Friday, November 30, 2012

Double Xpressions: Jennifer Canale, the self-proclaimed "Flamboyant Scientist"


Jennifer Canale is a Senior Microbiologist for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in Queens, NY, as well as an adjunct microbiology lecturer for City University of NY (York College and College of Staten Island).  Jennifer is also passionate about promoting women in science and leads an annual women in science event at the FDA as a means to promote awareness about gender discrimination in the workplace.

[DXS] First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?

[JC] I have always been interested in science, and since most of my family worked in Bellvue Hospital, I was very comfortable around people in lab coats.  In the early seventies, at the age of 5, I announced to my grandfather, the X-ray technician, and his brothers (my great uncles) that I wanted to become a doctor, specifically a doctor that delivers babies.

My grandfather was proud and my uncles were dismayed. My uncle Joe said to me, “Jennifer, you mean a nurse like your cousin Joanie, right?” My cousin Joan applied to Medical School in the sixties and the same group of uncles convinced her that her fiancé, Warren, wouldn’t wait 4 years to get married and it was more lady-like to be a nurse. Today she is a retired left-handed OR nurse that specializes in cracking open chests for cardiac surgery, not so lady-like after all. So in an attempt to not have a repeat of Joanie, my grandfather jumped to my defense against his brothers and said that 'she can be a doctor if she wanted to be', and, furthermore, his niece Joanie was smarter and more capable than most of the doctors he worked with and shouldn’t have had to take orders from them.

My uncles agreed that there was no question of the intellectual prowess possessed by both Joanie and myself, and their reluctance came out of concern for me.  They worked in the hospital, too, and saw how male doctors would abuse the female ones and make their lives more difficult because they didn’t want to allow girls in the all-boys club. “Do you want our baby - our most precious blood - to have to fight her whole life for this? What about the family - how will she find a husband and bring us more children if she sticks her nose in a book the rest of her life?”  These arguments sounded a lot better when they were stated in Sicilian. Back then, the concept of 'women can have it all' - work and family - was not the norm like it is today.

My grandfather came back with his final answers to them. I was his granddaughter, I looked just like him, I was a fighter just like him, and this is America and she will be what she wants to be, 'End of Story'. My uncles agreed that I was his granddaughter, I looked just like him, and I was a stubborn mule just like him, so he was probably right and they would pray for me and secretly hope I would change my mind.

Now this all transpired in front of me in a combination of English and Sicilian while I stood there in my denim overalls with a Tweety Bird patch. I was listening, and since I was only beginning to learn Sicilian, I only caught a couple of words: blood, children, book, change, and I misunderstood the word for fighter as “afraid.” I added to my grandfather’s “end of story” remark that I was not afraid of blood, I can learn how to deliver children from a book, and questioned why they wanted me to change- those overalls were my favorite!

My family was supportive to a point, but when I asked for an erector set for Christmas, I got a Barbie town house. When I wanted to go camping with the Girl Scouts, I was sent to dance school (but, much to my amazement, I enjoyed that until I was 17).  My parents started giving in around 3rd grade, and I got the panda bear-shaped calculator I wanted, as well as the robot toy 2XL featuring the 8-track tape. My mom would beg me to watch Little House On the Prairie, but I preferred Star Trek (the original Kirk version), Lost in Space (Danger Will Robinson), and Land of the Lost. Of course this was all my dad’s fault according to mom - he was the sci-fi guy, but he always said, “Jen was born this way!”

My parents eventually gave up, and my uncles kept praying for that change of mind, but I spent the late seventies and early eighties winning science fairs with experiments my Uncle Ben, the electrician, rigged for me. They thought there was hope for me to be more “lady-like” in 1984 when I started high school and wanted to try out for the cheerleading squad, but the teachers advised me that “the cheer squad” was no place for an “honor student” like me. So it was off to advanced placement Biology and Chemistry, and by graduation in 1988, I was accepted to the pre-med program at NYU. 

I graduated from NYU with honors, and my parents got me two presents: my name in diamonds and a stethoscope. My grandfather bought me a set of crisp white lab coats and gloated to his brothers with a cigar in his mouth. Apparently a bet was made amongst them and from hence forward they had to call me “doctoressa,” the hybrid feminized version of doctor in Italian.

The NYU pre-med was highly competitive - a constant process of elimination from 500 students (1:3, female:male) down to only 109 of  us actually completing the program. The men thought it was strategic to flirt with the girls and convince us that we shouldn’t become doctors but instead should marry them. The guy that told me that got a punch in the stomach – in the name of the other women that worked. It was also apparent that many were planting the seeds of doubt in the pre-med females, stating that if we became doctors, then we wouldn’t be able to have a family.  In essence, we were being told that we would be giving up the chance to have children. You had to go against your “true female nature” to breed and nurture and (instead) become a selfish and testosterone-like human to make it in this field. That was the nail in the coffin for a lot of the women in my program. The most brutal tactic and final blow to confidence was when I heard someone say that “only the ugly girls become doctors because no man would want them.” 

In the nineties - halfway through college - I did change my mind, and my uncles were dancing in the streets. They thought I met a nice boy in college and I was going to settle down, give them more kids, and make sauce and meatballs on a Sunday like the good Paesana I was supposed to be. I announced I didn’t want to be an MD anymore, I wanted to be a PhD, instead. I wanted to be a SCIENTIST, do research, and maybe teach in a university.  A “Scientista”-“Professoressa” “Aiuta Dio” (which means help us god)! Back to church and the rosary beads. When I got my master's degree in microbiology, the family was just convinced I liked to collect graduation hats.

There was a feeling among my family members that science was a “boy thing,” and my cousins teased me as a result.  They considered me a nerd and less feminine than my other girl cousins. I was told that I would never get married and have kids because I am a bookworm. Even in the mid-'90s, I had friends that told me not to tell guys that I was a scientist because they wouldn’t ask me out. I was kind of cute and only told a guy the truth about my profession if we got serious. As an experiment, I told one guy I met that I was a scientist and he said I looked too sexy to be that smart - and then he walked away.

I met discrimination on both sides of the stereotypical coin, in academia and in the work force. I was told when I was interviewing for graduate schools (and then for science jobs) that I had several strikes against me. First, strike one, my thick Staten Island/ Brooklyn accent supposedly made me sound less intelligent. My mentor in graduate school, Dr. Mark Albano, said to tell people to kiss your  “you know what” because as long as I could discuss topics like “molecular genetics” who cares how it sounds. Besides he found my accent endearing, especially because it made boring topics sound more interesting.

Strike two was my long hair.  I was told that my long hair was not practical in a scientific environment, and if I looked too glamorous on interviews I would not be taken seriously. I put my hair in a bun and toned down my make-up, but I didn’t cut it.  Apparently, I looked too feminine, especially given my major curves, and even my power suits could not hide that. Women at the time were dressing very masculine (think early Miranda on Sex in the City) to compete with men for jobs. When I got the interview for my first job with Dr. Moretti in the Reproductive Immunology Lab at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Staten Island, I remember wearing a black and white houndstooth print sheath dress with a matching short suit jacket, accessorized with pearls.  Dr. Moretti said I was like Rosalind Franklin and Jackie Kennedy all rolled up into one, with a side order of cannoli.  

The early 2000s arrived, and attitudes toward science changed. Shows like CSI became wildly popular. Science fiction movies about transforming robots became blockbusters. People began to use technology in their everyday lives, such as smart phones, tablets, and car navigation systems, and it suddenly became “cool.”  I met my husband in 1999, and since I really was into him, I told him the truth about being a “microbiologist” from the start.  He said, and I quote, “Wow, your smart, sexy, and Sicilian - it’s like I hit the Lotto!”

My wedding was the most joyful event in our family’s history because most of them thought that would never happen.  I still get teased by my family when I give a long, drawn out scientific explanation of something or when I bake and make exact measurements of ingredients with my Pyrex bakeware with both the ounces and metric conversions. My husband responds for me and says “he learns something new everyday and hopes that our son becomes a nerd just like his mommy.” 

So now I have it all: I am a female scientist, a wife, and a mother, even though others didn’t think that would be possible.  But I always knew it would happen. I understood and forgave my uncles because I knew that they wanted to protect me, not hinder me. As for all my doubters I regularly take Dr. Albano’s advise and tell them to kiss my “you know what!”

Even my current supervisor, Maureen Coakley, recently told me in an interview that I am an “anomaly,” meaning that I am a flamboyant scientist. That was one of the best compliments I ever received. I am who I am, and that is why my playlist on my iPhone has the “Big Bang Theory Theme Song” followed by “I’m sexy and I know it!”

Times have changed. Perceptions have altered in a good way, but not entirely. Lesson learned from both academia and the school of life is that some people will get you and some people won’t. If they don’t, don’t take it personally because it is their loss and their ignorance. Some people see the person, and some see the stereotype. All you can do is try to educate them in an attempt to bust the stereotype. The only perception that matters is how you perceive yourself and use that perception as a means to become the woman that you were meant to be.


[DXS] What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?   

[JC] Ever since planning my wedding in 2004, I have been interested in event planning.  I have a knack at coordinating events, which I do as part of my collateral duties at FDA, where I have served as the Women's Program Coordinator for the past 9 years.  People call me the "Fun Fairy" because I can be very creative and take any topic, put a different and interesting spin on it, and present it to a group in very entertaining ways. My creativity is driven by my intellectualism, and I incorporate that into something fun and memorable. I always make little inexpensive favors - buy them to give out to my audience - that are"theme oriented," and they keep them as a reminder of the event.

The people I work with have whole collections of these favors, and they remember what each one stands for. For instance, the Women's History Month theme for one year was "Our History is Our Strength."  Before planning this event, I had attended at NYU the Satellite Summit of National Women's Conference hosted by Maria Shriver (then 1st Lady of California) and the First Lady, Michelle Obama. So I thought I would highlight the contributions of the First Ladies to US history. I found an educational video on the history of the First Ladies, did a presentation on the Satellite Summit, and even had a fashion show featuring of reproductions of Jacqueline Kennedy jewelry collection (my favorite first lady). I used the symbol of a "Cameo" to represent the first ladies, and so I made a huge paper one with beads on tulle on my bulletin board with pictures of the first ladies around it and gave out cameo bracelets that I made from gluing plastic cameo buttons on ribbon. Everyone still has a cameo on their desk at work, occasionally conjuring up memories of my First Ladies event.

[DXS] Do you find that your scientific background informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific? 

[JC] My entire life is influenced by, or even revolves around, "Science."  I love science fiction movies, books, comic books, etc.  Any inspiration I get for any of my creative projects always has some root in something "science-related." I also think that my background in science helps make my visions come to life. Even the smallest details like the stemware I chose for my wedding was a Mikasa pattern that resembled a DNA double helix, or a hexagonal candleholder that looked like a benzene ring (at least it did to me!).  Another example comes from my Women's Program, when the theme was "Writing Women Back Into History." So I found a book called The Women of Apollo, which gave the untold story of the women engineers who had critical contributions to the Apollo Space programs.  For me, all roads lead back to science.  

[DXS] Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently--either more positively or more negatively?  

[JC] I have experienced both negative and positive views by others when I am expressing my self creatively. On one hand, there were people that associate planning events with a negative stereotype of being a "party-girl" or "bimbo" type that cares more about the "girly fun" stuff than the serious business of science. On the other hand, there have been people who constantly praise me for presenting science-related topics in entertaining ways. The latter view me as a "flamboyant scientist" who shares her knowledge in an interesting manner.  In this life you will never please everyone; only seek to please yourself and your loved ones because those are the only opinions that matter.

[DXS] Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?   

[JC] In planning these events, I have come up with a formula of sorts to create a successful soirée.  Of course, this formula is an entire science in itself. I have to consider things like timing, lighting, printed materials (programs, table cards, menus, etc.) and a gamut of other things that involve an understanding of science. I am a biologist with a minor in chemistry, but the more I do these events, the more I get into things like astronomy (for a celestial-themed wedding, for instance).  I mention lighting, which seems so simple, because it is actually quite complicated - getting the right reflections and materials to use (i.e.- LEDs, wax candles vs. battery operated, the limitations of pyrotechnics in party venues) is critical. Even in doing crafts for favors and printed materials, like event programs, I’ve learned different scientific techniques, such the right kind of bonding agent to use to attach ribbons, charms, or vinyl decorations, or even the use of edible ink in printers to make fondant or wafer decorations to put on cupcakes or cakes. It is a continuous learning experience.

[DXS] How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?   
[JC] I am comfortable with expressing my femininity in the way I dress and conduct myself in any setting.  Although, many years ago, I was advised to dress in suits and tailored shirts similar to a man and wear neutral make-up or none at all if I wanted to be taken seriously in the scientific world, I went against the grain. I am a curvy girl, and there is no hiding my femininity. So I embrace it. I wore suits, but nothing drab – always something like a red or purple skirt suit with heels. I adhere to work environment rules like no open toe shoes in the lab, which is a safety concern, but I do not downplay my female attributes to fit in, or to present a more palatable image to my scientific peers. I do not concern myself with people's perceptions of me based on my looks because once I "speak" and "communicate" scientific concepts, there is no question of my prowess. I am what I am, and that is a female scientist, and I pride myself in being a "stereotype buster." 

[DXS] Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?  

[JC] I think that being the "flamboyant scientist" works in my favor, and as a science communicator, it is effective all aspects of my life. As an adjunct professor, my students often thank me for making science fun and understandable. As a scientist, my colleagues and interns find my training methods to be memorable and actually increase their understanding of the job. As the Women's Program Coordinator at the FDA, I create unforgettable events that people look forward to and learn a lot from. As a wife, mother, daughter, aunt, cousin, and friend, I am the “Fun Fairy” (pictured with wings and a lab coat), and their lovable nerdy girl. 

I feel my true gift is being able to communicate science.  My mentor in graduate school always told me I had the talent of taking complicated scientific ideas and expressing them in a way that anyone could understand. I have some ideas brewing involving science books for children and teens, and I would like to explore these avenues in order to share this gift with others. I would also like to get involved in maybe writing for popular science publications, if given the opportunity.

[DXS] If you had something you could say to the younger you about the role of expression and creativity in your chosen career path, what would you say?  

[JC] I would say be true to yourself. Whatever path you take career-wise, always remember that is could be something you will be doing the rest of your life. Yes, there are financial considerations to make, but if you do not have that creative outlet incorporated into your career, then you will be miserable. I am the happiest at work when I am planning a Women's Program alongside doing experiments or going to my second job as a professor at York College. You need the creativity to keep the blood flowing. Where would science be without creativity? Find what your talent is and what makes you happy, and then apply it to your career.  That is the secret to success.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Finally, Science for Grownups

by Biology Editor, Jeanne Garbarino

Wild. Sex. For some, those two words might conjure up a steamy scene set in the boudoir, or if you take what you can get, perhaps the back seat of a car. But for Dr. Carin Bondar, Biologist with a Twist, "wild sex" takes on a literal translation. In her new series, aptly named Wild Sex, which debuted in the US on November 21st on Earth Touch TV, Dr. Bondar tackles topics of taboo in the animal kingdom, highlighting that humans aren't the only species to get a little kinky.

A few weeks ago, the world was presented with the trailer for the series, leading many to rise up (with applause, of course). But it isn't just Dr. Bondar's comfort with sexuality that should be applauded (because, really, we can be a little uptight sometimes) - this woman means business. Dr. Bondar, a native of Canada, earned her PhD in population ecology from the University of British Columbia. Her experiences as a scientist have spilled over to the world of science communications, and Dr. Bondar has established herself, through hard work and dedication, as a leading expert on sex-ed in the animal kingdom.

2012-11-21-mantishead.jpg
A decapitated male praying mantis.  On the bright
side, his genes will make an appearance in future generations.
In the premier episode of Wild Sex, Dr. Bondar provides a provocative explanation of cannibalism among mating insects, describing the process by which a female praying mantis decapitates her male mate, and continues to engage in sexual intercourse while eating his head. And then there is the male redback spider, who willingly surrenders to his female mate, but not without engaging an evolutionary adaptation to help ensure that his genes are passed on to the next generation. Pretty neat, right? But what sets this particular explanation apart from what you might see on Animal Planet is the context in which this information is presented (think Barry White and a corset).

In my opinion, Dr. Bondar beautifully balances science and sexuality, educating while she entertains. And, she's not afraid to include the outtakes.  I think we need more of this in science, especially since a certain stereotypical image of what a scientist looks like is so deeply ingrained into our society. I admire Dr. Bondar for her creativity and humor, and for showing that science doesn't have to be boring or unattractive. Plus, who doesn't want to know which species reigns supreme when it comes to penis size? A whopping 45ft is obscene enough for me to at least want to take a glance... for science, of course.

Definitely check out Dr. Bondar's new series, Wild Sex, which can be found on Earth Touch TV. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, and most importantly, you'll learn. But, just because it is educational, doesn't mean you should watch it with your kids. Seriously - it's not PG, and that's OK!

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Notable Women in Science: A Few Modern Physicists

by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

In this edition of Notable Women in Science, I focus on women working in physics, typically traditional physics rather than astrophysics. There is no particular reason to make this distinction other than it allows me to choose a small group of women to highlight within a parameter set. These women are listed in no particular order.


Vera E. Kistiakowsky spent much of her career as a professor at MITBorn in 1928, she received her A.B. from Mt. Holyoke College in 1948 and her Ph.D. from the University of California – Berkeley in 1952, both degrees in chemistry. Her chosen career stemmed from advice from her father to support herself and not depend on another person to support her. Her father was a respected physical chemistry professor at Harvard and his support in her chosen activities was instrumental to her success. She entered college at the age of 15, choosing a pre-med major. She changed to chemistry due to Mt. Holyoke’s extraordinary female faculty at the time.  While her degrees are in chemistry, her studies and research were physics intensive.  Graduating with her Ph.D. before her newly married husband hindered her initial job opportunities. She had several positions before eventually settling into a professorship at MIT. During her tenure at MIT, she was scientifically prolific with 86 technical publications as well as highly active in feminist activities, including organizing for the National Organization of Women (NOW), Women In Science and Engineering (WISE), the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), and an ad hoc committee in the American Physical Society (APS) on women physicists to name a few.

Helen Thom Edwards is recognized for her work with the Tevatron. She was born in 1936 and received both her B.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1957 and 1966, respectively. Her interest in science was outside that of her family’s interests, so she was used to paving her own way. Her technical and mechanical acumen served her well as a group leader at the Fermilab. Dr. Edwards is a team player and insists upon acknowledging the contributions of her colleagues in her and Fermilab’s success.

Vandana Shiva in 2008.
[Edited, 11/26/12, 14:43 ET]: Vandana Shiva was trained in physics and the philosophy of science and now works as an environmentalist, achieving considerable global prominence. She was born in 1952 and, according to most sources, earned a B.A. in physics, a master's in philosophy of science, and a Ph.D. in physics. When she began her training as a nuclear scientist, she encountered a hostile environment, which caused her to emigrate west. Her experiences led her to become a prominent (and extremely controversial) environmentalist and into the position of Director at the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources Policy in Dehradun, India. She writes books and publishes articles in the area of environmentalism. [ETA: As a commenter notes below, Shiva also has been embroiled in controversy and accused of taking an anti-scientific stance over her assertions about "terminator seeds."]

Ingrid Daubechies, 2005.
Ingrid Daubechies is a physicist and a mathematician known for her work in wavelets. 
Born in 1954, she received her B.S. and Ph.D. at Vrije University in Brussels in 1975 and 1980, respectively. Her interest in science and math was nurtured by her parents who also encouraged her independence. In 1984, she received the Louis Empain prize for physics for the work she accomplished before the age of 29. The prize was followed by tenure in her position at the Free University Brussels. She moved into a position at Rutgers and also worked at the AT&T Bell Laboratories. In 1992, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship followed by the Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society in 1994. She has continued to receive honors and ovations to this day.

Janet M. Conrad researches neutrinosShe was born in 1963 and received her B.A. from Swarthmore College in 1985, her M.Sc. from Oxford University in 1987, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1993. After a postdoctoral stint at Columbia University, she moved into a professor position there. In 2008, she moved to MIT. She has received many awards, including an NSF CAREER Award, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow, and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award from the APS. She can be found involved in research and teaching at MIT, as well as communicating science to scientists and general audiences around the country.

Reka Albert blends cross and inter-disciplinary expertiseShe received her B.S. and M.S. from the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania and her Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 2001. After a postdoctoral position at the University of Minnesota, she joined the faculty at Pennsylvania State University, where she is currently a professor in the physics department. She has received several awards for her work, including a Sloan Research Foundation Fellowship, an NSF Career Award, and the Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award.

Louis Empain Prize is awarded every five years to a young Belgian scientists on the basis of work done before the age of 29.

MacArthur Foundation Fellowship is awarded to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.

The Steele Prize is awarded for cumulative work of mathematical contribution to the field.

The NSF Career Award is a highly competitive grant awarded to early career scientists.

Alfred P. Sloan Fellowships are awarded to distinguished scholars with high potential for impact in their respective fields.

The Maria Goeppert-Mayer Award recognizes outstanding achievement by a woman physicist in the early years of her career.

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily agree or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team and contributors.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What's on your wishlist?

Digi-bling cufflinks
It’s that time of year again, the shopping season winding through the holidays. We have prepared a plethora of gift ideas (for yourself or another science and tech connoisseur on your gift list.)


Attire yourself in science!  Double X Science gear is always fashionable. Our store has infant wear, mugs, and t-shirts, all decked out with our logo and motto. Add some Helix Pantyhose and you are dressed for science success. Once dressed, add eye-catching red circuit board cufflinks ($16) from Digibling. Digibling highlights electronics components jewelry. SurlyRamics is stuff full of science necklaces and earrings. Declare your love of science ($18, pictured) or the scientific method ($18, pictured). Maybe Feynman diagrams ($22, pictured), amonites ($22, pictured), or chemical formulas are more your style ($18, pictured).


 

Molecular Muse Resveratrol
Looking for more molecules? Made with molecules by Raven Hanna has beautiful chemical compound jewelry and ornaments made of sterling silver (from $25). Resveratrol ($130, pictured) or a couple of DNA bases ($50, pictured) may be more your style.

Artologica Petri Dish Ornaments


Once dressed and ready to go, dress up your home. Thinkgeek offers a periodic table shower curtain ($30). Artologica recently revealed her petri dish ornaments ($15). She is well known for her science paintings (from $35), also available in the Etsy shop.


There are many a headphone user and many nighttime music listeners. Bedphones ($30) are perfect for the sleeper who needs to listen to music that a sleeping partner may not wish to hear, and they turn off when the listener falls asleep. Nifty! To wake up the next morning, use this water powered clock ($12) available at Thinkgeek.


In the market for books? There are many science books for the scientists and science interested. Start with the Open Laboratory series (from $7.50) highlighting the best of science writing online. Maybe you have a cook who is interested in the chemistry of cooking. They might want to check out Cooking for Geeks or Modern Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.


Do you love gadgets? Do you have the newest smartphone or tablet? Perhaps you’ve already checked out the Nexus 10 tablet from Google (from $399) which arrived last month. The Nexxus has arrived to generally good reviews to compete with the standard iPad (from $399) tablet size. Google and Apple have also gone “mini” with the Nexus 7 (from $199) and the iPad mini (from $329), respectively.


Looking for a small, transportable "normal" size keyboard for that iPad or iPhone? Look no further than the Cube Laser Digital Keyboard ($180).



What about other great gadgets? The DOTKLOK (from $150) is an open-source and hackable digital clock. It also consumes 2W for power! Runners and cyclists who love their gadgets may like the Garmin Forerunner 610 GPS watch ($320). Track your workouts, train like a pro, and analyze all the data this watch feeds to you for the height of fitness.



If DNA is your thing then artwork of your personal DNA is the way to go. Get a kit from DNA 11 and have your personal DNA run on a gel and transfered to a beautiful piece of art (from $199). Perhaps the ultimate in science and technology applied to a single person is having your personal genome sequenced. 23andme ($299) offers a kit to have your DNA genotyped or visit Knome ($4998) for full genome sequencing. There are a number of companies available for personal genotyping and genome sequencing for a range of cost. Another option is to join the Personal Genome Project, and for full disclosure and sharing of your genome with others for scientific purposes, you can have your genome sequenced as a donation to the organization.


Human Genome By Silky M
by Adrienne Roehrich, Chemistry Editor

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Tracing the taming of the turkey

That turkey on your table probably was genetically distinct from this
wild turkey. Via Wikimedia Commons.

by Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor

The turkey doesn’t get a lot of respect. We mock its gobble, eat it for major holidays, and use its name as an epithet. Yet, Benjamin Franklin at least privately thought the bird was noble enough to be nominated as the national bird—clearly, the bald eagle won out there—and the lowly gobbler has a long and illustrious secret history that researchers are just now beginning to uncover.

Domestication of animals and plants do not make for gripping headlines, but such achievements represent major turning points in the evolution of human culture. With domestication came villages, then cities. With domestication, people had time to turn to less mission-critical activities, such as art. And the process of domestication itself makes for a fascinating study in species interactions. Think what it must have required to take wild turkeys or donkeys or pigs and assiduously, over the years, produce the relatively docile creatures we see today. 

The turkey we belittle so offhandedly was so highly prized among indigenous Americans that it may not even have been used as food at first. But it did eventually become an important protein source for indigenous peoples, in addition to providing feathers and bones for ornamentation and other uses. Strangely enough, the turkey we eat today—the one that gets pardoned at the White House every Thanksgiving and serves as an icon of a U.S. holiday—isn’t even descended from the native turkeys of the Americas.

How did that happen? It all may have begun about 800 B.C.E. when indigenous Americans might have first domesticated the animal. Some research suggests that the event happened twice, a pattern of repeats that already has emerged with Old World domestications of sheep and pigs. One turkey breed achieved importance in South Mexico, where the native peoples domesticated the wild South Mexican turkey. 

But the turkey also proved to be an important feature of native culture in what is now the southwestern U.S. Evidence from bones and fossilized excrement—coprolites—from archaeological digs in the area show that the turkey’s importance goes back at least 2000 years there, as well. 

In addition, analysis of the mitochondrial DNA—which passes only from mother to offspring and accumulates mutations at a slow, predictable rate—yielded two unexpected finds. First, these birds did not make their way by trade from South Mexico to the American Southwest, as did other domesticated products like maize and beans. Instead, the indigenous peoples of the Southwest did their own domesticating, taking as their starting bird the Rio Grande/Eastern wild turkey. A bottleneck in the genetic history, indicating a severe reduction in numbers and genetic diversity, shows that the native peoples of the Southwest strongly selected for a specific breed of their domesticated bird. And then they propagated it for at least 1000 years.

You might think that the turkeys we eat today in the United States would be descendents of these Southwestern birds. They’re not. When Europeans showed up in the Americas, they grabbed a few of the birds and took them back to Europe, where they bred new strains. Meanwhile, in the American Southwest, the domesticated turkey faded away, replaced by other food stocks like sheep and chickens and wiped out by disease. 

Today's turkeys that appear on Thanksgiving tables, new research indicates, show a considerable lack of diversity in their genome sequence compared to DNA from South Mexican turkeys that were collected in 1899, even less than other domesticated food animals like pigs. So where did they come from? Genetic analysis indicates that they originated in the wild turkeys of South Mexico, but having been bred anew in Europe, they’re really a form of inbred European export with the name of a country (Turkey) that has nothing to do with their origins. They are, according to the new research, genetically distinct from their wild ancestors.

Benjamin Franklin was a wise man, but he couldn’t have known that he was proposing a European breed to represent his newborn nation. That said, the turkey still stands as one of the few native domesticated animals of the Americas as most of our other familiar domesticates originated somewhere else.

[Some of this post has appeared previously at The Biology Files and in Biology Digest.]

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily either conflict with or reflect those of the DXS editorial team or contributors.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tiptoe through the thalamus...


This is how people looked at the brain in 1673.
Things have changed.
Sketch by Thomas Bartholin, 1616-1680.
Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in USA.

By Jeffrey Perkel, DXS tech editor

In early October, the Allen Institute for Brain Science dropped a metric buttload of brain data into the public domain.

Founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Allen Institute for Brain Science is, not surprisingly, interested in, um, the brain. Specifically, according to the Institute’s web site, its mission is
“to accelerate the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease. Using a big science approach, we generate useful public resources, drive technological and analytical advances, and discover fundamental brain properties through integration of experiments modeling and theory.”
Towards that end, researchers at the Allen Institute have been mapping gene expression patterns in the human and mouse brains, as well as neural connectivity in the mouse brain. Why? Well, because as a general rule, science requires a control. If scientists are ever to understand the brain – how we think, how we learn, how we remember things, and how all those processes get scrambled during disease or trauma – they first must understand what a typical baseline brain looks like. The Allen Institute is doing the heavy lifting of mapping out these datasets, one brain slice at a time.

In particular, they are mapping the gene expression and neural connectivity of every part of the brain, so that researchers can identify difference between regions, as well as the physical links that tie them together. Differences in gene expression patterns may reveal, for instance, that seemingly related regions actually have different functions, while connectivity, or brain "wiring," could shed light on how the brain works. 

I'm a technology nut, so I'm less interested in the answers to these questions than in how we arrive at them. And thanks to the Allen Institute, I (and you) can view these data from the luxury of my very own laptop, no special equipment required. (To be clear, you can't view the data from my laptop. You'd need my computer, and you can't have it.) You don’t even need to be a brainiac (I couldn’t help myself) to do it.

Here’s how. Point your browser to http://www.brain-map.org/. From there, choose a dataset – say, “Mouse Connectivity.” This is a dataset of images created by injecting fluorescent tracer molecules into the brains of mice, waiting some period of time, then sacrificing the mice, cutting their brains into thin slices -- picture an extremely advanced deli slicer -- and taking pictures of each one to see where the tracer material went. The result is a massive collection of images, collected by injecting hundreds of mice, preparing thousands of brain slices, and represents gigabytes upon gigabytes of data, which Allen Institute researchers have then reconstructed into a kind of virtual 3D brain.

In the parlance of neuroscientists, this dataset represents a first-pass attempt at a “connectome” – a brain-wide map of neural connections. But it's definitely not the last; the connectome is vast beyond reckoning. According to one estimate,
Each human brain contains an estimated 100 billion neurons connected through 100 thousand miles of axons and between a hundred trillion to one quadrillion synaptic connections (there are only an estimated 100–400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy).
Efforts are currently underway to map the connectome at a number of levels, from the relatively coarse resolution of diffusion MRI to the subcellular level of electron microscopy. That's a story for another day, but if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Sebastian Seung’s eminently readable 2012 book, Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.

Back to the Allen Institute datasets. When you click on 'Mouse Connectivity', the site presents you with an index of injection sites, 47 in all. Let’s click on “visual areas.” The next page that comes up is a list of datasets that include that region. For the sake of this example, let’s click on the first entry in that list, “Primary visual area,” experiment #100141219.

The resulting page contains 140 fluorescent images of brain tissue slices in shades of orange and green. Click one to see it enlarged. Orange areas are non-fluorescent – they didn’t take up the tracer, meaning they are not physically connected to the injection site. On the bottom of the window is a series of navigation tools – you can tiptoe through the thalamus if you’d like, simply by moving these sliders left-right, up-down, and front-back. Just like a real neuroscientist!

This is your brain (well, a mouse brain) on rAAV (a fluorescent tracer).
(Source: http://www.alleninstitute.org/science/public_resources/atlases/connectivity_atlas.html)

You can also zoom in to the cellular level. Here’s a close-up of a densely fluorescent area of the mouse brain -- you can actually see individual neurons in this view. 

This is a closeup of your brain on rAAV. (Again, if you were a mouse)
Source: http://www.alleninstitute.org/science/public_resources/atlases/connectivity_atlas.html)
Another option is to download the Allen Institute’s free Brain Explorer software, a standalone program that lets you view these data offline. With Brain Explorer you can "step" through the brain slice by slice, rotate it, highlight regions. It's way cool, even if (like me) you don't know very much about brain anatomy.

Here’s a screenshot from the application, showing gene expression data in the center of the brain.

Screenshot of the Allen Institute's Brain Explorer software
Source: http://mouse.brain-map.org/static/brainexplorer)
If you’re interested in how the amazing researchers at the Allen Institute are doing this work, they lay it out for you in a nice series of white papers (here’s the one on the mouse connectivity mapping project). I recommend you take a look!

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team or contributors.