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Day 110. Maths

In November 2012 on November 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Maths. It’s important.

Perhaps I can help you see why.

This week the world is talking about a newly published international study which describes recent accelerations in loss of polar ice.

The abstract, or summary of the paper, is written in very dense language, and consists largely of terminology which can be hard to decipher if you’re not working in the field.

Rather than read through it word for word, for the purposes of this exercise just take note of the words which are which are in bold (my highlights):

We combined an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment to estimate the mass balance of Earth’s polar ice sheets. We find that there is good agreement between different satellite methods—especially in Greenland and West Antarctica—and that combining satellite data sets leads to greater certainty. Between 1992 and 2011, the ice sheets of Greenland, East Antarctica, West Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula changed in mass by –142 ± 49, +14 ± 43, –65 ± 26, and –20 ± 14 gigatonnes year−1, respectively. Since 1992, the polar ice sheets have contributed, on average, 0.59 ± 0.20 millimeter year−1 to the rate of global sea-level rise.

The bold words all relate to maths. The point is that if you want to study, measure and estimate global climate change and rising sea levels, you need a thorough working capacity in maths.

Maths is critical to understand other aspects of our lives too. Here’s just a taste:

  • Measuring and trying to predict earthquakes;
  • Mapping the impact of tsunamis;
  • The movements of the oceans, including tides and temperature changes;
  • Weather forecasting;
  • How living species interact and compete for resources;
  • Predicting how drugs are cleared from our bodies;
  • Assessing risk factors for certain diseases or health outcomes;
  • Human processes such as finance, agriculture, water, transportation, and energy.

All these specialist areas, and more, need maths.

2013 is the International year of Mathematics of Planet Earth.  Down Under, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute is teaming up with societies and organisations in Australia to spread the word about the role of maths and stats in understanding the challenges of our world in a fun and accessible way.

Embrace maths! You need it.

[image thanks to dtweeny on flickr]

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Day 109. Obesity

In November 2012 on November 29, 2012 at 11:43 am

It makes sense that obesity tends to run in families, right?

When parents and children share genes, and eat similar sorts of foods, naturally you’d expect their bodies to end up looking roughly similar.

More and more research suggests that another factor is also at play. When an obese woman becomes pregnant, there are subtle abnormalities operating at cellular and sub-cellular levels which influence aspects of fertilisation, embryo implantation, placental development and delivery of nutrients to the fetus. Independent of genes and lifestyle, these act to ‘program’ aspects of the baby’s development which predispose them to developing obesity as a child and adult.

Obesity in fathers also weighs in, if you’ll forgive the pun. Sperm in obese men carry information outside of the genes themselves, but which also predispose offspring to developing obesity.

The bottom line is that even if you don’t have a family history of obesity, and you eat a healthy diet, if one or both partners are very overweight when you make a baby it may have a different growth pattern compared to if both parents have a body mass index in the normal range.

To read more, see this COSMOS article which I wrote at the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress yesterday.

[photo thanks to Beverly & Pack on flickr]

Day 108. Cervix

In November 2012 on November 28, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Cervix.

The bit at the distal end of a uterus.

For approximately half of us, we surrender a small sample of cervical cells for Pap analysis every 2 years or so. Some readers will have experienced the gradual cervical dilation which accompanies childbirth.

But did you know that after sex, a reaction occurs in the cervix which is typically only seen during inflammation? And that this reaction is important for setting up the right immune environment for pregnancy?

See my latest COSMOS article here to learn more.

[image from euthman on flickr: “the squamocolumnar junction of the uterine cervix, representing the boundary between the exocervix on the left, and the endocervix on the right. It’s important to sample this area while collecting a Pap smear specimen”]

Day 107. Hectic

In November 2012 on November 27, 2012 at 9:44 pm

I’ve had a brilliant but hectic day at the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress.

With a brain overflowing with half-written articles and ideas for future blog posts, today I’m going to chicken out by highlighting an article I wrote earlier in the year with Kristin Alford, Social Media for Marketing Science.

Here’s a taste:

With its emphasis on knowledge sharing, community building, as well as engagement and empowerment of consumers, social media tools and applications offer significant opportunities in marketing. By carefully considering their audiences, scientists and science institutions can benefit from using social media to market their activities. This review presents theory and current examples of integrating social media into the practice of strategic marketing, and suggests how science organisations can leverage this for better engagement.

The full article can be downloaded here.

Day 106. Endometriosis

In November 2012 on November 26, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Today at the National Health and Medical Research Congress I witnessed one of the most compelling presentations in my short life as a scientist.

Before I start, you need to know a little about endometriosis; it’s a condition in which the tissue that lines the uterus is also found outside the uterine cavity. This might not sound like such a big deal, but remember that in menstruating women the lining of the uterus undergoes a monthly, hormone-regulated cycle of growth and loss. So, in effect, women suffering with endometriosis have pockets of tissue in abnormal sites in their abdominal cavity that are swelling and subsiding on a regular basis. This has consequences for many organs in the vicinity – such as bowel, bladder, ovaries – and can create inflammation and scarring in places that are normally very stable.

Now, back to the presentation. Dr Susan Evans is an Adelaide-based clinician whose area of expertise is described in her abstract (a presentation summary) contained in the conference booklets for attendees. Here are some excerpts:

Dr Susan Evans is a Gynaecologist, Laparoscopic Surgeon and Pain Medicine Physician from Adelaide, Australia. She is author of the book ‘Endometriosis and Pelvic Pain’ the eBook ‘Pelvic Pain’ and co-author of the policy paper ‘The Pelvic Pain Report: The $6Billion Woman and the $600Million Girl’.

Her presentation provides an understanding of how the ‘big picture’ of chronic pelvic pain fits with the concept of endometriosis as a systemic, hormonally-influenced, multi-organ, inflammatory, neurovascular condition.

[Susan] believes that pelvic pain is a substantially under-researched area with enormous potential for new discoveries. She hopes to explain the overall clinical picture of pelvic pain to stimulate new and original thought in this area.

Susan speaks in a wonderfully strong and confident voice, and as an audience we were all mesmerised. I took the following notes as I sat, spellbound:

“The endometriosis sufferer, let’s think about her experience. There a lot of evidence that these women have abnormal experiences right from the start of menarche. A study of Dutch children showed comparable low experience of chronic pain in both boys and girls up to about the age of eleven; after that, the group of girls who will later be diagnosed with endometriosis start to have pelvic pain on a regular basis”

“I’ve had a problem from the beginning” they say.

“It’s hard to imagine the impact that regular pain can have on a teenager – impact on sexuality, school, work, miss out on education, employment, relationsips, reduced confidence”

“Chronic pelvic pain; it means everyone’s confused, it’s so difficult to find care”

“Bloating, food sensitivities, bloated bowel, sharp pains, painful sex, baldder pain, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, depression”

“Let’s think about period pain:  it’s the sum of a woman’s menstrual experience”

“Think about the pain experience – as you get chronic pain, and central nervous system amplification of the pain response, the brain is busy worrying about pain all the time AND the pain is an emotional experience all of the time; this pushes the pain into an overwhelming experience all the time”

“What about treatment? All we have at the moment is surgery and hormonal therapies. Other treatments that should be considered include

  • Education;
  • Dietary changes;
  • Pelvic physiotherapy;
  • Botox for pelvic muscle spasm;
  • Medications for bladder overreactivity’
  • Topical treatments;
  • Treat the central nervous system sensitisation – this hardly ever happens”

I shan’t go on least I repeat myself, but I hope I’ve managed to convey how Susan came across as a clinician with a complete and holistic approach to understanding and managing endometriosis and pelvic pain.

I found Susan thoroughly enlightening.

More conference tomorrow! Can’t wait.

[image thanks to Hey Paul Studios on flickr]

Day 105. Workshop

In November 2012 on November 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

Today I attended a workshop for students in the Australian Society for Stem Cell Research, part of the 2012 Australian Health and Medical Research Congress in Adelaide.

On a panel with Paul Knoepfler and Noby Leong, I presented a brief overview of social media and how it can play a role in the working life of a scientist.

If you’re interested, see my slides here, or a Storify collation of tweets from the session here.

There are many great sessions coming up in the next couple of days at the congress, I’ll do my best to keep you updated.

[image from MacLeod Cartoons]

Day 104. Bugmania

In November 2012 on November 24, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Shopping for a dear friend’s 40th birthday present today, I popped into the beautiful emporium that is One Rundle Trading.

In one of the front rooms I discovered an amazing array of mounted insects and arachnids – yes, real ones. I wondered where on Earth such a shop would one source such bizarre and compelling items. A small note on the reverse of the frames revealed a name: Bits and Bugs.

The company website presented the following information:

As company policy, b&b™ does not trade in endangered, rare or otherwise protected wildlife. No specimen is listed on CITES. We source some of our supplies of common, abundant insect species from Government regulated ranching cooperatives in many countries, your purchase actually aids environmental conservation rather than detracting from it.

Furthermore, all of our frames are not made from real wood. Ethical concerns over deforestation in many third world countries has led us to pioneer the use of timber substitute framing. All frames have glass fronts with a hook ready to hang.

Fancy any of these on your dining room wall?

Day 103. More reading

In November 2012 on November 23, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Two days ago I was focused on academic reading.

Then this post from Brain Pickings describing the best science reads of 2012 got me thinking bigger.  How I would love to buy all those books and sit on an island for a year to read in peace.

Life being as it is however, I thought instead I’d collate my own top ten science and nature reads (across my life). I’ve left out blogs and other electronic publications; these are all printed old-style books.

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
    Rebecca Skloot
  2. Love and the Platypus
    Nicholas Drayson
  3. A Short History of Nearly Everything
    Bill Bryson
  4. The Best American Science and Nature Writing series
    (started collecting these in 2000)
    published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  5. The Dark Lady of DNA
    Brenda Maddox
  6. Art Forms in Nature, The Prints of Ernst Haeckel
    Olaf Breidbach
  7. On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
    Harold McGee
  8. Alexander’s Outing
    Pamela Allen
  9. The Adventure series
    Willard Price
  10. Myeloid Antigen Cell Populations in the Murine Uterus
    Sarah Hudson

Yes, ok, that last one was written by me. I couldn’t resist the chance to drum up a bit of rare exposure for my dust-collecting thesis.

What are your favourite science reads?

[photo thanks to busyPrinting on flickr]

Day 102. Onions

In November 2012 on November 22, 2012 at 1:54 pm

Have you read information suggesting that onions are the harbingers of death and destruction due to their propensity to absorb bacteria and viruses?

This morning I read a shared Facebook update regarding this popular vegetable which apparently was aimed at saving my life.

Here’s how it started:

In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu…

Many of the farmers and their families had contracted it and many died.

The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn’t believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the bacteria, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

Firstly, it’s was a pretty futuristic microscope that could see a virus in an onion back in 1919 (the Electron Microscope was invented in the early 1930s). Secondly, the writer is improperly interchanging the terms ‘virus’ and ‘bacteria’. Yes, both can make you sick but they are very different in size, structure and how they live and infect humans.

Next was this:

Now, I heard this story from my hairdresser. She said that several years ago, many of her employees were coming down with the flu, and so were many of her customers. The next year she placed several bowls with onions around in her shop. To her surprise, none of her staff got sick. It must work. Try it and see what happens. We did it last year and we never got the flu.

Having two cases studies which report an association (not the same as a mechanism or a causal relationship) between placing an onion in a room and low incidence of flu infection is not enough to make it science. See this great Critical Thinking animation (only 2.20 minutes) on the tricks our brains play to deal with information.

There are many, many reasons which might explain why the groups of people had low incidence of flu. For example, in the hairdressing salon, perhaps because the staff experience flu the first year, in the second year they all had immunity? In the farmer example, perhaps all members of that family had a particular arrangement of genes which made them better able to fight flu infection? Perhaps they never showered, and hence were so smelly nobody came near them to share common viruses? We just don’t know.

It may be hard for us to accept, but unless there is a specific study involving unbiased researchers and large groups of subjects all exposed to the same dose of a virus under similar conditions while sitting near to or far from an onion or a proxy of an onion (a control vegetable) which then shows high levels of the pathogen in question we cannot say that onions prevent infection.

The information then continues, including the following snippets:

Onions and garlic placed around the room saved many from the black plague years ago. They have powerful antibacterial, antiseptic properties.

–> Anecdotal and no evidence is provided.

Lots of times when we have stomach problems we don’t know what to blame. Maybe it’s the onions that are to blame.

–> Guesswork at best.

Dogs should never eat onions. Their stomachs cannot metabolize onions.

–> Tell that to my labrador. Jokes aside, searching the database at the US National Library of Medicine, I did find one paper suggesting problems for dogs after eating onions.

It is dangerous to cut an onion and try to use it to cook the next day, it becomes highly poisonous for even a single night and creates toxic bacteria which may cause adverse stomach infections because of excess bile secretions and even food poisoning.

–> No evidence provided. I searched, and couldn’t find a single supporting publication. I did find some papers which report bacteria and viruses in association with many vegetables, including onions, but  not from absorption sitting in kitchens or fridges. It would be reasonable to assume that most bacteria and viruses found in association with vegetables are derived from unclean water and organic matter applied to gardens.

A few others have written more comprehensive debunks of the onion story than I: see HoaxSlayer and Waffles at Noon.

[image thanks to SoraZG on flickr]

Day 101. A day for reading

In November 2012 on November 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm

On Sunday I’m delighted to be presenting a brief talk to student members of the Australia Society for Stem Cell Research. The focus will be on how to get the most out of social media if you’re working in the  life sciences.

I’m constantly using social media to communicate science (and other stuff!) of course, but wanted to find some academic material to back up my ramblings.

Here’s a list of freely-available publications I’ve been reading through today, and found useful:

  • Using Twitter in university research, teaching and impact activities, a guide for academics and researchers
    by Amy Mollett, Danielle Moran and Patrick Dunleave
    – to view PDF, click here
  • Scientists who engage with society perform better academically
    by Pablo Jensen, Jean-Baptiste Rouquier, Pablo Kreimer, Yves Croissant
    – available through Cornell University Library
  • The verdict: is blogging or tweeting about research papers worth it?
    by Melissa Terras
    – at LSE Online
  • How the Scientific Community Reacts to Newly Submitted Preprints: Article Downloads, Twitter Mentions, and Citations
    Xin Shuai, Alberto Pepe, Johan Bollen
    available through Cornell University Library
  • Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact
    by Gunther Eysenbach
    – available at Journal of Medical Internet Research

I’ve also found there are a few people worth keeping an eye on – in the sense of keeping up to date with the latest trends in social media, for science but also more generally:

Happy reading!

[photo thanks to moriza on flickr]