Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition Review

By: Biotechie

Last weekend, I got to explore Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition at Johnson Space Center here in Houston. This exhibition is touring the US, and will be here in Houston through September 5. As an avid Mythbuster’s fan since the show’s beginning, naturally I was itching to go visit.

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Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a collection of props from the show, alongside  interactive experiments and demonstrations that allow you to step into the Mythbusters’ shoes. Initially, I was worried that the science behind some of the phenomena that were explored on the show would be left behind for only the fun explosives that Jamie, Adam, and the other Mythbusters love. I also feared that this would be a museum exhibit rather than something truly interactive.

I was definitely proven wrong! Sure, there was a large museum-like component to the exhibit, but for a Mythbuster’s fan like myself, seeing copies of the blueprints and exploded items from the show were really cool. The biggest winner for me, though, was that the exhibit was designed such that participants are invited to test mini-myths on their own. As you approach the table to look at the blueprints, Jam
ie and Adam are projected on a large TV, telling you about the scientific method and, rather than telling you, “Don’t try this at home,” they invite you to do some Mythbusting of your own.

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Dan, a Citizen Scientist member of ACEs (and Biotechie’s fiance), flips through a collection of blueprints

You can test the myth of whether walking or running in the rain makes you get less wet, or what types of house designs you need to prevent it from blowing away in a storm (see Dan’s house design below). The myths they have chosen for the exhibit are really ways to get you to build hypotheses and ask questions, then immediately put your hypotheses to the test to get a result. Even young kids who have not seen a single show can learn a lot from this interactive exhibit. Most of the stations are fairly simple to grasp and can be repeated over and over again to re-test your hypotheses. When we visited the exhibition, there were several kids under the age of ten actively testing the wind tunnel and a tablecloth station. You know they’re having fun learning when you hear one of them say, “Listen to my hypothesis! I want to test it!” Let’s hope that Netflix brings Mythbusters back to streaming as I have a feeling several of these kids are now Mythbusters fans as well.

The final verdict? I think Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition is a great family or school-related excursion. The fact that the exhibition invites you to have some hands-on experience with thmb3e scientific method makes this a win in my book. This is one way to do some citizen science without making a huge mess at home. It could easily be incorporated into a science curriculum for students learning about the scientific method. I highly recommend it, and not just because I’m a Mythbusters lover. Going through the exhibition can help kids and adults alike reignite their interest in science. In addition, at least while this exhibit is here in Houston, you are also exploring Johnson Space Center, where you can learn all about NASA, the Space Program, and the cool science and engineering that go into every mission.

 

ScienceAces1Biotechie is the Science ACEs social media manger (@scienceaces and facebook.com/scienceaces). She is a 4th year PhD student researching cell function, cholesterol, and obesity. You can follow her personal twitter @biotech_babe.

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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That’s a wrap!

Over the past month, the Science ACEs blog has been running articles on mental health. If you’ve been reading along with us, you know that mental health issues are near and dear to many of our hearts, as they may be to yours. As scientists, we are interested in the biology and physiology and chemistry of mental illness. As people, we are interested in loving and understanding and empathizing with others. We hope that we have been able to tell you something you didn’t know before, relate to your struggles, or just make mental health and mental illness a little more interesting and a little less scary.

A lot of ACEs participated as authors in this feature, but just as important were the ACEs who worked “behind the scenes,” editing articles and suggesting topics. A lot of times this involved finding times to meet each other between experiments or staying up late to read each other’s work, but the feature was important to all of us and we wanted to put forward our best ideas. The authors are grateful to everyone who put in the time and energy to make that happen.

We hope you’ll keep reading as we move on to other aspects of our awesome, scientific world – and as always, reach out to us if you want to ask a question, have an idea for us to write about, or want to say hi! Leave a comment, email us at science.aces15@gmail.com, or tweet at us @scienceaces!

Rhythm and Blues: The Curious Case of Circadian Rhythms and Bipolar Disorder

By: Jessica Scott
Images by Jessica Scott

head clockWhen an activity or skill is second nature to someone, they might say confidently, “I could do it in my sleep!” Sleeping is the embodiment of comfort, rest, and routine for most people. Our internal biological clocks – known as circadian rhythms – silently direct the forces that make it possible for us to drift off or rise to face the new day. But for many people suffering from bipolar disorder, circadian rhythm imbalance may contribute to irregular sleep patterns and even to mood instability.

Bipolar disorder is a cyclical disorder. Patients experience phases of intense excitability or irritability known as manic phases, which cycle with depressive phases, periods of time in which sufferers experience depressed mood and low energy. In addition to abnormal mood cycling, people with bipolar disorder often find that their sleep cycle is mysteriously disrupted. They may sleep much less during manic phases and much more during depressive phases. What’s even more curious? At the heart of the story is the metal lithium, a common treatment for bipolar disorder.

Scientists don’t fully understand how bipolar disorder works, or how lithium works to treat it. The cool thing about that is that it presents researchers with a unique opportunity to work backwards! Instead of trying to sort out the many different root causes of bipolar disorder – genetic, environmental, life experiences – they can alternatively study how the treatment works in order to find the disease mechanism. In the case of lithium, scientists know that, somehow, it is able to steady the wayward cycles that characterize bipolar disorder.

In order to understand how lithium might affect the circadian clock, we need to understand a little about how the circadian clock actually works on a molecular level. At the center, controlling the cycles and rhythms of all the other components of the clock, are two proteins, BMAL and CLOCK. Ultimately, BMAL and CLOCK control the length of a day in your body (they are helped out by natural light). These proteins function as a unit – they can’t do their jobs if they’re apart. BMAL and CLOCK, like any good leaders, listen to their constituents. In the circadian world, this means that other proteins in the molecular clock can interact with and change the behavior of BMAL and CLOCK.

One particular protein, called Rev-erb, is especially important in this regard. BMAL and CLOCK, as the leaders of the cycle, provide the system with instructions to make more Rev-erb. In turn, Rev-erb provides the system with instructions to make less BMAL and CLOCK. To simplify, we’ll say that BMAL/CLOCK turn Rev-erb on and Rev-erb turns BMAL/CLOCK off. This is what we call a feedback loop.

You can think of this feedback system like the heating system in your house. In a home heating system, when the temperature drops below your thermostat setting, the heat turns on. Once the temperature reaches the set point, the heat sensor prevents the heat from running until the house cools back down a little. In our system, BMAL and CLOCK are like the heat and Rev-erb is like the heat sensor. When there is too much BMAL and CLOCK in the system, Rev-erb is activated and prevents more BMAL and CLOCK from being made. Like heat in a house, proteins don’t last forever, so eventually the supply of BMAL/CLOCK is depleted and Rev-erb stops blocking BMAL/CLOCK production. And instead of cycling between a heater being turned on and off, the BMAL/CLOCK/Rev-erb feedback loop provides your body with a pattern for sleeping and waking, and for other important things like neural activity and metabolism.

BMAL and CLOCK turn on Rev-erb, and Rev-erb turns off BMAL and CLOCK. This is called a feedback loop and creates cycling protein levels which contribute to your circadian rhythms.

BMAL and CLOCK turn on Rev-erb, and Rev-erb turns off BMAL and CLOCK. This is called a feedback loop and creates cycling protein levels which contribute to your circadian rhythms.

So here’s where it gets interesting. In 2006, a group of researchers in Pennsylvania discovered that yet another protein, called GSK3-beta, can help turn Rev-erb on. Coincidentally, researchers have known for a long time that lithium, the first effective treatment for bipolar disorder, inhibits GSK3-beta.  Thus, the group in Pennsylvania was able to develop a new understanding of the circadian clock, where lithium is inhibiting Rev-erb by inhibiting GSK3-beta. This means that BMAL and CLOCK are more active, and somehow this stabilizes the out-of-control circadian cycling. In short, it appears that lithium may be an effective treatment for bipolar disorder at least in part by restoring regular circadian rhythms to the body.

GSK3-beta turns Rev-erb on, and Lithium turns GSK3-beta off. The upshot of this is that Rev-erb is less active and BMAL/CLOCK is more active. In many patients this appears to normalize circadian rhythms.

GSK3-beta turns Rev-erb on, and Lithium turns GSK3-beta off. The upshot of this is that Rev-erb is less active and BMAL/CLOCK is more active. In many patients this appears to normalize circadian rhythms.

Although lithium was a breakthrough medication and continues to be extremely effective for many people, it isn’t a solution for everyone. It cannot be used by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and it can cause unpleasant side effects for some people. Understanding how lithium works could lead to better or more specific medications down the road. For instance, knowing that GSK3-beta targets Rev-erb opens an avenue for developing a new medication that specifically targets Rev-erb. Maybe this hypothetical new drug would have fewer side effects or be safer for more people.

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Even though we know that lithium targets GSK3-beta, we also know lithium isn’t very specific – it targets a number of other molecules in the body as well. Even GSK3-beta isn’t very specific – it has effects not only on circadian rhythms, but also on growth and development and metabolism. So while Rev-erb might be one piece of the puzzle, it’s probably not the only piece. This is why researchers continue to study every little part of each little pathway. We are constantly learning more about how the body works at a molecular and cellular level… and even on a larger scale. The road to understanding bipolar disorder or any mental illness will be a long one, and it will take many scientists and physicians and patients, all with different ideas and questions and points of view, to get there.

Editor’s note: In order to make the science accessible to everyone, we tried to explain the molecular pathways in the simplest possible terms. This means we lost some of the intricacies that our fellow molecular biologists (and others) may be interested in. For instance, Rev-erb does not directly “turn off” BMAL/CLOCK; it is an orphan nuclear receptor which acts as a transcription factor. Furthermore, there are different subtypes of Rev-erb; the beta-subtype is actually a transcriptional activator rather than a repressor. (Aren’t you glad the entire post wasn’t like this?) If you’re interested in wrestling with the details, check out the links within the post, leave a comment, send us an email (science.aces15@gmail.com) or tweet at us (@scienceaces).

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