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 (

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 ( 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)

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

Source: Biorad

Extra links:
What is PCR:

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

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.


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.

(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