Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Woman, that was not as awkward as I thought

Today I had my first women in science peer mentoring meeting. The idea is that female grad students get an opportunity to meet up with other female grad students and talk about how they are finding grad school and any challenges they face as a female. I think this is with the intention to retain more women in academia, although I think that universities need to try and do a better job trying to keep students in general interested so they have a larger pool of candidates to choose from. Not that politics and immutability of departments doesn't play a major role in the selection and retention of tenure-track faculty.

Anyway, the idea of a female challenges group is so completely not my thing, and I only went because the boss thought I might benefit. Fortunately, my co-mentees weren't into the whole tragic female thing either, and two of them, coming from primarily male departments, didn't really seem to care that much that they were the only or one of just a handful of women in their building. The major underlying theme of the discussion was that male mentors (advisors/committee members) were generally supportive and hoped that the students would find women in the same place (or higher in the ranks) that they could speak to about grad school and careers. I don't know if that is just because the other group members are in larger departments and/or are less aware of departmental politics, but it was good to hear. I should probably be clear that I'm not neccessarily advocating for more women in academia -  the job requirements aren't typically what women want to be doing in their thirties - but pretending that all careers are open equally and set up for both genders would just be lying.

Which brings me to my next point - a non-academic careers workshop run by the graduate school last week. The other students in my peer-advising group hadn't attended, so provided them with a review of how well the workshop had unintentionally demonstrated what kind of jobs boys do, and their attitudes to them, and what girls do.

After a brief highlight of the career and support programs the grad school is sponsoring (including the women peer mentoring program), the workshop began with a panel discussion where panelists discussed a number of questions (How did you get to where you are? What do you wish you had done differently? Do you really need a PhD and/or post-doc for your job? etc). First off, all the boys (yes - boys because of the arrogance and immaturity with which they answered the questions) sat at one table while the lone woman sat at another (a second female panelist arrived a few minutes late). It is difficult to know whether the seating pattern made the males make more arrogant comments, but the attitude towards work and success was very clear. The males were all in industry and stated that they were driven by money and the desire to climb the corporate ladder. One even said that he didn't really care who got hurt in the process, and collaborated only when necessary to improve his own position (I, and I think most women would have found it very hard to resist the urge to kick him at this point). But his male conspirators nodded along. Meanwhile, the (two, very successful) females took an "I do this because I like it, I think it is interesting, I like the people I work with and the collaborative nature of my work, and I think that my work really matters for science". Not to say men and women can't switch in these roles. But this is how the grad school portrayed it.

So while the grad school may be trying to bridge the gender gap in academia, it managed to do an exceptional job of forging the dominant male stereotype. If a women were to behave similarly to the men, I imagine they would be seen as a cut-throat bitch. But men are just trying to be successful.  So maybe next year the panel should have arrogant industry-driven females and more soft-spoken males in order to flip the picture and prevent perpetuating the gender divide it is trying close. Industry was never going to be my thing, but this career workshop further closed doors to careers, rather than opening them. I'll take quiet subservient "failure" (poverty) over arrogance and "success" (money) any day. As long as I don't become a feminist.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Redefining the gutsy scientist

This past week, I was fortunate enough to meet the microbiologist Liping Zhao. His research looks at how the gut microbiome - or totality of microbes in/on an area of the body and their interactions with that part of the body - is affected by diet. While many other groups have tried to find a relationship between human health (obesity, diabetes, heart disease) and gut microbes by comparing individuals, Dr. Liping Zhao is one of only a handful of researchers who directly test how changes in diet which affect health are mediated by microbes - he attributes this to the holistic nature of Chinese medicine.

Perhaps his best-known study is the one he completed on himself. He was overweight, so he decided to eat the fermented foods Chinese yam and bitter melon, which are thought to change the microbes in the gut, along with a whole grain-rich diet. He lost about 45lbs over the course of two years, and a single type of bacteria called Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and known for its anti-inflammatory properties flourished during this time. Liping confirmed that this bacteria was associated with reduced inflammation by comparing levels of the bacteria to levels of compounds in urine associated with inflammation in two American and Chinese families.

Look into my gut. You are getting healthy. Very, very healthy.

All of this fits nicely into the idea that obesity and diabetes are essentially inflammatory diseases, mediated by changes in gut microbiota which become increasingly irreversible. The story goes somewhat like this. Beneficial microbes dominate in the healthy gut, and we have evolved with these microbes for many years. However, the modern (low fiber, high sugar, high fat) Western diet isn't quite right for these microbes, which allows other bacteria which may or may not have previously been hanging out in the gut to do better. These bacteria aren't ferocious acute disease-causing bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli 0157:H7, but rather have much subtler effects. Bacteria have different surface sugars, fats, and proteins which are recognized by the host immune system to different degrees, with less or no response to the surface of long-resident beneficial microbes, but a strong response to microbes not seen by the host before (unless the bacteria is also producing something to pervert this response, but that's another story :-)). This leads to inflammation, which makes the gut wall a bit leakier, so more toxins produced by these bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause inflammation elsewhere. Another argument is that in already obese people, the fat cells are too big and so cannot get enough oxygen and die, recruiting immune cells to the scene.  Either way, cells are less responsive to insulin, and therefore less able to take up glucose, eventually leading to type 2 diabetes.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the idea that Liping had that we might be able to predict whether a person is pre-diabetic before symptoms appear, by examining the microbes in the gut. There is a small problem with this idea, however, and that is that the microbes in people's guts differ greatly, and a wide variety of gut microbiomes can be considered healthy. To fix this problem, Liping suggested using samples collected as part of the annual health checkups completed for all workers in some businesses in China; this would allow him to follow how the microbiome changes through time and determine the range of microbiota possible before a person becomes "unhealthy". This is definitely a study I would like to see followed through on.

As a final note comes a study which must be incredibly marketable to the American-pill-popping public. In looking for microbes responsible for health in his own gut microbiota, Liping decided to try other traditional remedies for reducing obesity. One of these is berberine, which is a compound found in the yellow berries of those super annoying spiky barberry bushes grown ornamentally in Britain, and which are serious invasive species in New Zealand. Liping fed this compound to a series of obese mice, along with a whole-grain rich diet, and found massive weight loss and increased glucose sensitivity in the patients. When he took gut microbes on a plate and just poured berberis over them, they didn't die at the low doses needed to drastically improve host health, which indicates that berberis may have been acting to change the competitive interactions between gut microbes in such a way as to favor those beneficial ones again. The good news for the american consumer is that berberine is available in tea and pill form. But rumor has it that drinking the tea is like drinking pure warheads.  But maybe it is worth it. Easier than exercise, eh?

Could this be the future of slimming?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Twinkies, wheaties, and soil carbon

Before we delve further into a random array of topics in science and its transmission, my personal advisor (brother) has suggested that I explain my own research. So if I had a few minutes to try and sell my research at a middle school level (more about that in a later post), what would I say? Well it is dinner time, so there will be a bit of a food theme.

As the well-worn phrase goes, "carbon is the building block of life". Life as most of us know it starts with plants taking up carbon dioxide gas from the air and using it to grow, but this "living" carbon is only a very small fraction of the total amount on earth. In fact, there is about four times more carbon stored in soils than in land plants, and if plants were to store as much carbon as soils, tropical rainforests would need to cover six to ten times as much land as they do currently.

In most soils, this carbon predominantly comes from dead plant parts, and the organisms that live in the soil eat this. However, they obviously don't eat it all, because soil generally builds up over time. This is because, like humans, these detritivores (dead stuff eaters) have preferences for what they eat. Leaf sugars are like twinkies to them, and they gobble them up, but fallen twigs are more like Wheaties, and require a lot of digestion to get them into a form that the microbes can use. However, how much microbes prefer twinkies over Wheaties depends on a number of factors, including who they are, how many twinkies or Wheaties there are, and possibly how hot it is outside. Fungi are health freaks, and like the slow-release energy of Wheaties, while some bacteria are in it for the short-term gain and prefer twinkies. Higher temperatures make microbes grow faster, but in order to support this growth, they must eat more. In the excitement of the higher temperatures, microbes also tend to waste more food, releasing a greater proportion of what they eat as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide rather than using it to make more copies of themselves. As a result, the amount of carbon stored in soil decreases while the level of carbon dioxide in the air increases, allowing for more warming.  If further warming means the microbes continue to eat more of the soil carbon and convert it into carbon dioxide, then there could be even more climate warming.

The kid at a birthday party phenomenon: when things get hot, microbes eat way too much food and exert a lot of energy in the excitement, rather than focusing on the important things, like procreation (OK, so children shouldn't do the last part). Just as hyperactive children make the room get even hotter, the carbon dioxide these "partying" microbes release into the air may also make the earth even warmer as carbon is lost from the soil. (image courtesy of http://postcodegazette.com/venueImages/orig/WL_420524.jpg)

In my lab, we try and determine whether this exacerbated warming will actually occur. From what I said before, you might think that warming will stop when the twinkies run out, but in experiments where researchers artificially warm fields to mimic future climate change, they sometimes find that warming makes plants produce even more twinkies, because when the microbes eat the twinkies, they release nutrients which enable the plants to make more. However, in other cases, warming stresses plants, which makes them convert some of the twinkie sugars in leaves into Wheatie sugars (ick), which in addition to being yucky themselves, may also prevent the soil microbes from being able to eat the twinkies. But warming may also make Wheaties more delicious by favoring Wheatie-eaters over twinkie-eaters, or by partially converting Wheaties into something more closely representing a Twinkie, like a hot dog roll. Finally, what I look at for my project is whether microbes may "adapt" to warmer temperatures and be more frugal with their Wheaties and twinkies, keeping more of the carbon in their food for making microbe babies, and wasting less as carbon. Ultimately, it is how well microbes balance breathing and baby-making which determines how much carbon stays in the soil for the long-run.

Microbes on twinkies (courtesy of: http://piremongolia.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/soil-microbes.png)...

Microbes on Wheaties...(courtesy of http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Trichoderma_sp_young_conidiophore.jpg)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Extremely bored, or extremely confused? Outreach to scientists and the public

The other day, the president of a large, well-known professional society came to visit UMass. Being me, I was really excited at the opportunity to hear a science celebrity talk about his research, and ducked out of another obligation to go to his presentation.

So I hurried on over and sat more or less front and center, ready to listen to what I hoped to be a fantastic presentation. It began with a nod to old times, old friends in the department, and those awkward inside jokes that, in my (minimal) experience in grad school, tend to precede the boring, lingo-filled, detail-oriented, ego-stroking presentations scientists are well-known for. But I was in the sphere of influence of a real live science celebrity, so I rapidly suppressed these thoughts.

In fact, while the presenter certainly enjoyed stroking his ego (I have decided that the only thing in common between "successful" scientists is making bold (unsupported) statements and giving one's ego the Mason-Pearson treatment), he managed to do an excellent job of avoiding lingo. In fact, although the audience was composed entirely of people well-versed in the speaker's area, the speaker give a nauseatingly simple presentation at a second grade level, which was deeply disappointing. But what was even worse was that he insisted on trying to get the audience to chant phrases like a bunch of preschoolers. Needless to say, I did not participate in this. Of course, I also couldn't slip out of the talk and avoid wasting more of my time, being seated so front and center and all. So I had to sit it out.

And amidst my presentation-induced nausea, I became really, really worried for the future of science. I mean, is this really how societies are representing their members to the public? If so, I am really, really glad I am not a member. If I was a member of the public, and I was spoken to like that, I would be incredibly insulted. It was like he didn't acknowledge that just because not everyone spends their life doing science, it doesn't mean they don't have a brain, or they didn't graduate kindergarten. How will the public ever support funding science with outreach like this. Why are we, as scientists (or scientist in the making in my case), so intent on alternating between extreme high level lingo, and mindless, overly-simplistic and demeaning lessons?

I think that part of the problem is actually because there is this fear that if we use "regular" language when communicating with other scientists, it won't be science anymore. I recently wrote a term paper on a topic I was unfamiliar with, and so tried to convert what I had learned into relatable language rather than just using the meaningless lingo of the papers I cited. The comments my professors made on my draft were focused on how I had used non-sciencey phrases (ie metaphors) to explain conclusions I had drawn from my research in order to try and tie it back to something relatable and well-known. This is not the first time I have received comments on the lack of "scienceyness" of wording in parts of my papers, which bugs me, because I think that science papers - whether for classes or the "literature" - are perfect places to practice bridging the gap between the sphere of professional science and the public, and perhaps somewhat "informal" or "unconventional" language is a great way to do this. While the public may not pick up a paper and understand all the methods, I think that the introduction and last part of the discussion/conclusion should be readable by any well-educated citizen, independent of their discipline. There are of course pushes to do this - PLoS and other journals have both technical and "accessible" abstracts, the USDA website also posts both kinds - but why isn't this the norm? Our funders and stakeholders are the public, so why do scientists speak to one-another in one language and then baby-talk the public? I am obviously not the first person to say this, but at the same time, the Massachusetts taxpayers' dollars paid for that speaker to come and waste at least forty work hours, also on the federal and state taxpayer's dime, and they deserve better. Some grants require reports on data collection and progress on projects, but how often are those outreach section of grants actually followed up on?

On the plus side, it gave me the topic for my first blog post! Let me know if you have found yourself in a similar situation, where someone in your discipline (whether that is research, business, or anything else) has presented to you at an incredibly demeaning level. What fraction of talks you are forced to go to are actually worthwhile? Is lingo a problem of science only, or do you think people in your discipline use words so often they can no longer define them? Have you been to a presentation outside your discipline and been lost and/or bored to death with the simplicity?