Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

12 years is a long time to wait to be able to chew properly

Last Thursday I entered the final phase of a 12 year journey. It involved a medieval torture device, metal all over my teeth and my face getting cut open just so I could chew properly. Of course I’m being a bit melodramatic when I say medieval torture device, but I’m not the only person to make this observation.

Wisdom Teeth. Source: Flickr

Expander and Headgear

When I was 10 I had a Rapid Palatal Expander (RPE). This was a device attached to the roof of my mouth that would actually widen my palate. Every night for a month I had to use a special key to turn a little mechanism which would widen the device by a tiny amount. Think of a medieval torture rack stretching you out turn by turn, but it happens so slowly you barely even feel it.

Why do this? My top jaw was growing much more slowly than my bottom jaw. The most obvious symptom of this was my significant underbite (also called a Class III Malocclusion). Also, my top jaw was narrower than my bottom jaw, so my top teeth were biting on the inside of my bottom teeth. One amusing side effect was my two front teeth being separated so much that I could fit a $2 coin between the two of them.

Interestingly, the RPE only works on children. The growth plate in your upper jaw has a gap, called the midpalatal suture, that  fuses in your mid teens. So children and young teenagers can use the RPE to expand their upper jaw before it fuses.

After the expanding was done, I needed a headgear that attached rubber bands to the RPE (which was attached to my back molars). This was designed to pull my top jaw forward, to encourage it to grow forward and overtake my bottom jaw.

Try as it might, the headgear never managed to pull my jaw far enough. So, another approach was taken.

Before surgery


The RPE was removed and the braces came on. Ouch.

While the RPE is akin to a medieval torture device, and heaps of teenagers have braces at some stage in their life, braces are far more painful.

Metal brackets are cemented onto your teeth and a single wire is threaded through each of them. This wire is quite stubborn, and REALLY wants to stay in it’s original shape, like a spring. This constant pressure on your teeth signals your body to do something about it.

Braces actually cause you jaw bone to dissolve and reform. The root of your tooth tunnels through your jaw bone like a worm through dirt.

Teeth are socketed in your jaw bones, with the Periodontal Ligament (PDL) acting as both a cushion and a glue between the tooth and the bone. The PDL is what senses the pressure and tells the jawbone to make a change. The bone starts to create osteoclasts – which are a kind of bone cell that breaks down the surrounding bone – to relieve the pressure and the tooth can start moving into the space created. This then creates tension on the other side of the tooth, so the PDL signals to the jaw bone to start making osteoblasts – a cell that creates more bone – to fill in the space behind it.

Suffice to say, they worked. By the time I was 13, my teeth were perfect. Off came the braces, in came the retainer.

Then, I had a growth spurt.

After surgery


My lower jaw grew about 1cm more than my top jaw. I had a pretty severe underbite. The orthodontist told me the only way to fix it was with surgery, but I would have to wait until I stopped growing.

By the time I was 21, scans told me I had stopped growing (much to my dismay, being less than half an inch short of 6 foot). So it was time for braces again!

The braces are required for the surgery as anchors, especially for the few weeks after when the jaw is healing. The surgery itself is quite incredible. The bottom jaw has a little chunk cut out and is then moved back. The top jaw is also moved forward, in a much more complicated way. In addition to both jaws being moved, I had all 4 wisdom teeth removed.

The finished result!

I was in hospital for 2 nights, and wasn’t allowed to eat solid food for 2 weeks. Other than the inconvenience of missing out on Christmas dinner, I was back to normal within a month. Apart from the swelling, which took about 6 months to fully disappear, and a numb chin.

There was about 10 months of adjusting the braces before they came off. Now they’re gone, and I can finally begin to put this whole saga behind me!

I can now chew things properly and have no metal attached to my teeth. I just need to remember to wear my retainers regularly so those osteoblasts can heal the jaw bone with my teeth in the right spot.

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the Hospital

Hospitals can be intimidating places. Giant buildings, workers in masks with sharp instruments, sick people everywhere, and who knows how many people have expelled fluids all over the waiting room.

waiting-room“Who thought a carpeted floor was a good idea here?”. Image credit Flickr user: Lisa Larson-Walker

On the other hand, they’re also filled will trained practitioners who are paid to keep you alive. When you’re really sick, and aromatherapy just won’t cut it where else are you going to go? With 10.2 million hospitalisations in 2014-2015, it would seem many Australians would agree with that.

But maybe that’s the problem.

Like a mosh-pit at a concert, the more people crammed into an enclosed space, the more fighting you’re going to be doing, or rather your immune system will be doing, and that’s just in the waiting room. If you’re forced to stay longer or are in for something serious you could be at risk of many potential infections.

mrsa“MRSA, alright, I love this song. Circle Pit!”. Image credit: Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How does this happen?

There are several ways in which a prolonged stay in the Hospital can lead to further infections. Especially if you require a catheter or an IV, as the placing and removal of these can give a path for bacteria to enter the body. In addition, recovering surgical wounds can also provide a breeding ground for bacteria and infections.

cutaneous_abscess_mrsa_staphylococcus_aureus_7826_lores“It’s a buffet, don’t fill up on bread” -Bacteria. Image credit: CDC/Bruno Coignard, Jeff Hageman

Sorry, it’s hard to find a tame image of an infection, it gets a lot worse.

Surgery is already pretty scary for some people, now imagine how much worse it would be if everyone were aware that they could get sick because of their surgery, not to mention what might be left behind afterwards.

But that might be the least of your worries. King among the hospital acquired infections, (HAIs), is staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia, (SAB). Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium commonly found on skin and in noses. Most of the time this leads to minor skin infections, but it can spread into the bloodstream or organs, causing serious illnesses, notably death.  If you’re unlucky, you might encounter MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus), which is like regular staph, but resistant to some of the common methods of treatment.

Other notable infections include, septicaemia (blood poisoning), and respiratory tract infections.


What can I do?

Now, there are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of further infections.

First, stay healthy. Now I know that’s easy to say ahead of time, and obviously if you’re in hospital than something hasn’t gone to plan. But if you cut down on smoking, eat healthy, exercise, then you’ll be in a much better position to resist potential infections. As it turns out, factors contributing to chronic diseases and conditions, like diabetes, also contribute to a weakened immune system.

Say things have gone pear-shaped and you have to spend some time in the Hospital, there are some things you can do to help your cause.

Wash your hands.  Keep potentially sick visitors away. If things don’t feel right with any dressings, IVs, etc, let someone know. If you want to be anal, tell your doctor to wash their hands, and don’t let anyone with a tie treat you. Neckties are full of germs and pathogens.

iv“Nurse, doesn’t that bag say urine”. “Yeah, urine as in, in your”. Image credit: Harmid

Importantly, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to contract an infection just by being in the Hospital. Just like any cut or injury you get, there’s always going to be a risk of infection, but if you keep clean and healthy you’ll give your body the best chance of fighting it.

Hey, but at least if you do get an infection while in Hospital you might get your own room.

How to deal with idiots

I’ll get to that title in a moment. First though, a feeling you may find familiar: you have a task to do, a question to answer. It’s in your field, and you have experience in doing it. But then the doubt sets in. Why are they even trusting you with this? What if you answer wrongly, or don’t take something into account? How did you even get into this situation of trust – have you just fooled everyone into thinking you’re competent?

You feel like an impostor, and you just know you’re about to be discovered.

Sometimes it’s not just the effect of self-doubt – there are real impostors out there too. Photo: DaPuglet / Flickr.

It’s a familiar feeling to many people in high-knowledge fields, and if you haven’t experienced it yourself, you have surely seen it in others.

Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes named the experience impostor syndrome for that constant suspicion many smart people have about themselves and their own abilities. They identified it in a group of high-achieving women in 1978, describing the syndrome as

an internal experience of intellectual phoniness… [where any] success is an empty one, and the good feelings are short lived because the underlying sense of phoniness remains untouched

It’s a bad, self-limiting trap for a scientist: your job is to know things, to improve how much you know and to generate more knowledge for your field. And it’s all too easy to be drawn in by the confidence of others – even when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.


But what about overconfidence?

Can we explain overconfidence? You’ve certainly run into people who try something once or read a little about it and think they are experts. Idiots, in short. The people angrily yelling advice to the professional sportsmen and sportswomen on their televisions. The expert driver behind you. Ninety per cent of people in internet comments sections. (Hi commenters!) Continue reading “How to deal with idiots”

Clever creatures features: the octopus

In a marine science lab, two researchers were scratching their heads. A few weeks ago they had received a tank full of rare and expensive tropical fish. The tank was now sitting on one of the lab counters with one lonely fish left, currently swimming in circles.

“Who could possibly be stealing them” said the lead researcher “there haven’t been any signs of forced entry, and I am sure I’ve locked up at night.”

“And besides” said the research assistant, “who steals just one fish at a time? They’ve been vanishing one by one for the past week. It doesn’t make sense!”

“That’s it, we are setting up a camera to see if we can catch the thief in the act!”

That night they set up a camera, and left the lab after double checking the locks on the front door. The next day, sure enough, the tank was empty: the last fish gone.

The researcher and his assistant eagerly downloaded the camera footage to see what had transpired the previous night. They watched the video eagerly. After about ten minutes a look of confusion swept across their faces, closely followed by disbelief. As one, they turned to look at a tank at the opposite end of the lab. Inside the tank was a very happy, very full, octopus.


Image credit: Joachim S. Müller

Octopus intelligence

The above story has been retold thousands of times in various contexts. Sometimes it is an aquarium, a pet shop or a lab, but the basic story is the same: creatures go missing, and the culprit is found to be a clever octopus. The story itself is apocryphal, having become somewhat of an urban legend. What is undoubtedly true however, is that very similar events have taken place on numerous occasions in many solidly reported incidents.

What these stories go to show is that the thief in question, the octopus, possesses an astounding level of intellect.
The octopus is a member of the class Cephalopoda, along with cuttlefish, squid and nautilus. They are invertebrates, and their closest relatives are other molluscs such as snails, slugs and clams: not exactly what you would consider to be highly intellectual critters.


Image credit: flickr creative commons

Octopus on the other hand (along with the cuttlefish and squid) are incredibly intelligent. Studies have shown that they can perform complex problem solving tasks such as opening jars and undoing locks in order to get to food items. They can also navigate mazes and have been shown to possess complex short-term and long-term memory capabilities.

This intelligence has not just been observed in the lab, but also in the wild. Recent studies have shown that wild octopus will take coconut shells and carry the shells with them over a long period of time, before making a shelter to protect themselves from predators.

What is astounding is that the octopus is able to perform all of these complex cognitive tasks despite having a very basic type of nervous system. Vertebrates have nerves that are coated in a myelin sheath, similar to a copper wire with a plastic coating. This coating ensures that the nerve signals aren’t lost or distorted. Octopus on the other hand have naked nerves and have to compensate for the lack of insulation be packing a lot of nerves together into a thick bundle to maintain their efficiency.

Furthermore, unlike most vertebrates that have a distinctive nerve concentration in the brain, octopus have up to two thirds of their nerves located in their arms. In other words, they basically have the equivalent of eight mini brains, or highly developed spinal cords, that are all semi-independent of their central brain.

Taken at the aquarium in Barcelona 2011

Image credit: Thomas Quine

These arms nonetheless manage to coordinate and cooperate in performing complex and finely tuned tasks such as manipulating prey and objects in their environment. It has even been shown that the arms are capable of performing these tasks autonomously: when an arm is removed from the central body (don’t worry, they do grow back) they will still react to stimuli and attempt to move as if they were still attached to the main body, even going so far as trying to feed prey to a mouth that is no longer there.

All of this incredible intelligence has led to the octopus and its cephalopod relatives to be considered much more similar to vertebrates than invertebrates in terms of cognitive abilities and awareness. As a result, cephalopods are the only invertebrates that are often afforded a higher level of animal rights protection, with legislation often including them as “honorary vertebrates” requiring a certain level of care and a minimisation of cruelty in scientific research.

The octopus is a fascinating creature, whose alien appearance is starkly contrasted with an almost human level of intelligence. One thing is for sure: these clever creatures are not to be underestimated!


Image credit: Luca Barcellona

Ready, Steady, Slow!… Let the snail racing begin!

Welcome to the slowest race in the world, you will be a witness of this exciting experience that is held once a year in the exotic United Kingdom. The Snail Racing World Championship!

In contrast with other competitions snails don’t train all their lives for this event. You can find them in your backyard and, if you’re lucky enough, your snail could win the precious prize of a trophy full of lettuce which it can indulge itself on. Of course, some people do use their pet snails which are usually the common garden species Helix aspersa.


Snail racing is a popular event that has been held for more than 25 years in Norfolk, UK. Snails wear a sticker so they can be identified and after that, they’re put in the middle of a circle with a radius of 35 cm. Finally, the snail trainer shouts the words “Ready, steady, slow!” and the snails are ready to go. Whoever comes out of the circle first is the winner!

In 1995 a snail called Archie won the record as the fastest snail with only 2 mins to reach the outside of the circle. This year’s world champion was Herbie2 who reached the outside of the circle in 3 min 25 secs. We could say that Archie was the Usain Bolt of the snail world.


But, why is it so exciting for some people to observe these small and slow creatures?

Because these creatures are just fascinating! And I’ll let you know why.


Snails come from the class Gastropoda, phylum Mollusca, the word Gastropod comes from the two Latin words ‘gastro’ which means stomach and ‘pod’ which means foot. Literally speaking, snails are ‘belly footed’ animals.

Snails are also the earliest known species, with their ancestors dating back to nearly 500 million years ago. They are also very diverse with the number of different known species (including slugs) in second place, just behind insects. You could find them in many different environments such as freshwater, saltwater and in the ground.

Snails produce a slime that has many purposes. Their slime protects them whilst moving across any surface. This means that they can even slide across sharp objects without harming themselves. Their slime also plays an important part in their survival by keeping them moisturised. They can also use it to seal themselves inside their shell when the weather is too dry. In addition to this, their slime is a way to show their love whilst mating, and, by the way, did you know that snails are hermaphrodites?

Yes, it means that all of them have both, female and male, sexual organs and, after mating, both of them will be ready to lay around 85 eggs. But don’t think this is too much considering that the survival rate of hatched snails is very low in natural conditions and they also have to wait 2 years to become adults.

cute-snailA cute snail is looking at you! Image credit user claude05alleva via Pixabay

Let me give you some more fun facts about these little guys…

Snails can recover their shell when it breaks, but it depends on whether the damage is too serious or not.

Snails (escargot) are eaten and considered a delicacy for the French.

Some studies have found that snail slime have healing properties. For example, there are creams made with snail slime that are used to get rid of scars.

Snails can see and have a highly developed sense of smell, but they are deaf.

Snails have two pairs of tentacles, the top ones are their eyes, and the ones below are their sensors.

If you decide to have a pet snail and look after it properly, it could live up to 15 years! In the wild they only live 3-5 years but, if you want a bigger pet, you could get a giant African snail, which can measure up to 38 cm long and weigh a kilo. They can also live up to 25 years!

giant-snailGiant African snail. Image credit user Grzegorz Polak via Wikimedia commons

So, what do you think about snails now?



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