“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”: Mental Health in the Pictures

By: The Motley Advocate

In the classic film the Wizard of Oz, the titular Wizard, at first glance, is a force to be reckoned with, indeed appearing great and powerful. However, he is accidentally revealed to be not a wizard, but a man using pyrotechnics and other tricks. As he tries to keep his identity hidden he utters the famous line, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

This phrase was once symbolic of the relationship between the entertainer and the consumer. “The show must go on,” no matter the drama backstage, for the audience will just see the final product. While this has started to change in a world of behind the scenes photos, blog posts, and  endless celebrity tweets, we as an audience can still pay no attention to the man or woman behind the curtain. Vin Diesel is a massive fan of Dungeons and Dragons. Comedian Chris Farley was taking antidepressants when he passed away from a drug overdose. Alice Cooper is a golf advocate and has a yearly golf tournament to fund his charity for teenagers. For casual fans of these actors, these facts can be surprising.

If we often focus on the characters on screen, and ignore the complexity of the actors behind them, do we do something similar with facts portrayed on screen? There are many things we assume about the world based on how they are portrayed on film or television, where the complicated truth is hidden behind the curtain. It may not always be a conscious action. There are many “facts” that we all believe, without knowing where they originated from. If pressed, we would never say that we learned these facts from a movie. However, what are the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field? Most people would answer with the statistic from The Empire Strikes Back (3,720 to 1). The truth is a bit different (Not even 1 to 1).

In particular, movies strongly influence how we imagine mental health, mental illness, or neurological illness, often influencing what we as an audience think is the truth. From movies it would be easy to argue that people with neurological illnesses such as autism or intellectual development disorders  have “special powers” as seen in films such as Rain Man or Forrest Gump. In reality, special autistic abilities (savant behavior) do occur in about ten percent of people with autism. However, all savants do not necessarily have autism.

It is a recurring plot twist in movies and TV shows that the villain of a story is actually a character with an evil alternate personality, the most famous example being Psycho. Meanwhile, a survey of films between 1990 and 2010 revealed that a third of characters with schizophrenia (which is not split personality, by the way) are depicted as homicidal in films, while the majority of these characters display some sort of violent behavior [1]. In real life, people with mental illnesses are more often the victim of violent behavior than the perpetrator [1].

Finally, psychiatrists in fiction are often portrayed as either evil or mad themselves at worst (Silence of the Lambs) and ineffective or phony at best [2]  (Watchmen). In comparison, a study of films dedicated to dementia found that only half of the featured patients had even consulted a doctor [3]. While no person is perfect, a discussion with any psychiatric or neurological professional should reveal that such stereotypes are hurtful to the doctors that are trying to help, and can scare away people who may be uncertain about seeking help.

I imagine at this point, that many of you reading this would point out that there are good examples of the media portraying mental health and mental illness. A Beautiful Mind, Silver Linings Playbook and Still Alice are good examples of more accurate and balanced portrayals of mental illness. These films do what movies should do – allow people to connect to the characters.

These movies may not present every aspect of the mental illness correctly. Many movies featuring schizophrenic characters, for example, focus on what are classified as “positive” symptoms, such as delusions and visual hallucinations, and leave out “negative” symptoms, such as flat affect and avolition (essentially a lack of emotional reactions or drive), although these latter symptoms occur more often [1].  I’m afraid this may be because some symptoms can trigger a greater emotional response from a general audience. However, the emotional connection is where the strength of movies lies. The audience can see a character contribute to the plot with his or her goals, fears, desires, and actions. This three dimensional character is different from the character completely defined by his or her mental or neurological health.

However, we as an audience must be careful even with positive portrayals, as at the end of the day movies are meant to be entertaining not necessarily educational. We all can be guilty of ignoring the man or woman behind the curtain, because in a way the curtain is what film and television are. We often forget that what we watch are characters, not real people.* Portrayed positively or negatively, we need to remember that real people experiencing mental or neurological illness exist beyond the screen, and a 120 minute portrayal of their lives can never provide the entire picture. We need to use discretion with what appears on the screen, and instead leave it with a willingness to meet these real people with no assumptions about who they are and the trials and triumphs they face. So go ahead, pull back the curtain and see who is actually behind it.

* This comment is in no way meant as an insult to the skill of actors, but as a comment on audience interpretation.

Bibliography of Research Articles

  1.        Owen PR. Portrayals of Schizophrenia by Entertainment Media: A Content Analysis of Contemporary Movies. Psychiatr Serv. 2012;63(7). doi:10.1176/appi.ps.201100371.
  2.        Hopson J. The demonisation of psychiatrists in fiction (and why real psychiatrists might want to do something about it). Psychiatr Bull. 2014;38(4):175-179. doi:10.1192/pb.bp.113.045633.
  3.        Segers K. Degenerative dementias and their medical care in the movies. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2007;21(1):55-59. doi:10.1097/WAD.0b013e31802f2460.

If you are interested in more examples of stereotypes seen in media, I recommend checking out “TV Tropes: Hollywood Psych” for an expanded collection of examples across different genres and topics.

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Suicide: The Unspoken Truth at My Mom’s Funeral

by Meg-alodon

My mom’s death was preventable.

My mom died of a treatable disease.

My mom struggled with her illness for years but never found a treatment that worked for her.

My mom was ashamed of her illness.

My mom suffered from clinical depression.

My mom died by suicide.

My mom lost her battle with depression exactly three years ago.  She had fought with her depression for at least ten years.  As the years passed, I watched her slowly fade away, eroded by her depression.  Her energy waned.  Her spirit deflated.  She acted without thinking and was, at times, self-destructive.  My mom lived in a state of chronic pain – not physical pain, but emotional pain.  She tried various medications, attended therapy, self-medicated with alcohol, but despite her efforts, she never found the right combination of medications and treatments that worked for her.  Convinced that there was no other way to end her pain, my mom killed herself.

My mom tried to tell me that mental illness is similar to cancer, diabetes, or any other chronic disease.  You can fight it, but nevertheless, you may still succumb to it.  I didn’t understand.  I thought that if my mom really wanted to, that if she worked hard enough that she could get better.  No one told me otherwise.  And why would they?  No one talks about mental illness; no one talks about suicide.  (Even at my mom’s funeral, no one mentioned suicide; we just skirted around that issue).

Both mental illness and suicide are severely stigmatized in our culture.  Health insurance plans offer meager mental health benefits at best.  Life insurance policies don’t pay out in the case of suicide.  Suicide itself used to be a crime – individuals would be arrested for attempting suicide.  Religious officials (particularly of the Christian faith) have only recently stopped preaching that suicide is a one-way, non-stop flight to Hell.

But today, let’s talk about suicide.  Not only because my mom died by suicide, but because:

  • Suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in the U.S. and the second most common cause of death in 15-29 year olds [1].
  • Out of the ten leading causes of death in the U.S., suicide is the only one that has increased in the past five years (see graph below) [1].
  • Each year in the U.S., about 650,000 people attempt suicide and 41,000 people complete suicide. (That’s more than four times the number of deaths due to Ebola last year!! [3]).
  • One suicide happens every 12.8 minutes [2].
  • Suicide costs the U.S. about $50 billion each year in health care costs and lost earnings [2].

mortality1

What is the highest risk factor for suicide?  Having a mental illness.  In fact, over 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from a mental illness at the time of their death.  Depression and bipolar disorder are the most common mental illnesses associated with suicide, but drug abuse, schizophrenia, and personality disorders also contribute to suicide risk [4].  Family history of suicide also increases an individual’s likelihood to die by suicide.  Furthermore, 10% of suicides are copycat suicides (also termed contagion suicides) [4].

Contrary to common stigmas, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.  It is not an indicator that an individual is unable to cope with the stressors of everyday life.  Mental illness is not the fault of the person suffering from the disease.  (It is unfair and illogical to blame someone suffering from cancer, for example, for the onset and continued progression of their illness, so why attribute mental illness to some flaw of the ill individual?)

Mental illness is real and is based in physiological brain alterations.  In depression, the most common brain alteration is an imbalance of the chemicals that help control mood, energy, and pleasure (these chemicals are named serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine)[6-9].  This chemical alteration has been observed during autopsies of the brains of suicide victims and can sometimes be observed via live brain scans and blood tests of severely depressed and suicidal individuals [5,6,9].

What causes decreased levels of the above chemicals?  Scientists and doctors aren’t sure, but there are a number of plausible, medical explanations including genetics, brain injury, and many more.  Even though we don’t know exactly what causes depression, we do know that depression is a biological illness [5].

Unfortunately, scientific research of mental illnesses is progressing slowly and is underfunded.  Why?  Because people don’t talk about mental illness.  Because mental illness is not viewed as a crucial research topic despite the increase of suicides in recent years.

People who suffer from depression or any other mental illness deserve answers and better treatments, but most of all, they deserve compassion and understanding.  My biggest regret thus far was failing to understand my mom’s illness while she was alive and not giving her the compassion that she deserved and so desperately needed.  Now, I have compassion.  Now, I am understanding.  Now, I am not afraid to talk about suicide.  Let’s start a conversation.  Who’s with me?

For more information, please visit The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org.

This piece is dedicated to my mom.  Miss you lots and love you always.

References:

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Mortality in the United States, 2012”. NCHS Data Brief Number 168, October 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db168.htm#lcod.

[2] American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Facts and Figures”. Understanding Suicide. http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa”. Ebola (Ebola Virus Disease). http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/index.html.

[4] American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Key Research Findings”. Understanding Suicide. http://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/key-research-findings.

[5] Dwivedi, Y., Editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2012.

[6] Bach, H., & Arango, V. “Neuroanatomy of Serotonergic Abnormalities in Suicide”. Dwivedi, Y., Editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2012.

[7] Chandley, M.J., & Ordway, G.A. “Noradrenergic Dysfunction in Depression and Suicide”. Dwivedi, Y., Editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2012.

[8] Meyer, J.H. “Neuroimaging High Risk States for Suicide”. Dwivedi, Y., Editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2012.

[9] Pandey, G.N., & Dwivedi, Y. “Peripheral Biomarkers for Suicide”. Dwivedi, Y., Editor. The Neurobiological Basis of Suicide. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2012.

Science ACEs Feature: Mental Health

In 2013, President Obama designated May as National Mental Health Awareness Month to improve understanding and cognizance about the state of mental health in our country. This yearly campaign aims to increase awareness about the prevalence of mental illness and stigmas associated with mental conditions, and to provide information about support and treatment for people suffering from these disorders. We believe it is important to continue this conversation year-round.

Over the next four weeks, the Science ACEs blog will run eight pieces on mental health issues. These articles will discuss some of the science of mental illness, but we will also talk about the very personal, real impact mental illness has in our lives and on our society. We will discuss specific findings in neurobiology and present accounts of real people coping with and getting treated for mental health disorders.

In these coming weeks, we hope you take the time to consider the hidden struggles of others. Did you know that 1 in 5 adults in the US experiences mental health problems in a given year? Or that 1 in 25 will experience mental illness severe enough to disrupt their daily lives? Mental illness is not reserved for the sanitary white walls of a hospital – it affects your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, and maybe yourself. Mental illness has an impact not only on the sufferer, but on family members and friends as well. With so many around us affected, empathy and compassion should not be underrated as forces for change.

Unfortunately, mental health and mental illness are not well understood by society or as a general field of study. It can be difficult for individuals to conceptualize what is happening in someone else’s mind, just as it can be difficult for science to dissect the mind as an emergent property of the brain. The mechanisms of how neurological activity creates thoughts and emotions remain mysterious. The Science ACEs are learning more about these topics even as we write these articles and share our experiences. Join us as we explore these mysteries!

We can’t cover every aspect of mental illness in our one-month feature, but you can learn more about mental health and mental illnesses at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Fact-Sheet-Library.

As always, feel free to email us at science.aces15@gmail.com or reach out to us on twitter @scienceaces.

Sincerely,

-The Science ACEs team

Biotechie’s Bucket Biology on the Cheap: Gatorade DNA Extraction!

2015 6-18 Blog

By: Biotechie
Image by: Amber D. Miller

Before I began my PhD studies, some of my favorite experiences happened during my participation in an undergraduate organization that took science to middle school and high school classrooms. I would go to these tiny little rural classrooms, which lacked even the most basic lab equipment, like a scale, and would take with me a thermocycler, gel electrophoresis rig, and all of the rest of the equipment needed to show these students over a morning workshop how to get the pretty DNA banded gels like you see on CSI. These experiments would get the students excited about science, and I was inundated with questions about how I became a scientist.

At the end of the day, I would meet with the teachers and talk about how to incorporate more lab experiments in their classrooms, as hands-on experiments are a key factor in learning and maintaining interest in science. As is a common and unfortunate trend throughout the United States, the biggest concern was money. Many of these schools are given no budget for lab work, and so, over time, I began to work with these teachers to modify and develop experiments they could do with their classrooms for less than $20, what I like to call “Bucket Biology on the Cheap.”

As a Science ACE, I think it is important that these experiments are available to the public as a resource for teachers trying to generate lesson plans and incorporate more hands-on fun in the classroom and for others who are interested and want to try it out!

The Gatorade DNA Extraction is a tried and true experiment often used in high school classrooms. You can easily do this at home or at school, so it truly is an experiment for everyone! We tweaked it and made sure it worked, so here is the streamlined version that I used during outreach:

Materials Needed:

Small disposable cups

5 mL Lemon-Lime Gatorade (must be original, not sugar-free or G2) per student

5 mL ice cold 90-100% ethanol (store in freezer overnight – it will not freeze)

2 mL 25% dishwashing detergent (25 mL Dawn + 75 mL water)

15 mL test tubes or screw-cap tubes

Thin bamboo skewers for spooling DNA

Where to buy materials:

All of the materials you need for this experiment can be purchased inexpensively. However, you may not have purchased materials like pipettes, ethanol, or test tubes before, so to save you some time, here’s where you can find these items:

  • Plastic pipettes to measure accurate volumes in mL can be purchased from many craft stores. It may also be helpful to know your conversions: 5 mL is approximately equal to 1 tsp.
  • 90-100% ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, can be purchased from some grocery stores. It can also be purchased from hardware stores, where it is labeled as denatured alcohol, or from liquor stores as 190-proof Everclear.
  • Test tubes can be purchased online, from supermarkets, or from a craft store.

Protocol:

(Make sure students do not eat or drink anything for an hour or so before the experiment so you get more cells and no food chunks)

  1.     Take the 5 mL aliquot of Gatorade and swish it around your mouth like mouthwash for 30 seconds. Spit it back into the cup and transfer it into your tube.
  2.     Add 2 mL of the 25% dishwashing detergent solution, cap/stopper the tube, and invert gently several times to mix. Do not shake! Then let the tube sit for a few minutes so the solution can work and to allow bubbles to pop.
  3.     Hold the tube at an angle and VERY slowly pour the ice cold ethanol down the side of the tube. You should see a clear layer forming on top of your Gatorade layer. Be very careful not to shake or jostle the tube!
  4.     Within a few seconds, you should see a white filmy layer between the Gatorade and ethanol layers. This is the DNA! Without shaking the tube, gently slide a skewer all the way to the bottom of the tube and slowly spin it. You will see the DNA start to stick to the skewer at the interface. Slowly pull the skewer out.
  5.     You can dry the DNA on the skewer or collect it into a microcentrifuge tube using a toothpick to keep as a souvenir!

Explanation of how each step works:

  1.     We drink Gatorade when we play sports because it replenishes the electrolytes we lose while sweating. Gatorade is isotonic to our own cells, which means that the salt and ion concentrations are very similar to what is inside our cells. This helps keep the cells from lysing before we want them to. The cells in your mouth are only attached loosely to one another, which is why you can get enough from this experiment by vigorously swishing the solution around your mouth.
  2.     Why would it be important to add a detergent to the cells you collected with the Gatorade? The detergent is amphipathic, meaning that it has one end that is hydrophobic (water-hating) and one side that is hydrophilic (water-loving). The membrane surrounding each cell is composed of a lipid bilayer which consists of a hydrophobic center and a hydrophilic outer portion. Because it is amphipathic, the detergent molecules are able to invade the lipid bilayer and cause it to fragment into many small micelles, surround proteins to break up protein interactions, and ultimately release the DNA from the cell!

At this step, the Gatorade is also helping us out. The salt ions in the Gatorade help protein fragments and other cell debris to clump together, which is why you may start to see some chunks floating to the bottom of your tube. That’s okay! Your DNA should still be in solution.

  1.  and 4.  We always talk about “like dissolves like” in the lab when we talk about polarity. Polar molecules, like water, have a slight positive charge on one end and a slight negative charge on the other end. DNA is very polar with a net negative charge when it is in solution. Both water and ethanol are polar, but ethanol is much LESS polar than water, particularly when the ethanol is very cold. This means that the difference between the positive and negative charges are in ethanol are not as great across the molecule.  The DNA is coated in Na+ ions from the salt in the Gatorade, making it even more polar.  The highly polar DNA cannot dissolve in the much less polar ethanol, so it precipitates into a white, wispy layer when cold alcohol is added.

I hope you enjoyed this experiment! What do you want to learn about next?

Sources: Adapted from DNA extraction protocols used in the laboratory and lesson plans utilized by Biotechie during outreach, and with generous help from University of Utah (http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/labs/extraction/).

Big Pharma Marketing Shenanigans

By: Benwonder_drug
Image by: Amber D. Miller

In a previous article, I talked about how the FDA determines whether a drug should be allowed to be sold. It typically takes around 14 years and $1 billion to get each drug through the approval process. Actually, in the last 10-15 years, the cost has gone up significantly to over $2.5 billion (although the average time to approval has gotten closer to 10 years). That seems like a lot of money to be allowed to sell one little chemical. So how do these companies get their money’s worth? It may surprise you that many pharmaceutical companies spend far more money on marketing than they do research and development.

John Oliver did a segment on his show on pharmaceutical advertising to doctors (warning: coarse language). In the segment, he talks about all the ways, many of them rather sketchy, that pharmaceutical companies convince doctors to prescribe their drugs. For instance, pharmaceutical companies frequently spend many times more advertising to doctors than to the public; companies pay certain doctors to be “thought leaders” to hawk drugs to doctors who refuse to see pharmaceutical reps; and drug companies place enormous pressure on doctors who don’t prescribe their drugs in sufficient numbers. The previous article I wrote talked about how it’s important to trust your doctor, but if you watched the video, you may begin to feel that doctors are letting pharma money dictate all their decisions. This is why it’s important for you to find a doctor that you like and trust. In fact, as part of the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), there is a government website that requires all doctors to disclose money they have received from drug companies. This database is relatively new, but over the next couple years, it will publish comprehensive information on payments to doctors and hospitals. If you search for your doctor and they don’t come up, it’s likely they haven’t taken any payments from drug companies.

Should I be worried that my doctor is taking payments from drug companies?

That really depends on how much they are taking and from whom. Since it’s important to have open and honest conversations with your doctor, you could print out a list from the database above and ask them about money they’ve taken. (Note: This isn’t really worth it if there are very few payments/gifts for very little money. Think about what you’d be willing to change about your own life if someone bought you a $10 lunch one time.) The most important part of the doctor-patient relationship is trust. Give your doctor a chance to earn your trust, but if you don’t trust them, you should find a doctor that you do trust.

What can we do about all this money spent on marketing?

If you remember from my previous article on big pharma, drug companies are first and foremost companies. In 2012, Pfizer spent $130 million advertising the arthritis drug Celebrex and $108 million advertising Viagra. When these drugs came out in the late 1990’s, Pfizer had been spending an average of $100 million per year over the course of 10 years for FDA approval. They then continued to spend at least that much each year on advertising. For comparison, Sony spent $100 million advertising Playstation 4 when it launched in 2013. They do this because they know it will get people to consume their product. Sony is just trying to convince you that you should spend your free time playing their games, but in pharma’s case, they are trying to convince millions of Americans to take a drug that they may or may not need. They are also trying to dictate how physicians prescribe drugs. Here are a few ideas you may want to discuss with your friends, family, and local congressmen:

  • Most developed countries limit how pharmaceuticals can be marketed, both to doctors and consumers, with reasonable success. The idea of government regulation tends not to go over well in the US, but if enough people pushed for regulation, it could happen.
  • The government could spend more money on research and development through the National Institutes of Health, which fund much of the biomedical research in our country. This would would push drugs through that initial investment hurdle of FDA approval. FDA could then lease the patent rights to a company for manufacturing, with conditions limiting how the drug is marketed to doctors.
  • The open payment database I mentioned earlier can be used to make pharma-physician connections more transparent. If patients show that they care about this issue, doctors will have incentive – keeping their patients – to avoid taking large amounts of money from drug companies.
  • As with all sorts of social change, it can only happen if enough people know and care about the issue. If you think this is an important issue, start a conversation with your friends, family, and doctors about how much money is spent marketing pharmaceuticals.

What can I personally do about this?

Be educated about your health and medication! Sometimes, a particular drug will be right for you, not because a commercial told you so, but because you truly need that medication. If you ask your doctor to explain why the drug is needed and how it will fix the problem, you can understand why this specific drug is right in your case.

This is central to the mission of Science ACEs: no matter how much schooling you have, we want you, YES YOU!, to be educated about science.  One of the reasons I am so passionate about this mission is that the more you know about science and medicine and the related social issues, the more you will be able to ask the right questions and have a productive conversation with your doctor.

You can follow Ben on twitter @bhornstein5189

I can science, and so can you!

By: Austen
Image by: Amber D. Miller

dino

When I was five I could name every dinosaur – toy or drawing – that had ever crossed my path. The dark green carpet of my parent’s apartment was where Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Velociraptor, Allosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus rex battled it out every day. I’m sure you or someone you know had a similar passion. I MEAN THEY’RE FREAKING DINOSAURS, MAN! How could you not like them?! While at that time I knew nothing of paleontology or evolution, I understood that dinosaurs were animals that ONCE lived on this planet. I think that’s what was so appealing to me about these plastic toys – they were a testament to the amazing transformative power of time. Today I’m a research scientist (a molecular microbiologist to be specific), and I want to share with you my passion for discovery. Whether or not you played with dinosaurs as a kid, I think we’ve all had a similar experience where nature had inspired our imagination. Science gives you the tools to explore new possibilities and uncover never-before-seen truths about the world you live in. What’s even more exciting is that all of us are scientists in our own way, whether we realize it or not. As such, I hope you appreciate that research science is not an esoteric endeavor reserved for the Professor Frinks of the world. To the contrary, I find it a very human response to the unknown.

Take this time to ask yourself: “If I could discover something new and exciting, what would it be?” Whatever your discovery, the pathway to getting there – the basics of research science – is a three step process. 1. Find out what is known. If you think about human knowledge as a giant ring of light, through curiosity alone you can read your way to the edge of a specific point on that ring –the farthest that humanity’s intellectual light has traveled on that chosen subject. 2. Experiment. Standing on the edge of this light and peering into the abyss, you can ask a question in the form of an experiment. 3. Interpret data and make conclusions. If that question is phrased correctly, nature answers back in a language that can be interpreted, and the ring of knowledge will be expanded the slightest bit.

This is a simplification of the scientific method, but nonetheless a poetically descriptive way to think about what we do as scientists. We push the boundaries of questioning and creativity to forge an entirely new understanding of the world. How could anyone resist research science? It is a supremely unique experience!

Anyone can take the first step in this process. It’s just reading! You don’t need a special degree or training to acquaint yourself with what is known. What training as a scientist will give you, however, is a better ability to complete the last two steps – forming an experiment and interpreting the data. Yet, it may surprise you that we often complete these last two steps everyday outside of the context of science. Let’s consider an example.

If you live in a city, you probably hate your commute. It amazes me how perfectly nice, logical people suddenly turn into painfully stupid simpletons that haven’t the slightest clue how to merge or navigate an intersection! I mean how did they even get a driver’s license, let alone the job that pays for that pretentiously expensive car!? Most likely you find a way to avoid it as best you can by having a routine and route that you habitually stick to. How did it come to that? You probably used the three steps above! 1. Find out what is known. You gathered as much information as possible about traffic patterns between your home and work. What are peak hours? Are there alternate routes with less traffic? Is public transportation available? How much does parking cost? 2. Experiment. The question you’re probably asking is “What is the quickest way to get to and from work with minimum hassle?” In answering that question you might have tried different routes, parking lots, and public transportation systems. 3. Interpret data and make conclusions. If you felt like you tried enough variation during your commute, you probably found a method that was a good balance of traffic, location, and price.

While I regret to inform you that you’re not the first human being to successfully navigate rush hour traffic, you definitely employed some form of research, data collection, and analysis to shape your daily commute as it is today. As with scientific discoveries, the final conclusions you made regarding that commute are only as good as the research that got you there. If you missed valuable information or made faulty assumptions, your daily commute will not be as convenient and optimized as it could be. In the future, I hope you’ll become aware of this three step process at work when you play sports, buy groceries, or even go to the movies. We are constantly shaping our lives around the basic principles of research science.

I hope you’re beginning to realize that scientists are not the awkward, magical information genies we’re typically portrayed as (I’m looking at you, Big Bang Theory). Rather, the passion that drives scientists is basically the same one that drives you to navigate your daily life. We all want to shed light on the unknown! It’s really just about being curious, and having the conviction to answer your own questions. I’m actually no more a scientist than I was at five years old scattering dinosaurs on the living room carpet. I just have more refined methods of exploration now.

You can follow Austen on Twitter @AustenLeeT