S.
and did you hear Columbus
may have spread syphilis?
So keep scanning the news
for scientific feats
and this humble Website
will produce the beats. 


Posted by Joseph, under science rap-up  |  Date: January 31, 2008
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Superbowl Special: Drug Commercials


Superbowl Sunday is soon upon us and Bostonians are ready for a fight. (I can tell because of the drive-by heckling I receive for having New York-license plates). As a non-sports fan I’m nonpartisan. The victories I’m looking for are good commercials.

A Boston Globe editorial yesterday by Monique Doyle Spencer, a columnist and wife to a football fan breaks down the person these commercials aim for according to the drug advertisements – “A guy with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hair loss.”

Pharmaceutical companies will be playing also this Sunday, says Spencer, and it will be to deceive viewers into buying their product. She humorously argues for drug ads to be banned from television, yearning for the good old days when she didn’t have to have to explain ED to her child.

In light of the recent controversy over cholesterol drugs, I thought it would be fun to examine how some drugs in the news are advertised. Harmless or harmful? In Fox fashion, you decide:

Vytorin – The biggest news maker, no mention of how the drug addresses both genetics and the environment:
Lipitor – The competitor. Interesting how he says we’re still learning about the drug.
Mirapex – For Restless Leg Syndrome. Some controversy over the condition’s medicalization.
Celebrex – An arthritis drug – I couldn’t stop laughing.

So enjoy the commercials, and hopefully for Boston, there will be a parade on Super Tuesday.

Posted by Joseph, under specials  |  Date: January 30, 2008
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News to Watch: Advancing the Artificial Nose


Those in the artificial nose business dream of the day their products equal or surpass the olfactory repertoire of the real thing. For now, the human nose comes pre-packaged with a wider selection and faster detection of smells than any electronic device.

Neuroscientists at Tufts University School of Medicine who double as officers for the North Andover-based company CogniScent Inc may soon close this gap. Their research, published on PLOS Biology last week, found two new roles for single-stranded DNA: One as the latest in odor-sensing technology and the other as a possible small molecule receptor.

The detector works after attaching a florescent marker (Cy-3) to the end of a DNA strand and drying it onto a solid surface. From there it glows after exposures to various odor molecules. Some used in the experiments were methanol, DNT (previously undetectable by any other device) and propionic acid, all toxic in some way. In the long run this technology will benefit safety inspectors and law enforcement, the most likely customers for electronic noses.

The mechanism for making DNA glow is still not well understood. The researchers guess it is brought on by changes the three-dimension shape caused by binding to the correct odor molecule. It’s been known for a long time that DNA binds molecules in the nucleus, but this research raises the possibility for other receptor-roles in the cell.

From a business perspective DNA is cost-cutters dream. It is cheap and easy to replicate, once you have a DNA sequence that detects the odor you want, simply run it through an assay for more. This also has the potential for mass-production if they can make the detection devices small enough.

Just one cautionary note, while peer-reviewed this research has yet to be replicated and more reporting needs to be done on possible limitations before it is certain this is a true step forward for the field.

The paper:

White J, Truesdell K, Williams LB, AtKisson MS, Kauer JS (2008) Solid-state, dye-labeled DNA detects volatile compounds in the vapor phase. PLoS Biol 6(1): e9. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060009

For more information, check out “DNA-based Artificial Nose” in Technology Review.

Posted by Joseph, under news  |  Date: January 28, 2008
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On Camera: The Brain Fitness Program



It’s happened to all us. We’re flipping through the channels when suddenly appears a pretty middle-aged woman telling us how important donating to public television is. It’s addicting to watch. You see what gifts they have to offer and smile at their comments about the quality program you’re currently enjoying.As “The Brain Fitness Program” aired on WGBH over the weekend, they were especially witty: “It helps me remember names and phone numbers…. One number I do remember is the number at the bottom of your screen.”

For this fundraiser, however, it seems PBS sold out. “The Brain Fitness Program,” explaining the science of neuroplasticity, was actually a “documercial” – a documentary selling a product. The show explained how our brain learns and forms new memories and how all us can bring about positive and negative plasticity. What causes negative plasticity? Aging of course. What causes positive plasticity? Paying hundreds of dollars to play six computer games sold by Posit Science.

The main neuroscience expert in the show was Dr. Michael Merzenich, the chief scientific officer for Posit Science and a businessman. It’s like having Ronald McDonald give expert advice on how hamburgers are good for you. Most of the science was sound, as dull as it was presented. Things began to get spun, however, when phrases such as “harnessing the power of positive plasticity” were thrown about, not to mention the bias. Some scientists may not agree playing computer games retains mental agility or there is even a “brain age.”

Most bothersome was how the donation gifts were also commercials in disguise.Here’s the breakdown:

$50 – Brain Fitness Home Primer – “Cognitive tests you can take in your home. Designed to be administered by friends or family members”

$90 – The Brain That Changed Itself by Dr. Norman Doige, also on the company’s payroll.

$120 – The Brain Fitness Program DVD with Bonus Material (45 minutes of interviews!)

$365 – All of the above plus the The Brain Fitness Gym. CD ROM with 40 1-hour sessions.

What happened to the tote bags? So the public television viewer spends the least amount for the free gift of The Brain Fitness Home Primer. They take the test and find, to their surprise, their brain age isn’t that high. It is then recommended they buy the full program for $400 or more.

The business of mental aging has been growing over the past decade. With video games for adults to keep the brain sharp and crossword puzzles touted as the first defense against dementia it makes sense for PBS to partner with Posit Science, their viewers are mostly older people concerned about their mental agility. But it’s important to also mention the jury is still out on how big a difference a card-match computer game a day will have in preventing the inevitable senior moment.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 27, 2008

Mr. Caputo Explains Thermostats


After the MLK holiday, it was time for my next assignment as a newly hired science teacher for a small company in Massachusetts that programs extracurricular and in-school classes for elementary and middle school students.The topic this time was thermostats. Conceptually easy enough: It’s hot, switch on, it’s cold switch off. Modern units often use a bi-metallic coil, which moves in one direction as the heat rises and the other as it cools so both extremes can be controlled.

The project, however, was a bit trickier. I was to help each 3rd to 8th grade kid in the group make a thermostat that turns on and off when the air inside a balloon-covered cup expanded or contracted in hot or cold water.

A little more complicated but it could be done. When I began to get nervous was a few days before when I was told this group of kids had some learning disabilities but were very high functioning. Just repeat things a couple of times and give them extra time after asking a question said the dean of the school.

The afternoon of the class, after setting up the materials and gathering the group, I knew I was in for it. My getting to know you exercise quickly fizzled, I couldn’t give them time to think about questions because two kids kept on raising their hands right away to give me wrong answers, and no one wanted to volunteer to be molecules for my ingenious explanation of what happens to gas molecules when they are heated.The moment I thought I had captured their attention, someone called out, “When can we do our projects?” That’s when I knew I had the power. “Well, gee” I thought aloud, “I’d really like to get to the projects, but I just want to make sure you understand how it works.”

Having to now be a disciplinarian, I began to use years of tactics teachers used on me to get the kids to behave: “I already explained this but you were talking, you’re going to have to ask you’re neighbor,” or “If you’re listening, raise your hand.”
In the end the projects were completed and parents were impressed. Sure the balloons wouldn’t fit on the cups and some of the pieces were in the wrong directions, but as long as their light bulb went off to show the switch worked, they were happy.

I on the other hand, felt like I had failed. I spent so much time preparing an explanation of the science, I thought they would be at the edge of their seats in fascination. It made me wonder how many times one of my teachers left the classroom unsure if they made a difference. I guess I’ll have to go back next week a little wiser and try again.

Posted by Joseph, under Mr. Caputo  |  Date: January 25, 2008
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Lecture Notes: Your Inner Fish


Some people collect stamps, others collect bugs; I collect autographed science and medical books. My newest addition is a book by Dr. Neil Shubin, a fish paleontologist and author of “Your Inner Fish: A journey into the 11-million-history of the human body” who spoke at Harvard Book Store this evening. 

Dr. Shubin made the news in 2004 with the discovery of Tiktaalik, which he described as a “fishapod,” the intermediary between life on water and life on land. After spending a few summers in the Canadian arctic searching unsuccessfully for such a species, he uncovered a site rich with fish skeletons. A team member came across an unidentifiable snout sticking out of the rock and soon multiple skeletons of the proto-amphibian were available to science.

In addition to being a fish paleontologist, Dr. Shubin is a professor of anatomy. He calls his book, which goes into detail about his discovery, its implications and his personal story, a book about our bodies. He says his background gives him an advantage as an anatomist. Many of the structures seen in primitive organisms, from worms to fish are the same structures in humans. “We unlock this history as we compare ourselves to creatures living and dead,” he said.

After his talk, it didn’t take long for audience members to raise questions on creationism and evolution, to which Dr. Shubin gave soundbyte-worthy responses. “I need a theory that allows me to work,” he said and with science he can ask questions. “ID [Intelligent design] feels like a philosophy of failure,” he added, “a retreat to superstition.”

Someone inquired on whether or not Dr. Shubin believes his discovery will change the minds of creationists. “I doubt it,” he responded and continued to defend the science. “If I found a human skull next to a Tiktaalic skull I’d be devastated,” he said, but we have 1000 years worth of evidence that evolution is correct.

He had not originally intended his book for non-science audiences. It was with the help of his father, a mystery writer who Dr. Shubin joked never understood what his son did for a living, whos comments allowed him to write a better book. His father’s main advice was simple but effective, “No one ever lost money writing a page-turner.”

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes, reviews  |  Date: January 24, 2008

People I Admire: Chris Mooney


The first time I read something by Chris Mooney, I was in a college laundry room. He would be on a panel I wanted to attend on intelligent design so as I waited for my delicates to dry, I cracked open his 2005 book The Republican War on Science.It is hard not to like the person Chris Mooney represents. He is young, politically active, a science journalist and successful. After graduated from Yale in 1999, he has gone on to be one of the most recognized and published-writers in the area of science and policy.

In this past week alone I came across three new pieces he published: One on the future of the blogging business in the Columbia Journalism Review, a book review on climatologist James Hansen for New Scientist, and an essay calling for a science debate for the presidential candidates in the newest issues of SEED (There’s no link but here’s a blog entry by him on a similar subject). In addition, he blogs at The Intersection, speaks at national conventions and colleges, and just finished his second book Storm World last spring (Reviewed by the co-director of my program Ellen Ruppel Shell in The Boston Globe).

In brief, he does a lot and as an aspiring science journalist myself, I have to wonder how. It’s obvious he’s well connected but it also seems he writes many opinion pieces and blogs, which while taking a fair bit of research and thought are a bit easier to write than a series of features. I’m guessing he puts the most time-consuming work into writing books.

Chris Mooney also stands out to me because he is an activist for science. For a field that is often so quiet when it comes to politics and society he gives scientists and researchers a voice. This is not to say he is a biased reporter, but in articles where he expresses his opinion, he is not afraid to be critical.

As a reader of his work, I value his opinions because he is so informed and often brings new perspectives into his writing. His are the articles I put down and am changed. His coverage of science journalism in the developing world (In which my professor Phil Hilts is quoted) made me appreciate my first amendment rights and the role of the journalist in society. His SEED piece on calling for a presidential science debate encouraged me to become a supporter of the cause.

After a conversation I had today, I’ve realized how important it is for a writer to be useful to their audience. He does this by encouraging readers to be better journalists, scientists, but most of all citizens.

Posted by Joseph, under science writing  |  Date: January 22, 2008
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Health Insurance: A Rite of Passage


When the first bill came in the mail for a recent hospital visit, I thought it was a mistake. I was 20 and in college and under my mother’s plan so everything should have been taken care of. If you have insurance you don’t pay medical bills, right?Well they continued to come until “Final Notice” became burned onto the envelopes. Then the debt collectors called and I didn’t know what to say. My insurance should have covered it I told them, but they didn’t care, I was just another person with a story.

With Massachusetts residents now required by law to have health insurance, I worry what will happen when I graduate. Plagued by a lifetime of loans and an inflating rent check will I be forced to pay for a plan that doesn’t guarantee I will be fully covered in an emergency?

I’m not alone. The Boston Phoenix also pondered the plight of the young last October in two reports titled: Guinea pigs – The future of the nation’s health-care reform rests on the tattooed shoulders of Massachusetts’s young adults and Insure this! Why some twentysomethings won’t buy health insurance – even though it means they’ll be breaking the law.

To summarize, us young people are running on hope. Hope that we never fall off our bicycles and hope we never end up in the hospital. At the same time I look at people in their 30s and 40s and they are o.k. They can pay their taxes, have a mortgage and aren’t bankrupt. But where do you learn the skills of dealing with an insurance company? Is it all trial and error?

Apparently yes, according to a story told in the Boston Globe by Alison Bass. Her op-ed in Monday’s paper, appropriately titled An underinsured kick in the groin, describes her failed attempt at convincing an insurance company she had the legal right not to pay her son’s emergency room bills. Her biggest asset was the advice from a Boston nonprofit that helps people negotiate medical bills called The Access project.

If my experience as 20-year-old is just the beginning of the many battles to come over my health, then be educated on your rights as a patient is up their with wear a seatbelt, look both ways before you cross, and floss.

Posted by Joseph, under health  |  Date: January 21, 2008

On Camera: Mapping Stem Cells


The debate over stem cells has been noisy. The raised voices of politicians berating an established anti-science administration. The protests of ordinary people holding signs declaring murder. The phone calls by patient advocates to friends and strangers for their cause.

Beneath the clamor are the stories of ordinary people, whose often-silent battles have been shaping a different kind of stem-cell narrative. Two such stories made tonight’s WGBH premier of “Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita” reach across a rhetoric of science vs. religion to convey a universal story about how human suffering inspires a passion to heal.

The first featured Dr. Jack Kessler, an established neuroscientist at Northwestern University, who changed the direction of his research after a skiing accident left his daughter Allison paralyzed from the waist down. In interviews he describes the months spent educating himself on stem cell research, building a laboratory and hiring staff to focus specifically on how to use the controversial practice to regrow neuronal connections in the backbone of mammals. The film then does an excellent job of bringing viewers into the laboratory and explaining in plain English why and how the research is conducted.

What Maria Finitzo’s film does more beautifully, however, is show how his work has a clear agenda. Dr. Kessler is depicted as a man who out of love for his daughter becomes obsessed with fixing her. <!–[if !vml]–>StemCell.JPG<!–[endif]–>”He wishes he can speed up the process,” Allison says of her father’s research. He admits she gets mad at him for it. Through his actions, the viewer learns the long-term effects of the accident aren’t just her disability; Dr. Kessler is using science to fulfill a personal quest. “There’s this dagger that doesn’t go away,” he says.

The second narrative features Carrie Kaufman, a 22-year-old college student who became paralyzed from the waist down after a diving accident. The viewer comes to know Ms. Kaufman through the eyes of her parents. A woman who will never again play the piano and who is not asking for miracles from science, just the ability to move her right hand again. In the most moving scene of the film, she convinces her father to allow her to dorm at DePaul University, where she was accepted to study psychology. He tries to persuade her out of it as tears form in his eyes, the camera revealing a quieter toll from her injury. The stem cell issue isn’t just about repairing broken spines; it’s about broken hearts.

The film on the whole avoids the political debate by allowing ethicists from both sides to comment, but it is hard to ignore the hope in the eyes of Dr. Kessler who is clear where he stands: “I’m a physician. I absolutely reject anybody who tells me it’s wrong to alleviate suffering.”


Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 20, 2008

Campus Greening: Learning by Example


Nothing can stop the campus greening movement. The umbrella term describing the set of environmentally-friendly policies being implemented by colleges and universities nationwide is charging everything from better recycling programs to solar-powered dormitories.

There is a range, however, in how much each institution is doing to change its behavior and reduce carbon-based practices. A lot of why is tied to money, but equally important is the initiative taken by students, faculty and staff.

On the low end of the spectrum is Boston University, it has the money but lacks the initiative. The student newspaper reported last February, BU scored a “D” on an campus sustainability report card and from the interviews it reflects the administration cared more about the legitimacy of the surveyors than reflecting on why the grade was received. BUGreen.jpgThe university has a “greening the campus” Web site, but it has not been updated since last spring.

While reporting in September on what BU students knew about the greening actions, those I interviewed said they either didn’t care about global warming or were in the dark about any actions the university was taking. One positive is a group let by graduate students called The BU Energy Club, which came together in October to host events on issues of energy and climate change.

In the middle is my alma mater Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester, NY. It lacks the money, but has the initiative, which began with members of the administration and spread from the students all the way up to college president. Although many “carbon-footprint” related changes have yet to take place because of cost, a sustainability committee open to the entire college community has decided on some smaller steps to put into action. In addition, I reported last spring on a student sustainability group hosting education-related events for the SLC. community on climate change that had some of the best turnouts for any student-run club.

At the far end is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an institution with the initiative and the money. Ten years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency likened MIT to a factory after fining it $55,000 for multiple waste management violations throughout it’s over 2,000 laboratories. Now, after devoting much of that money to environmentally-related campaigns, it is one of the most promising places for research in sustainable energy. The M.I.T. Energy Initiative, a committee with representatives from every part of the campus began in the fall of 2006 and now is a star example of what university can do to combat climate change, including partnering with solar research firms and providing classes directly related to alternative energy.

Of all the “greening” actions institutions of higher education can take, the most important is giving students a stake in these movements. Global warming will be a big part of their adulthood and providing classes and events to learn about the science as well as the connected social and political issues is the only way a university can fulfill its mission to shape citizens of the world.

Posted by Joseph, under environment  |  Date: January 19, 2008
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