Category Archives: Science

Here’s to responsibility kicking in

I tend to drift off on Friday evenings, putting aside things that needed to be read. No excuse for me because I have been lazing around the house for the past few months, shrugging off responsibility for as long as I can, so I cannot talk about having a Friday night’s off from the tiresome week. But things will probably not be the same from next week onwards.

Truth to be told, I feel very fortunate, and lucky in a sense, to be offered a position that I want. Having just graduated, and with no prior working experience except for the honors project, I just armed myself with a mentality that as long as I display interest and commitment, I should not have problems with the interviews. What I faced was not intimidating interviewers grilling me over my lack of experience or that my grades did not meet up with my passion. It was more of my incoherence and lack of articulation that put myself off. I knew what I want, but I did not manage to align my aims with the goals of the organization/company. And on top of my inexperience, the skill sets did not really click well either. I blamed myself for my immaturity a few years back, when the lecturer was covering an important programming skill, and I did not pay attention to it thinking that it would not be of use to me.

With the tides washed against me, I was left to my own despair that I would have to send a second round of emails to places I never thought of going. And then I was given this chance. Pretty much to my amazement because it was not a place I thought I would be in. Furthermore, my impression of the standards held there are definitely beyond what I could possibly meet. Well, they said you can have all the plans in the world, but most of them are not going to roll out as you wish. To put things positively, to be hired means that they have already put the trust on me. It is going to be a rough climb as I am probably already behind everyone else in terms of reading programming codes, let alone write a script. Or maybe, I will not be touching it. And of course, as the work becomes serious and deadlines start catching up with me, accountability and responsibility follow. Oh well, let’s hope for the best next week.

Life isn’t going to be easy from here on. But an easy life, is a boring life.

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Filed under Science, The writer

Talk science

Biology, the study of life, as I always tell my friends. It’s so much more than that.

Biology talks about the internal milieu of our human bodies, the interactions of living organisms with the environment, how the environment shapes our behaviors and also physical appearances, and how we came about.

But often, the lines between sciences blur when boundaries are crossed. The alteration in the molecular pathways in neurons can affect our mind and behavior, which in turn changes the way we interact with people around us or the environment. But it doesn’t just stop there. The interactions of people within a community pave the way for the establishment of social norms and cultures, and also govern the development of constitutional law that serves the rights of the people. And it all zooms down to how the brain functions, which till now, we still do not have a complete idea what is contained within.

I don’t always love science, at least not when I was younger. I was in science because I can’t do well in arts, probably due to my poor command of language. Whereas for science, content matters more than the expression of the content. At least up till tertiary education, where communicating science takes on a whole new level. In fact, I am happy with where I am. So if given a second chance, I would still choose the path down science discovery.

Ideas are always scattered in my mind like bullet points scrambled around the PowerPoint slides. Till this day, I am still unable to link up all the ideas in succession into a beautiful constellation and translate them across to the audience. So whenever I listen to someone deliver a speech/lesson on science across to the audience with such charisma, I am always in awe.

Science isn’t just a field that excludes the non-science. Many scientists and science journalists have been reaching out to the general public, simplifying grossly worded and intentionally sophisticated scientific journal paper into engaging and entertaining articles. Science communication, they call it, is about helping everyone understand the development and discovery in science, which may in many ways affect their lives unknowingly to them. Knowing simple terms like blood cholesterol or antibiotics is pretty much the same as understanding the concept of down-payment and recession. One difference is how much it affects your life that you’ll have to read up on it in order to continue on with your journey.

The list is not exhaustive and there are many more writers out there trying to bring science to the rest of the world.

As such, the idea of applying for a PhD has crossed my mind a few times. The autonomy (partially) of discovering and diving deeper into a field does pique my interest. Then again, I always reflect back on what I want and what I can. Unfortunately, these two aspects don’t always see eye to eye. Though they may have crossed shoulders in some point of my life, but only for a brief period. Since then, science comprehension has eluded me most of the time.

I still love reading the articles nevertheless. And hopefully one day, I’ll pick myself up and truly appreciate the beauty of science and spread the passion.

Just in case you missed out on the links above:

Ed Yong – Not Exactly Rocket Science

Ilana Yurkiewicz – Unofficial Prognosis

Suzi Gage – Sifting the Evidence

Peter Lipson – White Coat Underground

Virginia Hughes – Only Human

 

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Filed under Education, Science, The writer

What is a flame?

The flickering glow of the beautiful candle flame caught the eyes of a young Alan Alda. And as he watched intently as the candle burned, a question popped up into his mind: What is a flame? Carrying the question to his teacher in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity, he was greeted with a discontent answer. A flame is oxidation.

No doubt oxidation of fuel contained inside the candle leads to the flame. However, using a technical term to explain a concept to a 11-year-old boy, it’s as good as telling the kid the sweet-tasting sensation he felt from the lollipop is because of the presence of saccharides.

That incident brought us the Flame Challenge today, explaining science to an 11-year-old (a Primary 5 kid in Singapore). The Flame Challenge does not just want the question answered in the simplest way possible, but it also hopes to encourage scientists to explain science in a manner where anyone could understand. Using simple words to describe phenomenon seen on a daily basis. Imagine the gap in between.

I find this particularly interesting as this kind of knowledge isn’t what the mainstream schools are passing down to their students. As a kid growing up in Singapore, I memorize concepts in chemistry and biological theories through ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels without fully appreciating the science behind it. It was until I stepped into university, that I understood why charcoal turns orange when heated up. On the other hand, I find it daunting whenever I fail to put into simple words the concepts that I’m explaining to the kids, or draw a practical usage on a daily basis.

Anyway, the winner for the Flame Challenge went to Ben Ames and the following, his award-winning cartoon.

It was clearly explained, with humor and music involved to keep the 11-year-old hooked onto the screen. Fantastic piece of work. Through reading the articles on this Flame Challenge, I recall one of the quotes mentioned by Einstein – if you can’t put into simple words what you’ve learned, you’ve learned nothing.

New York Blog – World Science Fair: What is a Flame?

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Filed under Education, Flame Challenge, Nature, Science

Does it still burn?

I was talking to N about academic-related stuff and on landing an research attachment (or they call it an ‘internship’) while on the ride home. Science undergraduates (possibly biological sciences in particular) are where they are now, burning midnight oils for exams and committing into memory behavioral theories and molecular signalling pathways, because of the passion for biology a few years ago.

Reality hits onto them when they discover that biology is more than just understanding how Mendelian genetics work or how synapses relay information in our brain. It entails appreciation of miniscule processes and discovering de novo mechanisms that underlie the physiological responses that we see.

And through the three/four years undergraduate course, to realize if sitting at the flow hood or analyzing spectral results are what they want (of course there’s more to it).

What I want to bring across here is that though eventually all of us will graduate with the Bachelor of Science, it neither means we’re particularly good in biology, nor does it truly reflect our passion. Probably except those who are kept awake 3 am in the morning just because they’re doing some readings, voluntarily. However, whether we like it or not, we are provided with this opportunity, thus reflecting our capability to a certain extent and that we must cherish this chance to make it worthwhile. Because not everyone in this world has that opportunity to sleep in the lecture theater while the lecturer is rambling away.

And precisely the point, that we’re fortunate for this opportunity to occupy that one seat in the lecture hall, that we must fully utilize it, and make an impact in the world.

So never give up.

——

Ed Yong, a science writer from UK, and his blog for Discover Magazine. Putting science into simple words, appreciating and understanding, most importantly, sharing that passion with the rest of the world. Brilliant.

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Kangaroo Mother Care

I came across this article from Reader’s Digest Feb 2012 by Helen Signy: A Baby Who Was Loved Back To Life. Here’s a little background story: Jamie and Emily were twins born about 10 weeks premature, by the couple David and Kate. During the birth of the twins, Emily came out crying while Jamie was white and silent, which shouldn’t be the case of a newborn. Despite efforts from the doctors, Jamie wasn’t breathing by himself and was said to be gone.  The following is an excerpt from the article:

David clasped his wife and baby tight as Kate gently unwrapped the blanket that enveloped Jamie. She didn’t want him covered up while he slipped away. Following her instinct, she placed his fragile, naked body on the warm skin of her chest. She wanted to feel what he felt like and to get to know him. She gently sobbed. He was hers and his future had been snatched from her. She ached to get him back.

As Kate and David struggled to come to terms with what was happening, Kate cuddled Jamie. For her, it was a simple act of bonding. And for David, it was a natural indication of Kate’s warm and relaxed character – and one of the reasons he loved her so deeply.

Years before, when the pair had undertaken an epic 800-kilometre walk through Spain, David could remember, even at their lowest ebb, they’d always managed to summon new reserves of strength by pausing and taking a few moments for a loving embrace. To this day, when David has a headache, Kate would fix it by wrapping her arms around him and kissing his eyelids.

Now, without realizing it, Kate’s skin-to-skin contact was replicating a powerful ancient ritual and a practice now encouraged in many maternity hospitals around the world. Placing newborn babies on their mother’s skin, especially if they are premature, is called “kangaroo mother care“. And it has been proven by medical science to boost their chances of survival. Just like a joey develops in the pouch, it’s thought that a mother’s chest provides the closest approximation to the environment of the womb.

… …

What happened next neither Kate nor David could believe. The newborn opened his eyes. Then he appeared to lift his head and grab his father’s finger. Again David went rushing off to find staff to come and check Jamie.

When the doctor returned to the room with a nurse, he pulled up two chairs and began to explain to the couple that they weren’t seeing what they though they were. “But look!” said Kate, who had moistened her finger with colostrum from her breast. “He’s licking my finger.”

As the doctor lifted Jamie off Kate’s chest, the newborn startled and tried to cry. The doctor lay him on the bed and listened to his chest and, in disbelief, asked the nurse to listen, too. Now, his lungs were inflated, he was breathing unaided, and he had regained full colour.

I didn’t know there’s a medical term for it and was proven (scientifically) to help the premature babies survive until I read the article. Though I did come across it before in one of the episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Invest in Love.

“Our bodies crave touch,” says Matt Hertenstein, associate professor of psychology at DePauw University in the US and a world expert on the power of touch. “It’s been shown to positively impact our physiology, immune system, stress response and even our brain.”

Everybody does yearn touch, a shoulder massage, a simple pat on the shoulder or a squeeze in the hand goes a long way in improving our abilities to respond to difficult situations.

This story brought tears to my eyes, and also serve as a reminder for me.

——

I was introduced to a commencement speech by Robert Sapolsky to Stanford graduates during my animal behavioral module

Near the end of the commencement speech after his lesson on the uniqueness of the human mind, he brought the speech to a closure with an idea of inspiring graduates to bring change to the world:

“when you wised up enough, there is a very clear conclusion you have to reach after, which is, at the end of the day, it’s really impossible for one person to make a difference, and thus, the more clearly, absolutely, radically, irrevocably, unchangeably clear is that, it is impossible for you to make a difference, to make the world better, the more you must”

We are educated, we are fortunate to receive the education and there is nobody out there who is in a better position than us to sustain this contradiction in life, and use it as a moral imperative.

——

And with these two stories, it once again reminds me of the reason why I’m still in science, though not pretty good at it, but still trying.

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Filed under Education, Grey's Anatomy, Health, Moral values, Reader's Digest, Science

A pain un-diagnosable but felt

Friends around me have more or less lived through two decades, yet how many has friends who died of suicide, accidents, acquired certain illnesses or underwent psychological torment. Unfortunately, I’ll have to check three out of four of the problems mentioned. Death isn’t really a problem though, because nothing comes after death. Well, they said life starts at birth and ends at death.

With that opening, actually I’m just going to touch on depression. Heard of a case about a week ago, learned about it a day ago. I’ve actually learned about it during the psychology class, but wasn’t paying much attention, until it surfaced again in my biology class. This time, it hits me hard because I’ve known one who’s been diagnosed with depression, just recently. That explains the title of this post too, ‘A pain un-diagnosable but felt’.

I’m not an expert in this field but what I’ve learned from the lecture is that depression has a genetic predisposition and is often triggered by environmental forces. I shall leave out the biological explanation, let’s just talk statistics. The co-relation is explained in this paper, Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene. In case you’re too lazy to read, in fact I didn’t read it, this graph is taken from the paper.

s and l are alleles for the gene and this table shows the relationship between being exposed to different severity of maltreatment and the variants of gene that the individual has. Individuals with the s allele tend to show slightly more depressive moments than those with the l allele. But of course, data from a single source must always be cross-referenced to ensure its reliability, which I don’t really have the time to research on this. Anyway, yup.

Depression often goes unnoticed because of the lack of physical or physiological symptoms and sometimes people do not know that they have slipped down the valley of darkness. tormented by the constant fear of the unaccomplished, the inabilities and the low self-esteem. People often reflect the debilitating thoughts as a moment of weakness and a down time of life, eventually as time goes on, or so they say or believe, all thoughts will disperse. However, prolonged stay in that valley is often detrimental to the mental health of the person, The pride of the person him/herself, in company of the prejudice raised them (people with mental deficiencies), often prevent them from seeking the necessary help needed for them to climb out of the valley.

As mentioned previously, the genetic predisposition is something inherited or random, and there’s no way to avoid it. No one knows when it will be stimulated by the external factors at play. Thus one way is to not allow the forces in play do their damages, right from the beginning. The progression to depression is also not spontaneous, it takes time. So why not act upon it during this time when the slip has only just begun. Learning to identify people who have the tendency to slip is hard, but not impossible. I’ve also heard the US army and probably SAF have implemented courses to teach soldiers how to identify fellow mates with suicidal tendency. Again, lacking articles in this area.

Anyway, unhappy thoughts or environmental stress often accumulate and eventually the bubble will burst. It’s never a one-off situation, neither will it go away by itself. Distraction does help, but reality will still kick in at the end of the day. Thus the only way is to prevent the bubble from growing, by proactive initiatives, not by sweeping it under the carpet. And that’s also why I said, time doesn’t f**king heal all wounds. Sometimes, people need to be hit hard with a suicidal case before they know time isn’t medicine, neither is it help. Ever atheist prays so damn hard that things will turn out good.

And one last thing, how I wish I could notice the change in her and do something about it. I could have cheered her up like how I taught the rest. But now, I’m not the doctor so as much as I hate it, I can only stand on the other side of the river and pray that damn hard.

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Yet another milestone

Eventually, people will be indebted to lab researcher slogging their days in the lab unraveling mysteries regarding how lives, at the cellular level, work. The specificity at how interactions work at a molecular level is always subjective. Slight change in the environment could mean a whole new playing field for the cells involved. Amazement comes when a significant breakthrough is achieved through creative thinking and diligent hard work.

However, though discoveries are made, falsification must be proven wrong and repeated experiments must be carried out to replicate the results. On top of being subjected to criticisms in the scientific arena, experimental and clinical results also have to achieve a certain level of significance. This paper indeed paves the way into molecular therapy in cancer treatment, though it was only three patients. And the result was complete remission, cool.

No amount of money can buy you more time. Oh, this brings me to the trailer: In Time.

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Filed under Health, Science, The New York Times, Youtube