Defying Regression Towards the Mean

As a young woman in pursuit of a career in academia, I find the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, and specifically scientific research, to be a daunting statistic to face. In STEM fields, the percentage of tenure-line faculty positions held by women has merely increased from 19% in 2004 to 23% in 2012. In comparison, women composed 44% of non-STEM, academic positions in 2012.  STEM fields are failing to matriculate women into faculty positions in equal numbers to men, and it is difficult to uncover the forces that create unfavorable and, at times, inhospitable environments for women in academia. Antiquated gender biases, intrinsically male-centric tenure track pressures, and deeply institutionalized chauvinistic attitudes do perpetuate inequality in academia, but what accounts for the discrepancy in STEM fields? Amid the institutional struggle to unravel the cryptic barriers impeding the advancement of women in STEM careers, I offer only my own struggle with gender bias and how it has shaped my career goals, and in turn what it means to me to be a woman in science.

When I began my graduate program at The University of California, Riverside (UCR), an institution renowned for its diversity, I did not expect to encounter resistance based on my identity as a woman in science. During my first year of graduate level courses, a professor requested that I meet with her to discuss my future. I assumed she wanted to discuss my academic progress or perhaps inquire about my research topic of interest. Instead, she cautioned me that despite being an intelligent woman, I would need to change my personality to be respected as a scientist in academia, as I was too outwardly feminine. She impressed upon me that I would never be accepted by peers, be taken seriously by male faculty, or advance in the ranks of academia since it was still a “boys club.” Alternatively, she suggested that it could be in my best interest to refocus my career goals on positions at institutions with a higher emphasis on teaching rather than research. My perceived femininity would be a liability as I sought to climb the ranks of research institutions, and possessing effeminate qualities meant I was ill-equipped to undertake the rigors of a research career. Her message was equal parts pejorative and subliminal: I was the wrong kind of woman to be a researcher. In limiting my aspirations, she believed she was advising me. I was devastated; and yet, throughout my graduate work I struggled to escape echoes supporting her warning.

Three years into my doctoral research, I developed a body of evidence that won funding for an international research collaboration. During the first collaborative meeting, a foreign PI glibly remarked that the inclusion of women on research proposals was simply for appearances. He complimented my contribution, expressing more gratitude for my name than for my research, and he subsequently refused to share significant experimental responsibilities with women on the team. Not only was he disinterested in including women, he promoted the use of women as pawns to advance his own success, appealing to the image of gender equality without subscribing to it. My thoughts wandered back to the meeting with my past professor, and I wondered if she had possibly endured any similar experiences over her career? I imagined how discriminatory attitudes could have misshaped her own gender perceptions, misleading her to marginalize another woman’s potential under the veil of guidance, as perhaps she had limited herself.Image Credit: Carly Sjogren

I hope for a future where any semblance of gender bias is relegated to anecdotes of the past, but for now – though it is still very much a reality – I choose to persevere. The only thing that truly matters is that I am a woman who loves science. I will not become less feminine simply because it may be perceived as a weakness to some, and I have absolutely no intention to pursue an alternate career. I aspire to become a professor at a Research I institution, and my training at UNC will propel my development as an independent researcher to become a competitive professorial candidate. As such, I will be more than just a female STEM professor – I strive to become a woman with a superb record of research who serves as a positive and inclusive mentor, educator, and role model for my community and for other women striving to reach their greatest potential.

Peer edited by Salma Azam.

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Opening Our Minds to “Outsiders”

Who I am today is a reflection of all the sacrifices my immigrant parents made to achieve the American Dream. In the late 1970s, my parents fled the Communist takeover of Vietnam, leaving behind family and friends and spending weeks traveling by boat to come to the U.S. for a better future.

Vietnamese refugees traveling via boat.

Having arrived with little money and limited English fluency, my father worked long hours at a blue-collar job while my mother stayed home to take care of my younger sister and me. My parents always found ways to provide for my sister and me with what little resources they had, using their own hardships to inspire us to achieve more than they could have. I could not be prouder to be the daughter of “boat people,” refugees, and immigrants, a sentiment I hope the refugees and immigrants being turned away at our borders today due to the targeted travel ban will eventually share.

It may be easy for me to empathize with these affected refugees and immigrants because our shared experiences categorize us as part of the same in-group. In social psychology, an in-group is a social group arbitrarily defined based on similarities among its members (e.g., citizenship). And if you’re not an in-group member, then you’re likely to be denigrated as an out-group member, simply for your dissimilarities. Importantly, while there are often no objective differences between in-groups and out-groups, classic social psychology experiments show that minimally defined groups, such as being on a meaningless “blue” or “yellow” team, are sufficient for eliciting out-group bias, even in children as young as 6 years old. This “Us vs. Them” mentality results in people being more likely to help in-groups and discriminate against helping out-groups. While helping in-groups may promote social connection, choosing not to help out-groups may cultivate feelings of rejection or exclusion, reinforcing group boundaries in society.

During a time when Americans’ attitudes and behaviors are especially rife with out-group prejudices, how can we encourage aid and support for those less similar to us?

A recent study by Dr. Grit Hein and colleagues used neuroimaging methods to probe whether out-group biases that emerge implicitly in the brain can be changed through experiencing more positive interactions with out-groups. The researchers used a learning intervention in adults to examine whether attitudes and empathy toward out-group members would change after receiving help from an out-group member (experimental condition) just as often as an in-group member (control condition). Because it is more unexpected to receive help from an out-group member relative to an in-group member, the researchers hypothesized that experiencing more of this unexpectedly positive outcome would increase positive associations with out-group members.

Indeed, Hein and colleagues found that experiencing unexpectedly positive out-group interactions led adults to develop more positive attitudes towards out-group members, which in turn increased empathy-related processing in the brain (i.e., greater neural activation in the anterior insula) to out-group members. Especially promising, increases in out-group empathy were achieved after only two positive learning experiences with out-group members!

Thus, while our perceptions of out-group members — like refugees and immigrants — are often biased and may lead to negative societal consequences (e.g., intergroup conflict), the results of this study highlight just how malleable these arbitrary intergroup distinctions can be. By increasing how often we interact with people less similar to us — whether those differences are by race, citizenship, or whatever arbitrary feature that we think divides us— we can learn to be more accepting of every person’s unique and important contribution to the fabric of our nation. After all, we are each united in our pursuit for the American Dream.

Peer edited by Alissa Brown and Christine Lee. 

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How’s that Nanoparticle Biocorona treating you??

No, sorry, it’s not the latest variety of Corona beer. Rather, it is a new exciting advance in understanding nanoparticle toxicity!


 ©2006 David Hawxhurst, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Nanoparticles are found in lots of consumer products!

Nanoparticles are any really really small particles in the nanometer range (1-100 nanometers). For size comparison, the thickness of normal hair is 80,000 nanometers. Because they have different chemical and physical properties compared to larger particles, nanoparticles are already being used in numerous capacities. They are used to produce lightweight but strong materials for use in airplanes, in clothes to kill bacteria, in food packaging to promote shelf life, and in sunblock to improve UV protection. Much research is ongoing to include nanomaterials in medicine, such as to treat cancer and to improve medical imaging.

Though nanoparticles are becoming widely used in consumer products and there is increasing development of nanomedicine, our understanding of how nanoparticle exposure affects human health is struggling to keep up. Thus far, researchers thought that nanoparticle toxicity was dependent primarily on physical or chemical properties, like composition (silver vs. iron) or size. However, recent findings indicate that it might not be that simple.

The Biocorona

When nanoparticles come into contact with biological materials (for instance, the blood), proteins and other molecules are naturally attracted to its surface and begin to form layers around the nanoparticle. This biological coating is known as a biocorona. Thus, when the body is exposed to nanoparticles, it is likely encountering nanoparticles with a specific biocorona that has formed on it, not just the nanoparticle itself. Different biocoronas on the same type of nanoparticle can affect not only the particle’s chemical properties but also how it’s distributed throughout the body, how it’s eliminated from the body, and how the body reacts to it.

Dr. Jonathan Shannahan at Purdue University is one of many researchers trying to better understand how nanoparticles interact with the human body and the role of the biocorona in modifying toxicity.

Nanoparticle Meets Heart Disease

Recently, Dr. Shannahan’s team published a paper on how cardiovascular disease states can affect iron nanoparticle biocoronas and toxicity. Iron nanoparticles are being developed for use in medical imaging and cancer drug delivery, so it is important to better understand their potential toxic side effects in humans. Many of the current iron nanoparticle toxicity studies have been designed to represent how a healthy individual would react. However, 1 in 4 people in America die from cardiovascular disease each year and 31% of Americans have high levels of cholesterol in their blood, a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The toxicity studies we have now do not capture the effects of nanoparticles in a significant portion of the population, people with or at high risk of developing heart disease. These people may also use iron nanoparticle therapies and diagnostic tools so it is essential to study how people with these underlying disease states would react.

Courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Shannahan

Iron nanoparticles form different biocoronas when incubated with different kinds of serum (normal vs. hyperlipidemic) which generate different responses by the body.

To simulate normal and heart disease conditions in their experiment, Shannahan’s team incubated iron nanoparticles with blood serum from normal rats and rats with high blood levels of cholesterols (think LDL) and lipids, termed hyperlipidemic serum. They found that the nanoparticle biocorona changed when incubated in hyperlipidemic serum and that nanoparticles with a hyperlipidemic biocorona stimulated more of an immune response in cells that line the arteries! An increased immune response facilitates the formation of plaques in the arteries, which eventually could cause blockage of blood flow to the heart, leading to heart attacks.

Shannahan’s findings suggest that individuals with high blood cholesterol and/or heart disease may be more susceptible to the toxic effects of iron nanoparticles, i.e. they could have a worse reaction to iron nanoparticles than healthy individuals, and that this toxicity is driven by a change in the nanoparticle’s biocorona.

“King me.” – Nanoparticlenanoparticle

The discovery of this biological “crown” on nanoparticles and its ability to affect toxicity adds another piece to the complex puzzle of how to evaluate nanoparticle toxicity in humans. Such studies will only become more important as nanoparticles become more widely used in consumer products and, potentially, in modern medicine. Genetics, epigenetics, nutrition, environmental exposures, and now biocoronas will all play into the important quest to understand the toxicity of nanoparticles among the general population as well as for each individual.

Peer edited by Aminah Wali.

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Honeyguides Lead the Way to a Delicious Discovery

You may think it’s pretty neat that your dog Fido knows how to shake or bark on command, but until he learns to tell you where the good restaurants are, he’s got nothing on the African honeyguide. These smWikimedia Commons: birds are experts at locating beehives, and they cooperate with humans to get to the treats inside. After locating a hive, a honeyguide will approach a nearby human and give a loud, chattering call to gain his attention. Hopping from branch to branch, the little bird then leads the way to the hive. It lets the person it’s brought subdue the bees and remove the honey, and once the coast is clear, the honeyguide swoops in to feast on the wax that is left behind.

People looking for hives will also call for the birds to help them.  Different calls are used in different regions, but honey hunters in the region of Yao in Mozambique use a special “brrrr-hm” sound which has been used for generations. A recent study, published in Science, tested the possibility that honeyguides are able to distinguish the “brrrr-hm” call from other human sounds.  To find out, researchers played honeyguides a variety of sounds from animal calls to human words, and tested which sounds the birds responded to most strongly. Ultimately, they found that using the “brrrr-hm” call more than tripled the likelihood of being successfully led to a hive as compared to the other sounds.  This suggests that the birds are able to recognize the call as an invitation to cooperate, making it one of the few cases of communication between humans and wild animals.

Whether the birds learn to lead humans to honey or if it is an innate behavior is unknown, but it is likely a combination of both. Honeyguides are brood parasites, which means that they lay their eggs in the nests of other species.  This makes it much harder for young to learn honeyguide-specific behaviors, and suggests that there is some innate component to the cooperation.  On the other hand, although young honeyguides will chatter at humans once they have found a hive, they do not respond to the “brrrr-hm” call like the adults do.  This indicates that there may be some learning involved in the process as well. Whatever the cause of cooperation between these little birds and their human helpers, it’s a sweet deal for everyone involved.

Peer edited by Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Science Outreach and the Sagan Effect

What role does science communication serve in society? Science communication aims to increase public awareness about science by sharing science-related topics through different medias like journalism, policy, news media, blogs, social media, and outreach opportunities.

Word cloud created using

In the past few decades, there’s been a movement encouraging open communication between scientists and the general public. Starting in the mid-1990s, National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applications included a mandatory Broader Impact Criterion. This required scientists to detail how their proposed research will impact the broader society via teaching, training, discussing research findings with the public, benefiting society directly, and/or including groups that are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields such as women, minorities, and people with disabilities. The Broader Impacts Criterion is also required for graduate fellowship applications within the NSF. The importance of scientists engaging with the public is echoed in the following statement by Alan, Leshner, CEO Emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

“If science is going to fully serve its societal mission in the future, we need to both encourage and equip the next generation of scientists to effectively engage with the broader society in which we work and live.”   -Alan Leshner, CEO Emeritus of AAAS

Despite national agencies mandating research with public engagement and many scientists considering it their responsibility to engage the media and taxpayers, a stigma exists in academia regarding scientists who actively engage in outreach efforts. The Sagan Effect is a stigma attached to spending too much time translating one’s research to the broader public. This phenomenon is named after Carl Sagan, an American astronomer and well-known popularizer, whose National Academy of Sciences nomination was rejected and tenure application denied by Harvard University. Yet, later analyses of Sagan’s publications suggest that his academic career was comparable to Academy members and colleagues who were less involved in public outreach.

According to the Sagan Effect, scientists’ research productivity (quantity and quality) is perceived as inversely proportional to the amount of time spent on outreach efforts or popularity. In particular, scientists who spend a considerable amount of time and effort communicating science to the public are often viewed as less successful than their colleagues and their science is considered less rigorous. Some of their colleagues worry that these public scientists, or popularizers, are more focused on media presence than discovery.  However, the surprise finding of this study was that scientists who engaged in public outreach are actually more active academically than the average scientist. So, truth be told, dissemination was not done by lesser academics. On the contrary, wider dissemination activities were correlated with higher performance.

Several studies are investigating these perceptions, demographics of public scientists, and barriers preventing more scientists from engaging. Women and scientists early in their careers are more likely to actively participate in science communication and outreach efforts. The most commonly cited barriers to outreach participation are time and lack of institutional support. Because research university systems value research productivity via grants and publications, scientists spend little time participating in efforts that are not directly related to their academic career goals. They perceive little to no reward from academia for actively engaging with the public, especially during the tenure process. Others say a lack of infrastructure makes finding and participating in outreach efforts a time- and labor-intensive process.

Sadly, 5% of scientists in this study do not participate in outreach because “they do not see it as part of their role as a scientist; these scientists believe that it is not their job to interpret their work for a broader audience.” Because it is not their responsibility, several scientists propose having non-scientists organize outreach efforts. From their perspective, scientists should focus on what they do best and share their work with intermediate people, who are very good at communicating science to the public. Alternatively, other scientists propose that a prominent figurehead who is well respected by the scientific community and the public, like a Nobel laureate, should lead national outreach efforts. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson and William Sandford Nye, better known as “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” are prominent scientists and advocators often seen in media and recognized by the public. Tyson, in fact, was influenced by Carl Sagan, inspiring him to pursue both academic success and science communication.


Selfie of Bill Nye the Science Guy, President Obama, and Neil deGrasse Tyson at the White House Student Film Festival in 2014. K-12 students across the country created short films on the role of technology in their classrooms.

Despite effective communication among scientists via peer-reviewed publications, some scientists indicate that poor interpersonal communication skills prompt them to avoid outreach efforts. In fact, 29% of all respondents stated that scientists are poor interpersonal communicators regardless of their actual skills. Yet training scientists to become effective communicators to non-experts and the public is not often cited as a possible solution. Surprisingly, about 25% of respondents described the public itself as a massive barrier to effective science outreach. These views were based on claims that the public is disinterested in science and does not trust scientists, discouraging outreach efforts because they are assumed to be ill-received. How do we bridge the gap between scientists and the public?

It’s time for a change — a positive embrace of science communication and outreach. Academic institutions should provide support for public engagement and facilitate opportunities for faculty to work with local schools, museums, and science centers. Perhaps science communication and outreach could be considered in the tenure process. Graduate and postdoctoral training should also include effective communication skills for both the scientific community and the general public. UNC is actively trying to address these concerns by providing seminars and workshop series on communication skills and outreach opportunities, in addition to professional development skills. Active participation by scientists at all stages of their careers will hopefully eliminate the Sagan Effect. Scientific discovery should not be kept in the scientific community — it should be shared freely with the public to keep them well-informed. Hopefully, the more the public interacts with diverse scientists, the more scientists will gain their trust and inspire a new generation of scientists and science communicators.

Peer edited by Alison Early and Caddy Hobbs.

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To Drink or Not to Drink?

Every day the media bombards consumers with different recommendations regarding the amount of food to consume, important micronutrients to keep in mind, and general advice about what you should be putting into your body. It can be difficult, regardless of background, to discern which of these recommendations are worth following and which seem excessive.

One such popular suggestion that permeates healthy living blogs and websites is the “8 by 8” rule regarding the consumption of water: drink eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid a day. This rule has been disseminated and repeated over and over, to the point that many have accepted it as fact without considering that it is unfounded.

More recently, many articles appeared to debunk this guideline, due in part to a recent research article published in August 2016, titled: “Overdrinking, swallowing inhibition, and regional brain responses prior to swallowing”.

The researchers of this study wanted to better understand the mechanism of restoration of fluid balance after a fluid deficit, since typically the volume a person drinks in response to thirst matches the fluid lost. They postulated that the fluid balance is controlled in part by swallowing being inhibited once a person reaches an overhydrated state. The results of their study showed there is an inhibitory mechanism that can limit excessive drinking in humans; participants in an overhydrated state reported that the effort needed for swallowing increased, in comparison to their previous state of thirst. The main conclusion of this study is that the body self-regulates hydration, and it is important to listen to the signs. If you feel thirsty, drink; if you don’t feel thirsty, don’t drink. this study’s sample population was rather small (20 individuals), and the results were self-reported, these findings are important to consider, particularly since there is no research that supports the “8 by 8” rule. Furthermore, as more research is finding, most health recommendations should be administered on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be denied that consuming water is important, since water makes up about 60 percent of a person’s body weight and is a necessary chemical component for many of the body’s reactions to maintain homeostasis. Water is responsible for flushing out toxins, carrying nutrients to cells, moistening tissues, and myriad other important functions. However, it is critical to be wary of blanket recommendations, since overdrinking is a serious health risk that can lead to a condition called hyponatremia. Hyponatremia causes symptoms that range from nausea, vomiting, and confusion to seizures and coma. When navigating health guidelines that saturate the internet, one must consider their origin and most importantly if there is scientific evidence to support the claims made. Even when considering guidelines put forward by seemingly reputable entities, it is important to examine the evidence. Many nutrition-based recommendations, including those concerning daily water intake, are determined by a group of individuals who are not necessarily scientists. These dietary recommendations are sometimes not even based on any scientific evidence but are put forward as fact, and recommended daily water intake is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

A quick google search of the recommended daily water intake shows a plethora of blogs and articles from non-scientific sources. One of the only “.org” website that appears is the Mayo Clinic’s page, which cites the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation, which is similar to the “8 by 8” rule: 1.9 liters of water a day. Upon further investigation, in 2004, the Institute of Medicine put forward a publication with a daily recommendation of 2.7 liters of water for women, and 3.7 liters of water for men. The dietary reference intake emphasizes that this is a recommendation and not a specific requirement, because, again, there is no scientific indicators that support any specific daily volumetric intake of water.

This begs the question, what does one do when the scientific community seems unable to discern the necessary daily water intake? It seems whatever research does exist on the mechanism of fluid balance shows that the body knows what’s best and signals when things are awry. In other words, when you are thirsty, drink!

Peer edited by Joanna Warren and Laurel Kartchner.

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Toad-ally Accurate Predictions?

Today, groundhogs tell us if there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. Soon, puppies will be unleashed to help predict the Super Bowl winner. But have you ever considered looking to toads in order to forecast earthquakes?

Animals and Earthquakes

For centuries, there have been reports of animals acting strangely before an earthquake. From ancient Greece to the modern day Bay Area, people have observed rats, snakes, and dogs leaving their normal habitats for safe shelter in the days leading up to an earthquake. Currently, seismologists do not have a way to accurately predict earthquakes, so these animals may provide some clues. One Japanese doctor claimed that earthquakes could be predicted by unusual dog behavior, like an increase in barking or biting. Despite continued research efforts in Japan and China, countries often hit by devastating earthquakes, no consistent relationship between animal behavior and earthquakes has been seen.

Toad-ally New Connection

The humble toad, Bufo bufo, holds some promise for detecting pre-seismic changes and alerting us of imminent earthquakes.

The observation of odd toad behavior before an earthquake was published in the Journal of Zoology in 2010. Rachel Grant of Open University was studying the how the lunar cycle impacted toad behavior and reproduction in L’Aquilla, Italy when one day, she noticed there were suddenly no toads at the breeding site. Such behavior was extremely odd in the middle of mating season since toads do not leave until breeding is completed. A 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred in the area days later and the toads started returning the day after the earthquake.

Grant was curious about what cues the toads were responding to when they departed the breeding site. She found reports that there had been changes in the ionosphere, which is the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere, leading up to the earthquake. These changes are common before earthquakes and lead to a lot of gases being released into the atmosphere, which could change the water chemistry of the toad habitat. Toads and other amphibians are very sensitive to such changes, so this disruption may explain their sudden departure.

While intriguing, more work will need to be done to take this study from a well-documented anecdote to a reliable method for predicting earthquakes. A similar mass migration of toads was seen in 2008 before a large earthquake in China, but all of these results will have to be replicated at these site and others, which will be difficult due to how rare and unpredictable earthquakes are. But in the meantime, if you see a mass exodus of toads, it might not be a bad idea to follow them.

Peer edited by Madelyn Huang.

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Don’t Fear Nutella Just Yet!

“Did you hear that such-and-such causes cancer?” Every time you turn around, there is a new report about a study supposedly linking a food or ingredient to some form of cancer. Your Facebook news feed is probably littered with posts about such studies. Or maybe your family and friends talk about it. It seems like there’s always something to be afraid of. The newest scare? The beloved and ever-so-delicious spread, Nutella.

Claims linking the famous chocolate-hazelnut spread to cancer should be taken with a grain of salt.

Claims linking the famous chocolate-hazelnut spread to cancer should be taken with a grain of salt.

Recently, a study from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) determined a chemical by-product produced in refined oil to be potentially cancer-causing. In the study, rodents exposed to it eventually developed tumors. The by-product is produced most highly in palm oil when it is cooked. Palm oil is a key ingredient in Nutella. Eventually, headlines claiming that Nutella causes cancer spread throughout the internet, causing sales to drop and leaving many to wonder whether they should adopt a Nutella-free lifestyle.

However, the claim that Nutella causes cancer is not really accurate. In truth, the EFSA study did not specifically look the effect of Nutella and it is not clear how much of the worrisome chemical is actually produced during the making of Nutella. The study did raise concerns about the safety of palm oil, but palm oil is found in many processed foods so there’s no real reason to specifically single out Nutella. Moreover, the study only looked at exposure and tumors in rats.  Although animals experiments are useful, more studies need to be done to determine the effect on actual humans.

So does Nutella cause cancer? The study cannot accurately claim that it does. While the headlines linking Nutella to cancer might be eye-catching, they are probably doing more to incite fear than convey any real information. If you’re deciding on the risks of eating Nutella, understand that a real link between Nutella and cancer has not been made. People should be aware of this flawed claim and keep an open eye and open mind…and maybe continue to have the joy of Nutella in your life. For many of us, that’s a risk worth taking.

Peer edited by Michelle Engle.

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