Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Month: January 2016 (page 2 of 2)

What is Really Healthy in 2016

An article from Independent (“Healthy Food Doesn’t Exist – According to Experts”) argues that healthy food really doesn’t exist. The fat in fat-free half-and-half has been replaced with corn syrup. Pork cracklings are assumed to be bad because of their fat when they really can be beneficial because they are high in protein. Shoppers are constantly left confused because they look for what is “healthy” rather than what is nutritious.

Scientists and nutritionists are constantly coming up with new ideas on what is good or bad for people to consume. Last week, Enviroblog posted an article naming Environmental Working Group’s top five eating guidelines, including the following:

  1. Eat more vegetables and fruits, but keep away from pesticides
  2. Limit red, processed, and most meats
  3. Limit intake of soda, sugar, and salt
  4. Limit your consumption of foods with mercury and your seafood diet to low-mercury fish
  5. Watch out for processed and chemical-heavy foods

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, avocados are the way to go. They are versatile and do not contain sugar, dairy, or gluten.  According to Independent, Freekeh is the new thing. “Throw out your quinoa”, they say, because freekeh is a trending grain that’s low in fat and high in protein, iron, and fiber, leaving you full and energetic. Independent also recommends eggs, goat milk, fish, sweet potatoes, wild greens and herbs, tofu, walnuts, black beans, fresh fruit, seaweed, wild rice, garlic, prawns, and chillies, as “superfoods” that can help you live longer.

If you ask me, I’ll eat whatever looks appetizing and won’t kill me (kidding, a little). It’s hard to know how to shop for healthy foods today, but it seems that it’s always better to choose natural foods over processed foods or those that contain too many chemicals. It’s important to understand what nutrients and chemicals may be in your food and to choose “healthy” wisely.




A Mutation to be Wary of

It was during my freshman year dance ensemble rehearsal that I first heard about drug resistant bacteria. Yes, I heard it in dance rehearsal. However, it was not until I took a course on genetics and genomics that I learned about how bacteria become resistant to drugs used to treat and cure bacterial infections. Now three years later, science articles on the topic of drug resistant bacteria continue to haunt global society. These articles make me wonder, what if the best of our antibiotics succumb to resistance? How would we cure illnesses that have the potential to harm and kill?

In an article by Bethany Brookshire “New gene resists our last-ditch drug” she discusses how researchers in China have discovered a mutated gene in pigs, named mcr-1, that is resistant to an antibiotic named Colistin. A drug that is commonly known as a “last resort drug” for patients who are very ill. In the article Brookshire discusses the different ways in which bacteria become resistant, how antibiotic use in agriculture contributes to resistance buildup, the importance of this issue, and briefly gives examples of potential solutions to delay resistance from developing.

There is a lot of fear surrounding this topic. Bacteria live everywhere, and although the presence of some bacteria do benefit humans and animals there are many that do not. When one comes into contact with a bad bacterium it could lead to a poor health outcome. If bacteria can adapt to resist even the strongest of antibiotics known to cure serious illnesses our global health systems may have a problem.

The mcr-1 resistant gene has not yet been found in patients within hospitals, but is resistance an inevitable outcome? Experts referenced in the article say it is not time to “panic” and share alternate ways to handle issues of resistance that may arise. However, the potential for resistance is still there and is apparent in the fears of many including myself and my fellow dancers.



New discoveries in fight against superbugs

Antibiotic resistant bacteria presents a rising problem to the world. In the US alone, approximately 2 million people are infected by drug resistant bacteria and more than 23,000 people die as a result. These numbers continue to rise every year as antibiotic resistant infections are more common. While new antibiotics are hard to find, new methods are being discovered to fight against antibiotic resistance.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered a light activated nanoparticle treatment that have been shown to kill 92% of drug-resistant bacteria. Unlike previous research done on nanoparticles to fight against bacteria, these nanoparticles are able to only harm the infections as they can be tailored against a particular bacteria through the use of different wavelengths. This new technology is a great step towards developing an effective treatment against strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Researchers from the UK National Physical Laboratory and University College London have engineered a new way for lactoferrin, a protein found in saliva and breast milk that destroys a range of harmful microbes, to kill bacteria by puncturing the cell membrane with holes. Similar to a virus, the re-engineered lactoferrin is capable of self-assembly into a capsule and can transport small RNA fragments. However it is different from other viral therapies, as it is capable of attacking specific bacterial strains. Both will be important in the treatment of a wider range of diseases. These self assembling capsules could “serve as delivery vehicles for cures” of disorders resulting from single mutated genes.

Not only do both discoveries give hope in the fight against superbugs, but with further research they can also treat other diseases. However, they will need a long time before being available on the market.



Manatees are no longer endangered, but our work is not done yet

Good news for aquatic bovine enthusiasts everywhere! The US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently proposed that the West Indian manatee be removed from the endangered species list, thanks to a significant rebound in the species’ population.

Native to the waters of Florida and the Caribbean, these gentle herbivores, popularly known as “sea cows”, have been protected by the Endangered Species Act since the law’s inception, and were among the first species ever categorized as endangered by the US government. The suggested reclassification follows reports of a 500% increase in the species’ numbers since population surveys began in 1991: a substantial recovery, attributed to the hunting bans, habitat protection efforts, and boating speed limits which were established to protect the slow-moving marine mammal (FWS, 2016). The manatee’s rank will be officially downsized to “Threatened” on April 8th, 2016, with the Fish and Wildlife Service allowing 90 days for any interested parties to debate the decision, but citing a “very low percentage chance of [the species] going extinct in the next 100 years” (FWS, 2016).

While this encouraging news certainly indicates that previous conservation efforts have been fruitful, it should not be mistaken for any final victory in the long-standing struggle to protect the West Indian manatee. The creature is still listed as “Vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a title denoting species that are “likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening [their] survival and reproduction improve” or which are “considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild” (IUCN, 2000). Likewise, the Fish and Wildlife Service has not recommended that the regulations currently in place to protect the West Indian manatee be reversed in the wake of its recent reclassification.

The conservation of a species is a continuous undertaking, not a final destination. With this in mind, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s promising news should not be interpreted as grounds to abandon the efforts which have allowed for the partial resurgence of this long-imperiled species, in the first place. But in light of this inspiring development, and with our continued support, perhaps the West Indian manatee may once again achieve the safety and stability it once enjoyed in its native ranges.





FWS 2016. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; 12-Month Finding on a Petition To Downlist the West Indian Manatee, and Proposed Rule To Reclassify the West Indian Manatee as Threatened. Federal Register 81 (5) 1000 – 1026. Retrieved from <> on January 25th, 2016.

FWS 2016. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Reclassify West Indian Manatee from Endangered to Threatened. Press Release, January 7th 2016. Retrieved from <> on January 25th, 2016.

IUCN 2000. IUCN RED LIST CATEGORIES AND CRITERIA: Version 3.1 Second edition.  Retrieved from <> on January 25th, 2016.

Proving the Health Benefits of Nature: the science behind what we already know

After finishing my finals last semester, heading home for break I had only one thing on my mind: hiking.  After the constant stress and stimulation of the end of the semester, I knew that what I needed to recover was not to sleep until noon for a month, but to get outside into the woods and be quiet with the world.  Hiking has always been my coping strategy for life, and recently I learned why.

In December, National Geographic published an article by Florence Williams explaining the mental benefits of being in nature.  Various scientists have conducted studies; some looking at brain waves, some comparing people walking in the city with people walking in the woods, and some on the mental health of citizens with access to green spaces.  All studies are pointing in the same direction, that time in nature decreases stress, and less stress has a multitude of health benefits.   Scientists are finding that time spent in nature not only decreases stress hormones, but decreases heart rate, improves mood, attention span, creativity, and problem solving.

Although the movement is slow, medical professionals are starting to take the nature effect into consideration, prescribing to patients that they spend more time outside.  Hospitals are also incorporating nature into their design, which is helping patients heal faster.

In an age where we seem most disconnected with nature, maybe these findings are just what we need to push us back into nature.  As scientist David Strayer states, “at the end of the day…we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but because of how it makes us feel.”  The scientific proof might help us get into nature, but that wont be what makes us stay, the rejuvenation and joy that we find there will keep us coming back season after season.



Planet X: Exciting New Evidence For Its Existence

“There might be a ninth planet in the solar system after all, and it is not Pluto.” This sentence appeared as a headline in the The New York Times Science section on January 20, 2016.

A significant amount of scientific media, including Science Magazine, Scientific American and Nature News, all reported this exciting new scientific report in only a few hours.

In fact, the existence of a new planet next to Neptune,  namely, Planet X, has long been proposed.

According to the calculations, the planet should be nine times heavier than earth and have a size similar to Neptune.

However, some new evidence have just been found recently.


Firstly, where do these new evidence come from?

The answers are  Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, two planetary scientists,from Caltech.

Then, What are those evidence all about?

Astronomers observed 6 small bodies in distant orbitals. One thing which is extremely important here is that all these orbitals are tilted at similar angles “in the same quadrant of the solar system.” Statistically speaking, it is very hard to see this event happened randomly. In another word, the Planet X has a great possibility to exist.

Finally, What do we still need to confirm the ninth planet?

To answer this in a concise way: Find it!

We have to visually see it before make any step further. All the evidence we hold right now are indirect.

In a word, no solid confirmation can be made with only theoretical evidence, no matter how strong and persuasive they are.


The following video is a brief explanation of the new evidence from the Science Magazine.


Having many questions? Further reading…
Five quick questions and answers about Planet X by Scientific American:

5 Questions and Answers about the Proposed Ninth Planet




Genetically Engineered Babies, taking it too far? The Positive and Negatives of Genetically Engineering Babies

The Positive and Negatives of Genetically Engineering Babies:


  1. Has the ability to alter  human DNA can correct for disease genes and stop future generations from suffering from conditions like cystic fibrosis.
  2. Has the ability to install gene protection against infections, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, and aging effects.
  3. Has the ability to create fertile sperm from repaid DNA of infertile men, allowing men to produce babies.
  4. Has the ability to improve the human species by increasing life span, intelligence, and economic output.


  1. Inputting several genetic diseases at once may cause complications in the embryo.
  2. Usage of the technology could get out of hand, for example changing eye color of babies born.
  3. Discriminating against families without proper income to use the technology.
  4. Ethical questions arise.



Pros and Cons of Genetic Engineering

Welcome, science writers!

While scientific progress has brought extraordinary medical and technological advances, today’s hottest political debates surround scientific issues that are overwhelmingly misconstrued, misunderstood, and misreported. In the face of increasingly sensationalized and politicized scientific issues, what is the role of journalism in delivering scientific news and information to citizens? What other social actors dive into these debates and why?

Ultimately, this is a journalism course and students will be introduced to the skills needed to cover medical and science news. The course will focus on how to report and write daily news stories, blog entries and longer features. But science journalism is not just about mechanics. In light of the current debates raging around issues like autism, genetic engineering, and climate science, this course will also explore the ethical, social, and political issues raised by the press coverage of science and medicine.

Science journalism is about cultivating a more informed citizenry by focusing on facts not arguments; it’s about revealing the agendas, funding, conflicts of interest, and social systems surrounding a scientific issue; and it’s about reporting responsibly on those issues for our readers. Whether headed for a career in scientific research, non-profits, public relations, or journalism, this course will help students become better consumers of scientific information and better producers of science journalism in the public interest.

Read the full syllabus here.

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