Saturday, 13 June 2009

Questions for Dr Karl, part IV

Our bodies are composed of a large amount of water and each day we are required to replace the water that is lost to maintain healthy bodily function. We consume water in drinking and eating, and lose water in urinating, sweating and breathing. If we are to sufficiently replace lost water, why is that we excrete so much of it, apart from the reason of removing toxins from the body. Here is an example: If you drink a large quantity of water in one go, most (if not all) will be excreted in urine soon after. If water was so vital for the body, wouldn’t the body have developed a way to harbour the excess water or even utilise it rather than excrete it at once. I know for a fact that I don’t drink enough water and as a result my body is dehydrated. If I drink a large volume of water, most of it is excreted in urine. Why isn’t my body designed to use that water even though I know that I am often dehydrated? Is that part of the imperfection of the human body?

The light at the end of the tunnel….

Two weeks ago (1st June) was the third anniversary of me starting my PhD. For the past two years, I have blogged (here and here), about my PhD and its progress (sort of) at each anniversary and have even celebrated by bringing in cake to share with my lab mates. Sadly, this third anniversary may be the last I will ever celebrate if things go according to plan. I should be happy because it means that my PhD will soon be complete and I will enter a new period of my life and not have the burden of lab work/thesis writing or ‘feelings of guilt for not being in the lab or not reading a manuscript’ hanging over my shoulder. A few weeks ago I prepared an application to extend my candidature and scholarship for another six months. Part of this application required a detailed ‘time line’ of my plans for the extra six months of time and funding I was asking for. In it I had to state what I was doing month-by-month until the end of the year and this included submitting my thesis in early January 2010. The main reason I feel a little sadness over completing is because, unlike most PhD students, I have enjoyed every step of my PhD. I immersed myself in university life as much as I could and feel I have received as much back as a result. Thankfully, I haven’t encountered too many obstacles from my PhD and this also has contributed to an enjoyable candidature. Anyway, I won’t go into detail about my candidature but my point is, the time during my PhD has been the best few years of my life – academically, socially, personally. And to think that these enjoyable years are now coming to an end is a little sad. On a happy note, I’m so not going according to that timeline I prepared so this PhD thing may go on a little longer than proposed.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

When three is a crowd….

I’ve often heard the term ‘a third nipple’ but I've never looked into it until today. Whilst preparing for a demonstrating session about mammary glands, I came across the term ‘polymastia’ and ‘polythelia’, otherwise known as an extra breast and an extra nipple, respectively. Immediately intrigued by this, I googled it and found images of these breasts and nipples. One particular case that caught my attention was a breast and nipple on the sole of a woman’s foot! A 22-year old woman sought medical attention for a lesion which she had on her left foot since birth (see picture below). The lesion was identified as a pseudomamma: incomplete breast tissue and a nipple. Further histological examination (examining tissue under a microscope) of the lesion confirmed the diagnosis as class 5 pseudomamma based on the Kajava classification system. The presence of fat, a nipple, an areola, and the absence of glandular tissue classified the lesion as a pseudomamma. This was the first known diagnosis of a pseudomamma on the sole of a foot. The patient eventually had the pseudomamma removed.
Pseudomamma on the foot

In further readings, I discovered that the phenomenon of extra breast tissue (either nipple or breast) was a lot more common than thought. Approximately 1-5% of the population present with this, although it occurs more commonly on the back, shoulders, face (yikes!) and thighs. Additionally, I discovered that extra breast tissue, when containing glandular tissue, is susceptible to diseases of normal breasts (cancer) and even monthly cyclical alterations of breasts induced by hormones ie. swelling, pain and sometimes even milk secretion. Fortunatley for the woman in this case, her pseudomamma was asymptomatic (ie. showing no symptoms). Imagine having to walk on a breast at certain times of the month. Ouch!

(1) Conde DM, Kashimoto E, Torresan RZ and Alvarenga M (2006) Pseudomamma on the foot: An unusual presentation of supernumerary breast tissue. Dermatology Journal Online. 12(4).
(3) Fleurs des Champs image: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 8 May 2009

Questions for Dr. Karl, part III

I was listening to a radio interview a few nights ago where the interviewer was interviewing a blind person whose sight had slowly deteriorated over-time through his life, eventually leaving him fully blind. I found the interview fascinating as the interviewee was describing many facets of life for the blind which i had not previously thought about. Soon after i found myself wondering what blind people see in their dreams. If you are blind from birth, what do you dream? Will you see images, pictures, colours, etc. If you lose your sight later on in life, will you continue to see images in your dreams as had done before you lost your sight? Or will your dreams eventually become similar to someone who has been blind from birth?

Monday, 6 April 2009

Fashionably scientific

For the hard-core fashionable scientists out there, this one is for you....

Science T-shirts
Made with molecules

I absolutely love it!

The benefits of hugging

What prompted me to write this blog post was a small article I read in the paper on the weekend about an artist named Keeta Dean Dixon who designed an interactive piece called ‘The Hug Wall’. Attached to long fleece gloves is a wall made from stretch of tarp. The movable gloves allow the ‘hugger’ to extend their arms through the wall and hug a ‘hugee’ without any skin-to-skin contact and visual identification. This ideas has apparently been well-received.

So if you didn’t know it already, human touch is essential for development and growth in babies and young children. Human touch is also beneficial in adults. Touching can take various forms but the form I will write about today is the act of hugging. A hug can indicate love and affection towards another or it can be a physical way of expressing support. A 2005 study examined the effects of ‘warm contact*’ on individuals in relationships by assessing their levels of cortisol (a ‘stress’ hormone), sympathetic activity by measuring norepinephrine (another ‘stress’ hormone), oxytocin (a feel-good hormone) and blood pressure both before and after ‘warm contact’. The results of the study found that levels of oxytocin were increased in both men and women after the period of partner support (ie. warm contact) compared to levels measured prior to partner support. Interestingly, results showed that only women presented a link between greater levels of oxytocin and lower levels of sympathetic activity and blood pressure suggesting warm contact/partner support was cardio-protective for women.
So there you have it girls. I’m sure you knew that a hug made you feel better but now you can be assured that it decreases your chances of acquiring heart disease at the same time.

*‘Warm contact’ was defined by couples sitting close together in a love-seat which was followed by couples talking about their closeness, watching a romantic video seen previously (non-pornographic) and finally concluded with a lingering hug.

(1) Grewen KM, Girdler SS, Amico J and Light KC (2005) Effects of partner support on resting oxytocin, cortisol, norepinephrine, and blood pressure before and after warm partner contact. Psychosomatic Medicine. 67. p.531-538.
(2) Image:

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Suprising wild animal instincts

Earlier this year, the state of Victoria in Australia was ravaged by several bush fires. The devastation caused by the bush fires was described as Australia's worst natural disaster. Up to 300 lives were lost and 5000 people were displaced from their homes. In addition to the toll on human lives, thousands of animals were injured and even perished from the infernos. In amongst the chaos, which last for many weeks, several stories of bravery, survival and courage came forth including this heart-warming story about the Australian fire-fighter who gave a wild koala a drink from a bottle of water. This story made headlines around the world and video footage was taken during this moment.

Edit: It seems that the Koala, affectionately known as Sam, has attracted alot of popularity since her debut (

Video: Youtube

Another recent incidence of 'suprising wild animals instincts' came from Borneo in Malaysia. A mother organutan and her baby were reportedly stranded on a tree for several days trying to escape from a flood. Since orangutans are known to be afraid of water, it came as a shock to rescuers when they threw her a rope in an effort to pull her to through the water onto land. The mother reached for the rope and held onto it as she was pulled across ensuring that her and her baby's head remained above water.


These two examples of survival instincts shows the display of intelligence by wild animals which are often over-looked or underestimated by humans. It also shows the level of trust offered by animals in times of desperation especially when a baby is involved.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Check me out…..

I just wanted to indulge in a little bit of self-promotion of my new blog. Welcome to my so-called “right brain”.

Interesting architecture

A friend of mine sent me an email today with the subject 'The top 40 unusual buildings'. Unusual and amazing they were. I have displayed two of my favourite amazing feats of architecture.

The first is a building is in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, USA. This building houses a science amusement centre and is named ‘WonderWorks’.


The second building is called ‘Stone house’ in Guimares, Portugal. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any literature on this house.


Sunday, 8 February 2009

Facebook for dogs

The other day, I came across an Australian Facebook-like site for dogs named DogBook. Although various pet applications exist within Facebook - the popular human social networking site, where a Facebook user can add a pet application - this website is the only site where you have to register independently of your Facebook account. How cute is that?

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Scientists identify the molecule responsible for the wrinkly Shar-pei

As cute as they look, Chinese Shar-pei dogs are afflicted with a potentially dangerous skin disorder which causes mild to severe wrinkling and thickening of the skin. Severe wrinkling can lead to bacterial infection in the skin and entropion (the inward folding of eyelids which can cause eyelashes to rub against the cornea). Scientists recently identified the molecule primarily responsible for this skin condition and its cause. The technical term for this type of skin wrinkling is cutaneous mucinosis, where cutaneous refers to the skin and mucinosis refers to deposits of mucin in the skin. Mucin is a clear jelly-like substance and the main component of mucin is hyaluronic acid (yes, the dermal filler). The researchers hypothesised that the accumulation of hyaluronic acid in the dermis caused mucinosis in the Shar-pei. By examining the correlation between mucinosis and the levels of blood hyaluronic acid, the researchers identified that the accumulation of hyaluronic acid was responsible for the mucinosis. The results of the study showed a strong and clear correlation between the severity of mucinosis and levels of blood hyaluronic acid ie. dogs with greater wrinkling had higher levels of hyaluronic acid in their blood.

(1) Zanna G, Fondevila D, Bardagi M, Docampo MJ, Bassols A and Ferrer L (2008) Cutaneous mucinosis in shar-pei dogs is due to hyaluronic acid deposition and is associated with high levels of hyaluronic acid in serum. Veterinary Dermatology. 19. p.314-318.
(3) Image: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s look to the stars

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). Celebrations in Australia were officially launched today by Australia’s chief scientist, Professor Penny Sackett. Australia will play a part in the IYA by raising awareness about astronomy and promoting the science. There will many events held throughout the year where the general public can get involved.

For more information, visit:
The Australian IYA site -
The International IYA site -

(2) Image: International Astronomical Union (

Friday, 23 January 2009

Attention contact lens wearers!

Have you ever wondered how your contact lens (CL) solution rates in anti-bacterial effectivity when compared to other CL solutions? Or whether the silver impregnation of a CL case enhances the anti-bacterial effectivity of the case? If you have then read on...
All CL wearers are vulnerable to contaminating bacteria regardless of rigorous CL cleaning practices. To minimise the time and tediousness of cleaning CLs, manufacturers of CL solutions have experimented with the ingredients of their solutions and other factors such as composition of CL cases, cleaning techniques and time required to soak CLs in CL solutions. A 2008 study examined the killing effectivity of three multi-purpose CL solutions, and the effectivity of silver impregnations in CL cases. Details of solutions used in this study were given, including their shelf name, manufacturer and active ingredients. However, to make this blog-post non-discriminatory against the different CL solutions on the market, and as you can never be fully certain whether published studies testing products from pharmaceutical companies provide unbiased results, I decided to re-name the CL solutions but include their respective active ingredients. This way you can check to see whether the CL solution you use contains the important active ingredients.

Three different CL solutions (see table below) were tested for their anti-bacterial effectivity. Biofilms (a layer of bacteria which forms on the surface of an object) of bacteria* were grown on CL cases and incubated with each CL solution and 0.9% sodium chloride (a control). Similarly, planktonic bacteria* (bacteria floating freely in solution) were tested by suspending the bacteria in each CL solution. The killing effectivity of both types of bacterial forms were tested. Additionally, the numbers of live and dead bacteria transmitted from CL solution to lens were measured using both bacterial counts and microscopy (fluorescence). The effectivity of silver impregnated CL cases was also tested.

Summary of results: The results showed that:
(1) Solution A had the highest killing effectivity for both biofilm and planktonic bacteria.

(2) The silver impregnation of CL cases with added CL solution increased the killing effectivity of one type of bacteria (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) but not the other.

(3) Solution A transmitted the lowest number of bacteria from solution to CL and silver impregnation of the CL case did not make any difference when solution A was used.

Conclusions: Solution A has the most effective anti-bacterial effectivity as seen in this study. Silver impregnation of CL cases is useful in enhancing anti-bacterial effectivity but is redundant if solution A is used. According to the paper, other researchers have found opposing results however these studies were not carried out in “real-life” conditions ie. other studies carried out their incubations of CLs in CL solution for 7 days as opposed to over-night which is more realistic of a CL wearer.

* Bacteria tested include Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

(1) Vermeltfoort PBJ, Hooymans JMM, Busscher HJ and Van der mei HC (2008) Bacterial transmission from lens storage cases to contact lenses - Effects of lens care solutions and silver impregnation of cases. Journal of Biomedical Materials Research part B 87(1) p.237-243.
(2) Image: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 16 January 2009

Nature pooh-poohs?

Readers, did you know that 'pooh-pooh' was a legitimate word? I didn’t, and was completely shocked to read the word nonchalantly used (see below) in an article (Squint of the fossil flatfish) in the prominent science journal ‘Nature’.

"On occasion, this property has been pooh-poohed, even by palaeontologists who have considered that fossils can help in refining relationships already inferred from living species, but tell us little about the process of evolutionary character transformation."

Sure, I was aware of the term ‘poo-poo’ meaning faeces but not ‘pooh-pooh’?!?! When did pooh-pooh become a word? The definition of ‘pooh-pooh’ is ‘to express disdain or contempt for’ or ‘dismiss lightly’.

Can anyone empathise with me? Please let me know whether you knew 'pooh-pooh' was a word by participating in the poll on the RHS panel near the top of the page.

(1) Janvier P (2008) Squint of the fossil flatfish. Nature. 454. p169-170.
(3) Image:

Seeing ‘eye-to-eye’

The flatfish (namely the sole, plaice and halibut), named for the shape of its body, is a remarkable fish I only recently heard about. What is so interesting about this creature is that the young flatfish starts off ‘normal’ with its eyes placed on both sides of its body (think of a typical looking fish) and a symmetrical skull. But, as the fish rapidly develops into an adult, one eye migrates from one side of its body close to the other eye and the skull becomes asymmetrical! At this point, the body of the flatfish remains the same but both eyes are on one side – named the ‘eyed’ side, as opposed to the ‘blind’ side. For a long time, evolutionary biologists speculated the origin and asymmetrical nature of the flatfish but with no conclusive evidence. Some biologists proposed the asymmetrical flatfish arose through natural section whilst others proposed the fish arose through evolutionary leaps - a process known as 'saltation'. However in 2008, Dr Matt Friedman became the first scientist to provide the most conclusive evidence of the origin of the asymmetrical nature of the flatfish. Dr Friedman was given permission to study 45 million year-old fish fossils using computer tomography imaging which lead to the finding of an ‘intermediate’ fish which had an eye on either side of its body but with an asymmetrical skull. This was the ‘intermediate’ fish which all evolutionary biologists had been looking for. Interestingly, one eye of this intermediate fish was found to be normal whilst the other eye was a squinting eye.
A good image of a flatfish can be found here. An explanation for the migration of the flatfish eye (from an evolutionary point-of-view) is presented by Richard Dawkins in the YouTube clip here.

(1) Janvier P (2008) Squint of the fossil flatfish. Nature. 454. p169-170.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Male face preferences during the menstural cycle

Oooh la la, Tyson Beckford - I must be in the follicular phase of my menstrual cycle :) Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Hormones - chemicals released by the endocrine organs in our body - are important molecules which have control over many of our bodily functions. It has been known for sometime that a woman’s preference for male traits (including but not limited to facial features, depth of the voice, behaviour, height, odour and body shape) changes according to the different phases in her menstrual cycle. Hormonal influence is one of many factors that is able to dictate a woman's preference for a male during a particular phase of her menstrual cycle. Several studies since the late 1990s up until now have examined the relationship between timing during the menstrual cycle and male trait preferences, with all studies having small variations in research method. I thought I would closely examine and summarise the findings of one of the early studies that looked at the relationship between the menstrual cycle and male face preference. This particular study employed Japanese women who had regular menstrual cycles and were not on the pill. The women were asked to select computer generated-faces which they considered physically attractive. The faces were a mix of five Caucasian and five Japanese men. The findings of this study strongly indicated that the women preferred male faces that were more masculine in the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle – the phase prior to ovulation/end of menses which allows the greatest chance of conception. During the luteal phase (post-ovulation, pre-menses), the women preferred men with feminised male faces. The reasoning behind this preference is as follows….Women prefer masculine facial features during the follicular phase because masculinity is supposedly thought of as an indicator of high quality males (although this relationship is controversial). During the follicular phase, a woman wants a “masculine” man – one with a strong immune system, one that is able to provide quality children and one that is able to confer resistance to disease. During the luteal phase, women prefer feminised male features which is thought to be an indicator of a man’s potential investment as a long-term partner ie. a man with a feminine face supposedly indicates cooperation in parental care and one that is unlikely to cheat.

Other studies examining the relationship between the menstrual cycle and male traits have reported vocal masculinity, dominant behaviour, taller men, facial symmetry, masculine body shapes as preferable during the follicular phase.

This may explain my preference for more feminised male features in an on-line experiment I participated in last year. After taking the test, I came up preferring feminised male faces. I may have been in the luteal phase of my menstrual cycle.

Reference: Penton-Voak IS, Perrett DI, Castles DL, Kobayashi T, Burt DM, Murray LK and Minamisawa R (1999) Menstrual cycle alters face preference. Nature 399 p. 741-742.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

12 random facts about the author….

I have to give credit to my friend Li for inspiring this blog post. I thought it would add a personal touch to my blog in which I endeavour to protect my identity. So here are some random snippets about the Afro Scientress…

1. I love people who can make me laugh alot. I don’t mean this in a sexual way but personality-wise. It applies to guys and gals.

2. My favourite colour is orange.

3. I love taking photos and being creative when taking photos. My next camera purchase will hopefully be a SLR or something more professional than the digital camera I use now.

4. I hate it when people say things they don’t mean.

5. I have only 24 teeth in my mouth as opposed to the standard 32.

6. The older I get, the more I fear the future. Ironically, I look forward to change.

7. I love nearly everything about summer.

8. In high school I was voted ‘nicest person’ and ‘person with the best smile’ – how things have changed.

9. I drink a banana milkshake on most mornings. One whole banana, half a cup of milk, a teaspoon of honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Blend.

10. I would hate to be famous.

11. 2008 will be considered as one of the best years of my life. It was a year that was filled with opportunities and experience. I had several opportunities for personal and uni-related interstate and overseas travel. I had wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences in personal relationships all of which I have taken something away from. I turned a hobby into something that provided me with an additional income. I did some teaching/demonstrating, which is something I have wanted to try for a long time. I learned to appreciate the beautiful state I live in: Western Australia. Edit: A couple of things i forgot to mention because i was too consumed in personal matters include our prime-minister, Kevin Rudd, delivering a formal aplogy to the stolen generation, and the election of Barack Obama. These things, although not personal, made 2008 an even better year.
It’s only a week in to the new-year but unfortunately 2009 is not a year I am looking forward to. It started off fine but quickly went down-hill in my personal life and I can sense that this trend is set to continue. I have been dreading this year mainly because I know I have to finish most of my PhD. My supervisor has asked me to do additional lab work on top of the lab work of my own project which means longer hours in the lab on top of writing a thesis. As an incentive, my supervisor has agreed to give me a top-up on my scholarship. In my circle of friends, most of my closest friends are either getting hitched, moving away or both whereas I am still single and have no plans to move away for at least two years. To top it off, 2009 has quite literally hit me in the face a week into the new year. True story: I was half asleep in bed this morning when all of a sudden my annual calendar slid down the wall behind my bed, rebounded off my bed-head and fell smack-bang right onto my face. The really scary thing was the hook on the wall hadn’t come off nor did the hook holding the calendar to the wall. I think 2009 is trying to tell me something. I recently came across a 2008 website which I think appropriately describes my 2009 so far.

And finally…

12. The next blog post will be science-related :)