Archive for the ‘May 2014’ Category

Top 10 beauty myths that need busting by science

In May 2014 on May 31, 2014 at 5:54 pm


Sarah: We are surrounded by ideals of beauty and all the industries founded on them.

Yesterday I was at the hair salon. Swathed in a cape, trapped in the swivel chair, I smiled patiently as I listened to advice from a stylist.

It got me thinking.

Here are my top ten beauty myths that need to be tackled head-on by science.

  1. Your hair ‘gets used’ to certain styling and conditioning products. It’s wise to change products regularly to make sure peak effectiveness is maintained.
  2. Don’t apply moisturiser and foundation to your face at the same time! Your skin will be tricked into absorbing the foundation, which is of course a fast track to blocked pores.
  3. Drinking 3 litres of water a day will make your skin clear and flush out toxins.
  4. Carbs eaten after 5pm are way worse than carbs consumed earlier in the day.
  5. Organic products are free of chemicals.
  6. Peptides and proteins added to skin creams can sit on pharmacy shelves for weeks and months and still retain biological activity.
  7. ‘Mineral makeup’ is actually even different from regular makeup.
  8. Leg hairs grow back thicker and stronger after shaving compared to after waxing.
  9. The more you wash your hair the more oily it will get.
  10. Eat dairy products and they’ll go straight to your thighs.

Hit me with your top beauty tales that need inquiry!

[image thanks to Parker Knight on flickr]

Blogger down! Repeat, we have a blogger down

In May 2014 on May 30, 2014 at 12:46 pm

kirsti sick on couch

Kirsti: My family members typically don’t go down with flus, colds, gastro or other illnesses very often (touch wood – superstition still makes me feel better…I am human after all!).

But just over 24 hours ago I had a niggly sore throat that seemed to get worse throughout the day, and didn’t budge overnight. I woke up with a completely stuffed up head and a throat that felt like it was on fire.

It literally happened overnight.

It’s a cold; a virus. There’s no need for me to take antibiotics for my symptoms and I know this. It’s just mighty uncomfortable and draining, and my legs want to carry me to the bedroom every 20 minutes or so for a little lie down.

If I developed a bacterial infection my symptoms would change and I would have to visit the doctor for a prescription for antibiotics, but I could really only tell if this was the case in about 4-5 days time.

Fortunately for me I know the difference between a virus and a bacterial infection. However, I am continually amazed at the need for a global campaign to educate people on this distinction and stop the automatic ingestion of antibiotics for cold symptoms.

Besides antibiotics simply not working against viruses, and potentially making you worse, antibiotic resistance is an international public health issue. In the US alone, there are around 23,000 deaths, and at least 2 million illnesses, directly attributable to antibiotic resistance. These are scary statistics.

Bacteria and viruses can cause similar symptoms, but they are so vastly different that trying to treat a virus with antibiotics is like trying to spray a brown snake with Mortein to kill it.

That bacteria are relatively large single cell organisms — of which the majority are not harmful, but in fact beneficial to humans — is one piece of information I’d take to the classroom. That viruses are tiny protein-coated packages of genetic codes that cannot even exist for very long without their host, is another.

Bacteria can reproduce by themselves, and they do it rapidly. They can evolve resistance to commercial antibiotics via a number of routes. Antibiotics can target bacterial cells directly and eliminate them essentially without harming the surrounding cells.  But viruses work differently: viruses replicate inside cells of living organisms using vital metabolic pathways of the cell itself. So in order to rid the cell of a viral infection the antiviral drugs used typically must cause toxic effects to the host cells too.

So as the seasons change again, check your symptoms, and be patient. Viruses aren’t enjoyable, but taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can lead to far nastier consequences of resistance when you really need them.

[image thanks to mrs.alibeck on Flickr]


It means WHAT?

In May 2014 on May 19, 2014 at 9:56 am

Kirsti brain freeze Ed Peterson

Kirsti: Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.

You’ll have to continue reading this post because you want to know what those big words meant, don’t you?

I don’t remember the last time I had one of these, but my partner gets them quite regularly. The anticipation of dessert for him is often tinged with the knowledge that pain might follow. He’s one of about a third of the population that get it too, so sometimes feels a bit ripped off.

It happened just last week actually.

The ice cream looked creamy and delicious. It was the perfect post kid bedtime treat, and I wolfed mine down and licked the spoon. He…..well, he crumpled to the floor!

The kitchen drama commenced with the second spoonful of ice cream; blood vessels in the roof of his mouth were triggered to dilate in an attempt to warm his mouth back up; prostaglandins (small molecules that alert your body to possible damage) shot pain levels up and, cruelly, increased his sensitivity to the very pain itself! The referred pain from his palate via his trigeminal nerve was enough to cripple him for about 30 seconds. He held onto his temples, contorted his face into an unrecognisable squint……

Then it was over.

While I happily washed my bowl and had a small giggle, he took some deep breaths and finished his ice cream. S L O W L Y.

Brain freeze. It’s a bitch!

[image thanks to tofuguns on Flickr]

My GPS is ripping me off

In May 2014 on May 16, 2014 at 1:03 pm


Sarah: Today’s Google doodle is of 18th century mathematician and philosopher Maria Gaetana Agnesi.

Quite a coincidence really, as this morning I’ve had maths on my mind.

“No, please no! Not maths!”

I hear some of you scream (through the magic of the internet).

But wait…wait! I shall explain.

I’m recovering from an ankle injury, and so went for a gentle run this morning and included 10 ‘grandstands’ in my workout. Grandstands are quite simply trips up and down a staircase for the purpose of getting one’s heart-rate elevated and adding a bit of extra challenge for the big muscles in the back of the legs (ie arse and hamstrings). Luckily there is a beautiful old grandstand adjacent to an oval in my suburb, and so off I went.

Because I like to keep track of my progress, I use an App called Runkeeper to record my runs. It uses the GPS in my phone to monitor where I go, and reports on time and pace as well.

This all works swimmingly when I run on a flat surface.

However I was less than happy to see that when I started heading upstairs for the grandstands, I was being ripped off. The distance I was travelling per grandstand was not appearing in my running record. And it’s because of maths.

Here’s where I need to refer to my diagram shown above. Imagine these are the stairs I use to exercise; I have overlaid a triangle to make my point.

True for all triangles, there are 3 sides and 3 angles. In this particular example, it is a right angled triangle (shown at bottom right). Now, if you recall your high school maths you’ll know that the side of the triangle opposite the right angle (known as the hypotenuse) is the longest side of the triangle – shown here as a yellow line. This is the distance I travel when I go up and down the stairs.

But Runkeeper – or more specifically my GPS – can’t see the hypotenuse. Because the satellite floating above Earth that monitors the position of my phone is looking straight down, it can only see the bottom side of the triangle, the red line. Which is shorter than the hypotenuse! Which is why I am being ripped off in my records!

Could someone who cares about my self-esteem and bragging rights please rectify that?

(image thanks to Eric Sanchez on flickr)


Science: it’s in me now

In May 2014 on May 15, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Sarah: “I could never get science out of me, it’s in me now.”

These are the sorts of things I say when two blokes throw questions at me in a Google hangout.

Here I am in conversation with Will Grant and Rod Lamberts for their weekly video-cast SCOM BOMB.

To solve a mystery you need evidence

In May 2014 on May 12, 2014 at 2:29 pm


Sarah: Have you heard about the spectacular mass meetings of cuttlefish in the waters of the Spencer Gulf, South Australia?

Every year between May and August these incredible cephalopods (in the same family as squid and octopus) arrive to mate and lay eggs in the rocky reefs near Port Lowly. Recently fewer and fewer cuttlefish have been arriving to mate – scientists don’t know if this results from a natural cycle in their abundance, or something more ominous.

Recently I wrote a piece for The Lead SA about new ways of identifying different species and subspecies of cuttlefish, and plans to create a better evidence base for keeping an eye on them into the future (image thanks to southoz on flickr].

New science helps track mysterious cuttlefish

The annual migration of cuttlefish into the Spencer Gulf of South Australia has begun but scientists are baffled by the lack of cuttlefish in the usual spawning grounds.

Massive declines in the cephalopods have led scientists to look for ingenious ways to track the sea creatures.

Scientists are using parasite tracking amongst a panel of other biological tools to identify discrete populations of the Great Australian Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) in the waters around South Australia.

The work offers a rare insight into how species evolve over time, and provides vital information for natural resource management.

“There are likely to be five subpopulations of Great Australian Cuttlefish across the species range,” said Bronwyn Gillanders, Professor in aquatic ecology at The University of Adelaide.

Monitoring the parasites that live on cuttlefish could be the most useful tool for identifying the different populations. Recent PhD graduate Dr Sarah Catalano performed research focusing on an unusual worm-like parasite that is only found in cuttlefish and other cephalopods. Each species of cuttlefish is though to host its own genetically unique parasite.

“Parasite genetics might be a more sensitive tool than looking at the cuttlefish themselves to distinguish whether different species or subspecies actually do exist,” said Professor Gillanders.

Another line of research to identify cuttlefish subpopulations focuses on the appearance of their unique beaked mouth – used by cephalopods to masticate their food before swallowing – and related dietary preferences.

Professor Gillanders and her colleagues hope that by using multiple lines of evidence – parasite genetics in combination with cuttlefish genetics and cuttlefish dietary preferences – they will be able to sort out whether the different groups of cuttlefish in the waters off South Australia are separate species or subspecies.

In particular, they’d like to determine whether the spectacular breeding aggregations of Great Australian Cuttlefish that occur annually during May-August in the northern Spencer Gulf are confined to a particular subpopulation.

Although historically up to tens of thousands of cuttlefish have arrived in this period to breed, that’s not been the case recently.

“The numbers have been decreasing over many years – since the peak in abundance since the late 1990s, they’ve dropped in number by about 90%,” Gillanders said.

Although recent low numbers of cuttlefish have been attributed to many factors – including natural cycles in cuttlefish abundance or changing environmental factors – it’s hard to know the real reason without the existence of long-term evidence.

This level of ambiguity is something Bronwyn is keen to avoid in the future. Along with colleagues across the sciences, governments and industry, she is running the Spencer Gulf Ecosystem and Development Initiative . The program is one of the first of its kind in the world, aiming to provide all stakeholders with access to independent and credible information about the Spencer Gulf and opportunities to develop it without compromising its environment.


I want to unearth known unknowns

In May 2014 on May 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm

kirsti colourful petri dishes

Kirsti: Over the past 100 years, science and technology have changed our lives almost beyond measure.

In that same time period, tertiary education has become accessible by almost anyone with an internet connection. Courses are offered via a range of universities and other providers, including those with established integrity but also featuring those with little credibility at all. Whatever you choose to call it — whether it be off-campus, external, online or distance education — enrolments are UP and costs are DOWN.

So in an age when the ethical and accurate communication of science is so important, and you can virtually study anything from anywhere, I decided to search Australia. I looked for options in external postgraduate studies in science communication, and for a Masters or graduate Diploma course with flexible options. Why? So I could use my existing work, research and communication activities to learn……well, learn to do it better, learn more stuff, learn new strategies and unearth my ‘known unknowns’.

Is that too much to ask?!


The search was more complicated than I anticipated! Finally, I did manage to establish that you CAN do an external Masters of Science Communication through the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU. It’s a convoluted path to enrolment, and the webpage doesn’t explicitly state you can do it…..but you can.

Event if I was willing to move, my choices for science communication postgraduate studies would actually still be limited. Although there are Masters of Communication and Masters of Journalism available at universities across the country, many of them include aspects of communication not suited to me at the moment, like advertising and traditional journalism.

Distinct to what I’m looking for, there are numerous fabulous single units available that cover issues in science communication and practice at an undergraduate and postgraduate level. Among many examples, the University of Melbourne offers science communication at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and this unit is a diverse exploration of effective engagement strategies in science communication. The University of Newcastle’s 2nd year science communication unit includes a project and portfolio submission, and Monash University students all take the core science unit ‘Scientific Practice & Communication’ as part of any BSc. or BSc. double degree.

And if you’re serious about postgraduate study in science communication, it is dominated by three Australian universities:

  1. The Australian National University (the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science)
  2. University of Western Australia
  3. University of Queensland

My advice?  Just call the coordinator or graduate convenor.  After a healthy chat, many things are possible.

But have I missed anything? Are there any other or even better options? I’d love to hear about your experience with science communication study at a tertiary level.

[image thanks to Anne Flaherty on Flickr]


Accessing science and art

In May 2014 on May 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Sarah: A few days ago I had the privilege of talking to a mixed audience of artists and scientists. The event was a workshop co-organised by the RiAUS and Access2Arts; my job was to speak on the challenges of communicating science and — in particular — transitioning from working in the research world to the much more varied space of freelance writing.

What I came to think about in preparing my slides (shown above) was that all scientists are indeed science communicators – the thing that changes from one career pathway to the next is the audience.

If, for example, as a scientist you work in an Immunology laboratory and conduct immunology research and talk at immunology conferences, then you have the luxury of knowing that your audience is reasonably up to scratch on the basic background of your field, and probably has a level of interest in what you are working on. Your skills as a communicator lie in presenting the why? and how? of the research you performed, and placing the results within the context of the specialist field. You might also offer up what you plan to do next. No over-interpretation, no grandstanding, no claims to have solved the world’s problems, please! And certainly no placement of the people involved at the centre of proceedings.

Presenting science to a broader audience is communication with a focus not on the content or procedures, but instead on the people, the stories and why it even matters in a world full of other news. Furthermore, in this space you cannot necessarily assume any level of science knowledge or understanding of what the scientific process involves. Choice of subject matter is critical, language must be different and you need to find your audiences (not quite as simple as arriving to a pre-arranged crowd at a conference facility!).

The best part about the workshop was meeting the audience members and hearing their perspectives on the similarities between art and science — one thing we all agreed on was that both need to be a part of everybody’s education.