Jane Goodall: 80 and Thriving


By Knicole Colon, PhD

This April, Jane Goodall celebrated her 80th birthday. What she has accomplished in her 80 years on this planet is truly inspiring. Her work as a primatologist has revolutionized our understanding of chimpanzees. Through her patience and diligence in working with chimpanzees, we have learned that they are more like humans than we had ever realized, and interestingly, that humans are quite like chimpanzees! We both have strong emotions, we fight, we hunt, we build tools, and use them survive. Of course, one of the most significant realizations of Jane’s work was that because humans have language, they can develop their intellect in ways that chimpanzees cannot. These extraordinary findings would not have been possible without her bravery, to immerse herself in the world of chimpanzees in the middle of Tanzania nearly sixty years ago.

While we have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal about chimpanzees thanks to Jane Goodall’s work, what is most inspiring is that she began her journey simply because she wanted to. She was not a trained scientist. In fact, she did not even have a college degree when she began her field work. In spite of this, she was able to make unexpected discoveries that would end up changing the way humanity regarded itself. This goes to show that hard work and perseverance do pay off. Eventually she did earn her doctorate from Cambridge University, but she encountered difficulties there that might have dissuaded an average person from completing their studies. She had been told that everything she had done in her field work in Tanzania was wrong, and that she should not give human attributes to animals. What especially irked the Cambridge scholars was her giving the different chimpanzees she had encountered human names. Yet, Jane trusted her instincts to push back and fight for what she believed in, namely that the results from her field work were robust and that chimpanzees are without doubt human-like in nature.
Jane Goodall’s legacy does not only involve studies of chimpanzees; she set a new standard for studies of wild animals in their natural habitats. Furthermore, her initial project to study the behavior of chimpanzees has evolved and grown so much that new questions are continuously addressed through a variety of methods. For example, molecular analysis is applied to urine and fecal samples gathered in the wild, which avoids the need to capture chimpanzees and study them in the lab. Such analysis addresses genetic relationships and the presence of diseases in chimpanzees, which is critical to understand for their long-term survivability. On top of this, she now focuses on advocating better treatment of chimpanzees and other species in medical research labs, establishing sanctuaries for chimpanzees, and promoting her concern for the effect humans have on the environment.
There are a thousand more things that could be said about what Jane Goodall has accomplished in her career. However, there are some things that are probably less-well known but should still be addressed. For instance, I thought she made a particularly interesting comment in a recent interview with National Geographic. She said that something she finds frustrating is that chimpanzees do not actually scratch their sides or underarms, nor do monkeys, yet people often aim to mimic chimpanzees and monkeys by performing that type of action. Where do people pick these false ideas up from in the first place, and what does that suggest about humanity? While the answer is not clear right now, what is clear is that Jane’s mission to make the world a better place is just as strong today as it was over fifty years ago when she first trekked to Tanzania.

The Salk Polio Vaccine Trial Celebrates Its 60th Anniversary


By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD


April 26th marked the 60th anniversary of the initiation of the Salk inactivated poliovirus vaccine trial. This trial serves as a standard for today’s clinical trials and resulted in the licensing of a broadly effective vaccine against polio. The trial was not without its controversies, reminding us that debate over vaccination is nothing new. However, circumstances and attitudes of the time allowed the trial to achieve a level of success and public support that would likely be impossible in today’s climate, and makes this trial stand out from any other vaccine trials, both before and since.


Poliomyelitis is an acute viral disease that primarily affects young children. Poliovirus attacks the central nervous system, resulting in partial or full paralysis and possibly death. Survivors often suffered from paralysis into adulthood. In the early 1900s, polio was considered a “warm weather disease,” with severe outbreaks occurring in the summer. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio as an adult, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), later known as March of Dimes, in 1938 as an organization of scientists and volunteers to assist victims through recovery and fund development of a vaccine against polio.


Much of the scientific community at the time believed a vaccine containing a live but attenuated version of poliovirus was the only feasible option. Attempts to develop vaccines with poliovirus that had been chemically killed by formalin had actually led to cases of vaccine-associated polio in earlier studies due to incomplete killing of the virus. Jonas Salk, a researcher at the University of Pittsburg, however, believed the killed virus to be safer than a live virus and devoted much time and effort to understanding and improving the formalin inactivation process. Supported by the NFIP, Salk developed an inactivated virus vaccine that proved successful and safe in animal models and small human trials. The next step was to demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine in a large-scale field trial, a project the NFIP eagerly undertook.


The design of the trial was a battle of ethics, logistics, and statistics. Salk and leaders at the NFIP supported an observed control study, in which second graders who volunteered would be vaccinated, and the frequency of polio compared to the frequency in first and third graders, who would not receive an injection, but simply be observed for occurrence of polio. This observed control design would require fewer resources and less manpower than an injected placebo. More importantly, this design avoided any ethical issues regarding an invasive action with no possible benefit to the recipient. Salk and others felt parents would be more likely to volunteer their children if they were guaranteed that the injection at least had the potential to protect their children from polio.


To avoid potential bias, Thomas Francis, Jr., a well-respected epidemiologist and virologist from the University of Michigan, was brought on as an impartial party to serve as director of the trial. Francis’ participation, however, was dependent on the use of saline placebo controls in the study. He and other critics of the observed control design argued that without placebo controls, true blinding is impossible – everyone would know which children received the vaccine, potentially biasing analysis of the results. In addition, the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups under the observed control design would not be directly comparable to each other. The test group would consist of all children in the second grade willing to participate. It would be impossible to know, however, which of the observed first and third graders would have participated if given the option. It was previously documented that participants were more likely to come from families having greater education and income. Prior epidemiological data indicated that children with lower socioeconomic status were more likely to be resistant to polio due to increased likelihood of previous asymptomatic infection. The mix of children from these differing socioeconomic conditions in the observed control group would result in an incidence of polio artificially low compared to what the incidence would be in an unvaccinated sample of the test group. The use of placebo controls would limit study observations to willing participants only, allowing direct comparison of polio frequency, and would allow a double-blind format, limiting bias of the results.


Health departments in several states had already signed on for the trial under the observed control design and were in agreement with Salk over unnecessary saline injections of children. Other state health departments, however, refused to participate unless a placebo control design was used. In the end, it was decided to carry out both studies, with 11 states participating in the placebo control trial, and an additional 33 states carrying out the observed control design. The first injection was given on April 26, 1954, and vaccinations continued through June; data collection continued well into the fall.


On April 12, 1955, not even one full year after the initiation of the trial, Thomas Francis announced the results in front of a large group of eager journalists and scientists. According to the data from the placebo control study, the inactivated virus vaccine was 70% effective in preventing poliomyelitis. While the observed control study data pointed in a similar direction, the estimate of efficiency was only 62.5%, likely due to the differences between the vaccinated and observed groups described above. Regardless, the overall positive results were celebrated, and Salk’s vaccine was licensed the same day.


The Salk vaccine trial solidified the double-blind, placebo control design as the standard of clinical field trails. But was anything gained from the observed control experiments? It could be argued that despite the lower calculated efficiency, the observed control portion of the trial did provide supporting evidence that the inactivated vaccine was effective in reducing the incidence of polio. Critics will argue, however, that because the control group was not directly comparable to the test group, this data is statistically irrelevant. Inarguably, the observed control trial provided further information on safety of the vaccine, expanding the population available to monitor for reactions and side effects. As we know from debates over vaccination occurring today, safety is a primary concern, and a larger trial size can highlight the infrequency of complications, affirming vaccine safety. Finally, the increased participation in the trial due to the observed control study made the trial a national event. The inclusion of both study types made the trial appealing to health departments in a total of 44 states, resulting in broad public awareness, high rates of participation, and successful vaccination of a large number of children.


Would such a trial be possible in today’s scientific and social climate? The Salk polio vaccine trial was unique in that it was funded and organized by a voluntary organization rather than a government agency or the pharmaceutical industry. The trial was paid for through small donations, and carried out by parents, school administrators, and heath professionals who volunteered for the effort. To raise sufficient funds through private donations and recruit enough volunteers for a large-scale field trial today seems nearly impossible when the necessity and safety of vaccination is a hotly contested issue, and technology and media make it just as easy to encourage movements against such projects as to rally support. In addition, the point of contact with children participants was schools; because children regularly attended school, appointments could be easily kept, ensuring a high rate of trial completion. Today, privacy and other legal issues would prohibit such an approach. Finally, public anxiety over polio outbreaks was high, leading to enthusiastic support for any preventative measure. In modern times, fear of side effects can be nearly as strong as fear of the disease itself, spurring the debate over whether vaccinations are “worth” the risks. Has this shift in concern occurred because complications have become more frequent or more severe? Or simply because these infrequent events are more easily publicized? Are we less fearful of life-threatening communicable diseases because successful vaccination programs and advances in medical care have lead to reduced prevalence, so we no longer remember the severe symptoms and consequences of these diseases?


The Salk polio vaccine trial left a large legacy. It advanced vaccine research by improving the method and understanding of formalin inactivation. The internal comparison of the dual study designs allowed validation of the double-blind, placebo control model as the standard for clinical trials. In addition, the trial serves as a useful academic model in the teaching of controls, experimental design, and statistical analysis methods. The success of the trial bolstered public support of medical research. Most importantly, the introduction and widespread use of the Salk vaccine lead to a dramatic decrease in polio cases, from an average of over 45,000 cases per year in the U.S. in the two years leading up to the trial to just over 900 cases per year by 1962. Yet no clinical trial has since come close to reaching the level of support, participation, and success. How does this reflect on today’s society? Is there any disease for which the potential of a vaccine would stir within us the desire and enthusiasm to contribute our time, our money, and ourselves to the effort of vaccine development?

Till Science Do Us Part


By Celine Cammarata

The two-body problem is no secret in academia; indeed, prominent voices such as Nature Blogs have written numerous excellent resources on the issue and how to avoid separation (see below for a taste of these).  But as a graduate student or post doc, you might not have the same kinds of bargaining chips that PIs do in negotiating dual placements, not to mention that at these career stages you and your significant other are likely somewhat reliant on working with the right mentors – which might not be in the same location. Most of us were well aware getting into it that our scientific careers would be demanding, but for many this is where the dual-career rubber meets the road.  So what do you do?

This was the situation I found myself in at the start of graduate school, as I headed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD and my then fiancé pack off to Cambridge, England.  Yes, it was stressful and difficult, but over time we did find ways to make it easier.  So, if you are facing a scientific separation, here are a few suggestions to make the experience as smooth as possible.


The Groundwork – basic tips for a good foundation

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  • Know the Plan. Don’t underestimate the power if good planning. Knowing when you’ll see each other again relieves stress, gives you something to look forward to, and makes parting more bearable.
  • You’re Not Alone (In Being Alone). Chances are many of your peers and colleagues are going through they same thing – in my lab every lab member but the PI was in a long distance relationship! This creates a valuable support network; not only will these people understand the emotional strain you might be under, but you can help one another in concrete ways too, like taking turns with lab chores so everyone has some free time to visit his or her partner.
  • A Warm Welcome.  Many universities have tight-knit communities – and as the live-in-another-country partner to someone if one of these communities, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you visit.  Making an effort to include your significant other in your group when he or she is present can go a long way in relieving tension and making your visits more enjoyable.




Beyond Skype  – some concrete suggestions to stay connected

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  • Can You Picture That?  The typical “how was your day” conversation ca get tiresome very quickly, but somehow seeing pictures of someone’s day never does (if you need proof just look to Instagram).  Setting up a joint online photo album with your significant other can be a great way to share and compile images to capture all the little things in your day and keep one another feeling present and involved.
  • Long-Distance Teamwork.  If you were together and one of you wanted to start eating better, the other probably would try to help out, right?  Well, the same holds in a long-distance relationship.  Setting shared goals – whether it’s to read one paper every day or go to the gym – then checking in with one another on how you’re progressing can be both very motivating and a great way to feel like a team despite the distance.
  • Take on Projects.  Believe it or not, this can be a great time to learn something new together.  For instance, my husband and I set up a “cooking challenge” – every week we each prepared a meal from a specific category, then Skyped to compare our results.  The challenge was not only fun and excellent protection against the notorious “running out of things to say” problem, but we both came away with a new skill.
  • How Puzzling.  After a while it gets to you – being able to talk to one another is important, but it’s not the same as being able to actually do something together.  Though it sounds a bit silly, simple puzzles and games can be a great way to break this tension.  We routinely played MadLibs and an assortment of goofy two-player online games, which were always sure to lighten the mood.


Terrific posts on the two-body problem and related challenges in academia:

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Wherefore Art Thou Dwarf Planets?


By Knicole Colon, PhD
I love telling elementary school kids the story of how when I was their age, the Solar System had nine planets. Of course, after the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto, we now have just eight planets in our Solar System. These eight planets are massive enough to clear the area around their orbits of smaller bodies. This means that in one way or another, all the smaller objects remaining after a planet’s formation were captured. This fact is what separates a planet from a dwarf planet, and it is what motivated demoting Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet.


To paraphrase another quote from William Shakespeare: What’s in a name? That which we call a dwarf planet by any other name would smell as sweet. In reality, using this quote to describe dwarf planets is misleading. This is because objects like Pluto that astronomers classify as dwarf planets are really not planets at all by definition, so they do not “smell as sweet” as planets do. Still, it is the official name that the IAU decided upon for objects that have similar sizes and orbits as Pluto, and so that is what we shall call them.


In any case, the entire concept of a dwarf planet came about when astronomers started discovering objects that were similar to Pluto in terms of their sizes and orbits. I can count on two hands the number of dwarf planets currently known. However, a letter by Chadwick Trujillo (Gemini Observatory) and Scott Sheppard (Department of Terrestrial Magnetism) was published recently in Nature that presented the discovery of a new dwarf planet, 2012 VP_113. The discovery was made by detecting the motion of the object compared to distant, stationary background stars in images taken with the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) 4-meter telescope. However, this was not just another dwarf planet. In fact, it is not very similar to Pluto at all. It is actually quite similar to a different dwarf planet, known as Sedna. Sedna was discovered some ten years ago, and it immediately threw astronomers for a loop. Sedna’s orbit was further from the Sun than any other known object. Its closest approach to the Sun occurs at 76 astronomical units (AU), where an astronomical unit is the mean distance between Earth and the Sun. In comparison, Pluto’s closest approach is about 30 AU. With the discovery of 2012 VP_113, which has its closest approach at 80 AU, we now know of two sizable objects in the outer Solar System.


The existence of another Sedna-like object is significant for several reasons. First, it suggests that there are additional similar objects in the outer Solar System, but we have not been able to detect them yet simply because they are too faint. Trujillo & Sheppard use simulations to estimate that several hundred dwarf planets like Sedna and 2012 VP_113 exist in the outer Solar System. That’s a pretty significant number. Second, the existence of these objects helps us better understand the formation and evolution of the Solar System. Any new piece of this puzzle is critical, because current formation models cannot fully explain how the rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) and gas/ice giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) formed a stable planetary system like what we observe today.


There is one other point made in the paper that really stood out to me, but not in a good way. Trujillo & Sheppard state that their numerical simulations describing orbits of objects similar to Sedna and 2012 VP_113 also suggest that a “massive outer Solar System perturber may exist.” They specifically considered a super-Earth-mass body at 250 AU, which would be too faint to detect with current technology. While the concept of such an object is scientifically sound, the problem I have is when the public hooks onto a concept like this and turns it into a conspiracy theory. Namely, some people believe there is a so-called “Planet X” (or sometimes referred to as Nibiru) in the Solar System. This planet is believed by some groups to be a large planet that will at some point in the near future encounter Earth and essentially cause the world to end. Because of these so-called theories, I believe scientists have to be extra careful with their wording. In this case in particular, it should be clarified that if such a large planet exists in the outer Solar System, the fact that we cannot detect it means it is so far away from the Earth that it will not affect the Earth in our lifetime, or even in our great-great-great-great-grandchildren’s lifetime, if at all. The moral of the story is, while there may be many dwarf planets and even “regular” planets in the outer Solar System, this is no cause for concern. You can sleep well, knowing the Earth will not be destroyed any time soon.

High Minded Science


By Alex Berardino


Words are important, especially those spoken by authorities on medical science. That’s why it was so disappointing to see so many loose and unfounded words being tossed around in the popular press in regards to a paper by Gilman et al. in the Journal of Neuroscience. The paper presents potential differences in the shape, size and density of specific brain areas, the Amygdala and Nucleus Accumbens, between people who use marijuana moderately, and those who don’t use it at all. These brain areas have been shown to be important for reward processing and are also implicated in addiction. The paper also showed a weak correlation between amount of marijuana use and the size of these differences. Notice that I specifically said differences between these groups, and correlation between these measures. The same care and effort was not taken in most reports about this paper. These results were reported as though they showed changes in the size of structures within the marijuana user’s brains caused by the amount of marijuana that they used, and subsequently that these early changes led to the forgetfulness and lack of focus common to long-term, dependent marijuana users. To be fair to the journalists, the paper and its authors are not exactly clear on which interpretation they subscribe to.


Perhaps the importance of the difference between these two interpretations is not clear, but the differences are vital to how we are to act based on this new information. In a time when our society is experimenting with the legalization of marijuana, it is important that we are accurately informed about the actual dangers and possible benefits of the drug and its effects on the brain. Before we break down the difference in interpretation, let’s first break down what the scientists actually did.


The authors collected structural MRI scans of 20 moderate marijuana users, and 20 controls matched for age, sex and educational attainment. Structural MRI scans show a snapshot of the tissue that makes up the brain, which allows you to see the shape and size of the structures that comprise it. You can think of them like a picture of the brain itself, not of its activity.   Despite many similarities, everyone’s brain is a little bit different. The sizes vary, the folds and protrusions don’t match up perfectly from person to person, and the borders between one area and another are not perfectly consistent. When we conduct studies like the one cited here, where we want to find variations across people’s brains, we have to first warp and squeeze each individual MRI scan so that they fit, as well as they can, inside a template brain scan. The template itself is generated by averaging across a large set of brain scans, so that what is left over is assumed to be a “representative” brain. That is exactly what the authors of this study did. They warped, or registered, each individual brain onto this same template. After doing so, they could compare any remaining variations that exist across the two groups.


The authors determined the average sizes, shapes and density of neurons of the Amygdala and Nucleus Accumbens of the moderate marijuana users and compared this to those of the controls. The strongest finding of the paper shows that the left Nucleus Accumbens has, on average, larger volume, and is denser, in marijuana users than in controls. The differences are reported as significant, but the standard errors are quite large and the distributions overlap by a large amount, suggesting that the differences are not entirely reliable.


It behooves us to stop and ask ourselves just exactly what it means that this area has larger volume and is more dense with neurons. Does it mean that the area should show increased performance, or decreased? Is the architecture of this area scrambled, or arranged in an orderly fashion like that of the controls? The truthful answer is that we don’t know.   There is no good accepted answer for what these differences mean, because the true machinery of the brain is built at a scale that is too fine for an MRI to resolve. That’s not to say that the finding isn’t important, just that we should be cautious in our interpretation of it.


Next, the authors binned the members of the marijuana group into subgroups by how many joints per day each member smoked. They report finding a correlation between number of joints smoked, and the size of the difference in the left Nucleus Accumbens. This is the tricky part though, because our algorithms for registering these brains to the same template brain, rely on identifying the very neural landmarks that vary from person to person, and can, by pure bad luck, be obscured or imprecisely located by poor resolution of the MRI. To account for any possible variations caused by errors in registration, or in misidentification of the boundaries of areas, its important to look at variations averaged across many subjects. This helps to ensure that the only variations that remain are those that are present across the whole set of brains, and not those due to these errors. Comparisons across small subsamples of these groups are generally unreliable.


This is important to keep in mind because this trend, between number of joints and size of change, is used as a justification for suggesting that marijuana is causally changing these areas. The fact remains that this study measured differences between groups. It was not a longitudinal study of one group of people who did not use marijuana and then began to use marijuana. Interpreting these data as showing that marijuana use is causing these changes, and not simply correlated with differences in this region, is a difficult interpretation to support. We hear it all the time, correlation is not causation, but it is an important point.


Leaving aside critiques of the science, unsubstantiated extrapolations of misinterpretations pepper many of the articles reporting on this paper. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Hans Breiter, was quoted in the Huffington Post saying, “We think [sic] we are seeing here is a very early indication of what becomes a problem later on with prolonged use, things like lack of focus and impaired judgment”. These are bold claims, unsubstantiated by anything presented in the paper. No attempt was made to show any behavioral evidence suggesting a tendency toward lack of focus or impaired judgment between the groups, or for the members of the marijuana group across time, nor were the results presented so impressive that they suggest major rewiring of the brain after exposure to marijuana.


It is important on a basic level to be wary of making claims we can’t support with evidence. Neuroskepticism is a widespread movement these days. Distrust for institutional authority doesn’t come from thin air. It comes from a sense that information is being withheld, or warped to fit an agenda, or handled by people who are incapable of handling it. Sometimes these claims are founded in truth, sometimes in conspiracy and misunderstanding. The former, at least, we can control by maintaining a strict relationship between evidence and statements of authority.

Real-life Robocop?


By Susan Sheng

If you saw last summer’s science fiction/action movie Pacific Rim, then you will remember the  gigantic humanoid robots called Jaegers, which were created to fit the monsters which had emerged from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. The Jaegers are controlled by two human pilots through a “neural bridge.” While Pacific Rim is a science fiction movie, the technology to allow humans to control robots remotely is very much grounded in reality and is an active area of research. Recently, a group at Florida International University (FIU) teamed up with the U.S. Navy lieutenant commander to build a telerobotics system that could be used in law enforcement.
Telerobotics refers to the control of robots from a remote location, and is not a completely new idea in the field of robotics. In its more basic form, telepresence robots have been used in office settings to promote communication and collaboration when a person cannot physically travel to a location. Several companies have developed various forms of these robots, from robots that perch on a motorized stand on a table top and allow the user to “look” around the room, to movable displays that can actually drive and move around an office. More advanced forms of telerobots include remotely operated underwater vehicles which are used to explore the deep ocean. NASA is actively researching ways that telerobotics could be used for space and planetary exploration.
The TeleBot project at FIU began in 2012 when Lieutenant Commander Jeremy Robins of the US Navy Reserves donated $20,000 to the Discovery Lab, as well as secured the loan of two robots from the Institute for Human Machine and Cognition. Robins’ vision was to create a robot that would allow disabled law enforcement personnel and combat veterans to return to their former duties. A team made up mostly of undergraduate students worked for over 18 months to create a robot that could be controlled remotely and interact with other people. The students built a prototype that stands at 6 feet tall and weighs approximately 75 pounds. Cameras on the robot allow the user to see what the robot sees using an Occulus Rift headset, and specialized sensors allow the user move and control the robot.. While the Discovery Lab team has successfully created a working prototype, more work needs to be done before such a robot could actually be sent out into the streets. Given the number of disabled military veterans and police officers however (according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2012 over 3.5 million veterans received disability compensation);  the TeleBot is a promising development towards helping injured personnel return to the workforce.

8 Ways to Get the Best out of Networking Events


By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Para la traduccion en espanol mirar  mas abajo.

When you are attending a networking event, it doesn’t matter if you are hiring, searching for a job or just increasing your LinkedIn connections, there are some simple ideas that would make you go home with a smile on your face and a lot of business cards in your pocket.


1. Know what are you looking for, as always in life

You must have your aim or goal in mind, so you can transmit it to the other people. Prepare a short introduction about yourself and your expectations in advance, and when I say short, I mean it. Nothing is more boring than a stranger giving you a dissertation on a topic that you do not care about. Therefore focus your short introductory speech according to your goal for the event. On the other hand, the “hit and run” strategy is a highway to failure. For example if you are job hunting, it is important to sell yourself to the correct people… which brings me to the next topic..


2. Connect smart!

If you start a conversation and it does not look very productive for you, do not be afraid and just say “thanks, bye” and move on, no harm done. Normally the networking events don’t last more than 2 hours and you have to take advantage of every available second.


3. Know the attendants

So try to get a list of the attendants before hand, and “Google” them in order to know if they’re important connections for you and which kind of conversations or common interest you can discuss. This is not stalking, but sometimes it is good to check out photos of people you want to talk to so you can recognize them. Moreover, leave your mark, tell then something that will make then remember you, and if you can: find a reason to keep in touch.


4. Have an ice breaker

Some tips for those shy souls: just go and say, “Hi, how are you?” and honestly wait to get an answer. You can follow it with “I am John Doe, I work in Awesome-land, what are you doing?”. Or you can ask questions such as, “do you work in….?” or “What are you drinking?” “What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into this field?” “Would you recommend with who I should speak? May I use your name as a reference?” I know it is kind of a cheesy icebreaker but it is the best shot. Everybody is there to meet people, and if you just stand around staring at the empty space the probabilities of you meeting another interesting human being are very low.


5. Dress to impress, but not too much

About the look: dress your best according with the type of event you are attending, but always let your own style show through. It’s your personality that makes you special and different, and that can be reflected in your outfit.


6. Be special

Write your name on the tag in big, clear letters (young people forget that old people can’t read small writing) and put it on the right side of your chest. Why? Because when you shake someone’s hand your right shoulder will be pointing directly at them. Also most of the people you will meet are right handed and the easier for them is to put the sticker on their left side, so you might have a possible conversation starter.

[box style=”rounded”]What about a “wing man”? Personally, I love this strategy because I team up really well with my friends, but it can be contra productive as the people can feel it overwhelming to have a crowd “attacking” them.[/box]

Be brave

The most important advice is to just go. Event if you are afraid of putting yourself thorough this wild networking event world, just do it. I was searching for a job when a friend convinced me to attend a biotech event at a bar. The event was not looking very successful when we had first arrived and I was regretting my decision. But, eventually a handsome man walked over to me and mentioned in a very friendly way that he was working for a company that was looking for a chemist, which I am not. I literally moonwalked far away from him as I didn’t want to waste my time. But before leaving he came back again and handed me his card, which I added to the pile. Two weeks later I updated my LinkedIn connections adding all the professionals that I met in these events and to my surprise a message came back from this handsome man inviting me for a coffee. Long story short: I met my boyfriend in a networking event. So you never know what can came out of these gatherings. One thing is sure, only positive things are born from networking. Sharing you experience, knowledge, needs and future goals with other professionals is always rewarding.


8. Let’s listen to professional advice by recruiter Nick Corcodilos

[quote style=”boxed”]True networking is when you spend time with people who do the work you want to do, talking shop. Good networking involves working with other active professionals, even if it’s on a volunteer project, or to learn something new. Good networking is rubbing elbows and enjoying talk and activities related to the work you want to do. Here’s the thing that confuses people and frustrates them: They think we network to get our next job. That’s absolutely wrong. We network to get smarter, to make new friends, to build our value and our credibility in our professional community, to help others, and to enjoy our work outside of the job. Job opportunities arise out of networking; they are not the reason to do it.[/quote]


Nick Corcodilos, in Ask The Headhunter newsletter, “Too late to network?” March 18, 2008.

Where to start:

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Spring cleaning our bodies


By Katherine Peng

“Spring fever” is not a particularly new phenomenon. With the especially frosty winter that we’ve endured however, it is one that we may now be more perceptive to. You may have noticed more friendly smiles between strangers on the street, bursts of new positive energy, and motivation to cross off to-do lists, clean everything, and take on new projects. It is effortless and intuitive to attribute these psychological changes to longer hours of daylight and warmer weather, but as a scientist, you’ve probably also wondered what is happening in our bodies to create these wonderful new personalities.

Photoperiodism, a physiological reaction to changes in day length, has evolved in seasonal animals to restrict energetically costly processes when food resources are low as well as to predict the optimal time to breed and bear young that will survive. Humans are not as seasonal as these creatures, and any seasonal response we have is increasingly offset by indoor work, artificial light, and artificial temperature regulation. Nevertheless, many epidemiologically studies have observed the seasonality of certain human occurrences such as birth rates, viral infections, suicide, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Animal studies of seasonality have focused primarily on the mechanism of reproductive changes, but rodents have also been shown to have elevated levels of anxiety and depression-like behaviors on days with shorter periods of sunlight1. The greatest evidence that human emotions adjust seasonally as well is apparent in the high prevalence of SAD, aka seasonal depression.

So how can light alone cause such drastic changes in our behavior? Early morning light is an essential environmental cue for synchronizing the body’s internal clock. In fact, light therapy combined with chronotherapy (tailoring treatments to your personal biological cycles) is often used to treat circadian rhythm sleep disorders and SAD.

The control center for bodily rhythms in our brains is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), and it mainly governs circadian, or daily, rhythms. In darkness, it stimulates the pine-cone-shaped pineal gland near our brain stem to release the sleepiness hormone called melatonin. When light hits our eyes, particular retinal ganglion cells that are not involved in vision send signals to the SCN to stop production of melatonin. It is thought that the culprit to our sluggishness in the winter is this longer exposure to melatonin release as the days get shorter. It also doesn’t help that colder temperatures tend to keep people indoors away from natural light, which will also decrease absorption of vitamin D and leave you feeling moody. As days get longer in the spring, decreases in melatonin levels can leave you feeling much more energized. Serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, also has levels that correlate with the amount of sunlight exposure. While the serotonin transporter sucks away serotonin fastest in the winter, which may lead to SAD, greater light stimulation triggers more of its synthesis. This biology, along with the additive effects of more available outdoor activities (and exercise) and the desire to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, awakens us from our mental hibernation with a fresh vitality.

So take advantage of your restless enthusiasm and clean out your closets, fill your calendars, and renew some New Year’s resolutions! As Emily Dickinson once said, “A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the king”.

  1. Demas, G. E., Z. M. Weil, et al. (2009). Photoperiodism in Mammals: Regulation of Nonreproductive Traits. Photoperiodism: The Biological Calendar. R. J. Nelson, D. L. Denlinger and D. E. Somers, Oxford University Press USA: 461-502.

Voids in Our Brain at the Interface of Science and Art


By Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

Believe it or not, one fifth of our brain is occupied by the extracellular space (ECS), a well-connected convoluted layer around brain cells that separates them from each other and supports them in various ways. This layer that seems to encompass all brain cells, has a particular geometry with very specific parameters associated to it, e.g. width~60nm and volume fraction (ECS_vol/Brain_vol)= 20%,  as well as a content, in the form of extracellular matrix.

One interesting aspect of ECS is that, in different parts of it, it forms dead-space micro-domains (voids) in conjunctions of brain cells. Voids are well connected to each other through the ECS and significantly reduce diffusion coefficient of molecules. Why do we need to have voids in our brain? What do they do? And what are the factors determining their size, number and distribution throughout the brain? We don’t know!

Some time ago I was visiting Iran and got the chance to visit the time museum in Tehran, where I found the most similar structure I have seen to the brain ECS! What you see in the picture is a structure copied from the sixth floor music room in Aali Qapu (a grand palace in Isfahan/ Iran, made in Safavid period (1501-1736)). What makes this structure similar to the brain is the presence of deep circular niches in the walls that resemble the voids in the brain ECS. The niches have not only aesthetic value, but also acoustic. As they are well connected to each other, they retain the echoes and deliver the sounds of the singing and musical instruments to the rest of the architecture, which in the case of Aali Qapu, is a 6-floor building. So everyone in the building could equally hear the sound of music played in the 6th floor!

I was wondering if the role of our brain-voids could be just similar to these niches: to retain the local events (whatever they are: transport phenomena, signals, patterns,…) and clearly deliver them to the rest of the brain?!

What makes the brain-voids even more interesting is that they are not fixed structures but have dynamics (both in structure and content). This can give them the possibility and flexibility to control and change the local events and deliver a different message to the rest of the brain, depending on what is most favorable to the overall physiological function of the brain.

5 Tips to Pass Your Thesis Defense with Flying Colors


By Thalyana Vikos-Smith, PhD

If you are defending your thesis anytime soon, congratulations! Here are some tips for the big day:

1. Victory lap

The thesis defense is supposed to be a happy occasion and shouldn’t be looked upon with fear and dread. This is a day to celebrate! Depending on which university you attend, you have probably already completed writing the actual thesis and have gotten through multiple committee meetings to confirm that you are ready for this day. All of the hard work is done, so the defense is the opportunity to tell your friends, family and coworkers about all of this hard work.

2. Make it relatable

If you have invited non-scientists to your defense, then prepare the talk for a general audience, i.e. it should be different from a departmental research in progress talk. The introduction is especially important so that you don’t lose people right from the beginning. Also, the thesis defense should summarize all the research you have done but should relate this research back to your personal scientific interests; it’s a story about you! For example, my thesis defense was on the genetics of aging, so I began my talk by explaining my interest in research that has been done on a group of extremely long-lived people on the island of Ikaria in Greece; even though my thesis had nothing to do with Ikaria, my family is from Greece, so by introducing the topic of aging in this manner, I also provided a personal touch. Additionally, if you are doing a postdoc after your PhD, feel free to mention how your postdoc research relates to your PhD work and why you decided to do this type of research.

3. Keep it loose

For all the comedians out there, now is the time to exercise your skills! Again, the thesis defense is a celebratory occasion, so no one is going to mind a joke or two during the talk. For example, any difficulties that you encountered in your research can be introduced with a dash of humor. Other great opportunities to be funny are in the introduction and when you are giving your acknowledgements.

4. Make it flashy

The thesis defense should be a summary of all of the research you have done; you will definitely not have time to discuss everything in detail. Thus, making some attractive summary diagrams to include before you transition from one thesis topic to another and to reiterate everything at the end of the talk will be very helpful to the audience. Be adventurous with this presentation; this is your last opportunity to wow the audience with your professional PowerPoint skills. If you are super adventurous, try using Prezi, a very appealing alternative to PowerPoint. It will also be helpful to provide a flowchart at the beginning of the talk to outline which topics you will discuss, roughly how long you will discuss each topic, and any topics that you won’t have time to talk about.

5. Q & A

I have found that most questions asked at thesis defenses are “big picture” questions; it doesn’t make sense to scrutinize small points anymore. While “big picture” questions can be very insightful, they can also be difficult to answer, so be prepared to take a stab at trying to shed some light on the question by thinking on your feet, and also throw in this lovely phrase, “that’s a great question; I’ll have to think about that some more and get back to you.”


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