Cosmic Radiation and You: A Look at Some of the Science Behind the Fantastic Four

by Tyler


"Fantastic Four 2015 poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

The Fantastic Four movie opened recently in theaters, the latest in a line of comic book franchises brought to the big screen. The new film as well as the comics showcase a family that undergoes adventures often dealing with the fantastic, and with science. In the movie, the characters gain their abilities after exposure to an alternate dimension; however, in the original comics the characters gain their abilities, including the ability to fly, turn invisible, or have immense strength, through exposure to cosmic radiation. But what is cosmic radiation, and what are the effects of radiation interacting with a normal human body?

Cosmic radiation generally refers to small charged particles emitted from a celestial object, such as a star, during events such as coronal ejections or even supernovas. These particles are often charged, such as helium nuclei (similar to alpha radioactive decay), hydrogen nuclei (similar to beta radioactive decay), or other isotopes, but with a much higher speed and thus energy. There are other forms of radiation, such as gamma rays, x-rays, or UV-rays, that also exist in space as well as on earth, and also can present additional health hazards. These health hazards come in the form of energy that is able to penetrate the normal barriers of the body (like skin), resulting in damage or changes to the DNA of cells, which can result in a variety of health conditions, including death.

sigma aldrich

Copyright Sigma-Aldrich

Radiation can cause many forms of DNA damage. Often, these sites of damage can be recognized and fixed by enzymes within the cell; if the cell is unable to fix the DNA damage it may halt cellular division, or induce cell death. This prevents cells with mutated DNA from propagating into cancer. Even in cases where the cell is able to repair the damage, repair can result in mutation of the DNA sequence. The mutation might occur in a site that doesn’t interfere with the cell’s normal state, but if the mutation is in a gene essential for cell survival or function, the cell might turn cancerous or die. If the DNA damage is spread over a large area of the body this may result in tissue and organ failure, and can lead to death. However, due to the ability to cause DNA damage regardless of what state a cell is in, radiation can be used as an effective tool against already cancerous cells.  This can lead to an arrest of cell division or induce death of the cancerous cells, which can halt the further spread of the cancer.

So unfortunately, radiation is out as a source of superpowers in the real world, as similar exposure to what is shown in the comics would leave a normal person severely injured or worse. Mutation caused by radiation has been the inspiration for many superheroes gaining their abilities, such as Spider-man and the Incredible Hulk. Random mutation is likely to be harmful to the exposed cells, but there are methods, such as targeted gene therapies, that might be able to introduce select mutations to the cells. As a whole though, radiation in the real world is much different from its portrayal in the comics, as are the effects radiation has on people.

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Graduate School, The Journey, and Why I do Science

by Biotechie

The reactions I get from others when I say I’m a graduate student scientist usually go along one or two directions. Often, if I tell someone that I do obesity research, the immediate response is to ask me how they can be thinner (which, by the way, I don’t know because we’re still learning about metabolism)! The other reactions, which usually question my sanity… well, that’s what this blog post is about: Graduate School and why I’m so willing to take such a long journey to do science!

I’m a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, just starting my third year. I’m 26 years old and hope to graduate in the next two to three years. At this stage of my life, it seems like every couple of months, there’s this flood of major life events amongst my friends: new jobs, engagements, marriages, babies, etc. This isn’t the first time I’ve pointed it out to myself, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It is interesting to me how different the path in life I’ve chosen is compared to other people I know, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this field that is looking at things from this point of view.

Graduate school doesn’t interfere with these life events for a lot of people, but as a graduate student myself, I’m not rushing into any of them. You can’t “really” decorate and call the place you’re going to school your home because you are likely to not be here in 3-5 years. Most people have to very strictly budget themselves on their graduate student stipend. If you have a significant other, they may be forced to be away from you the majority of the time. I’m reduced to physically being in the same state as my fiancé for less than 3 weeks per year, and even when we are in the same place, it is only a couple of days before I need to get back to the lab. It isn’t easy.

You may even be looked down on for continuing to be a student. I get asked things like this all the time:

How’s it going to feel to be at a 10-year high school class reunion and say, “I’m currently still a student?”

Haven’t you already got a degree?

Why don’t you get a real job?

Are you only going to grad school because you couldn’t get a job?

Why is going to school more important than being with your fiancé and family?

Don’t you feel left out with everyone moving on in their lives?

Don’t you ever do anything but go to lab?

I’ve never had good responses. Normally, I listen to these questions and simply answer that I love science and that I immensely miss my family, which usually elicits eye-rolls or odd looks. That’s normally the end of it, but at the end of my first year of graduate school, when I selected my research lab, I realized that I’ve failed to show people why science is awe-inspiring enough for me to continue this journey.

In biomedical sciences, you do a series of test-runs for a few weeks in different labs, called rotations, where you decide if it is the lab environment you want to complete your PhD in.  When I elatedly posted on social media that I had selected my lab, I got a message asking me why it even mattered that I’d picked a place where I wanted to do research. I decided it was time that you all knew what makes it worth it. This is my attempt at answering the most common question of all, “What are you doing and why does it matter?”

Graduate school is magical to me; you’re jumping into something new, exciting, and different. This isn’t like undergrad where you go to classes and then you are done for the day.  At the same time, it is also scary. You are pursuing a degree where you’re expected to become the expert in some aspect of the field. The goal is for you to graduate with more knowledge of a particular subject than anyone else in the world. Graduate school literally IS a job. Working on a PhD in the biomedical sciences means that you’re in lab 40+ hours per week plus classes. Evenings are spent reading and studying. All at once, you’re expected to be good at performing experiments, comprehending scientific papers, computer programming, scientific writing, figure generation, and giving presentations. This commitment is why they have to pay us to get this education. If they didn’t, nobody would ever get a PhD in this field, and research would be completed at a snail’s pace. Classes are not the important thing; the things you accomplish as a researcher are. You’re judged based on your contributions to your field from the research you produce. Half of your experiments will fail, and your PhD depends on those that work. It is daunting, and the goals aren’t exactly clear. You may not know where you’re moving for your postdoctoral studies (similar to a 1-3 year apprenticeship) until less than 6 months before graduation. At this point, due to the requirement to move around for postdoctoral studies, I won’t be on track for my dream job, to be a tenured professor, until I’m 32, at the youngest.

I know if you’ve made it this far, you’re thinking, “That just sounds awful!” Here’s the magic: I’m doing exciting research that might actually have an impact on human lives one day, yet I never have to touch a patient. I’m working on questions about the function of proteins in our own cells that nobody knows the answer to. Every time I successfully finish an experiment, I get excited about science. For that very brief moment in time, I’m the only one on earth who knows a piece of the puzzle of how our cells work and how mistakes cause disease. As you can imagine, there are periods of time where I am simply in awe. If that isn’t magical enough, then I get to share that information and teach it to others. What I learn today in the lab may be in textbooks, tomorrow. I’m simultaneously the student and the teacher. The publication of a paper I contributed data to, over 4 years of work, for me, is nearly equivalent to these life events everyone is constantly celebrating… and I’m told it is so very weird for me to put them on the same level. For a young scientist, it is a huge deal; something you worked on may have the potential to make an impact, but it also helps push you forward in your career.

I felt the need to write this because I wanted to share that despite this career that seems so unconventional to many, I am thrilled to be immersed in the world of research. I’m in a city I don’t exactly love, over 1000 miles from my family, and yet I am excited to go to the lab every day. For me, it is just amazing for me to be where I am, despite that it isn’t the norm. It feels right. I don’t feel left out, and I feel normal. I am so lucky. I guess it all goes back to what my dad always says, “Be different. Be good.”

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Finding Dr. Right

By Ben Hornstein and Dr. Lucy Hornstein

Finding the right primary care physician for you and your family is a lot like dating. You can swipe right at the first doctor who takes your insurance, then find out he’s a complete jerk when you meet him. Maybe you’ve looked at his medical profile in great detail, then you go for your first check-up and just don’t feel that spark. That’s fine. It’s okay to be picky, and to keep looking for the right person who will take you as their patient, to have and to hold, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live. Well, you, at any rate.

We’re here to help you with several “dating” tips on finding Dr. Right.

Find someone you can trust

Why do you go to the doctor at all? Same reason you hire a plumber or a mechanic: because they have special training and knowledge about something you don’t.If a doctor tells you things you either know are wrong or that don’t make sense (and that they can’t explain to your satisfaction), steer clear.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there

Just because you have a bad experience with one doctor doesn’t mean you’re destined to never have a rewarding relationship. Be careful about insisting on the “best” doctor, endlessly perusing “Best Of” lists in magazines (which are generally compiled by asking other doctors who they like best, not patients.) The best doctor for you may not be best for your BFF, your neighbor, or even your spouse. You may like the idea of a doctor who’s willing to spend time discussing every detail of your condition at length, while someone else wants “just the facts,” enough information to make a decision, but no dilly-dallying with endless small talk.

Google them first

Looking up your doctor online can be a great way to get information. Are they board certified? Where did they go to medical school? Where is the office? What are their hours and what insurances do they accept? Be careful about reading patient reviews, though. As with all online reviews, remember that they are generally submitted by people who are very pleased or very displeased.

Communication is key

As in every good relationship, appropriate communication is important. A good doctor should be able to explain everything at your level of understanding without being patronizing. A pediatrician will tell you that “boo-boo” is perfectly acceptable medical jargon, whereas a neurosurgeon should be able to explain brain surgery to you in a way that isn’t rocket science.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T (find out what it means to me)

Doctors’ schedules can get busy, but if they show up an hour late to your appointment without any apology or explanation, they are not respecting you or your time. While no office can run smoothly 100% of the time, a small gesture like an apology can show the difference between a doctor who respects you and one who is trying to crank out as many appointments in the day as possible. Be patient and respectful of the doctor’s time as well (i.e. don’t show up late yourself, call if you need to cancel, etc.). Respect from both sides will help build a meaningful relationship.

Get along with their friends

It’s important that your “friend with health benefits” has friends who are a good influence on them. Your Primary Care Physician will often refer you to specialists in certain situations. It’s important that these specialists fit you as well. Just because they are a friend of a friend doesn’t mean they need to be your friend. Some doctors are paid by drug companies to prescribe their drugs. You don’t want a doctor who has anything to do with people like that.

Be (a) patient

This whole process is so exasperating! Why do you need a doctor at all? Just use one of the gazillions of symptom checkers online and make your own diagnosis. If only. The problem with the Internet is that there’s too much information. Whatever you plug in, some online resource is going to say that it’s cancer or AIDS. It’s the doctor’s job to know which of that information does NOT apply to you. It’s not as easy as it looks. So hang in there and keep plugging away until you find the perfect doctor for you.

Know when it’s not working

You’ve done everything right: google references were stellar, hanging with all the right specialists, and the office is wonderful about communication. But after a few visits, you’re just not happy. You may not be able to put your finger on it. Was that remark he made meant to be funny when it sounded condescending to you? Was she just a little too brusque? Doesn’t matter. You’re the one who needs to be satisfied, and you’re the one who gets to decide what that means. Like any other relationship, if it’s not working for you then it’s not working. Breaking up doesn’t have to be hard either. When you find a new doctor, send the old one a request to transfer your records. Don’t worry about the request being taken personally. Doctors are professionals and patients transfer in and out all the time, for all kinds of reasons. Your doctor wants you to be happy, and if another doctor is better able to do that, then that’s what they want for you. (More on that here.)

If they try to touch your genitals the first time you meet, run.

Actually, this one doesn’t always apply to doctors, especially urologists and gynecologists. Just make sure they wear protection, but do tell them if you have a latex allergy.

When Ben isn’t spending quality time with his Primary Care Physician, he can be followed on Twitter @bhornstein5189

Dr. Lucy Hornstein has been practicing Family Medicine for over 25 years. If you’re in the Philadelphia area and looking for your own medical someone, swipe right at her office. If you’d like to get to know her first, read her blog. She can also be followed on Twitter @DrLucysGuide.

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Who We Are

What does a scientist look like? Maybe you think of a lab coat, poor social skills and a mad cackle. Maybe you think of someone who never leaves the laboratory and would be blinded by sunlight. Actually scientists can be just like you. They have their careers (Science!) that they are passionate about, however they have other things in their lives they love just as much. Here is a chance to meet some of the ACEs and see who they are when they are not in lab.

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The Fate of Fetal Tissues After They Leave Planned Parenthood

by Meg-alodon

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following Planned Parenthood in the news.  To summarize what’s been happening, several congressmen (most of them Republicans) have been pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, claiming reduction of federal spending as a primary motive.  As additional ammunition for their defunding schemes, these politicians have cited videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (an anti-abortion group), which claim that Planned Parenthood harvests and sells fetal tissues for profit.

As a woman and a scientist, I am very interested in Planned Parenthood’s fate.  As a woman, I want to know that I will be able to access educational, contraceptive, and gynecological resources throughout my life.  (Read more about the resources Planned Parenthood provides here.)  As a scientist, I am concerned that those videos depict the collection of fetal tissues as a gruesome and profitable enterprise.  (FYI – it is illegal to sell human tissues for profit).  Since I’m not connected with Planned Parenthood, I can’t say whether the videos released accurately depict the inner workings of this organization, although I highly suspect that those videos were edited to intentionally misrepresent what happens at Planned Parenthood.  However, I can tell you that fetal tissues are respectfully collected by numerous medical clinics and that these tissues are used by scientists and doctors to study and treat human diseases.

Unlike how it is depicted in the Planned Parenthood videos, fetal tissue collection is a very respectable venture.  Tissues are not collected from every fetus – women receiving abortions choose whether they want to donate the fetus to science.  (Fetuses that are not donated to science are disposed of properly and respectfully according to local and federal guidelines).  These donated tissues are collected by all sorts of medical entities besides Planned Parenthood including hospitals, doctors’ offices, and medical clinics.  Researchers do pay for these tissues, but not an exorbitant fee.  The cost associated with fetal tissues is meant to only cover the cost of collecting, preparing, packaging, and shipping these tissues.

The most important question, though, and the reason why I wanted to talk about this is what those fetal tissues are used for.  Most of the people I talked to about this think that fetal tissues are used for stem cell research, but fetal tissues can be used in other areas as well.

Fetal tissues do contain a lot of stem cells, which are instrumental in studying various diseases and conditions.  With these fetal stem cells and tissues, scientists can give human organs and cells to mice.  This is crucial for studying viral diseases such as HIV/AIDS, which don’t easily infect laboratory animals.  By using these “humanized mice”, we have learned that women who are not infected with HIV can take anti-retroviral therapy (a standard HIV drug therapy) to reduce the risk of being infected by HIV positive sexual partners.  Also, we have learned that treating mothers with anti-retroviral therapy prevents them from passing HIV to their babies via breast milk.  Both of these are huge steps in slowing the transmission of HIV.

In addition to letting us study specific diseases, fetal tissues can also be used to directly treat certain conditions.  For example, transplants of fetal retinal tissue can restore vision to people suffering from retinitis pigmentosa or diabetic retinopathy.  In both of these conditions, the cells that capture images in the retina die, resulting in vision loss.  Transplantation with fetal retinas allows for growth of new photoreceptor cells, ultimately restoring vision in the affected individuals.

Don’t get me wrong – while I’m glad that we can use fetal tissues to study and treat diseases, I am deeply saddened that those fetuses never got a chance to live.  However, I think that we are respecting and honoring those fetuses by using their tissues to save the lives of others.  From something sad comes something good.  From their deaths come life.

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Keep Funding Planned Parenthood

By: Anthony Barrasso

Recently, the pro-life community has been up in arms over hidden camera footage published online by the Center for Medical Progress. The clearly edited videos feature two people from the anti-abortion activist group posing as representatives of a company interested in illegally purchasing fetal tissue for non-research use from Planned Parenthood. The controversy has caused an uprising of critics, including Republican presidential candidates, calling for the federal government to end funding of the organization. Three states have already ceased funding of the organization. If any wrong-doing can be proved, then executives at Planned Parenthood should face consequences, but banning or limiting funding for the organization would be short-sighted and irresponsible.

Importantly, this blog has nothing to do with abortion. This may be confusing because Planned Parenthood is often referred to by pro-lifers as simply an abortion clinic. However, multiple sources have shown that abortion services only account for 3% of the organization’s annual budget. The vast majority of funding for Planned Parenthood is used for the testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and providing contraception. Defunding Planned Parenthood would severely limit American’s, especially those with low income and those who do not qualify for comprehensive healthcare benefits, access to both of these services, and have a significant, negative impact on human health.Planned Parenthood

STIs are infections commonly spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. These infections are irritating, painful, and sometimes lethal. Although most are treatable, they remain highly prevalent in the population. In 2013, there were nearly 1.8 million reported cases of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea combined in the U.S. The reason these infections continue to spread is due to their ability to lay dormant in the body for months, even years, before causing symptoms. Thus, affordable testing and education about safe sex, like that performed at Planned Parenthood clinics, is critical to prevent the spread of these harmful infections.

Access to contraception is another vital health service that Planned Parenthood provides the public. Firstly, the attempt of reducing teen pregnancy and abortions by providing free or reduced cost contraception has been an overwhelming success in research studies and in practice in Colorado.  Beyond preventing unwanted pregnancy, oral contraception (the pill) regulates hormone levels and treats irregular periods. Secondly, the pill can prevent endometrial cancers (cancers of the womb), including ovarian, cervical, and uterine. A recent study estimated that the pill has prevented 400,000 cases of endometrial cancers in the last 50 years; half of which have been prevented in the last decade. Planned Parenthood also allocates 9% of their budget specifically for cancer screening and prevention, which is three times as much money allocated for abortion services.

The leaked videos of Planned Parenthood personnel are worrisome and warrant investigation, but prove nothing. Even if there are personnel at Planned Parenthood negotiating for-profit deals on fetal tissue, it is clearly not representative of the organization as a whole. Overall, federal funding for Planned Parenthood is important for public health, especially in preventing the spread of STIs, unwanted pregnancy, and cancer. Regardless of personal opinions on abortion, it is imperative that Planned Parenthood, and organizations like it, continue to receive adequate funding.

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Bill Cosby and the Dark Side of Quaaludes

By: Austen
Note: NSFW and some topics discussed are not suitable for all ages

Most of us have come to the depressing realization that Bill Cosby is likely a serial rapist and predator of aspiring actresses. Dozens of accusers claim that Cosby drugged and raped them after being lured into his residence under false pretenses. The circumstantial and anecdotal evidence is damning, and you probably know that he admitted in a recently released deposition to acquiring Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to women. Why would this be Cosby’s drug of choice and how does it affect people? We need to understand its origins and applications to find out.

quaalude pill

Quaalude is one of many generic terms for methaqualone, which was originally developed as an anti-malarial drug in 1951. It was repurposed as a sleep aid, and quickly became a popular recreational drug in the 70’s and 80’s due to its hypnotic and euphoric side effects. Methaqualone was so pervasive that at one point its usage was second only to marijuana. Some of you may be familiar with the dramatization of Quaalude abuse from Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Left to right: Leonardo DiCaprio is Jordan Belfort and Jonah Hill is Donnie Azoff in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, from Paramount Pictures and Red Granite Pictures. TWOWS-03964R

NSFW language

However, what likely interested Cosby was methaqualone’s effectiveness at treating insomnia. Marketed as a safer alternative to barbiturates, Quaaludes are a powerful sedative and muscle relaxant. The drug is a central nervous system depressant (like alcohol) that increases specific receptor activity in your brain. This leads to decreased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed breathing, and general relaxation. In other words, take Quaaludes and you will fall asleep.

That is exactly why they were co-opted as a date rape drug; it made victims pass out quickly, and often times wake up without complete recollection of what happened during their sleep. As you might have suspected, the accusers’ accounts of Cosby’s aggressions are consistent with the effects of taking Quaaludes. What is also consistent is the manner in which Cosby allegedly drugged the women, as Methaqualone’s effects are exacerbated by alcohol.

Cosby maintains that any sexual relations with his accusers were consensual, along with any consumption of Quaaludes. The production of methaqualone in the United States was eventually halted in 1984, and more modern, safer versions of sleep aids are now found in medications like Ambien and Lunesta.

Please write to the Science ACEs if you would like to know more about the development and biological effects of methaqualone. Remember you can always tweet or email us!
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Austen: @AustenLeeT


American Science is in Trouble and Millennials Can Save it, but Will They?

By: Anthony Barrasso

Millennial, a distinction I proudly claim for myself, generally refers to a person born between 1980 and 2000.  This polarizing generation has received their fair share of hate from multiple sources. However, we are young and starting to take over the bulk of the U.S workforce. Thus, whether or not you like us, the immediate future of the country is in our hands.

Luckily, this may be exactly what science needs: new ideas and a fresimage_blog_!h perspective. Decades of poor communication between the scientific community and the public has led to distrust and frustration for both parties (for more on these topics check out Unscientific America). The figure to the left, adapted from data from a Pew Research Center study shows an alarming difference in opinion between the public and scientists on important domestic issues. For example, 35% of U.S. adults remain unconvinced of evolution despite a near 100% consensus among scientists. Furthermore, only half of U.S adults agree with scientists on the cause of climate change, one of the world’s greatest threats.

But, how can millennials change this information gap? Well, despite the adversity, scientists in all fields have stayed busy churning out meaningful and useful data that have led to staggering advancements in medicine, technology, and our understanding of everything around us. Thus, millennials  have grown up in a time  of rapidly expanding scientific discovery, which might explain our heavy use of technology. A 2010 Pew Research Center study concluded that, not only do millennials use newer technologies more than other generations, but millennials consider “technology use” a defining characteristic more than any other generation.

Importantly, millennial’s positive attitudes towards science are not entirely defined by iPhone usage. In fact, millennials #@!%ing love science. Promoted as “the lighter side of science”, I Fucking Love Science (IFLScience) is an internet sensation that shares amusing science facts, news, and discoveries, and social media users flock to it! The IFLScience Facebook page and Twitter account has 21 million likes and 165 thousand followers, respectively, and the franchise has since spawned its own website. Elise Andrew, the founder of IFLScience and a millennial herself, described the simple recipe for her success in an interview with Mashable. “I’m just a curator. I’m just telling people things I think are cool,” Andrew explains. This is not the only example of millennials thinking science things are cool. After all, we are the generation that grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and have since moved on to The Big Bang Theory.

While it’s clear millennials are more partial to science, it’s not certain whether they will actually save it. Why does science need saving? One of biggest issues scientists face today is the quickly diminishing pool of research funding. This is especially true for young scientists starting their careers. It’s no secret that the country is facing economic struggles with a rising debt-to-GDP ratio, but few realize the direct effect this has on research science. Currently, greater than 80% of project grants do not receive funding from the federal government. Lack of funding limits job opportunities and stunts the advancement of science. Thus, federal support is vital for the scientific discoveries that Americans depend on to improve our lives.

image_blog_2Unfortunately, political involvement is a severe deficiency among millennials. Voter turnout is significantly lower compared to other generations and millennials are generally uninterested in politics. This is a problem! Millennial’s beliefs and priorities are clearly different from older generations, but by remaining silent at the polls, millennials allow others to decide who runs the country, and become complicit partners in the downfall of American science.

Can millennials save science in the U.S.? Absolutely! We have the enthusiasm and sheer numbers to make a difference. Will millennials save science? That remains to be seen. The interest level is there, but the country needs active political participation to make significant changes to ensure the preservation and advancement of science. I’ll end with a quote from the always poignant Dr. Seuss. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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