Saturday, June 27, 2009


I'm attempting to see how embedding a video from facebook onto my blog works. So, here's the test run:

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's my party

This one is a tear-jerker; I almost started crying watching the preview, but perhaps that is because the first time I watched it I got too involved with the characters. It seems to me like AIDS used to be front and center in the public media, and while I understand that fear-mongering isn't useful, I do think it is smart to be aware of all illnesses that are highly communicable, and easily preventable.

I just wish there were some way to keep the public educated, to keep people cautious without making them fearful. The trend seems to be the same each time there is a new disease (virus, bacteria, fungus, whatever) discovered. First, people panic (Ah! We're all going to die of West Nile Virus), then they forget all about it, as if it were never a problem even though for something such as West Nile, the incidence has NOT vanished! Granted, like any virus, in each year it cycles, but, the incidence in certain ecological niches remains high.

Even now, with HIV/AIDS, the CDC reports that many AIDS patients are diagnosed too late, and strikingly (to me at least), is that they estimate "that 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006"

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sex Positive

Richard Berkowitz wrote, How to have sex in an epidemic, during the 1980's, when HIV/AIDS started spreading rampantly throughout the gay population. He was initially vilified for his position, which today is praised. Below is the prevue for a documentary about his life.

To me, not having been an adult during the 70's and 80's, I am very intrigued to learn about the social mores of the time, and how he was treated for his dissenting views, especially among the population he was supporting.

Another documentary, about a seemingly opposite subject, The Education of Shelby Knox, chronicles one girl's transition to a fact-based comprehensive sexual education advocate in Lubbock, Texas.

"Lubbock County’s sky-high sexually transmitted disease (STD) and teen pregnancy rates inspired Shelby to question her state’s decision to be one of only three states to enforce a stringent Abstinence Only sex education policy. Not surprisingly, Texas was also ranked as one of the three states with the highest teen birth rates in the nation in 2002. In Shelby’s home town of Lubbock, teen pregnancy and STD rates are alarming: according to the Texas Department of Health’s statistics, 3.64 percent of Lubbock’s teens were pregnant in 2002, and in 2003, Lubbock had 1,725 STD cases. Lubbock tops the charts for teenage gonorrhea rates, which are twice the national average."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


I don't understand why, as people, we are so willing to accept a zany explanation when perfectly good scientific explanations are available - and have been available for many years. On the top of my frustration list right now is autism. Back in 1995 (nearly 15 years ago), it was identified that there is a very strong genetic component to developing autism and autism spectrum disorders. From this paper by Bailey and colleagues:

SYNOPSIS Two previous epidemiological studies of autistic twins suggested that autism was predominantly genetically determined, although the findings with regard to a broader phenotype of cognitive, and possibly social, abnormalities were contradictory.Obstetric and perinatal hazards were also invoked as environmentally determined aetiological factors. The first British twin sample has been re-examined and a second total population sample of autistic twins recruited. In the combined sample 60% of monozygotic (MZ) pairs were concordant for autism versus no dizygotic (DZ) pairs; 92% of MZ pairs were concordant for a broader spectrum of related cognitive or social abnormalities versus 10% of DZ pairs. The findings indicate that autism is under a high degree of genetic control and suggest the involvement of multiple genetic loci. Obstetric hazards usually appear to be consequences of genetically influenced abnormal development, rather than independent aetiological factors. Few new cases had possible medical aetiologies, refuting claims that recognized disorders are common aetiological influences.

Furthermore, although we know that autism is highly heritable, it is not the product of a single gene - which is likely why we observe a spectrum of autism-like affects. And, no matter how often mindless drones like to repeat it, over 200 studies show that there is absolutely no link between autism and thimerosol-containing vaccinations.

There is still much debate as to whether there is an autism epidemic, or whether our definition and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders has increased. For example, both because of stigma, and because of the lack of a formal definition, clinical depression is not identified in many cultures.

I wanna go to the late night, double feature, picture show

Ever wondered about all the references in the title song to the Rocky Horror Picture Show? Here's a fantastic video and description of the lyrics.

I've always wanted to dress up as characters from the musical. I just need to live somewhere where it is warm enough to avoid frostbite.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Album Art


save yourself, but not your kids

Today on NPR there was an interview with a woman who decided, because she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and had a dramatically increased risk for developing breast cancer, to have a double mastectomy. This story broke on 2008, and she is being interviewed again because, along with the increased risk for breast cancer is an increased risk for ovarian cancer, but this woman decided to wait to have her ovaries removed until after she had a child.



She are so committed to not having breast cancer that she is willing to have all of her breast tissue removed, yet she apparently has no regard for whether her child may have to make that same decision. I don't have polite words to describe how infuriated I was this morning. Knowing that there is a 50% probability that her child (given that we know that it will be a girl) could inherit this destructive allele, she was so committed to having a biological child (with a sperm donor she's never met, and, incidentally, has not been tested as to whether his genome contains one or two copies of the BRCA1 cancer-causing variant), that she's willing to gamble with that child's future.

Why not adopt? Why not at least serve as a surrogate, getting both egg and sperm from BRCA1 negative individuals? What is so compelling about the need to reproduce that we humans will jump over every barrier in the way, even if it means condemning our children to a series of near-certain genetic ailments, emotional distress and premature death?

Certainly there are many other genetic abnormalities that can occur - other mutationst, non-disjunction, what have you - so perhaps she's hoping to win the coin toss.

world's smallest (soon to be) man

I saw this article and at first I was fascinated by how small this nearly 18 year old male is. Then, I wondered how his life would be different had he not been in rural Nepal, but in a hospital that recognized the supposed pituitary disorder that severely stunted his growth.

How difficult must it be to be nearly 18, yet look like a young child, or even be mistaken for a baby?

Let's paint the town red tonight...or better yet, let's paint it leopard!

The practicality of this type of artwork escapes me, but art doesn't have to be practical, now does it? Regardless, it rocks.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Happy (belated) Father's Day

Here are some good examples of caring dads in nature.

And, because I can, here are some poor examples of animal moms.

And, if you're not too squeamish, here are two very different varieties of seahorses. The first appears to invest a lot of time in rearing young, because there are only a few, larger babies, while the second gives birth to many, many offspring, likely meaning that there is not as much parental care:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Oh yes they call him the cheat

We woke up at 4:00am this morning to drive to West Virginia to ride the Cheat river. It was a ton of fun, with class II and III rapids. We were hoping to ride the duckies (inflatable kayaks), but the river rose from 1 foot to 2.5 feet over the past four days due to extensive rain, and the tour we went with wouldn't allow them, so we were in a rubber raft. Our tour guides were named Ken and Moondog - Ken was in our raft. We were fortunate enough to have only two rafts on our tour, so everything was very personalized. We had a tasty lunch, got splashed quite a bit, and had great conversations with our guide.

More details may be coming soon...

Friday, June 19, 2009

plus or minus?

My dad and I were talking to my grandma (his mom) today about strange pets that she had when growing up, and she mentioned a frog they had, that had been discarded after being used for pregnancy tests. Oh, yeah, of course we use frogs for pregnancy tests...wait, what?! I had to look it up.

Here's a relatively recent article, it describes both the procedure for using frogs to test for pregnancy,

In the 1930s and 40s, live female Xenopus frogs were used widely in Europe, Australasia and north America in pregnancy testing.
More than 1,800 amphibian species are now judged to be at risk of extinction
A sample of the woman's urine was injected under the frog's skin; if the woman was pregnant, a hormone in her urine caused the frog to ovulate.
Alternative tests involved male frogs and toads, which produced sperm in response to the human hormone gonadotrophin.

as well as some deleterious effects of importing these frogs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hello Dolly

Because I can't resist, here are two more songs, I've always liked.

The first is from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, one of my favorite musicals - one of the reasons I have such fuzzy feelings for Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton!

The other is a song I remember hearing growing up, as much as some people dislike country today, I really have an affinity for "classic" country/folk music. And, for all of her artificial additions, Dolly Parton is an extremely talented songwriter and singer, and her fame is well-earned.

Dream lover

I have always loved Bobby Darin's voice and lyrics, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I put a name to the music. So, here's a song to hopefully get you hooked too!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Living in the moment

I think that food is the ultimate way to live in the present. We can taste and smell and touch and hear our food. The experience of eating is so fleeting, but so wonderful. In high school, when I got to travel to Europe (to sing), I made up my mind to spend all my extra money on food, instead of tangible souvenirs, because I thought of what would happen if I died on the plane ride home. None of the trinkets I had bought would mean anything, but I would have thoroughly enjoyed the time I was there. It was completely worth it; I might have gained 10 pounds while there, but I still remember the sweet and puffy chocolate filled croissants, the flaky crust and tender meat in the steak and kidney pie, American flavored chips, and my first taste of nutella from a jar shared between friends.

Granted, sometimes we love small things to remind us of specific events in time, but overall, I think food wins.

Pine or redwood?

I saw Randy Olsen speak at the Evolution 2006 conference, and participated in a discussion after a showing of his movie, Flock of Dodos. I highly recommend the movie:

Randy is a terrific example of a scientist who is genuinely concerned with the public perception of science. He may not always hit the nail on the head, as far as pure scientists are concerned, but he brings up the important issue that scientists need to incorporate style into their substance. Science should be approachable to the general public. The disconnect between what people can understand and what they think they can understand is huge.

I think every university should be required to have a week-long open house, where the public is welcome to "lay" lectures. Scientists should have to learn how to present their work to those with no familiarity to it. Yes, I understand that it isn't easy, and that one will not be able to go into exact detail, and that sometimes the specific details will have to be sacrificed for the whole picture. Oftentimes, in science, we don't see the forest for the trees, but we need to learn to present the forest, in all of its glory, to the public. Because without a basic understanding of the general focus, and methods, of different research fields, how can we hope to foster inquiry, and encourage all people to address new problems with patience, diligence and critical thinking.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Scientists think they're so funny

My friend shared this story about gene discovery in Drosophila (fruit flies):

Researchers discovered a gene in Drosophila that, when mutated, makes the flies less influenced by alcohol. They than called it the "happy hour" gene.

The research was just published in Cell, but for those of you without a subscription, you can read the abstract here. It is surprising to me that, the same people who deny evolution, rely on it to help identify medical breakthroughs though research done in those silly fruit flies (can you believe it?!).

Not only can we use fruit flies to study alcohol use disorders, but also autism, birth defects, and a whole host of human medical ailments, not to mention all of the fundamental research that is neither ethical, nor practical to conduct in humans, or even in non-human primates, such as preliminary screenings medications to treat diabetes and cancer.

By the way - it is somewhat tempting to switch from bioinformatics to bench research, just for the possibility of getting to name a cool new gene something witty that people will be forced to use for the foreseeable future (ever heard of the SHH gene: the Sonic the Hedgehog gene, no joke).

Chip's forefathers...kind of

Ooh, I didn't know we actually adopted a baby Thylacine:

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Meet Chip "the ladies man" Wilson:

He's from the local area PAWS shelter. Currently we're a foster family for him, but hopefully Sunday we'll be able to adopt him! He's just about the best dog in the world (minus his love for the ladies, which I like to think of as an evolutionary advantage, however embarrassing that advantage might be). He has completely stolen my heart.

This morning he was awful sick - vomiting, bloody stool, lethargic. Took him to the vet, who just prescribed some antibiotic twice a day, but didn't really explain why. Chip is doing much better tonight, but only time will tell - I'm hoping tomorrow morning will be much better than this morning. It's hard, I think, as a scientist, to not know why things are the way they are. I'm generally dissatisfied with modern medicine for this reason: all of the uncertainty.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Orders of magnitude

If I love person A infinitely more than I love person B, I don't think it should matter that I love person B infinitely - there are orders of magnitude of infinity, you know. Although, I guess one could think that I only love person A twice as much as person B, but if the starting value is infinity, then twice as much is significantly more. Much more, say, than if I loved person A twice as much as person C, whom I may only love one tenth as much as I could. :)

Further, there is no upper limit to the amount we can love. I've never really given any credence the argument that there isn't enough room in one's "heart" to love only one person. How, then, do parents love their children equally? One could suggest that there is there a negative correlation between the number of children and the amount of love one has to give to each, or to a partner, but I don't buy it.

By the way, I certainly consider animals to be people (Thanks to my "God and Persons" class at Creighton University), although the lines between different classes of people are quite fuzzy and situation dependent.

Finally, it's best not to worry about it at all:

"Georg Cantor, who's responsible for much of the formal set theory that underlies these questions, went mad late in life and died in an asylum, as have some other people who have looked at them!"

Monday, June 8, 2009


The song, in concert with the visual aesthetics in the video, strike a chord with me. The lyrics describe real love - not star-struck, doe-eyed love - but taking life one day at a time, recognizing that we do silly things for love, and they don't always work out, but we keep trying. Most important is that we keep trying. The video emphasizes that we can feel fulfilled by not only loving a partner, but we can be enveloped by love for our children, our friends, even our pets.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I'm not a cynic...

I thought it appropriate that I found this video on the last day of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution 2009 conference. I usually can hold the laughter in, but when he starts one refrain with monkey sounds, I couldn't help but laugh out loud.

I have become a huge fan of Roy Zimmerman since I first learned of him a few months ago, and think I will have to make it official soon and support him (by buying a cd or some iTunes of course). I hope you enjoy his particular brand of humor as well:


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Today during a lecture on how to teach molecular evolution, one of the speakers showed a video from the Creature Comforts series. The series puts a face, so to say, to people who have been interviewed. Some are ordinary people (from America or England), and some are popular figures, such as politicians. They're really quite funny, and exemplify how important body language is.

I went to look up more about this series and came across this move about the US presidential candidates in 2008. It excels in its effort to pick up certain characteristics in a person's voice quality and manner of speaking and portray them visually: