Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Zombies: Not Just Pop Culture Fiction Any More

Zombies, a cross-cultural symbol of the living undead, mindless beings on the hunt for people to infect and brains to eat. Alternatively, a PhD student in the last week before thesis submission. However you think about zombies, I’m sure you still think about them, and if you’re smart about it, you’re afraid of them. The threat of human zombification appears to have become more prominent over recent months, with ‘bath salts’ zombies showing up in America to remove people’s clothing and attempt to eat their faces. Not so sure about the nudity, but the face eating sure sound threatening.

For those who aren’t quite convinced, or who think that people who take street drugs aren’t zombies in the traditional sense – mostly because they chose to take drugs rather than falling victim to a virus or having an unfortunate incident where a man came up to them, mumbled about brains and then took a chunk out of their arm – have a look to the animal world.

Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, for example, a fungus that grows on ants, forces the little soldiers to essentially become zombies. The fungus grows through the exoskeleton and bides its time after weakening the ant, until it reaches maturity and releases chemicals that cause the ant to essentially commit suicide. The ant, under the influence of the those chemicals, returns to a place with a high ant population, attaches itself to the underside of a leaf and stays there until it dies. Soon after, the fungus grows reproductive structures from within the ant’s body and releases spores onto unsuspecting ants crowds below. It’s a classic zombie story of takeover, loss of neural control, and transfer of the zombification to other creatures.

Not afraid yet? In a similar story to the plight of the ant, Entomophthora muscae fungi create housefly zombies which die in open areas. As the flies are encouraged by the fungus in their brains to stick in high areas when they die, they provide a good location for spores to be released into the air, increasing the likelihood of further fungal growth. In a different case, Spinochordodes tellinii – parasitic hairworms – infest the soft tissues inside crickets and force the insects into water, causing them to drown themselves so the worms can breed.

Toxoplasma gondii © Copyright Microbe World and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Still nothing? Try Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan which increases dopamine levels in the area of rodent brains associated with fear: the amygdala. The increased neurotransmitter levels create a sensation of pleasure which overrides the fear sensation that the amygdala would ordinarily produce, preventing the natural escape response that rodents would feel when faced with feline predators. Once eaten by the cats, the rodents are digested and the protozoan escapes into the cat’s digestive system, allowing it to be excreted and re-ingested by the next unfortunate rodent.

Keep in mind that with that last one, rodents are mammals, only a few steps away from humans. And, T. gondii can and does infect humans, though it causes less severe reactions that range from paranoia to decreased reaction time, with less jumping between feline teeth.

So if you’re not afraid yet, despite numerous zombies in popular fiction, articles about zombies in the international news, and stories of zombie fungi infecting non-human life forms, you might need your amygdala checked.

Zombie Parade – DSC 0533 ep © Copyright Eric.Parker (Erik Parker) and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


Scientoonics – Study of Scientoons?

About a week ago on Facebook, a friend posted the following diagram (a) (from her immunity lecture) and this gave me inspiration for this post. In her own words, the diagram is about tumour immunity and how the different cells work together effectively to promote the ‘killing’.

Smiley faces

Have you had lectures where diagrams are filled with smiley faces? I certainly did not and quite often, I find myself sitting in science lectures trying to ‘digest’ the masses of text presented (like (b) below). Even though the two pictures are in different areas of science, I am sure information from (b) could be explained by using visual aids, e.g. the use of images, flowcharts; instead of a whole slab of text.

(a) Adaptive immunity to tumours
(b) Taken from my lectures slide

Research shows that the average person (65% of the population are visual learners) cannot read and listen at the same time, so having students (us) peruse wordy slides will in some way hinder information retention. From my personal experience, graphics in lecture slides and notes help a lot when learning something new for the first time and they are far more memorable and interesting. Research also shows that visuals increase information clarity and absorption; and charts and diagrams continue to play important roles in presentations.

It is however, necessary to note that while visuals are important, they have to be structured and used correctly.  Proper chart and diagram construction is critical to conveying concepts in the most understandable way possible, like how the concept of ‘adaptive immunity to tumours’ was conveyed in a smiley flow chart above.

Do you think it’s possible to explain science concepts using cartoons?

Scientoon

Children have always been fascinated with cartoons. As such, there could be a potential whereby cartoons can be used for science communication and education to help convey concepts effectively.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Scientoon is precisely this and was pioneered by Pradeep Srivastava, an Indian scientist and science communicator.

Scientoon is a new branch of science that deals with effective science communication by using a novel class of science cartoons… they not only make you smile and laugh but also provide information about new research, subjects and concepts in a simple, understandable and interesting way

He has managed to explain difficult concepts such as DNA fingerprinting and spectrometry in a way that is accessible to a wider audience through the medium of cartoons. His cartoons contain a caricature accompanied by a satirical comment or dialogue, as well as some basic information about new research, ideas, data or facts.

Grabbing the attention of students to love and understand science is a huge challenge, and there is an urgent need to inculcate interest in students. Pradeep’s vision is to “change the nature of science education in the world”.

Like Pradeep, Esther has created physics cartoons aimed at high school students with the mission to “make learning physics more fun and easier in classrooms”.

Electrical Concept © Copyright Esther Siam and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Where do you see the future of science communication going? Do you think such methods will change the structure that education takes in the future?

Links:


A Second Chance for People Afflicted With Cornea Diseases

-Sight restored in less than a month using stem cell-coated contact lenses

Injured eye with cornea disease (Left, arrow indicated an opaque cornea layer) compared with good eye (Right)
Maybe it is because I have been spending so much time of my undergraduate with my ex-roommates who were constantly talking about vision science to me, I found myself gradually become very sensitive to all the news relating to human eyes, ranging from their mysterious sight-capture abilities to even the detailed structures. And whenever there is a person with eyesight problems walking past me on the street, I could not help but wondering: what are the chances that he/she can see the world in his/her life… A couple of weeks ago, I got calls from Riana and Claire (my ex-roommates) and said they had very exciting news that they MUST share with me (in person). So I went to our old gathering spot to meet them on the day.
It turns out to be quite big news, a REALLY good one!!
A group of medical researchers at the University of New South Wales has found a cure to patients affected by cornea disease, which accounts for 90% of the total blindness around the world. [Cornea is the thin clear barrier that sits at the front of our eyes. It is the first guard of protection for our eye; if it gets scratched, scarred or burned, light would not be able to make it through to the retina. As a result, we cannot see.]
The research breakthrough is based on the repairing ability of the limbal stem cells. By using minuscule strips of the stem cells taken from the edge of the cornea of the patient’s good eye and culturing them on contact lenses for days, researchers are able to have hundreds of matured cells grown on the contact lenses. When the patients with damaged corneas wear the stem cells-coated contact lenses for about a month, their corneas are found to recolonise with the damaged regions fully repaired. “It’s really a contact lens, much like the disposable ones people use but it’s got a specific coating on it that cells like. Small-scaled human trials of the technique are about to start in Victoria.” Riana told me, “My cousin, you know, he had an accident on his left eyes when he was running an electric work for his company two years ago. He was SO excited hearing this news! He even told me that he is going to volunteer for the trial!”
“Isn’t it just wonderful and incredible awesome??!!!” Claire said, “It’s stuff like this that makes you realize that we live in the future!”
Majored in cell developmental biology, I instantly realized that the simplicity and low-cost behind this stem cell-based techniques. If the following human trials all go smoothly, the treatment can open a whole new window for the affected people in less developed countries. On my way home, the thought of how many people could be potentially saved from their nightmares and see the world again thrilled me.
-A second chance indeed!
Below are two links from a video interview and ABC Local radio programme, featuring the mechanism of the treatment and how it can be applied to cornea disease-affected patients.
Reporter: Ashley Hall. Interviewee: Karl Brown, a researcher with the Centre for Eye Research Australia. Interviewer/host: Tony Eastley.

Extracting money from the government

Originally I wasn’t sure a post like this would qualify, but since Jenny devoted half an hour to it in a seminar, I guess it might be useful.

Scientists need to communicate with the general public and each other, but if we want to get cash from government, we need to be able to translate the benefits of our work into the language of economists and politicians as well. I will focus on how you convince an economist your research is worthy, but with a dose of political reality as well.

Public Goods

Public Goods are those we all share the benefit from and it is difficult to exclude an individual from the benefit (e.g. saving the Barrier reef from destruction). Public goods are therefore underproduced, since there’s not enough profit in them. That’s where the government comes in. Scientific research as a whole has public good aspects, but it is sometimes difficult to prove to governments that individual research projects are public goods. You can find a good explanation of public goods, and more examples, here: http://tutor2u.net/economics/revision-notes/a2-micro-public-goods.html, a more scientific perspective is offered by the CSIRO at http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pjki.pdf

Most research has private benefits as well (e.g. drugs) since the company that patents a successful drug receives a return on its investment in the research. If you want public money for your research, you need to say why there is a public benefit above and beyond the profit some company might make from your innovation if it proves successful. Cancer research is a classic example. Cancer is a huge drain on the health system, so governments fund research due to the public benefit of reduced health care costs, in addition to the profits a company would receive from curing cancer, or reducing its impact.

Government priorities and roles

Different (Commonwealth, State, Local) governments have different roles and priorities. Look at the priorities of the government you’re applying to and tie your research into them. For example, the Victorian government has put an emphasis on food and fibre research, so if you’re into animal and plant research, prove it will increase food yield and you might be half  a chance.

Governments are more likely to give you money if you can get money from another government and/or the private sector. No government wants to be left out of something big, plus, they have to contribute less to get a piece of the action.

The post-grads probably don’t have too much subject choice left, but for the second years, if you get the chance to do a microeconomics or public policy subject, that would help you understand what economists and governments are looking for from their scientists.

Good luck with your research, and with getting the money to do it!


Let’s talk about Epilepsy

Sometimes I flail about randomly, my arms and legs awkwardly spasming as though I’m a puppet and the puppet master is on acid. This is what I call “dancing”. Accordingly, I don’t do that much.

But sometimes all of those things happen without me having any say in it at all. It’s alarming how much my “moves” and my seizures resemble each other, but I blame that mostly on the fact that I am phenomenally uncoordinated on the dance floor.

I so wish I was this good
Image courtesy of “Love Actually” movie, copyright Universal Pictures, 2003

Depending on how you look at it, I either have the crappy lot in life of living with epilepsy OR I’m lucky to have it. I’ll elaborate.

Epilepsy sucks. It is always present, even when under control medically. It is unwelcome and limiting, and when I’m exhausted or angry I sometimes start to feel sorry for myself. I don’t know anybody else with it, and it can get lonely.

What sucks MOST about having epilepsy though is the strange taboo around it. We’ve come leaps and bounds in the last hundred years or so, moving past the perception of epilepsy as some kind of demon-possession-psychosis thing, but even still people get very uncomfortable if I tell them that I’m epileptic.

Actually that sucks second-most. First-most is that I can’t scubadive. I’m still angry about that.

sadface 🙁
Image licensed under creative commons

I was very hesitant to write this blog, because it’s so personal, but I think communication about medical conditions is really important, and this forum is a good place to start.

The basic science:

A mutation in a gene (GABRA1) means there is less than normal of particular receptor protein, GABAA, which permits the crossing of chloride ions across the cell membrane in neurons. This crossing usually inhibits over-activation of neuronal signals in the brain, so having less capacity to do this means the neurons can easily be over-stimulated. The overstimulation manifests physiologically in seizures.  There are many, many other abnormalities that cause epilepsy but this is the primary one in my particular sub-category, Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (and yes, I resent the name. I’m 24, not a juvenile!!) A more thorough explanation can be found here.

… it happens somewhere in there
Image licensed under creative commons

Moving along.

When it comes down to it I’m completely useless at holding grudges, even against my neurons, and I just like life too much to be resentful most of the time.

neurons are just so gorgeous! who could hate them for long eh?
Image licensed under creative commons

I’m lucky – my epilepsy is under control. I have one of those nana AM/PM weekly pillboxes which looks like a pharmacy (it took about 2 years to work out a combo of drugs that didn’t cause nasty side effects but did control the seizures) and the colour combination is very pretty. Seriously, I get a lot of joy out of the fact that my meds are aesthetically pleasing.

meet my friends Keppra, Epilim, Lamictal and Folic Acid

Yehhhh ok maybe I am a bit nuts 😛

ANYWAY.

It’s under control unless I forget my meds or there are other extenuating circumstances, and although remembering to take 4 pills twice a day can be a pain, the fact that I am suitably medicated means I can appreciate the positive things that have come of having what Hippocrates described as “The Sacred Disease”.

I *like* this guy!
Image licensed under creative commons

I can sit in classes and feel connected to subject material that may seem boring to other people. So far I’ve come across epilepsy when I’ve been studying psychology, biology, physiology, pharmacology and a breadth subject called “Body, Mind, and Medicine”. There is a LOT of talk about epilepsy in that last one. Weird.

So, some of the positives:

  • I have a really good excuse to avoid trance clubs etc. which some of my friends frequent (WHY I will never know!) because of the strobe lights.
  • I don’t do drugs. The mum in Almost Famous would be proud. I’m a “try everything once” kind of a person, so finding out I had epilepsy before I got too far into my early-20s experimental phase was probably really good for my health. I can’t do stimulants or psychotropic drugs because whatever effect they would have on a regular person could give me brain damage, cause psychosis or kill me, and the chance isn’t really as small as you’d think. Not worth it.
  • Recent studies have revealed a possible like between Keppra, one of the epilepsy medications I take, and reversing memory loss in mice with Alzheimer’s. This is super cool because I’m petrified of Alzheimer’s and if there’s even a little chance that I’m already taking a medication that could help, then I’m rapt about that!

Mostly though, I can talk about it from a first-person perspective. I’m pretty open, but a lot of people with epilepsy are afraid of the stigma so they never talk about it. There are a lot of discussion boards on the web for epileptics to get together and support one another, which is fantastic, but I also think there should be more frank discussion between people with epilepsy and “regular” people to shake off the remaining taboo.

Actually, I think open communication about all sorts of medical conditions is very important.  I think if people weren’t so afraid of what others would think of them should they be diagnosed with a condition, people would be more likely to get tested and feel more supported if they do have to live with an illness. I was pretty sure I had epilepsy for about 4 years before I was diagnosed, I just didn’t want to face reality. Turns out I had it for much longer than that, but I hid it from everybody well. It was only when the seizures got really bad, obvious and frequent that I relented and talked to a doctor.

I’m not sure if anyone will have reached the end of this (it’s a rather long one!) but if you have, and you’re curious, I’d be really happy for you to ask me any questions you want – no holds barred – and I’ll reply to your comments. Ask me openly, then maybe other people will read it, and be a bit more informed. I will answer everything to the best of my knowledge.


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