Injured squid, rogue cancer cells, kids book review

It’s been a busy couple of months for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some really neat topics:

I wrote about injured squid for the Pain Research Forum.

I wrote about new cancer research targeting the so-called tumor “microenvironment” for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

I wrote a fun review of the children’s book “Enjoy Your Cells” for the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog. Thanks to my daughter Madeline for help with that one!

And I continue to write my weekly posts for AAAS Member Central, which you can view here. One of my recent favorites is “NIH holds contest for fixing bias in peer review (with cash prizes).”


Multitasking and the brain

This dog says, "don't text and drive." (
This dog says, “don’t text and drive.” (

It figures that an article I wrote about multitasking would be published the same week I finally broke down and bought a smartphone! Check out The Multitasking Mind to learn more about the neuroscience of multitasking.

Training the brain

While I was interviewing neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley for my BrainFacts piece, he told me about a study his lab had completed that used a video game to train older adults to improve their working memory and multitasking abilities. The study hadn’t been accepted for publication when I conducted the interview so I wasn’t able to discuss it in my piece, but it’s since been published in Nature. It’s pretty interesting, and there was a nice write-up about it in the New York Times.


I also learned about “supertaskers” while researching my article, but wasn’t able to discuss them due to space constraints. While most of us will hit our multitasking peak around 23, some people—about 2.5 percent of the population—are born lucky. These people are sometimes called “supertaskers” because their performance does not decrease when multitasking. For example, the addition of a cell phone conversation to a driving simulation led to longer following distances and delayed braking time for most people.  The driving performance of supertaskers, however, stayed exactly the same. Their ability to perform memory and math tests during the cell phone conversation also stayed the same. In fact, some supertaskers actually did better when doing both tasks at once.

Are you a supertasker? Probably not. In fact, you may be even less likely to be a supertasker if you think you are one. A recent study showed that, in general, people who are the best at multitasking do not do it very often and do not think they are good at it. The people who thought they were skilled multitaskers and who often worked on multiple tasks simultaneously (especially in terms of media) were not actually good multitaskers.  So next time you feel like doing a math problem while talking on the phone and driving, please don’t.


Jacobsen W, Forste R. The wired generation: academic and social outcomes of electronic media use among university students. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 14(5), 275-280 (2011).

Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner A. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(37), 15583-15587 (2009).

Sanbonmatsu D, Strayer D, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson J. Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLOS One. 8(1),  e54402 (2013).

Watson J, Strayer D. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 17(4), 479-485 (2010).

Science under siege

Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)
Scientists across the US are feeling the sting of decreased funding (photo: USDA)

In the United States, the vast majority of scientific studies are performed by federally funded scientists. Science funding was already tight before sequestration began and now the government shutdown is squeezing the system even tighter. This makes it a particularly difficult time to be a scientist in the U.S. (in fact 1/5 scientists have considered leaving the country all together).


AAAS Member Central has a new blog series that examines how sequestration is impacting various components of the scientific enterprise. It does a good job of highlighting the different populations affected by these funding cuts as well as the downstream consequences (decreased productivity, closing of labs, lay offs, strains on private foundations, etc.).

The series thus far:

Stanford grad student: Sequester will have economic consequences

How sequestration is affecting training program directors

Yale lab forced to reduce size by attrition (my interview with Yale professor Lawrence Rizzolo)

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Conlon: R21 budgets reduced by 5 percent

Federal government shutdown

The partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1 has obvious impacts on the lives and research of the furloughed scientists  and support staff who work at the NIH, NSF, and NASA, but it has far-reaching downstream impacts as well.  To get a feel for the impact on scientists across the nation (and even internationally), you can check out discussions about the shutdown on Twitter (#shutscience) and on reddit (there are some really interesting discussions on this page). Some examples:

  • new patients will not be enrolled in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health
  • scientists can’t communicate with collaborators who are federal employees or receive supplies from them
  • new grant applications will not be processed, and the processing of existing grants may be drastically slowed
  • seasonal Forest Service scientists have been laid off
  • many government websites that scientists depend on are either not online or are not being updated (NIST resources, for example)
  • Forest Service permits that are required for field research are not being issued and scientists who do research at National Parks are locked out of their field sites (note: this can be a big deal because field work is often seasonal and cannot be stopped or rescheduled)
  • fishing surveys that determine future fish quotas will be incomplete

A silver lining?

Luckily, scientists are resilient, and some researchers are finding ways to continue to work and help their colleagues. For example, there are tales that scientists serving on grant review study sections this week are putting in valiant efforts to prevent the shutdown from slowing down review of their colleagues’ grants. And at least one professor is providing a mirror website for vital NSF forms. Hopefully these creative fixes won’t have to last for long, and the shutdown will end soon–for all our sakes.

Probiotic breast milk

US Department of Agriculture

In the past, it was thought that a fetus was sterile while in the womb and that a baby’s first food, breast milk, was also free of microbes. Recent research turns this idea on its head as Beth Skwarecki presents in a fascinating DoubleXScience post.

“Babies are born without a fully developed intestinal mucosa, and need interaction with bacteria to basically jump start their immune system,” says Lisa Funkhouser, who co-authored a paper with Seth Bordenstein last month on the many ways mothers across the animal kingdom transmit microbes to offspring.

What’s most fascinating about the microbes in breast milk and those that a fetus harbors before birth is where they originate. The idea is still in its, um, infancy, but evidence is accumulating that cells in the bloodstream pick up microbes from the intestine and transport them to destinations in milk-producing breast tissue … and across the placenta to the developing fetus.

These microbes make up the ground level floor of a baby’s gut ecosystem–preparing the immune system for future invaders. There’s a ton of interesting science jam-packed into this article–check it out.

The scientists behind The Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad

Chemistry prof Donna Nelson makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad. The DEA makes sure you can’t learn to make it at home. (image: Radspunk via wikimedia commons)

Some scientists do outreach by visiting classrooms, tweeting, or writing blog posts. Others help make sure the science in TV shows and movies is accurate. Recent media coverage highlights the scientists behind the science shown on the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad:

The Big Bang Theory

NPR’s Neta Ulaby interviews UCLA physics professor David Saltzberg about his role as an adviser on the Big Bang Theory. Saltzberg gives the show’s producers advice on everything from whiteboard formulas to the appearance of a grad student’s apartment. He’s even gotten a joke on the show:

That happened in the very first season, when Sheldon and another scientist have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke: When one of the characters describes the fight as “a little misunderstanding,” Sheldon is furious. “A little misunderstanding?” he cries. “Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Breaking Bad

Over at Scientific American, Gary Stix interviews the scientist who makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad–University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson. It’s fascinating to read the lengths that Nelson went to in order to get the science right. For example, the show wanted to use an aluminum-mercury reducing agent since it would be the easiest option for the actors to pronounce. In order to figure out the yield from this particular reaction, she had to go back to her grad school roots:

That reagent turned out to be obscure, and I had to go to a German patent from the 1950s to get the information to make the calculation. Fortunately, when I was a graduate student, I had taken German. So I was able to get back to them and tell them the quantity of meth produced, in pounds. So it worked out, but it was a little trouble.

Before I knew that Nelson worked on Breaking Bad, I asked her to contribute her answers for a AAAS 5 Things About Me Post. Check it out to learn about her love of muscle cars and what she would bring to a desert island.

For more interesting meth related reading:

How Much Meth Does Your State Cook? These Maps Show the Drug’s Foothold In America (PolicyMic)

15 Maps That Show How Americans Use Drugs (Business Insider)