Of tomato plants, iPods and Darwin’s great-great granddaughter

my tomato plants in late June
my tomato plants in late June

Could a voice actually matter in making plants grow? Most of the scientific-sounding explanations I’ve ever heard about response of plants to people have invoked the additional carbon dioxide in the plants’ vicinity. But over the weekend I heard about an unusual study carried out by The Royal Horticultural Society. The researchers played different voices through headphones to 10 different plants over a period of a month (mp3 through headphones), according to the BBC. The best growing plants were listening to Sarah Darwin, a botanist and descendant of Charles Darwin. She read from her famous forebear’s groundbreaking text, On the Origin of  Species.

Of course, some outlets have taken this story to an extreme: Women’s voices ‘make plants grow faster.’

I can’t find the study, so I can’t see how it was constructed or how valid it is other than as an amusing anecdote with a connection to botany and Charles Darwin. My more skeptical side asks: Really? Headphones on plants? Where do you attach them? I’d really like to see a photo of a tomato plant with an iPod.

So I doubt that the study actually has much to say about how plants respond to human beings. However, if plants actually do like Sarah Darwin’s voice, I can understand why. Hear her melodious voice on the accompanying  video from the BBC.


Molecule of the Week: Carbon dioxide (part 1 of many)

Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms
Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

This small molecule is too big for a single post, so I’ll probably revisit it at different points in this blog. It’s the most oxidized form of carbon, often thought of as waste product: both of fossil fuel burning and of the energy reactions that fuel life. But it’s also an essential component of photosynthesis to generate food and natural fuel sources.

But today I’m thinking about one of the many environmental impacts of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide: the acidification of the oceans.

Changing the acidity of the oceans alters a delicate balance. Science suggests that this growing acidity may be dissolving carbonate in corals and releasing metal ions that would normally be wrapped up in carbonate minerals. (See this article in Chemical & Engineering News about the disrupted chemical balance).

The ocean has always been a giant sink for carbon dioxide, water absorbs it forming carbonic acid. Cooler water absorbs more carbon dioxide, but higher concentrations in the atmosphere are the primary force in pushing more of the gas to dissolve into the water, turning the ocean more seltzer-like (in terms of pH, not fizz).

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau
coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

The effects, however, are not always what one might expect. In looking at fish earbones, called otoliths, researchers reported in Science that higher carbon dioxide levels actually made these structures larger rather than smaller. (Cornelia Dean of the New York Times wrote about it on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog).

Otoliths are the tree rings of fish life-cycles. What does this mean for the fish? Not necessarily good– changes in ear bones could mangle their navigations skills.

Of course all of this science sits around the edge of the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) by the House of Representatives this week. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk more about carbon dioxide. . . . stay tuned.


Encouraging (women) scientists to opt in to academia

It’s an interesting week to talk about women in science. On Tuesday afternoon, I listened in on the end of a White House panel discussion about Title IX and its impact on women in both athletics and science and technology. Scientific American also reported on a new government study about the state of women in academic science, which indicates that women are at least as likely to be hired into tenure track science positions as their male colleagues. One problem is that women don’t apply for those positions in numbers that match their representation in science.

Academic science as a system still selects against women (and men) who might want a more flexible life before 40. Once you have tenure, you have autonomy, but for a decade (or two) you’re at the mercy of a sometimes merciless system.

I’m an out-opter, and I don’t regret my choice. I realized that academic science and I weren’t the best match, in part because I discovered that I loved writing, disliked labwork, and had broad interests. Another piece of the decision came from the stark realization in my late 20s that I was at least 10 years away from possible tenure. Academia, which had once seemed like this wonderful, flexible lifestyle, gradually became confining– long hours, low pay and little room for an outside life for another decade or more.

One quote from the Title IX discussion stuck with me:

You’ve got to SEE it to BE it. –Billie Jean King

King was talking about the dearth of women in high level positions in athletic departments. But although more and more women trainees see women scientists, but they don’t always see models that reflect all their goals of career and life entwined. Some of the tenured women in academia that I remember talking with spoke wistfully about something that they gave up: a relationship or the opportunity to have children. And let’s not forget the many women (and some men) who gave up their academic dreams to fulfill their familial urges.

Continue reading Encouraging (women) scientists to opt in to academia


The global cancer challenge

copyright iStockphoto.com/SchulteProductions
copyright iStockphoto.com/SchulteProductions

The policy side of my reporting head has also turned to health issues over the last year or so, particularly global health. From a Western perspective, it’s easy to take for granted the scope of care and treatments that are available. But the developing world is light-years away from even hoping to have access to so many of the (not even cutting edge) medical innovations that we often take for granted.

My growing interest in global health policy and a talk by Franco Cavalli at a symposium on translational cancer research at Hunter College in January, led me to take on the issue of global cancer control planning in my article that was just published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (subscription required). Here are some of the stats that impressed me as I was working on the article:

  1. More than half of the expected 27 million cancer cases in 2030 are likely to occur in low and middle income countries.
  2. At least 80% of the world’s population lives in areas not covered by cancer control registries, that keep track of basic data about cancer, who gets it, what types and the outcomes. It’s incredibly difficult to figure out any sort of policy solution when policymakers don’t have a real handle on the problem.
  3. Most countries in Subsaharan Africa have no radiotherapy machines available to treat cancer.

Providing better cancer care in these countries is first and foremost about developing a plan, and then figuring out how to bring in the resources to support their needs. Without a clear plan, any resources provided don’t get used in the most effective way.

I learned a lot about Tanzania’s cancer control planning. Although an extremely poor country with a number of problems to solve, it’s humbling to realize that even with their challenges– not enough facilities to meet demand and a shortage of trained medical professionals– the situation there is probably better than in most neighboring countries. As another example, India seems to have more overall resources, but planning is regionalized and care is more available in urban areas than in rural ones.

It’s these moments that make me stop and realize how fortunate I am– I was born to educated, middle-class parents in a country with a functioning (albeit sometimes dysfunctional) health care system. The tricky challenge in the developing world is finding the solutions that fit the needs of individual countries– physically and culturally– and bringing in the right combination of government, NGOs and others to put those solutions into practice.

A related note: over the last few weeks, Denise Grady of the New York Times has published articles about women’s reproductive health in Tanzania (here and here) with detailed first-hand reporting.


Molecule of the Week: Zinc gluconate

The Molecule of the Week is the active ingredient in Zicam, the nasal gel cold remedy that the FDA warned consumers to stop using this week. What’s the problem? Some users have reported losing their sense of smell after using the gel. On Tuesday, the FDA stepped in and issued a warning letter to Matrixx Initiatives about Zicam:

According to the labeling accompanying the Zicam Cold Remedy intranasal products, each of these products “reduces” the “duration of the common cold” and the “severity of cold symptoms,” including specifically “sore throat • stuffy nose •sneezing • coughing • congestion.” These claims make these products drugs, as defined by section 201(g)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), 21 U.S.C. § 321(g)(1), because they are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease or to affect the structure or function of the body of man or other animals.

The FDA has urged consumers to stop using zinc gluconate products that involve application inside the nose. Zinc lozenges are not part of the warning. It’s a healthy reminder: just because a remedy is “homeopathic” doesn’t mean that it’s also safe. Chemical activity comes with the molecule itself– it doesn’t matter whether it was made by a living organism or synthesized in a lab.

Zinc gluconate structure from Wikimedia Commons
Zinc gluconate structure from Wikimedia Commons

The molecule itself is interesting– like two sugar-like wings around a central zinc ion. The gluconate “wings” are oxidized forms of the sugar glucose, in case that name looked familiar. Zinc ions bind to electron-rich atoms (like those oxygens) on many types of biological molecules.

I’ll be interested in the follow-up investigation into Zicam and further scientific evidence. I’m not willing to put my sense of smell on the line until researchers know more.

Reuters Health: US tells Zicam maker to stop selling some products


Webb of Science gives fashion advice

Fashion is not normally my beat. But I’m a science writer who writes careers articles, the most recent one about dressing for job interviews. So, today anyway, I’m a writer who gives fashion advice to scientists.

Even though my workday fashion choices these days often remain within the home office, I do take pride in a looking professional (and fashionable) when I do head out for face time with clients and colleagues. One of my guilty pleasures in my Ph.D. student down-time was watching far too many episodes of What Not To Wear on TLC. (I saw the BBC version, too, but later, when I had better cable).

As an added bonus, here’s Clinton and Stacey’s take on job interview dress. Enjoy!


Data and writing– unpublished or unpublishable?

Scientists, writers and even science writers share a common plight: there’s always a subset of their work that lies fallow, tucked in a notebook, lingering on a hard drive. The question remains whether that work should remain on a dusty shelf, or whether it actually belongs among “the published.”

When I was in graduate school, I worked with a graduate student from Korea, who generated gobs of data, much of it that wasn’t leading to clear conclusions. He threatened to start his own scientific journal, The Journal of Unpublishable Data. We all chuckled and commiserated.

I believe in generating quality work, whether now as a writer, or in my past as a scientist. We all want oohs and aahs rather than questions and nit-picking. But here’s the flip side: talking about our struggles and our foibles often helps us get to the elusive goal that we’re trying to reach. If you put too much out there, you risk being criticized or scooped. Hold too much in, and you might be missing the opportunity to grow.

As a scientist, I remember particularly sticky situations in my graduate work where others had done similar chemistry, and as it turned out, I spent months trying to do something that someone else out there probably could have told me wasn’t possible. But to the victor go the spoils, failed experiments typically lie secret in notebooks somewhere unless you somehow run into the person who attempted it and who can say, sagely, “Nope, that’s never going to work. And this is why.”

A couple of weeks ago, I covered a meeting that included a first for me, a senior researcher who gave a keynote talk about a herculean research effort in search of a drug target. It was an extremely difficult problem, but the net result? They failed, but they learned a lot. I wish more published science talked about the lessons learned in those types of situations. I think all sciences could benefit from a rethink of what’s considered “publishable.” One of the biggest problems with medical evidence right now is the fact that the results of failed clinical trials often never see the light of day. Such results may not grab headlines, but they’re often an important part of the story, particularly if a drug or device turns out to have unexpected side effects or doesn’t fulfill its promise.

But I’ve digressed from the parallel to writing. I’ve written about blogging as a way for me to workshop my writing. I have a variety of article ideas that have never landed a home, essays that didn’t sell. Not all writing, ideas, and scientific results should see the light of day. We all have chaff that needs to go out with the garbage, or that needs to lie fallow until we have greater context for what it means. With so much information spinning by us, I’m still figuring out how to balance my competing urges as a writer. Should I let an idea simmer so that the flavors continue to meld and combine? Or should I just get it out there and get feedback on it?


Molecule of the Week: Hydrogen

Though hydrogen is the smallest atom and is perched at the top left of the periodic table, hydrogen in nature exists as two atoms hooked together.

Hydrogen hit the news this weekend as a leak led NASA to scrub the Space Shuttle Endeavor launch:

Hydrogen is as clean as chemical fuels get: burning it produces water, a useful waste product. But just like a possible leak of other fuels including gasoline, hydrogen is a potential safety concern.

Hydrogen and helium (its sister element on the right side of the periodic table) form the basis of new stars. These chemicals rotate and condense, ultimately integrating their nuclei to form larger elements through nuclear fusion and releasing energy.


June 8th birthday shout-out

birthday cake, copyright iStockphoto.com/MarcusPhoto1
birthday cake, copyright iStockphoto.com/MarcusPhoto1

I decided that in honor of my own birthday, I’d see which scientists also blew out candles on this spot on the calendar. (Okay, so I guess it’s a day late.)

My cosmic alignment is pretty distinguished. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix was born on June 8, 1916. I also share a birthday with Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the Italian astronomer who co-discovered Jupiter’s Red Spot back in the 17th century. Yes, all those Cassini space missions are named for him.

But those aren’t the only distinguished scientist birthdays this week. For all of you June 11th babies, you share your day with Jacques Cousteau.

Update on June 10th- I initially missed a big scientist birthday this week. The biologist E. O. Wilson celebrates his 80th birthday today!


Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.