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).”


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)

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]