Do Your Talents Depend on Your Genes?

Picture Credit:

What if you were able to discover what your talents were the moment you were born? Would it have helped you at all in school if you knew that you were naturally gifted in sports or solving math problems or playing an instrument? According to certain health institutions in China, you no longer have to spend time wondering, thanks to the power of gene sequencing.

According to a recent article by The Telegraph, China is seeing an incredible surge of these so-called “talent detection” facilities that claim to be able to sequence a person’s DNA and uncover that person’s natural talent for a fee of about $500. Despite the dubious nature of these businesses, this type of direct-to-consumer genetic testing has become so popular among competitive Chinese parents that thousands of children are dragged by their mothers to these institutes to have their genomes sequenced in order to gain an extra advantage in the already cut-throat academic environment. As a result, China is already seeing the rise of the “talent detecting” industry, with companies promising to predict the future potential of children as well as their general level of intelligence, their emotional understanding and even their personality.

Wang Junyi, the president of the highly successful 1Gene health institute in Hangzhou, Zhejiang explains why these facilities are all the rage in China: “Many of my friends are anxious about deciding what their children should learn, as they fear making stupid decisions could result in lost opportunities. They will be wasting money and destroying their children’s confidence if they push them into something they are not good at, and this is where genetic testing can help.”

Of course, no matter how convincing they may sound, none of these claims are backed by actual scientific evidence. Genealogy expert Chang Zisong at the Tianjin International Joint Academy of Biomedicine states that all these predictions are ultimately meaningless and that the main reason why these institutions aren’t illegal is because banning them “would suggest that they have scientific value.”

But this opens up the question–how much impact does our DNA have on our talents? After all, the human genome is supposedly our body’s “blueprint.” While using gene sequencing to determine success in becoming the next Einstein or Mozart may be a farce today, would genetically detecting talent ever become standard practice in the future?

Let’s first examine athletic ability. One of the more controversial arguments regarding this subject is the athletic prowess of Jamaican sprinters. For some reason, the world’s best sprinters seem to come from this island nation in the Caribbean. Both Usain Bolt and Elaine Thompson, two Olympic champions who hold the title of fastest man and woman in the world respectively, are Jamaican. In addition, Jamaican athletes make up 19 of the 26 fastest times ever recorded in 100-meter races.

These numbers are a bit too bizarre to be mere coincidences, seeing how Jamaica has a population of only 2.8 million people. Many people have come up with different theories, from the diet of yams in local regions of the country to the island’s aluminum-rich soil. However, scientists who examined the DNA of Jamaican sprinters have suggested the existence of a “speed gene” and located the ACE gene as the culprit.

According to their explanations, this particular gene variant increases the chance of you developing a larger-than-average heart that can pump highly oxygenated blood to your muscles quicker than the average person’s. The data has shown that Jamaicans have a higher frequency of this gene variant than Europeans or even inhabitants of West Africa.

Funnily enough, 75 percent of Jamaicans, both athletes and non-athletes, also possess the ACTN3 gene, which helps develop muscle strength. In contrast, only 70 percent of U.S. international-standard athletes have this desirable variant.

So is your potential athletic ability primarily determined by these two genes? It’s difficult to tell.

For one thing, the genetics of sports is incredibly complicated, and it’s more likely that an entire pathway of genes is involved rather than a specific anomaly. In addition, Yannis Pitsilandis, a biologist at the University of Glasgow studied the genetics of Jamaican sprinters and could not genetically distinguish a subgroup that made them run faster than everyone else. Instead, Pitsilandis argues that Jamaica has a lot of fast sprinters because the entire country promotes the sport of running, similar to how the United States obsesses over the sport of football.

If the data on athleticism is inconclusive, then let’s look at a different but equally desired talent–the ability to solve math problems easily. Unfortunately, there is even less conclusive data surrounding the genetics of academic success. According to a large twin study by researchers from King’s College in London, it may be possible that the genes for math and language skills are inherited from your parents. However, the scientists were unable to determine the exact genes that may be responsible for these skills.

But then what about musical abilities, like becoming a prodigy in playing the violin or piano? As expected, the situation remains murky. While no direct connections between genes and musical ability have been established, some scientists believe that musical accomplishment may actually stem from the desire to practice, which does have genetic ties.

According to research led by psychologist David Hambrick from Michigan State University, a person’s genetics may influence their musical aptitude, musical enjoyment and motivation.

Similarly, a study of over 10,000 identical Swedish twins led by neuroscientist Miriam Mosing of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute found that a person’s propensity to practice music may be inherited by their child by up to 70 percent. However, neither study can really be deemed conclusive, and connections to any specific gene variant have yet to be found.

Based on all this research, it seems that we still have a long way to go before we can rely on gene sequencing technology to predict people’s futures. Even our knowledge on the link between genetics and talent appears shaky at best. Yet despite this, direct-to-consumer gene sequencing has become all the rage recently, and not only among uber-competitive parents in China. In the United States, countless genetic testing companies have found success by offering to read the customer’s DNA and revealing that person’s natural “disposition.” But instead of analyzing DNA to unveil a person’s natural talent, these companies promise to uncover the customer’s ideal diet and exercise regime, giving “reliable” genetic information on their genetic fitness.

Even crazier is that these “lifestyle genetic tests” are offering to uncover more and more ridiculous information “buried” within our DNA. One company even wants to use gene sequencing to determine what comic superhero a customer would be, based on their genes. As the originator of the idea, Stephane Budel, explains: “It gives you your breakdown, like you’re 30 percent Superman, 20 percent Ironman and 50 percent the Hulk.”

Clearly, the human genome is being treated less like a blueprint and more like a personality test on Facebook. Nonetheless, I think it would be advisable for everyone to slow down, take a deep breath and follow what your brain tells you instead of relying on a genome report.

Originally published on March 1, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTalents may be dependent on individual genetic makeup


Why Being Single is Better (Scientifically Speaking)

Picture Credit: Sylvain Sonnet | The Huffington Post

For some reason, society seems to believe that having a significant other to exclusively call your own should be the goal of every young person’s social life.

The widespread popularity of Valentine’s Day, and the subsequent media bombardments we are forced to incur, are a testament to this phenomenon. Sure, friends are nice and fun, but fulfilling, breathless love is what everyone desires the most, right? Society is obsessed with the idea of passionate love and everyone is pushed to believe that being alone, much less wanting to be alone, is abnormal.

But let’s see what science has to say (Hint: Societal expectations are wrong, as always).

First, a lot of young people believe in the popular myth that everyone is in a relationship and being single puts you into the lonely minority. While it may seem that way, especially around Valentine’s Day, a myth is just myth.

In 2011, the United States Census Bureau found that a total of 102 million Americans 18 years and older were unmarried, making up 44.1 percent of all U.S. residents 18 years and older. Not only that, 53 percent of them were women and 47 percent of them were men–a pretty even split.

But you may ask: How do you account for couples who are not married but dating, as well as people who want to be in a committed relationship but can’t find a partner?

Even though determining this specific demographic of people is difficult, we can make estimates based on what is available.

According to the same U.S. Census report mentioned earlier, 55 million households were maintained by unmarried men and women in 2011, comprising 46 percent of households nationwide. In contrast, only 6.8 million households consisted of unmarried romantic partners.

Regarding those who desire romantic relationships but keep finding themselves without luck, we can use research on online dating. Given that we’re in the age of technology and social media, it should be a good indicator of how many people are actively seeking love, or at least some manifestation of it.

According to a 2015 study on online dating, about 40 million Americans use online dating websites, with young adults making up only 27 percent of the group. While that may seem like a lot of people, don’t forget that 102 million people were reported to be single.

These two points should blow that myth out the water.

But of course, the most significant signs are the changes in cultural trends over time. In 1970, there were only 38 million single people in the U.S., making up just 28 percent of the population. In 1950, married couples represented 78 percent of American households.

Not only that, the Pew Research Center recently found that only 30 percent of Millennials agreed that marriage is “one of the most important things” in life, which decreased from 47 percent of Generation X in 1997. Four in 10 Americans went even further and stated in 2010 that marriage was becoming “obsolete.”

The sheer number of single people who want to stay single has grown to insane proportions. Just the number of single women is so large that social scientists are starting to see them as their own voting bloc. This naturally leads us to the obvious question:

Why are so many people choosing to be single? What factors are contributing to these decisions?

There are numerous personal reasons, such as ambition and the desire for independence, but scientists have found that choosing to be alone has significant benefits on both your health and your mental well-being.

The person spearheading this field of research is Bella DePaulo, a Harvard-trained professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In her presentation at the American Psychological Association’s 124th annual conference, DePaulo stated that single people have more fulfilling social lives and experience greater psychological growth than many married people, citing her investigation into 814 research studies as evidence.

Her research also shows that single people not only value meaningful work more than married people, but single people also have stronger connections with parents, siblings, friends, neighbors and coworkers.

“There are people who thrive on solitude and get important benefits from it like spirituality, creativity and rejuvenation. They’re not single because they have ‘baggage’ or ‘issues,’” DePaulo explained.

There are plenty of other benefits as well. According to a Canadian study of more than 11,000 people, researchers found that lifelong single people reported better overall health than married people.

In an Australian study of more than 10,000 women in their 70s, researchers found that “lifelong single women without children had the fewest diagnoses of major illnesses, the healthiest body mass index and were least likely to smoke, compared to married women, or women who had been married in the past.”

Being single also tends to improve your health.

A survey conducted in the United Kingdom found that, of the people who are not getting the proper amount of exercise, 73 percent of them were married. Finally, a 2009 research study found that self-sufficient single people are less likely to experience negative emotions. For married people, the opposite tends to be true.

Professor DePaulo cuts to the heart of the issue: “[Married people are bolstered by] the relentless celebration of marriage and coupling and weddings that I call matrimania. Single people, in contrast, are targets of singlism–the stereotyping, stigmatizing, marginalizing and discrimination against people who are single…It is time for a more accurate portrayal of single people and single life–one that recognizes the real strengths and resilience of people who are single, and what makes their lives so meaningful.”

So to all the single people out there, raise your glass and celebrate your life of independence and self-sufficiency this Valentine’s Day. Science is very much on your side.

Focus on your hobbies, your friends and your ambitions, and realize that one is not the loneliest number, but the most rewarding number.

Originally published on February 15, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsBeing single offers plenty of tangible health benefits

The Science of Attraction: Why Do We Fall in Love?

Picture Credit: Ann Cutting | TIME Magazine

The really cynical people in the world like to say that love is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed and then think to themselves how logical and scientific they are. These people also tend to be in high school or just happen to be very lonely individuals. Either way, science is not that clean-cut about the topic of love. So, in acknowledgment that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, let’s see what science has uncovered so far about humanity’s oldest and most hackneyed phenomenon.

When the word love is usually brought up in a scientific setting, most people refer to the rules and reasoning behind romantic attraction: What physical properties make a person desirable. In regard to physical attractiveness, many researchers have concluded that symmetry plays the biggest role, a claim backed by numerous studies and years of investigations. Scientists have found that this measurement of beauty holds true across various cultures and even in different species of animals .

The general consensus appears to be that having a symmetrical-looking face serves as a good indicator of robust health and ideal genes, which prospective romantic partners subconsciously pick up on. Psychologist Dr. William Brown at the Brunel University in the U.K. remarks, “In animals with two sides that were designed by natural selection to be symmetrical, subtle departures from symmetry may reflect poor development or exposure to environmental or genetic stress. In many species, these departures are related to poor health, lower survival, and fewer offspring.”

Interestingly, there has been some pushback against this consensus in recent times. Artist and photographer challenged this notion of symmetry as attractive by creating portraits of models whose faces have been photoshopped to be mirror images of the left and right sides of their faces. In a study performed by Nicholas Pound, another psychologist from Brunel University, results showed that facial symmetry in adolescents did not correlate with rates of childhood illness, as many researchers presumed. However, the most interesting counter-argument insists that the perfect face doesn’t stem from symmetry but from the Golden Ratio, an ancient Greek mathematical ratio of 1.618:1 that has been observed in the proportions of flowers, spiral galaxies, famous Greek art and attractive faces.

But beyond just physical appearances, science has found other explanations behind why one person would fall in love with someone. For instance, how you smell could determine who you attract, that is to say, the pheromones you emit. Widely used in the Animal Kingdom, pheromones are scent-bearing chemicals that we secrete in sweat and other bodily fluids that influence the behavior of others. Humans also utilize pheromones and researchers believe that these chemical signals play an important role in sexual attraction. In one study, researchers found that women who smelled sweaty undershirts worn by men could accurately judge their attractiveness. In a different study, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that men could determine when a woman was at her most fertile period in her menstrual cycle based on her pheromones. When these men were asked to smell T-shirts worn by women, they judged the shirts worn by fertile women to be more “pleasant” and “sexy.” In both cases, it’s likely that these types of scent detection happen subconsciously.

However, it is important to note that the research into human pheromones is still incomplete. Researchers have yet to identify specific chemical compounds that spark physical attraction in people, at least not any with a reliable scientific foundation. The closest they got was with androstadienone, a steroid derived from testosterone that has been reported to “make women feel more relaxed.” But the lack of solid evidence hasn’t stopped the perfume industry. You can find all sorts of “pheromone-based” perfumes on the Internet that claim to attract the opposite sex. The more expensive, popular ones have countless positive reviews that praise its effectiveness, but I’m more inclined to believe that this is because of the placebo effect.

There are also theories floating around that romantic attraction is largely guided by genetics and the goal of finding a mate who will help produce healthier offspring. For instance, researchers from the University of Western Australia suspect that a person’s body odor could provide clues about that person’s immune system. According to their study, a woman’s sweat contains chemical information about her histocompatibility, or MHC, genes. This information also subconsciously notifies members of the opposite sex about the type of immune system she has. To the researchers’ surprise, not only did the female participants with the most varied MHC genes appear more attractive to the male participants, but they also had the greatest number of sexual partners. This is most likely because a person with varied MHC genes also has a diverse immune system, a trait associated with disease resistance.

So far, all these research studies seem to push the notion that romantic attraction is mainly outside of our control, which may dishearten several readers. However, all these studies have another common thread: They’re about infatuation, not love.

Everything from facial symmetry to pheromones to histocompatibility genes focuses on the love-at-first-sight aspect of romance, the instantaneous physical attraction that occurs when two people meet for the first time. These factors might answer why you have a premature crush on someone but say nothing about what helps a relationship survive conflict or last for a long time. Just because two people are biologically compatible doesn’t mean that their personalities will mesh well. How regrettable that science is not invulnerable to the “love at first sight” mentality that plague movies and literature.

Of course, I’m exaggerating: There are obviously some studies focused on maintaining a relationship, not just infatuation. However, the little that I could find was surrounded by an ocean of research on the immediate sensation of falling in love. That’s not surprising, since falling in love is easy and fun, while keeping a relationship together is stressful and aggravating. But even though your DNA or your immune system or your pheromones might determine who you choose as your significant other, those biological factors change over time. What will happen when you’re no longer biologically compatible with your partner? Ultimately, one must make an effort to truly understand the other person’s personality and values and build a foundation of trust and friendship beforehand. Science may explain what gives love its sparks but it can’t provide any real shortcuts.

Originally published on February 8, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsResearchers illuminate the science of falling in love

The Framing of Climate Change: Why We Must Emphasize Pollution Over Polar Bears

Picture Credit: Los Angeles Times

No matter what unqualified politicians may say, climate change is an undeniable fact. Scientists have confirmed that the Earth’s temperature has been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and more than 97% of active climate scientists agree that these trends “are extremely likely due to human activity.” Samples from ice cores collected in Greenland and Antarctica have clearly demonstrated that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has shot up to a point that hasn’t been observed for thousands of years, and 2016 was recently declared the hottest year in human history, making last year the third consecutive record-breaking year. All this data points towards the conclusion that we are rushing headfirst into an anthropogenic nightmare.

And yet, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 51% of U.S. adults believe climate change is either not caused by humans or just doesn’t exist. The survey also found that only 39% of Americans have “a lot” of trust in what climate scientists say. Clearly, an enormous chasm is present between the scientific community and the general public, and people are wondering why. Why do so many people deny the evidence that experts present? Just what is going on?

Some have blamed radical, right-wing conservatives and the fossil fuel industry for spreading misinformation among the general public. Others choose to believe that the controversy stems from identity politics and how people would rather take sides than go against party politics. Several social scientists have attributed this behavior to natural human flaws such as confirmation bias and distrust of the media. I believe that we’re approaching this issue all wrong. The real source of this controversy is ultimately how the topic of climate change is framed. In order to make skeptics take climate change seriously, we have to link this concept with something immediately tangible, immediately life-threatening, and immediately alarming.

To better illustrate my point, let me use Obamacare as an example. On January 17, 2017, the TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live broadcasted a clip in which reporters asked people on the street whether they preferred Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. The responses were disheartening, to say the least. When asked whether she supported Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, one person chose the latter because she was “not the biggest fan of Obama.” Another person chose the Affordable Care Act over Obamacare because the Affordable Care Act is more affordable, which he said “is obvious based on the name.” The joke is that both terms refer to the exact same thing: Obamacare is just a nickname for the Affordable Care Act.

Language is a powerful weapon, and using it carelessly could undermine an entire campaign. In this instance, the Republican establishment understood the importance of branding and aggressively pushed to link universal healthcare with President Obama, by way of the name “Obamacare.” This way, the bill would prompt anger in people before they even learned about the healthcare initiative and how it would actually benefit them in the long run.

This same problem with framing applies to the entire debate surrounding climate change. For instance, what sort of imagery does the word “climate change” invoke? I’m willing to bet that for many people, they see polar bears on floating ice, the number on a thermometer going up a few notches, glacier chunks falling into the ocean, or similar images pushed by the media. For something as urgent and life-threatening as climate change, why is all the imagery typically associated with climate change so unthreatening to humans?

While it’s easy to categorize people who don’t care about climate change as stupid or uninformed, oftentimes that’s not the case. They just don’t see the importance of taking action because they don’t yet feel threatened by it. They have other things to worry about, like job security and the economy, so they fail to see why they should sacrifice their time, effort, and tax money for something they don’t think would directly affect humans for several thousand years. This is why so many politicians who oppose the notion of climate change keep emphasizing how they prioritize jobs over fluctuating temperatures. The lack of job security is a frightening and immediate threat that is tangible to these people. On the other hand, polar bears and melting ice caps aren’t so scary. Climate activist Tom Steyer sums up the situation nicely: “One side argues morality and polar bears, and the other side argues jobs. You’re never going to win with polar bears.”

A convincing argument for climate change should focus on how human lives, including those of skeptics, would be directly harmed by not taking action, enough so that those consequences would override their concerns for the economy as a priority. Enough with the polar bears. We have to focus on the lives and well-being of people. If we don’t, we risk being viewed as detached from the struggles of working class Americans.

However, the issue of imagery is only one facet of the framing problem. In truth, the basic concept of climate change is much too weak for skeptics to register it as a legitimate, immediate threat. According to NASA, climate change is defined as “a change in the usual weather found in a place.” These changes could refer to changes in temperature or even a change in how much rain a place usually gets in a year. However, while all evidence indicates that the global climate is changing drastically, these changes are not readily noticeable by the average person. In fact, a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the most common reason behind climate change skepticism was that participants had not noticed any change in weather around them or that it was actually getting colder where they lived.

Understandably, skeptics find what climate scientists report hard to believe because their senses tell them otherwise. People like Donald Trump prey on this confusion and further their own agenda by providing an easy yet false solution to this contradiction: Climate change just doesn’t exist. During his presidential campaign, Trump would often jab at the notion of climate change because the weather outside was still cold.

Thus, despite the scientifically proven fact that the global temperature is changing, the focus on temperature seems like a dead end. Changes in temperature are not tangible enough to sway skeptics. But then what can we do? I suggest that we connect climate change with something everyone knows is real and dangerous: Air pollution.

According to an international study, black carbon, a major component in soot and car exhaust, was found to be responsible for both creating deadly smog in cities and acting as the second biggest contributor to global warming. Another study found that the warmer weather caused by climate change could worsen dangerous smog in the summer and the fall. Clearly, these two human threats are linked. However, unlike the idea of temperature changes, air pollution is a term that already has an extremely negative connotation. Not only is the term linked to asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases, but news reports have recently exposed the toxic living conditions in China, Mongolia, Britain, and even the United States due to the dense smog that blanket entire cities. Pictures of children wearing gas masks to school and gray smog blocking out the sunlight have already spread throughout the Internet like grim visions of a dystopian future. This frightening imagery provides extra incentive for people to strive for cleaner air.

Too few people associate climate change with air pollution and deadly smog, despite how both are caused by the use of fossil fuels. Without the horrifying implications of air pollution, the term “climate change” by itself lacks the sense of alarm that motivates people to act. While climate change may sound like an ordinary phenomenon to skeptics, air pollution has a more direct connection to the health and safety of every individual. It is a concept that everyone should be very familiar with. Even Donald Trump said it himself: “I believe in clean air. Immaculate air. But I don’t believe in climate change.” I’m sure he would have a much harder time convincing others to laugh at climate change once that term becomes synonymous with air pollution, a global hazard that is responsible for 7 million premature deaths every year.

Ultimately, we must bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public. We must make the extra effort to not only promote scientific thought but also frame this knowledge so that anyone can understand its significance and gravity. While it may be frustrating to argue with climate deniers, science is useless if it’s isolated and shared only among experts. If skeptics of science refuse to reach out to the experts, the experts must find a way to reach out and connect to the skeptics.

Originally published on February 6, 2017, in Boilerplate Magazine: The Framing of Climate Change: Why We Must Emphasize Pollution Over Polar Bears

What Astronomer Vera Rubin Really Accomplished

Picture Credit: Astronomy Magazine

On Dec. 25, 2016, astronomer and Vassar alumna Vera Rubin ’48 sadly passed away at the age of 88, a solemn yet graceful conclusion to a life rich with brilliant research and revolutionary ideas on both the universe and the role of women in the sciences. But upon the announcement of her death, countless news publications have fallen into the trap of over-dramatizing Rubin’s life and achievements by establishing her as the person who “discovered” dark matter.

An article by The Washington Post labeled her as a pioneer who “confirm[ed] the existence of dark matter,” while an article by NPR ran the headline, “Vera Rubin, Who Confirmed Existence of Dark Matter, Dies at 88.” Even Vassar’s own webpage on Vera Rubin stated that “Rubin is credited with proving the existence of ‘dark matter.’”

This is not true. Vera Rubin did not discover dark matter, nor did she confirm its existence. In fact, no one has. Dark matter remains an unproven theory, a hypothesis that researchers are still studying today. Vera Rubin herself has stated several times that she didn’t “prove” anything. What she actually did was uncover a strange oddity while studying galaxy rotation rates and postulate that the conventional understanding of our universe was flawed. In order to truly appreciate Rubin’s legacy without exaggerating her achievements, we need to understand the importance of what she noticed and why this anomaly remains a highly controversial topic among modern astronomers.

In the early 1970s, the entire world was embroiled in the matters of astronomy as the Space Race between the United States and the USSR reached its peak following Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969. At the time, Rubin was studying galaxy rotation curves with her colleague W. Kent Ford Jr. at the Carnegie Institute of Science. Her goal was to map the distribution of mass in spiral galaxies by measuring how fast the stars in those galaxies were rotating around the center.

According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the star closer to the center of the galaxy should orbit faster than the star that is farther away. This is because the closer the star is to the center, the more it feels the gravitational pull of the galaxy’s center, and the faster it moves. Prof. Colette Salyk, an assistant professor of Astronomy at Vassar, compares the rotation of the stars to swinging a ball tied to a string: “The harder you pull on the string, the faster the ball will travel…Gravity has everything to do with the speed of stars, since gravity provides the force that keeps the star in orbit.”

In other words, Vera Rubin was tracking how fast the stars were moving in order to determine the force of gravity they felt and thus how much mass they have. By this logic, the stars at the edge of the galaxy should be moving slower than those near the center. However, Rubin discovered a contradiction: The stars at the edge of the galaxy were not orbiting slower than those near the center.

In fact, they were moving so fast that the galaxy should have been flying apart. Given this discrepancy, Rubin proposed that some sort of unseen mass was holding their orbits together. This invisible mass that doesn’t radiate light is what people commonly refer to as dark matter.

To reiterate, Vera Rubin did not discover dark matter in this instance. The concept of invisible matter holding together galaxies has been around since Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky first suggested it in 1933. What Rubin’s discovery really did was provide detailed calculations regarding dark matter that swayed many astronomers to believe in its existence. By the time Rubin finished her investigation, she determined that each spiral galaxy possesses a “halo” of dark matter and that more than 90 percent of the universe is composed of this material. At that point, many astronomers were already convinced.

But as stated earlier, the dark matter hypothesis is still a hypothesis. Once the scientific community agreed on the concept of dark matter, they did everything they could to find decisive evidence for it. Unfortunately, even after three decades of intensive searching and developing expensive technology specifically designed to detect dark matter, astronomers have yet to find any signs of ever getting close. The latest blow to the dark matter hypothesis came in January 2017 when the promising XENON100 dark matter detector failed to offer any positive results.

Astronomer Stacy McGaugh at Case Western Reserve University aptly surmised the grim situation: “This generation of detectors should be the last. If we don’t find anything, we should accept we are stuck and need to find a different explanation, perhaps by modifying our theories of gravity, to explain the phenomena we attribute to dark matter.”

In truth, Vera Rubin herself began having doubts as early as 2006. In a 2011 interview, Rubin wondered whether the galaxy rotation problem that brought dark matter into fame was actually a flaw in our understanding of gravity. When asked if she really believed that dark matter wasn’t the solution, Rubin shrugged and asked “Why not?” And this response illuminates what science is really about: The willingness to broaden our understanding of the universe, even at the expense of one’s pride. The value of science stems from this pursuit of knowledge, not the fame and prestige that come with a scientific discovery.

However, it is not as if the theory of dark matter has been disproven. There are still countless astronomers who are hard at work in search of dark matter. But, one significant contribution that is not up for debate is Rubin’s role as a pioneering advocate of women in the sciences. All throughout her life, she faced brutal and humiliating opposition towards her position as a scientist.

Teachers and colleagues alike pushed the notion that science was a men-only field and Rubin was often chastised for intruding where she didn’t belong. Yet, she continued to break boundaries, becoming the only astronomy major to graduate from Vassar in 1948 and eventually receiving the National Medal of Science in 1993. As Rubin once stated, “There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.” That alone should be enough for us to honor her legacy as a truly brilliant scientist.

Originally published on February 1, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsPublic misconceptions of Vera Rubin’s career pervade news cycle

Unlocking Axolotl: The Path Towards Regenerative Medicine

Picture Credit:

Out of all the various superpowers found in comic books and video games, regeneration is among the most astonishing. The idea of being able to regrow an arm or a leg whenever one is lost in an accident exemplifies a sort of uncanny magical ability straight out of science fiction. However, this ability serves as an adaptive trait for several different animals around the world.

While notable examples include sea stars and certain species of lizards, the most prominent kinds of animals known for their regenerative capabilities are salamanders, a species known for its ability to regrow entire limbs and regenerate parts of major organs like their heart, their eyes and their spinal cord. They possess such impressive regeneration abilities that immunologist James Godwin of the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute at Monash University in Melbourne calls them “a template of what perfect regeneration looks like.”

One specific salamander species that deserves special attention is the axolotl, also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum). This amphibian, in particular, has a one-of-a-kind capacity for regeneration and is known for being able to regrow multiple structures like limbs, jaws, skin and even parts of its brain without evidence of scarring throughout their lives.

The sheer amount of damage that an axolotl can recover from is absolutely extraordinary.

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level–the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm–and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, There’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect,” remarked Professor Stephane Roy at the University of Montreal.

As a result, the axolotl is widely used as a model organism for studying regeneration. But this begs the question: can this amazing regeneration ability be somehow transferred to humans? If human beings had the same regenerative capacity as axolotls, the benefits would far surpass that of regrowing an arm or a leg or a finger. People would be able to repair or regrow their internal organs whenever an organ failure occurs without having to rely on intensive surgery.

For instance, victims of car accidents may end up with major injuries to their backbone, their ribcage and all the soft major organs within, but a regeneration ability equivalent to that of an axolotl may have them walking normally after a mere few months. Not only that, the axolotl is over 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals. Finding the source of this salamander’s regeneration capabilities could lead to unimaginable developments in modern medicine.

However, while the idea sounds fantastic, the execution is much more difficult than it looks. Compared to amphibians, humans have very limited regenerative capabilities, restricted primarily to their skin. So far, research into salamanders has led scientists to pinpoint the blastema, a mass of immature cells typically found in the early stages of an organism’s development, as the key to regeneration. Essentially, when an adult salamander limb is amputated, the outermost layer of skin covers up the wound and sends signals to nearby cells, which prompts the mature cells to form the blastema. From there, the immature cells start to divide and differentiate into specific muscle and nerve cells until a different signal or some form of memory tells the cells to stop regenerating.

For scientists to replicate this effect in humans, they use stem cells, which are also cells that can also differentiate into any type of cell in the body and divide to produce more stem cells. These cells are also known as pluripotent cells since they are capable of developing into several different cell types. However, the blastema that salamanders produce is not completely embryonic. Instead, scientists have found that the cells used for regeneration become slightly less mature versions of the cells they’ve been before. This means researchers don’t have to force adult tissue into becoming pluripotent, making the task a little easier to implement in humans.

The latest development in this field has come from a group of scientists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), who have designed a new stem cell repair system based on the method used by salamanders to regenerate limbs. According to hematologist John Pimanda, the new technique involves reprogramming bone and fat cells into induced multipotent stem cells (iMS), which can be used to regenerate muscle, bone and cartilage. The team first extract fat cells from the human body, treat them with various growth factors and compounds like 5-Azacytidine (AZA) to turn them into stem cells, and then inject them back into the body to heal tissue.

“This technique is a significant advance on many of the current unproven stem cell therapies, which have shown little or no objective evidence they contribute directly to new tissue formation,” stated Pimanda.

So far, the new technique has been successful in mice, and human trials are expected to begin by late 2017. But several obstacles still stand in the way. One primary challenge is preventing the cells from becoming cancerous as they go through regeneration. Salamanders typically don’t face the risk of malignant tumors whenever they regenerate tissue, and as stated earlier, the axolotl is in fact 1,000 times more resistant to cancer than mammals, despite how often it regenerates body parts. Right now, Pimanda and his team are making sure that the technique leads to controlled tissue repair and that cell regeneration doesn’t spiral out of control.

With progress being steadily made in regenerating bone and muscle, it may be only a matter of time until we reach the regenerative capabilities of salamanders and have self-repairing organs in the future. A revolutionary development like that would certainly save lives and help all types of patients from those suffering from third-degree burns to those who desperately need an organ donor. Until then, researchers will continue to study salamanders and their incredible regeneration abilities to help guide them towards this goal.

Originally published on November 30, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsResearch on regeneration proves beneficial

How Will Science Fare in Trump’s America?

CNBC Events - Season 2015
Picture Credit: Huffington Post

As much as people may absolutely hate the idea, it’s an inescapable fact of our reality: Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th pres­ident of the United States come January. Yes, the same man who talked about how vaccines gave a child autism and who claimed that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese. Naturally, I imagine the world’s sci­entists feeling more than a bit upset after news of Trump’s victory was announced after Elec­tion Day. What will happen to the development of science and technology in Trump’s America during the next four years?

Nothing pretty, that’s for sure. While the fu­ture is now more unpredictable than ever, I’m willing to bet that scientific progress is not at the forefront of Trump’s plans as president. He once called the National Health Institute “terrible” on public radio and thought it would be a great idea to have conservative talk radio host Michael Savage bring “common sense” to the institution.

It’s important to note that Savage is infamous for saying that autism is just “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” as well as “a racket” designed to let poorer families find new ways to be parasites of the government.

However, it remains unclear exactly how Trump will influence funding for the sciences as president. While he did state that Americans “must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous,” he has yet to release any sort of plan on how he would accomplish that goal.

It is difficult to believe, however, that Trump will ever follow up on that promise to invest in science to improve the lives of others when he practically labeled himself as an anti-environ­mentalist throughout his campaign.

In fact, Trump made a rather hefty list of things he wanted to get rid of once he takes over the Oval Office. Items of the list include the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the “Waters of the U.S.” rule that’s designed to protect Amer­ica’s waterways and wetlands, and the entirety of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate agreement, which had more than 190 countries agree to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to lessen the impact of global warming.

That last part about the Paris climate agree­ment is among the scientific community’s top concerns. Last September, more than 375 scien­tists from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to Trump warning him that withdrawing from the Paris Accord would prove to be disas­trous. Now that he’s president-elect, Trump will likely work towards fulfilling his promise to promote oil drilling and coal mining in an effort to restore jobs in those fossil fuel industries.

“Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones — how stupid is that? We’re going to bring back the coal industry, save the coal in­dustry,” Trump said to an arena full of cheering people. Just to keep things in check, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died due to indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012 and more than 600,000 chil­dren will die each year from breathing in toxic air.

But it’s not just Trump. The entire U.S. govern­ment will be controlled by several people with less-than-stellar track records on following sci­ence. Trump’s running mate, former Indiana gov­ernor Mike Pence, has resisted answering wheth­er he believes that evolution is real and once published an essay piece in 2001 that claimed, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” The head of Trump’s EPA transition team, Myron Ebell, is known as “an oil industry mouthpiece” and has asserted that greenhouse gas pollution could be beneficial. It is also very possible that creationists Ben Carson and Sarah Palin may hold positions in Trump’s cabinet.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it appears science will take a backseat in Trump’s America, and the entire nation will feel the rippling effects.

Can anything be done about this when the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Su­preme Court are all under his command?

There actually is. Place Donald Trump and his government under constant scrutiny and keep the protests alive. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people accused me of keeping the country divided and polarized, but that’s not what I’m asking for, either. I don’t see the ben­efit of shunning those who voted for the other party and refusing to communicate with them under any circumstances. As divided as we may be, we are all part of the same country, and thus the same boat.

On the other hand, protesting against poli­ticians is very different from yelling at fellow voters. We should absolutely not be complacent with whatever Trump does because it’s his job as president to listen to public outrage. Trump himself stated that the government should serve the people. If that’s the case, then he has no right to complain about angry protesters. It’s the presi­dent’s duty to change in accordance with the will of the people, not the other way around.

The protesters may never be satisfied with whatever compromise he makes, but that’s part of democracy, just like how many people refused to acknowledge President Obama. What is im­portant is that we always remind Trump that he will be held accountable for his rhetoric and actions. He must be subjected to a barrage of criticisms and opposition to let him know that people are upset at his presidency and that his entire reputation is at stake.

If that sounds arduous and stressful, that’s because being president is not supposed to be an easy job. It is vital to create that stressor so that Trump never gets the feeling that he can get away with anything he wants. Set the bar really, really high so that Trump has no choice but to either try to reach our expectations or go down in history as a failure. If he’s going to be America’s 45th president, then that is the burden he must carry.

Originally published on November 16, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsScience community should continue to pressure Trump