Archive for the ‘May 2013’ Category

Day 292. Lunch, breasts and automobiles

In May 2013 on June 1, 2013 at 7:20 pm


We were all having a lovely afternoon until we heard the statistics.

There were ten of us seated together, supporting the Hospital Research Foundation by attending a fundraising lunch at the Adelaide Zoo.

In a panel discussion on the main stage, researcher Associate Professor Wendy Ingman revealed the latest numbers on breast cancer – one in eight women will be diagnosed in Australia during their lifetime.

That meant one of us on Table 4. Gulp. Confronting.

Happily, when pressed on the future of breast cancer, Wendy expressed her confidence that these statistics would improve markedly in the next ten years thanks to current medical research happening around the world.

Relieved applause filled the room.

Wendy’s main research focus is where the breast and the immune system collide – in particular, how immune cells known as macrophages play a role in controlling breast function.

Wendy and I actually have a love of macrophages in common  – we completed PhDs together looking at macrophages; not in the breast, but in the uterus and ovaries.

Wendy’s story is a great example of ‘skilling up’ in one field, and then applying what you’ve learnt in a new place – once you learn the tools to find and describe macrophages in one organ, you can readily apply these to focus on other areas of the body.

It’s like learning to work on cars by pulling apart an old Volkswagon, and then later in your life remodelling a Porsche. Same skills, applied anew.

[image thanks to khrawlings on flickr]

Day 291. Growing babies

In May 2013 on May 30, 2013 at 8:14 pm


Pregnancies last a long time in my family.

My mother had four babies, each born two or more weeks after the expected 40 week duration.

The first of my two children were born at 41 and 42 weeks respectively. Number three arrived at 39 weeks.

Under ideal conditions, the end-point of pregnancy occurs when the fetus has reached its optimal size and is mature enough for life outside the womb. In uncomplicated pregnancies, this usually means the longer inside the better.

In twin pregnancies, where two babies compete for resources in the womb, the situation is not so simple. If a pregnancy manages to last beyond about 38 weeks, weight gain in babies can slow or even go backwards due to limitations of physical space and the diminishing capacity of the placenta (or placentas) to deliver nutrients.

A 2012 study from Adelaide obstetrician and researcher Jodie Dodd suggests that delivery of twins at 37 weeks – before they reach this ‘going backwards’ point in pregnancy – may offer health benefits to the babies.

Here’s a Science Story I wrote for the Robinson Institute on Jodie’s research.

[image thanks to miss pupik on flickr]

Day 290. Local and global

In May 2013 on May 29, 2013 at 9:54 pm


This week UK newspaper the Guardian launched its Australia edition.

The ‘paper’ is independent, digital and free.

Perhaps a reflection of its new expanded geographical focus, a story on watery deaths along the coastline of South Australia was available via click-throughs on the Environment pages at both the UK and Australia sites this week.

Written by Malcolm Sutton*, Warmer seas could lead to more dolphin deaths in South Australia describes the phenomenon of drastically elevated numbers of dolphin and other marine species carcases washing up on metropolitan and regional SA beaches in recent months.

The deaths are being officially blamed on algal blooms – growth explosions of floating microscopic algae – resulting from a prolonged period of elevated sea water temperatures during March 2013. Other theories include algal blooms due to discharge from the Port Stanvac desalination plant, and viral infection in heat-stressed, immunocompromised dolphins.

No firm answer will be available until autopsies on the dolphin carcasses are completed.

For me, the publication of the story on an international newspaper website shows how stories sourced from little-known places around the world can contribute to a body of evidence. In this case, the story has broad interest due to its connection with other stories on warming of oceans due to climate change (for other examples, see here and here).

*presumably the same Malcolm Sutton as he at Stock Journal

[image thanks to Les Haines on flickr]

Day 289. Disagreement

In May 2013 on May 29, 2013 at 1:12 pm


Disagreement is not something I’m particularly good at.

Already ‘une femme du certain age‘, it’s a skill I’m developing slowly.

Two articles I read recently reminded me how important it is to be able to stop, consider, challenge information and stand up for accuracy.

Associate professor of medicine and pharmacology Jalees Rehman wrote an article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper on the need for critical writing in science journalism. Referring to the bulk of popular science writing as ‘infotainment’, Jalees states,

“infotainment science journalism rarely challenges the validity of the scientific research study or criticises its conclusions.”

Ideally, he’d like to see writers challenge the assumptions that scientists make, and take the time to offer independent and detailed critical analysis. His implication is that if you’re reporting on science it’s simply not good enough to take the words of scientists – and their public relations managers – and repeat them verbatim. Instead,

“Critical science journalism takes a different approach and focuses on providing a balanced assessment of the work, one that highlights specific strengths but also emphasises specific limitations or flaws.”

Writers must be prepared to do the hard yards and perform their own investigations as to the validity and strength of the scientific findings in studies they report on. Major flaws and misrepresentations need to be pointed out.

Over at Women’s Agenda, Angela Priestly also highlights the need to challenge flaws and assumptions, this time in the arena of business leadership. Interviewing businesswoman Janine Gardner, Angela asked her to elaborate on what she believed courageous leadership to entail. She summarised it thus:

“We want leaders who’re willing to stand in their own spotlight, who always trust their values and will publicly declare when they think something is wrong. Such leadership requires more than simply saying, ‘I don’t agree’ and instead confronting a challenge or the status quo and seeking to change it.”

This, I want to improve on. Identifying poor information and doing something about it.

[image thanks to Between a Rock on flickr]

Day 288. Setting goals

In May 2013 on May 27, 2013 at 2:09 pm


Adventurer Tim Jarvis knows a thing or two about setting goals.

Guided by the “thinking is good, but doing is better” motto, he recently re-enacted Shackleton’s 1914 complete ‘double’ voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia and dangerous crossing of its mountainous interior.

Speaking at TEDxAdelaide in May 2013, Tim retold a metaphor he had heard for setting large life goals

To paraphrase Tim:

Collect a pile of rocks, approximately fist-sized. Place those rocks inside a glass vial, where they sit with plenty of air surrounding them. Now grab some gravel, and add it to the vial. The pieces settle around the large rocks and fill the gaps somewhat. Now collect handfulls of sand. Release the sand into the vials, where it filters through and fills all the gaps around the rocks and the gravel.

The rocks are your large life goals. These take up most of your time and your energy. The gravel are smaller goals; they are still important, but can be fitted around the life goals. The sand is all the trivial stuff you must deal with on a day-to-day basis. It must be relegated to fill the gaps between large and small life goals.

The metaphor has been mulling around in my mind in recent weeks.

For me, the question resides in deciding what your life goals are, and what level of priority to assign to them.

For some, large life goals will come in the form of expeditions and explorations that most of us could never even contemplate. For others, these will take the form of managing an ongoing health issue or turning a bad financial situation around.

From my own perspective, I find that my large and small life goals tend to shuffle around a bit. Some weeks, I’m focussed on myself and what I’d like to achieve in work and personal growth. Other weeks, I decide my family is the centre of my life.

I guess I’m constantly turning the vial upside down and searching for new ways to pack it all in again.

[image thanks to Steve Johnson on flickr]

Day 287. Half marathon

In May 2013 on May 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm


Today I ran my first half marathon!

In the early hours of this morning we drove through the mist to the Barossa Valley, where I ran 21.1 kms through vineyards and the township of Tanunda.

I think you’ll forgive me if I have the day off.

Day 286. Lord of the Butterflies

In May 2013 on May 27, 2013 at 1:21 pm


“That’s not a butterfly. THIS is a butterfly”

Or so may have said Dr Andy Warren on viewing the limited specimens I’ve managed to catch in my back yard (shown here in an image from Day 281).

This week Andy – aka Lord of the Butterflies – is the feature attraction at RealScientists, and has dazzled us by sharing simply amazing images from field studies near Gainesville, Florida and collections at the Florida Museum.

Andy’s tweets were so prolific, I archived them according to days (since I am the tweet-collecting storify dude at RealScientists).

You actually don’t need to read the text to enjoy them: just click through, and scroll down to see the wonderful diversity in the Lepidoptera family (which includes butterflies and moths). Other amazing animals also pop up, including tortoises, armadillos and alligators oh my!

You can keep up with all the action by following Realscientists on twitter  – and now on Facebook too.

[image thanks to pablogrb on flickr]

Day 285. So….what is science actually?

In May 2013 on May 24, 2013 at 8:10 pm



Citizen science.

Civic science.

What are these things actually?

Part 6 in the TechNyou Critical Thinking Animation Series This Thing Called Science: Citizen Science (produced by Bridge8) will fill you in in a matter of merely 3.34 minutes.


Day 284. Tooth fairy with a PhD

In May 2013 on May 23, 2013 at 9:02 pm

tooth fairy

One of the dilemmas of modern, westernised mothering is – assuming your mammary glands and child are compatible – how long one should breastfeed for.

Some say 4 months is enough, others recommend one year or even two. Some say even longer.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’d be kinda nice to know how long our neanderthal ancestors offered the breast to their cave-babies. Because the natural feeding behaviours of neanderthals evolved to match their biological needs, and vice versa, knowing the duration of breastfeeding in these early humans would be relevant to our health.

Now some tooth-stealing scientist guy has worked out how to answer this question.

As reported by NPR yesterday, Manish Arora (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York) and his colleagues studied milk teeth which had naturally fallen from the mouths of young children, and matched his analysis to their known duration of breastfeeding. Relying on the ring-like layered formation patterns of teeth, he discovered that levels of barium were high in layers laid down during breastfeeding, but dropped once weaning commenced.

The method was so good, he could then use it to work out the age at which breastfeeding stopped in teeth for which he had no social history.

Like a fossilised neanderthal tooth, for example.

Manish analysed the barium in a 100,000 year old perfectly preserved milk molar tooth found fossilised in Belgium.

As described by NPR, the results showed that

“this Neanderthal started weaning after about 7 months, and then transitioned to a mixed diet. At 15 months, the barium signal dropped abruptly, as if mother and child had been separated.”

The results were published in the journal Nature this week.

This sort of research makes my spine tingle. When I learn something new about our human ancestors, and see how similar they were to us – despite all our technology and clothing and isolated existences – it makes me feel connected to a broader humanity and a history of people.

And now I wonder what happened to that baby and its mother.

[image thanks to edenpictures on flickr]

Day 283. Messenger Mum

In May 2013 on May 23, 2013 at 9:56 am


Latest news just in: I’m a ‘Messenger Mum‘.

The Messenger is a community newspaper distributed in various suburbs of Adelaide.

So far my participation has involved getting together with other working parents of school-aged children and having a chat with a few journalists about issues which come up in our daily lives. The assumption is that if these are issues for us, then readers of the Messenger publications should also be interested.

Little do they realise that I have a science agenda *cue maniacal laughter*.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to sneak this in yet, with my only quote so far being:

My kids love going to Proswim lessons, Team Trampoline and Kindergym also very popular.

Not quite science myth-busting yet….but give me time, give me time.