Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A sudden urge of inspiration

I have been pretty slack with my blog lately, largely due the science journalism taking up my writing time. I’m about six months into the journalism and so far it has been greatly rewarding and so enjoyable. I have met so many new people and learnt about many disciplines of research and science going on in Western Australia, which I would never have encountered otherwise.
But back to the blog…Over the past couple of weeks my inspiration for my blog has been slowly accumulating so with great gusto I decided to stop beating around the proverbial bush (I’ll throw a shoe at it instead LOL) and just write something to get the ball rolling. So, I hope this is the start I need. Unfortunately an unavoidable hurdle lies in the way which means I won’t be able to write again until the new year. Hopefully this won’t stop the blog-ball rolling and I will be able to come back in 2009 with built-up enthusiasm for science. On that note, I would like to wish all my readers (a grand total of 2, if that LOL) a lovely Christmas and a safe new year.
PS: I have updated my blog roll with a couple of exciting blogs so please check them out.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Launch of National Breast Cancer Foundation campaign turns Australia pink!

To officially launch the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) pink ribbon campaign, cities around Australia have turned their lights on to light up important landmarks. Breast cancer month is inaugurated annually in October to raise funds for research and raise awareness of breast cancer, which can affect 1 in 8 women and also the lives of their families and friends. Each capital city and a few additional cities in Australia will participate by lighting up notable landmarks in pink – the official NBCF campaign colour. Perth will play a part by lighting up several major landmarks including Winthrop hall at the University of Western Australia. As I was driving home today, I caught a magnificent view of Winthrop hall and just had to stop to takes some pictures.

Source: www.globalillumination.org.au

Government-funded research to be made freely available to public

It's about bloody time, i say. I read the following article today (a recommended read) which got me quite excited. In short, Australia is looking to make publicly-funded research findings freely available to all. I think this is a great idea and something that should have been implemented long ago. Some of the reasons as to why research findings should be accessible to all are outlined in this old post.

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/09/25/2374371.htm
For extra information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

New age conference posters

It was brought to my attention today that conferences are now resorting to a new style of conference posters which are printed on cloth! Conventional conference posters are usually printed on thick laminated paper. Posters are then rolled up and carried around awkwardly in poster tubes to conferences whether it be local, national or international. If attending a national or international conference, posters are often too large or bulky to be considered as ‘carry-on luggage’ and have to be thrown in with baggage. Amongst other things, large posters can be difficult to pin up on poster boards, difficult to roll up and a pain to carry around. So, when I was shown a cloth poster today, I was excited to hear about it. The person who presented the cloth poster was also in support of them. He suggested that these posters could be scrunched up and thrown into luggage, or even worn as a scarf. Now you can truly match your attire to your conference poster and integrate fashion and learning at the same time :)

Monday, 25 August 2008

How do you react to faces?

The New York Times recently published an article on the best online psychology tests (initially reviewed by PsychCentral). In an attempt to learn more about myself, I tried all six tests that were recommended and found the 5th one (Faceresearch) to be most interesting and stimulating.

I participated in Faceresearch’s test for ‘facial attractiveness’. This test required the participant to rate which face was more attractive out of two almost-identical faces (which included both men and women). The differences between the two faces were initially hard to pick up on at first glance but did become apparent after studying the faces for a few seconds. While I was doing the test, I noticed that a trend was developing in my selection: I preferred those with a slim face, groomed eyebrows, cheek colouring and non-droopy eyelids. After analysing 40 faces, the feedback according to my selection stated that:

“On average, people preferred the more feminine women 80% of the time and the more feminine men 54% of the time. You preferred feminine women 90% of the time and feminine men 85% of the time.”

Being heterosexual, I have no idea what this means apart from the fact that I find feminine features more attractive in the opposite sex.

Faceresearch has a bunch of other interesting facial reaction tests. I recommend this website if you have some time to spare.

BRIEFING: Japanese scientists ‘crack’ stem cells from wisdom teeth.

Scientists in Japan have been able to extract stem cells from the dental pulp of wisdom teeth of a 10-year old girl. These cells have been tested and have been identified as being similar to embryonically-derived stem cells. This is an advancement in the stem cells field as this method provides a quick and less invasive way to extract these cells and most importantly, there are no ethical concerns.

If wisdom teeth stem cells are able to successfully differentiate into other cells, the tooth fairy might have to give up his/her day job LOL.

Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/2602305/Japanese-scientists-create-stem-cells-from-wisdom-teeth.html

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Put your safety googles on, grab a pipette and don a lab coat

Because it’s that time of year again where the scientists of the land take over to celebrate National Science Week (NSW). Running from 16-24 of August this year, the organisers of NSW have a number of events lined up to inspire the scientist in all of us. Each state is running a number of presentations, shows, seminars and forums for people of all ages and all walks of life. Some of the events include ‘Scinema’ which is a science film festival; ‘shopping trolley science’ which provides interactive science demonstrations at local shopping centres; and various lectures on pseudoscience, plants, bacteria, astronomy and sustainable gardening. There’s plenty more to see and hear during NSW which runs until the end of August.

For more information, visit www.scienceweek.info.au

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Gija Jumulu

Kings Park in Western Australia was gifted a 750 year old Boab tree from the Gija Aboriginals of Australia last week. The Jumulu (meaning ‘Boab’) was transported from the Kimberley region in an overt operation on the back of a large open truck. Settled in its new home at Two Rivers lookout in Kings Park, the tree stands at approximately 14 m in height and just over 2 m in width. Since its arrival, visitors have flocked to view the tree as it protrudes from its enclosure, surrounded by Eucalypts.

Source: http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=595218

Saturday, 26 July 2008

R.I.P Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch, a well-known computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pennsylvania, sadly passed away on July 25th 2008 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Regarded as a prominent scientist in the field of computer science, he was thrust into the public spotlight after delivering an inspirational presentation titled ‘The Last Lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams’, which was delivered to a full house at CMU in September 2007. In his speech he described his childhood ambitions (one which included ‘being Captain Kirk’), the ways in which he achieved them and advised the audience on how to reach their dreams. This humourous yet profound speech, which touched many people around the world, conveyed his positive outlook on life and strong, brave spirit despite his circumstances. His ‘Last Lecture’ speech was released as a book in early 2008.

Below are a couple of quotes delivered in his "Last Lecture" speech:

"The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!"

“Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

- Randy Pausch

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Acacia and the Ant

There are many symbiotic relationships in nature. Some relationships are visible: For example, cleaner fish remove parasites/dead skin from other fish and in doing so, provide a meal for themselves and clean the surface of the other fish. Other relationships are not so visible. One such invisible relationship occurs between the Bullhorn acacia and the ant. The Bullhorn acacia gets its name from the thorn-like structures on its branches, which resemble horns of a male bull. Unlike most acacias, the Bullhorn acacia lacks the bitter alkaloid which would normally protect the tree from attack by insects or grazing livestock. To compensate for the lack of this defence mechanism, the Bullhorn acacia produces protein-lipid nodules (Beltian bodies) which are used as a food source by ants living on the tree. These ants, which are harboured in the thorns of the Acacia, use the protein-lipid nodules to produce and secrete pheromones which are picked up as a deterrent by other insects and grazing animals. Furthermore, the ants are capable of a nasty sting which acts as an additional deterrent.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullhorn_Acacia
(2) Image: Dan L. Perlman (http://pick4.pick.uga.edu/IM/EL_DP/0001/320 /Ant,Bullhorn_Acacia,thorn,Pseudomyrmex,EL_DP162.jpg)

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Look ma, I’m a freelance science journalist!

Well, I don’t know at which point I can call myself this but late last week I scored a job writing articles as a freelance science journalist for an on-line science newsletter. My first article was published on Friday after a hectic but exciting week. My week involved pitching a story, tracking down a voice recorder, attending a seminar to capture the main point of my story, liaising with media officers, conducting an interview, writing the article and then nervously waiting to hear the editor's opinion after submission of the article. I would describe this new experience as an exciting adventure that spiced up what would normally be a relatively mundane week for a laboratory scientist.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Dance like nobody's watching (Warning: Tear-jerking video clip)

Here’s another New York Times (NYT)-inspired blog post. No extra words are needed to describe this article and video (below) which featured in the NYT on July 10th 2008. Please watch the video clip, read the article and then the numerous comments that follow :-)

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Source: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/dance-even-if-nobody-is-watching

Monday, 7 July 2008

JAMA poetry

I have to give credit (and a plug) to the New York Times (NYT) for initiating this blog post. A few days ago I read an article in the NYT (which may I add is one of my favourite publications right now) which brought my attention to the Journal of the American Medical Association’s poetry publications written by patients, researchers and doctors. While perusing the JAMA, the name it is commonly referred to in medical research circles, I realised that the journal does not limit itself to just scientific publications and poetry, it also publishes book and media reviews (of medical relevance) and short literary pieces describing experiences of doctors (in “a piece of my mind”), among other things. In addition, the cover of the journal (journals have covers?....just kidding) features beautiful artworks of prominent and less prominent artists. I guess this is one of pitfalls of having literature that is easily accessible on-line - we never get in touch with the real thing. Anyway, although JAMA is not related to my field of research, i know that I will appreciate this medical journal for being a bit different to most journals I read.
Below I have posted two profound poems from the “poetry and medicine” section of JAMA.

The Suit
When the time comes to donate your clothes
i will leave the gray check suit in your closet for the foreseeable future.
I'm not so foolish to think that you're coming back and will need it again
rather, i want some tangible item other than pictures documents and death certificates glossy flat and thin.
With your suit i am able to
put my hand into its sleeve
roll my arm in the pant leg
puff out the jacket and feel your silken space.
There's something so substantial in its emptiness
that i need now after five months
when the memories are still strong
but your reality is slowly eroding.

- Frank DeCicco MD

Everything is nervous here, vibrating
to the hum of air conditioning.
Outside, the palms are never still.
Inside, palms sweat in high anxiety.
Even the indifferent chameleon
sunning on the hot veranda
blows his red sac as a warning.
On the Gulf a tropical depression
brews a hurricane. Depression
in this place is deeper still,
this space where hopes die,
wishes fail, silent waiting ends
as the next white-coated person
speaks of trying everything.
And the coldness that comes then
makes the heat of anger welcome,
like the coming storm.

- Robert L Jones

(1) The NYT: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/the-poetry-of-cancer
(2) DeCicco F (2008) The Suit. The Journal of the American Medical Association 229(12): 1404
(3) Jones RL (2008) Thermostat. The Journal of the American Medical Association 299(16): 1878
(4) Cover image (2006) The Journal of the American Medical Association 295(9): cover. This cover features a painting by Henri Matisse (1869–1954), La méditation: après le bain (the Meditation: After the Bath), 1920, French. Oil on canvas.

Saturday, 5 July 2008


No, this is not a form of medieval torture nor is it a social/political movement; it is in fact a common medical condition afflicting many people. Bruxism (pronounced brucks-ism) is a physical condition where a person grinds their teeth and clenches their jaw during sleep.

Sufferers of bruxism can often feel the effects of a night of good teeth grinding the following day by presenting with symptoms including headaches, jaw pain, tooth chipping and fractures, and even tooth loss! If symptoms of the condition are not immediate, then overtime-bruxism-sufferers will notice tooth wear. Alternatively some people will not present with any symptoms at all unless the wear and tear is picked up by a dentist. Bruxism sufferers can often be made aware of their suffering by partners and family members as teeth grinding can be forceful and consequently audible.

The cause of bruxism is questionable but it is diagnosed to be a result of a number of ailments including, but not limited to, stress and anxiety, disturbed sleep, sleep disorders, an abnormal bite, large consumption of stimulants (eg. coffee), digestive problems and consumption of drugs/stimulants.

Bruxism is most commonly controlled with the aid of a custom-made splint or mouth guard. This uncomfortable-to-wear guard is made of durable plastic moulded from a sufferer’s teeth/gum impression and stops wear and tear of teeth. Various forms of relaxation (eg. meditation) before bedtime are recommended for sufferers if stress/anxiety is thought to be the cause. Sore mouth/jaw muscles often manifests as a result of teeth grinding so Botox has been proven as a successful form of treatment as it relaxes the muscles in the area and prevents further muscle contraction.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruxism

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Conversations with proteins

Olga Kuchment is a researcher in the Kuriyan laboratory in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology & Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. The Kuriyan laboratory study the mechanism of Src activation at the molecular level. To find out more about the Src proteins, Olga decided to interview the v-Src protein. With Olga’s permission I have posted the transcript of this entertaining and ingenious interview (which i highly recommend reading) as it appears in “The Scientist” (Proteins gone wild, 26th June 2008).

The Src protein helped teach the world about the molecular basis of cancer. The animal Src protein, c-Src, was first discovered because its mutant, v-Src, was spread among chickens by the tumor-causing Rous Sarcoma Virus. Both proteins are tyrosine kinases, cell signaling enzymes that activate other enzymes by moving a phosphate from ATP to a tyrosine amino acid. Animals require c-Src activity for proper bone development and T-cell development and activation, among other things. c-Src is only active when it receives specific cellular signals, but v-Src is less inhibited and much more active.

The two faces of Src (adapted from Young et. al., 2001.)

My lab mates and I here at the University of California, Berkeley, study the mechanism of Src activation at the molecular level. Unable to reach c-Src for this interview, I invited v-Src, a very dynamic molecule, for a drink at our local pub. The protein got a little tipsy, and it was waving its phosphorylated activation loop like mad.

v-Src: You know, I'm the most important molecule in a Rous Sarcoma Virus infected cell. I help cells ignore signals to die, or help them divide uncontrollably and invade healthy tissue.

Kuchment: That is impressive! One type of rogue molecule can cause incredible damage. I know the DNA that codes for you has some mutations, which is why you always misbehave. But what causes the overall genetic instability in the infected cells, making them accumulate more and more mutations in various cell signaling proteins?

v-Src: That's not very interesting. Let's talk about me.

At this point, we were unexpectedly joined by c-Src. Not noticing that v-Src was there, it came directly toward me. c-Src takes extreme care in its appearance; not a single loop was out of place. Its SH2 and SH3 domains were docked neatly behind its kinase domain.

c-Src: Kuchment, I've been looking for you. I am outraged. People have no appreciation for the good work my family and I do. We work toward cell proliferation, differentiation, survival, and when necessary, cell death. All I ever hear is that I'm a target for cancer drug design!

Kuchment: I apprec...

c-Src: The name "Src" is just a throwback to "sarcoma." I have nothing to do with it. For every one of us that gets out of control due to a couple of mutations, there are millions that do their jobs carefully. Just because v-Src was the first to be studied doesn't mean it's representative of all of us!

Kuchment: I agree, and I'm a big fan of your work. I've been studying your regulation for several years, as you know.

A pregnant pause.

c-Src: Thank you, that means a lot. But I can't stress it enough: I am not affiliated with v-Src. At first we were the same, but when the Rous Sarcoma Virus stole a copy of the src gene from a chicken cell, it cut off the tail and made several other mutations. As a result, v-Src is completely unregulated. It phosphorylates its substrates always, without paying attention to signals from proteins like Csk. Oh, v-Src! I didn't see you there.

v-Src: Are you jealous of the way I live? I'm free, and you're just a tool. You live your life in the service of the cell. And you spend most of it sitting around with your tail in your SH2 domain.

c-Src: Leisure is underrated.

v-Src: Your regulatory domains hold you back! Your SH2 is bound to the phospho-tyrosine in your tail, your SH3 is bound to the SH2-kinase domain linker, your kinase domain is inactive, and stuck that way!

c-Src: That's simply because I'm waiting for a signal from someone like a growth factor receptor tyrosine kinase. Once the regulatory domains are bound by the right ligand, they release, then my activation loop is more likely to get phosphorylated so that my kinase domain can become more active. You wouldn't understand.

v-Src: Give me your activation loop! I'll phosphorylate it, and...

c-Src: Sorry, maybe some other time. My activation loop is tied up right now.

v-Src: Then I'm leaving. But I'll get you later!

Kuchment: c-Src, as you know, I've been studying how you move from the inactive state to the active. Could I see it?

c-Src: Ah... No, I really can't stay. I have to catch a vesicle to the cell membrane.

Kuchment: Wait! Let me see! What happens to the SH2 and SH3 domains, how do you move the alphaC-helix in, and what do you do with the activation loop? Oh, darn.

So it went. Maybe the pub wasn't the best place to get serious answers from tyrosine kinases. I decided to finish my drink and go back to the bench.

Source: The Scientist, Proteins gone wild, 26th June 2008

Sunday, 29 June 2008

UWA delivers flexible learning to students by featuring lectures on iTunesU

Various lectures, tutorials and publications from the University of Western Australia (UWA) have now been made available for free downloading on iTunes under the “iTunesU” subsection. This service will enhance the conventional iLecture (Lectopia) service provided by UWA for its students. The service will also cater for UWA students with additional interests and for non-UWA students aswell. Currently, the iTunesU – UWA service provides free educational content to anyone who has access to iTunes and includes modules on self-development, sample lectures in various disciplines and recordings of invited speakers. UWA is the first western Australian university to participate in this initiative following the trends of other Australian universities including the University of Melbourne, Australian National University and Swinburne University of Technology (Melbourne).

Follow the links below in iTunes to reach the UWA - iTunes site:
iTunes store --> iTunesU (located under iTunes STORE in a LHS panel) --> Universities & Colleges (located under Find education providers --> The University of Western Australia (located under the T subheading).


Saturday, 28 June 2008

ENDO 2008

I recently returned from the 2008 ENDO meeting in beautiful San Francisco where I was given the opportunity to present my PhD results to date in a poster presentation. The meeting in its 90th year was held at Moscone Center and attracted over 7000 attendees, which was a record for ENDO. Held over four days the meeting showcased scientific sessions ranging from plenary talks, oral and poster sessions, workshops, conversations with researchers, debates, symposias and the dozens of pharmaceutical/biotechnology sponsorship booths. I was pleasantly surprised as the meeting really did offer something for everyone including presentations which were left of centre eg. Art in endocrinology. Although most presentations were intensely focused there were several which targeted the lay audience and many that were indirectly applicable and crossed-over with my work. The meeting, while attracting a couple of the big names in my field, did not pull in as many experts as I had hoped for. Nevertheless it was a great opportunity to meet with these experts, receive their feedback, establish contact and put a face to a name.
Whilst in San Francisco, I also had a chance to do some sightseeing and discover what the city had to offer. Below are some pictures from my trip (for more pics see my Flickr website).

The Moscone Center, San Francisco, where ENDO 2008 was held.

The relaxation station for ENDO attendees....a necessity for ENDO as the abstract book alone weighed 1.5 kg!(How do i know this? The abstract book tipped my luggage over the 20 kg baggage allowance limit).

My feet being massaged while waiting in line to get my back massaged at the relaxation station.

One of San Francisco's ridiculously steep streets. This one is so steep that the sidewalks had to be made into steps!

One of many beautiful murals in Berkeley.

San Francisco as seen through one of the arched windows of Coit tower. Do you see the Golden Gate bridge in the horizon?

The current political landscape in the USA.

A tram on Market Street in downtown San Francisco.

A rainbow flag flying high and proud over the Castro district in San Francisco. June 17th 2008 marked the first full day that gay and lesbian couples could get married in the state of California. The city will put on the 38th annual gay pride festival parade this weekend (29th June). The theme for Sunday's pride parade is "United by Pride, Bound for Equality".

Thursday, 29 May 2008

ASMR Medical Research Week ®, June 2-8th 2008

The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) Medical Research Week® begins next week. The week long affair will be celebrated in each state with events including scientific symposiums, out-reach programmes, career development days, celebratory dinners and science in the cinema events aimed at targeting primary, secondary and tertiary students and the general public.

For more info, visit http://www.asmr.org.au/MRW.html

Second year blues…no more

June 1st 2008 marks the end of the second year of my PhD and the start of the third year. It felt like yesterday when I was wrote the post which marked the end of my first year (see here). Time has flown by so quickly. Anyway, to keep to “old” traditions, I celebrated (or commiserated) with my fellow lab mates and with the help of a famous Swiss patisserie, once again.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Demonstrating dilemmas

I had an interesting experience whilst demonstrating yesterday. One of the students came up to me at the end of the lab class to get his book signed; below is the dialogue which took place between him and myself:

Student: "What's a cute little thing like you doing in a lab like this?"

Me (gob-smacked): "What was that supposed to mean?"

Student: "Just exactly what i said."

Me (turning beet-red): "Errr...demonstrating...and...err....earning money."


Federal budget outcomes for university students and researchers

The government released the 2008-2009 federal budget yesterday. Below are the outcomes for higher education and research.

Education Investment Fund (EIF)
"The Government will invest $5 billion to establish the EIF. The EIF will absorb and extend the Higher Education Endowment Fund, bringing total funding to around $11 billion. The EIF will fund capital expenditure in Australia's higher education institutions" (1).

(a) Higher education
"To help universities upgrade and maintain teaching, research and other student facilities, the Government will provide $500 million by 30 June 2008. The Government will also spend $626 million to reduce the cost of studying maths and science at university and to reduce HECS HELP repayments for science and maths graduates who undertake work in a related field.
The Higher Education Review, due later this year, will shape the next steps in the Education Revolution for universities"

Full fee-paying places have been scrapped and students will only be accepted into university courses based on merit.

(b) Support for research
"To strengthen the link between research and innovation, the Government will boost Australia's research capacity by providing: $326 million over four years to fund four year Future Fellowships valued at up to $140,000 a year for 1,000 of Australia's top mid career researchers. $209 million over four years to double the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards for PhD or Masters by Research students" (1).

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) is a non-profit body representing Australian post-graduate students. CAPA is the only organisation that advocates issues concerning post-graduate students at the federal level. Since the reign of the new federal government at the end of last year, CAPA has attempted to negotiate many issues relevant to post-graduate students. A few of these include:

1. Stipend award rates and duration of awards - In 2008, CAPA predicted that the stipend payed to those holding APA/UPA scholarships would fall under the poverty line by the end of the year. CAPA has advocated for a 30% increase to stipends in addition to the extension of the duration of the awards to match the four year candidature allowed for post-graduate PhDs.
2. Abolishing voluntary student unionism (VSU).
3. Exemption of tax on part-time scholarships.

Unfortunately, the above items were dismissed in this year’s budget.

(1) http://www.budget.gov.au/2008-09
(2) http://www.capa.edu.au

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Siamese fruit

I came across this Siamese mango today which I thought I would add to my blog for amusement. I call it mango booty ha ha. Check out this subsection of the Museum of Food Anomalies for other conjoined food. My favourite are the loving carrots on page 2. How sweet are they?

Monday, 12 May 2008

The benefits of imagery

The bulk and most significant part of my PhD examines signalling pathways within the cell. Alot of these pathways are complex and intertwined, and the molecules involved often have more than one name, can be a part of more than one pathway and often have more than one purpose. The reason for this post is to reinforce the benefits of imagery to simplify and retain ideas, theories, notions, concepts, whatever, and in my case, signalling pathways. During my readings today, I used Microsoft PowerPoint to construct one complex pathway which I had struggled with for sometime. In the past when I had read about this pathway, I had just read the relationship of the molecules involved, envisioned an image in my head and then put the paper aside. By the following week, I had forgotten what I had read. The PowerPoint image I created today simplified a concept which I had struggled to retain, and put it into an understandable and recallable format. It has been etched into my mind and I believe I would be able to later recall the relationship of these molecules and their appropriate positions in the pathway. The concept of using images or diagrams to remember detail is not new but often overlooked or forgotten. Try it yourself.

PS. The above image is not the signalling pathway i created today but it does resemble the complexities of cellular signalling i have to deal with on a daily basis.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

SURVEY: Perceptions in health and medical research careers

The Australian Society for Medical Research (ASMR) is a body which broadly represents registered health and medical researchers of Australia and also researchers in numerous affiliated associations. ASMR credits itself by acknowledging that it has a role in public, political and scientific advocacy. In late 2006, the ASMR commissioned a workforce survey which aimed to understand and improve the perceptions of researchers (registered ASMR members) in the health and medical field with an emphasis on job satisfaction, workplace conditions, brain drain/gain and the attitudes towards health and medical research in Australia.

The survey targeted 1258 registered ASMR members however only managed to recruit a total of 379 (30%) respondents. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the cohort size especially when it came to factors such as career progress (eg. student or worker), qualifications (eg. honours, PhD or post-doctoral researcher), work place (eg. university or hospital) and field of research but ensured the reader that the cohort was a close representation of a whole population on demographic variables such as sex and age.

The results of the survey were divided into four sections of which I will briefly outline the main findings:

Question 1: To what extent has each of the following factors had an impact on your career over the past 15 years
The top factors which were considered to create a negative impact on careers in health and medical research included the lack of security in employment, general lack of financial support for research and shortness of funding time frames relative to project development needs. Other options, all of which rated as having a negative impact but not as negative as the above three factors (ie. more positive) included inadequate infrastructure for research, time required to prepare grant applications, lack of managerial support and uncertainty about what funding agencies expect.

Question 2: If you have left, or have considered leaving health and medical research, how important in your decision were the following factors
The factors which were considered important to very important with this question included the shortage of funding in health and medical research, lack of career development opportunities, poor financial rewards as a health and medical researcher, shortage of work opportunities in health and medical research and availability of better employment opportunities elsewhere. The two factors which were not considered as important with this question included needing time off due to family responsibilities and the changed nature of health and medical research.

Question 3: To what extent did the following reasons have an impact on your decision to leave health and medical research in Australia to seek health and medical research employment overseas (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The factors which were considered important with this question included broadening your scientific experience, collaborating with other researchers, researching new techniques, access to equipment & physical infrastructure and greater opportunities to do research. Factors which were considered important but not as important as the above mentioned included better project funding, personal interest in living outside Australia and increased quality of working environment.

Question 4: If you have returned to or are planning to return to Australia after working in health and medical research overseas, indicate your agreement with the following statements in terms of their influence on why you have returned or why you will return to Australia (this question was relevant to 165 respondents who indicated that they had worked or were currently working overseas)
The general consensus generated from this question was that in comparison to overseas employment (ie. the country where the respondent had worked or was working), 50% of respondents believed that Australia had fewer career opportunities and fewer university positions. Close to 40% of respondents believed that Australian health and medical researchers were paid less, had lower job security and had less support in comparison to overseas employment.

The results of this survey paints a poor picture of the Australian health and medical research sector but is reflective of workers’ attitudes. The main concerns of Australian health and medical researchers, as seen by this survey, are employment uncertainty and funding security and this is reinforced a number of times throughout this survey. The paper acknowledged the limitations of the study and stated that the issues may be understated because of the survey population. Although this survey only represented a very small proportion of health and medical researchers in Australia, the views and sentiments shared by this cohort, in my opinion, would be accurate if extrapolated to a larger scale. Having been in the medical research field for close to ten years, I have heard similar complaints to the responses this survey has generated and I have even faced similar difficulties myself. Securing funding (which often equates to employment security) is probably the biggest burden for researchers and is becoming increasingly difficult and more competitive as governmental budgets fail to increase proportionally to the number of postgraduate researchers produced by universities, which has increased over the years. Additionally, I believe that the nature of health & medical research has unfortunately created and perpetuated an environment where research is not being thoroughly thought through because everyone is in a mad rush to generate results, publish papers and subsequently secure funding. As a result, a lot of waste is created, money is spent unnecessarily, experiments are left incomplete due to poor design. All these factors could contribute to a loss of funding.
Speaking about a loss of funding, I read a very interesting article today in “The Scientist”, an on-line publication, titled “Losing your lab” (volume 22, issue 5, page 32) which provided examples of people who have had to shut shop and discussed the outcomes they faced and options for those in similar circumstances. In the US, the major governmental funding body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides bridge-funding awards to grant applicants who score well but are unable to secure major grants. This sort of funding is also provided by several US research institutions. This practice allows researchers to continue their post and gives them a second chance at securing funding the following year, and as described by the article, nurtures a scientist and sees them as investments for institutes that are not worth losing. I am not sure whether this practice is prevalent in Australia but it sounds like a great idea.
As to outcomes from this survey, the paper suggests “a review of current policies affecting research careers and health & medical people support in broader terms may be timely if Australia is to retain its reputation for research excellence and leadership”. The paper goes on to say that “the fact that a large proportion of respondents have considered leaving active health & medical research in Australia highlights the need for a coordinated multi-streamed approach to ensure the long-term viability of the sector. Any significant loss of Australia's highly trained health and medical research workforce represents a potential erosion of its intellectual capacity and future preparedness. To maintain Australia's competitive edge, it will be necessary to provide a career path that captures, nurtures and retains talented minds and provides fertile career opportunities” (2).

(1) http://www.asmr.org.au
(2) Kavallaris M, Meachem SJ, Hulett, MD, West CM, Pitt RE, Chesters JJ, Laffan WS, Boreham PR and Khachigian LM (2008). Perceptions in health and medical research careers: the Australian Society for Medical Research Workforce Survey. Medical Journal of Australia. 188 (9). p520-524.
(3) McCook A (2008). Losing your lab. The Scientist. 22(5). p32

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Large Hadron Collider

The large hadron* collider (LHC) is due to begin operation this month in Geneva, Switzerland. Located on the Swiss-French border at the world's largest particle physics laboratory named the European Organization for Nuclear Research (abbreviated to CERN, the out-dated acronym is still used today but initially it stood for European Council for Nuclear Research), the LHC was built in a circular tunnel with a circumference of 27 km and is situated 50-175 m underground. Loosely speaking, the LHC is a particle accelerator or an atom smasher. In layman’s terms, the LHC consists of two beams of particles which travel in opposite directions in a vacuum and are accelerated close to 99.99% of speed of light at high energies. The orbits of these particles are controlled by strong magnetic fields created by 9300 magnets (to be precise) which are cooled to temperatures as low as -271 degrees Celsius. The magnets tightly control the orbits of the particle beams right up to collision which takes place at four places (particle detectors) around the accelerator ring. It is estimated that approximately 600 million collisions will take place every second! The LHC was designed to answer some of the fundamental and unresolved questions in particle physics such as the origin and composition of mass; the composition of dark matter and dark energy; what happened immediately after the big bang; and the existence of other dimensions.

*A hadron is a strongly interacting subatomic particle

(1) http://lhc.web.cern.ch/lhc
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Large_Hadron_Collider
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hadron
(4) http://public.web.cern.ch/public/en/LHC/HowLHC-en.html

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Air Zoo

This story made me smile when I saw it on the news today. No, it’s not your typical New York street trash but a clever idea sparked by fine arts student, Joshua Harris. The creator of Air Zoo, Harris, had the idea of bringing nature back into the city. Normally lying motionless and limp, the constructed garbage bag animals are suddenly injected with life and vigour as air from the underground subway rushes up through street air vents changing the street-scape and giving passers by something light-hearted and entertaining to gaze upon. Once the train has passed, the animals collapse into a random and lifeless heap until the next train is due. His first garbage bag animal creation was a white polar bear (see YouTube video). Only a few days ago, he displayed a 6-foot giraffe. His idea has been received positively by passers-by.


Micro-organisms munching on antibiotics

Recent and alarming news from the world of microbiology is the finding that bacteria are able to utilise antibiotics as their sole carbon source. On top of the pre-existing problem of antibiotic resistance in medicine, this study has been widely publicised and given much hype due to the potential of antibiotic resistance becoming much more prevalent. Although the phenomenon of bacteria thriving on antibiotics has been previously reported in the medical literature, the cases were limited to a small number of micro-organisms and antibiotics. This study is the first of its kind to establish the level of resistance amongst a wide range of micro-organisms.

Methods: The researchers examined 18 different antibiotics ranging from natural, semi-synthetic to synthetic which could target a wide range of bacterial families and included ciprofloxacin, penicillin and kanamycin which are some of the more commonly prescribed antibiotics in medicine. Seventy-five bacterial samples were isolated from 11 diverse soil samples ranging from farm soil (cornfields fertilised with manure from cows fed with antibiotics), urban soil and pristine soil (untouched forest areas). This method ensured that the bacteria were isolated from areas with varying degrees of exposure to human-made antibiotics. More than half of the samples included bacteria from the phylogenetic order of Burkholderiales and Pseudomonadales, both capable of inflicting disease in humans. Two antibiotic concentrations (20 mg/L and 1 g/L) were tested with one concentration (1 g/L) being 50 times greater than standard antibiotic resistance concentrations.

Some of the alarming results: As there was no break-down on which phylogenetic order each of the 75 individual samples came from, the results when examined as a whole showed that 32 of the 75 bacterial samples (42%) were resistant to almost 100% of the antibiotics at 1 g/L and 17 of the 75 bacterial samples (22%) were resistant to over 50% of the antibiotics at 1 g/L. Ciprofloxacin, penicillin and kanamycin at 1 g/L, which get notable mentions for their widespread use in medicine, had 34, 73 and 54 of the 75 bacterial samples, respectively, come up resistant.

The findings of this study are a cause for concern because: (1) the wide range of bacterial families examined are closely related to clinically-relevant bacteria and (2) the antibiotic classes examined are commonly used in medicine and the occurrence of lateral transfer of genes between distantly related bacteria is highly possible which could potentially lead to greater levels of antibiotic resistance. Although disconcerting, these findings remind us of the capabilities of these microscopic organisms that go unnoticed and consequences when antibiotics are misused.

(1) Dantas G. et al. (2008) Bacteria Subsisting on Antibiotics. Science. 320: p100-103.
(2) Leslie M. (2008) Germs Take a Bite Out of Antibiotics. Science. 320: p 33.
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antibiotic_resistance#Resistant_pathogens

For more information:
(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/science/08obmicr.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antibiotic_resistance#Resistant_pathogens

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Acts of God?

Earlier today, I was reading through the ‘terms and conditions’ of a competition I was about to enter and as I skim read through the standard wording I came across the following:

In the case of the intervention of any outside agent or event which naturally changes the result or prevents or hinders its determination, including but not limited to vandalism, power failures, tempests, natural disasters, acts of God, civil unrest, strikes; the Promoter may in its absolute discretion cancel the competition and recommence it from the start on the same conditions.“

I have never come across “acts of God” in the wording for terms and conditions of any competition I have ever entered. Is this a common occurrence? Can this clause be used in the legal system or is this a huge misinterpretation on my part? I'm not an atheist and I don’t mean to offend anyone but I find this unusual and almost comical in this context.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Hello, San Francisco.....Oh, we finally get a chance to meet

I received news today about the acceptance of an abstract I submitted for a conference in San Francisco. I was so delighted to hear this. This will be my first international conference and will hopefully give me the opportunity to meet with many of the experts within my field whose works I have been reading about for the past two years.

Inter-species refloating technique

I heard a heart-warming story today: On Monday, a resident dolphin off Mahia Beach on New Zealand’s North Island helped two beached whales swim back into the sea preventing potential death. Two Pygmy Sperm whales (mother and calf) became stranded on-shore and failed to return to the water after several rescue attempts made by volunteers. Conservation workers believed that the two whales would have been euthanised if it had not been for the efforts of the dolphin. A bottlenose dolphin, named Moko, detected the distress signals from the Pygmy Sperm whales (mother and calf) and intervened after volunteers had tried for an hour to coax the whales back into the water. A volunteer rescuer described the heroic efforts of the dolphin as it pushed its way between the humans and whales and guided the whales through a channel back into the sea. The whales were not seen after the rescue however the dolphin returned to the shore to play with local residents. What a beautiful story.

Just in case you were wondering, Ta Moko which is also known as Moko, is the permanent body and face markings used byindigenous people of New Zealand who are known as Maoris. It was used in the 19th and 20th centuries for several reasons including the display of rank or status; attracting the opposite sex and signifying the transition from childhood to adulthood. Today, Moko is more commonly used to signify Maori cultural identity.

(1) http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=174041
(2) http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?xfile=data/theworld/2008/March/theworld_March509.xml&section=theworld
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C4%81_moko#T.C4.81_moko_Today

Saturday, 8 March 2008

My first demonstrating job

I start my first job demonstrating practicals for undergraduate students next week. Although I have done a bit before, it wasn’t professional and it was only a couple of practicals in a laboratory that I worked in. This will be an on-going thing for the entire semester. I am really excited but also quite nervous.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Pilobolus' symbiotic performance

I only discovered the TED website tonight which i am absolutely loving and have added to my favourites. While browsing TED, i came across this act which i thought was indescribably beautiful. The fluid performance is subject to interpretation but is described by TED as "Pilobolus dance company members Otis Cook and Jennifer Macavinta perform the sensuous duet "Symbiosis". Does it trace the birth of a human relationship, or the co-evolution of a pair of symbiotic species? That's left for you to decide. Gorgeous, organic choreography blurs the boundaries between the two performers, who use the body's own geometry to lift, move and combine".

One of the comments left by a viewer described the performance perfectly as "beautiful physical poetry".


Getting in touch with nature

A recent radio broadcast titled “Greening the psyche” relayed the importance of nature to the mind and covered a number of ideas which I found enlightening. The blurb for the programme read:

Intuitively we sense that nature relaxes us - even small pockets of green in the concrete urban jungle seem to make a difference. But finding good scientific evidence for how and why has been more difficult - until now. Crime rates, academic performance, aggression and even ADHD. Could a bit of greening make all the difference? And, ecology on the couch - a self described 'ecotherapist' with novel techniques.”

The point of this post is to just randomly highlight some of the ideas expressed in the programme. However, I will start with personal experience to attest the idea of greening the psyche. I can understand why people love gardening and its idea of getting in touch with nature literally and metaphorically. The main reason why I stay out of the garden is my ridiculous fear of certain insects, particularly insects which fly without direction and no consideration for the human face. Besides this and my lack of time, I have thoroughly enjoyed the few gardening experiences I have had, which have included weeding, watering and the occasional planting. Each time I have attempted to appreciate the greenness in my yard, I have left feeling grounded, calm and relaxed. Now to another profound experience which shocked me a little by how immediate its effects were. I recently visited a friend’s house; prior to the visit I had been feeling extremely anxious. After roughly ten minutes of being at my friend’s house, I was overcome by a peaceful and once again, relaxed feeling. Apart from the presence of my friend, I would attribute this change in feelings to the in-door water feature in the house. The trickle of the water was loud and soothing, and within minutes, all my anxieties had disappeared and I was able to remain in this state of mind for the whole duration of my visit. These are just two experiences which I am able to reflect back on and would recognise as contributing to “greening my psyche”. Another common scenario or experience where nature has a calming effect on the mind is while watching a sun set or in my case, being within a pseudo-rainforest in the middle of an urban setting (see image).

Now back to the radio programme…The broadcast briefly mentioned the idea of the Biophilia hypothesis, which is something new to me. First introduced by Erich Fromm and made popular by Edward Wilson, Wikipedia describes Biophilia as:

An instinctive bond between humans beings and other living systems.”

Wikipedia goes onto to say:
The term "biophilia" literally means "love of life or living systems." It was first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Wilson uses the term in the same sense when he suggests that biophilia describes "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Unlike phobias, which are the aversions and fears that people have of things in the natural world, philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward certain habitats, activities, and objects in their natural surroundings.”

While researching the Biophilia hypothesis, I discovered the connections between Biophilia and Biomimicracy. Biomimicracy was introduced in 1997 by Janine Benyus who argued that “human beings should consciously emulate nature's genius in their designs”. Many of those who supported the notion of Biophilia also had a strong belief in biomimicracy (including Lynn Margulis, a scientist mentioned in a previous post (Architecture mimicking nature and Gaia) who co-authored a book called “God, Gaia and Biophilia”). Biomimicracy is another newish term to me. Although I had heard of it before I had never taken a keen interest in it. Interestingly, this is exactly what I wrote about in the above mentioned post but I did not realise it had a name! Janine Benyus gives a truly fantastic and inspirational talk on Biomimicracy called "12 sustainable design ideas from nature", which i highly recommend watching (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/18)

Once again to get back to the interview….one of the interviewees on the programme was Frances E. Kuo. Frances supervises a landscape and human health laboratory at the University of Illinois (http://www.lhhl.uiuc.edu/index.htm). The lab’s overall interest is described as “a multidisciplinary research laboratory dedicated to studying the connection between greenery and human health”. Some of the group’s most recent work includes using green activity settings to reduce ADHD symptoms; using view of trees from houses to improve girls’ self-discipline; using trees near houses to boost concentration and coping mechanisms; and residential landscaping to discourage crime, domestic violence and strengthen communities. Their work has been published in peer-reviewed journals showing the positive results of nature on human psyche.

Just to end this post, below are a couple quotes I took away from this programme, which I thought were beautifully described:

Community living rooms - the spaces between buildings”.
- Frances E. Kuo

Nurturing nature gives you something that humanity can’t; helping people feel part of a bigger whole”.
- Ambra Burls, an ecotherapist, who uses nature as co-therapy

(1) “Greening the psyche”, All in the Mind, ABC Radio National (16th February 2008)
(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biophilia
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janine_Benyus

Saturday, 16 February 2008

PCR, when you need to find out who the daddy is...

For all those scientists who struggle with polymerase chain reactions (PCR), this one is for you....



The PCR Song

There was a time when to amplify DNA,
You had to grow tons and tons of tiny cells.

Then along came a guy named Dr. Kary Mullis,
Said you can amplify in vitro just as well.

Just mix your template with a buffer and some primers,
Nucleotides and polymerases, too.

Denaturing, annealing, and extending.
Well it’s amazing what heating and cooling and heating will do.

PCR, when you need to detect mutations.
PCR, when you need to recombine.
PCR, when you need to find out who the daddy is.
PCR, when you need to solve a crime.

(repeat chorus)

The line about finding out who your daddy is cracks me up...lol

Source: Biorad

Extra links:
What is PCR: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymerase_chain_reaction

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Match your attire to your conference poster to help disseminate your research

Yep, according to a 2003 study, if you colour-coordinate with your conference poster, you will attract more viewers. Interested? Then read on.

Two posters, named the study poster and the control poster, with similar presentation topics, were placed adjacently at a poster presentation session at a conference. The colours on the study poster included lavender, navy blue, moss green and cream, which were considered non-clashing in nature. During the time of the actual study, the study poster presenter alternated from wearing a lavender blouse, which matched her poster, to a bright red blouse, which clashed with her poster. Alternatively, the control poster had similar colouring to the study poster but the control poster presenter wore neutral cream attire. During the period of the study, both presenters agreed to maintain their posture, resting hand positions, and control their method of greeting, engaging and conversing with visitors. Both presenters were told not to start a conversation with potential visitors unless they were spoken to first. As a means of reducing the number of variables, both chosen presenters were of the same sex, age, height, race, nationality and had similar hair colour.
The visitors to the posters were monitored every minute by a hidden investigator who was located at a hidden viewing point some distance away. The investigator recorded the number of visitors to each poster. A visitor was defined as “a person looking at the poster or engaged in conversation with the poster presenter.”
The total time of the study was 69 minutes with a total of 39 minutes of that time being allocated to the lavender blouse and 28 minutes to the red blouse (Note: This discrepancy in time was due to a delayed poster session start time and the researchers not knowing how long the session would last). Two minutes was allocated to the study presenter to change blouses during which no visitors conveniently visited the posters.

During the lavender blouse period, the investigator recorded 1.74 visitors per minute to the study poster and 1.03 visitors per minute to the control poster. During the red blouse period, the investigator recorded 1.14 visitors per minute to the study poster and 2.54 visitors per minute to the control poster. These results were reported to be statistically significant.
Interestingly, the researchers report that 5 visitors were overheard saying the presenter’s red blouse did not match her poster.

The authors of the paper conclude by saying “visitation cannot be ensured simply by having the presenter wear attire that is colour-coordinated with the poster. However, the significance of our results suggests that colour coordination between the poster and the presenter’s attire may substantially increase the popularity of the poster and the likelihood that the research will be disseminated.”

(1) Keegan DA and Bannister SL (2003). Effect of colour coordination of attire with poster presentation on poster popularity. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 169 (12): 1291-2

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Just a reminder ...

Today I was reminded about the joys of being a researcher in the field of science and working in a lab. The practical aspect of science is the main attraction for myself and for most who are drawn to laboratory-based research. Today I was able to demonstrate the interaction of one protein isoform I am working with, with another protein. I work with two proteins which I will call A and B. Interestingly, protein B has two isoforms (call them B1 and B2). Isoforms come about when there is variation in a protein eg. A natural change in an amino acid at one particular location in a protein can lead to a different protein isoform, however most of the time the resulting protein isoform functions in the same way as the original protein. So, last year I successfully demonstrated the interaction of protein A with protein B1 (It's times like these that make it all worth-while) and today I demonstrated the interaction of protein A with protein B2. Voila! This interaction is crucial for my work and if it didn’t occur then there would be no point continuing with my research. Anyway, the point I wanted to make with this post was to say that I love the fact that when I am in the lab, I feel like a child at play. I can try one experiment and be terribly unsuccessful but then from my readings, observations and general experimentations, I can adjust one thing and get a fabulous result, like today. During my time in research and my PhD candidature, I have learnt some valuable things which I have applied to my practical work. These include: (1) not believing everything I hear; (2) questioning everything; and (3) breaking the rules (just like life in general, I guess). Before I started the above experiment, I was told that it would most likely not work but I questioned that and went ahead with my own gut feeling and consequently I got a great result. This result is extremely inspiring and encouraging, especially at this stage of my PhD.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Copyright and on-line blogging

As a follow-up to one of my previous posts regarding on-line blogging (The ethics of on-line blogging), I contacted a copyright officer to find out what my copyright rights were. I explained my situation and the officer provided me with the provisions which my situation would most likely fall under. According to the Australian copyright act, an individual has available several provisions under “fair dealing” that enable them to make limited use of copyright material. I initially thought my blog would be covered under the provisions of “research and study”, however I was told that this was incorrect as this provision would only be applicable to educational institutions and its affiliates and not a student’s personal interests or study. Under fair dealings of the copyright act, my blog falls under “criticism and review”. Providing that my work is genuine criticism or review of another’s work, I am able to reproduce a reasonable amount of the copyright work for the purpose of criticism and review. This particular act doesn’t define a finite amount as to what is reasonable provided the user is mindful of achieving the desired purpose with minimal amount of reproduction as possible. The copyright officer advised me to approach the reproduction or republication aspect as economically as possible or to consider linking to the full work if this was an option, and finally to fully reference any copyright works.
Finally, one thing to note is that each situation or circumstance is different and the above is just a summary of the criticism and review section of the fair dealings provisions. Copyright is more complicated than imagined and each provision comes with an extensive guide that should be addressed should a matter be taken before the courts.
For more information, visit www.copyright.org.au

Source: personal communication

Labor boosts first round offers for health and medical research funding

The incumbent government has injected $124 million into the first round offers for health and medical research funding for 2008. This is an increase of $60 million from the previous Liberal government’s 2007 first round offers, this time last year. The priority areas for 2008 have been high-lighted as cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. This funding is in addition to the $370 million that will be provided to Australian universities to double the number of undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships and the provision of 1000 mid-career research fellowships.
It will be interesting to see how much will be offered by Labor in the second round of funding in September. The previous government generously provided $560 million for the second round of offers in September 2007 which was most likely a pre-election tactic.

Source: www.nhmrc.gov.au

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Plants conveying emotions

A friend of mine recently posted a remarkable picture in his blog (The Magical Mundane) which sparked a number of thoughts and questions in my head. Of the many questions I had, a recurring one was whether plants/trees had emotions. It seemed like the image of this beautiful tree in my friend’s blog was able to convey emotions and feelings. I decided to look into this out of my own interest and also because I was once told of an interesting experiment in which a plant detected distress and subsequently reacted in a negative manner.

The first record of the plant emotion/perception phenomena dates back to the middle of the 19th century when German scientist, Dr. Gustav Theodor Fechner, initially proposed the idea. Shortly after, the first experiments were conducted by one of India’s great scientists, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose. Bose used his own invention of a crescograph (which detects the growth of plants by magnifications of up to 10,000 times) to show that plants responded to various stimuli (eg. tin, chloroform) by slowing down and even halting their own growth. Bose even took to razoring and stabbing parts of plants with sharp instruments which resulted in the plants reacting negatively and subsequently dying. Bose, who also invented the resonant cardiograph, recorded pulsations within living organisms using this contraption. He demonstrated that both plants and animals responded similarly on a resonant cardiograph when subjected to various stimuli. As a result of what he witnessed, he said that “everything in man had been foreshadowed in the plant”, and proposed “experimentation on vegetation would contribute to the lessening of animal and human suffering”. Additionally, Bose came up with the idea that plants possessed a circulatory system where their sap represented the blood of animals (2).
In the 20th century, American scientist, Cleve Backster, justified the use of a lie detector test (polygraph) for use on plants stating that polygraphs measured electrical resistance and water had the ability to change electrical resistance in leaves. Backster recorded the polygraph readings of plants to be initially similar to that of humans subjected to a polygraph test. Subsequently, in one unplanned incident, Backster burnt a leaf of one plant which caused a peak in the tracing patterns of another plant that was connected to a polygraph. Backster claimed that this action somehow “inspired fear” in the other plant. Whilst being ridiculed by the scientific community, Backster continued to perform additional experiments still believing the notion of plants and trees being able to experience emotions.
Several years later, Horowitz et al. (1975) published an article in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, as a follow-up of Backster’s earlier work involving brine-shrimp and plants. Their experiments involved repeating Backster’s brine-shrimp-water boiling experiment but with greater accuracy. The aim was to determine whether there was any communication between plants and animals. The researchers measured electrical activity using a polygraph from the leaves of a Philodendron plant while injecting micropipettes filled with live brine-shrimp (or distilled water as a negative control) into boiling water. The results of their experiment revealed no such evidence of perception in plants (3).

There have been a couple of publications since the work of Horowitz et al. which have considered the effect of external stimuli on plants and have delved into the molecular mechanisms of plants and plant signalling. These publications, whilst being scientifically-accepted, do not look to answer the question of plants expressing emotions.

An interesting publication which I came across while looking at the topic of emotions in plants was one I couldn’t avoid mentioning is this post: an experiment was peformed whereby Viagra was added to a vase of flowers. The researcher was interested in determining whether Viagra would increase the shelf-life of flowers in a vase. She treated flowers with 1 mg of Viagra dissolved in water (50 times less than the amount required to treat erectile dysfunction in men) and found the flowers lasted a week longer than a control bunch. This paper states that Viagra had also been tested on strawberries, legumes, roses, carnation, brocolli and other perishables (4). From my experience, adding sugar helps…to the flowers that is.

Since the above studies, there have been experiments performed to decipher plant emotions. However as there is no objective method to meaure plant emotions, these works cannot be peer-reviewed and consequently fall into the basket of pseudo-science. In spite of this, amongst the community of people who regard plant emotions as a fallacy, there is a community of people who believe otherwise i.e. giving plants or trees nurture, attention and care is of benefit and encourages their growth. Personally, I don’t believe that peer-review is the be-all and end-all of science. I do practise my science ethically when I am in the lab but I think its fine to be open to new ideas. As this type of science is subjective, I don’t think it precludes the observations and results of its forefathers as being untrue.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_perception_(paranormal)
(2) Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda (1946)
(3) Horowitz KA, Lewis DC and Gasteiger EL (1975). Plant “Primary Perception”: Electrophysiological Unresponsiveness to Brine Shrimp Killing. Science 189: 478-480
(4) Siegel-Itzkovich J (1999). Viagra makes flowers stand up straight. BMJ 319: 274

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Questions for Dr. Karl, part II

I was listening to “Science on Mornings” a few days ago when a listener called in and asked just the question which had been lingering in my mind on and off for a few months now. The caller inquired about a grey hair he found on his head which was his natural colour for 2 cm from the root upwards but was grey from the 2 cm mark til’ the end of the hair i.e. his grey hair had reverted to his natural colour. The reason why I was inquisitive about this was because I have also noticed this phenomenon with a couple of my natural grey highlights. Dr. Karl was unable to answer this question scientifically. He basically said that the part of the hair-making factory responsible for hair colour had switched back on after being dormant. He wasn’t sure what could have been responsible for this reversion. Well, from my own short experience with my grey highlights, I would like to put forward the findings and reasoning of an experiment which I have conducted on myself. Coming from an Asian background, I have been encouraged to apply oil and massage my scalp daily to improve the strength and condition of my hair. I had never done this regularly due to its impracticality, until just recently. For the last few of months I have been giving myself regular head massages sans oil, and this is when I noticed my own hair colour reversion! In my case, this has occurred with not just one hair but with three! Another interesting story my mother once shared with me was about an older family friend. This older friend had the habit of massaging just the one part of her head while watching TV. When this friend passed away, the one part of her head which endured regular massaging remained its natural colour whilst the rest of her head was fully grey. The most obvious and simple reasoning for the second and third case above is the combination of mechanical stimulation of the scalp and/or increased blood flow to the head (as a consequence of the stimulation), re-activating and maintaining, respectively, the melanin-producing cells (melanocytes). With the “Science on Mornings” caller, we will never know.

Edit: A friend posed this question just shortly after i posted this particular post: "I wonder what is the difference between hairs that permanently die and become grey and those that momentarily change??" To which i replied: "I think the hairs that permanantly "die" become really white and change compostion ie. become coarse and wirey. But the rest of them which are slightly grey/less black and not as coarse could be the ones that could have the potential to revert. This is all speculation, of course".

Thursday, 24 January 2008

The ethics of on-line blogging

In my recent readings I came across an article which mentioned the existence of a science blogging conference. This year’s blogging conference was held in North Carolina, USA (aptly named the “2008 North Carolina science blogging conference”). It was held over a full day and addressed important issues including publications on the internet, science blogging ethics, science journalism (which is something I am interested in and have blogged about in a previous post titled "Science communication"), gender and race in science, teaching science online and other science-cyberspace issues. I just wanted to bring this to attention because I think the idea of a blogging conference, particularly a science one, would be highly beneficial for bloggers of all kinds. With the emergence of the internet as today’s most preferred forum to disseminate information and opinions, there are always important things to consider and new ideas to be learned especially when blogging. For instance, when I posted about “Science communication”, I was unsure whether I was allowed to describe the article from “New Scientist” magazine, which I used as a catalyst for the "Science communication" post. I contacted “New Scientist” magazine regarding this but I did not receive a reply from them. In my defence, I clearly quoted the article name, publication date and the name of the magazine. I have also described articles from the on-line publication, “The Scientist”, who promptly informed me of their rules about using their articles, which I have abided by. In April 2007, an interesting story came to air about science blogger Shelley Batts, in the USA, who blogged the findings of a peer-reviewed journal article on the health benefits of fruit in alcoholic cocktails (Antioxidants in berries increased by ethanol (but are daiquiris healthy?). Shortly after posting the findings in which Shelley reported on the experimental results and added a chart and a graph from the manuscript, she was threatened with legal action from the publishers of the journal. The publishers claimed that she had breached copyright laws. This saga went on for a while during which she wrote about her experience in her blog and published the correspondence between herself and the publishers. Shelley was eventually exonerated resulting in an apology which was issued from the journal’s publishers, and was allowed to publish the experimental results as she had done initially. In the US, each university has an established agreement with journals and depending on who you are (ie. a student, academic, etc) you have to comply with their “fair use” principle. This includes academic bloggers. I am not entirely sure what copyright agreements Australian universities have with journals when it comes to publishing on-line. According to the “Research and Study” sub-section of the Australian copyright act, material taken from a website must abide by the website’s copyright rules or permission must be granted from the website. This act however does not mention anything about on-line blogging publications. I’m not sure whether personal blogging falls under research and study. However, it is something I will follow up on. Below is the definition from the Australian Copyright website as to what constitutes the definition of research and study:

In one case, the Court said that “research” and “study” in the Copyright Act have the same meaning as in the Macquarie dictionary. Thus “research” means:
“diligent and systematic enquiry or investigation into a subject in order to discover facts or principles...”and “study” includes:
“(1.) The application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge, as by reading, investigation, or reflection; (2.) the cultivation of a particular branch of learning, science, or art:...(3.) a particular course of effort to acquire knowledge...(5.) a thorough examination and analysis of a particular subject...”
You do not need to be enrolled in a course – you could be researching or studying something for yourself.

Taken from http://www.copyright.org.au/

Aside from the ethics, those interested in hardcore science blogs should visit http://scienceblogs.com/ which boasts great science blogs in various disciplines from physical sciences, humanities, politics, medicine and technology. I frequent some of these blogs, which initially inspired me to start my own science blog and continue to inspire me to work on it.