Thursday, June 30, 2011
Now, this dude, given that he must be in anesthesiology research if he was at my talk, should have known better. And definitely should have known better than to ask it as if he had stumbled across a trick question that would unravel all my research, because that's just jerk-y.
But it actually isn't a dumb question. Unconsciousness is much more complicated than simple suppression of all neuronal activity. During anesthesia, some neurons fire more and some neurons fire less. And the hard truth is - we're not totally sure which neurons do what or how that leads to anesthetic endpoints. In general what changes is firing PATTERN, which causes changes in how neurons talk to each other ("integration" for those wanting a more technically accurate term).
Consciousness and anesthesia are so much more complicated than simple reduction in total brain activity, but that's what makes it fun!
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
I have the world’s most adorable little doggie at home, and I’m totally crazy about him. I am on my university’s IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee), which I’m sure I’ll rant more about later. I use animals in my research. If I could eliminate the use of animals in research, I would.
In all likelihood, animal research is going to come up pretty frequently here, given my involvement. It’s a complicated issue, and easier not to engage, but it is ethically important for scientists to know what they think and continually evaluate to ensure they’re following best ethical practices.
I know that some extremist animal rights groups think that animal research can and should be stopped short, right this minute. Unfortunately, their arguments are pretty flawed.
One big argument is that animal research hasn’t discovered anything beneficial to humans, or that all these things could have been discovered another way. This is simply untrue. Many important breakthroughs in disease treatment have been made in animal models. Farm animals, pets and endangered animals are also beneficiaries of animal research. Just Google it.
Another major argument is that animals are not good models for humans and consequently research done in animals will have little relevance to human disease. Some such groups advocate for using cell culture or computer models only, instead of animals models. There’s a reason all these things are called models: they only approximate the human situation in key respects.
I’m pretty sure there isn’t a scientist alive who wouldn’t rather use a cell or a computer instead of an animal. Animals are expensive, require constant care, enormous amounts of paperwork, and specialized training. But sometimes they’re just better than a computer or a cell. The problem with creating a cell-culture or computer model is that you can only recapitulate the aspects of your system that you completely understand. But the whole problem is that we don’t completely understand most tissues or disease processes. So if you make a computer model that tells you everything we know about liver cancer, you won’t be able to cure liver cancer. The good thing about an animal model is that it’s a real tissue, that will act like a real tissue does, even in the ways we don’t understand. Unfortunately, it is true that animal systems aren’t exactly like human ones. This can sometimes be optimized by choosing the right animal, or creating a transgenic animal to better mimic key features of the human system, but even so, it isn’t perfect. That’s why it’s a model. The best science utilizes multiple modeling systems to eventually develop hypotheses that can safely be tested in humans.
The hardest argument to answer, though, is the ethical/moral argument. Is it “species-ist” to treat a living thing from another species in ways that would be unacceptable to treat humans? Research makes it clear that vertebrate animals have experiences analogous to human pain, fear, pleasure and other emotional states. Rights advocates claim that these emotional and cognitive faculties make animal eligible for membership in the moral community with equal or near-equal rights to humans. This argument can’t be answered with facts or a utilitarian argument, it is about what an individual believes about the rights of non-human species. Even among anti-species-ist advocates, you can find dissent about which animals deserve what rights from worms to mice to monkeys.
Where I am:
I fall on the utilitarian end of the spectrum. Though I strongly support alternatives to animal use and sticking to the 3Rs when animals are necessary, in the end I conclude that the potential benefits of animal research outweigh the harm to animal research subjects. I think this campaign sums it up for me:
I chose to serve on my university IACUC to learn more about federal regulations concerning animal research. I got much more than I bargained for as I hear from many sides: from researchers, from regulators and from rights activists about balancing animal welfare with human welfare. There are never easy answers.
Scientists often feel pressure to justify animal research in the face of extremists who bomb, poison and mail razorblades to researchers, but most scientists will confess that it’s not a black-and-white issue. Respect for life at all levels, from proteins to cells to organisms, is central to biomedical research, and engaging with animal rights issues is important for animal users as we work to preserve the welfare of animals as best we can.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Crystals are made of atoms arranged in repeating blocks called “unit cells,” where the atoms in each repeating block are arranged the same way. Piezoelectric crystals have asymmetric arrangements of atoms in each unit cell. At rest, these crystals are electrically neutral, because the charges of the atoms are arranged such that each positive charge is balanced by a negative charge (really this has to do with dipole moments, if you’re into that level of detail). But when you squeeze or stretch the crystal, you upset this delicate balance of cancelling charges as you move atoms out of place, causing the crystal to have net charge on its faces. Same deal if you apply charge: you apply electrical force that makes the atoms rearrange in an attempt to cancel the charge, causing the shape of the crystal to change. This effect can be pretty large: applying 500 foot-pounds of force to a cubic centimeter of quartz can produce 12500 volts!
It makes me wonder how many other things I use operate on near-miraculous science!
Thursday, June 16, 2011
In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was a Titaness, the goddess of memory, who is credited with discovering reason and language. The most well-known fact about her is that she slept with Zeus (after all, who didn’t?) and begot the nine muses. What is often forgotten is that she also presided over a river (or pool/well/spring) in Hades. The river of Mnemosyne was the opposite of the river of Lethe. Upon arriving in Hades, one would supposedly have to choose to drink either from Lethe or Mnemosyne. Choosing Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, would erase your memory of your past life and allow you to reincarnate. Choosing Mnemosyne, however, would make you omniscient.
My name, Alethea, again plays on the Mnemosyne-Lethe dichotomy. The Greek word Lethe means “oblivion” or “forgetfulness”, while Alethea is derived from the Greek word for “truth” or “un-forgetfulness.” I hope it’s obvious which Kool-Aid I drank! J
N.B. I love parenthetical statements. I know it's bad English. And I don't care.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I'm a 4th year PhD student at a research university. As such, I am naturally possessed of an abundance of both angst and opinions.
Last night I had a total meltdown about my life, because let me tell you, even if you don't have kids, there is no such thing as work-life balance when you're in grad school (or probably if you're in academia at all)! Then today, as I watch my seal resistance aimlessly climb to 900 megaohms and hover there without getting a gigaseal for about the millionth time this week(I do patch clamp electrophysiology), I realized that I needed a better outlet for my rage than my poor husband.
Hence, I am officially "on the internet." Here, I will tell you what life is like as a female grad student in an all-male biophysics lab, rant about my life in general, and post the cool stuff (research, comics, videos) that helps me remember why being a scientist is worth it.
So, if you like blue-haired snarky biophysicists, you want to hear what science I think is awesome, or you just wonder why grad students are such basket cases, I hope you'll stick around!
Alethea (not my real name)