Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of a Year, End of Another Decade

Everyone is posting these elaborate "BEST OF 2015" lists and photos, but for me, the end of 2015 marks another big milestone: the end of my 20s. In celebration of my 30th year in existence, I thought it would be fun to look back to what was happening in science 30 years ago.

Cover page of Science vol 231, issue 4733, released on January 3rd, 1986 - one day after I was born.




The 1980s were a decade of fearlessness in science, where there were still so many unknowns, yet everyone was excited about all of the possibilities. There were two major scientific pushes in the 1980s: space travel and deciphering the AIDS epidemic, and as you may remember (or have guessed), there were many tragedies in 1986. Let's take a look:

 January 12th: STS-61-C Space Shuttle Columbia is launched. 
Among the crew was Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, the first Latino astronaut. Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz is an engineer and physicist of Chinese and Costa Rican descent.





January 24th: The Voyager 2 space probe made its first encounter with the planet Uranus.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 2's primary mission was to study distant planets. Voyager 2 visited the Jovian system in 1979, Saturnian system in 1981, Uranus and the Uranian system in 1986, and Neptune in 1989.Now in it's 39th year since launch, Voyager 2 is on an extended mission to study the outer reaches of the Solar System. Check out some of the images taken by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 here.

Voyager 2, photo credit: NASA

Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 in 1986. Photo credit: NASA

January 28th: Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) explodes on launch.
On its 10th flight, Challenger exploded 73 seconds into mission launch, due to an explosion. All seven crew members and the Challenger shuttle were lost as a result of the malfunction. The shuttle and the bodies of the crew members were found mostly intact on March 9th by the US Navy.



February 21st: Nintendo releases the first game in the Legend of Zelda series in Japan.
Nerds everywhere have no idea how their lives are about to change. This may not seem directly scientific, but if we think about how far computer science and gaming science has come in 3 decades, it is revolutionary.

Legend of Zelda, 1986

Here's the trailer for the upcoming release in the Legend of Zelda series:


March 3rd: The first paper on Atomic Force Microscopy is published.
Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), or Scanning-Force Microscopy, allows for very high-resolution with demonstrated resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit.
Setup of AFM, image from Wikipedia.




April 3rd: IBM releases the first laptop computer.
It weighed 13 pounds, and looked like a little robot.

IBM "PC-Convertible", photo via Wikipedia
April 13th: The first child born to a non-related surrogate mother is born.
Produced by gestational surrogacy, this revolutionary human pregnancy resulted from the transfer of an embryo created by in vitro fertilization (IVF), in a manner so the resulting child is genetically unrelated to the surrogate.

The surrogate and biological mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, refused to cede custody of Melissa (otherwise known as "Baby M", born 4/13/86) to the couple with whom she made the surrogacy agreement. The courts of New Jersey found that Whitehead was the child's legal mother and declared contracts for surrogate motherhood illegal and invalid. However, the court found it in the best interest of the infant to award custody of Melissa to the child's biological father, William Stern, and his wife Elizabeth Stern, rather than to Whitehead, the surrogate mother.



April 25th: The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.

 

May: The first method to create part-human, part-mouse monoclonal antibodies was published. 
The development of humanized monocolonal antibodies lead the way for many medical therapeutics being used today. There are currently more than 30 FDA-approved monoclonal antibody therapies available for a wide range of diseases, including (but not limited to) cancers, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, severe psoraisis, Crohn's disease, transplant rejection, and cardiovascular diseases.

Image from Britannica: Monoclonal Antibodies


May: HIV is named.
The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses said that the virus that causes AIDS will officially be called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) instead of HTLV-III/LAV.

Dr. Jay Levy of UCSF, who discovered the "AIDS-related virus", or ARV, which would eventually be named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Photo via UCSF archives.

 July: FDA approves the first genetically engineered vaccine for Hepatitis B.
Prior to the development of recombinant Hepatitis B vaccines, all Hep B vaccines were plasma-derived. Now, with the synthetically prepared vaccine, it is impossible for you to get Hepatitis B from the vaccine.


November 3rd: TIME magazine releases an issue on viruses, specifically discussing new research surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 
By the end of 1986, 85 countries had reported 38,401 cases of AIDS to the World Health Organization, including Africa (2,323), Americas (31,741), Asia (84), Europe (3,858), and Oceania (395).

From TIME: " It would be another year before the first antiviral drug against HIV, AZT, is developed, but scientists are learning more about the biology of the AIDS virus, and testing new treatments, including gene therapy."

Cover Image, credit TIME Magazine.

So there you have it: 30 years ago in science history. I hadn't really thought about it before, but my scientific career has been very representative of science in 1986. I've worked for NASA, studied HIV, and, for many years as a lying, idiot teenager, told my peers that I was the first "test tube baby".

Any guesses as to what the next 30 years will hold for science?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day 2015: Did you even notice?



December 1st is World AIDS Day. It has been for decades, and will continue to be for decades to come. Yet, did you even notice?

Years ago, I was venting to my dad about how I wish people used social media for intelligent conversation and to spread important information instead of posting pictures of their outfits and arguing over inaccurate news stories. He looked at me and said "make Facebook what you want it to be", suggesting that I ignore all my boring acquaintances and follow organizations that I believe in, instead. So that's what I did. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually Instagram. I follow government organizations relating to public and global health, nonprofit organizations, scientists, museums, etc.

But, today, I found myself frustrated again. I was looking forward to seeing posts about World AIDS Day, but I saw TWO posts on facebook, and only FIVE quick tweets (80% of which were from US government organizations like Health & Human Services or the CDC).

So, why don't we care about HIV and AIDS anymore? Why has HIV and AIDS turned into a docile disease?

I have a few theories about this:

1. We're inundated with articles about how "A CURE IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER" or about "ONE MAN: CURED OF AIDS".
 Don't get me wrong, I have complete faith in the scientific research community and the medical community, but I'm tired of things being announced or declared in a way that isn't really all that true. We are already in an age where there is a huge distrust of science, so when breakthroughs are made, results are expected immediately. When we talk about "curing AIDS", I imagine the general masses imaging taking a huge red marker and checking a box. But, we've seen with every drug trial (I'm especially thinking of cancer drugs and the public outcry as a result of some of the waiting periods), results aren't immediate. We don't go from test tube to mass production of a perfectly effective drug. Even with animal trials, many times there are unforeseen side effects or changes in dosage efficacy.

Not to mention, the "curing" or "clearing"  of HIV has not had a lasting effect. The incredibly invasive, extensive, and expensive procedures that lead to the initial news stories are simply not feasible for everyone (and even most people!). But the realistic side of the story is often not included.

I don't say this in any way to minimize the great advancements we've seen with antiviral treatments. We are in an age where many people who are infected with HIV are living long, healthy lives as a result of treatment options and lifestyle changes.

2. HIV isn't as scary as other emergent diseases and infections.
How can we take HIV seriously as an ongoing threat if we hear about something new, unknown, and terrifying every week? There are many factors that go into viruses breaking out of a small region and spreading to previously unaffected areas. But, we are in an age of emergent diseases. Ebola has been around for decades, but up until last year, most people had never heard of it. Zika virus was isolated in specific regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and suddenly, this year, more than 14,000 people have been infected in Salvador, Brazil. Kissing bugs are in 26 states, and Aedes mosquitoes have been moving in to California for a few years now. Chikungunya is in the Caribbean and certain parts of Europe.

With scientific distrust, comes fear. Everyone is too busy fearing new viruses to remember that HIV is still here.

TEM micrograph of budding HIV virions

3. Young generations haven't experienced death from HIV and AIDS. Young generations haven't experienced the disease revolution.
The largest recorded ebola outbreak in human history happened (is still happening, albeit slower) happened in an area of the world with which most people are still not familiar. The cases that caught the most media attention were Americans that received experimental treatment.

Younger generations aren't familiar with the fear and death associated with HIV in the 80s and 90s. They aren't familiar with the imagery of that time. They aren't familiar with the huge and devastating number of children that have HIV.

This lack of realistic knowledge and awareness of HIV and AIDS has lead to incredibly sad facts, such as: 60% of HIV positive youths are not aware of their HIV status.


Speaking of statistics, its estimated that 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
I recently attended the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) annual conference, and I collected some really devastating statistics. As of 2013, it was estimated that 3.2 million children were living with HIV worldwide, and less than 25% of them were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART). That was almost 3 years ago.

With the bleak statistics of the number of people living with HIV who don't know their status and the number of children with HIV, we are not in the position to say that HIV is not a threat, or that "we can see the end of AIDS by 2030". If we aren't even acknowledging World AIDS Day anymore, then how can we see a future without HIV and AIDS?

Take this matter into your own hands. Get tested regularly.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Giving Thanks to Chimps

Something special happened this week that, I feel, isn't getting the attention it deserves. With Thanksgiving (US) next week, I felt it was fitting to highlight this event, because to me, it is representative of who and what we forget to be thankful for on a regular basis.

In 2013, the NIH announced it would start to phase out all research and trials involving chimpanzees, sparing only 50 chimps for support of research with very specific needs involving chimps as a model system. As of this week, the NIH has announced that they will no longer support biomedical research on chimpanzees. The NIH will no longer retain the 50 remaining chimpanzees, and they will be moved to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Photo from National Geographic/Getty Images
 Part of the reason this is happening is because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated chimpanzees, including those in captivity, as endangered species. The original placement of wild chimpanzees on the endangered species list occurred in 1990, after being on the "threatened" list since 1976. This is a tragic reason, but the response from the NIH is absolutely the right move. A small move, but a valuable one.

I bring this up, not only because it is a personal issue for me, but because we benefit from products and technologies that have been tested on chimpanzees and many other animal species often without thinking about it. Historically, chimpanzees have been used for a wide range of biomedical research subjects and topics, including psychological research, and an endless list of health and medicine-related topics. Private institutions in the US started using chimpanzees in laboratory research in the 1920s, while the NIH waited until 1960 to establish the first government-operated non-human primate research center. If you want to learn about the first 100 chimpanzees brought from Africa specifically for research purposes, I highly encourage you to visit the First 100 Chimps website, from Lori Gruen.

Photo from Corbis Bettmann and National Geographic
 
Long before their use in biomedical and psychological research, many species of non-human primates were a source of heavy fascination during the height of colonialism in Africa. The two most popular past times were trying to capture live orangutans in the wild, and capturing smaller primate species to keep as pets.

Photo from the Expanded Environment
One of the most well known research areas was the use of chimpanzees for HIV research, starting in the mid-1980s. Chimpanzees are the most genetically-related species to humans, but that doesn't necessarily make them good models for research. It took almost a decade for the NIH to realize that chimpanzees are poor models for HIV research, which ceased breeding programs for federally-owned chimpanzees in 1995. At this time, there was a surplus of chimpanzees in research-associated captivity as a result of the rapid increase in HIV research, and the assumption that chimpanzees were the best animal model. Thus, Chimp Haven was founded to support the retirement of chimpanzees from biomedical research facilities, the entertainment industry, and pet trade.

Speaking of HIV research, I just had the opportunity to see Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania speak about her non-invasive research that has answered many questions about the origin of HIV-1 and HIV-2. By using sequencing technologies to analyze fecal samples from wild primates in Africa (that her team literally collects from the ground in the jungle), she has been able to find the missing pieces of viral origin and evolution. You can find a summary of Dr. Hahn's work on her website (click her name above), or by reading this article from earlier this year.

In 2010, the NIH tried to transfer more than 200 government-owned chimpanzees to the National Primate Research Center in Texas for invasive research studies. Yes, 2010. This was more than a decade after many countries, such as New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands, started to place strict bans on great ape research. Jane Goodall pressured the NIH to rethink their decision to make more chimpanzees available for invasive research, which lead to a year-long investigation into the necessity of  the use of chimpanzees for research purposes. In 2011, the NIH declared that chimpanzees are "largely unnecessary for biomedical research".

Photo from the Jane Goodall Institute
Yet, while legislation is in place to protect chimpanzees and other species from unnecessary use and cruel treatment during research, many private companies (note: not getting government funding) still have and maintain chimpanzee research facilities. Some companies in the US have already ceased using chimpanzees, or have declared that they will phase out their use of chimpanzees by 2020 (click for list of companies). If you'd like to follow the periodic retirement and movement of chimpanzees into sanctuary facilities, I encourage you to visit the Last 1000 website, also maintained by Lori Gruen.

Here's the important part from the NIH's statement from the director regarding the retirement of the last 50 chimps:

"These decisions are specific to chimpanzees. Research with other non-human primates will continue to be valued, supported, and conducted by the NIH."

Don't be fooled. This ends the use of chimpanzees in government facilities and government-funded research, but the use of chimpanzees has not been banned in the US. Private companies can still use chimpanzees and other non-human primates, as long as they adhere to the strict "humane usage" guidelines. Here is a website that will give you more information about animal species currently used in laboratory research.

Photo from KPBS

Chimpanzee research originated before many of us were born, and other than the amazing Jane Goodall, there are not many champions bringing this issue to light. When I decided to pursue biological sciences -- specifically infectious disease research -- as a career, I decided I would never take a job that would require me to do anything with animals directly, and I didn't want to be involved with projects that relied on animal research. In the time that I've been working as a scientist, the number of technologies and discoveries that minimize the need for animal research has exploded. In my opinion, we are moving towards a time in science where animal models wont be necessary anymore. There are many people that don't agree. I encourage you to look at the available facts, and decide for yourself.

But before you do that, think about the animals, and specifically the chimpanzees, that have been involved in research. Think about the animals that have been breed specifically for research purposes. Think about the biomedical advances we've had thanks to animal models. If you are going to spend some time next week thinking about what you are thankful for, consider being thankful for chimpanzees, and for the sanctuaries that are dedicated to caring for them.

Has this made you wonder what brands you use that currently test on animals? Here's a good, comprehensive list.

For a good visual guide of the history of the use of chimpanzees for research, check out this site.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Myth Campaign

I've been wanting to write this post all month, but every few weeks I'd see more examples I wanted to include, and my frustration increased exponentially. I should start by saying that I consider myself somewhat of a "political radical" of sorts. By that, I mean that, while I have a lot of respect for the idea of a true democracy, I have a low tolerance for the amount of actual representation of the average American citizen. I try not to talk about my political opinions on this blog, because frankly, that's not why I started this blog.

But, science and politics are very intertwined. From federal grants and funding initiatives for research, to government institutions and committees, there is no separation between "lab and state". Sometimes, that's a good thing. Some of the federal regulations that mandate safety and procedural guidelines for research ensure that working in research environments (labs, fieldwork, etc.) are safer for the people doing the work. Also, there have been a lot of scientific exploration and advancements due to federal funding.

Image courtesy of the Official White House Tumblr


While some presidents have taken a marked interest in science (some recent examples: G. H. W. Bush's "Decade of the Brain", and Obama's White House Science Faire), most of their actual involvement comes in the form of spewing talking points prior to being elected. How many US presidents have championed scientific innovation and research initiatives? Science has never really been on the forefront of any presidency since the moon landing.

"R&D as a Percent of the Total Federal Budget, 1962-2016" via the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), May 2015

Think about how political attitudes about science directly affect the public. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was just a couple of months ago. Its estimated that the hurricane and flooding killed over 1,830 people and caused over $108 billion in damage. Scientists continually warn about the increasing severity of future storms and weather conditions, rising temperatures and pH changes in the ocean, and major reductions in natural resources. While no one could have anticipated the number of fatalities or the severity of the damages brought on by Hurricane Katrina, government initiatives to protect communities from future natural disasters (like, planning and response measures, zoning to recognize emergency response for all communities, etc.) may be more successful if scientists were acknowledged and involved. Instead, Senator Ted Cruz, the chairman of the United States Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, is a science denier.

Scientists and medical professionals have worked tirelessly to eradicate many diseases in the US and around the world, through the development of vaccinations and therapeautics with increased effectiveness, lasting power, and fewer side effects. Government agencies have been directly involved in funding and spearheading such initiatives. Unfortunately, some presidential candidates (whether we consider them serious or not), have decided that the subject of vaccinations are now appropriate debate material (I'm looking at you, Donald Trump, an idiot, and BEN CARSON, a retired neurosurgeon).

There's a clip in this article that shows the specific section of the republican debate where vaccines come up. Ben Carson and Donald Trump will actively talk about vaccines, but refuse to even acknowledge an important question from the moderator: "as president, you will be in charge of the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, both of which say you are wrong. How will you handle this situation as president?"

Meanwhile, polio is still an issue in some parts of the world, among other serious diseases that are preventable by vaccination. 

You'll also notice, if you watch that clip (and others featuring Trump talking about vaccines), that Trump is also great about reinforcing stigma around disease. Sometimes, he's blatant about it, like when he said this about ebola patients:


Other times, he's sneaky about it. During the debate, he said that "beautiful babies" are injected with huge amounts of vaccinations ("it's meant for a horse", he says, describing the supposedly cartoon-sized syringe that would never actually be used on children), and then goes on to say that the child eventually (1 week later) develops autism. Sure, no one wants their child to develop autism or any disorder, developmental or otherwise. But its clear from Trumps wording that he wouldn't consider a child with a disability as beautiful.

With the fiscal year ending, the House of Representatives has repeatedly voted on a measure to "defund" Planned Parenthood. Speaking of an issue that directly affects the all people in the US, women's health issues are always debated by presidential candidates. Even though federal funds totaling $528.4 million went to Planned Parenthood in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the organization is not allowed to use federal funds to provide abortion services. So, by removing federal funding, 96% of the medical services Planned Parenthood provides, such as STD testing and treatment, contraceptive prescriptions and education, cancer screenings, routine check ups and gynecological exams, and prevention services, would be severely reduced. Yet, not eliminated entirely. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, only 41% of Planned Parenthood's funding came from federal sources (through standard MediCal reimbursements, etc.). I wont go into how these services, regardless of how you feel about abortion (which only makes up 3% of Planned Parenthood's procedures), have an influence on the health and overall quality of life for many people -- not just women, not just low-income communities, and not just sexually active teens.

By the way, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Thousand Oaks, CA was set on fire this week.

So, while you listen to presidential candidates ramp up their campaign circuits, and recycle talking points that don't actually address any of the serious questions asked of them, think about where science and medicine fall into play. What do these issues actually mean for the future of the American economy? How do politicians navigate these issues for the American public? Just think about it.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Jail-house Cough

When the world of somewhat rare infectious diseases collides with prison and inmate issues, it causes an uproar of excitement in my house. Education and advocacy are large themes in my marriage. It's obvious that STEM education is my driving force, but my husband focuses his efforts on issues associated with significantly skewed stigma and underrepresented topics, such as advocacy for mental health patients and inmates. He actually teaches a class on prison issues at UC Berkeley, and leads a volunteer group that takes UC Berkeley students into San Quentin Prison to tutor inmates that are working towards obtaining a GED. Its not uncommon that he will have to cancel volunteer shifts due to prison-wide lockdowns (most often due to fog), but Thursday night's lockdown had us talking.

As I've mentioned before, prisons are an epidemiological hotbed for infectious diseases. Sticking a large number of people in small, confined communal living quarters with inadequate medical care is one of the fastest ways to allow diseases to spread. So, hearing that the lockdown on Thursday and Friday were due to the potential spread of disease, we were not alarmed. When we heard it was Legionnaires' Disease and that one case had been confirmed with 30 other inmates presenting symptoms, we were surprised.

`
Image from PrimeWater Membranes


Legionnaires' Disease, or "legionellosis", is a bacterial infection caused by Legionella spp. (most commonly Legionella pneumophila) and leads to the development of atypical pneumonia. Legionnaire's disease is most well known for its debut in 1976, when a L. pneumophila epidemic was traced back to the Philadelphia Convention of the American Legion. More than 30 people died as a result. Yet, L.micdadei had already been isolated from human blood in the mid 1940s. As usual, only a handful of disease nerds care about a disease before an epidemic occurs.

These two, specifically. (Credit: Wikipedia)
 Legionnaire's Disease is spread through droplets of water containing the bacteria, especially in warm environment that cause steam and aerosolization, like showers, hot tubs, wet saunas, humidifiers, and faucets.The CDC also lists "decorative fountains" as a potential source, which, I have to admit, made me laugh. I mean, think about all the major hospitals that have massive decorative fountains in their entrance/courtyards! Double threat!

Legionella spp. have developed a somewhat symbiotic relationship with larger protozoae, such as amoebas, that create large biofilms that can protect the Legionella bacteria. Outbreaks are most common in places that house lots of people for extended periods of time, like hotels, office buildings, retirement homes and convalescent facilities, hospitals, cruise ships, and prisons. Legionella spp. also like to live in wet soils.  Despite the dependency on aerosolization for transmission, Legionnaires' Disease is not spread from person to person. A reservoir, like water or soil, is required for the transmission of the disease.

Amoeba engulfing and releasing bacteria. (Via Pall Corp.)
 If you inhale contaminated water, the bacteria travel through your respiratory tract and into your lungs. This triggers your immune system, and trolling macrophages engulf the bacteria. While engulfing the bacteria through phagocytosis is one method (of many) your immune system uses to identify and destroy invaders, many infectious agents have learned to exploit this mechanism. Once in the macrophage, the bacterium will multiply, causing tons of bacterial cells to explode out of the macrophage and continue spreading the infection throughout your tissues.

While your body is working to fight off the rapidly replicating Legionella bacteria, you'll start to experience symptoms, such as fever, chills, and a cough. Depending on the severity of your infection, you can cough up blood, sputum, or a combination of the two. Chest pains are common, and some people can also experience diarrhea and vomiting. A combination of chest x-rays and bacterial culturing will land you with a diagnosis of Legionnaires' Disease. Since this is mostly rare form of pneumonia, it is incredibly important to get an accurate diagnosis. Since Legionnaires' Disease is caused by a bacterial infection, there are specific antibiotics that can be used to treat your infection. As always, when left untreated, the disease will get significantly worse, and may be fatal. Pneumonia is a significant cause of death for those who have compromised immune systems, and for children without access to medical care.

So, San Quentin Prison has shut off their water supply (with the exclusion of toilets, that have now been deemed okay), but this still raises the question of how extensive the contamination is. If only one person was affected, it may have been an isolated incident from an isolated source. Yet, with 30 potential patients, this is a larger issue that most likely stems from the prison's water source.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gendered STEM Stereotypes

Cartoon credit: Laura Grover via Public Radio International

I saw this on my facebook feed the other day, and at first I thought, "oh, just another cartoon about gender gaps and recruiting women and girls into STEM fields..."

But, then I realized that a) my disenchanted reaction is a result from the overwhelming amount of media attention that has been dedicated to the subject of women in science lately (always?), and b) this cartoon pissed me off. In the 5+ years that I've been running this blog, I've maybe covered 3 political topics because that's not my main goal. There are enough blogs out there that overlap personal opinions and science or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics, and really, who cares? But I'm going to talk about the issues of gender in science today, because there are some issues that aren't being discussed by most popular news and media outlets.

Let's address each of my reactions separately, shall we?

a) My disenchanted reaction due to the overwhelming amount of media attention that has been dedicated to women in science:
Everyone is eager to tell you that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. In a lot of places, women are still treated as diversity hires. There are societies for women in science, scholarships given to encourage young women to major in STEM degrees, organizations to help young girls find the path to STEM careers, and Google doodles dedicated to Marie Curie.


I think people love to believe that women are minorities in STEM because everyone hates statistics. I know, I am not a fan of statistics (exception: when you work super hard on some statistical analysis and get really satisfying results), but I can break some recent statistics down for everyone:

According to this economic briefing released in October of 2014 by the Council of Economic Advisers to the President of the United States, women are "now more likely than men to earn a bachelors degree and attend graduate school".

In fact, women 25-34 years old were 21% more likely to graduate from college than men, and 48% more likely to attend graduate school.

Image credit: US News
Speaking of minority populations, I'm happy to report that this trend of women being more likely to attend college and graduate with an undergraduate degree has been shown across Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Caucasian populations.

Statistics associated with women obtaining degrees in STEM fields are EVEN BETTER, according to an NSF study released this year. According to the report:
 "Women have earned 57% of all bachelor's degrees and about half of all science and engineering (S&E) bachelor's degrees since the late 1990s. However, women's level of participation in S&E fields varies, and within fields it tends to be consistent over every degree level. In most fields, the proportion of degrees awarded to women has risen since 1993. The proportion of women is lowest in engineering, computer sciences, and physics. Women earn about one-third of the doctorates in economics and slightly more than one-fourth of doctorates in mathematics and statistics."
 I'm curious, would you have guessed that women earn approximately half of the science and engineering undegraduate degrees conferred in the US?

My point is HELLO WE ARE HERE. WE ARE DOING SCIENCE RIGHT NOW. Women are represented in STEM fields. We are in the lab, in the field, in the workshop, in space, published in leading scientific journals, on computers, on advisory boards, at conferences, and in classrooms and lecture halls. Quite frankly, every time an article comes out about the need to recruit women into STEM, a young girl gets discouraged and decides that science hates women.

Ella Tyree, image credit: cliotropic

Also, every time an article comes out about the need to recruit women into STEM careers, someone of an actually underrepresented population in STEM fields loses hope. Example:
Despite considerable progress over the past two decades, the gap in educational attainment separating underrepresented minorities from whites and Asians remains wide. In general, underrepresented minorities are less likely than whites and Asians to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and earn a college degree. Among underrepresented minorities who do graduate from college, the overall degree patterns are similar to those of whites. Asians are more likely than whites and underrepresented minorities to earn a college degree in a science and engineering (S&E) field. Although whites' share of S&E degrees has declined over the past 2 decades, they continue to earn a majority of degrees in all broad S&E fields.
This example is from the same NSF survey cited above. When I worked for NASA, I worked in a building that was full of white men and women. There were a ton of women (in fact, our lab was 75% women!), but I can't say that I ever interacted with any Black or Hispanic researchers, primary investigators, or division chiefs. When I started working at Stanford, I went weeks until I saw a black person on campus -- not just my building, but on the entire campus. I have other examples, but they all seem redundant. I attended a college where Black students were the majority, yet the halls of the science buildings were mostly white.

If you really want to continue talking about women in science, maybe our attention should be diverted from recruiting and instead, focus on fixing the anti-women culture that surrounds STEM fields. Actually, we shouldn't be recruiting women into fields where a majority of them feel they need to leave because they are repeatedly sexually harassed or verbally discredited. Its not sustainable, and its not safe. We shouldn't have to laugh at things like the #distractinglysexy hashtag. We should laugh because we can laugh at ourselves, not because its an uncomfortable situation that no one really wants to talk about.


b) The above cartoon pissed me off.
When I was a young girl, I played with barbies and cabbage patch dolls. I acted out my ridiculous dreams by "playing Ninja Turtles" with my best friend, a young boy that lived across the street. I was a gymnast and I loved birds. I built furniture while listening to AC/DC with my dad. My favorite color was purple, not pink. As a teen, I found punk rock and would go into mosh pits. I wore men's pants one day and a mini skirt the next. I played water polo on a co-ed team and drew anatomically-correct cadavers in art class. I loved math until I hated it. I helped one of my high school boyfriends work on his '72 chevelle malibu and drove it more than he did. I shaved my legs and armpits, or I didn't. I dyed my hair every color imaginable. I dressed like a pin-up girl sometimes, and other times I'd be mistaken for a man (well, a young man).

I wasn't a stereotypical girl, but to be honest, I don't know many women who ever followed a stereotypical path. Maybe that's because the roles and actions expected of women have changed rapidly with each decade, thanks to our ever growing ability to collectively stand up for the things we don't like. But, really, what does feminine mean anymore? Does it mean pink? Does it mean being a mom? Does it mean working, not working? Does it mean wearing skirts and high heels all the time? Does it mean feeling bad about yourself and your body, or living by the rules of magazines like Cosmopolitan,  or any other magazine that's actually owned and funded by a group of men?

I'm going to have to say I don't actually know, but I do know that my heart didn't always lead me to science. I found it eventually, but I wasn't actively recruited. Science found me. I think that's what really makes me mad about cartoon above, actually. I did like dolls (and no, I never ripped the heads off of any of my barbies), and I also liked to do fun things. I liked to do things that made me feel smart, and challenged what I understood about the world. Science is about exploration, and when you are young, so is playing with dolls! I like science because its gross and beautiful at the same time, which is oddly how being a women makes me feel most of the time. 

The cartoon really makes me mad because I don't see the point in trying to emphasize gender in science. It's an issue if you are harboring an unsafe culture full of harassment, but it shouldn't be an issue when recruiting kids into science. We're hearing about more kids deciding to transition between genders, and who is to say what they'll be interested in doing as adults? No one, because its 2015 and your gender shouldn't define what you can and cannot do.


If we educate girls and boys and everyone in between on an equal level, then people will find their own path. We shouldn't be forcing science, but showing everyone why it is awesome and for everyone. Saying women who aren't stereotypically feminine are better suited for careers in STEM is like saying you have to be quirky, rude, and somewhere "on the spectrum" to be a scientist (like the Big Bang Theory leads many people to believe). Also, can we please talk about other women in science instead of only praising Marie Curie all the time? Yes, she was great, but other women in STEM were/are great too.

I currently work in a lab with two other women. Both of them wear lipstick and dresses all the time. I don't ever, unless its required of me. One of them loves the color pink so much that I ordered her a hot pink ice bucket and tube racks for the lab. She also has a PhD. We both bleach our hair. At NASA, our analytical chemist was (is still) a mom, a runner, and someone who volunteers with her church every weekend. Another chemist at NASA, a researcher with her PhD, looked like a Puerto Rican version of Taylor Swift and ruled everything just the same. Just because I have tattoos, and choose to wear jeans and no makeup every day doesn't mean I'm more or less qualified to be a scientist than any of these other women, or any of the men in STEM fields either.

We all attack our lives differently, and our interests or career choices shouldn't have anything to do with the gender we prefer for ourselves. What should matter is what you bring to the table, or the lab, or the field, or the operating room, or wherever it is that you want to work. Science isn't (always) about putting things in boxes, it's about discovering what makes things unique.

and that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Cat! Scratch! Fever! bowwnownow wowww

Sunset and moon over the Atacama desert (photo by me)

I apologize for missing my June update, but I was traveling through Chile. I have to admit, I didn't know that much about Chile before going there. The famous government coup occurred before I was born, and wasn't "resolved" until I was 4. High school history classes in the US don't really pay any attention to Chile whatsoever.

Lincanbur volcano (left) and desert vegitation (photo by me)


My itinerary centered around the northern regions of Chile, specifically the Atacama desert. The Atacama desert is the driest desert in the world, and is known for its abundance of copper and lapiz lazuli, a rare blue stone that you can really only get in Chile and Afghanistan. The Atacama desert is also a great place for meteorites, because the super dry atmosphere preserves them in their natural "space-state" (scientific term), and the flat neutrally-colored desert make them easy to find.

Valle de la Muerte (photo by me)

Disease-wise, Chile's had pretty excellent luck compared to its neighbors of the South American continent. Of course, after booking my flights, the first thing I did was hit the books (err..internet) to look for diseases in Chile. Its winter there right now, so mosquitoes and other disease-spreading insects aren't really an issue until the warm months return. Actually, the Atacama desert environment isn't all that great for mosquitoes, since it's dry and at a higher altitude than they generally enjoy. Sandflies, on the other hand, are the perfect candidates to spread certain infections.

Lutzomyia genus Sandfly, responsible for transmitting Bartonellosis and Leishmaniasis.

Bartonellosis is an disease caused by Bartonella baciliformis, and has many manifestations. Oroya Fever, also known as Carrión's disease, is mainly found in Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, but with vector migration, movement and spread of the disease is possible. Some travel books about Chile have warnings about Bartonellosis when traveling to the north.

Oroya Fever occurs when B. baciliformis infects endothelial cells and red blood cells. Acute phase (Carrión's disease) occurs when the infection persists in the bloodstream, causing sustained fever, malaise, hepatomegaly, jaundice, lymphadenopathy, splenomegaly, and severe hemolytic anemia. Fatality rates are high, up to 40% of patients, when acute phase infections go untreated. Risks of fatality increases dramatically by the presence of opportunistic infections, specifically by Salmonella species, as a result of transient immunosuppression.

Chronic phase, or "Verruga Peruana" or "Peruvian Warts", is an eruptive phase that occurs when endothelial cells are involved.  In addition to fever, malaise, arthralgias (joint pain), myalgias (muscle pain), lymphadeopathy (lymph node involvement), hepatomegaly (enlarged liver), and splenomegaly (enlarged spleen), patients develop a cutaneus rash produced by a proliferation of endothelial cells.The cutaneous rash involves raised lesions that can rupture and bleed.

 
Illustration of verruga peruana from 1926, via Sci ELO Peru

Verruga peruana on a child

Cat Scratch Disease, also known as "Cat Scratch Fever", on the other hand, occurs worldwide, and is caused by Bartonella henselae. I couldn't help thinking of Ted Nugent while writing this post. I like to think this song is about Bartonellosis.

Cat Scratch Disease is usually spread by fleas and ticks. Cats, being the scrappy beings that they are, can develop an immunity after being exposed at a young age. Dogs present severe symptoms. Humans are susceptible to Cat Scratch Disease infection if they are scratched by an infected cat or bitten by a flea or tick carrying B. henselae. Antibiotics can successful treat Bartonellosis.

Image "borrowed" from Galaxy Diagnostics Webinars



While I was in Chile, I discovered the abundance of stray animals that inhabit every city. It was really shocking and sad, especially to see so many stray dogs in urban cities. Santiago and San Pedro de Atacama had primarily stray dogs, while Valparaiso had some stray dogs and a TON of stray cats (that could have been outdoor pets without collars...but...). This article from last year claims there are initiatives for mass sterilization of stray dogs to help stop the growth of homeless dog populations in Santiago, but there weren't any signs of progress when I visited last week.

That's all I have for you today. Check back in a few weeks for a new update (I'm going to do two for July since I skimped out on my blogging responsibilities in lieu of vacation!).

Valle de la Luna (photo by me)