Ask a Scientist: How do you become a researcher?

By: Kylia Goodner

This week’s question is for the dreamers who want to be on the forefront of knowledge creation.  If you like topics that other people think are gross or boring (like bugs, or physics), are full of skepticism, and like proving ideas wrong, then scientific research might be for you! Although a science career might seem completely out of reach for most people, it isn’t! There are multiple levels within scientific research – and people from every educational level can be a part of the scientific process!

If you are more organizationally minded you might want to consider becoming a research or laboratory technician. Typically, these positions require a bachelors or masters degree in a related field (biology, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, etc…) and at least one semester of laboratory experience. You can get these types of experiences in college by seeking out specific undergraduate research programs or by just asking around your school to see if anyone is taking students. A position as a laboratory technician is extremely important, as they are in charge of managing the every-day laboratory tasks (like purchasing supplies, making solutions, etc…) but also keep a few side research projects going. Most of the time they still publish papers and advance scientific knowledge, but at a slower rate than other laboratory members because they have other, extremely important laboratory responsibilities.

If you’re not financially minded, and the thought of being in charge of laboratory supplies makes you cringe, you might be more inclined to perform bench or field work. This work typically requires at least a Ph.D. in a relevant field. Luckily, many scientific Ph.D. programs cover your tuition and provide you with a (modest) living stipend.  So, although you will take the extra educational time to complete a 4-6 year Ph.D. program, at least you have some income rather than student loans! After the completion of a Ph.D., you will likely need to complete a postdoctoral position as well. These positions can take between 2-5 years to complete, but again, you’re being (moderately) paid.  During the 5-10 years of your Ph.D. and postdoc you’ll be doing hands on research. Day to day activities during this time can vary greatly, but typically you focus on one or two main research projects and publish multiple scientific papers. If you want to continue to do the hands-on work after the completion of your training you can get a job as a research scientist. These are typically hired on in larger labs to help advance the research at a fast pace (as they’re already heavily trained and aren’t as slow as the trainees). However, these positions are disappearing quickly as scientific funding is decreased.

When people think of a scientist, they are mainly picturing a professor or principle investigator (PI), who runs his/her own laboratory and is typically associated with a research university. These positions require the same training as the research scientist, but may require multiple postdoc experiences in order to obtain more diverse training. The day-to-day life of a PI is very different to that of a research scientist. PIs spend much of their time writing and presenting their research in order to obtain funding for their laboratory. They also are heavily involved in teaching and mentoring students and postdocs of many levels. But, PIs are the main force behind the current research being done in the United States and are responsible for training the new generation of scientists.

Scientific research is an ever growing and exciting field! And although the amount of training can be daunting to some, the ability to discover a piece of knowledge that no one has ever known before is incredibly thrilling. If discovery is what awakens your mind and ignites your passion then becoming a researcher is an extremely fulfilling career path!  





Ask a Scientist: How do touch-screen gloves work? Why do some gloves work on touch screens and not others?

By: Kylia Goodner

As this year’s bitter winter transitions into spring, many of us have already traded our gloves, hats, and scarves for shorts! But, we all still retain the memories of one of winter’s major frustrations: touch screens. Most electronics contain touchscreens that are unresponsive when your fingers are covered by cloth. This, of course, is unless you have special touchscreen gloves. But how do these frustration-reducing winter gloves work?

You may not realize it, but the human body has the ability to store an electric charge, which means that it can be considered to be a “capacitor”. The touchscreens on most modern electronics are known as “capacitive touchscreens,” which just means that they contain sensors that can detect anything that has an electric charge – including your body. So, when your finger touches the screen, it forms a circuit, or connection, between the electrical field within your body and the screen itself.  This connection “tells” the phone what app to open or text to send based on where your finger’s electrical charge touched the screen.

For a capacitive touchscreen to work, you must be able to transmit your body’s electricity to the screen. When you put on gloves, the cloth acts as a barrier between your electrical charge and the touchscreen.  Special touchscreen gloves overcome this by using a conductive wire in the fingertips. These gloves have a metal wire interspersed between the cloth fibers, which allows the electricity in your fingertip to travel through the metal wire in the glove’s fingertips to reach and act on the touchscreen.

Although I extremely appreciate the convenience of a pair of touchscreen gloves, I do not believe that this is the most interesting use of this technology. E-health devices are an up and coming field of research that use technology similar to touchscreen gloves. These wearable devices contain sensors in them that can detect bodily changes in disease symptoms like heart rate, and blood sugar levels, and send these updates directly to your doctor. The use of this wearable technology has the potential to drastically help rural or other populations without continuous access to medical facility, or those with severe chronic diseases. This technology is in its beginning stages, but within a few years, like our body’s electricity, it will be right at your fingertips.


Ask a Scientist: Are humans the only animals that communicate by written or verbal language, and if so, why?

By: Kylia Goodner

Before we delve in to this intriguing question, we need to first understand the difference between communication and language. Communication, by definition, is the transmission of a signal between the sender and receiver. This signal could be language, but it could also be smells, movements, or postures. Obviously, all animals communicate, but do they do it through language? Defining language is actually a complex and highly debated area of research, but most scientists would agree that language is a structured form of communication, containing words and grammar that can be combined in infinite ways to create new combinations.  So a chimpanzee can communicate by having a specific yelp which means “predator” or “safe”, but unless that chimp can combine those yelps into a new sentence which means “No predator here! It’s safe,” we cannot claim that the chimp has language.

Due to the difficulty of studying animal communication in the wild, most research has focused on the ability of animals to learn human languages. This has been done in the past by teaching dolphins, apes, and even parrots a sound or symbol representing a specific object or action. Then the scientists reorder these symbols into new combinations and assess whether the animal can understand and perform the task. For example, scientists can teach dolphins the words for “Frisbee” “left” and “Fetch,” then they can re-order them into the sentence “Fetch left Frisbee,” and the dolphins would be able to understand and perform that task. This suggests that dolphins (as well as apes, and even animals like parrots and prairie dogs) have the ability to comprehend a structured language. Unfortunately, very little progress has been made in determining whether animals in the wild have a structured language.

As for written language, there is no evidence to suggest that animals possess this truly unique facet of human nature. This isn’t terribly surprising, as humans did not develop a written language that was not based on pictures until around 3200 BCE, which is 200,000 years after modern humans evolved.  This suggests that in order to develop a written language, a species needs an extremely long period of using complex spoken language. This long period of spoken language is, to our knowledge, unique to humans. Further, some external factor must drive the creation of a written language, because writing is a skill that takes time to create and learn, and animals aren’t going to create it just for fun. For humans, this drive was the development of agriculture. Humans had to keep track of the seasons, their crops, and food allotments for their citizens. All of this is extremely hard to remember, and can get confused if only conveyed through verbal language. Therefore, humans needed to develop a written language, but, as far as we know, this pressure does not currently exist in animal populations.

So, we aren’t the only animals to communicate, and we may not be the only animals to have language, but we are the only ones with the ability to write it down. Moving forward, research identifying different animal communication systems in the wild is a major focus of scientists in this field.  Unfortunately though, the basis of what these languages could entail is unknown, making it extremely difficult for scientists to “translate” potential animal languages into a human form. But, difficulty never stopped a scientist before, so keep your eyes peeled for the “Elephant to English pocket dictionary”

Ask a Scientist: Is the process of waist training unhealthy or harmful to your body?

By: Kylia Goodner

This one’s for the ladies (or really anyone trying to get an hour-glass figure)!  Everyone from Jessica Alba to Kim Kardashian are wrapping up and reporting great success. But how does waist training work? And are you causing more bodily harm than good?

If you’re like me and have never heard of waist training before, let me give you a brief overview of what it actually involves. The process of waist training involves putting extreme amounts of pressure on your waist through the use of some type of binding that will “train” the waist to form an hour-glass shape. There are typically two types of binding: corsets and wraps.

Corsets have been around since the 1800s when they were first introduced as an undergarment to assist females in attaining an extremely tiny waist. Unfortunately, there have been no recent studies regarding corset use, so the following information is taken from observations and research done before 1980.  An effectively tied corset can exert 85 pounds of pressure per square inch. This can decrease the size of the abdomen by 6 inches, but has extremely harmful side effects if worn long-term. Corsets have been shown to decrease lung capacity by 20%, and can cause the muscles in your waist to deteriorate, making it impossible to sit or stand without the support of the corset. Other medical problems, including hernias and uterine damage, have been associated with corsets. Of course, all of these side effects are from extreme long-term use, but in order to obtain the hour-glass figure, a corset must be worn continually.

Body wraps, on the other hand, are slightly less intense, but equally as under-studied as corsets. Body wraps work by wrapping the torso (or other bodily regions) in a plastic or cloth wrap. These wraps supposedly work by shaping your body while causing you to sweat off the extra weight. To date, I was not able to identify even one study looking at the effectiveness or dangers of body wraps. Therefore, it is important to note that science does not support the claims made by companies that produce body wraps. Further, multiple reports from in the 1980s FDA consumer* warned about believing the claims of these companies because they had not been approved by the FDA. These reports explained that these wraps do not dissolve fat, because “fat is not broken down by perspiration”. Instead, you are only losing water from sweat.

In reality, the topic of waist training is extremely under-researched. But, from what we do know from past observations is that corsets will create an hour-glass figure, but at a very high cost that has little to do with dropping pounds. Further, body wraps are less intense, but also less effective at creating this shape.  Overall, if you want to drop weight and gain that hour-glass figure, science currently supports eating healthy and exercising rather than following the current celebrity fad.

*The FDA consumer reports are only available as hard copies. For information pertaining to weight loss fads and body wraps please check out the 1981, 1982 and 1985 editions. 

Ask a Scientist: Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis?

By: Kylia Goodner

We all crack our knuckles (or at least know someone who cracks theirs), but each time we hear the characteristic “pop” of a joint cracking we have a slight moment of panic. Were our parents correct? Will cracking our knuckles cause arthritis?

Before I answer the question, I want to explain what is causing the characteristic “pop” associated with knuckle or joint cracking. Surrounding all of the body’s joints is a liquid called “synovial fluid” that helps your joints move smoothly. When oxygen and other gasses are brought into this area, large gas bubbles are formed. When you move or extend your fingers this lengthens the space between your joints and decreases the pressure formed by the fluid. This sudden decrease in pressure causes the large gas bubbles to “pop” and form into extremely tiny bubbles. Over the course of the next fifteen minutes the space between your joints returns to normal, which allows for another round of popping.

But does this repetitive cracking cause arthritis?  Although there have only been a handful of studies examining knuckle cracking, the prevailing answer is no.  A study examining 215 patients, found no increase in the amount of arthritis between knuckle crackers and non-knuckle crackers.  Another study examining 300 patients found the same result. However, this doesn’t mean its good for you or your hands. This same study found that knuckle cracking is associated with increased hand swelling and decreased grip strength.

As in every scientific study there are critiques. To date, there hasn’t been a single study to examine knuckle-crackers under the age of 45. Now, although it is probably safe to assume that people cracking their knuckles at age 45 have been doing it for most of their lives, a study examining knuckle cracking over time hasn’t been performed.  But for now, whenever you hear that characteristic “pop” you can quiet the terrified voice in the back of your mind and know that it is unlikely to cause arthritis! 


Ask a Scientist: Can we eradicate diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS?

The world can be a scary place, especially when new and dangerous diseases seem to spring out of nowhere and cause enormous worldwide death tolls. Therefore, it’s no surprise that both the public and scientists are united on getting rid of these diseases as fast as possible. But what exactly is disease eradication, and are scientists even able to eradicate diseases like Ebola and HIV in the future?

Well first, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eradication of a disease is defined as the “permanent reduction to zero of the worldwide incidence of infection”. This means that there must be zero new infections worldwide for a disease to be labeled as “eradicated”. Three guidelines are used to identify diseases that have the potential for eradication:

1) There must be an effective intervention to stop transmission of the disease. This can be a quarantine of all sick patients or administration of a vaccine to healthy people. Essentially, this is anything that will stop a new infection from occurring. 

2) There must be tools to identify when someone is infected. This is usually something like a cheek swab or a blood/urine test to determine whether someone is actually infected with the disease-causing virus or bacteria (aka pathogen).

3) The pathogen must rely on humans for its life cycle.  This means that if a pathogen can survive without a human, it cannot be eradicated.

If these three conditions are met, then a disease has the potential to be eradicated.

So how does Ebola virus measure up against these criteria?

1)    Prevention of transmission:

Although quarantines are effective in blocking human-to-human transmission, humans can also get Ebola from animals, like fruit bats. Therefore, quarantines will not be 100% effective in preventing the spread of Ebola. Another great way to stop people from getting a new infection of Ebola is a vaccine. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines available for public use, but there are many in the clinical trials pipeline. So the first condition isn’t met, but could the virus be eradicated if an effective vaccine were available?

2)    Tools for detection:

Yes! There are currently lab tests that measure infection.

3)    Dependence on humans:

Unfortunately, Ebola can survive in fruit bats without a human. Therefore, even if an effective vaccine were developed, it would be possible for a mutated form of the current Ebola virus to evolve in bats and be resistant to the developed vaccine. So unfortunately, eradication of Ebola is unlikely under the lens of these criteria.

Don’t be too discouraged, though, because eradication of HIV/AIDS is a different story. Returning to the three conditions required for eradication:

1)  Prevention of transmission:

Currently, the only interventions against HIV transmission are education and use of protection during sex. These are obviously not 100% effective to stop transmission of HIV. The creation of a vaccine would be ideal, but like Ebola, there are no currently available vaccines targeting HIV. There are a few vaccines being tested in clinical trials, however. But, when scientists are able to create an HIV vaccine, will eradication be possible? The answer is yes, because HIV meets both the second and third requirement set forth by the CDC:

2) Tools for detection:

There are tools that can accurately detect HIV infection and,

3)    Dependence on humans:

Yes! The life cycle of HIV depends on humans.

So now you know: eradication of Ebola is unlikely, while eradication of HIV/AIDS is definitely possible! However, a common theme among both of these diseases is that vaccines are desperately needed in order to be able to stop human-to-human transmission. Trust in vaccines is dwindling in today’s society, and although the safety of vaccines is a topic for another day, I will say that I fully support the creation and distribution of vaccines, new and old. They are a necessary part of our society if we want to be serious about eradicating diseases.  And I don’t know about you, but I definitely want to eradicate HIV as quickly and effectively as possible.




Ask a Scientist: Does smoking marijuana cause as much harm to your lungs as smoking cigarettes?

By: Kylia Goodner

Marijuana is all over the news: being decriminalized, legalized, and sold in an ever-growing number of states around the country. But as its legal presence grows larger, it is important to consider the safety of smoking marijuana before you light up (legally, of course). 

Both tobacco and marijuana plants are made of carbon, which, if you remember back to your high school chemistry class, makes up all living organisms. So what happens when you burn carbon? Well a variety of harmful chemicals are released into the air, and these chemicals can hurt your lungs when you inhale them. But this is true for burning anything that was once living, including wood for a bonfire, or grilling a steak on a hot summer’s day. 

So if burning anything with carbon creates harmful chemicals, then why is tobacco smoke so bad for you? Well mainly, it is harmful because it is addictive, which means that people who smoke tobacco inhale a lot of smoke, usually in the form of cigarettes. Further, cigarette companies add an additional 600 chemicals to these cigarettes, compounding the harmful effect on your lungs. Typically, people are not sitting around a bonfire multiple times a day, every day, for years on end inhaling harmful smoke in the same way that people smoke cigarettes. 

But this response is supposed to be about marijuana, and its effect on your lungs. It’s been known since the 80s that marijuana and tobacco smoke contain many of the same chemicals. Therefore, you would think that smoking marijuana would have the same effect on your lungs as smoking cigarettes, but surprisingly this isn’t the case. 

A study looking at over 5,000 people over the course of 20 years found no association between smoking marijuana and the development of lung cancer. A separate study focusing on lung function in marijuana smokers found that there was no decrease in lung function up to 20 joint years (1 joint year = 365 joints). However, they did find a slight decrease in function for smokers above 20 joint years. On the other hand, long-term marijuana smoking has been found to increase cough, phlegm and wheeze. 

Unfortunately though, researching marijuana has been made difficult by laws restricting access to the plant and the chemicals it contains. Therefore, we don’t know much about its effects on other bodily functions, including other cancers and heart disease. We do know, however, that inhaling burned carbon often is not good for your overall health. So when marijuana is legalized in your state, be cautious, responsible, and consider safer ways of inhalation. 


Ask A Scientist: Why do you crave greasy food when you have a hangover?

By: Kylia Goodner

We’ve all been there: hungover and craving cold pizza the morning after a fun night out. But why do we crave pizza and greasy foods, instead of a large bowl of lightly seasoned quinoa and grapes? Biology has the answer in a little peptide called Galanin.

Galanin is a neuropeptide, which just means that it’s a very small protein that resides mainly in the nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. Neuropeptides control many aspects of our day-to-day life. They tell us to move our hands when we’re touching a hot stove, and help us to remember our route to work. Although the main function of galanin is unknown, scientists have found exposure to fatty foods and ethanol causes more of it to be produced.

In laboratory rats, injection of galanin into a specific area of the brain, called the paraventricular nucleus, increased food intake in the hour after injection. Further, when scientists created mice without the ability to produce galanin, they found that they ate less fat and subsequently gained less weight than mice with galanin. So even without alcohol, if you eat fatty foods you’re going to produce galanin, which is then going to encourage you to eat fatty foods more often.

But what happens when you add alcohol? Unfortunately for us, the consumption of alcohol also increases the amount of galanin in our brains. Researchers have found that if they give ethanol to rats, through ethanol injections or by adding it to their water, the amount of galanin the rats produce increases compared to rats not receiving ethanol. Scientists further confirmed the relationship between galanin and alcohol by injecting mice with galanin and then observing how much ethanol they voluntarily drank after the injection. They found that after injection of galanin, the rats voluntarily drank more ethanol than the rats that did not receive an injection.

So, eating fatty foods and consuming alcohol both cause your body to produce more galanin, which in turn drives you to eat more fat and drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle, which can lead to numerous cold-pizza hangover binges. Luckily, scientists may have identified a way out. Recent research has found that properties in the ginseng berry may act as an anti-hangover agent by getting rid of some of the harmful chemicals, called free radicals, which cause hangovers. So, next time you’re feeling the ill-effects of a night out, grab some ginseng berries instead of the cold pizza. You’ll thank yourself for decreasing your galanin production and escaping the vicious cycle it causes! 

Starting this week: Ask A Scientist!

Do you have a scientific question you've always been curious about? Heard some scary science "news" on television and want to know whether it's legitimate? Read something on Wikipedia and want to know if scientists really think it's true? Think the world is ending and want to have scientists weigh in on the subject? 

Starting next Tuesday, March 12, our newest contributor, Kylia, will be answering your questions about all things science! Submit questions on our Ask A Scientist page, and check back on Tuesdays for the answers.