Parental Trolling, lvl 50

This is a story of how my parents trolled me…on my birthday, no less!

You may remember that one of my pet peeves is cute holiday imagery of penguins and polar bears living together in harmony, because as a biologist I know that penguins and polar bears do not overlap in the wild.  Penguins live in the south pole (only Galápagos penguins live near the equator), and polar bears live in the Arctic.  Never the twain shall meet.

My mom also makes me a creative birthday cake every year.  She’s done Jane Austen books, a Skellig Michael landscape, and even jungle animals. After I analyzed the species of the jungle animals, I think she assumed I’ll always be blogging about her cakes.

So here’s what I got this year:

wp-1491058047215.jpg

Yes, she spent hours making these intricate cupcakes, just for the sake of irritating me by putting polar bears and penguins together.  She has whole books full of cupcake designs, so I imagine that once she saw these two animals she couldn’t resist.

To be fair, they were really cute, and also tasty.

Advertisements

Hello, I’m an #ActualLivingScientist (AMA)

I’ve seen a lot of calls recently for scientists to do some outreach and explain to the general public what they do for a living, how science works, etc.

A major effort came in February after David Steen, PhD (@AlongsideWild), tweeted that “most Americans can’t name a living scientist.” With some help from Mary Roblyer (@darthmom7), the hashtag #actuallivingscientist took off on Twitter, with scientists introducing themselves and their work.

So…hi!  I want to do something similar here, as well as open the floor up for questions.

My Science Career

I have a Bachelor’s in Zoology from a small, four-year liberal arts university, with emphasis on genetics and animal behavior.  I received an honors diploma for my independent study research on developmental genetics of C. elegans, a tiny hermaphroditic roundworm.  (I also had to sit an exam, but that’s less exciting.)  I also did internships at zoos, doing animal care work as well as observational research on various animal behavior.

After graduation I worked as a zookeeper and then at an animal shelter for a few years.

I currently work at a medical school in the research department.  I am a research assistant in a lab that investigates how to grow new blood vessels in hearts with heart disease, using stem cells created in the lab.  I have been listed as an author on several papers we have published in research journals.

wp_20160810_10_35_35_pro
I also make cool designs with my pipette tips when I bored at work.

Ask Me Anything

As part of my outreach, I’d like to invite my readers to ask me anything they are curious about regarding science.  Some topics might include:

  • Daily tasks of my job
  • Current experiments in the field of stem cell therapy for heart disease
  • Where my funding comes from
  • Clarification of any terminology I’ve used in this post
  • How scientific papers get published
  • Science in science fiction
  • How science intersects with my religion
  • My opinions of current science topics in the news
  • What kind of music I listen to in the lab

For personal and professional reasons, I can’t give too many details about my current work.  But I will do my best to answer all your questions as fully as possibly.

Basically, if you ask a sincere, polite question, you will get a sincere, polite answer.  Leave your question in the comments below, and I’ll respond to you there.  If your question is really good, I might even make a whole post about it. 🙂

The questions don’t even have to be about biology; I have plenty of scientist friends in other disciplines I can appeal to.  Though, if you have a very specific question like How much Force power can Yoda output?, I’d encourage you to try submitting it to What If?  because I don’t have time to watch The Empire Strikes Back repeatedly to check the X-wing’s rate of ascent.

Some previous posts I’ve written about science:

Cinder and the Lunar Chronicles (Review)

Being such a huge fan of fairy tale re-tellings, how could I have waited so long to read Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter?  I really don’t know!  The only advantage is that now I got to read them all straight through!  Rating: 5/5 stars

lunar-chronicles

Each book works really well as an individual fairy tale while building on the previous books for an overarching plotline.  (In case it wasn’t obvious: Cinder→ Cinderella, Scarlet→ Little Red Riding Hood, Cress→ Rapunzel, Winter→ Snow White)

Cinder is a very strong start to the series.  I knew Cinder was a sci-fi take on Cinderella, even a little future-tech with cyborgs, etc.  But I didn’t know that it also draws heavily from Sailor Moon!

Image result for excited usagi

More on the Sailor Moon aspects in a later post, but let’s just say I was excited like Usagi here when I noticed the connection.

Cinder hit a lot of the same beats as my WIP Ash and Team, which is also a Cinderella-type story, but I wasn’t disheartened by that fact.  I was completely inspired, my mind opened to what my story could be.  I actually dreamed up a new scene for my story the day after reading Cinder.  (Even more inspiring: Cinder, Scarlet and Cress all began their lives as NaNoWriMo projects!  I’ll try to keep that in mind as I’m writing this month.)

I really liked that the ending of Cinder wasn’t saccharine; it actually ends on kind of a down note as it leads into the rest of the series.  Scarlet picks up right where Cinder leaves off; it can be tricky to switch to new main characters in the middle of a series, but each successive book does a great job splitting the focus between new and old characters (although Winter in particular gets a little bloated as a result).  And being a redhead myself, I was glad to see Scarlet as such a great embodiment of the “fiery redhead” trope (even though I am nothing like this!).

This wouldn’t be a true Jedi by Knight review unless I critique the biological concepts in these books–but don’t worry, these get pretty good marks for YA sci-fi.  For some reason, plagues are all the rage in YA dystopias right now (Matched, Maze Runner, Legend, etc.), and the Lunar Chronicles follows suit with the virulent disease letumosis (and a lot of unethical scientists to boot).  This plague has some interesting symptoms (rashes, blue fingertips) and does mutate over the course of the books.

Overall I didn’t have much issue with the biology except for a bit of confusion in Winter on the difference between vaccines (a preventative measure, typically for viruses) and antidotes (a cure for either symptoms or the underlying pathogen of a disease).  The vials of antidote that Cinder finds are incorrectly labeled as “vaccines,” and additionally they are stored at room temperature while vaccines are typically refrigerated or frozen.

One particular concept from Cress that I really liked was the isolation of hematopoietic stem cells from bone marrow for use in regenerative therapy.  This is actually something we do regularly in my lab!  (We’re focused on cardiac disease, though.)  Though it might not really be the first choice for treatment in this case, I thought it was a really creative way to make some actual science work with the fairy tale story line.  It’s not every day YA sci-fi correctly drops words like “hematopoietic!”

In short, these books really succeed at all aspects of sci-fi, fairy tales, and light YA romance.  Even the ending was a nice surprise for me because it didn’t quite end like I expected.  I’m currently working through Stars Above, a collection of short stories from this universe, and Fairest, the story of the Evil Queen Levana which is kind of Book 3.5 in the series.

stars-above-fairest

Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and informed consent

February in the US is Black History Month.  In my mind, there are kind of two parts to this.  The first is celebrating the many accomplishments of African-Americans, from MLK Jr. and Harriet Tubman to these awesome women in STEM.  I also loved these photos floating around on Facebook:

The second part is remembering the many injustices and struggles that African-Americans have undergone during our country’s history.  In the face of these wrongs, we as a culture can:

  • bring them to light
  • try to right the wrongs as much as possible
  • take steps to make sure they don’t happen again in the future

That brings me to the story of Henrietta Lacks, told so compellingly in the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (which I wrote about briefly here).

In 1951, Lacks presented at Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer; as a poor, African-American woman and mother of five, in that time and place her medical treatment options were limited, and she soon succumbed to the disease.  During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, samples of her tumor cells were removed without her knowledge or permission, which was a common practice at the time.

These cells were cultured in vitro (basically, grown in dishes in a special nutrient broth) in the lab of Dr. George Gey.  The researchers soon discovered that, unlike previous attempts to culture human cells, Lacks’ cells did not die off after dividing a few times.  They kept growing and dividing; they were the first human immortal cell line and were subsequently named HeLa cells.

HeLa cells grew so well, in fact, that they began contaminating other cell lines.  Researchers began looking into the genome (genetic data) of Lacks’ cells and tracked down her family, who were stunned to learn that a piece of their mother, who passed away soon after giving her tumor sample in 1951, was somehow still alive in scientific labs all over the world.

Can you imagine what that revelation must have been like for the Lacks family?  Especially since their inadequate public science education barely prepared them to understand concepts like “cells” and “culture” and “genome.”

Still, the Lacks family is justly proud of Henrietta’s contribution to science.  HeLa cells have been used in a huge number of important experiments, including Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine.

HeLa cover
The cover features a famous picture of Henrietta Lacks.  Notice the subtle bolding of “He La”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as numerous journalistic articles (and blog posts), have done a great deal to bring the story of Henrietta and HeLa cells to light.  But this fame is a double-edged sword: the privacy of the Lacks family has been irrevocably compromised.  Their family history has been thrust into the national spotlight, and, since the DNA of HeLa cells has now been sequenced, even pieces of their genetic code have been analyzed.

The Lacks family does now have some say in how HeLa cells can be used.  In 2013, the family reached an agreement with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to give family members an advisory role regarding which researchers can access the HeLa genetic data.  (These researchers must also acknowledge the contribution of Henrietta and the Lacks family in their publications.)  

But they have never seen, and likely never will see, any of the money that derives from the multitude of discoveries and nearly 11,000 patents relating to HeLa cells.  Though financial compensation has never been their goal, and from a practical standpoint it would be nigh impossible at this point, it hardly seems fair that others will continue to profit from use of their ancestor’s cells while they do not.  

Clearly the only way to really fix this situation involves a time machine.  (Sadly, all the sci-fi stories I read tell me that time travel causes more problems than it solves.)  

But seriously, if the Lacks family is now satisfied, let’s look forward: how can we prevent a case like Henrietta Lacks’ in the future?

Informed consent has been a standard in medical ethics for decades now.  Researchers must ask permission from their subjects before doing any human research.  (At least, they do if they want federal funding and to be published in reputable journals.)  The federal government is currently revising these regulations, referred to as the Common Rule.  

Rebecca Skloot and others favor the inclusion of a requirement for “broad consent,” so that even anonymous, “non-identifiable” samples require some general consent before experimental use.  (To be fair, samples today are coded so much better than simply using patients’ initials like “HeLa.”  But it is still technically possible to re-identify some samples through genetics, etc.)

Critics argue that this will just result in more paperwork, bogging down science while throwing another paper at patients to be signed without real understanding.  I am a practical person, but I refuse to build science, no matter how great, on the backs of the uneducated and disenfranchised.  While another case like Henrietta Lacks’ is unlikely, public education about tissue research is critical to our ability to continue to do great science while respecting human dignity.

Henrietta Lacks is still changing the face of science today in many ways, whether it’s regarding cancer treatment or medical ethics.  I encourage you to read more at the links throughout this post, and I encourage respectful discussion in the comments.

Bio Grad Student Humor

Some inspirational advice for the new year:

WP_20151023_16_15_05_Pro
Nobody can go back and start a new beginning,* but anyone can start today and make a new ENDING 🙂                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       *except with iPS cells

The motivational part was written by a grad student, and the addendum added a week or so later by another student.

To explain the joke: iPS stands for induced pluripotent stem cells.

Meaning stem cells that have been created through engineering, by taking “regular” adult cells and moving them back to a more elastic state (aka a stem cell) where they can become any other kind of cell.

So iPS cells would indeed be the exception to the maxim that you can’t go back to the beginning 🙂