Getting to the Heart of the Matter: “Fish are friends, not food”

Repeat after me: “Fish are friends, not food”

When most people think about “Finding Nemo,” they likely think about Nemo, the adventurous young clownfish who got caught up in a fishy situation (no pun intended) and ended up in a dentist’s fish tank. Or, they might remember Marlin, the overprotective father. However, what about Dory? Though some might characterize Dory as loopy, she was the real hero who saved Marlin and Nemo’s lives and reunited father and son. Who would have thought that the loopy blue tang fish would be the unsung hero?

Zebrafish (Danio rerio), possibly the key to treat/cure heart disease

Just like Nemo, humans have their own fish hero too: the zebrafish. The zebrafish is a tropical freshwater fish that is currently used in many research labs as a powerful model organism for studying various diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disease. You might be thinking that there is no way a 3-5 cm fish, with fins and no lungs, can model human disease; humans are extremely different from zebrafish. However, zebrafish are much more similar to people than one might initially think. In fact, according to a paper published in Nature, 84% of genes known to be associated with human disease have a zebrafish counterpart. You might also be wondering why not use mice? After all, they’re at least mammals. Good question!

Zebrafish models actually have many advantages over mouse or rat models:

  1. Zebrafish reproduce more frequently (every week) than mice and rats.
  2. Zebrafish can easily be genetically manipulated to study a disease; it takes less time to generate a zebrafish mutant line than a mouse mutant line.

    Picture above shows zebrafish blood vessels labelled in red and lymphatic vessels labelled in green

  3. In zebrafish, important pathways can be easily blocked and examined by simply adding the drug to the water. This allows for more cost effective and faster identification of new drugs and new uses for current drugs.
  4. The zebrafish is see-through; fluorescence markers can be used to “highlight” various cells in tissues and organs. Imagine being able to see individual cells migrate from one location to the next and form an entire heart that begins to beat 24 hours later- in real time. THAT’S AMAZING!

Other advantages of the zebrafish are disease specific. For example, zebrafish are an advantageous model for studying congenital heart disease because they can survive severe cardiac defects that are typically lethal in mice. Therefore, the zebrafish model allows scientists to follow a disease longer than they would be able to in a mouse model. Zebrafish models of heart failure have been found to exhibit similar defects to those found in patients with heart disease. In addition, zebrafish heart models have provided genetic evidence that certain signaling pathways protect humans against heart problems.

Zebrafish organs or tissues can be easily visualized because they are see-through

One of the major reasons why people succumb to heart attacks is because heart cells get damaged and die; heart cells have little to no capability to regenerate (make more of themselves). The zebrafish heart, on the other hand, has the capability to regenerate and replace injured heart tissue after damage. Therefore, scientists are using the zebrafish to figure out what factors or pathways are involved in that process, so they may be able to help the human heart heal itself after being damaged during a heart attack. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide; so, many lives can be saved with the help of a little striped fish, like Dory.

With that in mind, it’s probably safe to say that fish are friends (and not just food).


Peer edited by Breanna Turman.

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Minority Representation in STEM Fields

People immigrating to the United States of America brought with them different cultural identities and life experiences all come together like a melting pot

United States as a “Melting Pot”

Indigenous peoples inhabited the land, that is now known as the US, many generations before Christopher Columbus arrived. These people were culturally and linguistically diverse and since the founding of the US in 1776, the number of languages, customs, and lifestyles in this land has dramatically increased due to constant migration to the US from all corners of the globe. This diversity gave rise to the US being called a “Melting Pot” – a metaphor for the different populations coming together to form one country. With this diversity though, comes discrimination, creating an environment that has been adversarial, and hardly a united and representative nation.

To acknowledge the different contributions of diverse groups in this country, a calendar of months to recognize diversity has been established. For example, February is African-American History Month, March is Women’s History Month, May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, September 15th to October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month, and November is Native American Heritage Month. The majority of people whose heritage, culture, and value to this country should be recognized during these months are often overlooked, underrepresented, and under-appreciated. In addition to highlighting their achievements for one month, it is important to continuously recognize their voices and contributions. This article aims to stress the importance of representation and intersectionality, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, and to celebrate those who have achieved success in their fields despite many obstacles.

Identity and Intersectionality

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is the concept of overlapping social identities leading to a more severe form of discrimination. As an example, look at the colored circles to the right. Each one could represent an element of discrimination such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, age, etc. In the top left, there is one yellow circle. Imagine this circle represents women (gender). This represents one possible layer of discrimination. To the right, the overlapping yellow and pink circles represent increasing layers, or intersections, of identities. The yellow circle again represents women, and the pink circle may represent African-Americans. Women

Image Credit: Rachel Cherney

Diagram of Intersectionality where each colored circle represents different element of discrimination

encounter one dimension of discrimination (gender), as do African-Americans (race). However, being an African-American woman means their burden is now two-fold: they have two dimensions of discrimination, being a woman and being African-American. As a person has more dimensions (as seen in the two figures in the bottom) that do not fit with the dominant social norm, those dimensions add up to increasing amounts of discrimination. Identity and intersectionality can be especially challenging for people who have combined ancestry. Often, people don’t know with whom or how they should or can associate, leading to an increased identity anxiety and discrimination.

It is important to recognize and understand the concept of intersectionality to realize that discrimination is complex to rectify. However, it is crucial to try to eliminate the inequalities that come forth from discrimination and intersectionality since inequalities that lead to oppression can restrict the future and potential of underrepresented groups. The more we help each other, the better the world becomes for us.

*Race is used above because it is commonly used to discriminate, although race is a social construct and has no scientific basis. For a distinction between race and ethnicity, click here.*

The Lack of and Need for STEM Workers

STEM jobs drive the global economy by being one of the top sources of innovation and are growing faster than any other public or private sector in the US. Within the next 10 years, there will be over 1 million jobs in STEM available, however there are not and will not be enough scientists to fill all of the positions. Temporary residents (including international students) are immigrating to the US to fill this gap through various visas (F1, J, H1B, etc.), even though we have enough students who could someday fill the gap.

Underrepresented groups embody roughly 36% of the population in the US, yet represent less than 20% of the STEM workforce. Due to discrimination (particularly intersectionality) and lack of representation, support, and youth awareness, the potential of our minority peers in STEM has been largely untapped.

Proportions based on U.S. citizens and permanent residents with known race or ethnicity. Graph clearly depicts the gap between the percentage of Doctoral degrees in Science and Engineering earned by Whites and Minorities SOURCE: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Early Career Doctorates Survey pilot study, 2015.

Aside from the lack of minority students earning STEM degrees, their path to success gets more challenging following graduation. They enter the workforce but don’t necessarily stay because of constant threats they face, may they be racial bias, stereotype threat, microaggressions from colleagues, or just lack of cultural knowledge among mentors and colleagues. Boosting diversity can help boost the status of underrepresented groups, and get rid of threats minorities face in the workforce. It is a lot easier to see yourself as a scientist if you see others that share your experiences or culture. Since there are so few underrepresented students in Master’s and PhD programs in STEM, the challenges are compounded. If no one shares a lifestyle like yours, how can you relate?

The general population has a particular proportion of women and minorities, but that proportion is underrepresented in STEM. Since STEM fields and the world we live in are multidimensional, the people working in those fields should represent that multidimensionality. It also brings us together as a community.

Diversity Enhances Innovation

Diversity allows for new interpretations and exchanges of ideas and data. This encourages innovative and diverse ways of thinking and tackling problems leading to a greater likelihood of coming up with real solutions. The different viewpoints (based, in part, through individual differences in experiences) that each individual brings to the table helps foster teamwork and collaborations. If all people are from the same background and same education, they might all look at a problem the same way. Diversity helps us solve a common problem by bringing different ideas into the dialogue. For example, women and men differ anatomically and physiologically and without taking this difference into account when designing products, a product may not be helpful or may even be harmful to the user. Women on average are shorter than men, so when driving, generally are physically closer to the steering wheel. When airbags were first designed, this height difference between men and women wasn’t taken into account, and women experienced a more forceful impact from sitting closer to the steering wheel. This resulted in more female deaths by airbags than accidents.

Another more serious example is the creation and production of drugs/medications. Clinical trials are often homogeneous and fail to include adequate numbers of women as they are primarily tested on men. Due to physiological differences between men and women, some of these drugs can be helpful to men, but not to women, or could be harmful. This is also relevant to ethnicity and ancestry. Certain groups of people are more prone to certain diseases or have different physiology from another group, and if a medication was cleared for one of those groups, it doesn’t mean it will work well for the other.  Considering the face of the US population is changing and by 2042 African-Americans and Latinos are predicted to be the majority minority (over 50% of the US population), it is critical to include underrepresented groups in clinical trials that lead to drug development and application.

Getting Minority Students into STEM Fields

To fill the available positions now and in the future, it is important to reach out to students of all backgrounds and abilities, starting at a young age, and to let them know what opportunities are available to them. It is also important to spark an interest and passion for science in these students, and to help and support them as they advance through their education. Allowing resources to be available to all students of all backgrounds is essential. Read a previous article about the divide between rural and urban areas in the US due to lack of internet access, highlighting the effect of inconsistent distribution of resources.

Resources and education play a critical role in the development of STEM students and statistics show that Americans in general don’t perform well in STEM fields and are consistently behind much of the world. Thus, the education of these fields needs to be reexamined. At the University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC), president Dr. Freeman Hrabowski has created an environment that fosters excellence in STEM skills, guiding UMBC to be the leading university in the country to produce African-American students that earn PhD and MD-PhD degrees in STEM fields. He restructured the way STEM classes were taught and created four pillars of STEM education to “get underrepresented students to the top”. These pillars began as a way to help the most underrepresented students succeed in STEM, and by helping and redesigning education for the most underrepresented students, students of all backgrounds at UMBC are now more successful STEM fields.  Dr. Hraboski’s four pillars “empower students to take ownership of their education and love to learn,” while fostering a collaborative environment. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC was created to use the four pillars of STEM education with underrepresented groups and UNC has worked with UMBC to create a similar program, called Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program. Hopefully, more programs like these will arise around the country, and STEM diversity will increase, along with the number of successful students in STEM fields.

Attitudes Towards Minorities in STEM Fields

Dr. George M. Langford, a previous UNC faculty member and advocate for minorities in STEM fields, wrote about the very topic, asking educators to step up and recognize what needs to be done for underrepresented students:

“As the demographics in the United States evolve, we as educators must work to increase the number of minority students in these disciplines, disciplines where they remain underrepresented. Efforts have been underway to improve minority representation for several decades… and there has been improvement, just not as much as we’d like. Many are imminently qualified, but denied for discriminatory reasons.

Though there is much work to be done to attract minorities to and propel them in the STEM disciplines, I believe the silver bullet is a conscious effort on behalf of all educators to provide passionate mentorship to prospective scientists.

By comparison, the scientific community has made progress but much change is needed before we will see the numbers improve to the extent that will have real impact. Racial bias lingers and differences in the day-to-day experiences of minority scientists persist. Stereotype threat continues to derail careers and compromise performance. Even the best mentors fail to realize the need to provide culturally competent guidance to ensure minority postdoctoral fellows who leave their labs start their careers with the same level of productivity as their white counterparts. These challenges are urgent and must be addressed sooner rather than later to maintain our country’s competitive positioning in the global community.”

To support your peers at UNC in STEM Fields, look to join or support:

  • BGPSA – UNC Black Graduate and Professional Student Association
  • FNGC – UNC First Nations Graduate Circle
  • IMSD – UNC Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity
  • MSC – UNC Minority Student Caucus
  • SACNAS – UNC Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics in Science
  • Stem Pride of the Triangle – Research Triangle STEM LGBTQ+ group
  • WINS – UNC Women in Science

Unsung Minority Heroes in STEM

To recognize the unsung minority heroes in STEM fields from the U.S. and around the world, below is a list of those heroes whose innovations and contributions have improved the world we live in. Most importantly, this list is to emphasize that everyone is capable of achieving greatness, if only given the opportunity. One characteristic to note about the unsung heroes is that, besides being successful citizens and scientists, a majority of them were also civil rights activists.

Notable Minority Women in STEM Fields

Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

  • Nita Ahuja – Indian surgeon; 1st female Surgeon in Chief at Yale
  • Lori Alvord – Native American surgeon
  • Farida Bedwei – Ghanian software engineer with cerebral palsy
  • Elizabeth Blackwell – English physician; 1st female Doctor of Medicine
  • Marie Curie – Polish physicist; 1st woman to win a Nobel Prize, 1st person to win two Nobel Prizes, and only woman to hold Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Physics and Chemistry)
  • Wanda Diaz Merced – Deaf Puerto Rican astronomer
  • Rosalind Franklin – English scientist; work led to elucidation of DNA structure
  • Temple Grandin – Autistic American animal behaviorist
  • Grace Hopper – American Naval Officer, mathematician, and computer scientist
  • Mae Carol Jemison – African-American engineer and astronaut; 1st female African-American astronaut
  • Katherine Johnson – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Hedy Lamarr – Austrian inventor; laid foundation for Bluetooth and GPS
  • Ada Lovelace – English mathematician; laid foundation for computer science
  • Jane Luu – Vietnamese-American astronomer; discovered and characterized the Kuiper Belt
  • Maryam Mirzakhani – Iranian mathematician; 1st woman and Iranian to win the Fields Medal
  • Florence Nightingale – English surse/statistician; laid foundation for the field of Nursing
  • Sally Ride – LGBTQ+ American astronaut; 1st American woman in space
  • Dorothy Vaughan – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Ada Yonath – Jewish-Israeli biochemist; pioneered the structure of the ribosome
  • Lydia Villa-Komaroff – Biochemist; 3rd Mexican-American woman in the US to receive her PhD in STEM

Notable Minority Men in STEM Fields

Carlos Juan Finlay



Peer edited by Nicole Smiddy and Gowri Natarajan.


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Next in the SWAC Science Communication Series: Inspiring Storytelling

Robin Smith, Science Writer, Duke University

Robin Smith, Science Writer, Duke University

We are thrilled to welcome Robin Smith as our speaker for the Writing Workshop: Inspiring Storytelling as part of the SWAC Science Communication Certificate Series for 2018. Robin will speak on April 17th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm at Marsico Hall 2004.

*Light refreshments will be served!

Registration Link:

As a reminder, you must attend 4/6 events to earn the certificate.

This year, we are putting a spin on our traditional blog writing workshop with a theme on
storytelling. Why is storytelling important in science communication? How does one tell a good story? How can we use our own stories and experiences to communicate science beyond traditional reporting? During this interactive workshop, participants will not only go over best writing practices, but learn how stories can play a big role in their own work, produce a story-based blog post, and have the option to publish on SWAC’s blog The Pipettepen!

Robin Smith was a researcher and writing teacher for more than ten years before joining the news office at Duke University. She has also written for the Raleigh News and Observer, the Charlotte Observer, and the blog column of Scientific American. Robin earned a PhD in biology in 2005. For more, visit

Our Expert Reviewers:

Alyssa LaFaro, Communications Specialist, UNC Research // Editor, Endeavors magazine

Alyssa LaFaro, Communications Specialist, UNC Research // Editor, Endeavors magazine

Alyssa LaFaro: On any given day, Alyssa LaFaro can be found photographing the effects of climate change, digging up long-lost information in the University Archives, or writing furiously in her Bynum Hall office. As the editor of Endeavors, UNC’s digital research magazine, she’s produced upwards of 50 multimedia stories on anything and everything including genetics, art history, nuclear physics, psychology, business, and health humanities, just to name a few. When she’s not behind a camera or a computer, she’s meeting regularly with communicators, students, and faculty from across campus to learn about the latest research projects and unlock new opportunities for collaboration.

Postdoctoral Research at NC State University College of Vetrinary Medicine in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences and Founder of Verve magazine

Greer Arthur, Postdoctoral Research at NC State University College of Vetrinary Medicine in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences and Founder of Verve magazine


Greer Arthur is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at NC State University. Outside the lab, she devotes her time to science communication. She has produced a magazine, Verve, for NC State graduate students and postdocs, a newsletter for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at NC State, and has recently taken over communications for the Comparative Medicine Institute at NC State. In addition, she has written for NC State and Duke University’s research blogs, and has also published freelance pieces in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine and The Lancet Neurology. During her PhD at the University of Leicester, UK, she acted as Publications Officer for the British Association of Lung Researchers and worked as an editorial intern for The Lancet in London.


Marla Broadfoot, Science Writer and Editor

Marla Broadfoot, Science Writer and Editor

Marla Broadfoot is a freelance science writer with a PhD in genetics and molecular biology. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at UNC, a contributing editor at American Scientist, and president of the Science Communicators of North Carolina. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Science, STAT News, Nature News, and Discover. She lives in Wendell, NC.



Special Summer Event! SWAC will host 1 event in the summer months that will count towards the required attendance. More details to come. If you are only one event short of earning the certificate, keep this in mind!


This workshop is sponsored by UNC Training Initiatives of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (TIBBS) and the Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF).

Graduate and Professional Student Federation

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CRISPR-edited Plants and Regulation

Pictured above are young tomato plants.  Some vegetable plants (such as corn and  sugar beets) are being genetically engineered to generate tastier and larger quantities of food

If you wanted to get a genetically modified organism (GMO) through the regulatory process, you can expect to dish out about $35.1 million and wait at least five and a half years. This doesn’t even include the money and time it takes to discover and develop a new crop. It’s no wonder then that the agricultural biotechnology industry was historically dominated by big agribusinesses that have had the resources and power to get over this regulatory hurdle. This is changing with the introduction of new techniques such as CRISPR that are cheaper to use and are starting to bypass expensive regulation.


Many criticize the existing regulatory process, which was last updated in 1992, as being unreasonable considering the nature of the new technologies that have emerged. The USDA recognizes this and released a statement just last week saying they will not regulate plants developed through genome editing. The responsibility of regulating crop biotechnology is shared between the EPA, FDA and USDA, although the EPA and FDA have not disclosed their stance on new methods of crop modification. The USDA ensures safety to grow a crop, the EPA ensures the environmental safety of crops, usually with pest-resistance genes, and the FDA ensures safety for crop consumption. The USDA explains in their press release that “methods, such as genome editing, expand traditional plant breeding tools because they can introduce new plant traits more quickly and precisely, potentially saving years or even decades in bringing needed new varieties to farmers”. Importantly, these new tools are “indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods” and therefore do not warrant regulation.

Image Credit: Amala John

The genome can be thought of like a Word document, where the sequence of letters can be edited to modify the meaning of the document to the reader

To understand the differences in these new technologies, imagine entering the genetic code of a plant into a word document like in the figure above. First generation genetic modification of crops in the 90s primarily involved making plants resistant to certain pests or herbicides. This would be analogous to copying DNA sequences from an organism like bacteria and pasting it randomly into your plants’ genome, which allows it to be immune to the effects of certain plant pests. These are the typical GMO corn and soy crops you might be familiar with. They are contentious and highly regulated since the random “pasting” process may disturb genes and they contain foreign DNA. Genome editing, on the other hand, allows us to search through our word document for a specific sequence, make an edit, and let spell-check take over from there. In a plant, we can cut a specific DNA sequence and allow the cells’ repair mechanism to fix the mistake, which is imperfect and normally disables that gene. This process is cleaner and more reliable compared to traditional breeding methods, which is why the USDA sees no need to regulate it. Both of these techniques are a huge step up from traditional breeding, which can involve random mutagenesis and introduction of undesirable genes, which have been shown to happen through the domestication process. Furthermore, newer techniques enable this whole process to be DNA-free, so there is no foreign DNA ever inserted into these edited plants. Critics point to the unintended biological consequences of both of these processes, which is possible but has not been shown to occur in the past 30 years.

Genome editing tools include Zinc-finger nucleases like TALEN, which has been used since the 90s, and CRISPR, which is only a few years old. CRISPR especially has made dramatic advancements in the past few years due to its thrift, ease of use and reliability. Academic labs and biotech start-ups have been developing crops using genome editing and therefore are bypassing costly regulation that they normally would not have been able to afford. Browning-resistant mushrooms, for example, were developed at Penn State and were the first CRISPR-edited crops given the go-ahead for commercialization. High-fiber wheat and high oleic soybeans are currently being developed by a startup called Calyxt using TALEN. These are just some of the crops on the horizon and there are many more that are expected to emerge in the next few years. If the U.S. government doesn’t develop guidelines for proper regulation of these biotech products, they won’t be able to handle the increased rate at which they’re currently being produced. Without unnecessary regulation slowing things down, the future of genome editing in crops looks promising; there is a greater emphasis on developing nutritional foods that consumers desire while also helping farmers grow more efficiently. However, just because these new technologies don’t fit under the current definition of a “GMO” for the government, they should still require some level of oversight appropriate for the technology. Genome editing is changing the landscape of agricultural biotechnology; hopefully, the regulation of these crops follows suit.

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore.

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Fun Facts About Cephalopods

Octopus are intelligent cephalopods capable of using tools, opening containers, and even play  Photo by: Elias Levy / Flickr

Class Cephalopoda is home to some of the most intelligent and mysterious critters in the sea. Including species of octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, cephalopods are a type of mollusk that have have lost their hard outer shells. Cephalopods get their name from the Greek word “kephalópoda” meaning “head-feet”, because their arms encircle their heads. Both squid and cuttlefish are known as ten-armed cephalopods because they have eight short arms and two long tentacles (as opposed to eight-armed cephalopods like octopuses).

You surely recognize the sly octopus and the charismatic cuttlefish, but how much do you really know about this class of invertebrates?

Check out these three fun facts:

Squid and cuttlefish may look similar, but don’t be fooled.

For a quick way to tell the two apart, watch them move underwater. Squid are fast-moving predators, where cuttlefish are slower and move by undulating long fins on the sides of their bodies. If that doesn’t work, check out their eyes: squid have round pupils, where cuttlefish pupils are W-shaped. And perhaps the easiest indicator of all? Squid have sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies, compared to the broader, stout body of the cuttlefish.

Large cuttlefish (from Komodo National Park), while they look similar to Squids, they actually have unique characteristics

Class Cephalopoda is home to one of the most venomous creatures on earth.

The blue-ringed octopus’ venom is 1,000 times more powerful than cyanide, and this golf-ball sized powerhouse packs enough venom to kill 26 humans within minutes. It produces a potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, a potentially deadly substance also found in pufferfish. The venom is produced by symbiotic bacteria in the animal’s salivary glands and is more toxic than that of any land mammals.

So, what happens if you’re bitten by a blue-ringed octopus? First, the venom blocks nerve signals throughout the body, causing muscle numbness. Ultimately, it will cause muscle paralysis—including the muscles needed for humans to breathe, leading to respiratory arrest. If you ever encounter this blue and yellow beauty, back away in a hurry—its bite is usually painless, so you might not know you’ve been bitten until it’s too late.

Octopuses are smarter than you think.

When we think of animal intelligence, it’s vertebrates like dolphins and chimps that get most of the credit. But make no mistake—the octopus holds its own in a battle of wits. Cephalopods have large, condensed brains that have sections entirely dedicated to learning, a trait that is unique among invertebrates. Octopuses’ brilliant problem-solving abilities have been documented time and time again; for example, the infamous Inky the Octopus who slipped through a gap in its tank in a New Zealand aquarium and slid down a 164-foot-long drainpipe into Hawke’s Bay. There’s also evidence octopuses have personalities, and react differently based on how shy, active or emotional they are.

There you have it! Now, go out and impress your friends with your knowledge of these quirky and intriguing invertebrates!

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Next in the SWAC Science Communication Series: Worlds Collide with Science and Art with Amanda Graham

Amanda Graham, Associate Director of Engagement, Carolina Performing Arts

Amanda Graham, Associate Director of Engagement at Carolina Performing Arts

We are thrilled to welcome Amanda Graham as our speaker for the Worlds Collide with Science and Art Seminar as part of the SWAC Science Communication Certificate Series for 2018. Amanda will speak on April 11th from 2:00 to 3:30 pm at Bondurant 2030.


*Light refreshments will be served!

As a reminder, you must attend 4/6 events to earn the certificate.

Some science stories are better told using art. Join us for a workshop showcasing the use of different types of art media to convey science to broad audiences.

Amanda Graham is the Associate Director of Engagement at Carolina Performing Arts. Previously, Amanda was a Visiting Assistant Professor in Media and Society at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Northwestern University. In 2014, Amanda graduated from the University of Rochester with her Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies. Her graduate research focused on the relationship between site-specific postmodern dance, urban planning, and architecture in 1970s New York City. Amanda has also worked as a public school art teacher, dramaturg, community organizer, and university gallery director. Her writing on performance has been featured in Art Journal, Dance ChronicleASAP/J, and in a number of curatorial catalogues.

This workshop is sponsored by UNC Training Initiatives of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (TIBBS) and the Graduate and Professional Student Federation (GPSF).

Graduate and Professional Student Federation


Writing Workshop: Inspiring Storytelling
Date: April 17th from 2-3:30 pm
Location: Marsico Hall 2004
Registration Link:
This year, we are putting a spin on our traditional blog writing workshop with a theme on
storytelling. Why is storytelling important in science communication? How does one tell a good story? How can we use our own stories and experiences to communicate science beyond traditional reporting? During this interactive workshop, participants will not only go over best writing practices, but learn how stories can play a big role in their own work, produce a story-based blog post, and have the option to publish on SWAC’s blog The Pipettepen!

New: Special Summer Event! SWAC will host 1 event in the summer months that will count towards the required attendance. More details to come. If you are only one event short of earning the certificate, keep this in mind!

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:

Stop Insulting Anglerfish Sex

A deep sea anglerfish called a goosefish and is a member of the Lophiidae family – Sladenia remiger.  Image Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, INDEX-SATAL 2010

You may have seen the anglerfish sex video floating around the Internet recently, with titles like “The worst sex in the world is anglerfish sex, and now there’s finally video.” While the video is worth a watch, I think most behavioral ecologist would beg to differ with the main assertion: there’s a lot of bad sex in the animal kingdom.

Why is anglerfish sex supposedly so terrible? A male anglerfish bites a females when he finds her, and then hangs onto her for the rest of his life, essentially turning into a living sac of sperm. But hey, at least he’s alive. In contrast, some species of male widow spiders somersault into the mouths of females as they mate, impaling themselves on their mates’ fangs. It sounds like an evolutionary enigma–why would an organism ever willingly sacrifice itself?–but turns out that that self-sacrifice can increase a male’s chances of fathering the female’s offspring.

The female bed bug (the larger of the two) is traumatically inseminated by the male (bottom) through her abdomen.

Traumatic insemination” is another great example of not-so-great sex. In this case, bed bug females are the ones getting royally screwed, because traumatic insemination is a nice way of saying males stabbing females through the abdomen with their penises. The sperm then travels through the female’s hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood), until reaching the ovaries and fertilizing the eggs. Males mate with all available females, because the last male to mate with any given female has the best chance of fathering her offspring. However, females who are subjected to these multiple matings pay a high cost: they have shortened lives and reduced reproductive output, because they have to allocate energy to healing the wounds and dealing with any resulting infections.

People often assume that two organisms mating with one another have the same “goals.” After all, both males and females are presumably invested in having as many healthy offspring as possible. But this is only true up to a certain point. Female widow spiders don’t need males to remain alive after mating, and in fact gain an advantage from eating the male (a ready source of nutrients that will help her with her next clutch!). In contrast, male widow spiders obviously benefit from not being eaten, and instead living to mate another day. Similarly, mating multiple times via traumatic insemination is costly to female bed bugs, who only need enough sperm to fertilize their eggs, while male bedbugs benefit from mating as many times as possible.

These are examples of what biologists call sexual conflict. While the source of conflict is obvious in the widow spiders’ and bed bugs’ cases, sexual conflict occurs anytime male and female genetic interests don’t align. In fact, the only time there is absolutely no potential for conflict is when males and females have exactly the same lifetime reproduction, so that each is equally invested in all of their shared offspring, with no opportunities for having offspring with other partners. In contrast, conflict can arise whenever one sex has the opportunity to improve their chances of having more, or better, offspring. This can happen in many different ways, such as: eating your partner, mating multiple times with the same partner, or even mating with multiple partners.

As a result, sexual conflict isn’t likely in anglerfish, at least those species which only have one mate for their entire lives. Although there are genera of anglerfish where females can have up to 8 males hanging off of her! So there’s potential for sexual conflict there, since the males will presumably compete to father her offspring and could do so in ways that are harmful to the female. However, anglerfish are incredibly hard to study because they generally occur in the deep sea. Frankly, male anglerfish have way more going for them than you might’ve ever thought–keep that in mind next time someone’s making fun of them.


Peer edited by Karen Setty.

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Rural Internet Access and Diversity in STEM

As you can see, white men have typically dominated physics research. Dr. Chien-shiung Wu (1912-1997), professor of physics at Columbia University, with “Dr. Brode”

It is no secret that many STEM fields, especially physics and engineering, suffer from a lack of equal representation by race, ethnicity, and gender. Approximately 75% of all physics degrees go to white scientists, and 80% of those degrees to go men. While much of the work in inclusivity in STEM has focused (for good reason) on women and racial/ethnic minorities, there is also an underrepresentation of scientists from rural geographic locations. A common problem contributing to the lack of diversity in science is the lack of diverse role models and representations of scientists in the media. Other factors involve the complex intersection of socioeconomic status and access to resources like textbooks, science equipment, and high-speed internet. Because the internet is both an avenue for information transfer and a platform for seeing diverse role models, the importance of internet access cannot be overemphasized in its impact on fostering inclusivity in STEM. Resting at the crux of the diversity in STEM problem and lack of internet access is rural America. In an effort to make science accessible to geographically diverse populations and thereby attract as many talented students as possible, scientists should advocate for wide-spread, affordable, high-speed internet access for all.

Diversity produces better science

While the diversity buzzword has generated a lot of press recently, many in the science community and beyond still roll their eyes at diversity efforts and question the utility of programs aimed at increasing diversity in STEM merely for diversity’s sake. But, it turns out that including diverse perspectives actually makes you do better science: diversity improves problem solving, makes your papers more likely to be cited, makes you prepare stronger arguments, and prevents groupthink. With so much evidence that diversity is good for science, it is unequivocally in our best interest to foster inclusive environments and make science accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. But, to make science accessible, we must first make internet accessible.

Internet’s Critical Role

Over the past decade, the internet has quickly morphed into an absolute necessity for modern living. Bills are posted and paid online. Retail is moving online. Even brick-and-mortar stores now use internet services to process credit card payments or digitally cash checks. And of course, the internet has become the main avenue for information transfer. Schools post assignments online and online information repositories have replaced physical textbooks in many schools. Science news is largely disseminated via Facebook, Twitter, online radio streaming, online journals, podcasts, and Youtube. Google is an invaluable tool for the student of science at any education level. Scientific journals necessary for professional science are increasingly moving from print to online formats.

Social media connects scientists around the world.

In addition to being essential for learning science, the internet is also a crucial tool for finding diverse representations of scientists. Diverse representation of scientists is vital because when it comes to role models, seeing is believing. Growing up without internet access and only local tv programming, the only scientists I could name were Albert Einstein and Bill Nye the Science Guy. With the advent of social media, users now have access to online communities like the National Society of Hispanic Physicists and the #BlackinSTEM community. For students without ready access to online media, their access to scientific role models and science resources will be severely restricted. This may be a contributing factor to the underrepresentation in STEM of students from rural areas where high-speed internet is unavailable.


High-speed internet unavailable in many rural areas

In 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined broadband internet as 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. According to that same report, roughly 10% of Americans lack access to those speeds. Of the 10% lacking access, 70% live in rural areas. Put in the context of the total population of rural Americans, this means that about one-fourth of all rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. Further, this report merely addresses the availability of high-speed internet without taking into account the prohibitive costs for many consumers. The true accessibility of high-speed internet depends not only on having the infrastructure in place, but also on imposing regulatory pricing so that high-speed internet is affordable everywhere.

Map of the U.S. showing broadband internet access by county

The reason high-speed internet is unavailable in so much of rural America is simply because it is not cost-effective for the internet service providers to install the infrastructure in areas with low population densities. Even in well-established cities, you don’t have to go very far to find that internet availability has suddenly disappeared. At my apartment in Carrboro, I can access up to 400 Mbps internet services. (Again, whether or not anyone could ever afford to pay for 400 Mbps is another story.) Just 12 miles away, outside the city limits of Hillsborough, my father has access to only 3 Mbps speeds no matter how much he is willing to pay. With speeds this slow, video streaming is impossible and even surfing the web quickly becomes frustrating or impossible. Certainly areas which lack high-speed internet access have a significant handicap in the dissemination of science information, resources, and models.

Internet access and geographic diversity in STEM

While there are probably many reasons factoring into the lack of geographic diversity in STEM, one of them is not that students from rural areas are inadequately prepared for STEM classes at the collegiate level. According a 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Education, students in rural areas performed as well as or slightly better on standardized math and science tests as compared to their peers in urban and suburban areas in grades 4, 8, and 12 (pgs 50 and 54 of that report). However, at the college level, rural students are severely underrepresented in STEM fields, and this under-representation may have grown worse in recent years. This implies that science is suffering by not attracting talented students from diverse geographic locations.

One of the barriers preventing rural students from entering STEM fields is the lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas. Because the internet is not being treated as a utility, there is currently no federal mandate that high-speed internet access be made available nationwide. Further, internet is not subject to the same federal ratemaking regulations as are electricity and natural gas to prevent providers from suddenly introducing huge rate hikes. Some companies such as Microsoft have publicized long-term plans to implement the infrastructure needed to make high-speed internet available in rural areas, but progress is difficult to see. Until then, some rural communities have taken matters into their own hands and are building their own community broadband networks. This progress is slow and relies on individual communities having the resources to individually finance their internet infrastructure installation. If we really want to increase access to science and foster diversity in science, scientists should turn some attention to making high-speed internet accessible and affordable for all. 

Peer edited by Jon Meyers and Sara Musetti.

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Honey Bees: Conservation Icon or Environmental Problem?

Bzzzzztt! Oh, sorry. That was just the sound of another honey bee dying. Seriously though, honey bee populations are crashing all over the world – we’ve lost nearly 60% of honey bee colonies since the 1970s. But there’s good news! Honey bees might be on the verge of making a comeback. Numerous conservation agencies and local businesses are making hard attempts to increase the number of honey bee colonies in all sorts of places – Barack Obama even launched a special task force in 2014! So, with all these good bee-vibes, why did one prominent bee researcher write a perspective article in Science poo-pooing the spread of honey bees as conservation icon? Let’s break it down.

Apis mellifera, the European honey bee and maybe your best friend?

Get to the point. What’s the problem?

Sure, right away. As mentioned above, honey bees are vanishing at an alarming rate. Much of this phenomenon is associated with something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). One day, all the bees are happy and making honey, then the next the workers have suddenly vanished and abandoned their queen and hive. In a frustrating turn of events, nobody knows quite what is causing CCD. Many experts believe CCD is attributed to a variety of factors: increased use of pesticides, a virus-harboring parasite, poor nutrition, climate change, and even cell phones (OK, you caught me: that last one isn’t widely supported). At this point, about 40-50% of established hives don’t survive to the next year – a significant change from decades past. If this worrisome trend continues, honey bee populations could plummet with a cascade of consequences.

Do honey bees really matter, though? I hardly eat honey.

Great rhetorical question (and also, what’s wrong with you?)! Honey bees are indispensable to our nation’s agriculture. While several staples of American agriculture such as wheat and corn are wind-pollinated, many others need help from other organisms to spread their pollen from one flower to the next. In fact, honey bees are essential for the pollination and production of a huge variety of crops such as apples, cantaloupes, almonds, and avocados. Honey bee-pollinated foods contribute more than 15 billion dollars to the US agricultural economy and their continued decline could increase consumer costs of these foods to ten times their current price.  

Honey bee products also make up their own economy. Honey produced by American beekeepers is a 300-million-dollar industry, while hive by-products such as beeswax, have niche markets as well (who here hasn’t heard of Burt’s Bees?).

Honeybees play an essential role in the reproductive cycle for many flowers and plants that produce our food

The benefits of managed hives aren’t limited to large scale commercial farmers or beekeepers. Many people report that keeping bees improves the health and vibrancy of their own gardens. Consuming locally-produced honey might (emphasis on might) also help with allergies, attuning your body to the pollens it’ll be lambasted with in spring and fall. Local hives also present a fantastic opportunity to teach lessons about biology to students of any age – did you know honey bees are actually the only domesticated superorganism? (Don’t know what a superorganism, is? Look here. See, learning opportunity!)

Ok, so what’s up with this anti-honeybee article? Is the guy just a jerk?

Dr. Jonas Geldmann is actually a renowned conservation researcher at the University of Cambridge, and probably a great guy! His recent perspectives article in Science highlights a growing concern among environmental conservationists. While honey bees are fascinating and powerful machines of agriculture, high densities of managed hives also present an environmental quandary. A growing body of research suggests that domesticated honey bees, with up to 60,000 bees in a hive, may be harmful to their wild, native neighbors. Honey bee hives require huge amounts of nectar and pollen to stay healthy and produce honey, potentially placing them in direct competition with native pollinations for food. Additionally, honey bee hives can become incubators for parasites and pathogens that can be directly transmitted to other bee and insect species, impacting their health and fertility. While the jury’s still out, the accumulating evidence suggests that introducing honey bee hives can measurably reduce local populations of native bee species, which can have negative impacts on the local environment.

Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is native to North Carolina

Native pollinators, which include thousands of distinct bee species as well as butterflies, moths, bats, flies, ants, and birds, are also capable of performing a significant portion of the pollination needs of both agricultural and non-agricultural plants. In many cases, native plant species have uniquely adapted to be efficiently pollinated by their native pollinators. A beautiful example of this is the flowering azaleas, which bloom in the early spring. Unlike many flowering plants, azalea pollen is hidden deep inside their flowers – where only native bees know to look.­­­­­ North Carolina is home to several native species of deciduous azaleas, none of which can be pollinated by domesticated honey bees. Similarly, crop plants such as squash, alfalfa, and blueberries all have native bee species that are significantly more efficient at fulfilling their pollination needs than their domesticated relatives.

Unfortunately, many native pollinators are experiencing serious population declines similar to the honey bee. For evidence, we only have to look back at the agriculture industry. In the past, native pollinators were the sole source of pollination for many of the food crops that are now completely reliant on managed honey bee hives. While the honey bee has done a fantastic job of keeping these foods from vanishing off our shelves, it won’t be able to maintain the diversity of our nations flora alone. It is imperative that we keep our native pollinators in mind when discussing conservation efforts and adopt policies that promote the health and wellbeing of both native and domesticated bee species.

What can you do?

Fear not, for all is far from lost! Helping out is simple! Native and domesticated species of bee both struggle with some of the same issues: a lack of resources (nectar and pollen) and exposure to pesticides. When buying plants for your own garden, look for native species that produce plenty of nectar and pollen (also known as bee-food!) and ensure that they are pesticide free. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, contact your local beekeepers association or honey bee researcher – they will often have resources available such as this one from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. While tending your garden, try to avoid using pesticides and only use natural, bee-friendly ones if you must – many local garden supply stores will carry such products. There are also ways to help if you aren’t an avid gardener! In an ideal world, we’d all buy locally-sourced, pesticide-free produce (which you can do! Talk to growers at your local farmers market about their practices), but that process can be a bit daunting. While imperfect, USDA certified organic foods are grown using naturally-sourced pesticides (like raw copper or sulphur), which likely aren’t as toxic to local pollinators. By sticking to these practices, anyone can promote the health of native pollinators and honey bees, alike.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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Diet Soda: Providing Insight into a Rare Metabolic Disorder

Diet Coke is advertised as a sugar free alternative to regular Coke Cola, using aspartame as a sweeteners

Have you ever read the Nutrition Facts on a diet soda or sugar-free gum? If so, you might have noticed a bolded sentence that reads: PHENYLKETONURICS: CONTAINS PHENYLALANINE. In the U.S., this sentence is present on every commercially available medicine, food, or beverage that contains the artificial sweetener aspartame. Often, this warning goes unnoticed, partly because it is nestled quietly at the foot of the list of ingredients and partly because it only applies to 1 in every 10,000 individuals in the United States. Nevertheless, this subtle message is essential for this subset of consumers.


Typical nutrition facts label for a product that contains phenylanaline

Phenylketonuria  (Phe·nyl·ke·ton·uria)

Those people are “Phenylketonurics,” or people with a rare metabolic disorder called Phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a genetic disorder that results in the inability to convert the amino acid phenylalanine (Phe) into the amino acid tyrosine (Tyr), both essential amino acids that are found in most protein. Phe’s most important biological function is its role as a precursor to Tyr, which is involved in many processes such as the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Without the ability to convert Phe to Tyr, there is less Tyr available for the synthesis of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (all important neurotransmitters) and Phe can accumulate in the brain, resulting in local metabolic dysfunction. PKU can result in severe developmental complications and mental retardation if left untreated. Fortunately, PKU can be successfully managed by abiding by a strict low-protein diet, avoiding foods that contain sources of phenylalanine such as meats, fish, dairy, and nuts.

Now, you might ask, “How does PKU have anything to do with the Nutrition Facts on my Diet Coke?” Good question. The answer lies in the chemical structure of the aforementioned artificial sweetener, aspartame.

Image Credit: Blaide Woodburn

Aspartame, an artifical sweetener in Diet Colas, is broken down into phenylalanine, methanol, and aspartate

Aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, is a dipeptide that contains the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Aspartame is rapidly hydrolyzed (i.e. split in two by water) into its respective amino acids in the small intestine, serving as a source of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Thus, it is important to communicate the presence of aspartame in all artificially sweetened products, especially since the products that usually contain aspartame (soft drinks, candies, etc.) are not typical sources of phenylalanine.

Yet, nutrition labels aren’t just important for Phenylketonurics. With the increased incidence of heart disease, it’s more important now than ever to understand the nutritional value of the foods you’re eating. But, do not fear! Stay up to date on some of my upcoming articles for The Pipettepen and Nutrition at UNC and Translational Science where I’ll outline the basics for healthy eating and overall wellness!

Peer edited by Amanda Tapia.

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