For a Healthier 2018!

Dancing together is good for your health!

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

 

Social dancers know the amazing feeling that a synchronized dance could bring. When your follower or leader is connected and it feels like you are one mind and body following the music, it is mystical and magical… Well, it turns out that synchronized dancing is also good for your health. I started dancing salsa because a good friend was going crazy about it and she recommended it, this inspired me to join a class. At this point I was a solitary belly dancer only following in team dances where you have choreography and if you are coordinated enough you feel this celestial connection with the other dancers…but without any physical contact.

On the other hand, in social dances like salsa, bachata, tango, zouk or swing, the connection is the base of a good dance. Nobody wants to be the person stepping to the left when 5 other dancers moved to the right while performing in a stage in front of hundreds of people, as well as nobody enjoys turning to the wrong side for misreading your dance partner lead, or watching how a follower does a completely different step that the one the leader indicated. Furthermore, being “in sync” with the group or your direct dance partner may help to improve your health, science says. In a nutshell, a recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raised pain tolerance and encouraged people to feel closer to others.

This year, Dr. Burzynska et al., at Colorado State University, separated 174 healthy adults, 60s to 79 years old, who had no signs of memory loss or impairment, into 3 activity groups: walking, stretching and balance training, or dance classes. The activities were carry on for 6 months and three times a week, those in the dance group practiced and learned a country dance choreography. Brain scans were done on all participants and compared with scans taken before the activities began. Not surprisingly, the participants in the dancing group performed better and had less deterioration in their brains than the other groups. Their most recent study published in November: “The Dancing Brain: Structural and Functional Signatures of Expert Dance Training” showed that dancers’ brains differed from non-dancers’ at both functional- and structural-levels. Most of the group differences were skill-relevant and correlated with objective laboratory measures of dance skill and balance. Their results are promising in that long-term, versatile, combined motor and coordination training may induce neural alterations that support performance demands.” (link 2)

Moreover, It is well established that dancing-based therapies are providing outstanding results in the treatment of dementia, autism and Parkinson’s. Indeed, dance therapy improves motor and cognitive functions in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Dancing was suggested to be a powerful tool to improve motor-cognitive dual-task performance in adults. Dance movement therapy has known benefits for cancer patients’ physical and psychological health and quality of lifeAnother study by Domane and collaborators, working with a cohort of overweight and physically inactive women, showed that Zumba fitness is indeed an efficacious health-enhancing activity for adults. Park also concluded that “a 12-week low- to moderate-intensity exercise program appears to be beneficial for obese elderly women by improving risk factors for cardiovascular disease”.

Dancing helps generate positive connections with others and this is one of the evolutionary reasons you are “called” to the dance floor when a song you like starts playing, and probably you will start your dance by coordinating with or copying others. Probably this behavior signaled tribe membership for early humans and also got couples together in a more romantic way, creating emotional bonds. Coordinated dances are as old as music, and distributed in a lot of different cultures, for example, the nowadays Hakka, used by rugby players, was a native group dance that intimidates rival tribes.

Talking about the chemistry of dancing, as any other exercise, it releases endorphins (the hormones of happiness and pain relief). For example, a study from the University of London were anxiety-sufferers enrolled in one of four settings: exercise class, a music class, a math class and a dance class, showed that only the last group displayed “significantly reduced anxiety.”

In the most recent study done in the same London University by Tarr and collaborators, the researchers used pain thresholds as an indirect measure of endorphin realize (more endorphins mean we tolerate pain better) for 264 young people in Brazil. The volunteers were divided into groups of three, and they did either high or low-exertion dancing that was either synchronized or unsynchronized. The high exertion moves were standing, full-bodied movements, on the other hand, in the low-exertion groups did small hand movements sitting down. They measured the before and after feelings of closeness to each other via a questionnaire and their pain threshold by attaching and inflating a blood pressure cuff on their arm, and determining how much pressure they could stand.

Most of the volunteers who did full-bodied exertive dancing had higher pain thresholds compared with those who were in the low-exertion groups. Most importantly, synchronization led to higher pain thresholds, even if the synchronized movements were not exertive. Therefore when the volunteers saw that others were doing the equivalent movement at the same time, their pain thresholds increased.

The results also showed that synchronized activity encouraged bonding and closeness feelings more than unsynchronized dancing. Therefore, “Dance which combined high energy and synchrony had the greatest effects. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward Christmas party or at a wedding wondering whether or not to get up and groove, just do it”, claims Dr. Tarr.

Coming back to the dance floor, I had reached out for an opinion about the wellness of dancing to the best Bachata DJ: Brian el Matatan: “I enjoy the dancing for a few reasons. There’s the enjoyment & challenge of using what I’ve learned; socially as well as choreographed performance. Also, there is the rush of endorphins similar to “runner’s high”. There’s also the socializing aspect of dancing. It’s like having a conversation without speaking.” Well said DJ!
He also offered some advice for followers: dance with many different types of leaders if you’d like to improve your following. There are many different leads, and there is an experience to be gained in social dancing that would not be gained via dance class. Also, feel free to ask a leader to dance, & be courteous in how you decline a dance. Most importantly- communicate. Don’t “lead” a leader into thinking their lead is better than what it really is- for your sake & that of your fellow followers. For example, if he almost ended your life with that risky move, let him know so that he doesn’t try it on you or anyone else again (at least not without figuring out how to do the move properly). And some advice for leaders: be VERY  courteous in how you ask for a dance, try to not take rejection personally, be patient with follows who may not be on the same skill level as you, & don’t almost end her life with risky moves.

Lastly, I asked for the most sensual dancer, scientist, and project manager –  Debbie McCabe – for her advice for followers. She commented “The lady’s job is to surrender and connect to her partner…it is a 3-minute love affair and energy exchange. I love Bachata because I can get out of my head and just feel, express my sensuality, be playful and connect… it balances out my left brained day job.”

More than 20 years ago, scientists found a connection between music and enhancement of performance or changing of neuropsychological activity involving Mozart’s music from which the theory of “The Mozart Effect” was derived. The basis of The Mozart Effect lies at the super-organization of the cerebral cortex that might resonate with the superior architecture of Mozart’s music. Basically listening to Mozart K.448 enhances performance on spatial tasks for a period of approximately 20 min.

So dear reader, please stop complaining and making excuses and just dance! Or at least listen to music, as the outstanding jazz singer Tamar Korn once told me when I was in distress “music heals”.

 

This post was originally published on Dec 30, 2015 and was updated with new research on Dec 12, 2016 and on Dec 19, 2017.

Scizzle’s Christmas Gift Guide 2016

By Sally Burn, Gesa Junge, and Deidre Sackett

 

Ho ho ho, science lovers! It’s that time of year again: panic buying gifts for your nearest and dearest! If your intended recipient happens to be a scientist or a fan of all things science, we have a veritable selection of gift ideas. Or perhaps you yourself are angling to receive a science-themed present and want to point the buyer in the right direction. Then look no further: behold, Scizzle’s 2016 Christmas gift guide!

 

Culinary Science

Turn any kitchen into a lab with our handpicked selection of geeky culinary gifts. Spice up your cooking with the Chemist’s Spice Rack from ThinkGeek or whip up some cosmic cookies with these 3D spaceship cookie cutters. Then put a smile on the mathematician in your life’s face by serving them festive dessert on the i eight sum pi plates. Finally, prevent your Christmas lunch leftovers from being stolen from the communal fridge by taking them to work in this human organ for transplant insulated lunch bag.

 

Technical Tipples

Bring out the crazy scientist mixologist in you this festive season with a Chemist’s Cocktail Kit, then serve up your creations in drinking glasses that are out of this world. The Planetary Glass Set contains ten gorgeous tumblers – representing all eight planets in our solar system, plus the sun and Pluto. Pair the glasses with an anatomically informative coaster set to avoid marking your table – we heart these cardiac anatomy coasters, although the more cerebral minded may prefer a set of Brain Specimen Coasters.

 

Science Bling

Wear the whole solar system around your neck with this fabulous Solar Orbit Necklace or just keep Pluto’s heart close to your own with a Pluto pendant. Like DNA? Put a ring on it with this simple DNA helix ring available on Etsy.

 

Science Apparel

Help the female neurobiologist in your life stand out from the crowd in this Neurons Glow-in-the-Dark-Dress. Or go all out science with the Nerdy Science Dress, festooned with Erlenmeyers, microscopes, formulae, and DNA helices. And for sir, may we suggest the Too Molecule for School Men’s Socks.

 

For Kids (Both Little and Big)

You’re never too young or old to cuddle up with a plush brain, spleen, rectum, or any of the thirteen adorable soft organs available from Uncommon Goods. Or how about a crochet Erlenmeyer flask?

 

SciArt

Check out the Etsy store of the ultra-talented Ella Maruschchenko, whose illustrations have been featured on the cover of many leading journals, for science-themed prints and mugs. For an even greater range of SciArt gifts, head over to the Artologica Etsy store where you will find gorgeous paintings, silk scarves, and petri dish ornaments.

 

High End Geek Gadgetry

The Smartphone Instant Photo Lab is at the higher end of the gift budget ($169.99 and $24.99 for film) but worth it for the thrill of printing your candid Christmas party shots direct from your phone to Polaroid-style paper.

 

Under $10 – for Secret Santa and Stuffing Stockings

Finally, for $3 you can be the proud gifter of an infectious disease stress ball and for under $10 you can pick up a set of five solar power toy cars, a cute Space Capsule Tea Infuser, or even this super chic chemistry lab beaker vase.

 

Have Yourself a Merry Literature Christmas

By Gesa Junge, PhD

 

Now that Halloween and Thanksgiving are over, it seems that the world is moving full-speed towards Christmas. And while TV has Christmas adverts and Christmas specials, and the frequency of Christmas songs on the radio has been steadily increasing, what does Christmas look like in the world of scientific publishing? Interestingly, a Pubmed search for “Christmas”, has over a thousand results with “Christmas” in the title.

Some of these papers focus on holiday-related injuries, such as burns or falls. For example, one study analysed burn injuries due to Christmas decorations-associated fires, and while these are fairly rare, the majority of them actually occur after the holiday, presumably due to trees and wreaths drying out and becoming more flammable. Researchers in Calgary observed that several trauma patients were injured while installing Christmas lights, and this along with statistics showing increased risk of falls during winter months, prompted them to study this correlation. Most people in this study fell off of ladders or roofs, and most patients were male and middle-aged. The study also found that several patients sustained serious injuries, with  20% of patients requiring admission to the ICU and the median duration patients stayed in hospital being just over 2 weeks (15.6 days, range 2-165). This

Another study looked into blood alcohol content after consumption of commercially available (notably not homemade) Christmas pudding for lunch, measuring ethanol content of the pudding and then calculating what the blood alcohol content would be immediately after pudding consumption and 30 minutes later. The maximum blood alcohol content did not exceed 0.05g/dL  and the authors conclude that “[h]ospital staff should feel confident that the enthusiastic consumption of Christmas pudding at work in the festive season is unlikely to affect their work performance […]”, as long as they ate less than 1kg of it.

There is also an interesting paper which addresses the question of how to win the Christmas cracker pull. This is a UK-based tradition, in which two people pull on opposite ends of a Christmas cracker until it splits into two uneven pieces, and the person who ends up holding the larger piece wins the usually completely useless plastic toy inside the cracker. The study distinguishes between three techniques: The QinetiQ strategy (two-handed pull, slightly downwards), the passive-aggressive strategy (two-handed grip, but letting the other person pull) and the control strategy (both sides pull approximately parallel to the floor). Turns out, the passive aggressive strategy is the one most likely to lead to a win (92% probability, 95% CI 0.76-1), at least with regards to Christmas crackers.

The results of the Christmas cracker and Christmas pudding studies are published in the same issue of the Medical Journal of Australia alongside a few other brilliant Christmas-related papers, one of which offers a diagnosis of “patient R”, suffering from a shiny lesion on his nose that severely affected his quality of life. The paper suggests lupus pernio may be the unifying diagnosis.

Finally, a group of researchers in Denmark set out to show that there is indeed such a thing as “the Christmas spririt”. This is not a well-defined state, but rather a generally joyful state brought about by decorations, food and smells associated with Christmas. The researchers showed people images with a Christmas theme (e.g. a street in the dark decorated with lights, or a plate of Christmas cookies decorated with a Santa figure and Christmas baubles) and similar images with nothing Christmas-associated (e.g. a regular street, or a plate of cookies on a kitchen counter with no decoration) while monitoring brain activity in a functional MRI scanner. They studied ten people who had celebrated Christmas from a young age (the Christmas group) and ten people who did not celebrate Christmas (the non-Christmas group). Both groups showed increased activity in the primary visual cortex when being shown Christmas-themed images compared to everyday images, but the Christmas group also showed greater activity in several brain regions that did not occur in the non-Christmas group, including the primary motor and premotor cortex, the right inferior/superior parietal lobule, and the bilateral primary somatosensory cortex. This suggests that people who have a strong association with Christmas traditions and celebrations respond differently to Christmas-themed images than people who have no association with Christmas. However, how exactly those brain areas bring about the mysterious Christmas spirit is not clear.

So in conclusion, please be safe when installing holiday lights and keep an eye on the candles, but do feel free to eat Christmas pudding while passive-aggressively pulling Christmas crackers, and if you still can’t seem to find the Christmas spirit, go get a functional MRI scan. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Science Holidays to Celebrate in 2017

 

By Deirdre Sackett

The holiday season is upon us! Whether you’re celebrating with family, friends, or your experiments, there’s no denying the festive spirit in the air. But, after celebrating the winter holidays, we scientists can continue the celebrations and look ahead to all the wonderful and weird science holidays of 2017. Mark your calendars!

Mathematical Holidays

Math is one of the most vital and oldest aspects of science, so it makes sense that there are holidays to celebrate its importance!

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  • Probably the most famous science holiday, Pi Day falls on March 14, 2017, which represents the first three numbers of Pi (3.14). Pi is a value that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. People celebrate Pi Day by baking — you guessed it — pies.
  • Pi Days’ status as the most famous science holiday also brings with it some drama. Two other days contend with Pi Day’s fame: Pi Approximation Day and Tau Day. Pi Approximation Day falls on July 22, 2017, and represents the fraction that would equal Pi (7/22). Tau Day falls on June 28, 2017, and celebrates tau, the symbol that represents 6.28 (double pi’s value).
  • Want to celebrate a sensible measurement system? National Metric Week falls on the week of October 10th (the tenth day of the tenth month).
  • Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (the mole, 10^23 atoms of a substance) on October 23.
  • Pythagorean Theorem Day celebrates the famous equation we were all taught in middle school algebra. Just as a refresher, this theorem states that the square of the hypoteneuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of its two sides. In 2017, it falls on August 15, because 8*8 + 15*15 = 17*17. [/unordered_list]

 

Space Holidays

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  • Yuri’s Night falls on April 12 and celebrates Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go to space. Yuri’s Night is celebrated across the globe as a recognition of our achievements in space travel and looking toward humanity’s future as a space-faring species.
  • Probably the most unusual on this list, National Create A Vacuum Day falls on February 4. It’s a day to celebrate and understand the science behind vacuums — spaces where the pressure is lower than atmospheric pressure. Celebrators are encouraged to use their household vacuums to “create a vacuum”…and also clean their houses. [/unordered_list]

Nature Holidays

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  • Hagfish Day is October 18, and celebrates one of the ugliest creatures on the planet: the hagfish. The holiday is designed to help everyone appreciate the evolution of the hagfish, and to look past its unpleasant exterior – a valuable life lesson.
  • Coral Reef Awareness week is the third week in July, and celebrates the preservation of the world’s precious coral reefs.
  • Earth Day and Arbor Day are the most famous nature holidays. Earth Day is on April 22, and Arbor Day follows a week later on the 29th. You can celebrate these holidays by doing something nice for the planet, like planting a tree or cleaning up trash.[/unordered_list]

Science Education Holidays

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  • DNA Day is April 20, and is celebrated by scientists and educators worldwide. It falls on the anniversary of the human genome’s completion in 2003, and the discovery of the double helix structure in 1953. The day is dedicated to the knowledge and appreciation of DNA and genomics. The month of April is “Human Genome Month.”
  • Darwin Day is February 12, and celebrates Charles Darwin’s birthday as well as his theory of evolution.[/unordered_list]

Geeky Holidays

While not entirely scientific, these holidays can be celebrated by people who love science and nerdy things.

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  • May 4, 2017 is Star Wars Day. May the Fourth be with you!
  • Geek Pride Day falls on May 25, 2017. Get your geek on and celebrate all things nerdy![/unordered_list]

Scizzle’s CRISPRmas Science Gift Guide

By Sally Burn and Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis

Holmium Holmium Holmium (Ho Ho Ho)! Scizzle is in a festive mood and ready to deliver a science-themed treat down your chimney – that’s right, it’s the annual Scizzle festive gift guide! This year CRISPR/Cas was top of many santas’ experimental wishlists (still not sure what CRISPR is all about? Check out our recent article on it here), so in honor of this awesome genome editing tool we’ve renamed this year’s edition “Scizzle’s CRISPRmas Science Gift Guide”! Enjoy and make sure to take a look back at our 2013 and 2014 gift guides should you need any further inspiration.

 

Gifts for Her

Struggling to find a gift for a science-loving lady? Let her wear her love for science with our handpicked selection of jewelry, clothing, and accessories:

 

Science Trinkets

For the general science-phile, look no further than this classic silver “science” name necklace – basically what Carrie Bradshaw would have worn had she been as passionate about Erlenmeyers as she was about Manolo Blahniks. Need something more niche? For DNA aficionadas, may we suggest the “beads on a string” model of chromatin structure – captured in necklace form. For the evolutionary biologist, this phylogenetic tree necklace ticks all the boxes. Or, for the neuroscientist, how about this snappy serotonin bracelet?

 

Cretaceous Clogs and Stormtrooping Shoes

What’s that you say, you’re looking specifically for a pair of glamorous dinosaur-themed shoes? Here you go then: feast your eyes on these gold glitter T-Rex shoes. Alternatively, if you are looking to splash out on a big bucks gift, treat her to a pair of these awesome Star Wars “The Empire Struts Back Bootie”.

 

Geek Chic

Moving on to apparel, this rocket-adorned “science” t-shirt is both stylish and affordable. Pair it with the science infinity scarf and the fabulous Women of Science Skirt – featuring the 18th century physicist Laura Bassi and chemist Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze – for a complete (if slightly bonkers) outfit.

 

Gifts for Him

Science-loving gentlemen can also expect a treat in their stocking this year with one of these unique and affordable gifts:

 

Science Shirts

Does your man want everyone to know he’s down with Chuck D? No, not the Public Enemy MC, but good old Charlie Darwin. If so, then you should naturally select (geddit?) this “Darwin is my Homeboy” t-shirt. Or perhaps his ultimate science hero is astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, AKA the stranded survivor from blockbuster movie and book The Martian, who uttered the fantastic Neil deGrasse Tyson-endorsed line: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” Let the world know that he also intends to science the proverbial poop out of this, with an “I am gonna have to science the shit out of this” t-shirt.

 

My Chemical Bromance

Chemistry nerds will go wild for both this periodic table brass cuff and festive-themed bowtie. Complete their outfit with a testosterone molecule belt buckle and testosterone cufflinks.

 

Festive Feet

Offer to clad his stinking man feet in one of these fabulous items of footwear. First up, Absolute Socks sell a range of spiffing science-themed socks – because what’s Christmas without receiving socks? Next, choose from one of these two awesome pairs of bespoke Converse All Stars, featuring either Nikola Tesla or Albert Einstein. Finally, take his indoor footwear to the next level with a pair of Chewbacca slippers.

 

Gifts for the Home

Science-ify your loved one’s home with one of these inspired decorative pieces:

 

Vintage science posters

Your loved one misses the lab when they’re at home? Or just have an admiration for vintage lab equipment? Then consider ordering this set of 4 VINTAGE science posters!

 

Astronaut Bed Sheets

Your kid wants to be an astronaut when she grows up? Great, make her astronaut dreams even dreamier with this super cool Snurk astronaut Duvet cover.

 

Test Tube Chandelier

Fancy that! Light up the house with this hand-made test tube chandelier! Not only it was inspired by Marie Curie, the test tubes are also detachable so you can rearrange them just for fun or grab one if you ran out of clean tubes to test the O.D of your culture.

 

Science Pun Coasters

Keep your table surface clean with these adorable coasters that will make you wish you could have coffee inside the lab. These coasters feature your favorite scientists and even better have some hilarious puns like “we are two peas in a pod” for Mendel or “you’re radiant” for Marie Curie, ‘cause hey, we all need some sense of humor when we’re having coffee.

 

Your DNA on a canvas

Forget the Andy Warhol colorful self-portrait, personalized art just got better! What better way to show someone you love them than by creating a unique masterpiece from their own DNA, and it doesn’t just come in ethidium bromide, you can choose between 16 different colors!

 

Periodic Shower Curtain

Your darling spends a lot of time in the shower washing away the elements with some H2O? Make it a meaningful daily experience and brush up on your chemistry with this lovely shower curtain.

 

I’ve got a PhD

Need a graduation/holidays gift or maybe give the PhD in your life a way to subtly show off they are a smarty pants with this “I’ve got a PhD” mug.

 

Star Wars Gadgets

This guide would be incomplete if we wouldn’t have at least one Star Wars gift idea. Well, we have 75 ideas for you! In this link you’ll find anything from Boba Fett ice cubes to a Darth Vader porch light cover to lightsaber earrings! And did we mention the Death Star cookie jar? This is clearly for the most serious fans!

 

Petri Dish Ornaments

Sharing the holidays with your loved ones? And by loved ones we mean the million of germs you have on and in your body. Well, who said microbes can’t spread the holidays cheer? Add a scientific flare to your tree with these colorful, pretty petri dish ornaments!

 

Science-tastic Stocking Stuffers

Whether you’re playing secret Santa in the lab or want to nurture your science-phile on a smaller scale, the gift ideas below have got you (and your budget) covered!

 

Spuds Clock

Save your loved one either carbs or batteries, because nothing says green energy like a digital clock powered by potatoes!

 

Beaker cookie cutter

This one is for the bakers who loves makers! A 3D printed beaker shaped cookie cutter. Just think about all the crazy fun cookie decorations you can then do!

 

Biology Buttons/Magnets

These magnets are just TOO CUTE! They’re perfect for home or to bring up the morale in your lab or the fridges/freezer-filled hallway on your floor. These adorable illustrations of microbiology, anatomy, cells, DNA or atoms will put a smile on your face!

 

3D Water Bear

Get a 3D model of one of nature’s toughest, yet cutest, creatures – the tardigrade (aka water bear). Since it’s kind of hard to grow them as a pet, this 3D model may suffice.

 

Molecules Memory Game

Strengthen your neuron connections and chemistry knowledge and bring game night to a whole new intellectual level with the molecule memory game!

Dr Frankenstein’s Modern Guide to Body Building

By Sally Burn, PhD

Square head, green skin, bolt through the neck, and plagued by misconceptions: “Frankenstein” is a popular choice at the Halloween costume store. This erroneously named costume is based on the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular character of which is Dr Frankenstein, the scientist who creates the in fact unnamed creature. Modern depictions of the monster tend to hold little resemblance to that in the book where we are told that “His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness…

A final misconception – born from the movies – is that the monster was created from stolen body parts, animated to life with electricity. Shelley did not go into details of how exactly the monster was made, instead leaving us with just an indication that Frankenstein had the lifestyle of a postdoc (“I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health”) and a Nature Letter-size methods section: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

Clearly this is an insufficient Materials & Methods section to permit study replication. So, in the spirit of spooky science, Scizzle presents Dr Frankenstein’s Modern Guide to Body Building – how to build a brain, kidney, gut, and more in the comfort of your own lab:

 

* Building Brains:

The first thing your creation will need is a brain. While we don’t yet have the technology to grow a whole brain in the lab, we can make cerebral organoids. Scizzle first reported on these brain-like spheres two years ago, when they were published in Nature. Cerebral organoids are generated from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSC) or induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – so no need to go raiding the graveyard for spare body parts anymore, wannabe Frankensteins! The cells are aggregated into embryoid bodies, which are then differentiated into neuroectoderm and cultured in a spinning bioreactor, resulting in 3D cerebral organoids. After around a month in culture the organoids contain distinct brain regions and a cerebral cortex – the seat of consciousness, memory, and language.

 

* Growing Guts:

Upon waking, your monster will need a good meal so you’re going to need to build a digestive system. The gut is composed of a number of functionally, physiologically, and histologically distinct organs, including the stomach and small and large intestines. The liver and pancreas also play vital roles in digestion. Progress has been made on growing all of these tissues in the lab. Stomach-like “gastric organoids” can be generated by exposing hPSCs to a specific cocktail of proteins and growth factors. These mini stomachs even act in an organotypic manner, responding to H. pylori infection as a human stomach would. Moving down the digestive tract, our next requirement is an intestine. While we can’t yet grow an entire intestine in the lab (that would be one big culture dish), our old friend the organoid is here to help again – this time in the form of intestinal organoids, grown from crypt-derived stem cells (crypt as in small intestinal, not as in the spooky Halloween place). And yes, you will be pleased to know it is even possible to engineer your monster an anal sphincter. Even monsters need to poop.

 

* Crafting Kidneys:

To keep your creation in peak operational form, it will need to be able to process and remove toxins from its body. For drug processing look no further than iPS-derived liver buds (iPS-LBs), which can successfully metabolize drugs. Excretion of waste from the monster’s body will require kidneys. The generation of kidney organoids is a hot topic – earlier this month Melissa Little’s lab in Australia reported their iPS-derived kidney organoid system. While other groups have made similar organoids, this newest report is exciting as their kidney organoids contain numerous cell types and tissue structures found in human kidneys, arranged in an organotypic fashion. Furthermore, the engineered organs exhibit kidney-like function and nephrotoxin sensitivity.

 

So could a modern Dr Frankenstein make a monster using these techniques? No, obviously not – and thank goodness for that – but by exchanging grave-digging tools for iPS cells they could certainly have a good attempt at making replacement body parts for real humans. Such an endeavor may be possible in the near future, but already right now these lab-grown organoids offer a number of other benefits.

One use is pharmacological screening – does a new drug adversely affect the human kidney, for example? The human origin of organoids also allows researchers to gain insights into the development and disease of their related organs, in a way not possible with animal models. Lastly, by using patient-specific iPS or stem cells to generate organoids, scientists can better understand the etiology and treatment prospects of an individual’s disease. Earlier this year, Hans Clever’s group reported the generation of gut organoids from colorectal cancer patients, which recapitulate characteristics of their tumor of origin and are amenable to high throughput drug screening.

For a more in-depth look at the growing field of organoid science, see Cassandra Willyard’s article in Nature and stay tuned to Scizzle for future tales of “Frankenstein” science!

Graduate School Horrors: Life of a PhD Candidate in the Sciences

 

by Lori Bystrom, PhD

Graduate school can be a tough time for scientists.  Here are ten scary examples of what can happen as you work to obtain your doctorate in the sciences.

  1. Three years into your PhD program you realize that you do not know what you are doing or where you are going.

With no clear path forward, it becomes hard not to see yourself as a zombie stuck somewhere in between life and death.

 

  1. Your advisor suddenly abandons you and the project (e.g., he decides to leave for another university or industry without you).

Your original research plan haunts you as you try to move on and find a new laboratory and advisor to continue the project.

 

  1. You show your committee members your new data that you think is very exciting, only to discover they think it is useless.

The vampires are merciless..

 

  1. Your experiment fails over and over again

Has someone cast an evil spell on you?

 

  1. You desperately look into a sea of bad data to try to find something good or at least interesting.

 Clearly an exorcism is necessary to save this project.

 

  1. You discover your cell lines are contaminated.

 The little monsters have attacked!

 

  1. You find a precious vial of your sample material – from a years worth of work – and then watch it come crashing down onto the floor.

You scream.

 

  1. You discover your project has been scooped and your research is not valuable anymore.

You scream again.

 

  1. When analyzing your experiment you discover some bizarre results that seem to come from out of nowhere.

 Boo!

 

  1. One of your committee members tells you at the last minute that they are unable to make it to the defense date you have rescheduled for the billionth time.

You fear they are trying to prevent your escape.

(Note:  if after reading this you are very scared this survival guide might help).

How the Flintstones can Help the Jetsons: History Lessons for Modern Medicine

By Lori Bystrom, PhD

Many of us look forward to a future of convenience with magical gadgets and miracle cures, perhaps something akin to the lifestyle of the cartoon characters on The Jetsons. The show’s optimistic portrayal of the future depicts our fascination with modern technology – an interest that stems not only from our desire for new and improved modes of transportation and communication, but also from our desire for new and better medicine.

 

The future of medicine may seem promising, but understanding the past may be vital for making medical dreams come true. Just as the stone-age characters from The Flinstones are capable of helping the futuristic characters of The Jetsons fix their time machine (see The Jetsons Meet The Flinstones clip from 1:00 to 1:17), so too can our long-departed ancestors help us in ways that will benefit us in the future (perhaps in less barbaric ways than hitting something with a club). In other words, medical advancements, although conventionally based on research using modern technology, can also be derived from medical information of the ancient past.

 

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the recent discovery of a plant-based eye infection remedy found in a 1,000 year old medical text. This finding was recently presented at the British Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference by researchers at the University of Nottingham in England and Texas Tech University in the United States. They found that the 9th century Anglo-Saxon book, known as Bald’s Leechbook, contained a remedy for an eye infection that consisted of a mixture of garlic, onion or leeks, wine, and bile (from cow’s stomach) that was boiled and fermented in a brass vessel. Amazingly, the recreation of this ancient remedy proved to be effective against the resilient methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), both in vitro and on wounds. In fact, it was found to be more effective than one of the antibiotics (vancomycin) currently used to treat the modern day superbug (see this article). Although clinical trials need to be conducted to confirm the beneficial effects of this medicinal preparation, this is an extraordinary start for a potential drug.

 

Should we be surprised that some of these ancient remedies actually have therapeutic value? Back in the day, when clinical trials did not exist and ethical practices were not necessarily enforced, there was probably a great deal of trial and error as people tried medicines on each other. The only medicines that were recorded were probably those that worked, while ineffective treatments may or may not have been noted. Interestingly, some of the traditional medicines may have been inspired by how animals treated their ailments (an area of study known as zoopharmacognosy). There also may have been minimal repercussions for failed treatments (no lawsuits?), and therefore maybe more freedom for finding medical cures. Moreover, if a treatment was found to be effective nobody probably had to wait for approval from any organization such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

 

Regardless of what happened in the past, it is apparent there are valuable lessons we can learn from our ancestors. For instance, the ancient practice of fecal transplantation is now gaining acceptance in modern medicine. As far back as the 4th century, Ge Hong, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, used fecal material to treat his patients with food poisoning or severe diarrhea. Just recently, the FDA approved the use of fecal transplants for specific gastrointestinal problems. The use of leeches for the treatment of venous congestion, among other ailments, is another example of modern medicine embracing old technology (see this article). There are numerous conventional medications that also have roots in the distant past (e.g. aspirin). Any book on the history of medicine will provide more information on this subject matter.

 

All of these examples suggest that medical research is limited if it turns a blind eye to the past. Moreover, the medical community needs to address the polar opposite views on traditional/natural medicines: those that think all natural products/traditional remedies are safe and those that think all traditional medicines/natural therapies are inherently bad. What it really comes down to is what is effective and not what resonates better to different patients or doctors. More scientific research needs to assess whether these treatments are safe and effective, while identifying those that may be snake oil. The journalist and information designer, David McCandless, beautifully illustrates some of these differences on his website.

 

Modern medicine should keep an open mind while researchers continue to investigate ancient remedies and screen out the good from the bad. It is appropriate that a small division of the National Institute of Health, known formerly as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, was renamed as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Unconventional or traditional medicines that are effective are not the ‘alternative’, but perhaps the best option or one that can be integrated with other medical treatments.

 

As we move forward in medicine, we might want to keep digging up the past so we are prepared to combat new diseases and improve current treatments. The future of medicine may just need, as George Jetson puts it nicely, “a little stone-age technology.”

Scientists Letters to Santa Revealed

 

By Elizabeth Ohneck, PhD and Padideh Kamali-Zare, PhD

For many children, Christmas morning was the culmination of months of eager anticipation, the reward for a year of good behavior, the moment the generosity (or perhaps judgment) of Santa Claus was finally revealed. There was undoubtedly gleeful satisfaction (Lady scientist Legos? YES!), and sighs of disappointment (When will Santa bring me a pony? I’ve been asking for 29 years!) In the afterglow of the holidays, these children (and, let’s face it, many adults) are carefully inventorying their holiday spoils against their submitted wish lists, and already composing their next letters to Santa.

Scientists also have wish lists they cultivate year-round, although the nature of the items differs greatly from that of hopeful children (except Lady Scientist Legos; those definitely belong on both lists). While the magic of Santa Claus has long since been lost to the logic of adulthood and science itself, as we easily overthink the constraints of physics and time that would make flying around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer delivering toys to every child in one night impossible, we might still find ourselves caught up in the holiday spirit, hoping for a Christmas miracle. So, for a moment, let’s suspend this practicality. Let’s pretend that there is a Santa Claus for science, a jolly, magical figure who flies around the world granting the wishes of labs one night a year. What, exactly, would scientists ask for? And would Science Santa Claus deliver?

Below, a few scientists offer the letters they submitted to Santa this year.

 

Dr. Claus,

As the holiday season approaches, it is time to submit our annual progress report to the Naughty or Nice committee for review. Herein, we provide evidence for the inclusion of our lab on the Nice List, and a list of proposed items that would add to the continued success of our group.

 

This year, we have worked collectively over 500 hours each week, including late nights, early mornings, weekends, and holidays. We have published or contributed to the publishing of 10 peer-reviewed papers. In addition, we have given several successful poster and oral presentations. One of our postdocs successfully obtained a faculty position. And we hosted one heck of a department mixer. Taken together, we believe these data qualify our lab for the Nice List. As such, we would like to request the following holiday gifts:

 

  1. A first author paper. Ok, 9 first author papers, if we’re being perfectly honest. But we’d be happy with 4. You can team us up for some co-first author publications.
  2. An automated plate spreader, an automated colony counter, a machine that automatically does all the washes for ELISAs in a 96-well plate… basically anything automated. It’s not that we’re lazy (well, maybe a little). We’re just trying to be more efficient with our time and energy. We could do bigger experiments and fit more experiments into a day. (On second thought, we might re-think this one. Hold off for a bit. We’ll get back to you.)
  3. Repeat pipetters. Or, at the very least, a fully functional, easy to use, consistently accurate P10 multichannel pipette. Such an item would greatly increase both the precision and accuracy of our results, slow the inevitable development of carpal tunnel syndrome, and probably prevent that one postdoc from having a nervous breakdown (you know which one we’re talking about).
  4. Stuff to work. Particularly cloning, transduction, qPCR, and getting repeatable results from that one stupid experiment.
  5. The PI would like a 24-hour lab.

We are aware that funding is tight, which may prevent the granting of more than one request per lab. Should this be the case, you may disregard the above list in exchange for only the following:

Please, for the love of science, do NOT allow #5 to happen. Ever.

Thank you for your time and consideration. We wish you safe travels this holiday season.

 

Best regards,

The Microbiology lab

 

 


 

Dear Santa,

I know you must be very busy this time of the year so I make it short. Below is the list of my requests to you that would appreciate a lot if you take a look:

 

  1. Please provide some different ways of funding for science so the PIs are not so much under pressure of getting data, publishing papers and applying for grants. There is something seriously wrong with such an ecosystem that makes everyone at any level unhappy. And beyond that, it makes the science world full of discoveries that are in response to “call for proposals” and not scientist’s inner motives to “discover the unknown”. This is not the way science should be. You agree?

 

  1. Please send scientists, once in a while, messages that include an overview of their projects so they don’t get lost in details. Something like a map that shows the big picture! And please help them read the map if it’s not in a nerdy language.

    3. In the end scientists wanted to make a difference that’s why they chose science among all other much-better rewarding career paths. Please help them find their individual ways to do so. Still most scientists believe science as a life style, as a way of thinking and not a job! Don’t let them become disappointed… PLEASE!

 

Thank you very much and looking forward to seeing some magical action from you this year! Yes! You can! Do it!

 

-Padideh Kamali-Zare

 

Did you have a science holiday wish list? What did you ask Science Santa for? Did he (or she) deliver? You’ll be happy to know the Microbiology Lab made the Nice List and received TWO new, state-of-the-art P10 multichannel pipettes. They’re still waiting to see whether their experiments have started working. And seriously hoping the 24-hour lab request was overlooked.

Resolutions from the Bench

 

and some science to help you make your own!

Compiled and written by Evelyn Litwinoff and Katherine Peng

Like many of us out there, you may deem a New Year’s resolution a successful one if it lasts through January. To help create your own, the Scizzle staff is offering some tips backed by neuroscience (plus some science-y examples) that may help you to finally follow through in 2015.

 

Tip #1: Give yourself a pep-talk

Positive self-reflection boosts serotonin levels which is essential for proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is our impulse control and decision making center, and plays the additional role of giving flexibility to habits ingrained in the basal ganglia. For example, subjects lulled into a conversation about their positive qualities prior to reading an informational packet developed a greater intention to quit smoking or eat healthier.

 

For inspiration, see this positive worded resolution (“I am!” “I will!”):

[quote]I am going to work on becoming better at networking. I will go to more networking opportunities, and I will not spend all of my time talking only to people that I know.[/quote]

S.S., Industry Research Scientist

 

Tip #2: Focus on one or few goals

Baumeister et al. have shown over and again that willpower is a limited resource. The effort it takes to complete one goal may render us too exhausted for the next. In fact, willpower depends on glucose levels, and a good dose of glucose helps to counteract willpower depletion (though admittedly not so helpful if your resolution is a diet).

[quote]This year, I will focus on the “existing” rather than “imaginary” problems in science; and I will try to address those by my solutions. The focus of the year will change from “providing solutions” to “identifying the right problems.[/quote]

Padideh Kamali-Zare, a new science entrepreneur and a Scizzle blogger

 

Tip #3: Give yourself a distraction

In a well-known series of marshmallow experiments, children were promised more marshmallows if they could resist the one marshmallow they were left in a room with. The most successful kids distracted themselves with singing or playing, and as a bonus had better SAT scores later in life.

[quote]For 2015, I will dedicate time every day to step away from the bench/paper I’m reading/experiment I’m designing to take a mental break, even if it’s only 5 or 10 minutes long. And I promise not to go on Facebook during those breaks![/quote]

E.L., Immunologist

 

Tip #4: Remind yourself

That the feeling of being in control is inherently rewarding. Imaging has shown that subjects making choices in which they control the outcome have greater activation in structures of the brain involved in reward processing.

 

[quote]For New Year’s, my resolutions would be to 1) Actually finish one of those online statistics classes so I understand the statistical tests I will eventually be using to analyze my data (I keep starting the courses and then getting distracted and stopping about halfway), and 2) Come up with a better system to consolidate, organize and keep track of my paper reading/notes; currently things are spread across notes in PDF files, hard-copy notes, and Google Documents.[/quote]

– Susan Sheng,  neuroscientist and a Scizzle blogger

 

[quote]Read a paper a day (or at least an abstract) and be more efficient.[/quote]

– K.Z., neuroscienctist

 

[quote]My science New Year’s resolution is to learn tissue culture techniques. And also, to be more careful with the ethanol around an open flame so I light fewer things on fire.[/quote]

E.O., Postdoc

 

Have a wonderful happy new year!!!