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Day 80. The storm

In October 2012 on October 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I don’t know about you, but I’m hiding down here in Adelaide.

I’ve read bits and pieces about the massive weather system known as Hurricane Sandy – now simply being referred to as ‘The Storm’  at NY Times Online – but haven’t done a full exploration of the impact yet. Yes, I’m a chicken.

What I have done however is read a little of the science around this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) event.

Nature has published a review article which highlights some of the factors associated with this disaster. Here’s a summary in the form of a Q&A:

Q: What is making Hurricane Sandy so devastating?
A: Sheer size –  280km diametre of severe winds, 780 km diametre of strong winds.

Q: Why is it unusual?
A: Several factors – it was feeding off unusually warm surface waters in the Atlantic Ocean, it has been forced inland by a high-pressure system off Greenland, it has merged with a winter system moving in from the west, and it coincided with higher than average tides due to a full moon.

Q: What is the link to global warming?
A: No simple answer exists. Discussions are ongoing about the relevance of rising sea level and rising sea temperatures attributed to climate change.

Q: How long is Sandy expected to last?
A: The storm, which has now moderated, is projected to continue moving north over the next two days, then into Canada on Thursday and Friday.

Sadly, I think now that the storm is moving on the enormity of the clean-up task will start to impact on residents of affected areas. I’d wish them a Happy Halloween if I could, but instead just send my condolences and best wishes for a speedy return to normal life.

[image thanks to Hitchster on flickr]

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Day 79. A flashback

In October 2012 on October 30, 2012 at 10:13 am

Looking through my final year high school year book from (gulp) 1989, I found an article written by yours truly. It provided a wrap-up of the year’s Student Forum, chaired by myself and a certain handsome blond swimmer. A few paragraphs reminded me that we were thinking about world resources even back then:

The Forum in ancient Rome was the centre of public life; the student forum at our school echoes its traditions of discussion and interaction between groups and individuals. Every fortnight Year 11 and Year 12 representatives [….] met [….] to consider matters concerning both staff and students.

This robust body discussed many important issues. Perhaps the most topical of these resulted in our decision to recycle used paper. Following much research by the aptly-named Andrew Greentree, each class-room was provided with the first stage of the recycling process: a collection box. Considering the ever-present global threats, we hope that this cause will be continued in the future.

[…]

The ancient Forum is a ruin in modern Rome, but its tradition is thriving here at our school.

Perhaps not the phrasing I would chose now, but still, I’m pleased to be reminded we were active recyclers. Twenty three years later, those global threats are still ‘ever-present’.

Day 78. The role of fathers

In October 2012 on October 29, 2012 at 11:07 am

An article by Richard Fletcher in today’s The Conversation suggests that although the amount of time Australian fathers spend with their children hasn’t changed much over the past 10 year or so, Dads are increasingly aware of their important role in child-rearing.  It’s something psychologist Steve Biddulph has been saying for years.

My own husband often puts himself through an emotional and time-management wringer to ensure he’s home from work and available to meet the needs each of our 3 children as much as he humanely can. Getting the balance right is tough.

Over the weekend I watched a fascinating documentary which made me think about the role of fathers again. Gypsy Blood is a confronting, violent tale of men raising their sons in gypsy communities in the United Kingdom. The men and boys featured in the film spend their days together: hunting, fighting, talking about hunting, talking about fighting, watching rooster fights and looking after each other and their animals. Even the youngest of the children are trained to box, and are encouraged to fight other children beyond the point of exhaustion.  Apparently the men don’t work, and the boys don’t attend school.

Clearly it’s not a life I would choose for my family. And yet I was still struck by the strength of the bond between the fathers and sons featured in the story. What son wouldn’t love to have their father at home and coaching him through activities for the majority of his day, every day? And that’s the power and the danger of it, I guess. When your dad tells you that unless you win you’ll be letting down not just yourself but also your Dad, your Pa, your Uncles and your cousins, you’d be inclined to be your best.

Gypsy Blood, produced by my very talented cousin Robert Wilkins, is available on ABCTV iView until November 4th. Watch it without your children.

[image thanks to anyjazz65 on flickr]

Day 77. Sports Day

In October 2012 on October 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm

A mathematical truth derived from data collected at my daughter’s school sports event today, inspired by the parents/old scholars relay race:

The amount of trash talk emanating from a parent is inversely proportional to their level of fitness and directly correlated with the number of sausages purchased from the sizzle. 

Naturally, I was very restrained. And fast.

[image thanks to La Flaf on flickr]

Day 76. Compost

In October 2012 on October 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Down at the back of my suburban block, behind the quince tree and the hills hoist, is a big black barrel.

Each week we dump peelings, skins, seeds, leaves, egg shells, paper, cardboard and even rejected porridge into the barrel. What starts as an enormous volume of discrete materials threatening to push the lid askew rapidly breaks down into a dense, uniform, deep brown mass of compost.

The process is so amazingly efficient that it still blows me away every time I see a new wheel-barrow full of the stuff.

Fortunately, there are some lovely websites around which explain how it works.

For example, Mansfield Middle School, apparently ‘the place where compost happens’, has put together a great page of information for the interested gardener.

Based on their content, I’ll give you a quick summary of the active components in compost:

  • psychrophile bacteria, which love cool temperatures;
  • mesophile bacteria, which do most of the breakdown work;
  • thermophile bacteria, which bring the temperature of the compost up and thus kill any weed seeds;
  • actinomycete bacteria, which break down woody material, form long, thread-like branched filaments that look like gray spider webs stretching throughout compost, and give the pile a pleasing earthy smell;
  • fungi, including moulds and yeasts which break down tough debris;
  • sowbugs, crustaceans which feed on leaves and stems;
  • earthworms, which have a number of roles including aerating and stabilising the compost;
  • millepedes, which feed on decaying plant matter; and
  • invertebrates including nematodes (roundworms), mites (small relatives of spiders) and springtails (small wingless insects) which feed on the smaller creatures listed above.

The bit I really like about compost is that last week’s vege scraps are going to provide nutrients for this summer’s nectarines – growing on the tree shown here in front of the wheelbarrow. We planted this beauty after it arrived as my 40th birthday present in January, and it’s already bearing a bumper crop of young fruit.

I’m already planning a Maggie Beer nectarine tart for my 41st birthday.

Day 75. Worms

In October 2012 on October 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

Have you ever wondered why on earth scientists spend good money conducting experiments with mice, insects and even worms?

A story I wrote this week for COSMOS magazine might help argue the case a little.

To set the scene, imagine you’re a scientist trying to unravel how a hormone  – say, oxytocin – has an impact on human behaviour and mood. Wouldn’t it be great if you could somehow create a group of humans who had no oxytocin, and then compare them to a group of normal humans. You could expose the normal and oxytocin-lacking humans to a stressful situation, and see which group coped best. You could put males lacking oxytocin and normal males in a room full of females and see who managed to impregnate the most women.

Clearly we cannot allow such experiments to happen.

What we can do is try and find examples of simpler animals which have elements of their biology in common with humans. This is where the worms come in. Two papers and a perspective published today in the highly thought-of journal Science have discovered that small transparent worms known as C. elegans have an oxytocin-like hormone system which regulates their sexual activity and decision-making processes. This opens up a whole new avenue for studying how oxytocin and other similar hormones are important in healthy and not-so-healthy humans.

To learn more, see my COSMOS article here.

[image thanks to Leopard Print on flickr]

Day 74. Eat Your Heart Out

In October 2012 on October 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Today I really, really wish I lived in London.

The Eat your Heart Out London exhibition of anatomical cakes is open right now at St Bart’s Pathology Museum London and it’s incredible.

Feast thine eyes, keeping in mind these are all eminently edible:

Maggoty cupcakes

Plague victim’s hand

Stack of edible vertebrae

Sewn skin cake

Genital disease cupcakes

Day 73. Owning genes

In October 2012 on October 24, 2012 at 2:01 pm

My friend Heather Bray is a scientist and communicator who never sits still.

This Friday she is running a workshop for the University of Adelaide:  Patenting Human Genes Workshop – ethics, regulation and innovation in biotechnology.   

What does patenting human genes mean? In essence it boils down to ownership of genetic information.

To give a hypothetical example, say I discover that your daughter has an unusual gene which makes her resistant to catching malaria. Should I as the scientist then be able to lay claim to ownership of that genetic information? Do I solely own the knowledge, or does she as well? What about her siblings, and her children in the future – do they own it too? Could I use that genetic information in a private setting to design new drugs which make me rich? Is it different if I release the information and resulting new drugs to the public sector so that millions of lives in sub-Saharan African and Asia are saved every year?

So many important questions to think about, and I think the workshop promises to be a great couple of hours.

The event is free, however bookings are essential. Please register through Eventbrite or contact Dr Heather Bray (heather.bray@adelaide.edu.au). Here’s some relevant extra information from the event flier:

Patenting Human Genes Workshop – ethics, regulation and innovation in biotechnology

Are patents on genes really patents on innovations? What should be patentable? Should organisations ‘own’ exclusive rights to human genetic information? How would researchers attract the investment needed to fund research if the patenting environment were to change? How do we ensure that society continues to benefit from research which may lead to accessible tests and treatments?

These questions and more will be discussed at a small-scale workshop to discuss gene patenting in the Australian context.

Speakers:

  • Dr Robert Chalmers, ARI, University of Adelaide
  • Professor Dianne Nichol, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania
  • Professor Ian Olver AM, CEO, Cancer Council of Australia
  • Dr Luigi Palombi, Intellectual Property Law Consultant
  • Ms Melissa Parke MP, Federal Member for Fremantle

Facilitator: Associate Professor Rachel Ankeny, University of Adelaide

When: Friday October 26 from 1.30 pm to 5.30 pm (refreshments from 4.45pm)
Where: B03 Seminar Room West, Masonic Lodge, North Terrace

[photo thanks to certified su on flickr]

Day 72. Science for primary schools

In October 2012 on October 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm

For two years I’ve been the Parents and Friends representative on the board of my daughter’s primary school. It’s been a very enlightening experience, and I have a enhanced level of respect for the heads of schools and their support staff. The constant pressure to create and deliver good teaching programs, plan for the future and manage the daily interests of children, teachers, parents and other stakeholders in the community is an incredibly difficult and often demanding job.

This week I put together a list of free Australian science enhancement programs and activities for the board, as the school expressed a desire to develop this area of teaching in the coming years.

Here is a version of that list:

Scientists in Schools
Scientists in Schools, which includes the sub-program Mathematicians in Schools, is a national program that creates and supports long-term partnerships between teachers and scientists or mathematicians. Partnerships are flexible to allow for a style and level of involvement that suits each participant. As an example, CSIRO Fellow Elizabeth Heij was partnered with Galilee Catholic School, Aldinga SA. During this 4-year partnership, Elizabeth worked across all year levels in the primary school, highlighting the science in class topics and emphasizing observation, testing, measurement and recording skills.

MyScience
MyScience is an award-winning program that brings in people (with science knowledge) from outside the school to support the teaching of science in primary schools. MyScience establishes a sustainable model of collaboration between schools, industry/business and university sectors. It aims to stimulate interest and enhance capacities of primary science teachers and students in conducting authentic scientific investigations.

I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!
I’m a Scientist, Get me out of Here! is an award-winning science enrichment and engagement activity that has been running in the UK for three years. It’s an Australian Idol-style competition for scientists, where students are the judges. Scientists (usually Australian, but sometimes from overseas) and students at Australian schools (years 7-10) ‘talk’ on the website, via question-and-answer platforms and live moderated chat sessions. Supporting material offers opportunities for extended learning related to topics covered in the Q&A and chats. Students vote for their favourite scientist, and the winner receives a cash prize to spend on science communication and outreach. This resource operates as a discrete program running several times each year.

Primary Connections
‘PrimaryConnections: Linking science with literacy’ aims to enhance primary school teachers’ confidence and competence for teaching science. A partnership between the Australian Academy of Science and DEEWR, PrimaryConnections focuses on developing students’ knowledge, skills, understanding and capacities in both science and literacy. To achieve this, The PrimaryConnections program provides teachers with curriculum resources and professional learning workshops to boost their pedagogical content knowledge in the teaching of science and literacy under the framework of the new national curriculum.

[photo thanks to audio-luci-store on flickr]

Day 71. Pharmacies

In October 2012 on October 22, 2012 at 1:12 pm

My local pharmacies are stocked with all manner of products. Prescription-only and regulated medicines increasingly comprise only a small fraction of the total shelf space. This is ok on the whole; I understand they need to make a dollar. Nappies, tissues, health foods, make-up I can handle. In fact, I’ve purchased many of these extraneous products from a pharmacy myself in times of need (dammit, I need a geranium-pink nail polish and I want it now!).

But when a pharmacy staffer tries to forces items of ‘complementary medicine’ down my throat, I get a little testy.

This morning the lady at my local discount chemist was seriously offended when I didn’t want to chat with her at length, and indeed purchase, some ‘oral eczema prevention product’ for my son.

“Is it natropathy?”

I asked.

“Welll…nooo.”

She answered a little hesitantly. Not convincing.

“So, what is the active ingredient?”

I demanded.

“Oh, it’s just a range of ingredients which will support your son’s skin”.

Enough said. I ignored her completely.

Regardless of my attitude, next she started hocking a ‘natural’ cream. I said I’d already tried the specific one she mentioned and that it hadn’t work for us.

“Well, you’d be the only person I’ve ever met who says it doesn’t work”.

she countered.

Judgemental, subjective, anecdotal rubbish.

A few grumpy hours later, I started wondering: are there actually any regulations guiding pharmacies about what they can sell, and how their staff sell it? Is it indeed ethical to sell products which have never been tested by clinical trial almost side by side with proven medicines?

I’ve discovered there is a Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Code of Ethics, but this appears to only address clinical practise, not issues around retail. Also in existence is a Guild Pharmacy Academy, which ‘is the leading provider of vocational and education training for pharmacy and dispensary assistants in Australia’, but again I could find no guidelines offering advice on what can be sold in a ‘chemist shop’, and what sort of information should accompany each sale.

Most interestingly, I did find an article by public health expert Ken Harvey describing a 2011 deal between the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and complementary medicine company Blackmores which featured the following quote:

“From October, pharmacists’ computer systems will prompt them to discuss a Blackmores Companion range product with patients picking up a prescription for one of four popular medications.”

Fortunately, the deal has now been revoked (see article in The Australian), but it does highlight the point I’m trying to make: there needs to be clarity about what pharmacies sell, which products are supported by an evidence base, and who can give advice when sales are made.

I don’t want to be buying medicines and related items from a person whose only training has come from the company sales rep.

Postscript: Since writing the article above, I’ve received advice from a pharmacist that there are no regulations guiding what can be sold in a pharmacy, as long as The Poisons Standard is not breached, and that all products claiming to have a health benefit are registered for an Aust R or an Aust L number. My issues still stands. 

[photo thanks to wrestlingentropy on flickr]