Improbable Science: The Ig® Nobel Prize

https://www.improbable.com/ig/ (Permission granted by Marc Abrahams - editer and founder of Ig Nobel Prizes)

“The Stinker”: The official mascot of the Ig Nobel Prizes

When you think of scientific research that is worthy of international recognition, 10 trillion dollars, and a prize handed out by Nobel laureates, you are probably envisioning high-impact research that helped revolutionize its field. Unfortunately, the international recognition is not for the right reasons, the 10 trillion dollars is from Zimbabwe and is worth roughly 30 US dollars, and the Nobel laureates might be laughing as they hand out the prizes. The Ig® Nobel Prize is awarded annually to ten different people in ten different categories. The prize is intended to honor achievements in scientific research that first make people laugh, and then make them think.

Started in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, the Ig® Nobel Prizes are awarded every September at Harvard University. The winners are kept secret until the ceremony, where 1200 spectators cheer on the recipients for their discoveries. Looking back at previous winners can help one get a sense of what kind of research fits the criteria for this prize. The 2017 Ig® Nobel Prize in Medicine focused on using brain-scanning technology (fMRI) to measure how disgusted people are by cheese, while the 2015 Mathematics prize was awarded for mathematically determining whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, an emperor who reigned Morocco from 1697 to 1727, was able to father 888 children. My personal favorite was the 2005 Chemistry Prize, which attempted to settle the debate of whether people can swim faster in syrup or in water. For more laughs, check out previous winners!

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A live frog levitates in a magnetic field (2000 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics)

With 2017 behind us, we can all look forward to the announcement of the 2018 winners later this year. The event is broadcast live on the internet, with additional coverage provided by NPR’s Science Friday. If you believe your research is worthy of an Ig® Nobel (hopefully it isn’t!), you can send nominations to marc@improbable.com (10-20% of the 9000 nominations every year come from self-nominations). If you happen to be nominated, you will be invited to attend the ceremony, but at your own expense! Don’t feel too self-conscious if you find yourself in this scenario. You can take comfort in knowing that Sir Andre Geim, the winner of the 2000 Physics Ig® Nobel (which he won for using magnets to levitate a frog), also won the Nobel Prize in 2010. Regardless of who wins, it is fun to follow the motto of the Ig® Nobels’, “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people’s interest in science.”

Peer edited by Bailey DeBarmore.

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Can We Make Tastier Tomatoes?

They can be eaten raw, made into countless stews and sauces, and add a tasty addition to nearly any dish. Tomatoes are practically indispensable in any modern kitchen and are one the highest monetary valued fruits. However, they were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.

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Tomatoes were not always the big and meaty fruit we know today.

Throughout history, humans have domesticated and improved plants, selectively breeding them till they bear little resemblance to their wild counterparts. Wild tomatoes are thought to have arisen from the Andean region of South America and were small, resembling cherry tomatoes. In fact, cherry tomatoes are thought to be the ancestor of the larger varieties. Conquistadors then brought tomatoes from South America to Europe in the sixteenth century, and the continued migration and selective breeding has massively changed tomato genetics. Some of these changes are responsible for tomatoes that are ~100 times larger than their ancestors, while others have produced the unique pink coloration of tomatoes popular in China and Japan. However, much less is known on how the tomato metabolome, or its collection of small molecules (metabolites) such as amino acids, vitamins, and sugars, has changed throughout domestication and later improvement of the fruit.

The metabolites in tomatoes not only affect their development but also play key roles in human health and are responsible for their nutrition and taste. Today, the breeding of tomatoes has largely focused on increasing shelf life, yield, and disease resistance. Yet these changes may sometimes have negative impacts on the quality of tomatoes. Understanding how the metabolites in modern tomatoes has changed through selective breeding will help us to understand how best to breed and design tomatoes in the future to maximize their nutrition and taste. In a recent study, Guangtao Zhu et al. identified the metabolites in a variety of tomato samples spanning the domestication and improvement stages in the species. Interestingly, the greatest amount of change in metabolites happened not during domestication but during the later improvement stage.

A notable change during the development of the modern tomato is the selection against steroidal glycoalkaloid (SGA), responsible for the bitter taste in early tomatoes and common in the nightshade family of plants to which it belongs. Presumably, humans selected this without any knowledge of SGAs, instead breeding tomatoes that were less bitter than others. In addition to SGAs, other metabolites in modern tomatoes are very different from their ancestors. The authors also explored why the pink tomatoes popular in Asian countries are considered so much more flavorful from their red counterparts. The peel of red tomatoes contain a compound called naringenin chalcone that gives a yellow-hue to the peels, and the absence of this compound in pink tomatoes results in their pink coloring. Yet, why pink tomatoes are considered more delicious is unknown. This paper identified many metabolites that are different between red and pink tomatoes. This finding will lay the foundation for further studies to determine which of these metabolites give pink tomatoes their unique, sweet taste and that may be incorporated into red tomatoes to make them more flavorful.

One question in the design of modern tomatoes is whether we can design equally large tomatoes that are both more flavorful and nutritious. This paper suggests that through metabolomic changes in the tomato we can. The authors propose that the changes in metabolites were likely not due directly to the genes responsible for fruit weight that produced larger tomatoes, but rather genes that were “linked” to these fruit weight genes. Essentially these genes hitched a ride with the fruit weight genes to be passed on unintentionally. Nowadays, we have the capabilities of making more precise changes in DNA and ensuring that only the genes of interest are changed and not related genes or “linked” genes. Using these modern genetic approaches, such as Crispr-Cas, we can now increase the nutritional value and improve taste in tomatoes while avoiding the “linked” genes that likely brought about some negative changes in the modern tomato. So yes, we may be eating bigger, tastier, and healthier tomatoes in the future!

Peer edited by Laetitia Meyrueix.

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Cinnamon, Bam!

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:001-Cinnamon.jpg Photo Credit: https://www.kjokkenutstyr.net/

Many of us associate the holiday seasons with the smells of cinnamon.

Well the holiday season is upon us. Our calendars and days are now filled with shopping, travel, and social gatherings with friends, family, and loved ones. As the temperature outside turns cold, we turn to many of our favorite treats to fill our bellies and help keep us warm. Our mouths water as we think about all of the delectable items that line our kitchens and tables. I can picture it now… a warm fire keeping the room nice and toasty, glass of wine in hand, friends and relatives conversing and catching up and of course, avoiding awkward conversations with Uncle Gary. All while hovering around various piles of unknown cheeses, meats, and delicious stacks of sweets. And If you’re lucky, you may even find a warm, sticky stack of homemade cinnamon buns. As it turns out, these may be just the thing to reach for to help burn off some of that unwanted extra “padding” that comes with all of those holiday favorites.

What’s that you say? Cinnamon buns burn fat? Well before you go eating the whole tray, it’s not really the cinnamon buns themselves that may help burn fat, but the cinnamon for which they are named. It tastes great, you can use it in all sorts of dishes, and it accelerates fat loss. I’m a fan of all of those things. Now, you probably find yourself asking, where can I learn more about this awesome spice? Well, look no further my friend, I am about to lay enough cinnamon-spiced knowledge on you to guarantee that you can bore your friends and family to tears with your cinnamon information stream at your holiday gathering. You’ll be less popular than Uncle Gary.

Cinnamon contains a compound known as cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in the bark of cinnamon trees that gives cinnamon both its characteristic flavor and odor. A recent study shows that cinnamaldehyde can even help burn fat by increasing metabolism and your body’s ability to breakdown fat! I know, it’s pretty magical. Now before you go running around stabbing cinnamon trees with a spout, there’s a few things you should know. Primarily that you have to fly to Sri Lanka, which is expensive but totally worth it since it’s a beautiful tropical island in the Indian Ocean. And you can even stay at a place called Cinnamon Bey, which looks like this picture I found of it on the interweb. Pretty sweet, huh? (See what I did there!)

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Sri Lanka is located off the southeast coast of India.

Anyway, the purest source of cinnamon-derived cinnamaldehyde is the Ceylon Cinnamon tree (say that several times fast while jamming a sticky bun in your face!). Also known as, the “True” Cinnamon tree, which is named after the historical moniker of its native country, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The country still produces and exports up to 90% of the world’s true cinnamon. The other 10% comes from Seychelle and Madagascar, which are equally far and equally awesome as travel destinations. However, there are six species of cinnamon sold commercially around the world. So If you prefer the regular stuff found cheaply at most grocery stores, then you will have to head to China or Southeast Asia for the most common variant, cassia, which is considered to be less, um, “Top-Shelf”.

The cassia variant is cultivated on a larger scale and is coarser than ceylon cinnamon. It also has a higher oil content and contains more cinnamaldehyde, which gives it a harsher, stronger, spicier flavor than Ceylon cinnamon. Huh? Wait, you thought more cinnamaldehyde might equal more fat loss? You are correct my friend, but before you book that ticket to Guangdong and attempt the cinnamon challenge for the thirtieth time, you should know that the Cassia variety also contains coumarin, which is not found in the Ceylon variety. Coumarin is a naturally occurring blood thinner that can cause damage to the liver in high doses. So, take your pick, though if you really want that good, pure cinnamaldehyde, the “True” kind, then you better hustle it to Sri Lanka.

However, getting there is only part of the story. Isolating cinnamaldehyde from the bark of the Cinnamon tree is a slightly tricky process that involves some rather unsavory chemicals, the potential of explosions, and a few fancy science machines (namely a mass spectrometer) for pulling the oil out of the bark, to leave you with that tasty, cinnamoney goodness. What? You thought you could just grab a tree and squeeze really hard? No, no, no. That might work for your lemongrasses, aloes and coconuts, but not cinnamon.

Actually, I’m guessing from your weird tree-squeezing thoughts that you take Cinnamon for granted. I mean…your cinnamon disrespect is understandable, since you can buy it pretty much everywhere and it’s almost as prolific as pumpkin spice, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, until recently true cinnamon was extremely rare, since there were no planes or cars…or Amazon, well the internet really…and it only came from one relatively small island in the Indian Ocean. As such, until the 1500’s cinnamon was highly valued and was given to kings and as tribute to gods. Eventually, during the colonial period, the East India Company (the original Amazon) began distributing the spice to the rest of the world and cultivating it on a large scale.

So, cinnamon has been around forever, you say, since remote antiquity and what-not. Great. But what about this cinnamon burns fat thing? First off, settle down. We have arrived, so here’s the details. A recent study from Jun Wu at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute showed that cinnamaldehyde increases thermogenesis, which is the process the body uses to create heat. Thermogenesis can burn a lot of calories and accelerate metabolism, and that results in the breakdown of fat. In addition, cinnamaldehyde can decrease and stabilize fasting blood sugar. What’s even more interesting is that chronic treatment with cinnamaldehyde can reprogram your body’s metabolism, which may serve as protection from diet induced obesity.

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Cinnamon is used in a variety of holiday treats including cinnamon rolls and apple pies.

So, cinnamon can burn fat and protect you from gaining it back! Now that is a magical spice. Well, there you go. I’m pretty sure that should be just enough information to cause awkward emotional discomfort to those within ear shot at your holiday festivities. Your shining personality may keep you from being the next Uncle Gary, but at least your cinnamon tales will have him running for the eggnog, which contains cinnamon. Bam! Take that Uncle Gary. No one cares about the length of your ear hair!

And while you’re enjoying your holidays, eating those cinnamon packed delicacies, remember the reason for the season! Be good to each other and have some fun, safe, and cinnamon filled holidays! Cheers!

 

Peer edited by David Abraham.

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Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? Shrink Your Plastic Footprint!

Plastics are nearly unavoidable. From the plastic bottle of water you grab walking into a meeting to the money in your wallet, plastics are ubiquitous. However, evidence is accumulating that heavy plastic use takes a hefty toll on the environment, especially the world’s oceans, which are the repository of nearly 4.8-12.7 million tons of plastic each year (about five bags of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world). Much of this marine plastic comes from litter that washes down storm drains into the oceans, but it can also be blown from landfills to end up in the ocean. Marine wildlife including fish, birds, seals, turtles and whales consume startling amounts of plastics, not only because these plastics look like dinner but because they often smell like it too. Dangers of plastics to marine animals include entanglement and intestinal perforation or blockage which can cause nutrient starvation—marine animals starving on a stomach stuffed with plastic. Researchers estimate that 90% of sea birds and half of all sea turtles have consumed plastics.

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Millions of tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year.

More recently, the alarm has been raised about microplastics, small plastics and plastic fibers less than 5 mm in size. Microplastics can come from the degradation of larger plastics and from washing clothing containing synthetic fibers. Microplastics act like magnets for chemicals the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls “Persistent Bioaccumulative and Toxic Substances” (PBTs). PBTs build up in the bodies of marine organisms and can harm us when we consume seafood. Though other potential dangers of microplastics to the environment are not clear yet, it has been shown that the decomposition of plastics can release toxic chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA),  a chemical which disrupts hormone balances and may be linked to human health concerns including diabetes, behavioral disorders like ADHD, and cancer. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have shown that some of the same adverse health effects occur in fish exposed to BPA, indicating a risk to marine food chains and ecosystems.  It is clear that we do not yet know the full impact of plastics in our oceans—but that the dumping of plastic waste into marine ecosystems is not without consequences.

Although some solutions to the plastic crisis have been floated (excuse the pun) including giant plastic-collecting booms which collect large plastic debris in the ocean and plastic-munching bacteria, these approaches are only beginning to be implemented and have limitations. This is where we come in — preventing more plastics from getting into the ocean is an important first step. Simply recycling our plastics may not be enough: one professor of economics cites plastics as one of the least valuable recyclable items due to the high energy and resource costs of processing them. As a result, it is imperative to focus on reducing, rather than recycling plastics.

Here are 100 ways to reduce your plastic use, ranging from reusable coffee cups to making your own deodorant to avoid the use of plastic packaging—an idea that doesn’t stink. Another way to track your plastic use is to accept the Plastic-Free Challenge—a social media challenge that lets you share your commitment to reducing your plastic footprint with all your followers. A good way to get started is to keep track of how much plastic you use and strive to reduce this amount every week. If you want to think bigger than your own plastic footprint, you can call your representatives about measures like plastic bag bans in your city and about funding research for equipping water treatment facilities to deal with microplastic-contaminated effluent. This year, I’ll be making it my New Year’s resolution to reduce my plastic consumption: a small change in habits that can add up. Let’s face it, I was never going to make it to the gym, anyway.

Peer edited by Erica Wood.

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Is the GRE a Waste of Money?

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Is the GRE really worth it? Some students are starting think it’s not.

Graduate schools generally utilize previous transcripts, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, personal statements from applicants, and letters of recommendation in order to assess whether candidates are suitably prepared for success in graduate school. However, how much do any of these individual components contribute to the success of a student in graduate school? Multiple published articles argue that there are no methods to precisely measure the success of graduate students, however that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. In a recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers tackled this question by characterizing success in graduate school as the number of published first-author articles. They then compared this to more traditional parameters that are normally used to determine if students are prepared for graduate school. Students’ grades, GRE scores, and even impressions from admissions interviews with faculty members were each examined and found to have no correlation to success in graduate school. In fact the only predictive indicator of success was found to be letters of recommendation that stated that the student were among the top tier of students.

Although this study was only recently published and has yet to have significant impact on graduate student applications, it is hardly the first study of its kind. A researcher at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) utilized data collected from students over the course of a twenty-year period and found that grades and GRE scores were not predictive of the success of students. This UCSF study found that the only indicators of success were whether or not the students had completed a full two years of research prior to graduate school and the subject-specific GRE.

 

Another study conducted at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee essentially found that the only thing that the GRE predicts is the first semester GPA of graduate students. All other markers of success such as passage of qualifying examinations, time to defense, successful completion of a Ph.D., and the likelihood of first-author publications did not correlate with GRE scores. In fact, when the GRE was originally assessed for its ability to predict success of students, the only measurement utilized was to compare GRE scores to the GPA of graduate students.

Image by Lindsay Walton

GRE scores are a better indicator of Race and Gender than of success in Graduate School

So, if the GRE doesn’t predict success in school, what does it actually indicate? Many are questioning the utility of the GRE as a measure that is useful in selecting students. Multiple basic scientists have spoken out against the usefulness of the GRE, and have cited studies that indicate that the GRE is a better predictor of both sex and race than it is an indicator of success in graduate school. As one researcher put it, “The GRE is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?” For example, some minorities, such as black students typically score 200 points below their white counterparts in spite of being successfully prepared for graduate school. Graduate school is typically a white-predominated educational platform. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students represent approximately 64% of the total graduate student population. By continuing to require students to submit GRE scores, schools are eliminating underrepresented minorities as potentially successful candidates, when instead they should be creating additional opportunities to prepare minorities to succeed in graduate school.

 

Most directors of biomedical graduate programs are actually basic scientists. They understand that educational practices should be evidence-based. However, in spite of all this compelling data, few institutions are actually eliminating requirements for extraneous examinations such as the GRE, transcripts, and other requirements. In fact, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University researchers, who published the articles on GRE scores not being a predictor of graduate school success, are involved in the admissions process of biomedical programs at their institutions. Nonetheless, these programs still require submission of GRE scores, transcripts, and statements of purpose in spite of the fact that none of these application materials indicated who would thrive in graduate school. So the only question remains: If scientists won’t follow their own advice, how will academic admissions advance in the future?

Update: The author has been contacted by the UNC BBSP admissions office and told that while admissions for the 2018-2019 still requires submission of GRE scores, the admissions committee for the program has been instructed to ignore GRE scores in their consideration of applicants for the upcoming year. Currently the UNC Graduate School requires all programs to request GRE score submission prior to admission. In the future, the UNC BBSP program plans to review the success of the admission process while ignoring the GRE scores and then consider petitioning the UNC Graduate School in order to drop the requirement. 

One of the authors of the UNC paper, and a member of the UNC BBSP team, Dr. Joshua Hall, maintains an active twitter presence and can be found at @jdhallphd. Dr. Hall keeps an active list on his twitter of all the programs that have either dropped or plan to drop the GRE from their admissions process for those interested.

Peer edited by Sam Honeycutt and Kelsey Miller.

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The Science Behind Why You Love or Hate Scary Movies

In anticipation of Halloween, October is a month full of spooky festivities including scary movies. Gathering a group of friends to watch a horror movie is a fun holiday activity, but finding a movie that appeals to a broad range of people can be challenging.  After I watched The Taking of Deborah Logan with some friends, we were evenly split on the number of people who found the movie enjoyable or traumatizing. This made me wonder: why do some people love to be scared, while others hate it?

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Carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity among viewers.

Fortunately, scientists have investigated how watching movies affects our brains. There is even a name for this branch of studies: neurocinema. In these studies, viewers watch movies while being monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Unlike traditional MRI, which generates anatomical images, fMRI measures activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scientists can use fMRI to study brain activity changes in response to watching a movie because blood flow increases when neurons are activated. In a study by Hasson et al. the authors demonstrated that, compared to unstructured recordings, carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity and eye movement among a variety of viewers. However, horror movies are often carefully planned to shock and terrify so there must be more to people’s preferences than brain activity patterns.

There are multiple theories about why some people enjoy being scared more than others. Some theories suggest the individual differences may be attributed to brain chemistry. For example, fear-seekers may be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the flight-or-fight response. A similar, sensation-seeking theory suggests that scary movie enthusiasts enjoy the feelings of heightened stimulation.

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Scary movie scenes, common in Halloween movies, can help sensation-seekers compensate for hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation.

To test the sensation-seeking theory, in a study performed by Straube et al., people answered a questionnaire to determine their level of sensation-seeking and then watched scary and neutral scenes from horror movies while being monitored by fMRI. Interestingly, sensation-seekers, or people with high sensation-seeking scores, had lower brain activation while watching neutral scenes. However, sensation seekers had higher brain activity while watching scary scenes than non-sensation seekers. This suggests that sensation-seekers might experience hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation, such as neutral movie scenes and compensate by seeking more intense stimulation with scary scenes.

So, if you find yourself cringing in horror at the movie selections this Halloween, blame your brain. The good news is there are plenty of light-hearted Halloween options. I personally recommend Young Frankenstein.

Peer edited by Breanna Turman.

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Like It or Not, Your Internet Trail is Inevitable

I love online shopping. On the Internet I can ponder over one pair of shoes a thousand times without any store clerk getting impatient. For that my mom isn’t quite comfortable with. She warns me about hackers stealing my identity from giving out my name, phone number, or home address. I always laugh at her paranoid personality and then brush it off. But honestly – she’s more correct than I’d like to admit.

Nowadays every step we take online is carefully monitored, traced and stored. All of this data is highly valued for advertisers to target potential customers, turning us into products. While separate parts of this data – gender, age, your likes and status updates, connections and club members – are worthless, once they are assembled and interpreted, the marketers can successfully paint a precise picture of you. With more than 2 billion monthly active users, a third of the world’s population, Facebook actively collaborates with affiliate data broker to create more efficient advertising channels. Last year, the Washington Post published on different 98 targeting options Facebook pulls from other companies to pinpoint the users’ identity. These numerous digital predictions which we give away on daily basis can not only be used to sell things, but even more importantly, to potentially sell a candidate. In case you’re wondering how to stop them from targeting you and to escape from the so-called “useful and relevant” advertisements, see what Facebook knows about you. Twitter is watching as well. Here’s to shut off Amazon figuring you out. Google, too, is built on serving advertisements.

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What does the Internet know about you? All the information you consume online is tracked cross sites.

The Chrome extension Data Selfie is created to dive deeper into how your Facebook activity is measured and interpreted. Based on the contents you looked at, clicked (through likes and links) and the time engagement in posts, the app categorizes you into personality profile groups using the machine learning algorithm Apply Magic Sauce developed by University of Cambridge. In terms of my Big 5 personality traits, I’m more conservative and competitive, and I’m more easily stressed than relaxed. It also classifies my Jungian personality type to ISTPs, Introverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving, who are suited to the field of engineering. It’s likely anyone who knows me would agree, to some extent. Given that these tools only scratch the surface of social network’s data curation, it’s disquieting to comprehend just how much information they have.

Even if you don’t have a social media profile, it doesn’t mean you are not out there. Simply log onto the Internet, you start leaving a larger digital footprint more than you think. Simulating what a website picks up, often times without ostensible consent, Webcay displays a cascade of data reported by your browser. Concerning the sensitive information browsers can monitor, Cooper Quintin, a security researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told to The New York Times, “More than just being creepy, it’s a huge violation of privacy.”

We are being watched more than ever before, thanks to the relentless development of digital technology. While it’s possible to opt-out personalized advertising, changing data settings won’t remove you from advertisers’ audiences, as Twitter qualified. And even if you can trail data through apps and tools, you can’t reclaim all of your information because that’s something you agree to when you sign up for the services. What you can do is always be Internet aware as you fill out your personal details, interact with your News Feed, and browse the web.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.

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Sunscreen: Not Just for Carolina Blue Days!

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Beach trips are a common activity during the summer months. Forgetting to apply sunscreen can ruin an otherwise perfect day at the beach.

Summertime is well underway, and you may find yourself lathering on sunscreen more often – or like me, you may forget you even have a bottle sitting in your bathroom cabinet. But, there are many reasons to keep that bottle within reach.

Sunscreen is particularly important for those with certain skin types. The Fitzpatrick scale is a numerical classification of skin types that have varying responses to sunlight. For example, type I skin is pale/fair that almost always burns and never tans, while type IV mostly tans and rarely burns. However, no matter your skin type, we are all susceptible to sunburns given enough sun exposure.

What causes sunburns in the first place? The same culprit that causes tanning– more specifically, solar ultraviolet rays that reach earth. UVA (320-400nm wavelengths) is more prevalent than UVB (290-320 nm) and can reach deeper layers of the skin, but both types can wreak havoc.  In skin cells (or keratinocytes), UV exposure induces DNA damage and increases oxidative stress. Tanning is a result of increased melanin production by skin cells (or melanogenesis), which absorbs UV rays.  The long-term effects of UV damage on our skin is also known as photoaging – irregular, spotty pigmentation, wrinkling, sagging, and dryness just to name a few. (check out this paper for more).

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Two photographs showing the effect of applying sunscreens in visible light (left) and in UVA (right). The sunscreen on the left side of the face absorbs the UV light, protecting the skin from damage, while the skin without sunscreen directly absorbs the UV light.

Sunscreen, like the name implies, blocks UV light from penetrating the deep layers of our skin through multiple active ingredients. Inorganic particulates such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are particularly effective at reflecting UVA and blue light. Other organic molecules absorb UV rays, such as aromatics. Newer brands of sunscreen include compounds such as avobenzone, Helioplex, and Meroxyl SX – all are not only safe, but also beneficial to blocking UV rays on the skin.

Something else to know about sunscreen – that SPF (Sun Protection Factor) written in huge numbers on your  bottle means something after all! Officially, it is a measure of the fraction of sunburn-producing UV rays that reach the skin. For example, SPF 15 means that 1/15th of burning radiation from the sun will reach the skin assuming the correct (i.e. thick) dose of sunscreen is applied. So, if you’re Fitzpatrick scale type I skin, it’s likely that you will get a sunburn from one application of SPF 15 sunscreen while your friend, who is type III or IV, does not burn with the same application.

Here are a few tips about picking and using the right sunscreen –

  1.       According to the American Academy of Dermatology, look for a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher that provides broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB light. The FDA recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
  2.       Apply sunscreen anytime you go outside. UV light can still penetrate the atmosphere during cloudy days or in the winter!
  3.       Use the right dose. For an average adult, use at least 1 ounce (about what you can hold in your palm, or in a single shot glass) for all sun-exposed skin.
  4.       Re-apply every 2 hours to remain protected.
  5.       Check that expiration date. The active ingredients in sunscreen degrade slowly over time, and even though newer sunscreens have stabilizers be sure to replace your sunscreen if it’s expired.

 

Peer edited by Christina Marvin.

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Does this chemical make me look fat?: Secret suspects in the obesity epidemic

Over a third of the adult population in America is obese (Body Mass Index (BMI) ≥ 30) and an additional 40% are classified as overweight (BMI 25-30). Within the past ten years, this rate has increased significantly. Obesity increases risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. According to some estimates, the medical costs of an obese person is $1429 more than a person of normal weight. While exercise and diet are very important factors that regulate a person’s weight/obesity, there may be something else interfering with the body’s natural weight regulating processes: obesogens.

Adapted from Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USA_Obesity_1998.svg and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obesity_in_the_United_States#/media/File:USA_Obesity_2011.svg)

Obesity is increasing in the USA and worldwide. Map generated from data from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coined in 2006, the term “obesogens” refer to chemicals that may predispose an individual to gaining weight. Scientists have observed that numerous chemicals caused weight gain and obesity in animal studies, including tributyltin (pesticide), BPA (in plastics), phthalates (in plastics), PBDEs (flame retardants), and fructose (in diet). Persistent exposures to these chemicals in adult and particularly in early life, even in small doses, can have lifelong implications.

Since the field of obesogens is relatively new, how these chemicals affect obesity is still being discovered. Some chemicals act by reprogramming stem cells to differentiate into fat cells, thus increasing the number of fat cells in an individual. This number contributes to determination of the metabolic set point of an individual, or the set weight that the body is programmed to maintain.  Fat cells also secrete hormonal signals that affect metabolic regulation throughout the body, such as leptin. These hormonal signals also influence neurological signals in the brain that control feeding and satiety. In addition to increasing the number of fat cells, obesogens may also target metabolism and the brain directly.

Some obesogens have transgenerational effects, where an effect of an exposure is seen in a generation that has had no direct exposure to the chemical.  Researchers are finding that when animals are exposed to these chemicals, effects can be seen in their offspring and even the third generation!  In other words, the effects of exposure to these obesogens may be heritable. These fattening signals could be passed on through genes or through epigenetic markers.

If the pregnant mother (zeroth generation, F0) is exposed, then the fetus (1st generation, F1) and the fetus’ germline (future baby in the baby of the exposed mother, 2nd generation, F2) are also exposed. Thus, the chemical itself could be causing obesity in these generations. However, the third generation (F3) will not have had any exposure but the effects of some obesogens are still observed!

Obesity is a growing public health problem with serious health consequences. Increasing scientific evidence supports the idea that obesogens may be predisposing people to becoming obese. The transgenerational effects of obesogens highlights the importance and urgency of this kind of research, in order to protect not only the pregnant mother and her child, but also the third generation and beyond. Continued research in this field, mostly funded through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, will support the establishment of policies that would regulate production and exposure to these chemicals. In the meantime, while obesogens might play their part, we also need to play ours. We should strive to maintain healthy lifestyles and eating habits, which are well-known methods to improve health.

Peer edited by Joanna Warren

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Golden Goose Award Eggs On Basic Science Research

       As a scientist watched jellyfish float in Friday Harbor, Washington, he wondered what caused them to fluoresce green. It took years of determination to unravel the mystery behind the green glow, but he finally discovered that a protein, which absorbed blue light and gave off green light, was behind the fluorescence. It is the seemingly inconsequential discoveries, leading to unexpected advances in society, that are the foundation of basic science research. Unfortunately, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of how basic science research works. Out of thousands of research projects, there is no way to know in advance if the results will have value. Failure in research is likely and essential to success and scientific progress.  

The jellyfish Aequorea victoria fluoresce green due to GFP or green fluorescence protein. Photo by Phil Blackburn.

The jellyfish Aequorea victoria fluoresce green due to GFP or green fluorescence protein. Photo by Phil Blackburn.

       In 1975, Wisconsin senator William Proxmire began bestowing what he called The Golden Fleece Awards, which were meant to ridicule “wasteful” government spending.  This award frequently targeted federally funded scientific research deemed silly or unnecessary to paint a negative picture that basic science research was a waste of time and money.  Decades later a proponent of science research, House Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, created The Golden Goose Awards to counter this image.  The Golden Goose Awards emphasize the value of federally funded basic science research using examples of seemingly obscure studies which led to major contributions in science.  The first Golden Goose Award was presented in 2012 to the scientists behind the discovery of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) in jellyfish. Their discovery has lead to significant advances in molecular biology and our understanding of many human diseases.  With bipartisan government support and a growing list of sponsors, the Golden Goose Awards have continued to recognize breakthrough contributions to science and society over the past five years.  In 2016, the Golden Goose Award recognized a group of population studies scientists at the University of North Carolina for their pioneering longitudinal study on how social, behavioral, and environmental factors affect adolescent health. The study — called The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health or Add Health for short — spans 20 years of open access research and has led to over 3,000 research publications on human health.  Hopefully, with the recognition bestowed by the Golden Goose Award, the perception of basic science research will be transformed from wasteful to fundamentally important.


  Peer edited by Akshay Sankar