Archive for: December, 2011

Toddler Travel Tidbits

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Murphy's Law - your toddler will throw up his breakfast, comprised mostly of bananas, 1 hour out of town, so that the car smells of putrid sweet fruit for the next 2 days / 16 hours of driving.

After a long day of driving, co-sleeping with a toddler in a cheap motel room is what I imagine it's like to have a drunk dude pass out on you, including the part where he grabs your boobs as he nods off to a snoring slumber.

Even if they've weened, your toddler will want/need/insist on nursing while traveling. Which means your boobs will swell out of the bras you packed. Which means you'll end up in Victoria's Secret with your mom on Christmas Eve fighting over one of the last 34 DDD bras in the store.

Our toddler needs a dog. He spent the better part of our trip running after the three dogs at his grandma's house, laughing when they licked his face, and sharing his toys with the little pooches. It really was the cutest thing ever.

No matter how many times I've seen A Christmas Story, I still laugh my ass off when Ralphie "shoots his eye out" with the Red Rider bee bee gun. However, a bee bee gun is not an age-appropriate gift for a toddler. Not even in Texas.

A good sleeper at home does not make a good sleeper on the road, no matter how prepared you think you are as parents. On a related note - toddler-induced sleep deprivation is a bitch.

Monkey (our 13-month-old) loves the song "What's Going On" by 4 Non Blondes. Every time it came on during our long drive, he stopped what he was doing and "sang". Seriously the cutest damn thing ever.

For the first time in months, everyone in the Dr. O household is healthy. I'm dreading Monkey's return to daycare next week, as I'm sure it will be accompanied by the newest viral plague making its rounds upon everyone returning from their holiday travels.

There is no place like home. Even when you live in a tiny-ass condo and have boxes starting to pile up around you in preparation for a cross-country move. Even when you and your partner are currently sharing a "full"-sized bed. Even when your home town is cold as hell upon your return. Coming home is sublime. Even for little Monkeys.

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A brief analogy about academia for college football fans

Dec 30 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

I just heard an announcer for the Alamo Bowl say, "You have to wonder how Oklahoma will do this year in a non-BCS bowl, since they're used to playing in BCS bowls."

In my current post-job-search-pre-TT-addled mind, this is akin to a biomedical researcher landing a tenure-track position at a good university, then fucking it up because they didn't get that super-star tenure-track position, which they "totally deserved and expected", at a top-10 medical school. IMO, if you get asked to play at all, you better play your hardest. Otherwise, you'll demonstrate that you didn't deserve ANY tenure-track position at all - not a highfalutin position at a top-tier university, and definitely not the gift-of-a-position that a rather solid university gifted your privileged ass.

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Five dangerous myths about vaccines

Dec 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

When asked to blog here a few weeks back, I thought it would be nice to write a thoughtful post about vaccines and why people should get them. Then I realized how silly this was, since most anti-vaxxer trolls don't have the patience to consider a reasoned, sensible, scientific argument. Instead, I decided to write a post refuting the most dangerous lies used by the anti-vaxxer nutjobs I've run into on the internetz, in the hopes that a worried parent may find comfort in some sound science when s/he sits down at their computer before their child's first immunization appointment. If you believe in this quest, please tweet, email, link, and visit the hell out of this page, so that it eventually appears at the top of every "vaccine safety" google search. If you've found this page by a google search, I hope you find comfort in the information, as well as the fact that I am a microbiologist and a mother, and my son will get all of his recommended vaccinations.

Now, for dispelling the myths:

1. Vaccination causes autism. WRONG. This is possibly the most pervasive myth about vaccines, instigated by two unfortunate correlations. Firstly, brain disorders, including autism and epilepsy, are often diagnosed the same age as the administration of certain vaccines. Secondly, the rise in autism rates over the past few decades follows the increase in vaccine development and availability. As a result, many studies have investigated the possibility of a link between vaccines and autism, yet found none. Further fueling this myth is a study repeatedly cited by anti-vaxxers, even though it was retracted due to findings by a British medical panel that the publishing doctor "had been dishonest, violated basic research ethics rules and showed a 'callous disregard' for the suffering of children involved in his research." Evidently, the doctor had his own vaccine that would have been implemented upon MMR being taken off the market in Britain - no conflict of interest there or anything.

2. Vaccine additives are linked to autism and other neurological disorders. WRONG. Many vaccines used to contain small amounts (0.001 to 0.03%) of thimerosal, a vaccine preservative composed of ~50% mercury, to prevent the growth of microorganisms, which can and have caused lethal infections in vaccine recipients. Opponents of vaccination proposed that the levels of mercury in thimerosal caused epilepsy, autism, and other neurological disorders in vaccine recipients. No data has yet supported or refuted this claim, as correlative epidemiological findings are often difficult to prove or disprove. However, the elimination of thimerosal as a preservative in many vaccines in 2001 has not been met by a reduction in childhood autism rates, reducing support for this claim. Other theories have since been proposed by anti-vaxxers, NONE of which are supported by ANY existing scientific evidence.

3. Not vaccinating MY child won't hurt YOUR child. WRONG. Vaccines work by challenging your immune system, with a harmless bug or bug component, so that your body immediately recognizes and destroys the corresponding virulent bug later on. Thus, an active immune system is necessary for vaccine function. Vaccines are less effective on infants, elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems. Additionally, some individuals are allergic to components of certain vaccines (eggs, for instance, in the case of the flu shot). Therefore, vaccine efficacy depends on herd immunity, the vaccination of a certain proportion of the population (about 90%), to prevent the spread of disease to those who are unable for any number of reasons to be. Herd immunity only works if all the people who CAN be protected by vaccination GET vaccinated. Otherwise, my young son, who won't be vaccinated against measles, mumps or rubella for another few months, is at increased danger of getting sick with a very nasty and deadly disease.

4. Vaccines are ineffectiveWRONG. I don't know how the hell this ever became a thing, but I've actually heard this statement spewed in numerous comment threads of late. Vaccines prevent disease, plain and simple. It's because of vaccination that we no longer have to fear diseases as deadly as smallpox, and it's due to the refusal of anti-vaxxers to immunize their children that infants are dying from measles and whooping cough. Our toddler has a LOT of vaccines on his immunization schedule over the next few years, and that, my friends, is a miracle. The scientific cooperation, drive, and and ingenuity that has made possible the prevention, and even eradication, of certain infectious diseases gives me hope in humankind. Our little Monkey will get every last one of those immunizations, one tear and blood drop at a time.

5. But I keep reading and hearing about all these people who got their child vaccinated and all of a sudden they started having seizures and acting weird and they've never been the same since! ANECDATA IS NOT THE SAME AS SCIENTIFIC DATA. The most dangerous aspect of the internet is its microphonic property for fervent believers in pseudoscience. A cancer patient starts taking some homeopathic snake oil and subsequently finds out s/he is in remission. An coworker's family doc gives him/her antibiotics on the third day s/he is suffering from a mild cough, and two days later s/he is feeling much better. Your child gets the MMR vaccine, then weeks or days later begins displaying characteristics of autism. Isolated, these coincidences are powerful for the individual. In an internet chat room filled with other cancer patients, victims of the common cold, or parents of autistic children, the power of these stories is amplified. The fact is the cancer patient was also receiving life-saving chemotherapy, the employee's immune system could have cleared the infection in the same time frame without antibiotic intervention, and your toddler would have begun showing symptoms of autism regardless of MMR vaccine administration. Anecdata is powerful, especially when amplified by internet forums and tangled with the ever-echoing fears of parents. But anecdata does not compare to scientific evidence. One desperate mother's story on a parenting forum may sound convincing, but it can't, hasn't, and won't stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific method.

30 responses so far

Work-life balance: I do not think it means what you think it means

Dec 26 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Hellllloooooo!!!! For those who followed me over here from The Tightrope, thanks for clicking!! For those who don't know me, I'm Dr. O, and I'll be gracing the Scientopia Guest Blogge with my post-holiday, travel-weary, pre-TT-jittery, usually-cheerful-but-sometimes-bitchy presence for the next couple of weeks.

I blog about "work-life balance", which will be the primary topic of my tenure here. Ironically, there really is no such thing as work-life *balance*. Instead, my life enjoys varying degrees of imbalance - at times focused heavily on family, other moments overwhelmed by work, and periodically distracted by incredibly-stupid bullshit. I live a constant tightrope act, chock-full of anxiety, cursing, and tumbles, but made worthwhile by the accompanying laughter, discovery, growth, and adventure of my family and career.

The three-ring circus of my life encompasses grant-writing, diaper humor, coworker antics, political carping, research woes, and self-reflection/entertainment. My blogging is just as unpredictable and varied, and there's no telling what will happen while I'm hanging out around here. I do hope you'll enjoy reading, and you'll comment when you have something (anything!) to say. I love a good conversation, especially when it makes me think more than I normally do.

8 responses so far

Happy holidays and hooroo!

Dec 25 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

It's come to the end of the fortnight in a flurry of flour, salads and puddings. Time flies!

Happy holidays to those that celebrate them, and every-day happiness to those that don't. Hope 2012 brings all sorts of adventures your way.

To the community at Scientopia, thank ye kindly for having me as a guest blogger, I've enjoyed it muchly. Now it's off to new horizons - there's some exciting things happening next year, I'll keep you posted at the Schooner!

Goodbye, good wishes, good fishes, and keep the shovel.

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Gingerbread scientists

Dec 24 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

So I was going to make some funky science gingerbread yesterday, but turns out there's no ginger in the galley kitchen. Shame! I'll do it tonight instead, 'cos it's way too hot to cook at this time of year. You peeps in the Northern Hemisphere have it sweet.

In the meantime, here's some gingerbready inspiration!

Gingerbread man in a containment suit

Gingerbread man in a containment suit, by Not So Humble Pie

gingerbread scientist

Gingerbread scientist, from Not So Humble Pie

gingerbread skeletons

Gingerbread skeletons from Try it you might like it.


My dad made this gingerbread laboratory last Christmas

Not So Humble Pie used to run science cooking round-ups, with some awesome delicious cakes that make you feel smart.

Got more suggestions? Send them to me and I'll make some tonight!

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Christmas chemistry, the science of holly

Dec 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

pudding with holly

Chocolate orange icecream pudding with side of holly. Image by webmink

Green and red, classic Christmas colours, adorn the spiky holly shrub. A sprig may garnish puddings, but garnish nibblers like me must hold back on holly for it is poisonous in large doses - though some leaves can make a tasty beverage!

Holly includes about 400 species in the genus Ilex. The cultivated species is Ilex aquifolium, and about 20 or 30 of those bright berries can kill an adult.

Poisonings are more likely in pets or children, and about five berries will make a kid feel sick.

It's the usual suspects in symptoms - sleepiness, sore tummy, vomiting, diarrhoea. Larger doses cause paralysis, kidney damage and death.

Chemically, they contain a cocktail of active ingredients. Among them are the triterpenes, precursors to steroids which are cytotoxic (kill cells), steroids and a nitrile called menisdaurin.

Traditional medicines use holly for fever, gout and chronic bronchitis.

Holly, image by 4nitsirk, flickr

A couple of species native to North America, I. vomitoria aka yaupon and I. cassine, make caffeine and were used to make "black drink", a stimulating brew also used as a vomit-causing emetic.

South American species I. paraguariensis contains as much as 1.6% caffeine (five times more than the above species) and some of the cocoa chemical theobromine in their leaves, and tasty tannins.

Also called yerba mate, I. paraguariensis is brewed to make mate tea, which is delicious. It's pronounced MAH-tay, but be careful not to put the emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia says that makaes mah-TAY, which means "I killed" in Spanish.

So it's fine to have a sprig of holly in the house for Christmas, just don't make a holly pie out of it!

One response so far

Nanopatch vaccines, no needles required

Dec 18 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

In my younger years, Immunisation Day was met at my school with a mix of dread and excitement. Sweet to hang out and chat in the pre-needle line, but the needle itself...

(Actually, to be honest, I loved the needle. I used to watch and take pride in not flinching. It's probably 'cos I'm so hardcore. While others quake in their boots, I'm all bring it. You dig? (Of course you do, I gave you that shovel.))

For a lot of people, needles aren't much fun at the time or afterwards under the constant threat of arm punching.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the Nanopatch. It's an Australian design (that's right, we're claiming it. pwned) that delivers a vaccine through the skin without any pain. I wrote about it about 18 months ago on my blog as a research adventure, but now it's being commercialised! THEY'RE ACTUALLY GOING TO DO THIS! - go into clinical trials I mean.


A little piece of silicon is etched with thousands of nano-sized, pointy projections. The points are coated with a dry vaccine.

The Nanopatch

When the patch is applied, the projections penetrate into the skin a breadth of a hair deep. There's no pain as it's not deep enough to hit the nerve cells. It simply pokes through that outer layer, and deposits the vaccine to the immune cell laden area just underneath.

The projections get wet after penetration (lol) and the vaccine comes off the patch and into the body.

Why get in the skin?

In the epidermis, the cells targeted are Langerhans cells. I picture them like cellular squid. They start as babies, who with many arms gather up intruders and chew them up. Then they swim to the lymph nodes where they mature, graduate, and present the pieces on their tentacle suckers.

Naïve T-cells passing by in the lymph node activate when they see the shred of antigen. The Langerhans cell has just given a picture to a hit man, the T cell. Once naïve, the T cell now knows it's purpose and matures, looking out for the intruder, armed and ready.

(See this is why I couldn't be a proper science, I'm a helpless anthropomorphiser.)

T cells are part of adaptive immunity that keep you from getting the same disease twice. The Nanopatch reaches them better than needles, and scientists say they've achieved similar immune responses using a hundredth of the dose in animal models.

Cheap and easy

Apart from no pain, Nanopatches require no refrigeration as they are dry. That makes it cheap and easy to transport. The manufacturing method, large scale, should be pretty cheap - at least that's what they're anticipating. It uses similar techniques to microelectronics, so it's not farfetched.

They're also simple to administer, needing no specialist knowledge and no chance of needle stick injuries.

Cheaper, easier vaccines would make a big difference to both developing and developed countries. Particularly in remote areas where transport is difficult.

Nanopatch was developed by lead researcher Mark Kendall at the University of Queensland, and the new company name is Vaxxas. It won the Australian Innovation Challenge this month, and they are continuing development and planning to begin Phase 1 trials. Fingers crossed!

Here's a video if you want to watch more.

2 responses so far

Vampire squid on Occupy Wall Street, biology of Vampyroteuthis infernalis

Dec 14 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Occupy Wall Street protesters took up arms - eight of them - in their march on Monday. Carrying craftastic models of vampire squid high above their heads, in homage to Matt Taibbi's description of the bank as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” in Rolling Stones, 2008.

Harsh words, right? I mean, vampire squids are totally awesome!

The vampire squid inhabits the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea. Light is absorbed by the water, making it perpetually twilight. A vampire in twilight, that's not horrifying, that's dreamy, amiright? Don't hit your head if you swoon.

I know, it's cute. Image from Wikimedia Commons

We don't know much about these little dudes because they dwell in that most mysterious of spots, the deep sea. Vampyroteuthis infernalis means vampire squid from hell, but it's not even technically a squid. Or an octopus. It's got an order all of it's own.

They have a consistency similar to a jellyfish, quite gelatinous. Like many jellyfish, it swims by shooting out a jet of water behind it to propel it forward, but it has a couple of fins for manouvering. It has eight arms and two extra arms which hide in its 'pockets' and can extend the length of its body when needed.

Plus, these troopers hold the title for the largest eyes relative to their body. An individual about six inches long has an eye an inch across, about the same as a full-grown dog. All the better to see you with, my dear. They also have a receptacle behind their eye for spermatangia, the tough sac of sperm ejaculated from the specialised arms of a lover. Just imagine date night

The most brilliant behaviour is their bioluminescence. These guys glow!

When startled, squid may shoot out ink to confuse predators. That's not much good when you live in twilight, so instead the vampire squid shoots out glowing balls that dazzle and confuse. Over a thousand discrete bright particles within a matrix of mucous. Picture that, you're out looking for a snack late at night, feeling pretty hungry, you think you smell something good and suddenly there's some wacko waving glowsticks and snot in your face!

Another defensive ploy is to go into pineapple pose. Turning their bell-shaped tentacles over them, they completely change their shape (going kind of inside out). They light up some spots on their head which animals may take for eyes, which glow and then shrink as if the animal has swum away. Even if you didn't buy that the animal was gone, looking at the videos, you wouldn't want to eat that.

Inside out, not so delicious. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Oh... and about that quote Occupy Wall Street are marching for. The vampire squid's diet seems to consist of molluscs, fish and crustaceans. As far as we know, it's not a blood sucker, and Tree of Life. describes the funnel as absent. That must make it hard to stick said metaphorical blood funnel into anything, whether it smells like money or not.

Recommended links

This National Geographic vid is pure pirate gold for high quality images of the creature.

Stephen Fry gave respect to these sweet deep sea entities in this clip from QI, shown at Deep Sea News.

In the QI link, they say the bioluminescence explosion is like John Barrowman! You might know Barrowman as the immortal Captain Jack Harkness from Dr Who and Torchwood, but blow me down, that captain can dance!

Still got time for more videos? Here's David Attenborough talking about the deep ocean.

The majority of this info was from Tree of Life.

3 responses so far

On introductions and shovels

Dec 12 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Ahoy! Call me Captain Skellett. My interests include science, sailing and long walks on the beach with a compass and treasure map. I’m looking for someone to carry my shovel, if you know what I mean.

(If you think I mean anything other than taking this iron-bladed digging equipment to where X marks the spot, you are fresh out of luck.)

I am grateful to the bottom of me chest for the opportunity to guest blog here on Scientopia amongst such fine bloggers. It is a privilege and an honour to write with you, and I love your community spirits. Thanks particularly to Dr O for swapping with me, as 2012 is looking to be a crazy year with limited internets.

I’ve been running yonder blog, A Schooner of Science, for two and a half years. In children it’s called the terrible two’s, and I’m sure many of you will agree the blog does cuts into sleeping time. But haunted as I am by the whale, I never sleep…

(Some may consider this a pro, the cons being rum-addiction, unkempt hair and increased likelihood of scurvy. To the latter, I can assure you that I likes me rum with a squeeze of lime. And a tiny umbrella.)

We pirates are generalists by trade, so I write about anything that catches my fancy. My background in chemistry, biochemistry, molecular and drug design doesn’t stop me blogging on robots, the deep sea, technology and such suchness. Science art is particularly close to my heart.

For those so inclined to follow, find me @CaptainSkellett on Twittarrr and on the book of faces. And so, me hearties, grab this shovel and let us embark on a two week voyage with a drink, a wink, and an on we go.

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