The words

Beyond Neuromania

By Celine Cammarata

As someone within the field, it seems to me that neuroscience – in some form or another - appears in the media nearly every day. Indeed the term “neuromania”, originally coined by Raymond Tallis, has come into use to describe both the lofty claims made about the power of neuroscience to answer nearly every question and the general mainstream media frenzy surrounding the field. Scholars have paid increasing attention to this and it is often regarded as a problem, but more recent work suggests that despite the mania, neuroscience is still not widely understood or even considered by the public at large. So does all the hype conceal a true lack of public interest?

It’s undeniable that neuroscience is the target of extensive and potentially problematic media attention. In a 2012 Neuron editorial, O’Connor, Reese and Joffe examined the coverage of neuroscience-related topic in six UK newspapers from 2000-2010 and found that not only did the number of articles related to brain research nearly double from the early to the late 2000s, but the topics also changed and the implications of neuroscience research was often exaggerated. Whereas in the past neuroscience was generally reported on in relation to physical pathology, the authors found that in their sample the most common context for discussing neuroscience was that of brain enhancement and protection – topics that are both more widely applicable to a broad audience and that suggest a newly emerging sense of ownership over ones’ brain.  O’Connor et al describe that “although clinical applications retained an important position in our sample, neuroscience was more commonly represented as a domain of knowledge relevant to ‘‘ordinary’’ thought and behavior and immediate social concerns. Brain science has been incorporated into the ordinary conceptual repertoire of the media, influencing public under- standing of a broad range of events and phenomena.”

Such issues are also highlighted in Satel and Lilienfeld’s 2013 book Brainwashed: the Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, in which the authors explore – and lament – the at times unrestrained application of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to answer questions from “Pepsi or Coke?” to “does free will exist?”. The tantalizing ability to see the brain has carried neuroscience into the realms of marketing, politics, law and more, not to mention changing the way we think about more standard brain research topics such as addiction. But, the authors point out, pictures of a brain alone can not address every level of analysis and are not inherently of greater scientific value than are other research methodologies. Tracking the physical footprint of a desire, attitude, or propensity in the brain does not in and of itself tell you why or how these things emerged, nor can it be necessarily used to assign guilt, decide what is a “disease” and what not, or determine how people choose their politicians – and yet this is precisely what neuroscience is often touted to do.

Both of these works, and many others, are based on the premise that neuroscience has become markedly pervasive, nearly omnipresent. Fascinatingly, though, the brain craze seems to stop short of making a final leap from the media to public consciousness. To be sure, public interest in neuroscience does exist – someone must be buying the growing number of brain-centered books popping up at Barnes and Nobel, right? – but a 2014 paper by the same authors as the Neuron piece found that the public in general is not nearly so interested in neuroscience as the media frenzy and emergence of the brain in societal matters might suggest.

To probe how everyday citizens think about neuroscience, the authors conducted open-ended interviews where a sample of Londoners, chosen to span age, gender and socioeconomic divides, were asked to share what came to mind when they considered research on the brain. These interviews were then examined and the themes touched upon quantified, and the results showed clear indication that neuroscientific research has largely failed to penetrate into the mindset of the public at large. Participants consistently indicated that they thought of brain research as a distant enterprise quite removed from them, performed by some unknown “other” (who was consistently described as a man in a white lab coat). Brain research was widely convolved with neurological medicine and brain surgery, and was almost entirely assumed to focus on medical application – the concept of basic science on cognition, emotion, or other mental phenomena appeared nearly unheard of.

Consistent with this, although most participants were quick to tag brain research as “interesting, they also reported that it was not of particular interest to them specifically except in the context of illness. That is, above all the brain was something that might go wrong, and unless it did participants gave it little thought at all. The authors connect this to an earlier concept of “dys-appearance,” the idea that much of the body is inconspicuous and ignored so long as it is healthy, and only attracts attention when there is some kind of dysfunction.

Based on these finding, O’Connor and Joffe concluded that despite rapid advancement and intrusion of neuroscience into more and more areas of inquiry, research on the brain nonetheless continues to have little relevance to the public’s daily lives. As they put it, “heightened public visibility should not be automatically equated with heightened personal engagement.”

So is neuroscience flooding our popular culture, or simply washing up then falling away like a rolling wave, never really lasting in our overall societal consciousness? For the moment, it appears to be both. Perhaps the concern over “neuromania” need not be so heated, but also perhaps we need to do more to understand how our work can take the extra step to become more relevant to those outside the lab.


Ripples in The Pond: Psychological Interventions can Spread to the Whole Group

 

By Celine Cammarata

In light of frightening outbreak of preventable diseases like measles, the impact that an individual can have on the community in terms of biological intervention – in this case, immunization – has become pressingly clear. Less obvious is that analogous ideas may apply to psychological treatments: a recent paper in the journal Psychological Sciences reports that an intervention to fight stereotype threat among minority middle schoolers actually changed the academic outcomes of their entire classrooms.

The authors’ findings stemmed from two previous studies in which 7th grade students in a largely lower- and middle-class middle school engaged in affirmative writing exercises designed to combat stereotype threat – the fear of confirming negative stereotypes about a group one belongs to. In both original experiments, students (regardless of race) were randomly assigned to an experimental or a control condition; all students completed short writing assignments in class, with those in the experimental group prompted to write about their most important values and those in the control asked to write about their least important values. Writing about important values was hypothesized to combat stereotype threat and associated stress, and thus foster higher academic achievement.

 

In both original experiments, these hypotheses appeared to be supported, with students in the experimental condition achieving significantly higher final grades than those in the control condition if those students were African American. In line with the assumption that European Americans would be suffering negligible reduction in potential achievement due to stereotype threat, no effect of the intervention vs. control was seen among these racial majority students (although a small number of students of other races participated in the experiments, the authors focused on African American vs. European American children).

 

In the present paper, the same authors reanalyzed data from these two experiments, but now asked whether, independently from the individual impacts seen, the density of African American experimental-condition students in a classroom had any impact on the performance of students in that classroom as a whole. Although the original experiments had already demonstrated that among European American students the experimental group did no better than the control, it remained possible that on average all students benefitted by some having had positive impact from the intervention. The authors used the difference in number of African American students who had been in the experimental vs. the control group, multiplied by the percentage these two groups of students together times the total proportion of students in the classroom who had participated in the study at all; in an attempt to quantify the possible presence of a “cluster” of treated students (i.e. African Americans in the experimental group).

 

The results indicated that, above and beyond the impacts at an individual level on those students who received the experimental intervention, the density of treated students was strongly predictive of final grades throughout the class room. This in turn lead to the exciting conclusion that the benefits of the psychological intervention were somehow transferring from the treated individuals to others in their environment – revealing a previously unappreciated, and potentially very meaningful, ecological power of this comparatively small intervention.

 

So how were effects from the treated students spreading to their classmates? The authors ruled out direct impacts of stereotype threat reduction; for instance, it did not appear to be the case that the improved academic performance of African American students who received the intervention in turn reduced negative stereotypes felt by other African Americans, because the benefits of treatment density in a classroom were spread to other students regardless of race. Furthermore, a separate experiment on subliminal stereotyping did not suggest a general reduction in stereotype presence and consequent stereotype threat. Instead, it appears that the bolstering the treated students’ academic success – rather than how that bolstering was achieved – may have driven the transmissible benefits. The authors suggest that these students’ higher performance might have changed behavioral norms in the classroom in ways that fostered success; additionally, where the treatment was experienced by students who had previously been struggling and who were subsequently able to boost their performance, this may have freed up teachers to focus on other struggling students, thus improving performance overall. This was supported by the finding that the treatment density in a classroom had the greatest positive impact on students in the lower end on academic performance.

 

While much remains to be clarified about the mechanisms, this paper provides exciting evidence that targeted psychological interventions can result in significant ecological changes: from an epicenter of treated individuals, benefits can spread to everyone like ripples in a pond.


From Bed[side] to Bench: Involving Patients and the Public in Biomedical Research

By Celine Cammarata

 

Many of us doing biomedical science never really see patients, the very people our work will hopefully one day help. But what if we did – what if those individuals who will eventually be using our research on a daily basis were in fact involved in the work from the start? How would research change?

 

This is the concept underlying the movement toward Patient and Public Involvement or PPI, a title that (logically enough) refers to efforts by researchers and institutions to engage patients and members of the public in the process of biomedical research and, in doing so, fundamentally change the way scientific information is created and disseminated. Traditionally, the flow if information between science and society was seen as relatively unidirectional, with researchers passing scientific knowledge down to an uninformed, receptive public. More recently, however, there has been a growing recognition that information flow from the end-users of research back to investigators is also critical.

 

One way to accomplish this is to directly incorporate those users – broadly defined as patients, caregivers, members of the public rather than clinicians or practitioners - into the research process. A prominent definition of PPI is “research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them” (INVOLVE). Individual instances of PPI can be quite variable, though most engage users in some form of advisory role, often through interviews, surveys, focus groups, and hosting users alongside researchers on regularly-meeting advisory groups (Domecq et al., 2014). PPI is represented at all stages of research, from inception of project ideas through the data collection process to implementation of findings and evaluation and is most prevalent in research that is either directly related to health or social issues and services.

 

A primary driving force behind PPI is the belief that input from users will push research toward questions that are more relevant to those users. Individuals with first-hand experience of an illness or other condition are thought to hold a particular kind of expertise and therefore able to craft more immediately relevant research questions than an academic investigator in the field might.

 

One important stage at which patients and the public are having an impact is by working with funding agencies to establish research priorities. For instance, the UK’s NHS Health Technology Assessment program involves users alongside clinicians and researchers in the development and prioritization of research priority questions. Members of the public were engaged in several different stages of the process, from initial suggestion of research ideas through to selecting topics that would be developed into solicitations for research. Analysis revealed that overall these lay members exerted an influence on the research agenda approximately equal to that of academic and clinical professionals (Oliver, Armes, & Gyte, 2009).

 

PPI can also increase the relevance of individual studies, with specific examples including: users of mental health services shifting outcome measurement in a study of therapies to improve cognition away from psychological tests in favor measuring performance on daily activities; the investigation of environmental factors such as radiation, which researchers originally considered negligible, in a study of breast cancer; and the development of new assessment tools to measure the mental and psychological condition of stroke victims in a study that initially planned to focus only on physical health outcomes (Staley, 2009).

 

Users may express particular suspicions or hunches about their condition that they believe should receive further investigation, may increase pressure on investigators to clearly state how their work will contribute to the public, and may challenge whether a project is even conceptualized in a way relevant to those who experiencing the situation in question, helping to determine whether a research problem is truly a “problem” at all. An excellent example of the impacts of PPI in research commissioning is the Head Up project, an entirely user-driven project in which patients with motor neuron disease working with one of the CCF programs pushed for research on an improved supportive neck collar.

 

PPI may also help increase the up-take of research findings because user’s are generally able to relate to and communicate with other users and practitioners in a uniquely meaningful way. Patients and members of the public may help to write up study findings, present at conferences or, importantly, bring findings directly to the user community.

 

Of course, nothing comes without a cost. A number of challenges in conducting PPI have consistently been identified, including: insufficient time and funding; tension over roles on the project and difficult relations between academic researchers and users; lack of training for both users and researchers; and a tokenistic attitude toward PPI on the part of investigators. Still relatively little is known about the precise effects of PPI or best practices. However, these are active areas of scholarship. Also of note is the relative lack of PPI in basic science research; PPI is predominantly relegated to applied health and social research. An important step in furthering PPI would be to establish who the “users” of basic research are, whether PPI in basic research is likely to be beneficial, and how the practice could be implemented.

 

Overall, it is clear that the end-users of research can be incorporated into setting the research agenda, designing studies and communicating results, and suggests that such user engagement can increase the relevance of research and the dissemination and adoption of findings.


Should Systematic Review be a Bigger Part of Science?

 

 

By Celine Cammarata

For years, groups such as the Cochrane Collaborative and the Campbell Collaboration have worked to support and promote systematic review of medical and social policy research, respectively. These reviews can then help decision-makers and practitioners on the ground - doctors, public health officials, policy developers, etc. – to make scientifically based choices without having to wade through hundreds of journal articles and sort the diverse fragments of evidence provided. In a Lancet editorial last November, authors Iain Chalmers and Magne Nylenna expounded on how systematic reviews are critical for those within science as well, particularly in the development of new research. Given these lines of reasoning, should we as scientists try to elevate systematic review to a more esteemed position in the world of research?

Systematic reviews differ from traditional narrative-style reviews in several ways. Traditional reviews generally walk readers through the current state of a field and provide qualitative descriptions of the most relevant past work. In contrast, systematic reviews seeks to answer a specific research question, lays out a priori criteria to determine which studies will and will not be included in the review, uses these criteria to find all matching work (as much as possible), and combines all this evidence to answer the question, often by way of a meta-analysis.

Chalmers and Nylenna argued that many scientists fail to systematically build future work upon a thorough evaluation of past evidence. This, the authors believe, is problematic both ethically and economically, as it can lead to unnecessary duplication of work, continued research on a question that has already been answered, and waste of research animals and funding (see the Evidence Based Research Network site for more on research waste). Moreover, research synthesis as supported by Cochrane and Campbell helps package existing scientific findings into something that practitioners can use, thus greatly facilitating translational research – one of science’s hottest buzzwords, and with good reason. On the flip side, as Chalmers and Nylenna argue, if a field does not actively synthesize it’s findings, this can cause inefficiency in answering overall research questions that can have significant consequences if the issue at hand has important health implications.

I think there are many reasons large-scale research synthesis is currently less-than-appealing to scientists. On the production side, preparing a systematic review can be extremely time consuming, and generally offers little career reward. On the usage side, some researcher may not consider a systematic review necessary or even preferable as a basis for future work – they may feel that less systematic means are actually better suited to the situation, for instance if they have less confidence in some findings than others based on personal knowledge about the study's execution. Additionally, investigators may consider narrative reviews to be a sufficient to basis for future studies even if these reviews do not employ meta-analysis, for instance if such narrative reviews were authored by leaders in the field whose expertise and scientific judgment is respected.

What would it look like to put research synthesis in a position of greater prominence? For one thing, as mentioned above, contributing to reviews would likely have to be incentivized if investigators are to be enticed away from their busy schedules, so this would constitute a change in the current academic reward structure. In addition, if scientists saw research synthesis as more valuable than individual high-priority papers, this might both necessitate and foster a more collaborative attitude. Doing research with the explicit goal of making it usable to those who will build off it and filling specific holes in the current body of knowledge may drive very different experiments than does a goal of producing exciting, flashy papers (obviously this is not an either-or situation – in fact I think the vast majority of scientists work somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between these poles).

One step in this direction might be the growing movement of data sharing. Another might be greater coordination within a field about methodology and research questions, which could streamline synthesis. For example, a recent Campbell review on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy found that of 394 potentially relevant studies, only 7 were ultimately eligible for inclusion in the review, indicating that many investigators either used insufficiently rigorous methodology, fell short of fully reporting data, or prioritized different design aspects than those review authors needed to address the question at hand.

 

Should these changes be made? To me, this remains somewhat opaque. Arguments such as Chalmers and Nylenna’s are strong, and a focus on synthesis could come hand-in-hand with some refreshing changes in how science is done. But systematic review is not the only tool in the toolbox. For now, it remains a choice each scientist will have to make for her or himself.


Growing the Future

 

First Ever Biofabricate Conference a Great Success

 

By Celine Cammarata

 

Last week I had the good fortune of attending the first ever Biofabricate conference, a day-long event born of the combined genius of SynBioBeta and BioCouture. Hosted at the stylish (if somewhat creepily modern) Microsoft Research Center in Times Square, the summit brought together an illustrious group of synthetic biologists, bio-engineers, designers, architects, entrepreneurs, and more. While, as the name implied, the discussion focused on creation of materials and products through biological means, this topic turned out to be incredibly diverse – after all, what does it really mean for something to be “biofabricated”?

 

For some, biofabrication revolves around improving our communication and interaction with cells and organisms. Researchers such as Microsoft’s Andrew Phillips are developing new coding languages and platforms to program cells and other biologicals, while others continue to develop an ever-expanding suit of methods to edit genomes. Techniques to guide cell growth have led to incredible breakthroughs such as the ability to grow patient-specific replacement bones, not to mention design of made-to-order organisms at companies such as Ginkgo Bioworks.

 

For others, biofabrication is about using nature to inspire and create products and processes that, in turn, are kinder to nature – and to us. Mushrooms were a star in this realm, specifically their matrix-like mycelium that can be used to forge bricks, packaging and other materials that are entirely compostable (EcoVative is the leader in this burgeoning industry). Bacteria are also pulling their weight, helping make environmentally friendly plastics from waste and building materials without a kiln. Furthermore, bio-inspired products can open new avenues for devices that are compatible with our own bodies; Dr. Fiorenzo Omenetto’s technology to create almost anything out of silk – a fully bio-compatible and incredibly safe material – were particularly impressive.

 

Biofabrication is also explored through art and design. From growing bone and leather fineries to employing various strains of bacteria to dye textiles, work from designers who have stepped into the lab was truly multidisciplinary. Designers can also help us understand how biotechnology fits into our society, as with the playfully creative design fiction of NextNature or the exploratory architecture of Terreform1.

All these themes, more intertwined than they are disparate, share a sense of collaboration – not only among ourselves, but with nature, biology, the larger world in which humans exist. At a first glance, the work of programming cells, cultivating tissues, or using organisms to grow materials may seem to be about trying to control nature, or “play god” as the internet likes to put it. But throughout the work presented at Biofabricate it was apparent that this research and these technologies instead require acceptance of nature and the way that it works. When bacteria are dying your textiles, you have to be willing to accept their choice of patterns. When mushrooms are making your bricks, you may need to learn new architectural techniques. You can develop a programing language to talk to cells and organisms, but to do so you must learn their language. Nearly all the speakers expressed that part of the pleasure and benefit of working with biological materials and systems is that biology can often propose better solutions that we may ever think of on our own.

 

Altogether Biofabricate was a resounding success: though the conference was only publicly announced a few months in advance, registration was completely sold out and clichéd as it might sound, the gathering had a palpable energy, with every overheard snippet of conversation more interesting than the last. The barrier-breaking combination of design and biology is a winning recipe that promises many more successful gatherings to come.


The Global STEM Alliance – Revolutionary or More of the Same?

 

By Celine Cammarata

A few weeks ago, the New York Academy of Sciences and an impressive slew of public and private partners announced the Global STEM Alliance, a new initiative to attract and retain bright young minds in science, math and engineering. On the surface this new project seems much like many other efforts to "fix" STEM education that have already come and gone, and indeed the Alliance is built on principles that can hardly be considered unprecedented: it seeks to provide better resources for science teachers, give kids exposure to real labs and scientists to pique their interest, and leverage the internet to reach widespread populations. But the unique combination of details comprising the program give the impression that it might actually achieve something more revolutionary.

 

Networks that Work

The Global STEM Alliance is using an innovative combination of on-the-ground and online components. While the Alliance will work with partner agencies to develop classroom materials, teacher education and other activities, the crux of the operation will be an new online platform combining videoconferencing and state-of-the-art educational tools to create, essentially, a virtual playground for science learning. Although the Alliance has not revealed exactly what will be hosted on this platform, it seems the main idea is that the e-space will foster collaborations, and will provide a central location for Alliance programs to reach diverse audiences.

 

Locally Conscious with a Global Perspective

True to name, the Global STEM Alliance will be an international endeavor. The Alliance is building from the NYAS’s current educational projects, which already are established or developing in six countries, and will use strategic partnerships to continue expansion from there. At the same time, the group plans to structure on-the-ground components so that they can be tailored to local needs.

This framework hopes to increases diversity, capturing the creative power and scientific spark of students in nations that may not typically be considered science hubs. Furthermore, this global reach replaces the nationalist rhetoric often associated with STEM education with a more collaborative approach, stressing science as something the brings humanity together rather than as a source of competition. The goal is not, in this case, to ensure our STEM workforce continues to dominate that of other nations, but instead to ensure that, collectively, we can meet the scientific challenges the world poses.

 

Mentors Matter

The program will heavily emphasize mentorship, particularly as a means of fighting attrition of students from STEM fields due to disinterest and discouragement; the hope seems to be that getting students under someone’s wing – preferably someone they can relate to – will help them feel more encouraged to pursue STEM, more excited and inspired, and to find STEM fields more accessible. Furthermore, the online platform will enable previously unlikely mentor-mentee relationships, linking researchers, industry professionals, and others from all over the world with an equally distributed student pool.

 

An All-Star Team

The Global STEM Alliance is not only built on partnership, but arguably has some of the best possible partners available. The NYAS has buddied up with communications giant Cisco to develop the online component of the Alliance, and has (or will be) recruited Nobel laureates and leaders in industry to be among the collaborative network and to mentor students.

 

Soft Skills Sell

The Alliance also claims that it will be emphasizing soft skills - management, teamwork, communication - which lie at the heart of the "STEM paradox." However, it remains unclear how the Group plans to accomplish this, particularly given that most of the proposed activities that have been describes, such as working with a team of other future-scientists to solve a research problem, are not too different form the training already being received by university, graduate and postdoctoral students in STEM, which apparently has not prevented this crisis from occurring.

 

Impact?

What can we expect to result from the Global STEM Alliance? While the project's success of course remains to be seen, it seems likely that this effort will make significant headway in improving retention so students in STEM, inspiring them to consider STEM careers, and possible better preparing them by developing the soft skill side. The impact of this, in turn, depends on your perspective. While the Alliance says that it's efforts will drastically combat the ongoing STEM crisis, numerous commentators have called into question the existence of many such crisis. But that remains for another day...


Squeezed science

Squeezed Science – What Does it Mean for the Next Generation?

 

By Celine Cammarata

Recent mainstream media coverage of the severe funding shortages in scientific research and the ramifications thereof have re-kindled discussion of these topics, already on the minds of many researchers. As a post-bacc trying to determine whether and how best to pursue a career in science, such discussion always make me question the implications for those of us at the threshold of the field. What new challenges should our scientific “generation” prepare for, what can we learn and what can we do differently to improve our likelihood of flourishing in science?

 

To young prospective scientists, a preliminary challenge is determining how much worry the current funding issues deserve to begin with. Not only do we, as newcomers to the field, lack the experience to compare this to the normal ebb and flow of research funding, but when we look to our mentors we get mixed advice, and of course we tend to only be in labs that do have funding. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to get a clear idea of just how serious the problem is, and what it means for us and our career choices. While concern about funding is a frequent topic of conversation among science students, it is rarely cited as a factor in their choices of whether to pursue research careers.

 

If we do decide to follow the scientific path, how can we update our expectations to match today’s reality - must we set aside the goal of one day running labs of our own? In one NPR piece, NYU post-doc program director Keith Micoli commented that even aside from budget cutbacks, a system in which one PI trains multiple post-docs who all expect to “replace” the PI is not sustainable. Changing expectations may help alleviate parts of the problem, both psychologically by reducing stress and disappointment and empirically by guiding modern scientists down more fruitful career paths. But how can that change be realized?

 

Currently "alternative" careers for science PhDs are often treated as a backup plan rather than a potential source of genuine excitement; the default remains to strive for a tenure-track position. This artificially limits the scope of careers options science students consider and in turn prepare for, both psychologically and in their training. No doubt this bias in part due to the fact that students are generally trained by professors, and so academic science is the primary career they are exposed to. Engaging other professionals in training students and presenting an array of career possibilities from the earliest point in scientific training are among structural changes in science education that could improve the plight of future generations of scientists.

 

What does the shifting reality of science research imply for outreach? Despite the current funding challenges, much outreach work is still geared toward attracting young people to careers in science, often specifically research. Undergraduate students are encouraged to consider research and often even stand to gain funding through scholarships and fellowships. Does this amount to recruiting for jobs that do not exist? At a minimum, extending the above line of thought, should outreach efforts of this sort try to represent the diversity of scientific careers available and not emphasize academic research? I myself am no longer sure what to tell the undergraduates I work with; can I encourage their interest in research, without contributing to the potential insecurity of their future careers?

 

I believe that most of my generation of students wants to see academic research as a viable career, but we also see the writing on the wall – times have changed and the career trajectories of our mentors may not be applicable to ourselves. The question remains: armed with this knowledge, how can we build on the old and create the new so that the next years of scientific minds may continue to flourish?


Till Science Do Us Part

 

By Celine Cammarata

The two-body problem is no secret in academia; indeed, prominent voices such as Nature Blogs have written numerous excellent resources on the issue and how to avoid separation (see below for a taste of these).  But as a graduate student or post doc, you might not have the same kinds of bargaining chips that PIs do in negotiating dual placements, not to mention that at these career stages you and your significant other are likely somewhat reliant on working with the right mentors - which might not be in the same location. Most of us were well aware getting into it that our scientific careers would be demanding, but for many this is where the dual-career rubber meets the road.  So what do you do?

This was the situation I found myself in at the start of graduate school, as I headed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD and my then fiancé pack off to Cambridge, England.  Yes, it was stressful and difficult, but over time we did find ways to make it easier.  So, if you are facing a scientific separation, here are a few suggestions to make the experience as smooth as possible.

 

The Groundwork - basic tips for a good foundation

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  • Know the Plan. Don’t underestimate the power if good planning. Knowing when you’ll see each other again relieves stress, gives you something to look forward to, and makes parting more bearable.
  • You’re Not Alone (In Being Alone). Chances are many of your peers and colleagues are going through they same thing - in my lab every lab member but the PI was in a long distance relationship! This creates a valuable support network; not only will these people understand the emotional strain you might be under, but you can help one another in concrete ways too, like taking turns with lab chores so everyone has some free time to visit his or her partner.
  • A Warm Welcome.  Many universities have tight-knit communities - and as the live-in-another-country partner to someone if one of these communities, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you visit.  Making an effort to include your significant other in your group when he or she is present can go a long way in relieving tension and making your visits more enjoyable.

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Beyond Skype  - some concrete suggestions to stay connected

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  • Can You Picture That?  The typical “how was your day” conversation ca get tiresome very quickly, but somehow seeing pictures of someone’s day never does (if you need proof just look to Instagram).  Setting up a joint online photo album with your significant other can be a great way to share and compile images to capture all the little things in your day and keep one another feeling present and involved.
  • Long-Distance Teamwork.  If you were together and one of you wanted to start eating better, the other probably would try to help out, right?  Well, the same holds in a long-distance relationship.  Setting shared goals - whether it’s to read one paper every day or go to the gym - then checking in with one another on how you’re progressing can be both very motivating and a great way to feel like a team despite the distance.
  • Take on Projects.  Believe it or not, this can be a great time to learn something new together.  For instance, my husband and I set up a “cooking challenge” - every week we each prepared a meal from a specific category, then Skyped to compare our results.  The challenge was not only fun and excellent protection against the notorious “running out of things to say” problem, but we both came away with a new skill.
  • How Puzzling.  After a while it gets to you - being able to talk to one another is important, but it’s not the same as being able to actually do something together.  Though it sounds a bit silly, simple puzzles and games can be a great way to break this tension.  We routinely played MadLibs and an assortment of goofy two-player online games, which were always sure to lighten the mood.

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Terrific posts on the two-body problem and related challenges in academia:

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"Science" Opens Up

 

By Celine Cammarata

When biologist Randy Schekman denounced high impact journals just after winning the Nobel Prize last year, his cry joined a rising tide of voices in favor of open access.  Almost exactly a year ago, Nature announced its partnership with the open access publisher Frontiers, and had even before that offered authors the option of publishing their papers under a creative commons license in exchange for a processing fee. Considering this climate, I was hardly surprised when the journal Science announced last week, via an editorial, that it will be launching a new, open-access digital journal, Science Advances.

The open access debate is often framed in terms of (not surprisingly) accessibility of research, specifically whether papers are free to read. Science, however, has approached the issue predominantly in terms of publishing space.  “The research enterprise has grown dramatically in the past decades in the number of high-quality practitioners and results,” editor in chief Marcia McNutt and AAAS CEO and Science Executive Publisher Alan Leshner state, “but the capacity for Science to accommodate those works in our journal has not kept pace.”  Science Advances, the authors explain, was born out of the desire to stop turning away potentially important papers, as the journal claims it is forced to do by space limitations.  Increased publishing space will also allow the journal to further diversify the research areas represented.

Science downplayed matters of subscription fees and availability, mentioning only briefly that in order to better serve scientists with limited resources and better disseminate authors’ work, the journal will be available to anyone with an internet connection.  As in many open access journals, the costs normally covered by subscriptions will be displaced by authors paying a processing fee.  Science is aiming to keep those costs down, though: Science Advances’ administrative side will be run out of the existing Science offices, and the journal will not feature any commentary or editorials - only research articles and reviews.

The journal also aims for rapid publication; rather than being released weekly, as in its parent journal, papers published in Science Advances will appear as soon as they are ready.  Furthermore, papers rejected from Science’s traditional journals on the basis of space can be shuttled right along for review at Science Advances, to “speed publication, alleviate the burden on the reviewer community, and reduce the risk to authors of having to resubmit elsewhere.”  Of course, this system arguably also protects Science from inadvertently turning away the paper of the century only to have it published by a competing journal.

Despite the gathering steam of open access proponents, high impact journals largely continue to hold center stage; in this filed where prestige is often the going currency, it takes a certain degree of faith and commitment for investigators to choose less established open access platforms over well known traditional journals when it comes time to publish.  Will open access projects from Nature and Science help bridge this divide?  Science apparently anticipates the reputation of its traditional journals to extend to Science Advances; in relating the motivation behind the new journal, McNutt and Leshner mention that “although other journals provide publishing venues for more papers, many authors still desire to be published in Science.”  But the announcement also come a year before Science Advances is set to launch, and before the journal’s editors have even been recruited, making the venture seem rather rushed.  Is Science joining the open access scene truly reflective of, and contributing to, a paradigm shift, or is the journal only seeking to cover its… bases?  Perhaps only time will tell.


Neuroscience: Should We Be Worried?

 

By Celine Cammarata

By nature of focussing on that squishy, convoluted organ that the mind calls home, the field of neuroscience is prone to investigating topics, and producing data, that could be considered… personal.  Take defining what makes some of us smarter than others, decoding patterns of activity to reveal thoughts, or examining the mental effects of economic instability, for example, not to mention the controversies of working with non-human primates as is required for much higher-level cognitive research.  We must ask ourselves, then, what are the ethical considerations associated with performing such experiments?  What can we, and what should we, do with the information obtained?  How far is too far?

Such are the questions that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues hopes to gain insight on, following a request from the President to investigate the ethical considerations of neuroscience research.  To do this, the Commission is turning to the public: in a requested released in January, the Commission called on individuals, groups, and organizations to submit comments on the moral issues relating to both the process and results of research in the field.  The Commission, which has used similar approaches on other topics in the past, will then incorporate this commentary into it’s overall research, toward the final goal of crafting policy advice and determining and encouraging best practices.

And, to be fair, they’re pretty good questions.  Certainly neuroscientists, like other investigators, are generally self-regulating when it comes to ethical considerations.  But the Commission’s push gives us once again the impetus to ask the perennial questions, are there some things that should not be researched?  Are some things better not to know?  While not original, nor easily answered, these questions bear repeating and consideration.

The Commission specifically requested input on several topics, including whether current codes regulating the use of human subjects are adequate for neuroscience experiments, concerns over potential implications of results and downstream effects on discrimination and concepts of moral responsibility, the proper place of neuroscience in the courtroom, and the potential moral issues associated with communication of neuroscience findings.  This last topic particularly caught my attention, for while clearly an important issue, communication is not always thought of in the light of morality.  Are researchers obligated to share some discoveries?  Are journalists being unethical when they trump up findings?  It’s certainly food for thought.

Those who want to see the committee in action can tune in to the live feed of their public meeting to discuss neuroethics, today and tomorrow in Washington D.C. and online.


I’ve Got Skills: Great Resources to Sharpen Your Science Abilities

 

By The Scizzle Team

Writer.  Computer programer.  Graphic designer.  Public speaker.

As scientists, we wear many hats.  This variety is one of the great aspects of work, but staying polished on so many different areas can be challenging.  Whether you’re learning something new, or just want to brush up, here are some terrific resources to keep your science skills gleaming.

Credit University of Pittsburgh at Bradford (WikiMedia Commons)
Credit University of Pittsburgh at Bradford (WikiMedia Commons)

You Did What Now?

For learning lab techniques. a video is worth a thousand words.  On JoVE, a video journal, you’ll find crisp, clear footage of real experiments (you can even find Scizzle's founder video there).  BenchFly hosts video protocols, everything from making dilutions to data analysis - even the best way to label bottles!

Bring it into Focus

What objective should I be using?  Why is my image fuzzy?  Annnnd I just crashed through my slide.  Microscopes can be confusing, but worry not: Nikon, Zeiss and Olympus all offer interactive tutorials in which you can turn knobs, test setting, and explore the scope - with no fear of breaking anything.

Go with the Flow

Life Technologies has great resources about everything flow, from tutorials to protocols to spectra viewer (which we highly recommend bookmarking). Now there's no excuse for using overlapping fluorophores!

Walking Down the Path

Need to brush up on the PI3K/ AKT pathway?  Or, do you need a nice sketch of tyrosine kinase signaling for your next presentation?  Check out the Cell Signaling Technology website, and if you need an antibody for your favorite molecule, their path maps make it easy to find.

Credit Benjamint444 (WikiMedia Commons)
Credit Benjamint444 (WikiMedia Commons)

Got a Bug in Your Coding Skills?

From running experiments to building models to analyzing data, computer programming is increasingly essential to research.  If you’re a beginner, Code Academy is a simple and straightforward way to get going with languages such as HTML, Java, Python, and more.  You can even learn Ruby on Rails in 1 month! For more specialized resources, try Mathwork’s Matlab tutorials, or those by the University of Edinburgh.

It Figures

A great figure can make your paper or presentation shine - but where do those come from?   McGill grad student Patrick J. Mineault demystifies Illustrator with an 8-part video series tailored for scientists.  Adobe’s official site also offers a quick tutorial on making scientific figures (also check out Adobe for Academics for tutorials on creating presentations, websites, and more).  For more specific topics, check out this cache of 100 Illustrator tutorials ranging from the basics to advanced pointers.

Talk the Talk

We’ve all been to bad talks (or good naps, depending on how you look at it).  Don’t let your own talks be among them!  McGraw Hill offers a written tutorial on preparing speeches that, while slightly old fashioned, has some excellent tips, and Howcast's videos on preparing and delivering presentations cover everything from the best use of bullet points to using humor.  Another great way to build your confidence and improve your public speaking is by joining Toast Masters.

Credit Museo de Prado (WikiMedia Commons)
Credit Museo de Prado (WikiMedia Commons)

Say What You Want to Say

Whether it’s grant proposals, papers, or your thesis, writing is hard.  Nothing can substitute for practice, but Yale Grad guides and tutorials give you a leg-up on writing no matter what your career stage or objective, including grant writing and dissertation writing.

Smarty Pants

Whether you're giving journal club, preparing for your thesis committee or just trying to stay competitive - you are expected to know EVERYTHING going on in your field. Use Scizzle to stay on top of your science, like our happy users,  so you'll be the one asking your boss: "Have you seen this paper from so and so?"

Who Did What When

After you find all the newest papers on Scizzle, keep them organize. Organizing citations can be a nightmare, but citation managers only help if you know how to use them.  Learn to make your manager do all the heavy lifting with tutorials for Mendeley, Endnote, Zotero and RefWorks.  Not sure which program to use?  Check out this helpful comparison.

How About You?

What skills are most important to your work?  Do you know any great resources for learning new science skills?  Let us know in the comments!


Decoding the Literature: Annotated Research Papers to Teach the Scientific Process

 

 

By Celine Cammarata

Most students graduating from high school or college have taken at least a few science courses, and consequently have some knowledge of elementary scientific facts about the world (in theory, at least).  But is this enough?  Or do students also require an understanding of how science works, how scientific knowledge is obtained?

This was the idea behind Science in the Classroom, or SitC, a website that provides annotated scientific papers.  Launched last fall by the journal Science, the goal of SitC is for all students to read at least one journal article before leaving school, in hopes that this exposure to research literature will help clarify the inner workings of science and how it gives rise to information.  As discussed in an editorial marking the inauguration of SitC, a lack of understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from can foster the spread of misinformation and a disinclination to base important designs on scientific evidence; some might even argue it could lead to distrust of science and scientists.  Hence: SitC.

The idea of SitC piqued my curiosity, so I recently spent a while exploring the site.  Although only seven papers are available so far, the resources attached to those paper are fairly substantial.  Each paper is kicked off by an introduction and a set of “thought questions,” guiding students to consider the research critically and in context and mimicking the types of questions scientists ask themselves about a paper.  This is further supported by detail-oriented questions interspersed throughout the text, fostering engagement as one reads.  Figures are accompanied by a summary of the questions being asked, the experimental set up, brief explanations of techniques and symbols, and more, to help students work through the sometimes confusing jumble of graphs and images.  Finally, students can choose to enable various tools, such as a glossary that highlights and defines potentially unfamiliar terminology, or a function that specifically highlights the author’s conclusions.  Each paper is available in full length, geared toward university students, or in an abbreviated form intended for high schoolers.

It would seem that such a resource has numerous other uses in addition to teaching high school and college students about the scientific process.  Annotated papers can serve as a vehicle  to greater scientific literacy not only students but for the public at large, increasing public access to science by granting more citizens to ability to read scientific papers and actually get something out of them.  Furthermore, SitC could act as training wheels for scientists-to-be as they learn the vital skill of analyzing literature.  Finally, studying papers that have been broken down in this way can provide valuable insight for investigators into how they might best explain their own work to a broader audience.

Although SitC has garnered relatively little attention so far, it will be interesting to see how teachers, students, scientists and others utilize this resource in the future.


Mother Knows Best: Breast Milk Affects Cognitive Function

 

 

By Celine Cammarata

Bacteria, parents’ experiences, poverty - the list of environmental factors that affect cognition continues to grow, and now there’s a new one: breast milk.  The composition of a mother’s milk can confer cognitive advantages to her offspring.

 

It’s known that the cytokine TNF (tumor necrosis factor), which works primarily in the immune system, is also found in the central nervous system, and past evidence has even suggested that TNF knockout mice may have some cognitive gains.  Now, researchers have revealed that spatial learning and memory are improved in mice whose mothers lack one or both TNF alleles.

 

Mice born to mothers with little or no TNF outperformed their peers on the Morris Water Maze, a widely used test of spatial memory that depends on the hippocampus.  These animals also demonstrated a transient elevation of neural proliferation in the dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus during development, which may underly their increased cognitive skills; inhibiting this increased proliferation eliminated the behavioral differences.  Furthermore, gene expression and dendrite morphology of dentate gyrus neurons were also altered in these offspring.

 

Why?  The answer could not be genetic: mice whose biological mothers were genetically normal, but who were raised by TNF-deficient foster mothers, had the same advanced skills.  So did offspring of genetically normal mothers, when the mother’s TNF levels were inhibited directly by administering antibodies for the protein postpartum.  It turns out that reducing TNF leads to lower levels of several chemokines in the mother’s milk.  Because newborn mice can’t fully break down such proteins, when these chemokines are present in milk they can reach the pup’s digestive tract in concentrations high enough to effect the immune and nervous systems from the gut.  Thus, the lack of these proteins can have an effect as well.  Although the precise mechanism of how milk composition alters hippocampal development is not yet clear, it may act in part by altering the number of white blood cells present in circulation.

 

TNF levels in the body can decrease as a downstream effect of mild stress and physical activity, as might occur when animals live in a challenging environment.  Perhaps this system of using low TNF to trigger increased cognitive capacity in offspring evolved as a way for parents to better “prepare” their young for the world.


Feeling overworked? You’re not alone.

 

 

Celine Cammarata

Regardless of beliefs or traditions, many of us would probably like to be at home with our families right now.  But cells need tending, data points need collecting, and science halts for no man - or at least so it seems.  I recently got to wondering, are the hours of a scientist as crazy as they feel?

In a nutshell yes, we do work a lot - but not that much more than other professions.

You’ve probably already seen this info graphic, showing that science is the most coffee-consuming profession, and it’s no surprise when you consider our hours.  A paper posted to arXiv in 2012 examined the times at which papers are downloaded from Springer to gain insight into when scientists are working.  The U.S., Germany, and mainland China top the list in paper downloading.  Based on this metric, scientists tend to work late into the night as well as on weekends.  Trends in specific time distribution vary by country, with American scientists favoring long evenings over working on weekends; Chinese scientists closing shop overnight, but taking little rest over the weekend; and German scientists splitting the difference.  Interestingly, American scientists seem to be particularly bad at taking a lunch break - while China and Germany showed appreciable dips in paper downloading around early afternoon, no such trend is seen in the U.S.

All those nights and weekends add up.  In 2005 the NSF reported that scientists and engineers working in education (which included those doing research and teaching at universities as well as K-12 teachers) work an average of 50.6 hours a week overall, or over 52 hours a week for those in biology or engineering.  Scientists seeking tenure work a bit more, averaging 52.51 hours per week overall. Interestingly, those with children tend to work only slightly fewer hours per week than their childless counterparts, although the effect of children on working hours is more pronounced for women than for men.  Finally, it’s worth noting these figures do not include graduate students.

However, this workload is not as uncommon as one might think.  According to a Telegraph article earlier this year, over 80% of white collar professionals now clock more than 40 hours a week, with 28% working 50 hours a week or more - up from 19% in 2011. Of course, this is for UK workers, whereas the above numbers refer to the United States.

Nonetheless, the increasing commonality of long working hours doesn’t indicate that there is no problem.  The authors of the arXiv paper conclude that “scientists today are spending much more time working than initially intended. They are deprioritizing their hobbies, leisure activities, and regular exercises, which negatively influenced their mental and physical health.”  What are your thoughts?  Leave a comment and join the discussion!


The Most Scizzling Papers of 2013

 

The Scizzle Team

Bacteriophage/animal symbiosis at mucosal surfaces

The mucosal surfaces of animals, which are the major entry points for pathogenic bacteria, are also known to contain bacteriophages. In this study, Barr et al. characterized the role of these mucus associated phages. Phages were more commonly found on mucosal surfaces than other environments and adhere to mucin glycoproteins via hypervariable immunoglobulin like domains. Bacteriophage pre-treatment of mucus producing cells provided protection from bacterial induced death, but this was not the case for cells that did not produce mucus. These studies show that there may be a symbiotic relationship between bacteriophages and multicellular organisms which provides bacterial prey for the phages and antimicrobial protection for the animals.

[hr]

Interlocking gear system discovered in jumping insects

Champion jumping insects need to move their powerful hind legs in synchrony to prevent spinning. Burrows and Sutton studied the mechanism of high speed jumping in Issus coleoptratus juveniles and found the first ever example in nature of an interlocking gear system. The gears are located on the trochantera (leg segments close to the body’s midline) and ensure both hind legs move together when Issus is preparing and jumping. As the insect matures, the gear system is lost, leaving the adults to rely on friction between trochantera for leg synchronization.

[hr]

HIV-1 capsid hides virus from immune system

Of the two strains of HIV, HIV-1 is the more virulent and can avoid the human immune response, whereas HIV-2 is susceptible. This may be due to the fact that HIV-2 infects dendritic cells, which detect the virus and induce an innate immune response. HIV-1 cannot infect dendritic cells unless it is complexed with the HIV-2 protein Vpx, and even then the immune response isn’t induced until late in the viral life cycle, after integration into the host genome. Lahaye et al. found that only viral cDNA synthesis is required for viral detection by dendritic cells, not genome integration. Mutating the capsid proteins of HIV-1 showed that the capsid prevents sensing of HIV-1 cDNA until after the integration step. This new insight into how HIV-1 escapes immune detection may help HIV vaccine development.

[hr]

Transcription factor binding in exons affects protein evolution

Many amino acids are specified by multiple codons that are not present in equal frequencies in nature. Organisms display biases towards particular codons, and in this study Stamatoyannopoulos et al. reveal one explanation. They find that transcription factors bind within exonic coding sequences, providing a selective pressure determining which codon is used for that particular amino acid. These codons are called duons for their function as both an amino acid code and a transcription factor binding site.

[hr]

Chromosome silencing

Down syndrome is caused by the most common chromosomal abnormality in live-born humans: Trisomy 21. The association of the syndrome with an extra (or partial extra) copy of chromosome 21 was established in 1959. In the subsequent fifty years a number of advances have been made using mouse models, but there are still many unanswered questions about exactly why the presence of this extra chromosome should lead to the observed defects. An ideal experimental strategy would be to turn off the extra chromosome in human trisomy 21 cells and compare the “corrected” version of these cells with the original trisomic cells. This is exactly what a team led by Jeanne Lawrence at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has done. Down syndrome is not the only human trisomy disorder: trisomy 13 (Patau syndrome) and trisomy 18 (Edward’s syndrome), for example, produce even more severe effects, with life expectancy usually under one to two years. Inducible chromosome silencing of cells from affected individuals could therefore also provide insights into the molecular and cellular etiology of these diseases.

[hr]

Grow your own brain

By growing organs in a dish researchers can easily monitor and manipulate the organs' development, gaining valuable insights into how they normally develop and which genes are involved. Now, however, a team of scientists from Vienna and Edinburgh have found a way to grow embryonic “brains” in culture, opening up a whole world of research possibilities. Their technique, published in Nature, has also already provided a new insight into the etiology of microcephaly, a severe brain defect.

[box style="rounded"]Scizzling extra: In general, 2013 was a great year for growing your own kidneyspotentially a limb and liver. What organ will be next? [/box]

[hr]

Sparking metastatic cell growth

A somewhat controversial paper published in Nature Cell Biology this year showed that the perivescular niche regulates breast tumor cells dormancy. The paper showed how disseminated breast tumor cells (DTC) are kept dormant and how they can be activated and aggressively metastasize. Based on the paper, this is due to the interaction of interaction with the microvascularate, where thrombospondin-1 (TSP-1) induces quiescence in DTC and TGF-beta1 and periosstin induces DTC growth. This work opens the door for potential therapeutic against tumor relapse.

[hr]

Fear memories inherited epigenetically

Scientists showed that behavioral experiences can shape mice epigenetically in a way that is transmittable to offspring.  Male mice conditioned to fear an odor showed hypomethylation for the respective odor receptor in their sperm; offspring of these mice showed both increased expression of this receptor, and increased sensitivity to the odor that their fathers had been conditioned on.  Does this suggest that memories can be inherited?

[hr]

Grid cells found in humans

Scientists have long studied rats in a maze, but what about humans?  An exciting paper last August demonstrated that we, like out rodent counterparts, navigate in part using hippocampal grid cells.  Initially identified in the entorhinal cortex of rats back in 2005, grid cells have the interesting activity pattern of firing in a hexagonal grid in the spatial environment and as such are thought to underlie the activity of place cells. Since then grid cells have been found in mice, rats, and monkeys, and fMRI data has suggested grid cells in humans.  This paper used electrophysiological recordings to document grid cell activity in humans.

[hr]

Sleep facilitates metabolic clearance

Sleep is vital to our health, but researchers have never been entirely sure why.  It turns out part of the function of sleep may be washing waste products from the brain, leaving it clean and refreshed for a new day of use.  Exchange of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF), which is the primary means of washing waste products from the brain, was shown to be significantly higher when animals were asleep compared to waking.  This improved flow was traced back to increased interstitial space during sleep, and resulted in much more efficient clearance of waste products.  Thus, sleep may be crucial to flushing metabolites from the brain, leaving it fresh and ready for another day’s work.

[box style = "rounded"] Robert adds: As a college student my friends and I always had discussions about sleep and it was also this mysterious black box of why we actually need to sleep. Studies could show the effects of lack of sleep such as poor cognition and worse memory but this paper linked it to an actual mechanism by which this happens. First of all I found it very impressive that the researchers trained mice to sleep under the microscope. On top of that showing the shrinkage of the neurons and the flow of cerebrospinal fluid which cleans out metabolites finally linked the cognitive aspects of sleep deprivation to the physical brain. [/box]

[hr]

Poverty impedes cognitive function

People who are struggling financially often find it difficult to escape poverty, in part due to apparently poor decision making.  Investigators demonstrated that part of this vicious cycle may arise from cognitive impairment as a direct result of financial pressures.  The researchers found that thinking about finances reduced performance on cognitive tasks in participants who were struggling, but not in those who were financially comfortable.  Furthermore, farmers demonstrated poorer cognitive performance before harvest, at a time of relative poverty, compared to after harvest when money was more abundant.

[hr]

Gut Behavior

2013 has definitely been the year of the gut microbiome! Studies have shown that diet affects the composition of trillions of microorganisms in the human gut, and there is also a great deal of evidence pointing towards the gut microbiome affecting an individual's susceptibility to a number of diseases. Recently published in Cell, Hsiao and colleagues report that gut microbiota also affect behavior, specifically in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Using a mouse model displaying ASD behavioral features, the researchers saw that probiotic treatment not only altered microbial composition, but also corrected gastrointestinal epithelial barrier defects and reduced leakage of metabolites, as demonstrated by an altered serum metabolomic profile. Additionally, a number of ASD behaviors were improved, including communication, anxiety, and sensorimotor behaviors. The researchers further showed that a particular metabolite abundant in ASD mice but lowered with probiotic treatment is the cause of certain behavioral abnormalities, indicating that gut bacteria-specific effects on the mammalian metabolome influence host behavior.
[hr]

Your skin - their home

A paper published in Nature examined the diversity of the fungal and bacterial communities that call our skin home. The analysis done in this study revealed that the physiologic attributes and topography of skin differentially shape these two microbial communities. The study opens the door for studying how the pathogenic and commensal fungal and bacterial communities interact with each other and how it affects the maintenance of human health.

[hr]

Discovery of new male-female interaction can help control malaria

A study published in PLOS Biology provided the first demonstration of an interaction between a male allohormone and a female protein in insects.  The identification of a previously uncharacterized reproductive pathway in A. Gambiae has promise for the development of tools to control malaria-transmitting mosquito populations and interfere with the mating-induced pathway of oogenesis, which may have an effect on the development of Plasmodium malaria parasites.

[box style = "rounded"]Chris adds: "My friend chose this paper to present at journal club one week, because he thought it was well written, interesting etc etc. Unbeknownst to him, one of the paper’s authors was visiting us at the time. We sit down for journal club and one of the PIs comes in, sees the guy and exclaims (with mock exasperation) “you can’t be here!” Me and the presenter look at one another, confused. He presents journal club, and luckily enough, the paper is so well written, that he can’t really criticize it!" [/box]

[hr]

Using grapefruit to deliver chemotherapy

Published in Nature Communications, this paper describes how nanoparticles can be made from edible grapefruit lipids and used to deliver different types of therapeutic agents, including medicinal compounds, short interfering RNA, DNA expression vectors, and proteins to different types of cells. Grapefruit-derived nanovectors demonstrated the ability to inhibit tumor growth in two tumor animal models. Moreover, the grapefruit nanoparticles used in this study had no detectable toxic effects, could be manipulated or modified to target specific cells/ tissues, and were economical to create. Grapefruits may have a bad reputation for interfering with drugs, but perhaps in the future we will be using grapefruit products to deliver drugs more effectively!

[hr]

Getting CLARITY

In May, a new technique called CLARITY to effectively make tissue transparent through a new fixation technique was published in Nature. This new process has allowed them to clearly see neuron connection networks not possible before because they can now view the networks in thicker tissue sections. This new advancement will help researchers be able to better map the brain, but this new technology can also be to create 3-D images of other tissues such as cancer. This new ability allows us to gain better insight into the macroscopic networks within a specific tissue type.

[hr]

Crispier genome-editing

This year, the CRISPR technique was developed as an efficient gene-targeting method. The benefit of this method over the use of TALENS or a zinc-finger knockout is it allows for the rapid generation of mice that have multiple genetic mutations in just one step. The following review gives even more information on this new technique and compares its usefulness to that of TALENS and zinc-finger knockouts. Further, just couple of weeks ago, two back-to-back studies in Cell Stem Cell using the CRISPR-Cas9 system to cure diseases in mice and human stem cells.  In the first study the system was used in mice to correct the Crygc gene that causes cataracts; in the second study the CRSPR-Cas9 system was used to correct the CFTR locus in cultured intestinal stem cells of CF patients. These findings serve as a proof-of-concept that diseases caused by a single mutation can be “fixed” with genome editing using the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

What was your favorite paper this year? Let us know! And of course - use Scizzle to stay on top of your favorite topics and authors.