Saturday, November 8, 2014

New Top Environmental Senator Thinks Climate Change is a Conspiracy

From Time Magazine: "4 Ways the New Top Environment Senator Disagrees with Science."

Sen. Jim Inhofe, expected to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, doesn't believe in global warming and even wrote a book about how climate change science was manufactured to scare people and promote anti-business regulations.  In fact, he's one of Washington's most vocal climate change deniers.  According to Time:  "Problem is, Inhofe’s opinions are deeply at odds with the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, both in the U.S. and abroad."  

This whole view that scientists are in cahoots with liberal politicians to manufacture fake data for some hidden agenda is totally insulting to the whole scientific community.  Maybe politicians think this way because they themselves are so corrupt and criminal that they extend their own lack of morals to everyone else, and it makes sense to them that there could be a whole evil conspiracy surrounding climate change.  

This kind of thinking is akin to the absurd belief that the government is hiding some secret cure for cancer.  I've heard that time and time again.  Folks, let me tell you in all honesty, there are tons of people working hard on studying cancer research; to think that they have some magic cure hidden is insulting to them and their work.  They're not working hard for nothing.  The postdocs in research labs working 60 hrs a week and making $40K per year are not getting so rich off of grants that they want to keep any discovery a secret.  Climate change is the same way.  People doing research are not lying to you.  The overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is that global warming is real.  

If the concept of global warming and its consequences sound scary to you, that's because it is scary.  You should be scared of global warming.  That's why we need to act and address the problem.  It is not a conspiracy.  Its science.  I'm sorry if you are unhappy that climate change exists, but denying it will only make it worse.  Do we really want future generations to look back at us as a bunch of lazy, delusional idiots who refused to face one of the major problems of our time?                 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interesting NPR Stories on Science and Research Funding in the US

I haven't been updating this blog as much as I'd like to over the past spring and summer, but it has been a busy time, and the blog has needed to take a back-seat to other stuff in my life, including my day job, wedding, traveling, etc.  I don't like to share too many articles from other sources; it feels like a cop-out rather than writing something more original.  There are plenty of blogs that present a laundry list of links every day or week that are way more comprehensive that I would ever be.  However, sometimes there are a few stories that I come across that I think should be passed along to anyone reading this blog.  

The first is an NPR story from "All Things Considered," called "When Scientists Give Up."  It is worth a read or listen.  I would argue that the first guy profiled in the story actually "gave up," while the second guy was "forced out" rather than "gave up."  Still, semantics aside, it is worth reading as a snapshot of what happens to a lot of people trying to pursue scientific research as a career.  

The second is "US Science Suffers From Booms and Busts in Funding" from NPRs "Morning Edition."  It describes a lot of the current funding issues facing scientists.  If you want to better understand what impact the current federal budget is having on research and researchers, these two articles are good places to start.        

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interesting Thought of the Week

Science is an ongoing process.  It never ends.  There is no single ultimate truth to be achieved, after which all the scientists can retire.  And, because this is so, the world is far more interesting, both for the scientists and for the millions of people in every nation who, while not professional scientists, are deeply interested in the methods and findings of science.
--Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Introduction     

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

PNAS: "Elite Male Faculty in the Life Sciences Employ Fewer Women"

On this blog, we're no strangers to talking about gender bias in science.  The evidence of that is here, here, here, and here, with more hopefully coming as soon as I have time to sit down to write a long post.  

However, because of that, something I just read caught my eye and I thought I'd share:  It is an interesting study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (also known as PNAS) that makes a fairly important conclusion about the state of gender in the academic life science workforce.  The article is freely available here,   It was written by a life science researcher and his significant other/partner, who is a computer scientist.  There's an interview with them at Science Careers here and a commentary about the article itself here.  Beyond being a stellar example of using existing internet data to create a meaningful analysis, it is quite telling about the state of gender equality in science.  I couldn't describe the paper any better than the abstract, which I've pasted below (after the jump break):

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"When is the STORM coming?"

While thinking about my post yesterday on the software that I depend on, I decided that I want to tell a short story that illustrates a trend I've been noticing with how some people are starting to view the role of technology in research.    

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Indispensable Software for a Biologist

I spend a lot of time on the computer, particularly analyzing data, writing grants and papers, and otherwise looking up information online to help me figure out the solution to a problem or set up an experiment.  

Every now and again, I pause and gaze in amazement at how much I depend on technology to do my job efficiently and correctly.  This is not just research technology like fancy microscopes and lab equipment.  This extends to computer programs, too.  We become very dependent on certain programs to fill certain roles, and I was thinking about the more important pieces of software that I would not want to be without.  

Inspired by that, I thought I would make a list of my five most useful and most used pieces of software in various categories, both as a recommendation and review as well as a "thank you" to the developers for contributing to making my life easier and more efficient.  This list will not come as a surprise to some other scientists, but some people might find it interesting or useful.  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Systemic Flaws" in US Biomedical Research

There's an interesting article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS; freely available here) that talks about some of the problems facing US biomedical research in academia.  It was written by some heavy hitters in the field of biology.  For anyone interested in the topic, it is very much worth reading.  Some of the comments are also pretty interesting.  

The authors lay out their reasoning for why "the biomedical research enterprise in the United States is on an unsustainable path."   It is hard to disagree with the observations they make about what is wrong with the system and the conclusions they draw about how these flaws are detrimental to attracting and retaining talent in biomedical research.  

However, like many of the other articles that get published this topic (see some of the references in this very article for a few examples), the best ideas that they present in the way of "solutions" are too broad to really be very useful, to say the least.  The bottom line is that within the research enterprise system, there are a lot of people scrambling for the small amount of dollars available in the pot, and one way or another, people in the current and future scientific pipeline are going to get hurt.  This article is a nice observation of how and why they are getting hurt, but there's not a lot of new ideas presented here, which is a little disappointing.       

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cosmos (2014), Episode 1

NASA Image Library
I wanted to write a quick note after seeing the first episode of the new FOX TV documentary TV series Cosmos, which just aired.  It is not so much a review but rather some comments coupled with a strong suggestion to anyone interested in science, especially kids, to watch the show.  

I appreciate and greatly respect what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for scientific education, policy, and public opinion, and I was excited to hear that he was hosting a re-make of Carl Sagan's classic TV series Cosmos. What seems, at first glance, to be puzzling is that the whole project was spurred on by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame. That may seem surprising to some, but despite Family Guy's rampant fart jokes and sometimes-in-bad-taste insults, there is a lot of intelligent humor in there, so it doesn't really surprise me that MacFarlane wanted to produce a science documentary. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Scientific Exploits of Ben Franklin Part 4: Lead Poisoning

Franklin, ca. 1783
I want to continue my long-standing series on the scientific and medical contributions of Benjamin Franklin, not only because I find him to be a fascinating man, but also because as much as we revere him for his more popular scientific discoveries and inventions (electricity, bifocals, etc.), he made many other important contributions that few people are aware of.  Most people probably have no idea that Ben played an important role in the recognition of lead poisoning by medical doctors in colonial America and Europe, a fact that improved and saved many lives.

Humans started mining and using the metal lead over 6 thousand years ago.  Lead was tremendously useful in large part because it is resistant to corrosion and is highly malleable and easy to work with.  Lead was often heated and melted so that the molten lead could be poured into forms to create braces to hold other wooden or stone structures together.  The Romans first made water pipes out of lead, and for the next several thousand years, people were mining and using lead and lead-based products, all the while frequently poisoning themselves.  Pretty crazy to think about, isn't it?  Let's talk for a moment about lead poisoning in human history and the role of Benjamin Franklin in recognizing the self-destructive human over-use of lead.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Less-Than-Great News for the NIH Budget Next Year

From a breaking news article from the journal Nature, it looks like the National Institutes of Health (NIH, the main goverment organization that funds most of the biomedical research at universities and academic hospitals in the US) is facing a pretty minimal, if any, budget increase for the next fiscal year:

"NIH faces a harsh fiscal reality. According to its Biomedical Research Price Index, which calculates the agency’s purchasing power, the cost of doing research is expected to increase by 2.9% in fiscal year 2015, far outpacing its 0.7% budget hike."

There's a lot of economic growth that comes from innovation in science and technology; a large large large amont of the biomedical science and technology research in the US is supported by NIH funding.  Moreover, in addition to the economic gains, the public health gains from NIH-supported research are enormous.  There's a lot of benefit to increasing the NIH budget, but even more terrible than no budgetary increase would be if the NIH budget doesn't even keep up with inflation.  

If you are concerned with the future of medical and scientific research in the US, contact your congressman/congresswoman and your senator and tell them we need to adequately support the NIH and other US government science organizations.   

Monday, March 3, 2014

Harold Ramis (1944-2014)

As a young kid growing up in the 1980s, I loved the movie Ghostbusters.  I would argue that it is easily one of the best films of the 80s.  Yes, the movie is a bit silly with (from today's perspective) bad special effects and campy dialogue, but it mixed two things that are rarely combined in popular entertainment: the supernatural (i.e., the ghosts) and science (i.e., the guys running around catching the ghosts with high-tech toys).  I think that's a theme of the movie that isn't discussed enough.  In the movie, ghosts exist, but science kicks their asses.  As a young kid, that made a huge impression on me.

On Feb 24th, 2014, the world lost Harold Ramis, an actor, director, and writer of some of the greatest comedies of the 20th century.  He acted in and co-wrote Ghostbusters, and in it showed that a geeky, awkward guy with glasses could take on a bunch of threatening ghosts, a Sumerian god of destruction (Gozer the Gozerian), and an enormous marshmallow man and come out on the winning side, not because he was big or strong or attractive, but because he was smart.  RIP Harold Ramis, and thanks for showing a generation of young kids that scientists can be heroes.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bitter and Sweet Taste Receptors and Immunity

I've written a few times in the past about taste.  However, the molecular mechanisms that your body uses to detect taste are for more than just eating and drinking.  The proteins that your body uses to recognize certain tastes (called taste receptors) are actually important players in innate immunity in your nose.

Chronic nasal and sinus infections (called chronic sinusitis) is a major public health problem.  This disease can be caused by fungal, bacterial, or viral infections.  One out of every five antibiotic prescriptions given to adults in the US is for sinusitis, and thus this disease is a major driver for the generation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are becoming a major public health threat.  Not only do sinus infections dramatically reduce quality of life and make people miserable, but they also can "seed" lower airway infections.  For example, chronic bacterial inceptions in the nose can create a reservoir of bacteria which can then infect the lung.  In patients with immunocompromised airways or airways that have impaired defensive capabilities, like cystic fibrosis patients, upper respiratory infections can lead to the onset of lower respiratory infections that can eventually be fatal.

Your nose is important because it traps most of the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and particulates that you inhale on a breath-by-breath basis.  It protects your lower airway.  Most of the time, cells in your nose gets rid of all of those pathogens without you even noticing it.  However, when the nasal defenses fail, infections results.  A major question in the field of airway biology has been why some people get upper respiratory infections but others don't.  People have long suspected that there is a genetic component.  Recent studies on taste receptors suggest that taste receptors in your nose may contribute to the long-suspected genetic basis of upper airway diseases.  Read more after the jump....

Monday, January 6, 2014

Auto-Brewery Syndrome

The yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae
As 2014 gets into full gear, I am thinking about one of the most intriguing science/medicine news stories that we saw in 2013: auto-brewery syndrome.  This is one of the weirdest diseases I've heard of in quite a long time.  In auto-brewery syndrome, yeast that live inside your gastrointestinal tract ferment carbohydrates like sugar and starches into alcohol that can actually make you drunk.  

This sounds like a made-up disease, but a few cases of this happening have really been reported in medical literature.

It seems like, while very rare and still controversial, it might be possible for yeast inside your body to make enough alcohol to actually intoxicate you.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Chemistry of Beer, Part II: Freezing Point Depression and Fractional Freezing

I'm sitting here in Pittsburgh, watching the snow fall and thinking about how cold it is outside.  Often when traveling to visit friends or having friends visit during the winter months, someone will ask a question like, "I have a bottle of wine in the trunk of my car.  Can I leave it in there overnight or will it freeze?"  The answer depends on both the outside temperature as well as on the nature of the wine itself.

Throwing a bottle of white wine or a couple of beers into the freezer to cool them down quickly is a common practice.  Because of this, many people probably already recognize that alcoholic beverages like beer or wine take longer to freeze than water.  However, as anyone who has left beer in the freezer for too long will also already know, beer will freeze.   So will wine.  Perhaps confusingly, other alcoholic beverages like vodka can be kept in the freezer permanently, because they just don't freeze at normal freezer temperatures.

Why does alcohol lower the freezing point of liquids and why do different types of alcoholic beverages have different freezing points?  This is a question that I wanted to explore in this blog post.  The answer has important implications for everyday life that reach far beyond the realm of beer.  Like the previous post on beer, this topic gives us a vehicle to explore some very general scientific principles.