Electronic cigarettes just blowing smoke?

A new study has determined that the use of electronic cigarettes does not correlate to smoking cessation. In the longitudinal study, researchers analyzed data from 949 American smokers and concluded that e-cigarette users were not more likely to quit or reduce smoking, when compared to non-users.

E-cigarettes have been widely promoted as effective tools for helping smokers quit cigarettes. The results of this study bring to question the authenticity of those claims. Moreover, concerns are being raised about the effects on health of the constituents of e-cigarettes.

Regardless, new tools designed to enable smoking cessation are needed.  More and more research is elucidating the dangers of cigarette smoke to bystanders. Work by Bo Hang and group at University of California reveals that third hand smoke, residual smoke that gets absorbed by walls and furniture in a house, can be extremely dangerous. Third hand smoke can react with indoor air pollutants such as ozone and nitrous acid and produce carcinogenic compounds, which bind to DNA and lead to cancer. Moreover, according to a study published in Lancet, banning cigarettes in public places is associated with a reduction in premature births and childhood asthma in the US and in Europe. Thus, second-hand smoke is detrimental to the health of pregnant women, newborn babies and children.

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of cancer in the United States, and accounts for 30% of all cancer deaths. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 in 5 of all adults in the country is a smoker. With such an epidemic at hand, a range of arsenal must be employed to smoke out cigarettes.


“You, me, everyone-we are made of star stuff”- A look at Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Through a peculiar collaboration between Seth MacFarlane, creator of the notoriously controversial, nonsensical, yet widely popular TV shows, Family Guy and American Dad, and Ann Druyan, wife of one of the most prominent science communicators of the 20th century, the late Carl Sagan, with whom she co-wrote the immensely popular PBS documentary Cosmos, comes Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey– a sequel to the original Cosmos series.

The series premiered on March 9, 2014, on FOX and The National Geographic Channel. After watching the first two episodes, I can confidently say that the show is truly a treat for the imagination. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson takes the viewer on a fascinating journey free from the limits of time and space on the Ship of Imagination. Tyson communicates complex concepts of the Big Bang Theory, Evolution, Speciation, Artificial and Natural Selection with ease and simplicity. The enchanting soundtrack by Alan Sylvestri, together with Tyson’s scintillating narration, creates a magical and transcendental experience for the viewer. Enhancing the experience further are the convincing animations by Kara Vallow, known best for her work in quite contrasting shows such as (again!) Family Guy and The Cleveland Show.

Some striking images from the show include Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, characterized by a monstrous hurricane three times the size of earth; Voyager 1, traversing through space, waiting to be discovered by extraterrestrial intelligent life; macromolecular structures called Kinesins, diligently carrying cargo along microtubules inside a eukaryotic cell; and the lakes and rivers of liquid methane and ethane flowing through mountains of ice on the surface of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

A distinct feature of the first episode is Tyson’s seamless compression of the 13.8 billion years of the universe onto The Cosmic Calendar, in which every month is represented by approximately a billion years. Starting with The Big Bang on January 1, to the inception of life on earth on September 1, to the venture of Tiktaalik from sea to land on November 17, to the impact of an asteroid hitting the earth and effecting the extinction of dinosaurs on December 30, and finally to the evolution of humans, happening only on the last hour of the last day of the cosmic calendar, Tyson effectively provides an orientation to the dynamic and rather volatile universe we call home.

For discovering the mind-bogglingly vast cosmos, Tyson stipulates willingness to “test ideas by experiment and observation, build on ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours!”

The show will feature thirteen episodes broadcasted to 37 different countries. It promises to offer profound insights, derived from the latest scientific evidence, into the origin of life and the future of our planet and our universe. So, stay tuned!

An App for Every Malady

We have all heard of smartphone applications for losing weight, or calculating the calories we burn in a day, or checking the nutritional value of  the food we eat. Interestingly, it turns out that numerous apps for tackling even bigger problems  continue to be developed. These include asthma, diabetes, seizures, heart disease, and hepatitis. Following is a list of some leading apps for complex health problems.

1. The Autism Quiz App: The app, developed by MindSpec, allows people to test their knowledge of Autism and share information with friends.

2. DASH II: Researchers at Newcastle University developed this app to come up with the best treatment for stroke patients. The app was voted by a public vote as one of 50 best uses of technology.

3. iDichotic: Developed by Joseph Bless at University of Bergen, iDichotic works by simultaneously presenting each ear with a different syllable, and asking the user which syllable is the clearest. The test indicates the active side of the brain.

4. ABMT-based app: The app is based on the principles of a new cognitive treatment for anxiety called attention-bias modification training and is developed by researchers at Hunter College.

5. AceMobile: Researchers in Australia and the UK developed this app by translating the commonly used paper-based test (Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination) for screening for dementia into an app form.

6. TOBY Playpad: Developed by the team of Svetha Venkatesh at Deakin University, the app educates parents on the best at-home therapy interventions as soon as the first symptoms of Autism become evident.

7. SRTS: The stress resilience training system, developed by the US Office of Naval Research, is an iPad app training program that educates users to manage stress by learning biofeedback techniques that work for their individual needs.

8. The app developed by researchers at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, helps sufferers of migraines keep track of their pain by tapping the afflicting areas on a 3D skull on the app.

9. Developed by Dr. Victor Patterson, the app allows non-doctors to determine whether someone is having a seizure and what the relevant actions should be.

10. BeddIt: The app is used in combination with a sensor placed under the sheet, which measures the sleeper’s movement, heart rate and breathing, send the data to the app, which then provides recommendations for improving the quality and quantity of sleep. The app is developed by Joonas Paalasmaa at University of Helsinki.

11. Monarca App: A sensor in the smartphone, along with an app, collect data about abnormal behaviors such as excessive movements or telephone calls that indicate a manic episode, and send the information to the consulting doctor. The app is developed by research at Bielefeld University.

12. SpiroSmart: Developed by researchers at the University of Washington, University of Washington Medicine and Seattle Children’s hospital, the app assess lung function and asthma condition by letting people blowing into their smartphones.

13. Developed by researchers at Leiden University Medical Center, the app serves as an asthma self-management tool for patients.

14. EncephalApp_Stroop: Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University developed this app, which works by assessing the archetypical cognitive dysfunction found in patients with cirrhosis.

15. Hep i-chart: The app provides hepatitis patients with the latest information on drug interaction. Researchers at University of Liverpool developed the app.

16. Plan A Birth Control: The app developed by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles helps make informed decision about birth control by providing relevant information in an easy-to-follow format.

17. Mayo Clinic on Pregnancy: is an app developed for Windows 8 that educates users on pregnancy, and provides all the relevant tips and guidelines.

18. Lose It: Developed at researchers at University Hospital Case Medical Center, the app is in a clinical trail to assess whether using it can help women lose weight gain through pregnancy.

19. Meniere’s Disease app: Developed by researchers at Exeter Medical School, the app allows patients of this rare disease of the inner ear to log the details of their symptoms and compare them with symptoms of patients around the world.

20. The app, designed for people with night blindness, keeps track of sufferer’s location and distance walked from home. The app has been developed by researchers at University of Pakistan.

21. GlassesOff: Developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University, the apps works by training the brain to convert blurry images into clear ones.

22. Led by Dr. Shizuo Mukai and team at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the application uses smartphone camera to photograph the retina and diagnose eye disease.

23. The app, developed by researchers at University of Edinburgh, helps doctors calculate the risk of dying within 3 years of a heart attack, in order to formulate an informed treatment plan .

24. WOW ME 200 mg: Developed by researchers at Rutgers-Camden Nursing School, the app works by educating heart patients about self-management. The acronym stands for Weigh yourself; Measure output of fluids; walk and be active;
Take medications;
evaluate signs and symptoms; and limit salt intake to 2,000 mg or less, with 1,500 mg being optimal.

25. Developed by David Burt of University of Virginia, School of Medicine, the app works by expediting transmission of diagnostic heart images to the concerned physician.

26. Afib Educator: Developed through a collaboration of various healthcare leaders and organization, the app works by educating users about Atrial Fibrillation and its management.

27. DiabetesIQ: The app has been developed by researchers at University of California, San Francisco and QuantiaMD, and teachers users about Diabetes, its management, and treatment options.

28. The app developed by Dr. Nilay Kavathia and team give patients prepping for a colonoscopy, step- by step instructions on the various dietary restrictions and bowel medications required before the procedure.

The Red Nessie: My visit to Janelia Farms

After following directions like “right on Helix drive, then right on Scientific lane,” one can surely expect to arrive at a scientific paradise. Stashed away in almost the countryside of Virginia like a well-kept secret, Janelia Farms, a campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is indeed a paradise for science. Entering the guarded premise evokes a heavy feeling of privilege and responsibility, given the security-operated large doors that ensure selective entry into the 689-acre compound, somewhat like an exclusive club open only to a few.

The main building is juxtaposed with a serene lake and tiny waterfalls flowing through smooth boulders, conjuring the tranquility of an English garden. On the other side of the lake sits an enigmatic sinusoidal scarlet sculpture. At night, the sculpture glows softly like a fiery dragon flowing seamlessly in the dusky skies, with its reflection flickering in the dark water of the lake, like the dragon’s beating heart. The place seems most fitting to write a sequel to Walden.

Adding to the awe, the main building appears to be made entirely of glass, and being in it feels like being in a giant snow globe. “Each piece of glass is custom-made in Belgium and comes with its own bar code,” I am told, as I get escorted inside the building. The glass windows allow visual access to the scarlet sculpture outside, as well as to contiguous lab space inside, spread across the building’s three floors, literally representing the transparency and collaborative nature of the science that happens at Janelia Farms. The generated knowledge is allowed to flow unobstructed like a brackish breeze emanating from a vast ocean, bathing everyone and everything it contacts- no walls, no barriers.

I am at Janelia Farms for a job interview, which starts with a presentation of my PhD work in a conference room called Photon. Other rooms in the building also have similar names such as Electron, Neutron, consistent with the overarching theme of the institute- uninhibited and uninterrupted immersion in science. This theme is also evident in the abundance of television screens in the hallways, constantly displaying various images and movies of the multitude of biological processes researched at Janelia Farms.

I am given a tour of the extensive fruit fly facility where hundreds of strains of transgenic flies are transferred from old vials to fresh ones by three of the six robots in the world, designed specifically to do this job, an innovation I can truly appreciate, having spent hundreds of laborious hours manually performing the same task as an undergraduate lab aide at UMASS, Amherst.

During my visit, I am most star-struck from my meeting with physicist Eric Betzig, a technical wizard, who specializes in building cutting-edge microscopes that allow visualization of dynamic biological events, intractable to microscopy until only recently. Dr. Betzig’s office is a stereotypical genius mayhem, with piles of scientific papers on the couch, on the floor, books everywhere, even more piles of papers tossed on the desk, and a plate of tossed salad sitting on top of a relatively shorter pile of papers. It is lunchtime. “Let’s go to the conference room next door,” Dr. Betzig suggests, looking around his office. I concede with a smile and follow his lead.

As we sit, I cannot help but be captivated again by the sculpture outside, getting gently dusted by some light snow, visible from the large glass wall of the conference room. This moment of captivation is broken however, by another, and arguably superior, work of art. On his thick and hefty, 17 inch, orange Dell, Dr. Betzig shares amazing movies of fluorescent cytoskeletal spikes dynamically located on the surface of cancer cells, made using a novel technique called Bessel beam plane illumination microscopy or movies of dividing bacterial cells using photo-activated localized microscopy, also called PALM, invented a few years ago by his own group. We later walk to Dr. Betzig’s laboratory, where he shows me the latest microscope his post-doc has been working on. Not just your run of the mill microscope, this instrument appears more to be a pegboard with various shaped knobs and blocks sticking out of it, a masterful sculpture in its own right.

The busy day of multiple interviews concludes with a dinner at Bob’s pub, a café/ bar/ hangout spot located on the first floor of the building, serving gourmet food and drinks all day long. As we discuss over wine and cheese, conferences, music, lab, papers and other topics related to the lives of passionate scientists, I come closer to understanding the promise of the potential of collective intelligence, given unlimited resources, modern infrastructure and financial freedom. When I look outside, I notice the scarlet sculpture, now even more effulgent against the setting sun, perhaps depicting the fire within the heart of every scientist diligently striving to understand the origins of life. I later discover that the sculpture is of a Nessie, a cryptid aquatic snake-like creature, that reveals only part of his body above water, but has an equally elaborate invisible part immersed in the water, waiting patiently to be discovered.












Tenderness: A Beautiful Description of a Scientist

I first crossed paths with Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee as a PhD student at the Johns Hopkins University in 2012, where he had come to talk about his highly acclaimed, Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was a rather big auditorium, but proved to be to quite small for the sea of admiring students and faculty that had come to hear him speak. I, on the other hand, had actually not heard of Mukherjee till that day, and was simply tagging along with my friends. Nevertheless, I quickly realized that I was witnessing something extraordinary, as I glanced around the densely packed room and struggled to find a seat even on the steps. What ensued was a mesmerizing storytelling session on the history of cancer and the remarkable people behind it. Mukherjee’s beautiful and inviting presentation prompted me to buy his book the very next day.

The book was as engrossing and engaging as I had imagined after listening to his presentation. It was the kind of writing that holds your mind hostage even after you are done reading; that invigorates your sense of curiosity and stimulates your intellect; that simultaneously brings a smile on your face and tears to your eyes. It was a book that inspired me to write and made a fan out of me.

So, earlier this year, I quite naturally started reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2013, with Mukherjee as its editor. Through the introduction to the book, Mukherjee takes the readers on yet another journey–only this time to the monastery of Gregor Mendel- the founder of modern biology, in Czech Republic. Through this journey, Mukherjee points to an uncommonly quoted quality of a scientist—“tenderness,” a term that should resonate with every craftsman and creative person and is a hundred percent worth sharing.

“Intelligent”, “meticulous”, “hardworking”,  “stickler” are some words used commonly to describe a scientist. “Tenderness”, however is not one of one, admits Mukherjee. Regardless, the term gets quickly justified once Mukherjee starts narrating the painstaking efforts with which Mendel conducted his arduous eight-year long cross-fertilization experiments on plants, which eventually led to the discovery of genes—a breakthrough discovery that completely revolutionized Biology. “It requires indeed some courage to undertake a labor of such far-reaching extent,” Mukherjee quotes Mendel’s statement from his seminal 1865 paper. Mukherjee then contends that perhaps “courage” is not the most befitting word to describe Mendel’s work and proposes to replace it with “tenderness”. He says:


Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes. The act of tending—the laborious cross-pollination of seedling, then meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds—soon led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of inheritance. Heredity, Mendel realized, could be explained only by the passage of discrete pieces of information from parents to offspring. These had to be atoms of information—particles of inheritance—moving from one generation to the next. Tending generated tension—until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.


Anyone who has ever worked in a laboratory would agree wholeheartedly with Mukherjee’s contention—the quality of nurturing, of caring, of kindness to the work you are doing–is indeed a pre-requisite to doing any kind of science.

I, myself, have experienced this quality when doing even the most mundane tasks in the lab. Tasks such as setting up a Western blot—ensuring soaking the filter paper thoroughly in the buffer; neatly stacking the sponges, the filter paper, the membrane; squeezing out all the bubbles; or growing a culture of bacteria—checking the temperature of the incubator; carefully measuring the amounts of growth media, ensuring sterility of the hood; or writing down my observations in a notebook–remembering not to forget the details, describing each and every event, even if it felt silly then to take note of such a seemingly insignificant detail.

I also realize that in the events when my experiments did not work, it was often due to a lack of tenderness–hastily setting up an apparatus; or not studying an unusual phenomenon because it was not priority.

Imagine if Mendel decided to not study that 10,000th plant; or if Edison did not test those thousands of “vegetable growth” in search of the perfect filament for his light bulb; or if Alexander Fleming had not stopped to notice the destroyed bacterial colonies on the petri dish contaminated with a fungus. Science would not be where it is now and our understanding of the world and its origins and its future would be completely dwarfed. Indeed, great science demands great tenderness.


Mean girls (and boys) and biology

A new study by researchers at University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Minnesota, school of management, shows that during the week of their ovulation, women subconsciously become more competitive about their socio-economic standing in comparison to other women, and are less likely to help them. “They become meaner to other women”, says Kristina Durante, assistant professor of marketing at UTSA, and the principal investigator of the study.

Durante and her group were interested in this topic because of findings from a previous study that asked female volunteers a very simple, yet, profound question: a new job offer comes with two options. Option A, you get $100,000 in salary per year, but your peers get $200,000 per year or, option B, you get $50,000 per year, and your peers get $25,000 per year. Which option do you prefer?

Surprisingly, more than half (56%) of the female volunteers who were asked this question chose option B. They were willing to take substantial pay cut, if it meant that they would make relatively more money than their peers.  Durante was intrigued by this result, and wondered what was different between these women and the remaining 44%, who chose absolute gains over relative.

Durante and group reasoned that the answer might be have to do with sexual competition, and hypothesized that ovulatory status could account for the increase in a woman’s sense of economic competition with other women. They tested their hypothesis through various behavioral tests of 309 female volunteers, who were categorized in either the “high- fertility group” or “low-fertility group,” based on self-reported ovulation status.

In the first behavioral test, volunteers were asked to choose between options of having an expensive car, with other women getting an even more expensive car, or having a cheaper car, with other women having an even cheaper car. Consistent with their hypothesis, the majority of women in the high fertility (ovulating) group chose the option that gave them relative gains by choosing a cheaper car, while majority of women in the low-fertility group (non-ovulating) chose the option of absolute gain by choosing the more expensive car.

This phenomenon was even more pronounced in the results of the dictator game, a test where female volunteers were given a fixed amount of money and asked to divide it between themselves and another person. In this scenario, urinalysis was used to definitively determine fertility status.

As expected, ovulating women gave significantly less money to other women, than non-ovulating women. Interestingly, ovulating women were more likely to give significantly more money to a man, as much as 50%, than were non-ovulating women.

The study very clearly demonstrates that the fertility status of a female can significantly alter her economic decisions, and her interactions with other women, as well as men, an observation that makes intuitive sense. Intriguingly, a study by Buunk et al. (2012) showed that in a similar game of resource sharing, men behaved more competitively and less prosocially towards other men, than they did towards women. Thus, it seems that when it comes to sexual competition, it’s not just girls who can be mean, but also boys!