Five Tips to Manage Holiday Stress as a Grad Student

The holidays can be stressful for a number of reasons. Take a minute to count up your own stressors. As a graduate student or burgeoning academic, do any of these ring a bell?

  • Gift shopping
  • Traveling
  • Family visits  
  • Seasonal blues
  • Holiday weight gain

 So, what can we do to handle the stress? Start by identifying your top stressors going into the holiday season, then check out these tips below. If they resonate with you, think how you can work this advice (as actions) into your upcoming schedule. Don’t forget – prioritizing– is a great form of self-care!

5 Tips to Manage Holiday Stress

1. Gifts: Buy what you can afford

If you’re like me, you’re on a tight budget. There are a few ways to make the most of holiday gift giving:

Keep a running list of gift ideas in a journal or document on your computer. Not only will holiday shopping be less stressful, but the gifts will be more meaningful. These are gifts you think up during a random conversation or web surfing session. Gift ideas sparked by the intended recipient will be more meaningful or useful to that person. The thoughtfulness behind gifts speaks more than a pricey gift tag ever could. After all, who needs another ‘thing’ that just takes up space?

Bestow your loved ones with a handmade gift. A study looking at machine- versus hand-made products found that consumers associate “more love” with handmade items. If you’ve been wanting to learn to knit or crochet, I bet your mom would love a potholder or scarf handmade by you.

Lastly, put yourself in your gift recipient’s shoes. When you’re debating between a flashier gift and a more practical one, a study shows that the gift recipient almost always prefers the practical option. For example, let’s say you want to get your sister a pendant necklace, but you’re worried it’s “not enough”. If she got that gift for you, how would you feel? Let down? Or so happy you got a pretty bauble that is totally your taste and shows that your sister knows you so well? Don’t forget about gift cards to food shops and cafes you know your friend frequents often. Alleviate their financial stress with food and caffeine!

2. Travel: Consider all options

Travel by bus, train, car, or plane gets expensive – a difficult challenge for grad students and young academics. Wherever you’re planning to travel , consider the cost of travel, the time spent in that location and activities, whose feelings will be hurt if you don’t go, and other considerations specific to your situation. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can plug it into your handy-dandy decision maximizing functional equation. Remember that Google Hangouts video, Skype, Facetime, and numerous other video platforms mean you can still see the dog’s new Christmas sweater and toast the New Year at midnight.

3. Family visits: Unplug to connect

Try unplugging to connect with your family. Research showed that “technoference”, or the interference of technology into our leisure time, can negatively affect our relationships. Try board games for some quality time together.

For the not-so-PC family, try Cards against Humanity. You’ll learn a lot about Aunt Jo’s sense of humor (maybe more than you wanted to). For the card-deck family, embark on a Gin Rummy marathon, or take up Canasta (personal favorite). For one-on-one time, try backgammon, chess, checkers, or Mancala. Classics like these never go out of style.  

4. Seasonal blues: Step up your self-care routine

If dreary weather gets you down, be proactive and take some steps to improve your self-care routine. Try journaling to relieve anxiety and “empty your brain” before you hit the hay. Meditation can help you recharge when you’re feeling aimless and exhausted. In one study, researchers looked at the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain activity using neuroimaging technology.  Make time in your week for a workout class where you can forget about the day for an hour and socialize with other upbeat cheerful people. Or blast through quick 10-minute exercise circuits to rev up your heart rate and release those endorphins we all seek.

5. Weight gain: Eat less, Move more

A lot of social time is spent around food. The holidays are no exception. Holiday weight gain comes down to a) eating more and b) exercising less. Both of these can be combatted by implementing a strategy. A prospective study examining “holiday weight gain” found that those who increased their physical activity during a six-week holiday period gained significantly less weight than those who did not change their activity habits. For example, getting outside for a walk with pets or for a family game of football will keep you away from the holiday food while giving you a chance to get some exercise.

For an open-minded family, you can offer to whip up some healthier alternatives to the typical rich holiday foods like these 10 healthy thanksgiving sides. Crustless pumpkin pie with almond milk makes a low-fat custard that satisfies any sweet tooth, and your family won’t believe you when you tell them these low-carb mashed “potatoes” are really cauliflower.  

Whether you’re staying near or traveling far, remember to enjoy the time with your loved ones and take care of your mind and body to return refreshed for a sunny Spring semester.

Peer edited by Nicole Baker. 

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FSCV: Measuring Electrochemical Chatter

Measuring Chemical Chatter

If a brain could talk, what would it say? Probably nothing profound or understandable. Rather, it would emit a bustling clamor of messages between neurons. These messages are delivered by chemicals called neurotransmitters. Different groups of neurotransmitters serve unique roles in the brain. Because there are so many chemicals sending so many messages, it’s often hard to know what each neurotransmitter group is saying. Scientists want to isolate the activity of individual neurotransmitter groups to better understand how these chemicals behave during both normal and abnormal behavior.

To decipher this chemical chatter, scientists use a technique called fast-scan cyclic voltammetry (FSCV). FSCV allows scientists to see real-time changes in neurotransmitter activity as an animal performs a behavior. It’s a way to correlate an individual’s behavior with a certain chemical’s activity. First, scientists insert an electrode into a brain area of interest. At the electrode’s tip is an incredibly thin carbon fiber — about the width of a strand of hair. Scientists then cycle the electrical potential at the carbon fiber tip up and down like a rollercoaster. This “cycling” helps the electrode detect specific neurotransmitters. As the electrical potential cycles up and down, the neurotransmitter is oxidized and reduced — a chemical process that can be measured as a current. The electrode is like a precise microphone, magnifying the murmur of a specific neurotransmitter’s activity amidst the din of other messengers.

The FSCV process.

Examining the Chatter

The shape of the electric current signal often differs between different neurotransmitters, allowing scientists to tell them apart. Computer programs then convert this electric current into a concentration that scientists can measure. Translating the oxidation/reduction reaction to current is much like translating foreign speech into a language you understand, and the shape of the current is much like an accent – an identifying feature of that language.

Once an electrode is in place and this translation process begins, scientists can examine how a neurotransmitter’s signal changes during certain behaviors, such as decision making. Afterward, sophisticated analyses measure the shape of the current signal to ensure that it is actually from a neurotransmitter, and not some other eavesdropping molecule or contaminant.


Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that FSCV can measure.

FSCV is incredibly useful in that it can specifically isolate and measure transmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. This is important because in many brain diseases, the chemical chatter of these neurotransmitters goes awry. For instance, dopamine deficiency is a symptom of Parkinson’s Disease, and schizophrenia often features imbalances in dopamine levels. Abnormalities in serotonin have classically been linked to depression (although that is being contested) as well as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Despite all this prior knowledge, scientists still don’t know exactly how these neurotransmitters contribute to different behaviors and diseases. As such, FSCV is a technique that furthers our understanding of how neurotransmitters behave. Scientists can use FSCV to examine how neurotransmitters function, both normally as well as in disease states, to help unlock the secrets of treating brain diseases.

Edited by Christina Marvin and Anginelle Alabanza. 

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In Almost Living Color: The First Colored Electron Micrographs of Cells

The electron microscope (EM) was first tested by Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska at the Berlin Technische Hochschule in 1931, remarkably overcoming the resolution limits of visible light for the first time. Modern electron microscopes can magnify objects up to 10 million times their size, and have been used extensively to visualize the inner workings of cells. However, biological imaging by electron microscopy (EM) is usually limited to producing grayscale images since its invention.

Electron microscopes used to only produce grayscale images.

In the past 15 years, material scientists have developed methods of visualizing colored EM images, but their utility has been limited to imaging synthetic matter. However, a recent study, published in Cell Chemical Biology, has demonstrated a new method to bring super-high resolution colored imaging to the study of biology. The technique uses a special stain made from two rare earth metals, which label the molecules in cells on a microscope slide. When an electron beam is applied to the slide, the majority of electrons pass easily through the sample. However, some electrons that encounter the rare earth metal atoms lose energy, and these low-energy electrons can be detected by a filter on the microscope. Each of the two metals produces a different color. By overlaying the images of the cells before and after labeling, scientists can now create colored images to see details not visible in black and white images.

The study paves the way for scientists to visualize how drugs are delivered to cells, and also how proteins travel within the cell. The developers intend to add additional layers of metals, enabling the colorization of more molecules. By increasing the number of detectable colors, this technique could be used to study even more complex biological processes.

Peer edited by Chiungwei Huang.

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Dr. Margaret Scarry Named New Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology

Congratulations to Dr. Margaret Scarry! A longstanding faculty member of the Anthropology Department at UNC-CH, Dr. Scarry was recently promoted to the Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology (RLA) and Chair of the Curriculum in Archaeology. Having received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1986, Dr. Scarry has since garnered professional renown for her research on the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. Specifically, she explores such foodways of the late prehistoric and early historic peoples of the southeastern United States by using archaeobotanical data.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Scarry.

Dr. Scarry (center) with her colleagues Dr. Lee Newsom (left) and Dr. Gayle Fritz (right) at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA.

For those who are not familiar, the UNC RLA’s primary mission is to enhance knowledge of the archaeology and history of the ancient southeastern United States, but broadly offers support for both student and faculty archaeologists in classics, religious studies, linguistics, and gender studies in addition to anthropology. The RLA curates vast archaeological collections meanwhile supporting graduate student and faculty research in the southeastern United States and abroad. Most importantly, this mission is constantly expanding to encourage archaeologists who work abroad–from Dr. Patricia McAnany’s participatory research in the Maya region of the Yucatán Peninsula to Dr. Silvia Tomášková’s research on the stone engravings of South Africa. This collaborative and interdisciplinary tenet of the RLA is also apparent in the Curriculum in Archaeology. Although housed in the RLA, it was first created through a working group of archaeologists across disciplines who felt their diverse approaches to archaeology offered a strong and unique curriculum for undergraduate study.

Scarry Pull QuoteI had the chance to sit down with Dr. Scarry recently to speak about her new roles and what’s in store for the future.When I asked Dr. Scarry about her plans for the RLA, she responded with equal parts excitement and pride. “I have a fantastic group of collegial and enthusiastic people who work with me,” she says. Just having received an external review last year, both the Curriculum and the RLA were heralded as “gems,” but are still relatively unknown on campus and in the general public. As a result, Dr. Scarry mentions, “one of the things I want to do is grow our reputation so that we are more visible.” This visibility will not only strengthen “the ties amongst archaeologists across campus” but also create a place for both graduate students and faculty members to succeed.

Dr. Scarry is also immensely proud of the RLA’s strong relationship with Native American communities, both on campus and more broadly. “We’ve tried to be a leader and a partner, to be sensitive to the political and ethical issues of the conjunction of archaeology and Native American concerns.” She thinks it is imperative to continue to foster these relationships, and is actively seeking out opportunities with other RLA faculty members to develop similar relationships with other communities worldwide.

Further, Dr. Scarry is aiming to expand the technological resources of the RLA available to student researchers. “We have a current initiative to work on 3D imaging and virtual reality and we hope to increase our computing capacity for that,” she says. Ultimately, Dr. Scarry says, “we encourage people to see who we are. I’d like for [the RLA] to be a home where people can get involved.”

As a graduate student associated with the RLA, I can agree with Dr. Scarry when she says “we value the students here. We have such a great community because our students push each other, not out of competition, but because there is a synergism, and we want to see each other succeed.” If you would like to learn more, click here.

Special thanks to Dr. Scarry for speaking with me. Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Alissa Brown.

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Bionic Plants Detect Explosive Chemicals

Bionic plants that respond to nitroaromatics could be used to detect landmines or other explosives.

Imagine a future where the plants in your garden not only grow delicious vegetables, but keep an eye on the soil and water conditions while they’re at it. Is the ground too acidic? Are there toxins present in the water? It would be pretty handy if our plants could tell us the answers, right? That’s probably still a long way off, but last month researchers Min Hao Wong and Juan P. Giraldo at MIT published an article on a new type of biosensor (that’s a sensor that incorporates some kind of a biological system), which might take us a couple steps closer to such a reality.

The article describes how plants implanted with specially prepared carbon nanotubes in their leaves can detect a compound in their water that is associated with explosive materials. On top of that, the signal the plants produce can be easily detected from a distance with a smartphone.

Here’s how it works: Carbon nanotubes are tiny, tiny, tiny cylinders of carbon atoms that occur naturally and can be synthesized in the lab. They are amazingly strong, even stronger than steel when they’re made into fibers. And they have unique optical properties, producing near-infrared light that responds to slight changes in the surrounding chemical environment. Additionally, the nanotube response to chemicals can be modified by coating it in different substances.

The Strano lab at MIT figured out that, with a particular coating, the intensity of light emitted by nanotubes changes in response to nitroaromatic compounds commonly found in explosives. By implanting these coated nanotubes into the leaves of spinach plants, they could detect changes in the infrared signal as the plant absorbed the target compound. That’s pretty incredible because they harnessed the plants natural function of absorbing material from the earth and water, to make a biosensor.   What makes their work even cooler is that they were able to put together a simple smartphone system that let them check on their plant bomb detectors from a distance. Practically, such a biosensor could help detect nearby explosives by picking up on specific chemicals the explosives leach into the ground water. While a lot of work on developing biosensors has focused on directly manipulating the organism’s genome (think CRISPR/Cas9) such that it can respond to certain inputs, this work demonstrates a way to make biosensors without any genetic engineering. That gets around a lot of worries about using genetically engineered biosensors in the wild.

This technology isn’t at the level where we’ll have crops engineered to broadcast environmental data to the cloud, or send you text messages when there are dangerous chemicals present, but this work makes a future where the line between biology and digital technology is blurry if not totally intertwined.

Peer edited by Laurel Kartchner.

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UNCseq: The Journey from Cancer Biopsy to Cable TV

This past October, CBS 60 Minutes aired a feature on Artificial Intelligence. They were taking a peek into the world of Watson, a computer system developed by I.B.M that can answer questions framed in natural languages. The same 60 Minutes episode also featured Dr. Norman Sharpless, Director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, who provided an overview of how Watson’s artificial intelligence is being used at UNC to make treatment decisions for cancer patients.

Watson became an instant celebrity in 2011 when it was successful in beating human champions of the quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’. Since then the ‘robo-geek’ has come a long way, and its ability to analyze and interpret information has taken a big leap, so much so that it can now read and keep track of thousands of academic papers, medical records and clinical trial results, and then translate that information to make potential treatment suggestions to clinicians.

In 2015, I.B.M. began collaborating with pioneering cancer institutes across the nation, including UNC Lineberger, to hasten the process of analyzing the patient’s cancer on a molecular level. By exploiting Watson’s data analysis and data visualization capabilities, I.B.M and UNC seek to tailor suitable treatment options. With the special segment on 60 Minutes, UNC got a fair share of spotlight in primetime national television. But, is crazy to use a computing device to make critical treatment decisions in a disease like cancer?

The progression of events from collection of patient tissue to recommendation of a treatment option

Every living organism, including humans, are composed of millions of cells, the basic fundamental units of life. Cells contain DNA, which encodes the necessary instructions required for a living organism to survive and grow. These instructions are found in segments called genes. During exposure to environmental factors like sunlight, smoking or  ageing, the DNA may become damaged. While the cells have their own tools to repair damaged DNA, sometimes the damage is too overwhelming and may escape the cell’s quality control mechanisms. The damaged DNA, also known as mutated DNA, may be passed onto subsequent generations of cells. The mutant DNA may now instruct the cells to grow uncontrollably, and as a result the cells can deviate from their normal functions. This is when a cell can turn cancerous. When a group of these cancerous cells clump together, they form a tumor. Historically, cancer treatment regimens have been directed toward where the tumor is located in the body, and while this has some positive therapeutic effects, it has not been very efficient.

Over the years, as genetic research progressed, scientists began to classify tumors on the basis of their genetic characteristics. They are now able to identify the genes and the corresponding mutations that drive tumor growth.  Drugs targeting these mutations have been designed, and some of them have demonstrated considerable improvement in patient survival. The question now is can cancer be effectively treated based on the broad pathology of the tumor in the body. An individualized approach based on the genetic makeup of the patient’s cancer is being considered as an alternative treatment.

If this sounds too abstract, let’s consider a clinical example. It is well established now that tumors in some breast cancer patients have high expression of estrogen receptors. This means that the cancer cells may receive signal from the hormone estrogen, which may facilitate tumor growth. A class of drugs called ‘aromatase inhibitors’ prevent the body from producing estrogen and may work well on this subset of patients. However, only about half of patients whose tumors tested positive for estrogen receptors responded to these class of drugs. With a genetic-based approach to cancer treatment, the genetic profile of the patients who respond to the therapy may be used to look for treatment patterns. Now, if these patterns are consistent with one another and they match the genetic map in a section of patients that respond positively to aromatase inhibitor therapy, then this may stand as an effective treatment strategy. Other estrogen receptor positive patients may be treated using a different strategy without wasting time on a therapy that may not work. This new era of treatment is referred to as the age of ‘precision medicine’.

At UNC, when a patient agrees to participate in the ongoing clinical trial UNCseq, a tissue sample is collected by biopsy or during surgery and is analyzed to determine the genetic makeup of the tumor.  A blood sample is also drawn to examine the genetic profile of the patient. The samples are then analyzed by rapid DNA sequencing methods. Then the building blocks of the cancerous and normal DNA are compared one block at a time to identify the mutations present in the tumor. Now, if a mutation affects a protein which helps a cell to survive and grow normally, it may be a cancer-driving mutation. However, there may be hundreds to tens of thousands of other ‘innocent’ mutations that do not affect  cancer growth. Rigorous analysis is required before key mutations can be determined.

A single patient’s genetic information may clog up gigabytes of storage space, and analyzing all of these data to search for patterns may require a fair amount of mathematical effort and computation time. All of this occurs in a situation where a patient awaits treatment, so every bit of time is precious. This is where a supercomputer like Watson comes in. Watson had been able to analyze the DNA profile of tumors very efficiently and proposed treatment regimens that matched the decision of the clinicians 99 out of 100 times. What is more interesting is that in about one third of the cases, it was able to identify new treatment strategies that the doctors had not previously considered. It is to be seen whether this approach helps improve overall standards of care in a large cohort of patients in the long haul.

Cancer therapy still has a long way to go. Just because we know about the aberrations in the cancer cell doesn’t mean we can develop a complete cure. Current chemotherapy drugs can effectively kill cancer cells, but they may pose significant toxicity to the patient as they also attack healthy cells. Targeted therapies against genetic mutations work very efficiently in a few cancers, but only for a short span of time. The cancer becomes resistant in days to months and returns aggressively. Immunotherapy approaches where the immune system is stimulated to fight cancer is the new hot-topic in clinical discussions. Unfortunately, only a small subset of patients respond to these therapies, and for unknown reasons. However, with precision medicine, we expect to provide the most appropriate care to each patient, resulting in considerable improvements to their survival and quality of life. We continue our fight against beating cancer, and as a Tar Heel, I am proud that UNC is leading the way.

Edited by Nicole Tackmann and Alison Earley.

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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

We all get that same question over and over again from everyone we meet — the old friend at the grocery store, an uncle at a family reunion, or even a stranger at the bus stop: “What do you do for a living?” If you’re a graduate student, you could be tempted to say something like, “I am a Ph. D student conducting research on the genetics of cancer. Specifically, I study the role of an RNA-binding protein in regulating tumor angiogenesis in both cells and mouse models, and I hope to eventually develop a therapy targeting this molecular pathway.” It’s likely, however, that an answer like this would mean something entirely different to the person who asked you the question than it does to you. Inigo Montoya would probably not be impressed. Why? Because if you look closely at the words in bold, you will realize that while most of them are not particularly complex or technical, they do have very specific meanings in a scientific context. As Ph. D students, it can be challenging for us to remember that many of the words we freely toss around every day in the lab mean something completely different to those that are not actively engaged in science. and

A good-looking woman or a laboratory mouse injected with cancer cells – which model are you talking about?

Here are just a few of those words that have completely changed in their meaning for me during my time as a scientist. (Just a disclaimer, my Now definitions are far from comprehensive, but instead represent what first comes to my mind now as a Ph. D student in cancer biology).

Ph. D Student

What I used to think: An insanely intelligent human being who has the answers to all of life’s questions and is nothing short of a walking, talking encyclopedia.

Now: Someone who has absolutely no clue what’s going on at any given time of the day.


What I used to think: Reading up on a topic on Wikipedia.

Now: Slaving away for hours at a bench, repeating experiments over and over again that never work, all while questioning the reason for my existence.


What I used to think: The field that studies how you inherit traits from your parents.

Now: The field that studies the complex molecular underpinnings of diseases and biological processes at the DNA, RNA, and protein levels.


What I used to think: The stuff that determines what color your eyes are and whether or not you have attached earlobes.

Now: Enigmatic molecules we’ve been studying for almost 150 years and have only scratched the surface of in terms of our understanding. Among many things, they are molecules essential for controlling the amount and types of proteins found in a given cell.


What I used to think: That stuff in meat you should eat a lot of if you want to get buff.

Now: Complex molecules that are the core machinery for all biological processes and functions. When developing new treatments for diseases, these molecules are often what we try to target.  


What I used to think: Tyra Banks.

Now: A mouse, fly, worm, frog, fish, or other critter whose genetics, tissues, or other aspect of their biology has been altered to try and mimic a human disease. We use these models to both better understand diseases and test potential treatments for them. Unfortunately, however, these models often fail to capture the full complexity of a given human disease, causing the conclusions we draw from working with them to have shortcomings. This is largely the reason why we have not yet completely cured diseases like cancer!


What I used to think: Something you seek out if you are experiencing problems in your life.

Now:  A molecule, compound, or technique that targets a specific component of a disease to prevent or eradicate it.


What I used to think: The yellow brick road.

Now: A series of molecules (i.e. proteins, DNA, or RNA molecules) that physically interact with or signal to one another to initiate a process or carry out a function.

So next time someone asks you about your research, instead of just trying to simplify your explanation, take the time to teach them the new meaning of a word or two!

Peer edited by JoEllen McBride.

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The Amazing Microbiota of Brown Bears

A brown bear’s seasonal cycle.

Image a researcher has been tasked with studying how hibernation affects a bear’s microbiota, or the collection of microorganisms residing on and in an organism. The researcher begins his day tracking brown bears until he finally finds one in a cave. His trusty veterinarian partner shoots a dart containing a potent mix of tranquilizers and narcotics at the bear. After waiting for the drugs to work, he cautiously moves towards the animal, kneels down, and collects a fecal sample straight from the bear’s rectum, sweating and praying that the bear won’t wake up to murder him.

At least that’s how I imagine the field work went for a study in Cell Reports on the gut microbiota and energy metabolism of Eurasian brown bears during hibernation. Brown bears switch between periods of heavy eating in the summer and fasting for up to half a year in the winter, during which time the bears do not eat or defecate and only urinate intermittently. Despite this extreme weight gain and obesity in the summer, bears remain metabolically healthy.

The researchers wondered how a bear’s microbiota changes throughout the seasons and how this might contribute to a bear’s healthy weight gain, and found that the bear’s gut microbiota and metabolism change with each season cycle. The researchers inserted the bears’ microbiota collected from either summer or winter into specialized mice. Soon, the mice’s own microbiota began resembling that of its summer or winter donor. Mice receiving the summer microbiota gained more fat and tended to be heavier. However, despite this increased fat mass, their glucose (sugar) tolerance was not impaired. In contrast, increased fat mass is associated with insulin resistance in humans. This suggests the bear’s microbiota plays a role in maintaining a healthy metabolism throughout its life cycle, despite extreme seasonal fluctuations in their body mass and energy metabolism. That is, the summer microbiota allow the bear to eat more without sacrificing its health. 

Studies like this one underscore the importance of studying bear biology, as it may lead to advances in how we treat disease. Imagine if we attempted to mimic a bear’s yearly cycle. We would likely suffer from kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, and muscle loss, among numerous other conditions. Yet, miraculously, brown bears avoid all these conditions, with help from their gut bacteria. This study provides a link between a bear’s healthy obesity and its gut microbiota, which suggests that the gut microbiota may be an effective target for treating obesity. So next time you see a bear, thank him…and then play dead to avoid getting killed.

Peer edited by Rachel Haake

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Lacking Nobel-ity

Adapted by Kaylee Helfrich.

Do you want to learn about how the material of pants affects the sex life of rats?  Or about the different personalities of rocks? How about someone who invented prosthetic limbs to mimic the movement of goats?

These are only a few examples of hilarious research studies that received this year’s Ig Nobel prizes. The Ig Nobel awards are presented by the Improbable Research group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who awards these prizes in order to “first make people laugh and then make them think.”

“The Stinker,” courtesy of Improbable Research.

The most recent Ig Nobel awards ceremony was held this past September, making this the 26th year of the Ig Nobel awards. Each year, 10 prizes (of a small money award and recognition) are awarded in subjects such as economics, physics, medicine, peace, literature, and math. Maybe the most interesting part is that real Nobel Laureates are at each ceremony to hand out awards. The Ignoble awards even have their own mascot, “The Stinker,” which is based on the famous statue “The Thinker,” except that theirs has fallen off of its pedestal.

While looking through past Ig Nobel Awards, I selected 5 favorites to share with you: Ponytail Physics, or “Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles.” This research investigates the “bending elasticity, gravity, and orientational disorder” of the hairstyle beloved by grad student girls (and boys) everywhere during rushed mornings.

2. Doggie Bathroom Habits, a.k.a. “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s field.” These Czech researchers observed 70 dogs from 37 different breeds defecate and urinate over 7,000 times, ultimately discovering that dogs prefer to align their bodies with north-south geomagnetic lines while relieving themselves. Maybe you can make some observations of your own the next time you take your dog on a walk! “Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton.” This dedicated researcher ate a dead shrew (without chewing) so that it would pass through his digestive system, and he could discover which bones his body would dissolve and which bones it would not. Who else is committed enough to research to swallow an animal whole and then pick through feces to find the bones? “Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion.” In this study, researchers tied weighted sticks to chicken butts in order to simulate how dinosaurs probably walked. Creative!

5.“On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound*t”.  Beyond the amusing title and the fantastic opening line (“Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception…has not…been subject to empirical investigation.”), the research is actually interesting and applicable to everyday life – everyone knows at least one person who can expound at length on a topic without saying anything at all!

And… a bonus one: The Art of Procrastination.  This is an essential topic for graduate students (and anyone else who has work to delay).  John Perry lays out his theory of “structured procrastination,” a technique in which you accomplish certain tasks while avoiding other tasks.  A must-read for anyone who has work they don’t want to finish!

Besides the Ig Nobel awards, the Improbable Research group also runs a blog, publishes the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) along with an associated newsletter (the mini-AIR), has a podcast and video series, and (maybe most interestingly) has a club called “The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists”.  They even have a cookbook!  However, they are quick to point out that they are not mocking scientific achievements but rather celebrating the often absurd nature of science.  Personally, I believe that they wish to enliven an often humorless, stressful, and dry field of study with science humor.

So the next time you have an urge to find the chemical recipe for unboiling an egg, check out some Improbable Research!

Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Deirdre Sackett

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Exercise and Immune Response: An Overview


The relationship between exercise intensity (or volume) and susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is a rotated J-shaped curve.  This means that some regular moderate physical activity decreases the relative risk of infection below that of a sedentary individual.  However, high intensity exercise or periods of much strenuous exercise can increase risk of infection. Fahlman and Engels showed a 45-50% increase in URTI prevalence in college American football players during high volume training periods. The volume of exercise needed to increase chances of URTI is usually only undertaken by higher level athletes.  

Screen Shot 2016-11-02 at 2.32.28 PM

The relationship between exercise volume and upper respiratory tract infections.

How does the immune system function?

The immune system is responsible for defending organisms against infectious bacteria, viruses and fungi (known as pathogens).  The human immune response is made of two components: the innate response and the acquired response.  The innate response is the first, non-specific wave of resistance when encountering an infectious substance for the first time.  The acquired immune response is the trained response of the immune system. This response develops after the body has come into contact with a pathogen for the first time and subsequently educates thymus immune (T) cells and bone immune (B) cells on the shape of the pathogen.  However, after the acquired response has been established, elimination of the pathogen the second time it enters the body can happen in as short a time span as a couple of hours and illness may never manifest.  

The innate response is partly composed of physical barriers such as our skin and mucous membranes.  The primary ways pathogens enter the body are though consumption (food/drink) or inhalation.  Inside the digestive tract and respiratory tract are mucous membranes that create an acidic environment hostile to pathogens.  Beyond the exterior barriers of defense, the innate immune system also has an army of cells that work together to kill pathogens. These cells work by engulfing pathogens and by communicating to other immune cells to increase activity. Lastly, the innate immune response educates T cells and B cells on the pathogen’s signature marker (antigen) so that the next time this pathogen contacts the body, the acquired immune response kicks in quickly.

Antigen pointed out on the cell surface of a pathogen

The specificity and quickness of the acquired immune response is the most critical difference between the acquired and innate responses.   The primary job of the acquired immune response is to prevent pathogens from colonizing, to keep pathogens out of the body, and to seek and destroy certain invading pathogens.  Much of what makes the acquired response so powerful are the T & B lymphocyte cells.   After encountering a pathogen for the first time, the T & B lymphocyte cells are “educated” on the proper response to the pathogen.  After a second encounter, the T & B cells quickly duplicate cells targeted at the specific pathogen.  About 90% of these lymphocytes go to attack the pathogen and communicate to other immune cells to attack while 10% stay back for future attacks.  The “memory” of the  acquired response lasts for years.   

Source: Nic Shea

Functionality of the immune system


We know now how the immune system generally works, but how does the immune system respond to exercise?

During moderate exercise, the innate response will enhance immune cell function. Conversely, during high intensity exercise, the innate response will decrease immune cell function.  Moderate intensity exercise evokes moderate levels of catecholamines (stress hormones) which may increase immune cell levels, while high intensity exercise evokes high levels of catecholamines which may decrease immune cell levels.  However, 2-3 hours after intense exercise, some immune cells are at their highest levels, which might lead to a more productive immune system as long as the exercise session did not exceed an hour.

Nic Shea

The immune response to one session of intense exercise. During exercise immune cell activity decreases. After exercise immune cell activity increases

As for the acquired immune response, it changes in proportion to the intensity and duration of the exercise session.  T cell function can increase after exercise if the session is not too long or too intense.  During long and/or intense exercise sessions, the mobility of T cells is reduced, giving pathogens a longer time to colonize before they are attacked by T cells.

The most important finding in exercise immunology is that beneficial immunological changes take place in response to moderate exercise. With each moderate session of exercise, a boost in immune system activity could reduce risk of infection. On the other end of the spectrum, trained/elite endurance athletes seemed to be more at risk to developing an infection 3 to 72 hours following a very intense session of training.  This 3 to 72 hour timeframe following intense training has been called the “open-window” theory and may be more applicable to individual elite level sporting events. When exercise sessions increase in time or intensity, aspects of an athlete’s innate and acquired immune system function will be depressed but not completely inactive.  What this means is that athletes engaging in hard periods of training are at increased risk of picking up the common cold or flu, but not at more risk of catching a serious illness.

As with nearly everything in physiology, the dose of stress or stimulus dictates the response. This seems to be the case with exercise and immune function.  A moderate amount of activity seems to be beneficial in boosting immune function, but going overboard with exercise may put you at an increased risk for infection.  However, this is mostly a concern for elite endurance athletes.  Most people would reap the benefits of increased immune function associated with increased exercise! 

Peer edited by Michelle Engle and Mimi Huang. 

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