Why Aren’t Politicians Talking About Science, and Should We Care?


Politicians’ and scientists’ information do not always match up. Photo credit: © Jesse Springer/Union of Concerned Scientists

With two months to go before election day, we’ve already seen numerous candidates in numerous debates.  It seems like politicians will debate everything…except science. Science is all around us, and has wide reaching economic, health, and social implications.  Despite this, science is conspicuously absent in the current political discourse.  With science affecting so many aspects of our lives, it is imperative that politicians discuss how science will shape their decisions and policies.

Some would argue that politicians should not talk about science because they are not scientists.  They readily discuss economic issues, but are not economists, so what makes science different?  Many organizations are calling on our presidential candidates to have a debate about scientific issues where candidates could discuss how their views on issues related to science will affect their policy.  For instance, will they implement laws affecting companies contributing to global warming, or will they create regulations on genetically modified foods?  One such organization, ScienceDebate.org, is a nonpartisan organization promoting the importance of science in the national dialog.  They are currently crowdsourcing questions for political candidates to answer during a live debate about science issues.  Their effort, backed by Nobel laureates, scientific leaders, presidents, and celebrities, encourages everyone to get involved in starting this dialog, and challenges politicians to be clear on their stances regarding science related issues.  In 2008 and 2012, ScienceDebate.org posed 14 questions relating to science issues written in by citizens to the canditates (Obama and McCain then Obama and Romney) and received answers, which they then posted in side-by-side comparisons.  It revealed the candidate’s views on specific scientific issues such as stem cell research, genetics research, and scientific integrity, which may have otherwise never come up during a political debate.  (If you want to get involved, sign the petition calling for a 2016 science debate of the presidential candidates, or submit a question about science issues important to you.)

Although politicians are being encouraged to talk about their views on science, how much of what they say can we believe?  Organizations like PolitiFact are doing their part by fact checking politicians’ statements to ensure that the public is receiving accurate information.

How true are the statements made by politicians? PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, and ranks them from True to Pants on Fire. Data from politifact.com

How true are the statements made by politicians? PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, and ranks them from True to Pants on Fire. Data from politifact.com

So how are they doing?  After PolitiFact checks the accuracy of statements made, they categorize them into one of 6 grades ranging from True to Pants on Fire.  PolitiFact releases what they call “report cards” showing of all the statements they have checked for accuracy, and how those statements are graded. Hillary Clinton has most statements falling into the Mostly True category (just one step below True), while Donald Trump has the most statements falling into the False category.  

So with pressure to make accurate — well, mostly accurate — statements, and growing pressure to discuss science related topics, what will we be seeing from the candidates?  Hopefully, we’ll hear what the presidential candidates have to say about everything from genetically modified food, to space programs, to vaccines.  However, there is just one issue that the candidates have been asked to discuss so far; climate change.  While Hillary Clinton has clear plans for the imminent threat of climate change, Donald Trump denies climate change is happening until someone can “prove it to him”.  So despite overwhelming scientific evidence that climate change is real and a serious issue, politicians’ views are wide ranging, from serious threat to pseudo-scientific theory.  These views will shape how they make choices about policy.  Science matters, it is real, let’s talk about it.

Peer edited by Tamara Vital

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Science Outreach: Is It Really Worth it?

Standing off to the side of the demonstration, I watched a six-year-old girl carefully pick up her paper airplane from the ground and bring it back to her work station. With intense concentration, she snipped away a part of each wing, making the plane more sleek and adept for flying. After several more snips, she held it up to her mother to observe, then ran to an open area to test her experimental adjustments.

“This is fun,” she said to me, as she watched her plane soar through the air. “I want to design real planes when I’m grown-up!”

Such are the moments that we live for as scientists who are truly passionate about outreach. Whether we work with children or adults, we all have a common goal: communicating our love of science in a way that inspires others. To me, there is no better reward than that.

Source: https://pixabay.com/p-379220/?no_redirect

Science outreach often involves teaching others about science, which many people find rewarding.

Or is there?

As a PhD student at a large R1 school, I know how competitive it is to win a fellowship. From the moment we enter graduate school, we are encouraged to apply for every grant we see. Through organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), millions of dollars are provided to support graduate students in performing groundbreaking research that largely impacts society. However, as I come to meet more scientists, my faith is beginning to wander concerning the true intentions of those who are supported by such agencies.

In my first semester of grad school, I was required to take a semester-long class to learn the art of grant-writing. The biggest point I took away was that institutions like the NSF pride themselves on two main focuses: intellectual merit (the impact of the research on the field) and broader impacts (science outreach). It’s common for students’ applications to be rejected due to their lack of outreach. Thus, to avoid rejection on next year’s round, they get involved with outreach events wherever they can – museums, libraries, schools, and the like. However, once NSF’s application deadline passes, so does students’ interest. It’s already a line on their resume, so no need to continue attending, right?

Don’t get me wrong, even forced science outreach can be valuable. But to someone who actually enjoys volunteering and public service, this is quite a nuisance.  Even professors sometimes do outreach solely to include it in their grant proposals. While these activities nonetheless help bring science to the community, I argue that it takes away from the true greater good. If we’re only doing outreach to put it on our resumes, what prevents us from skimping? Can we be confident that our work is being done well, and if it’s actually benefitting others?

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Money_Cash.jpg

Grant applications (i.e., research funding) often require a PI’s involvement in science outreach.

In order to really make a difference, we need to look past the funding allocations and prestige of awards. We need to stress the fact to our scientific colleagues that outreach is a critical component of good science. Additionally, if we want to be good educators, we must first educate ourselves. A great way to do this is through workshops and classes that teach us the importance of good science communication. It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon that we use in the lab every day. By learning how to be effective presenters, we can better understand what inspires others, and can lead them to share in our enthusiasm for science.

On the other hand, we must recruit and retain motivated scientists to accomplish this task. Grad students, I’m looking at you! There are so many ways to get involved in outreach, both within and outside of the university. Find something that you’re passionate about, then share your excitement with others. The beauty of science outreach is that you get to be the author of the story that you tell.

The only question left now: will you help us? Ultimately, the choice is yours.

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Is My Professor’s Lecture Style Affecting My Learning?

You’re sitting in class as your professor rambles on. The material is interesting, but the lecture is choppy. The professor stops-and-starts frequently, sounding uncertain, and you’re counting the number of times he says, “um.” Meanwhile, your friend is taking the same class with a different instructor known for his confident and clear style.

The content of the courses is the same, but the delivery of that content must be affecting your ability to learn the material, right?

Source: https://pixabay.com/en/birger-kollmeier-professor-910261/

Is the way your professor presents the material affecting your learning?

Maybe not. A recent study out of Iowa State University found that the lecture style of an instructor had no consistent effect on learning.

In the experiment, participants watched a 22-minute presentation of a scientific concept. Half of the participants heard the presentation narrated by an instructor who sounded hesitant, disengaged, and awkward. The other half heard the information from the same instructor but who now spoke in a calm and fluid manner. The actual material covered in the two presentations was identical.

Participants’ confidence in their learning did not differ between the two instructors either. In other words, those who learned from the awkward instructor thought they would perform just as well as those who learned from the confident instructor.

This result may sound surprising, but classrooms have a lot going on. Lectures are typically accompanied by a presentation, graphics, and demonstrations. If the material itself is generally considered hard, it might not matter how it is presented.

That’s what the researchers found: participants generally based their memory confidence on the material being learned and on their own learning abilities instead of on the instructor’s delivery.

But even if the clarity of presentation does not influence learning or confidence, it could affect other outcomes. Teaching evaluations hold a lot of weight in how instructors are perceived – by themselves, their students, and the institutions they work for. Therefore, instructors may look to improve these evaluations. One way to do this? Work on how you sound. Participants rated the clear and confident instructor as more organized, knowledgeable, prepared, and effective.

This study has takeaways for both teachers and students. First, instructors, if you value the perceptions of your students, try to present your lectures in an engaging and fluid manner. Students notice presentation style and judge their professors on how the material is given. But we all have rough days. There might be a time when you can’t prepare and rehearse as much as you’d like, and that’s okay. Your students’ comprehension may not be any worse off.

Now students, your understanding of the material may not be influenced by your instructor’s delivery. Actually, having an overly confident instructor could hurt your learning. A related study found that students learning from such an instructor thought that they understood the information much better than they actually did. So maybe you don’t have to be too envious the next time you hear about your friend’s awesome professor.

Peer edited by Salma Azam, Sara Duncan, and Lindsay Walton.

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A Ph.D in Anxiety

I’m standing in front of a long conference table, rubbing my clammy palms on my blazer. My committee is discussing my transcripts and research progress.  One professor is questioning the importance of my project, someone is whispering that I have no idea how the laser works, and another says I shouldn’t be in graduate school at all. After their deliberation, they tell me I have to retake all of my courses and my oral exam!  

Tears start welling up in my eyes and my chest tightens. I can’t breathe.  “How can this be happening to me?  I already passed the classes!”  Suddenly, I wake up. It is 3am, a cold sweat covers my skin and my heart is racing.  I sit in bed for a while trying to convince myself it was just a dream.  This pattern of nightmares continues for weeks after my oral exam.

Over the next month, my nightmares got worse and I was exhausted all the time.  I tried sleeping more instead of going out with friends.  My social life became non-existent, which just heightened my feelings of isolation. During my time lying awake in the middle of the night, I scoured the internet to find ways to recover from burnout.  

The more I searched my symptoms, the more I learned about anxiety.  

  • Lack of focus?
  • Obsessive worrying?
  • Increased heart rate?
  • Guilt? Whether I was in lab or at home, absolutely.

I realized that this was why I could never catch my breath, why I felt on edge. I was actually suffering from anxiety and somehow, putting a name to the issue made me feel like I could find a solution.  


Many graduate students suffer from anxiety and/or depression.

One of the worst feelings was that I was alone in this, but I am not.  An article from Science Magazine discusses mental health issues common for graduate students including depression, anxiety, and burnout resulting from the stresses of maintaining work-life balance, graduate school progress, and career development.  A study done at University of California-Berkeley also confirmed the heightened prevalence of depression in their graduate student population.  About half of their graduate students admitted to struggling with depression.  The stress of planning career prospects, balancing financial stability, progressing academically, and maintaining advisor relationships were common triggers for many students.  

This launched another study to discover the connection between graduate student mental health and career development.  The researchers have all had personal or second hand experiences with various mental illnesses.  As of April 2016, the researchers had designed the online questionnaire for which they would collect submissions for 3 months and anticipate publishing the findings at a later date. One of the researchers,  Lindsay Bira, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, believes that having a social support network is essential for graduate students.  Having people who understand what you are going through can be comforting and also help each other develop supportive friendships.  This is just one way to cope with the stress of graduate school life, listed below are other ways I have found to reduce my stress.

Coping strategies:

  1. Practice Mindfulness: When things are going wrong in lab, take a step back from the situation and try to acknowledge your frustrations in a non-judgemental way.  As a graduate student I spend a majority of my time focused on my research that I feel if my experiment failed then I failed as a scientist.  I have to work at removing myself emotionally from the failed experiment and remind myself that I am more than just a scientist. I am not a failure because my science failed.
  2. Physical Activity: Get a buddy and hit the gym, go for a bike ride, or take a walk.  Exercise produces hormones that relieve stress and improve your mood.
  3. Hobbies: Daily journaling, reading, watching a movie, hiking, and photography are great activities to do that get your mind off your research.  Taking time to do activities you enjoy improves your mood, outlook on life, and builds self-esteem.  Joining clubs centered around your hobbies is a great way to meet new people and even shown to increase work performance.  
  4. Adequate sleep:  Sleep deprivation and mental health disorders seem to be linked and getting enough sleep may boost mental health resilience.   People with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders have shown a prevalence of sleep problems.  But how much sleep is adequate? That is widely dependent on the individual. However, sleep schedule and sleep quality were the factors that determined emotional well-being. Now I know most of us haven’t had a bedtime since we were in middle school.  It turns out, our Moms were right about this being good for us.  Try to go bed and wake-up around the same time everyday, yep even the weekends.  “Bingeing” on sleep on the weekends will only make you feel extra groggy on Mondays.  I have used  a sleep tracker app, Sleep Cycle, to help set-up a regular sleep schedule.  This app monitors your movement in the bed and uses that information to generate your personalized sleep cycle.  The alarm function is linked to the cycle so it wakes you when you’re in the lightest sleep state.

Even with more awareness and coping strategies, the stigma of mental health is still heavily present, especially within graduate programs. We need to treat mental health issues just like any other illness.  Seeking help when you are hurting is a wise decision, not to be mocked.

Source: Kelsey Brereton

Graduate students face many stressful situations.

Where can someone go to get help?  Students suffering from mental health issues can get help at UNC through CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services).  Sometimes, all you need is a nonjudgmental ear to listen, and these resources are here to keep things in perspective during the perpetual stress of graduate school.  CAPS offers students confidential walk-in appointments, self-help and online self-assessment resources, and a variety of therapy options.  

I confided in my friends about my struggles with anxiety and they suggested that I talk to a professional.  I went to a doctor who helped me get my anxiety under control.  I have made it a priority to schedule time daily for my hobbies.  I started reading historical fiction novels again and picked up crocheting.  I have gotten called an old lady for this, but I’m telling it helped me!  The repetitive task gave my mind something else to focus on beside the negative storm of thoughts about orals prep and experiment failures.  A bonus was my family got blankets and hats for Christmas.  I still have days that anxiety threatens to creep back into my life, but now I know how to manage it.  I feel confident in myself again and sleep much better.  No more dreams about my committee failing me, just a T-rex in a clown suit chasing me through a maze. That’s a story for another time.

Edited by Katie Veleta.

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rutgerstouncIn January 2015, my Ph.D. adviser invited me into her office at Rutgers University, where I was enrolled, for what I thought was a typical meeting.  After the requisite small talk, she began alluding to possible research opportunities for me at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  I was intrigued and curious to know why the subject of studying at UNC was being suddenly brought up.  But then she dropped the ball on me: she would most likely be taking a job there and wanted to know if I would consider following her.  Whoa! I was shocked!  I didn’t know what to think at first, but I was excited about new opportunities.  Ultimately, I decided to follow her to UNC halfway through my Ph.D. while remaining a student at Rutgers.

I’ve been living in Chapel Hill for a year now.  It’s been a whirlwind of ups and downs, but has mostly been a positive experience.  In case you find yourself faced with a similar decision or are curious to know what it’s like in this position, here are some of the pros and cons that I’ve encountered from this big change:

Con: “#NotAStudentHere” seemed to become my personal hashtag.  Since I am not a student at UNC, there’s certain benefits that I haven’t been able to take advantage of such as not being able to use the gym, not being able to register for classes, or not being able to hold leadership positions in student groups.

Pro: Doubling my professional network!  I now have amazing connections at both Rutgers and UNC that I am able to foster and build. I’ve also got to expand the science that I can do such as collaborating on additional projects and taking advantage of state of the art instrumentation available at UNC. A new university means new opportunities!

Con: As an environmental science graduate student, I work in a wet lab with lots of equipment and analytical instruments, so I spent quite a bit of time helping to pack up the old lab, moving everything, and then unpacking and setting everything all up again

Pro: Although it was a lot of work, setting up a new lab, which involves deliberate organization and choosing of lab supplies was an incredibly useful experience that I will be thankful for if I ever build my own lab

Con: After being in New Jersey for three years, leaving the friends that I’ve made while I was there and then feeling like the “new kid at school” was a quite overwhelming

Pro: Making new friends and living in a new state! Southern hospitality is a real thing. It didn’t take long to find people and communities that I easily connected with. NC is pretty cool, not gonna lie. 

Given the pros and cons, for me it was the right decision. Things like this do happen and each situation is unique. For now, I’m taking the good with the bad and keeping my eye on the prize: that Ph.D.!

Edited by Tamara Vital.

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Using Ecstasy for Agony – Treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with MDMA

The words of your elementary school teachers may echo in your ears whenever you hear something related to the War on Drugs. “Drug free is the way to be,” and, “Just say no to drugs,” they said. Those teachers may be surprised to find out that veterans of actual war may benefit from the use of an illicit drug. MDMA, better known as ecstasy, is an aptly-named drug that typically evokes feelings of happiness, empathy, and love in a user’s mind. Its enjoyable effects, when used during psychotherapy sessions, have found encouraging results in clinical trial use as a way to treat patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Perseid Meteor to Light Up Night Sky

The Perseids are here! This annual meteor shower is one of the best and brightest, but this year it’s predicted to be even more spectacular. So, if you’re in a dark place tonight, look up. You may see a 4.5-billion-year-old remnant from the solar system burn up in our atmosphere.

Astronaut Ron Garan took this picture from the International Space Station. It shows a Comet Swift-Tuttle particle burning up in Earth's atmosphere. Credit: Ron Garan, NASA

Astronaut Ron Garan took this picture from the International Space Station. It shows a Comet Swift-Tuttle particle burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Ron Garan, NASA

Comets are conglomerations of ice and dust leftover from our solar system’s formation. A lot of the material that swirled around our young sun developed into the eight planets and numerous dwarf planets and asteroids. Some of the smaller bodies that formed were forced into elongated orbits by gravitational interactions with the larger planets. These trajectories take them out to the extreme edges of our solar system, then the Sun’s gravitational embrace usually pulls them back in for a warm hug.

In 1992, Comet Swift-Tuttle passed through Earth’s orbit as it came in for a visit. As the comet approached the Sun, the rise in temperature vaporized some of the ice, leaving a trail of small chucks of rock and ice. These icy particles still remain in the inner solar system today.

Every year, between mid-July and mid-August, the Earth slams into the debris trail left by Comet Swift-Tuttle at 67,000 mph. As the ice and rock enters our atmosphere, it burns up, and a meteor shower occurs. The streaks of light appear to originate from the constellation Perseus — hence the name Perseids. Earth will pass through the densest part of the trail on August 12th , and this year’s shower is predicted to be more amazing than previous years.

Computer simulations of Jupiter’s gravitational influence on the icy trail show that the gas giant has caused the material in Earth’s path to bunch up. This means that instead of the normal peak activity of 60 meteors per hour, it could double to 120 meteors per hour! Even though more meteors are predicted this year, the debris that makes them is incredibly small — about the size of the grain of sand. This means you need to find a dark place, away from city lights, to get the best views.

In order to see the most meteors you need to give your eyes about 30 minutes to adapt to the dark. Use a flashlight with red photography gel over the beam to help keep your eyes dark-adjusted. You also need to put down the cell phone. Any concentrated light will undo all the sensitivity you gained by letting your eyes adapt. There are apps you can download that filter out the bright blue light emitted from your screen, but it will still take some time for your eyes to readjust to the darkness every time you check your Facebook.

The constellation Perseus rises in the northeast between 9 and 10 PM local time. On August 12th, the Moon will be three-fourths illuminated, meaning it will be pretty bright. If you want to get the most out of your Perseid viewing experience, wait until the Moon sets around 1 AM in Chapel Hill.

Even if you can’t catch the peak, Earth will be passing through the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle through August 24th. So, there’s a good chance you can watch 4.5 billion years of history burn.

Peer edited by Caddy Hobbs.

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Starring Caffeine as the Bully of the Brain

Source: http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/12084

Does anyone else feel like a ghost without morning coffee?

Completely legal and unregulated, caffeine is a staple of bustling culture, from office workers with travel mugs making a grab for their suitcases at 6 am to journalists refilling their “Happy Holidays” mug at midnight in order to make a deadline. No matter the profession, so many of us rely on regular doses of caffeine to make it through our daily tasks. If you are anything like me, you are about as peppy as a World War Z zombie without the morning caffeine fix and late afternoon recharge. From a neuroscience viewpoint, caffeine actually plays the bully and practical joker on our brain, tricking it into seeing something that is not there and only convincing us that we are awake and alert.  
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Optogenetics: Illuminating Brain Function

Shedding light on brain function has never been so literal.

The idea that light could be used to control brain cells has always seemed like a far-fetched possibility, something more out of a scene from Star Trek than reality. The brain is a hugely complex organ, composed of multiple cell types that have distinct functions depending on the brain region they’re located in. These cells, called neurons, are important to everything we do, from how we make memories to how we know when to stop eating.  Understanding a specific cell’s role in a particular brain region, however, was a challenge. One way to understand a neuron’s function is to control how it communicates to other cells. Within the last decade, scientists invented a new way to control brain cells: by shining them with light.  This revolutionary technique, termed optogenetics, gives scientists an exciting window into how the brain works.

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Are Stem Cells Just Tiny Normal Cells?

You’re at a social gathering and someone asks, “So, what do you do?” It’s meant to be a casual conversation starter, but do you ever find yourself taking a mental breath before answering? As an immunologist studying stem cells, I take that mental breath to prepare for a dialogue that usually follows about stem cell research, a field that has captured my fascination… and seemingly many of yours.

Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I like questions; in fact, as a scientist, my livelihood relies on it. I enjoy asking questions, and I admire those who ask questions in return. Someone recently continued our “So, what do you do?” chat by asking, “What even is a stem cell: just a tiny normal cell?” What a great question! What exactly is a stem cell?

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