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While it may be debated whether Craig Venter’s newly announced creation of a synthetic genome controlling a bacteria is a stupendous breakthrough or just hype, one thing is certain: it has got the public talking.  I am fascinated reading the threads of comments following articles about this on the web.  They really give me, a scientist-in-training, a glimmer of the public’s feelings and understanding of science and scientists.

Take this thread for example in response to the BBC’s “Have Your Say: Will synthetic biology do more harm than good?”  The public seems to have a bit of a B-rated sci-fi flick mentality when it comes to science.  They hatch up all sorts of doomsday plots including one of my favorites: what if these bacteria are engineered to consume carbon dioxide but then mutate to consumer oxygen and then consume ALL the oxygen in the ENTIRE WORLD?!!  Read the rest of this entry »

I just finished reading the wonderful new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  It is about the supersized contributions of a little known woman to science, it is about a family, it’s about a journalist.

Skloot’s years and years spent researching this book, from her tireless attempts to sway the Lacks family to talk with her, to her endless patience in gaining their trust, has given her a uniquely personal perspective on this story.  While she first heard of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who is HeLa cells, in a college course, she has over the years integrated herself into the story of the Lacks family.  When it came to finally writing this story she decided to do so from a first person perspective, interweaving information about the Lacks family, Henrietta, and the science made possible by HeLa cells, with her own narrative of researching this book. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Wine Wine, creative commons Ingorrr

A study published Monday in the journal, The Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that women who drink moderately gain less weight they are middle-aged.  I first stumbled across mention of this yesterday on the BBC news website in this article, Women Who Drink Wine ‘Likely to Gain Less Weight’.  Then I ran into it again today on the front page of the LA Times website in this article, Women Who Drink Moderately Tend to Gain Less Weight in Midlife.  Being a moderately drinking woman myself, I’ve decided to delve further into this supposed new, exciting, scientific discovery! Read the rest of this entry »

creative commons Krelic

Just to make things clear, I am a huge fan of Discovery News – I even have a link to them from my blog.  However, I have a gripe.  If they are going to use the word “News” in the title, they should be reporting things in a responsible, news-worthy manner.   A recent piece from their technology writer, Tracy Staedter, reads a lot more like a lousy blog post than a news article.

First off the title is “Man Allergic to Wi-Fi; Sues Neighbor”.  Yet another tiresome sensationalized headline, *sigh*.  Ok, moving on… the next two paragraphs go alright as far as content goes (stylistically it seems a bit lazy to me… but hey, I’m the blogger that wishes I had a writing job, she’s actually got the job).  She tries to make the point of how ubiquitous things like wi-fi signals are.  Fine, fine.  Then she goes on to back up her claims – and this is where things totally fall apart: Read the rest of this entry »

creative commons Drab Makyo

This morning on CNN headline news I heard about results of a new study on coffee and tea consumption and type 2 diabetes.  It was a quick 30 second or so bit in which the reporter claimed that coffee and tea could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes up to 25%.

That is crazy, I first thought.     Then I realized, the problem with all these reports about the effects of tea, coffee, and even wine, on health is this: correlation does not equal causation.

Think about it this way.  The study, published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that coffee and tea drinkers (decaf or not didn’t matter) have about a 7% decreased risk of type 2 diabetes per cup of coffee drunk on average a day.  People who drank about 3-4 cups of coffee or tea had a 25% decreased risk of diabetes.  However, what if the non-coffee or tea drinkers were instead consuming their caffeine (or if they prefer, decaffeinated beverage) through sugary, high calorie drinks like soda?  Maybe the tea and coffee drinkers instead have the baseline risk of disease, but the soda drinkers have an elevated risk!  So really, if the study had instead looked at consumption of non-diet soda, the headline would have read something like “Soda can increase the risk of diabetes.” Read the rest of this entry »

Glacier Bay, Alaska

The big news story this week, dubbed “Climategate” , involves the release of hacked emails from Phil Jones, the head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and a professor at Pennsylvania State University.  What’s most notable about the reporting is the lack of reporting on certain major US news networks.  I commend CNN for their relatively unbiased reporting on this on their website, however other networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – chose to bury the story by not even reporting on it.  I was going to commend Fox News for the initial story on the scandal, but the latest story they ran turned it into a political attack on Obama.

Unfortunately, ignoring the story has just fueled the rumors that climate change is a big conspiracy.  Read the rest of this entry »

Fountain in JFK Plaza in Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October / creative commons nakashi

New recommendations on mammography screening for breast cancer came out yesterday from the United States Preventative Services Task Force, a complete reversal of their previous recommendations last made in 2002.  The Task Force recommends no longer doing routine mammography screening for breast cancer in women between the ages of 40 and 50 as well as reducing the frequency of screening for women aged 50-74 to once every two years, and not teaching women breast self exams.  This was reported yesterday in the New York Times by reporter Gina Kolata.  While the article is pretty thorough, it misses some of the details underlying the controversy.

During lunch I took the time to read through the recommendation, published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine, to see for myself what all the hubbub is about.  What I read was disturbing.  The report begins by stating “There is convincing evidence that screening with film mammography reduces breast cancer mortality,” although the greater reduction is seen for women aged 50-74, there is also reduction also seen for women between 40 and 50 years as well.  This to me seems like a benefit to early screening, not a reason to stop. Read the rest of this entry »

As the CDC held its latest weekly H1N1 flu press briefing today (watch the briefing here), public fears continued to abound. Some people worry about getting the flu, or about not being able to get the H1N1 vaccine soon enough due to shortages. Others, unfortunately, are hung up on whether the H1N1 vaccine is safe. They worry more about getting the flu shot than getting the flu. The H1N1 vaccine has been tested for safety! It is made the same way the seasonal flu vaccine is made! If “swine flu” had appeared earlier in the year it might even have been included in the seasonal flu shot! If you are still finding yourself doubting the safety of the H1N1 vaccine, here is yet another rational, reasonable voice from the New York Times to try to convince you, “Fearing a Flu Vaccine, and Wanting More of It.”

DSMThis article entitled “A Powerful Identity, A Vanishing Diagnosis” appeared on the New York Times website last week as one of the most emailed articles.  It does a great job discussing the possibility of eliminating the diagnosis of Asperger’s from the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the definitive text that phsychiatrists reference for making diagnosis.  There are many quotes in the article from experts in the field.  Instead, Asperger’s would be part of an all-encompassing diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder”.  While Asperger’s is thought to be a mild and high-functioning form of autism, autism actually spans a huge range of severity and commonly co-occurs with other conditions such as mental retardation.  Right now, there are clear guidelines that seperate a diagnosis of Asperger’s from someone with high-functioning autism – autistic children show a delay in language before 3 Read the rest of this entry »

Headlines like this one I saw in a tweet from the BBC news today, “Swine Flu Woman Dies After Birth”, are quite aggravating and misleading.  Especially when, upon actually reading the article, although she may have died of the H1N1 flu, it turns out that they are still waiting to determine the official cause of the women’s death.   There wasn’t much detail in this short article, but briefly, the woman, Susan Ford, got a C-section after being admitted to the hospital with flu-like symptoms and apparently she died a few days later once her symptoms got worse.  It is unclear if she was admitted because her symptoms were quite bad – or she was in labor.  I know that in the media age there is pressure to put stories out quickly – but with tools like twitter it’s dangerous to put misleading and incomplete information out there.  Especially with a tool like twitter where a reader may only see the headline and then not even bother to click to find out if the woman really did die of swine flu.  Read the rest of this entry »