Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why no woman in science?

Recently some baybs have complained that the bayblab is too male-centric, and doesn't devote enough exposure to woman scientist. Part of the problem is that there isn't many of them out there. Now I'm not saying they lack the capacity for a successful career in science, in fact judging from my experience, it's just the opposite. Many assume that woman choose to get out of science because it is incompatible with family life. In fact, I think it's deeper than that. I think they avoid science as a career because they are smarter, better planners, and more likely to admit mistakes, and less likely to become obsessed about their career than man. I'm not saying saying science isn't a viable career, I'm simply saying it's not a very rational choice. Not just on an economic sense, but also in a quality of life sense.

I suggest you read this essay. Here is a sample question that explains the male-female dichotomy in science:

"From Geoff B: Perhaps men have a greater buffer of time to recover from career mistakes. I actually know a couple of guys who got PhD's, then went to MBA or JD degrees. While they may have enjoyed their PhD programs (heh), from an earning standpoint they probably wasted a good 5-7 years. But they can just pretend that those 5-7 years never existed. A 40 year old man can get married to a 31-year-old woman, and just pretend he's 31. Happens all the time. It's harder for women to pull this off. So maybe math and science PhD's are just another incarnation of the recklessness of youth - something men have historically been able to indulge in, without the consequences women would experience.

From me (responding to someone who asked how I would change the incentives so that more women would be attracted to science): What's my idea for changing the incentives? I don't have any. I'm not one of the people who complains that there aren't enough women working as professors, janitors, or whatever. For whatever reason we've decided that science in America should be done by low-paid immigrants. They seem to be doing a good job. They are cheap. They are mostly guys, like other immigrant populations. If smart American women choose to go to medical, business, and law school instead of doing science, and have fabulous careers, I certainly am not going to discourage them. Imagine if one of those kind souls that Summers was speaking to had taken Condoleezza Rice aside and told her not to waste time with political science because physics was so much more challenging. Just think how far she might have gone..."


Great Pacific Garbage Patch

I was just informed about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, on the always good Informationaddiction. I can't believe I've never heard of this Texas sized landfill that floats in the currents in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unreal. Just thought I'd post it so you have to know about it now too.


Halloween Grant Application


The pumpkin is clearly the most frightening fruit. Large and orange are distinctive features of the pumpkin. Since other large fruit such as squash, pineapple and watermelon are not nearly as scary, the terror of the pumpkin must be a result of its pigment. In the tradition of scientific biological reductionism, we attempt here, instead of merely trying to bring forth pumpkin fueled fear using crude carving, to isolate the pigment of pumpkin panic. This work is the first step towards purification of a fear inducing pigment and in the future, in conjunction with the pumpkin genome project, will aid in producing Jack O’Lanterns of unparalleled horror.


Figure 1: Acetone soluble horror inducing pigments separated by TLC. Lane one contains pigments prepared from whole pumpkin homogenate. (Whole pumpkin homogenate required the sacrifice of the pumpkin given to the Bell lab for carving). Lane two contains acetone soluble pigments from far less frightening fruit. Pigments were separated by 100% methanol. A sense of dread emanates from the indicated band that is clearly more abundant and less masked by other pigments in the acetone soluble pigments of the pumpkin.

Figure 2: Florescent compounds that may contribute to the pumpkins spookyness under blacklight are visible on the chromatogram from Fig 1.


While a uniquely terrifying pigment was not isolated with this method it is clear that a particularly abundant band of horror (Band Of hOrror) BOO is evident in the acetone soluble whole pumpkin extract. More sophisticated techniques will be required to identify BOO in order to create super terrifying Jack O’Lanterns. Also human aversion to pumpkin based products due to the fear they induce could be alleviated using BOO knockout pumpkins.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

James Dewey Watson's Scientific Wisdom of the Week

Jim Watson has been taking a lot of flak lately for talking beyond his expertise. So this feature will convey his wisdom on being a molecular biologist, a topic he should know a thing or two about.

"1. Two obsessions are one too many
Experiments, like many speculative enterprises, are likely to require at least five times more effort than you initially guess. Being a really good anything - be it university president, violinist, securities lawyer, or a scientist - requires a virtually obsessive devotion to ones' objective. Dividing one's attention will give the edge to competitors who have the same talent but greater focus. For this reason, highly successful bankers who also claim to be accomplished cellists are often neither. Their banking reputation likely rests on the labors of talented associates working day and night, and their cello playing as likely suffers from the time lost to even the pretense of being a banker."

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring (Other) People - Manners Required for Academic Civility


Is science really broken?

Have you ever noticed how when you put PIs together over diner, the conversation inevitably turns to complaining about how hard and unrewarding their careers are. People like to complain: undergrads gripe about courses valuing mindless memorization over understanding, graduate students complain about being poor, post-docs about having no job prospects. But PIs really take the cake when it comes to bitterness. They complain about the incredibly poor success rates of grants, the demands of academia such as teaching and committees, the poor salaries. But worse still, they often feel like they don't get to do the very thing they so long trained for: science. Too many times have I heard an investigator say they write a grant to get it funded rather than to elucidate a particular question they think is interesting. Risk taking and real curiosity-driven research has been relegated to side-projects, when there is leftover money and spare time...
This reminds me of an opinion piece by Lee Smolin (from the perimeter institute in Waterloo) entitled "why no new Einstein?". In it Lee argues that the funding structure discourages risk taking, innovation and creativity:

"It is easy to write many papers when you continue to apply well-understood techniques. People who develop their own ideas have to work harder for each result, because they are simultaneously developing new ideas and the techniques to explore them. Hence they often publish fewer papers, and their papers are cited less frequently than those that contribute to something hundreds of people are doing."

Have things gotten worse with time? Was it really better when Einstein was around? Is it that we do not make new Einsteins, or are they not able to do their work?

This letter in response to Lee Smolin's OpEd paints a pretty bleak picture:

"Then there was DP. Not as bright as SJ, he made up in diligence and creativity what he lacked in brilliance. He gained admittance to a master's and then a doctoral program at a less prominent, large, research-oriented university. Despite having to support himself with part-time jobs, DP excelled in his doctorate, enjoyed the graduate experience, and produced six papers, most as a first author. He then became a postdoc in a well-funded laboratory associated with a famous research site. There he turned out five more papers in just three years—again, most as a first author. DP then looked for employment in physics, and received a single tentative offer, whose financing fell through. Disgusted, he left physics never to return."

This letter sums it even more colorfully:

"Today's scientists are jet-setting, grant-swinging, favor-trading hustlers looking for civil servants who will provide them with a pipeline into the US Treasury. Not only do they get peer pressure to behave this way, they also get arm-twisting from the academic bureaucracy that wants to get its 50% to pay for its bloated overhead. You can't be a used-car salesman and have deep thoughts about the structure of the universe at the same time. You've got to move product—in the case of scientists it's reports and journal publications—and keep moving it even after tenure removes some of the pressure. As for the assorted Beltway Bandits (private industries fulfilling government contract work), some of whom are quite talented, there is no tenure, only the next contract."

If creative young scientists do not get a chance to get a research job, if even established scientists are not given the support to pursue creative ideas, surely that will stifle innovation!

Perhaps innovation will come from unexpected places such as China. I was recently talking to a Chinese grad student. If you think you've got it bad here, think again. He told me of labs where 25-100 students is not uncommon and competition is fierce, where grads work everyday from 8am to midnight, and every weekend. Where he gets paid so little he can only afford the cafeteria meals and shares a room with 4 other students with a rent of $200/year. Yet they have huge modern science institute with top of the line equipment. Which means if we cannot compete in quality, we've already lost in quantity.


Off the deep end: Great scientists with not-so-great ideas

Scientists have an esteemed place in our society. I say this with an obvious degree of bias. Scientists are also human, and as such they aren't infallable. They can have biases and prejudices and crazy ideas like anybody else. They can make mistakes. Galileo didn't believe that the moon was responsible for the tides and concocted his own (incorrect) theory. Thomas Edison, in his later years, subscribed to a fad diet - consuming a pint of milk every 3 hours as his only liquid intake - to improve his health. Mendeleev believed in an aether, consisting of 2 lighter-than-hydrogen elements, permeating all matter.

Some beliefs are merely a product of the times, or big ideas that didn't pan out, others are not, but the bottom line is that scientists are not all-knowing. Expertise in one area doesn't mean expertise in all others. Here are some other examples of scientists gone astray (and all but one of them has won the Nobel prize) - and why we shouldn't take every word as truth without some critical thinking.

James Watson - The inspiration for this post requires little description, as his recent comments about African intelligence have been discussed both on this blog and throughout the blogosphere. This isn't the first time Watson has stirred controversy with his remarks. He has come under fire for comments about homosexuality, women in science, eugenics and previous racially charged remarks.

William Shockley - Another Nobel prize winner, this time for physics (1956). Shockley was concerned about a 'dysgenic' effect in the population and, like Watson, made several comments about the intelligence of people of other races. His thoughts about eugenics - he once proposed that people with below average intelligence should be paid to undergo voluntary sterilizaion - and his racist views left him ostracized by his friends and family, and his scientific accomplishments tarnished.

Sir Isaac Newton - Inventor of calculus. Father of classical mechanics. Alchemist? In between his theory of gravity and the publication of Principia Mathematica, Newton sought the fabled Philosopher's Stone despite the heavy penalties for practicing alchemy at the time. His quest to turn lead into gold was never published, but was rediscovered when John Maynard Keyes bought many of Newton's unpublished works at auction and, after learning their contents, proclaimed that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians." Newton's study of alchemy might be explained as an offshoot of his scientific study at a time when science and alchemy were intertwined, but his odd pursuits also extended to bibilical prophecy - including predictions about the end of the world.

Kary Mullis - The acid-dropping, surfing, Nobel prize winner, unsurprisingly, has his own share of controversial ideas. The inventor of PCR has been associated with Peter Duesberg in the past and has been highly skeptical of the HIV-AIDS link - making him a poster child for the HIV denialist movement. Mullis is also skeptical of man-made global warming and disagrees with the idea that CFCs cause ozone depletion. All of these views go against mainstream scientific consensus. On top of that, he's a firm believer in astrology and even devotes a chunk of his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, to its validity. Oh, and he's had a possible alien encounter with a speaking, glowing, raccoon-like creature.

Linus Pauling - Pauling has the distinction of being the only person to win 2 unshared Nobel Prizes as a brilliant scientist (Chemistry, 1954) and an anti-war advocate (Peace, 1962). Pauling is also responsible, in part, for the widespread belief that megadoses of vitamin C is an effective cold remedy - a claim that hasn't stood up to scientific scrutiny (doses up to 250mg may reduce symptom severity, but beyond that no benefits were observed). Pauling's views on 'orthomolecular medicine', as he dubbed it, is reminiscent of the quackery we discuss on the Bayblab from time to time: any noticeable changes were attributed to Vitamin C, while ineffectiveness was chalked up to 'too low a dose'. And the illness cured by his high vitamin doses also expanded - from curing the common cold, then curing cancer and finally to "improve your general health . . . to increase your enjoyment of life and can help in controlling heart disease, cancer, and other diseases and in slowing down the process of aging."

The point here isn't to downplay the accomplishments of otherwise brilliant men or run some sort of smear campaign. We need to remember that nobody is an expert on everything and anyone can make mistakes - we need to think and evaluate for ourselves. Quackery or racism shouldn't be tolerated from anyone but if Watson wants to chat with me about DNA structure or Mullis about PCR I'm willing to listen.


Monday, October 29, 2007

Monotreme penis in action

Judging by the amount of traffic we get from google by people looking for animal penises, we would say that comparative reproductive physiology is a hot topic on the internet. To make sure we maintain our authoritative dominance over the subject I bring you this exclusive video, coming from new scientist, of a rather playful anteater...


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Watson Steps Down

Statement of Dr. James D. Watson

This morning I have conveyed to the Trustees of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory my desire to retire immediately from my position as its Chancellor, as well as from my position on its Board, on which I have served for the past 43 years. Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.

That the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is now one of the world's premier sites for biological research and education has long warmed my heart. So I am grateful that its Board now will allow me to remain along my beloved Bungtown Road. Forty-nine years ago, as a newly appointed young Assistant Professor at Harvard, I gave my first course on this pernicious collection of diseases of uncontrolled cell growth and division. Cancer, then an intellectual black box, now, in part because of research at the Laboratory, is almost full lit. Though important facts remain undiscovered, there is no reason why they should not soon be found. Final victory is within our grasp. Strong in spirit and intensely focused, I wish to be among those at the victory line.

The ever quickening advances of science made possible by the success of the Human Genome Project will also soon let us see the essences of mental disease. Only after we understand them at the genetic level can we rationally seek out appropriate therapies for such illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disease. For the children of my sister and me, this moment can not come a moment too soon. Hell does not come close to describing the impact of psychotic disorders on human life.

This week's events focus me ever more intensely on the moral values passed on to me by my father, whose Watson surname marks his long ago Scots-Irish Appalachian heritage; and by my mother, whose father, Lauchlin Mitchell, came from Glasgow and whose mother, Lizzie Gleason, had parents from Tipperary. To my great advantage, their lives were guided by a faith in reason; an honest application of its messages; and for social justice, especially the need for those on top to help care for the less fortunate. As an educator, I have always striven to see that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all.

I have been much blessed.

James D. Watson One Bungtown Road Cold Spring Harbor, New York October 2007

Too bad JW's obstinate belief in genetic determinism has tarnished the occasion with controversy and overshadowed a fitting tribute to the man's incredible contributions to science.


Human Pheromones

Luring women into our bay in the lab is pretty easy. However between coats of axe body spray I would consider preying on the more basal instincts of female labmates by using human pheromones. The question is: Are human pheromones functional?
What is almost for sure is that humans are not like many other mammals that demonstrate behavioral responses to pheromones. Especially since adult humans lack a functional vomeronasal organ and many known pheromone receptor genes in other mammals are pseudogenes in humans.
Human pheromones are commercially available but unregulated, so you don't know really what you are purchasing.
The first discovered human pheromone is androstenone and its effects on human behavior are questionable. However there are some indications that these compounds might be able to attract some females to my messy lab bench. A short, sweet and recent article in SciAm details how different human genotypes respond very differently to this compound. And brain responses measured by PET scan to a related compound correlate with sexual orientation, validated in both homosexual males and females.
Human behavior is very complex and it is kind of strange to think that smells could have powerful effects on us. To add to the complexity it has been shown some species prefer mates with dissimilar genes at the MHC locus since polymorphism of this locus may have a selective advantage. These genes are also thought to influence body odour. Suggestively, responses to body odour in humans demonstrates differing brain activity based on the similarity of the MHC locus in humans (HLA) between odour donor and smeller. Therefore genotype compatibility may influence the choice of mates through body odour as opposed to simply the volume of stink of a potential mate choice. Baiting our bay with pheromones may require a very sophisticated approach.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Words of Wisdom From John Gurdon

Developmental biologist John Gurdon was the first to clone a normal adult organism through somatic cell nuclear transfer. I randomly came across an entertaining Q & A with Gurdon in Current Biology. Here's some of the real gems:

What do you think about scientific publishing? Surely what we all want is the efficient handling of submitted papers, and there are some journals and editors that excel in this respect. I regret that many major journals in biology are owned by commercial companies: scientists do the work, referee the papers and buy the journals – but the profits go to non-scientific organizations. A good counter example is the Company of Biologists, which owns three highly regarded journals, and all of the profits go back into science as contributions to scientific societies, meetings, student travel, and so on.

On Teaching: "I have always found teaching painful, but have no doubt that, in moderation, it can be very beneficial, even for those in full-time research appointments."

Advice to Scientists:
"Luckily I was rejected for nearly all administrative roles for which my name was put forward. If someone wants to make a rewarding career in which they have contributed something truly innovative that wouldn't have happened without them, my suggestion is to keep active at the bench. It's much more satisfying to do something innovative yourself, than be told about it by a colleague."

What do you regard as the greatest hindrances for science? Home Office rules and laboratory inspectors. I believe that, generally speaking, these have no interest whatever in the perceived hazard (risk), which is usually non-existent. For example, laboratory amounts of radioactivity are far below any clinically effective level (patients are given 1010 dpm of I131 for hyperthyroidism). The number of air changes per day in a mouse room, or the humidity of the air in a frog room housing completely aquatic Xenopus, are wholly unrelated to the natural conditions in which animals live. There is not the slightest possibility that anyone could obtain a laboratory licence to go fishing; and what about garden centres that sell children animals that will almost always die of starvation or neglect a few days later? Filling out forms and keeping records doesn't do any good for animal welfare or human health.

How did you come to have a career in science? Not easily. After one term of biology at school, the teacher wrote “For Gurdon to continue in biology would be a complete waste of time both for him and for those who would have to teach him”.


Knowing your left from right.

The recent couple of posts on left-handedness being superior has rekindled my interest in the origins of left-right symmetry in organisms. A really interesting question is “how does an embryo figure out where top, bottom, front, back, and left and right are?”.
The problem is actually a critical one. Externally, humans are pretty symmetrical. Internally, things are much more complicated. Your left-lung has two lobes, your right has three. Your heart nestles gently in between the middle, but slightly towards the left (which is why the left side is missing a lobe – it’s to fit the heart). Your liver sits to the right, while the other organs are packed around in a non-symmetric way.

There is a group of the population which have this all confused.

Situs invertus is a disorder affecting some 1:8500 people, and which results in (internally) left-being-right and vice versa. Their heart sits to the right, and their right lung has two lobes; their left lung has three. Then there are the unfortunate people who are born with no left-right dissymmetry at all. Swapping left and right seems like an easy thing, when you think about it. Everything would pack normally. If the embryo doesn’t know where to put things, however, then vasculature tends to just connect to whatever is closest – and isomerism results in babies having emergency surgery within hours of birth in order to re-plumb pretty much everything inside.

So how do you figure all this out? Top-bottom and front-back are all formed by the interactions involving Hox genes. Basically, a cluster of cells known as the ‘node’ produces some chemicals which act as transcription factors, and then, as the chemicals get diluted, form a gradient which enables a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’.

Left and right is much cooler.

It turns out that sitting on the node is a clump of cilia swirling in a counter-clockwise direction.
Nobutaka Hirokawa at the University of Tokyo showed that these cilia produce a leftward flow of fluid over the embryo which is therefore able to give you a left-to-right gradient. The node produces another gradient of factors which flows left to right, giving you a difference in sides. If you culture some mouse embryos, stick a stirrer inside and artificially make the flow go the opposite direction, as Hiroshi Hamada from Osaka University did, you end up with mice suffering from situs invertus.

So, regardless if you're left or right handed... be glad that you can tell left from right.


Get ready for the Cancer Carnival!

If you want to submit a post regarding cancer research, including therapeutics, diagnostic, standard care, cancer survivor stories, basic science etc... The deadline is November 2nd, and you can submit a link either in the comments here or preferably on this site... Looking forward to the third edition!


Simplest universal Turing machine discovered

Turing is perhaps the grandfather of modern computing. In 1936-1937 he imagined a machine which could read binary (1,0) on a single tape either on the left or the right of the tape with a moving head and was capable of changing the state of each bit of information. It was known as a turing machine. In 1947 he said: "It can be shown that a single special machine of that type can be made to do the work of all. It could in fact be made to work as a model of any other machine. The special machine may be called the universal machine.". Essentially a computer capable of performing any function can be constructed, the question is how simple can you make it....

Well Stephen Wolfram, author of the crazy book, "a new kind of science", offered $25K to anyone who could prove that a machine with 2 "states" and 3 "colours" is the simplest universal turing machine. Well Alex Smith, an undergrad from the UK just won the prize. What does this mean to biology? Well here is Wolfram's take on it...

"Early definitions of universality assumed that programs for a Turing machine must involve only a finite number of "nonzero bits"--and that the Turing machine must "halt".

But the 2,3 Turing machine--like modern computers (or systems in nature)--doesn't "halt". And in Alex Smith's construction the Turing machine "tape" (i.e., memory) must be filled with an infinite pattern of bits. [...]

Perhaps one day there'll even be practical molecular computers built from this very 2,3 Turing machine.

With tapes a bit like RNA strands, and heads moving up and down like ribosomes.

When we think of nanoscale computers, we usually imagine carefully engineering them to mimic the architecture of the computers we know today.

But one of the lessons of NKS--brought home again by Alex Smith's proof--is that there's a completely different way to operate.

We don't have to carefully build things up with engineering. We can just go out and search in the computational universe, and find things like universal computers--that are simple enough that we can imagine making them out of molecules."

I'm not too sure what it means, but it sounds cool. Perhaps life is already "designed" like a universal turing machine, running software on cells which all date back to a comon ancestor turing machine and linked through a series of unbroken cellular divisions as Kim Nasmyth so eloquently pointed out...


Cells Are Beautiful

Yesterday's Gairdner award lecturer Kim Nasmyth gave a great talk, during which he showed this classic video of chromsomal segregation during cell division. I found it on youtube, so I don't know who filmed it, but according to youtube it's a blood lily cell. Awesome!

Also, another random youtube video of mitosis, showing multiple cells dividing in synchrony. I really wish I knew what type of tissue this is:


Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Superiority of Left-Handedness Pt. 2: Lessons from the Snail

I don't know why I even bother. The superiority of left-handedness is not even open to scientific debate. It has been a settled matter for millions of years, ever since the L-amino acids won the out over the D-amino acids and went on to become the building blocks of life and dominate the planet. But for those who need even further evidence that evolution drives multi-cellular organisms toward the ideal of left-handedness, one need only look to the example of the snail.

Yes indeed, for this ancient and highly evolved organism, left-handed shell coiling provides a clear survival advantage, rendering these highly fit individuals immune to attacks from inferior right-handed crabs. As the authors of this excellent study point out, the physical superiority of lefty snails parallels the well-established superiority of left-handed humans in physical competitions:

"This advantage parallels some social interactions in human cultures that result when right and left-handed individuals compete, especially in sports or fights involving dual confrontations (interactive contests such as boxing, tennis, fencing and baseball), where left-handers occasionally enjoy an advantage over their right-handed opponents."

Clearly then, left-handedness confers not only intellectual, but also physical superiority to a diverse range of multi-cellular organisms across phylogenetic taxa.

Further reading on the superiority of left-handedness in the human:


Friday, October 19, 2007

Cell Biology Confirms that Lefties are Superior

Well I've already mentioned the piles of evidence suggesting that left-handed people are more highly evolved and just plain better than right-handers. Now, new evidence has confirmed this fact at the cellular level. Cell biologist Palazzo has a great post on a PNAS paper showing that cells are left-handed. Obviously this is the best way to be.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bears, Sharks and Strippers

Brick Tamland [opposing women in the newsroom]: I read somewhere their periods attract bears. Bears can smell the menstruation.
Brian Fantana: Well, that's just great. You hear that, Ed? Bears. Now you're putting the whole station in jeopardy.

That little nugget of wisdom comes from the movie Anchorman, but that's not its source. It's often repeated, and likely stems from a bear attack in 1967 that left two women dead and many people speculating that the bears were attracted by menstrual odors. Is there any truth to that claim?

Research has been done on the subject. In 1991, a study was done showing that black bears are uninterested in human menstrual odors. This was done with a series of experiments involving either used tampons or menstruating women in close proximity to the bears. The results showed no preference of the bears for tampons over garbage or feed. There was no preference for used tampons over unused tampons or those soaked with non-menstrual human blood, and no difference in interest with the lower torso of menstruating versus non-menstruating women. In all cases menstrual odors were virtually ignored. For grizzly bears, no scientific studies have been done, but a retrospective analysis of grizzly bear attacks on humans showed that there was no evidence linking menstruation to the attacks.

One place where an attraction to human menstruation may be true is in the polar bear population. In a 1983 study, polar bears both in captivity and in the wild showed a preference for food scent samples or used tampons over unused tampons or non-menstrual blood suggesting that polar bears are attracted to menstrual odors. A brief summary of these studies has been published by the bear management office of Yellowstone National park and can be read here (pdf).

Overall, the evidence indicates that unless you're heading pretty far north you don't have to worry about menstruation attracting bears. The Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health backs up that claim. What if you're into SCUBA-diving instead of hiking? Sharks are notorious for their attraction to blood in the water. The Museum of Menstruation has something to say about that as well: "many women fear that this discharge may attract sharks. The truth is that women divers are attacked by sharks less often than men are." However, there could be a number of reasons for this difference, and whether sharks are attracted to menstrual bleeding remains inconclusive as no controlled studies have been done. There are arguments to be made for both sides, as discussed here, but the consensus among divers, at least, is not to worry about it.

So bears are indifferent to menstruation and we're unsure about sharks, but what about people? There are behavioural cues, but no solid data regarding pheromones. Other phases of the menstrual cycle are better studied, including the time of maximum fertility just before ovulation. Many studies have shown that women at this point in their cycle, 'hidden-estrus', appear more attractive to men by a number of different metrics. (Some studies were mixed-sex and women found them more attractive as well!) This can be accompanied by other behaviours, such as men being more attentive or protective of their partners. The effects of 'hidden-estrus' signals on male behaviour is highlighted in this recent paper in Evolution and Human Behavior. In this study, 18 strippers reported their tips and menstrual cycle over a period of 60 days. It was found that among normally cycling strippers, peak tip earnings occurred during 'estrus' compared to the luteal phase which, in turn, were higher than during menstruation. This difference disappeared among strippers taking birth control pills. A deeper discussion of the paper can be found over at Pure Pedantry. For people who may not be familiar about the inner workings of a strip club (or, as the authors put it, "Because academics may be unfamiliar with the gentlemen's club subculture...") the paper even includes some background on the US stripping industry that alone is worth the read. Despite it's inherent humour value, this study could be a jumping off point for some interesting discussions about human evolution and behaviour. Have humans actually lost the 'estrus' phase, or is it just better hidden than in animals? What are the evolutionary advantages? Or it could just be an excuse to do more science in a strip club.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Stick to Base Pairing and Helices Jim

I'm too upset by James Watson's most recent media fiasco to rant about it. But ah, for the good old days, when Watson earned his keep in the lab and no one was interested in listening to what he had to say about anything. I'm still interested in reading his scientific memoirs but I might have to find a good place to hide the book when people visit.


10 simple rules of SciVee

We have posted before about scivee, a sort of youtube for science. I haven't run into anything directly in my field, however it looks pretty decent now that they have much more content.
Some of their popular stuff is a few pubcasts on 10 simple rules. There is the ten rules of publishing, the 10 rules of getting grants and 10 rules of good oral presentations. I have only checked out the ten simple rules of publishing. Its not too bad and has some good tips. Certainly the host has more experience that I do.
One that I found strange though.
Rule 7: Start writing the paper the day you have the idea of what questions to pursue.
I should have about 30 papers started, sitting around as the experiments/ideas did not pan out. Also this rule might lead to making conclusions before doing the experiments.


Tannin-rich foods pt. 2: Wine

Wine, particularly red wines, can be tannin-rich. The tannins in wine are often blamed for red wine headache, and impart a dry bitterness and distinctive taste. The tannins come mainly from skin, seeds and stems present during the fermentation process (which is why red wines tend to be more tannin heavy) but can also be imparted from oak barrels that are often used for storage. Anti-oxidant tannins also play an important role in the aging process - as a wine ages, the tannins precipitate out reducing the harshness of the wine. Because of this, tannin-rich wines benefit more from the aging process than those with a lower tannin content.

Now, I don't have time to wait around several years for my wine to age properly. That's why I drink beer. But if you love wine and are impatient here is the product for you. The Perfect Sommelier is essentially a powerful magnet. Place a bottle on the magnetic coaster, and replace the cork with the magnetic cap - wait 15-30 minutes and presto! your wine tastes as though it's been aged for years. (This is not unlike the wine clip which claims to do the same thing, only faster!) Both products have 'scientific'" explanations for how they work - something about using the magnets to align polar tannin molecules - and oodles of testimonials. I'm not ready to cry 'quack' yet since the nuances of wine taste are a difficult to measure and any such test would be subjective, but I don't think I buy it. Of course, my unrefined palate and I are skeptical of Sideways-esque wine tasting and wines with "the faintest soup├žon of asparagus and just a flutter of a nutty Edam cheese." Still, one independent test showed that tasters were unable to tell the difference between treated and untreated wine, or identfied a difference but were wrong half the time (the writer of that critique also has "a background in Electromagentic fields from MIT" and claims there "really is no scientific explanation as to why a little magnet would change the tannic structure or acidic content of a wine").

So, rather than try to make a bad wine good with an overpriced magnet, save your money and invest in learning about real good wines, like with Sommelier for the Nintendo DS. Or just buy a few bottles, do your own tasting, and find ones you like. I'll even help you pick them, but I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot!



This is a teaser for the upcoming episode 13... until then don't miss episode 12 about swarm behaviour, the grooming abilities of Kamel and the ultimate guide to graduate school...


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

6 badass scientists

When most people imagine a scientist, they see a skinny, pasty white nerd, with thick glasses, no sense of fashion and an absent-minded, self-effacing personality. But many scientist are just the opposite. This is a list of the 6 most badass scientists that clash with this stereotype.

1- Craig Venter: Craig Venter kicks ass. Born in a military family, he was more known for his unruly behavior and his propensity to get in trouble than for his smarts. Yet he still boasted a 142 IQ. At 18 he dropped out of high school to become a surfer and a beach bum. He then served in Vietnam, where he performed the triage of wounded soldiers. It is probably there that he became Darth Venter, hatching his plan for world domination. It is said that he fought 300 Vietcongs with his abs alone. When he returned to America he got a BA and a PhD in 5 years. He set his sights on sequencing genomes, and decided to fly solo. Not only did he manage to sequence the first entire genome of an organism (Haemophilus influenzae), but he didn't stop there and decided to tackle the human genome head-on with a company, for which he raised $1B in a single day on wall street. The man has a gigantic ego, collects boats, and hangs out with celebrities. He is also a gigantic pompous prick. So having sequenced his own genome, he spends his time sailing around the world collecting microbial DNA, and dominating the field of synthetic biology where he plans to build the first trillion dollar organism that can pump oil and print money. But you gotta give it to him, he is pretty badass.

2- Feynman: Half-genius half-buffoon, Feynman is in a league of is own. He helped build the first atomic bomb, laid the foundations of quantum mechanics and received a nobel prize for quantum electrodynamics theory. But Feynman was a free spirit, trying marijuana, ketamine, lsd, sensory deprivation. He was also a notorious womanizer, who famously would convince girls at bars to buy his drinks. On his spare time, he liked to break safes, decode Mayan hieroglyphics, and party in the streets of Rio.

3- Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov : Somehow this scientist is not as well known has he should be. Sakharov was a thermonuclear physicist, and the father of the Russian Hydrogen bomb. After giving the H bomb to Stalin he realized that giving that much power to politicians was foolish, because they would be crazy enough to actually use it. He became a loud opponent of the regime and strongly criticized the way political prisoners were being treated. Not only was he a brilliant scientist but he also had the balls to oppose the regime at a time when even the suspicion of being an activist would get you killed. He didn't stop there either, he continued to oppose Nikita Khrushchev despite being offered brides, being threatened and denied food. He was basically under house arrest, constantly guarded by KGB agents, and wasn't able to go out to receive his Nobel peace prize. Gorbachev finally freed him in 1986, and he would die 3 years later.

4- Dr. Duncan Steel: His name is Dr. Steel. That would be enough right there. But he also has an asteroid and a robot (in an Arthur C. Clarke novel) named after him. He even introduced the Sex Pistols to their first gig! Not only is he a very successful scientist who has worked for NASA and ESA, but he was also part of the Near-Earth Object Interception and Deflection committee. That's right, next to him, Bruce Willis would probably grow ovaries.

5- MC Hawking: He is a badass cyborg, who rules the streets with an iron fist and does occasional drive-by's in his wheelchair. Honestly the man is only able to wink, yet has been collecting trophy wives. I should really practice my winking.

6- Meredith Charles Gourdine: He was a blind rocket scientist, with 70 patents and a silver medal at the olympics. Not bad I guess...


Tannin-rich foods: The Acorn

Nuts are tasty. OK, get the puerile laughter out of your system - I'm talking about the food kind: peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews (before you go botanical on my ass and yell that peanuts aren't nuts, I'm speaking in a culinary sense here. Botanically speaking, almonds, pistachios and many other "nuts" aren't nuts either). But what about that favourite of rodents everywhere: the acorn?

First of all, in a botanical sense, acorns ARE nuts. But why don't we find them alongside pecans, peanuts and brazil nuts when we open a can of mixed nuts? Are they toxic? Do they just taste bad? It being the autumn, with plenty of acorns around, I decided to try them out. First off, this was just an acorn found on the ground and not roasted or salted or otherwise processed. It passed the taste test - it was bitter, but not so vile that it couldn't be eaten. Nor did I get ill - after all, I'm not a horse.

The bitter taste and toxicity to horses is caused by the high levels of tannins, which vary by oak species. These polyphenols have documented anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidant and anti-microbial properties (review) as well as being nutrient rich. Sounds like it might be worth patenting an acorn extract and selling it as a miracle drug through some sort of pyramid scheme. On the other hand, they are also iron chelators and can interfere with protein digestion in animals that aren't adapted. Plus the overly bitter taste would likely make them unpopular as a snack. Still, acorns were once part of a human (mostly Native American) diet, first being soaked to leach out the tannins followed by grinding into flour.

Some animals that haven't physiologically adapted to tannin rich acorns have adapted in other ways. The most obvious is by selecting acorns that are less tannin-rich. It's been suggested that some animals store their acorn cache in groundwater or other places with water access, allowing the groundwater or natural runoff to leach some of the tannins out making the nut more edible as the winter progresses. One study has shown that Blue Jays, while unadapted to a high tannin diet, consume a large number of acorns in the autumn months with no ill effects because of acorn weevil larvae that live inside the nuts and counteract the effects of tannins on the jay diet.

Canadian Thanksgiving may have passed, but acorns are still plentiful - here are some recipes that incorporate this former traditional food of indigenous North Americans.


Monday, October 15, 2007

Quack of the week: Christian Drapeau/Stem Enhance

  • We've neglected this Bayblab feature for some time now, but Kenny G (lab guru, not saxophonist) gave us a tip on this story.

    Christian Drapeau (M.Sc) is the chief science officer and co-holder of the US patent for StemEnhance, a proprietary blue-green algae (Aphanizomenon flos-aquae) extract used to 'mobilize stem cells'. The extract contains a "novel L-selectin ligand" that promotes the release of CD34+ stem cells from bone marrow as well as a polysaccharaide-enriched mystery extract called Migratose(tm) that "MAY support the migration of stem cells out of the blood into tissues" (emphasis mine).

    Nevermind the existing concerns about taking non-Spirulina blue-green algae extracts - how does the science look? Mr. Drapeau was an author on a paper describing the CD34+ mobilization (I'll admit that puts him ahead of many of the other of the quacks we discuss who don't submit data for peer review). Let's take a look at one figure that shows an increase of circulating CD34+ lymphocytes:

OK, the extract treatment shows an increase CD34+ cells. A whopping increase from 0.062% to 0.085% (which of course is billed as a 30% increase). Now take a look at the placebo treatment. No increase, just as they claim, but the initial percentage of circulating CD34+ cells is already as high as AFTER StemEnhance treatment. Can anything meaningful be taken from this result? If you continue to read the paper, you'll find that the increase is quite transient, peaking after 60 minutes but lasting no more than 2 hours and that the effect in one person on 16 different test days can vary wildly (from a 300% increase in CD34+ to a 4% decrease).

The product that this data is meant to support is StemEnhance, a miracle stem cell mobilizer that improves healing and maintains proper tissue and organ functioning in your body. A single, 30-serving (60 tablet) bottle costs $60 with a recommended dose of 2 capsules once or twice a day. But before shelling out up to $120 a month, consider the following:

1)Does StemEnhance actually mobilize stem cells as it claims? The only published data is poor at best, as discussed above.

2)Is there any scientific evidence that 'stem cell mobilization' offers any health benefit? Like most quackery, StemEnhance relies on anecdotal evidence and testamonials to support their claims.

3)Is there any evidence that IF stem cell mobilization offers a health benefit, the increase in circulating CD34+ claimed by StemEnhance is biologically relevant? 30% may seem like a lot, but what does that mean in absolute numbers? Is that 1000 cells? 100? Is that enough to make a difference?

4)What are potential long term or other potential outcomes of increased circulating stem cells? A recent paper discussed at Journal Club talks about bone marrow stem cells localizing to breast cancers and increase metastatic potential.

Don't just listen to me, though. Other StemEnhance criticism can be found at MLM watch and The Scientist.

On top of the dubious product claims, StemEnhance has another hallmark of potential scams: a multi-level marketing scheme. That's right, you too can distribute StemEnhance and become a block in the pyramid upon whose back others will profit. But don't just take StemEnhance to improve your OWN health, you can buy StemPets and StemEquine and have your animal friends reap the benefits as well. Me? I think I'll buy some for my duck. Quack, quack, quack.


Fresh Science at Nature Precedings

A pre-print manuscript that caught my eye at Nature Precedings; Derivation of Multi-Potent Stem Cells from Fibroblasts Following Treatment with an ES Cell Extract - A lot of buzz was recently generated when it was shown that forced expression of 4 transcription factors could transform fibroblasts into ES-like cells. Now, a group publishing their pre-print manuscript on Nature Precedings claims to have achieved a similar result by transiently permeabilizing fibroblasts in the presence of a cell-free extract from ES cells. Potentially a very simple way to make multi-potent cells for basic research and regenerative therapy. Also could be a great model to find reprogramming factors in the ES cell extracts. This is not really my field so I don't have much criticism to offer, but if you work in this field, take the chance to review their findings and contribute to the discussion by following the link to the paper above.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wardrobe Management: Ideas for Graduate Students

Pheeeeuuwf. Nothing like a Sunday to catch up on a couple of months of dirty laundry. At least it's done. Now I can go back to wearing clean clothes for a few days or so. But I really need to come up with a better system. I hate how much time I spend doing laundry. It seems like such a waste when there's so many other interesting and worthwhile things to do, like experiments in the lab. So I'm trying to come up with ideas and tricks to increase the efficiency of my system for keeping myself in clothing.

The first task I guess is to determine my minimum requirements. Unfortunately, I suppose living with a certain amount of clothing and laundry are a necessary evil. So doing away with these things altogether, while tempting, is out. In part this is out of respect for my labmates - I think they would eventually stop talking to me if they had to watch me pipette in the nude or were forced to suffer in the stench of my horrible body odor every day. Plus, Ottawa is too cold for nudity in the winter anyway. With this in mind, here are my basic wardrobe needs:

1) Coverage/nudity control - clothing must cover all vital areas that others might find offensive or scary, including the nipples, buttocks and groin area.

2) Temperature control - clothing must help my body to efficiently maintain physiological homeostasis when subjected to the seasonal outdoor temperatures of Ottawa, while being adaptable to the climate controlled lab environment.

3) Comfort - I find comfortable clothing helps me to relax, which in turn helps me think more clearly and concentrate on experiments. Also helps to diffuse stress and fatigue which seems to be more and more of a limiting factor to doing science the older one gets. So tight collars, rigid fabrics and business suits are definitely out.

4) Minimal cleanliness - As I alluded to above, my main concern here is not stinking. Also, highly visible stains are undesirable to the extent that they might lead colleagues to question one's attention to detail or suggest sloppiness in the lab.

Measures to Be Implemented - Here are some ideas:
  • Only wash clothing that comes into direct contact with the key sweat glands. Most of our potentially offensive body odors are produced by glands in the armpits, groin and feet. This means that underwear, socks and perhaps a light t-shirt or undershirt are all that really need to be washed regularly. It's hard to gauge exactly how often is necessary - everyone's body odor potency varies, and we're bad judges of our own scents. If possible, get a second opinion "smell-test" from someone you trust before deciding whether to wear or wash. Alternatively, use the "itch-test", and wash once the area of skin in contact with the garment in question becomes itchy and irritated. Occasional washes of superficial clothing like pants and sweaters are only necessary once embarrassing visible stains accumulate. A well-designed coffee mug can go a long way to decrease the frequency of these washes.
  • Think layers. This is an easy way of giving your wardrobe variety and adaptability. Layering allows you to easily adjust to temperature differences, for example when moving from the frigid winter on the way in to the lab to the warmth inside. Also gives you the maximum number of combinatorial style options with the minimum number of clothing garments. So, you can mix and match the same articles in different combinations so it doesn't look like you wear the same clothes to the lab every day, and for special occasions like your thesis defence. There are lots of potential layering systems out there, and many more undoubtedly waiting to be invented. One of my personal favorites is the long-sleeved T-shirt/short-sleeved T-shirt/cardigan combination - a great mix of versatility and comfort. Also popular with many of my colleagues in the lab is the hoody, of either the front-pocket or zip-up varieties.
  • Choose dark-colored garments. Especially avoid white. Helps make sure that most stains (especially coffee and tea) are invisible and therefore do not demand immediate washing. Except underwear, as most stains on these articles require immediate attention so it helps if they're visible.
  • Patch tears and holes. For most people, this type of damage means it's time to throw clothes away. Instead, this could be where the fun starts. Patching clothes not only totally restores structural integrity, but adds character. Sewing is super-easy, but iron-on patches are even easier.
  • When you must acquire new garments, go second-hand. A trip to the local thrift store makes it obvious that there's more than enough pre-existing clothing stashed in people's closets and basements to clothe at least all of North America for the next thousand years. Sure, not all of it will be currently in "fashion", but lots of it is. Fashion tends to repeat itself every 5-10 years or so there's always something to be found. Plus, being out of fashion is way more original anyway. Anybody can stop by the nearest shopping mall and buy what the ads are telling us to. And if you're lucky, you'll find some sweet and timeless retro classics. Going for second-hand clothing is also a great outlet for your activist tendencies and curbs consumerism. Buying second-hand reduces demand for new mass-produced clothing, meaning less fossil fuel consumption, less production of CO2 and other pollutants, less consumption of water, and less sweat-shop labor and/or exploitation of foreign governments and people. You also support the charities who collect unwanted clothing and sell it to the thrift stores. Most of all, second-hand clothing is perfect for the grad-student budget - it can be had for about 90% less than new stuff. Just go to the thrift shop prepared with antihistamines and find what you what fast - these places smell like everyone's musty basements combined. But a couple of washes are all it takes before your second-hand finds are allergen free.
So there's a few ideas. If anyone else has any short-cuts or tips to help us all spend less time and resources doing laundry, and more time doing science, I'd love to hear them.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Appendix: Not so useless?

Here's some recent news from the field of theoretical biology: Long described in high school biology classes as a vestigial structure - an evolutionary remnant with no functional use - the appendix may have a purpose after all (other than getting inflamed and keeping surgeons busy with appendectomies). The function, it turns out, may be to repopulate the gut with bacteria. Illnesses or antibiotic treatment can purge many of the "good" bacteria that aid in digestion and vitamin K production, and this new theory proposes that the appendix serves as a 'safe house' for commensal bacteria, and re-inoculates the intestinal tract after such a purge. The reason an appendix can be removed without ill effect may be due to our living conditions - in a highly populated, industrialized environment we're more likely to re-acquire these bacteria from our neighbours, but the appendix may still be important in less developed countries. Link to the full paper here [pdf, subscription may be required]


Books without Borders

I'm getting ready to move (again), and like many students I have 30 tonnes of old textbooks that were never resold (lousy new editions every year) and never get used for anything except pressing flowers. Since I clearly don't need the workout lugging those books around every time I move, I decided to look into some sort of charity that might take them off my hands and put them to good use - an idea inspired by Kevin Z way back in August. Well, it turns out it's not so simple. Some will only take specific books, others that you ship them yourself. New York State University at Buffalo has this list of donation programs for journals, books and even old lab equipment. One that seems particularly user-friendly is Books Beyond Borders who collect books and resell them with proceeds going to building schools in third world countries, and other educational initiatives. They even pay for you to ship your books, but unfortunately only for US donors. North of the border pickings seem slimmer, but aren't non-existant provided you're willing to pay to ship those heavy textbooks yourself. Does anybody out there have experience with textbook/journal donation programs? Any particular favourites?


A creative use of newborn pups

You've heard of ice wine but I betcha you've never had mice-wine. It's apparently a Korean health tonic. I'm all about making alcohol using lab supplies but I think I'll pass on this one...


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Support our Troops: Learn Biochemistry

Consider the following two organic compounds:
A prize the first to correctly answer any of the following questions:
  • What are the common names of these chemicals?
  • How do they differ a) chemically, b) in biological effect?
  • How would you synthesize these molecules, and where/how would you obtain the raw materials for their production?
Submit your answers in the comments to this post to claim your fantastic prize. In a couple days I will post the winners and correct answers.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

It's Autumn: The leaves change colour and the leafs blow

Actually the leafs always blow, but the changing colour of the leaves only happens this time of year and is pretty spectacular in temperate north america.
Obviously the leaves change from green to yellow/orange/red as the green chlorophyll is broken down and not replaced in the leaf. The chemical components to blame for the bright colours are carotene (yellow) and a class of compounds, the anthocyanins (red). The carotene is there is some trees just waiting to be revealed, but the anthocyanins are produced in the fall. They are are a reaction between sugars and some flavinoids, the purpose of these may be for photoprotection since their formation requires light. I don't really understand why a leaf that is going to be dropped needs photoprotection?? So many trees are yellow and then turn red(video). The colour a particular species of tree is going to turn is predetermined check out this link to see what tree will turn what colour. However the degree of colour is dependant on the weather with the brightest colours occuring with cool nights and sunny days. This makes the chlorophyll break down fast and anthocyanins be produced in the highest abundance. Also the colour of the anthocyanins can vary with soil pH.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Nobel Prize Goes to the Transgenic Mouse-Makers

Capecchi, Evans and Smithies get the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"This year's Nobel Laureates have made a series of ground-breaking discoveries concerning embryonic stem cells and DNA recombination in mammals. Their discoveries led to the creation of an immensely powerful technology referred to as gene targeting in mice. It is now being applied to virtually all areas of biomedicine – from basic research to the development of new therapies."


A prize for McCulloch and Till (with Siminovitch?) (discovery of stem cells) is way overdue.


Getting Rid of Scientific Noise: Lifetime Publication Limits?

Here's an interesting thought experiment proposed in a Nature Medicine editorial: what if each scientist could only publish 20 papers during his/her entire career?

"you get 20 tickets. Every time you publish a paper, you hand over one of them. Once you run out of tickets, your publishing days are over. As simple as that.

If we adopted this model, many articles reporting incremental advances would no longer be written, and many specialized journals would disappear. And with far fewer papers to read, each one reporting a much more complete piece of research, search committees or funding bodies could directly evaluate the work of a given scientist, instead of (as is often the case) leaning on surrogate indicators such as a journal's impact factor or number of citations.

At the extreme, we might not even need journals (and editors) anymore; everything would be published in preprint servers like those used by physicists, and the community would simply evaluate and rank the different contributions as they become available. This way, the whole community could act as reviewers, doing away with the existing peer-review process. This is somewhat reminiscent of what some websites are already trying to do, so far with limited success. But if everybody agreed to publish just 20 papers to keep the size of the literature manageable, then the journal of the future might conceivably be a preprint server."

It's a thought-provoking proposal, and I would certainly love to see a renewed focus on quality, rather than quantity in scientific research. Good science requires time and commitment to a specific problem, not a mad rush to produce meaningless data and minimum publishable units. You know there's a problem with the system when even at the undergraduate level, many students don't even seem to feel they have the time to learn how to pH solutions or perform basic assays because they're so busy calculating the shortest possible path to getting their names on their lab's next paper.

However, imposing an arbitrary lifetime publication limit is not a practical solution whatsoever. First of all, it's impossible to say what the appropriate number of lifetime "quality pubs" is going to be, and that number is going to vary from one researcher to the next, one field to another, etc, etc. Second, such a proposal does not address the issue of career advancement through the academic hierarchy. Currently, the total number and impact factor of pubs is what gets nascent scientists recognition, respect, jobs, and funding. What we need if we want to get back to a focus on quality over quantity is a shift in scientific culture, not a voucher system.


What's Wrong With This Picture? The Afghan Poppy Problem

It was just announced that Canada will be sending another $25 million in food aid to Afghanistan, in addition of course to our ongoing military mission to chase away the Taliban and win the "hearts and minds" of Afghani citizens. In other news, the US government continues to raze crops all over the country in its (failing) efforts destroy the local opiate industry. Poppies are the target of destruction, but of course food crops are also taken out as collateral damage. Just a guess, but it seems unlikely that any of this is helping with the hearts and minds thing.

Although the US White House and State Department are pushing to ramp up "the war on poppies" by spraying the country with herbicides, an increasing number of voices now seem to think that this would be a bad idea - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and even the CIA and Pentagon worry such a move would further destabilize the country. Some, such as the SENLIS council and U of Toronto chemist John Polanyi have even advocated creative solutions, such as legalizing Afghan opiate production to supply the legal market for medicinal painkillers like morphine and codeine. But is demand for medicinal opiates high enough for the global market to absorb a massive influx of Afghani crops while maintaining sustainable pricing? Apparently a staggering 93% of the world's opiates are currently produced in Afghanistan. Presumably, right now all of this is going onto the "black" market. So, by my rough non-economist calculations this would mean about a 10-fold increase in medicinal opiate supply if the Afghan industry were suddenly legalized. Who's going to buy the stuff? Are doctors going to be suddenly prescribing 10-fold more opiate pain-killers?

Anyway I'm no economist, but hopefully some smart person with a calculator is trying to figure out something useful that could be done with Afghanistan's poppies. It seems a strange irony that the same red flowers Canadians wear to remember our fallen veterans are now at the center of a war our troops are currently fighting.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

IgNobel 2007

The 2007 IgNobel prizes for improbable research were awarded this week. Check out the list of winners, or attend the award ceremony via webcast.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Teaching science with Web 2.0

Back in the days when I was an undergrad at the university of Ottawa, the web component of classes was limited to lecture slides or papers thrown in on a university server somewhere, and it was usually hard to get to. With the advent of web 2.0, some professors have started taking advantage of these resources to innovate in teaching. On an interview of Dr B. for the bayblab podcast, which unfortunately was lost because of technical audio glitches, we had an interesting discussion about how he was using web 2.0 to teach which earned him some awards for innovation. Here are some of the most useful applications I've come across:

-Podcasting: increasingly universities offer podcast of courses to their students. Back in undergrad there was always the odd student bringing in a voice recorder to class, and the infamous live video feed where you could watch Carleton classes on TV. But podcasting makes the whole thing more efficient and more convenient. Some profs have gone even further. Dr. B for example encouraged his students to make their own podcast, and would answer questions he received by email on his own podcast. Ben at the university of Chicago school of medicine has started a podcast about admission to med school and student orientation.

-Blogging: Blogging is a great way to add some extra information on the side for your classes. But more and more teachers, such as PZ myers from Pharyngula and Dr B from biological obsessions have brought it a step further by encouraging students to blog. In fact Dr B awards a mark based on what the students blog about on the official course blogs (microbiology) here and (evolution) here. It may sound strange but in fact blogging encourages the student to assimilate science information, be critical and learn to communicate ideas, all of which are necessary to be a good scientist.

-Social networking: Lets face it, most young adults are on facebook, even those that are not too web-saavy. So why not go to them to reach out. Making a group on facebook like Dr. B did for his class is a genius idea in my opinion. For one, most people check facecrack often, often multiple times a day. Updates are hence highly visible. It's a great place to post anything, simply for the visibility it can get. Facebook is not just about keeping in touch with friends anymore, it's become a virtual gathering place, so why not have a virtual classroom?

Any other ideas?