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: Do wearable copper and/or magnetic gadgets reduce pain and inflammation?

By: Kylia Goodner

We all experience pain, and whether it’s due to an intense workout, or just from the side effects of aging, we would all like to kick it to the curb. One folklore remedy for pain reduction has recently re-emerged into the public sphere, and suggests that wearing copper or magnetic jewelry can help to reduce pain in as little as 5 minutes. Proponents of this remedy suggest that the magnetic jewelry forms a magnetic field near your body that interferes with your nervous system in order to reduce pain. The copper jewelry is presumed to work by releasing tiny amounts of copper onto your skin, which are then absorbed by your body and used to re-grow joint cartilage. Let’s delve into the science to see if these claims are true.

One study examined the effect of magnetic therapy by placing magnets or dummies (which resembled magnets, but weren’t actually magnetic) near an incision site directly after surgery. The doctors then observed whether the patients wearing the magnets needed less pain medication than those wearing the dummies. After two hours, the patients required the same amount of pain medication, regardless of whether they had been wearing magnets or dummies. The doctors concluded that the magnets had no effect on pain after two hours. But two hours is a relatively short time, and even though many of these companies claim the jewelry begins to work after 5 minutes, what is their effect after weeks of wear?

Two studies examining pain reduction in arthritis patients after wearing a magnetic or dummy bracelet for up to twenty weeks found no difference in the amount of pain experienced by patients in the two groups.  I found only one study that said there was a small effect on pain reduction in groups wearing strong magnets. However, these patients were aware that they wearing the magnetic bracelets because their bracelets kept sticking to their keys. This study was therefore unable to rule out the possibility that the small reduction in pain described by the participants was due to a placebo effect.

Copper bracelets appear to be equally as ineffective as the magnetic jewelry. One study looking at reduction of pain due to osteoarthritis found no difference in the amount of pain or inflammation between patients wearing a copper bracelet and patients wearing a dummy. This was also true in an additional study looking at rheumatoid arthritis, in which copper bracelets made no difference in pain experienced by patients. However, it appeared that the copper bracelets actually caused pain in some patients due to a mild skin irritation.

Overall, science has concluded that neither the magnetic gadgets nor copper jewelry have an effect on pain reduction.  Luckily, scientists have found something that will reduce pain, and is easily purchased at your local grocery store. Numerous studies have found that fish oil reduces pain in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Fish oil can also help reduce inflammation, which would result in pain reduction.  So, although the folklore jewelry wont do much to help kick your pain to the curb, hope is not lost as certain dietary changes and supplements will!

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: 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: 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!