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).

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.

Recommended reads: breast cancer, false memories, extreme sleepiness, color perception and language, newborn parenting

Confocal image of an axonal rainbow of oculomotor nerve motor axons from a "Brainbow" mouse brain, with each neuron expressing a distinct color (Jean Livet, Jeff Lichtman Laboratory, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, USA)
Unrelated to recommended posts but too pretty not to share: Oculomotor nerve motor axons from a “Brainbow” mouse brain (Jean Livet, Jeff Lichtman Laboratory, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, USA)

Tracing breast cancer’s history by Carl Zimmer

In this fascinating post, Zimmer looks at the flip side of cancer-causing BRCA mutations (like the one that caused Angelina Jolie to opt for a double mastectomy).


Last year, a team of scientists at the University of Utah discovered an unexpected side effect of BRCA mutations. They looked at medical records of women who carried BRCA mutations and compared them to women with a normal version of the genes. The scientists found that women with the mutations weren’t just more likely to develop cancer. They also had more children. The effect was particularly strong among women born before 1930: they had, on average, two additional children (6.22 compared to 4.19). [read Zimmer’s post here]

Trust your memory? Maybe you shouldn’t by Jacque Wilson

This article delves into the sometimes controversial work of psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus. Her work has important implications for the law–especially in regards to eyewitness testimony and so-called repressed memories–as well as for how we view the ‘truthiness’ of our own everyday memories.


Using her finely tuned “recipe” for memory implantation, she guided study participants to believe they had gotten sick eating strawberry ice cream as children.

A week later, researchers asked about the ice cream incident. Many participants had developed a detailed memory — what Loftus calls a “rich false memory” — about when they had gotten sick. Subsequent studies showed this memory affected the participant’s actual eating behavior. [Read Wilson’s article here.]

*Re-awakenings by Virginia Hughes

This is a truly amazing personal and scientific story about a young lawyer who was literally sleeping her life away and the medical discoveries that helped her.


Sumner began having long sleeping spells like never before. She’d go to bed one night and wake up a full day later, or more—her longest stint was 53 hours. She’d open her eyes and feel completely disoriented, staring at her alarm clock with no idea whether the time was AM or PM. First it was once a month, then every two weeks, then every week. “I started approaching sleep with this trepidation,” she recalls. “Is tonight going to be the night?”  [Read Hughes’ piece here]

 *The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messes with our brains by Aatish Bhatia

This post examines how language influences perception–particularly in the case of colors. I don’t want to give away the scientific twist at the end of the post, but the combination of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics makes this a must-read.


A study in 1984 by Paul Kay and colleagues compared English speakers to members of the Tarahumara tribe of Northwest Mexico. The Tarahumara language falls into the Uto-Aztecan language family, a Native American language family spoken near the mountains of North America. And like most world languages, the Tarahumara language doesn’t distinguish blue from green. [read Bhatia’s post here]

*I discovered these posts because they won Science Seeker awards. Check out other excellent award winners here

The carnival of evidence-based parenting: the new parenthood edition

This is a collection of posts that examine different topics related to the transition to new parenthood (sleep, bonding, swaddling, breastfeeding, happiness, etc). This carnival is a wonderful resource for new parents because all the posts are written from an evidence-based perspective but also include many relatable personal anecdotes. [see a list of all the posts here]

A plethora of posts (and a steminist profile)

Study: Pollutants may delay human pregnancies
A new study by Germaine Buck Louis and colleagues at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences took a novel approach to exploring how environmental pollutants may impact the time it takes for couples to conceive. Continue reading….

Study: Facial expressions of intense joy and anguish are indistinguishable
Studies looking at how people perceive emotions often rely on stimuli that look like floating faces. What has largely been missing in these studies is the role of the body in emotional processing. A fascinating new study published in Science used a clever experimental paradigm to tease apart how we use visual input from bodies more than faces to determine whether someone is having a very good or very bad day. Continue reading…

Project ARISE brings scientists and mobile labs into biology classrooms
Project ARISE (Advancing Rhode Island Science Education) connects high school biology teachers with Brown University scientists to enrich science education for Rhode Island high school students. Continue reading….

Play a game and help scientists map the connectome with EyeWire
Some people do jigsaw puzzles during their holiday breaks. This year you can help solve a different kind of puzzle by mapping a single neuron’s path through a mouse’s retina—right from the comfort of your couch. Continue reading…

Scratching at the neuroscience of itch
It may seem obvious that there must be at least one type of neuron that responds to things that make us itchy like a wool sweater or an allergic reaction to a new lotion. Until recently, however, scientists were unsure whether there were neurons that specifically process itchy stimuli or whether these neurons also process a related but very different sensation: pain. Continue reading…

My STEMINIST profile
The STEMINIST blog recently posted a profile about me.  To read more about how I got interested in science and my advice to other women in science, see the profile here.