Science and Journalism in Society

Brandeis University JOUR 130B

Month: March 2016

The War on Drugs in Sports Continues

On March 21, 2016 yet another professional athlete was caught using drugs. Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova was suspended for usage of the banned drug meldonium, or called mildronate. This drug is not approved by the FDA but is used for heart tissue protection and regulates one’s metabolism. This drug is normally used by the elderly and prescribed for  no more then a couple weeks at a time. Meldonium gives athletes an advantage because it endurances performance by improving rehabilitation after exercise and can protect against stress. This allows athletes to not struggle as greatly after an injury or a match. Sharapova started taking this drug in 2006 due to her “immune deficiency, abnormal EKG results, diabetes indicators, low magnesium and asthenia.” She claims to get the flu very frequently and meldonium was the only way to continue her career. Ivar Kalvins, the inventor of the drug, states, “most athletes should be on this drug…it protects the heart.” Before the drug was banned, in The European Games 66 out of 762 athletes used this drug. Sharapova failed a drug test in January and hid the results until March when the truth came out.



Five Years After the Accident: Fukushima’s Reality Today

On March 11, 2011, a terrible tsunami destroyed the Fukushima power plant in Japan, causing radiation spewed in large dimensions. Although the Japanese government immediately decided to shut down all the reactors and started preventing future environmental damage and investigated into the exposure, according to the article by Madhusree Mukerjee, which is published on Scientific American website  on March 8, 2016, “major questions still loom today” and “the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), is reluctant to share information.”

Despite the efforts that the government and other related organizations have put into the series of problems, they certainly did not do a great job of protecting the citizens and environment, more importantly, the authorities are not open for detailed information at all. After five years, they tried to persuade people to believe that everything has passed already.

According to Mukerjee, this February Tepco finally admitted that “it had waited for two months after the accident before announcing the meltdowns—which possibly delayed evacuations and endangered lives” due to the widespread suspicions and public pressure. Though Tepco has put great efforts into cleaning up, it still has “‘no idea where and how much fuel debris is in the reactor now,’ says nuclear engineer Tadahiro Katsuta of Meiji University.”

Meanwhile, the collected contaminated water also brings a huge problem: how to isolate all the radioactive substances from it? While most of the substances have been removed after “painstakingly cleaning”, tritium concentration remains at high level as it is extremely hard to separate.

Since the accident, many Japanese citizens have gathered to protest against the further use of nuclear power. However both the Japanese government and Tepco did not react to the protests well as they restart several reactors again and keep trying to hind information from the general public. For people who has lived in the evacuated area around Fukushima power plant, the lack of responses is absolutely a much greater pain. According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 2015, 3200 deaths have resulted from the accidents, ailments and trauma due to the evacuation. In the mean time, “Exile may be permanent, however, for tens of thousands of people from the most contaminated areas.” Conversely, radiation epidemiologist Yoshisada Shibata of Nagasaki University opposed the statistical result above and “dismisses as ‘nonsense’ the claim that the disaster is responsible for those cases” as he thinks that it is too fast since the cancers could not grow to such large size just after the exposure. Also, as another piece of evidence to reject the claim, Shibata compares the situation with that in Chernobyl and points out that “no Fukushima children who were infants at the time of the disaster have tumors.”

On the other hand, the water body and marine ecosystem are facing huge contamination problems caused by the leak. Although the clean-up works have showed their positive effects, the radioactive contamination is going to “stay put near Japan,” according to marine radiochemist Ken Buesseler of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

To view the results (problems) of Fukushima accidents from a brand new angle, the future of scientific research comes into play. An article published online in Nature on March 2, 2016 provides a valuable insights into the problem. As a well-known resource-poor country, Japan absolutely needs nuclear power’s support in order to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Since the accident in 2011, the article points put many of those decisions  on evacuation, clean-up and so on were made at “the science–policy interface.” and “scientists, especially those involved in giving policy advice, lost credibility and the trust of the public” due to all the concealment described in previous paragraphs and continuous arguments raised by people with opposite interests. The article states that the tragedy happened in 2011 has revealed a “fundamental problem” presents in Japanese scientific research field that the connections ” between disciplines and between Japan’s scholars and those working in other countries” are weak.

The article introduces two possible solutions to improve the interdisciplinary research in Japan after briefly describing two case studies: either “globalize the review process” or “globalize research.”

Overall, although two articles have taken completely different aspects of the Fukushima power plant, both admitted near the end of its work that problems “abound” even after five years of the disasters.


How to Engage the Disengaged Pt. 1

In general, people appreciate science, but they’re mostly attracted to the glossy and shiny parts of science. Take this Cyanide and Happiness comic for example:

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 2.08.14 PM

That isn’t to say that these little grey shirted dudes across the world are at fault or to be judged (we all are little grey shirted dudes ourselves at some point), but it is something to think about how the scope of “science” is  understood and perceived differently within the general public.

In many instances, science intimidates people. There is a fear, a distance, and an uncertainty about it.  After all, most adults never have another incentive to study or understand science  after high school, and many people write themselves off as not fit to learn or even take an interest in science based off of bad early experiences.  However, with a better cultural understanding of what science is and how it works works, people stand better chances of being able to accurately interpret and approach the information that gets thrown at them on a daily basis.

It’s an issue that scientists and educators are actively trying to tackle, and of course, a primary ambition of science journalism. Only recently have I realized that there is a vibrant community dedicated to initiating and understanding this sort of communication. Actually, “Science Public Engagement” is a HUGE thing. There exist professional agencies that function purely to aid scientists in communication, radio shows (a local Boston one) that intertwine science and comedy, and citizen science projects with an initiative to get regular people involved as contributors to real science research. There was even a national conference last month dedicated to the theme of  Global Science Engagement and science policy (which by the way is coming to Boston next year). A ton of scientists, journalists, and educators are out there collaborating on innovative ways in which non professional citizens can engage into a deeper understanding of science.

Here I summarize some key points from Martin Storksdieck, the Director of the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning at Oregon State University. He spoke briefly during a symposium at the AAAS Annual Meeting in February:

“Science can actually turn people off,” says Martin. The school system is an individual’s first exposure to science, but what ends up happening there are educators simply “throwing out information and hoping that it sticks.”  Instead, we need to take people into an experience. “Combine elements built on what best engage people,” says Martin, “combine your agenda with their agenda.” People become disengaged because no personal meaning is established in their science learning or there is no fear present to drive them. Because of that poor foundation, we need people, from young students to adults to “re-self select themselves into science” and we need to let them rediscover a chance to “own what they learn.”

So we need to think, as scientists and educators, how do we make science not threating, accessible, and meaningful? To get people involved in science, we need to give them the experience of being a part of the science themselves and to show them that it is an important part of their lives.

Is Alcohol Really That Bad?

Alcohol has helped to shape American culture and will continue to do so. Often in America, people use alcohol as a social lubricant or a way to wind down at the end of the day. Many studies have found that moderate drinking can offer substantial health benefits across all ages. The American Heart Association published a study called “Wine and Your Heart” showing an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attacks, ischemic stroke, and death all from cardiovascular causes. However, the key word is moderate!

Recently, there has been a considerab­le increase in binge drinking, with as many as 32% of Americans reporting occasional bingeing. Binge drinking is defined as episodic excessive drinking. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks, or when women consume four or more drinks in about two hours. Binge drinking has been related to serious pathological effects in different organ systems. In the cardiovascular system, binge drinking has been linked to higher levels of cerebral bleeds, death from coronary artery disease, and strokes. In the gastrointestinal system, pancreatic cancer was found to be more common in binger drinkers than compared to nondrinkers. Furthermore, binge drinking goes beyond organ damage. Binge drinking is correlated most highly with violent injuries. Suicide rates among binge drinkers is six times that of moderate alcohol consumers.

Binge drinking has been shown to have serious effects on the human body. Although alcohol has certain benefits to health when people drink and meet the definition of moderate, there are still no public health guidelines that encourage people to start drinking.

Top 5 research articles I read this week

Circadian rhythm is the 24-hour physiological processes throughout a light/dark cycle. In other words, how your body responds to daylight/nighttime. It’s obvious to say that (most) people wake up in the morning feeling energized, to then feeling like napping (or taking a siesta) in the afternoon, to being awake again later in the night until you eventually fall asleep. Remarkably, this activity pattern is conserved across many species, down to rodents and even fruit flies- yes, those teeny, tiny flies feeding on your bananas at home. So, why is this even a concern? Altered activity patterns and disrupted sleep is seen in many neurological diseases and psychological disorders.  Seeing the same characteristic in different health conditions is unlikely a coincidence, suggesting your “biological clock” is somehow associated with your mental health. To further investigate what really goes on, scientists need to turn to a simple model organism for their research experiments, such as the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster.

Here are the top five scientific articles I recently read this week relating to circadian rhythms/sleep in Drosophila:

  1. Sitaraman, D., Aso, Y., Chen, N., Felix, M., Rubin, G.M., and Nitabach, M.N. 2015. Propagation of homeostatic sleep signals by segregated synaptic microcircuits of the Drosophila Mushroom Body. Current Biol 25:2915-2927.
  2. Seidner, G., Robinson, J.E., Wu, M., Worden, K., Masek, P., Roberts, S.W., Keene, A.C., and Joiner, W.J. 2015. Identification of neurons with a privileged role in sleep homeostasis in Drosophila melanogaster. Current Biol 25:2928-2938.
  3. Larkin, A., Chen, M., Kirazenblat, L., Reinhard, J., van Swinderen, B., and Claudianos, C. 2015. Neuroxin-1 regulates sleep and synaptic plasticity in Drosophila melanogaster. Euro J Neurosci 42:2455-2466.
  4. Mazzoccoli et al., 2016. A Timeless link between circadian patterns and disease. Trends Molec Med 22(1):68-81.
  5. Abruzzi, K., Chen, X., Nagoshi, E., Zadina, A., and Rosbash, M. 2015. RNA-seq profiling of small numbers of Drosophila Methods Enzymology 551:369-386.

Move Over Biopsies…Make Way for the Spit Test!

With surprising accuracy saliva can point to head and neck cancer. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine identified tumor DNA in the saliva. The DNA contains distinctive mutations associated with cancer and makes it easy to identify. As a tumor sheds parts of its genetic code into its surroundings, some of the DNA will be incorporated into the saliva allowing for detecting. Currently, there are no screenings for head and neck cancer because it does not improve the mortality rate of those types of cancer patients; so the saliva test could possibly increase survival chance through earlier treatments.

However, this study has one major flaw. The results obtained were not compared to healthy individuals, so the effectiveness of the spit test is still unclear. More research needs to be conducted to determine if this test is worthwhile, but at its current stage, it seems to be very promising.


The cluelessness of vaping; so whats the buzz?

Vaping, which was recently added to the dictionary in 2014, is becoming a new craze. “Vaping” is essentially the new term for “smoking”, you “vape” an e-cigarette and “smoke” and cigarette. It is the inhalation and exhale of vapor containing nicotine or other chemical substances, produced by an electronic cigarettes or similar devices that are battery-operated and use a heating element to heat a liquid cartridge.

“Vape” juice is made of nicotine mixed with a base (most often propylene glycol) and flavorings. The growing popularity is increasingly fast, especially amount young adults. There are hundreds of brands, thousands of flavors, but they are all unregulated by the FDA. This raises a few questions: what chemicals are people exactly inhaling if this product is unregulated? Can’t people say one thing and it be another? What are the health’s affects? We don’t know if the second hand smoke from an E-cig is less, just as, or more dangerous than that of a cigarette. Nicotine is also an addictive substance. There are a number of affects nicotine has on the brain in terms of development, memory and retention, and behavioral and cognitive behaviors. Recent studies show noticeable amounts of cancer causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde from the heating up of propylene glycol. There is so little known about E-cigarette smoking, at least in the public eyes, there needs to be something done.

The public is unaware of the full health effects of electronic cigarettes. There are too many potential consequences to keep a blind eye to it. With no safety checks and requirements, anything goes and often people do not understand what they are consuming. Why vape when there is not an understanding of its consequences? Restrictions and warnings need to be put in place. Any way you light it, not smoking at all is the best way to go.






APOE4: a double edged sword

It is commonly thought that mental stimulation will decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers from Mayo Clinic found that for the majority of the Alzheimer’s population keeping mentally and physically active will only slow the progression of symptoms, not the actual disease.

In the longitudinal study 393 participant, between 70 and 89 were asked to report their mental and physical activity and were then imaged to look for Alzheimer’s disease progression. The study specifically look at the APOE4 gene in this study. APOE4 is an allele of APOE (apolipoprotein E) increases the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and associated with an earlier onset. APOE is involved in making a protein that carries cholesterol and fat int he bloodstream. The study found those who had the APOE4 gene not only showed a decrease in Alzheimer’s symptom progression but also a decrease in progression of the actual disease in certain parts of the brain with mental and physical activity. 

Do not count out mental and physical stimulation just yet. There has been many studies that support how lifestyle enrichment helps delay onset of cognitive impairment and it helps prevent other disorders such as diabetes.



Loneliness, A Stealthy Contagion

Since you already have your phone out or computer screen up, take a moment and check how many Facebook friends, Twitter and Instagram followers, and whatever other social media connections you have.


Now, how many of those individuals would you consider a close confidant?  After posing this question to in a recent American study, Professor John Cacioppo found that 25% of the participants said they had “no one at all.”


Cacioppo, a Professor at the University of Chicago, has been investigating loneliness pathology and its public health consequences for over two decades.  In the early 1990s Cacioppo introduced the scientific community to a new field, social neuroscience, and has since demonstrated the importance of understanding and analyzing the need for stable bonds within social species, namely the human race.


Seemingly counter-intuitive, Cacioppo has found that “often times, fewer is better” when it comes to the quantity of one’s connections.  Some people have countless networks yet feel lonely because of the increased likelihood that motivations (of material gain, for instance) can impede true connection.


Such large and ultimately fruitless social systems lend themselves to the contagious quality of loneliness.  “I have become lonely for some reason and you are my friend,” Cacioppo illustrates.  “As a suddenly lonely person I am now more likely to deal with you cautiously, defensively, as a potential threat to me [because you might leave and add to my pain].”  Consequently, more negative social reactions will burgeon and rot the relationship, “so that is one less confidant for both of us.”


Cacioppo’s findings have could advocate for public health and policy reform.   The incidence rate of loneliness is high: one in four people regularly feel lonely.  Early death by factors related to chronic loneliness is increased by 20%, the same rate as those fatal factors related to obesity.  Though a direct cause-effect relationship between loneliness and heart disease and cancer can’t be drawn, there are serious health implications including sleep fragmentation and poor immune system function.


What does this research mean in the context of mounting social media use?  Roughly two-thirds (65%) of American adults use social networking sites.  Both the 18-29 and the 30-49 age brackets have seen increases.  The latter group has increased from 8% to 77% social media users since 2005, and compared with a mere 12% in 2005, 90% of young adults are on social media.  What could this mean for the prevalence of loneliness and related health consequences?  Is there a decrease in confidant quality associated with a growth in social media?

Perhaps the use of  “social” as a modifier for media is as ironic as your friend’s Facebook post of a “Forever Alone” meme.



How Your Poor Sleeping Habits Can Influence Your Eating Habits (Like the Munchies)

Ever had the munchies? Rumor has it that you can get them without consuming marijuana via sleep deprivation. If you’re trying not to gain weight, you may want to consider your poor sleeping habits. After a poor night’s sleep, your body is more likely to crave sweet, salty, and high-fat snack food, and more of it, too.

What we call the “munchies” actually comes from a chemical response to marijuana on the brain. Marijuana throws off the balance of the endocannabinoid system and its signals (such asendocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG), but so can your body’s lack of sleep. 2-AG levels seem to rise when your body is sleep deprived, causing you to be hungrier than usual. In other words, the combination of marijuana with a lack of sleep can be extremely counterproductive to anyone seeking to lose weight or even maintain it.

A new study conducted by Erin Hanlon further indicates that sleep-restricted subjects showed 2-AG levels up to 33% higher than non sleep-restricted subjects. These subjects are also seen to choose snacks that contain 50% more calories than those than non sleep-restricted subjects choose. A sleep-deprived body may also simply be craving more energy, since it doesn’t have much as a result of its lack of sleep.

Sleep-deprivation’s effects mimic those of the “munchies” that marijuana can give you. Rethink your sleeping habits if you’d like to snack less, and be aware on how poor sleeping habits can influence your body as much as a drug.



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