“Writers write”

I’ve written and published several books, but I still don’t feel like a writer. “Writers, write”, right? I look at my niece, who is always writing something, and I think she’s a writer. But me, I teach…..and occasionally cram in some writing. That’s not the same thing as someone who consistently  creates with the written word. Even this blog, which I started in an attempt to get myself to journal my life regularly, has proceeded in fits and starts with lots of gaps. My husband says I’m “deadline driven” so I decided to give myself a deadline in order to push myself to develop into a real writer: I applied for, and got, a job as a biology expert for Answers.com.

As a biology expert, I will write several articles per month on topics relevant to biology. I’m excited for a number of reasons: I can help more people understand science, I’ll have deadlines to motivate me to write consistently, and I get to explore new topics for my articles. (Of course, if you know me, you know there’s a certain madness to my method…I might have to cut down on my Facebook time or my naps to make time for this new venture.)

Coffee, music, and an oatmeal cookie

Coffee, music, and an oatmeal cookie

Today, I’m hiding out in a local Starbucks to focus and get going. In fact, I just posted my first article on antibiotic resistance. If you’d like to check it out, click here. Also, if you have any suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about, please feel free to comment!

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Add Some Microbes To Your Kids’ Lives This Christmas

Because I’m procrastinating from grading term papers on the “Identification of an Unknown Bacterium” and because it’s never to early to start loving microbes, here’s a few last minute gift ideas  for kids :

I’ve given my son both of these books and we love them:

Invisible ABCs by Rodney P. Anderson

Invisible ABCs by Rodney P. Anderson

Great pictures and fun facts — appropriate for younger readers because its a picture book, but there’s enough science to keep an older elementary student engaged as well. It’s available on Amazon for $17.95  (click here) and has a companion website here.

Germ Stories by Arthur Kornberg and Adam Alaniz

Germ Stories by Arthur Kornberg and Adam Alaniz

This book has poems and pictures, so you can read it to younger kids, but my 9-year-old still liked it too. It’s available on Amazon for $23.85 (click here).

And of course, for the kid who loves stuffies, there’s always GIANT microbes!

GIANT MICROBES

GIANT MICROBES

Giant microbes are cute and cuddly, come in different sizes, and represent microbes from many different walks of life. You can get them at the Giant Microbes website (click here) and, of course, you can also find them on Amazon.com (search giant microbes). Some of my favorites are MRSA, Anabaena (called Algae on the site), and the Chicken Pox virus.

To help your kids keep their hands clean while they learn about microbes, you could get them some soap that looks like bacteria growing on a Petri dish.

Bacterial Soap by Cleaner Science

Bacterial Soap by Cleaner Science

These soaps are made by Cleaner Science (click here) and you can actually get different color combinations that represent specific bacteria growing on specialized agars (for that extra-geeky thrill). Unfortunately, though, it looks they’re sold out for now. Their dishes got posted on facebook by a well-known science blog and I think they got lots of traffic.  They are taking orders and promise to post new stuff soon. I read a post on another blog that said Cleaner Science even makes some glow-in-the-dark soaps.

If anyone knows of other cool  micro-themed gifts for kids, please let me know. I’m always on the lookout!

One final P.S. These books aren’t microbiology, but they are science, and my 9 year old loves them:

Basher Science Books

Basher Science Books

The Basher website is here (they have math, music, and English books too) but you can also find the books on Amazon.com. Personally, I’m looking forward to the release of Extreme Biology — I predict it will feature microbes as they are the champs at extreme living!

Extreme Biology

Extreme Biology

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My sister rocks!

I was in a funk today, struggling with my perception of some of the realities of my life. I texted my sister that I was “Wrestling with my demons.” I expected her to ask me which demons, and I was going to tell her all about my fears and struggles. Instead, she simply replied, “Go, Buffy!”

Snap! Instant turn around. Instead of letting my personal issues drag me down, I vowed to woman-up and kick some demon butt. And then I made this picture to remind me that it’s all in how you look at it.

We all have a little Buffy inside of us!

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The truth about vaccines, parental rights, corporate greed: My answer to Rob Schneider

One of my former students, a brilliant, absolutely lovely person (inside and out) who did very well in my science classes for non-science majors,  just posted a link on FB to a video called Rob Schneider tells the truth about vaccines, parental rights, and corporate greed. In this video, Mr. Schneider, who’s wife is 5 months pregnant, presents his ideas and concerns about vaccines — ideas and concerns that I think many Americans share.  Unfortunately, Mr. Schneider’s thinking ab0ut vaccines is a confusing mix of real concern, inaccurate facts, and leaps to unlikely conclusions. So, for my former student, who I think might have babies that are as lovely and smart as she is someday, I’d like to take a closer look at a few of the ideas put forward by Mr. Schneider:

Only parents should have the right to decide what is best for their children (see quote #1 below). I mostly agree with Mr. Schneider on this one. And I think he’s going to be a great dad. He’s clearly passionate and wants what’s best for his kid. Most parents feel the same way about their kids, and I believe that most of the concern about vaccines comes from this passionate desire to protect our children.

I partially disagree with Mr. Schneider for two reasons: 1) the obvious reason that some parents are abusive and in that case, I think the state needs to step in to protect the children, and 2) vaccines aren’t as straightforward as some issues because they do have a public health component. In other words, decisions that an individual parent makes for their children about vaccines doesn’t just affect their own kids, but also has the potential to affect other kids too.

Vaccines have a public health component because they generate something called herd immunity. Basically, if a certain percentage of a population has immunity to a disease, it’s less likely that the bacteria or virus that causes the disease will find a susceptible person in the population. For two great (and funny!) animations that illustrate this, go to this link and scroll down to the bottom of the page.

To understand why this is important, here’s a scenario for you to consider. Imagine that you and I both have school-age children. I’ve vaccinated my child against pertussis, but you and several other parents in our school district have chosen not to. I also have a new baby, who is only 3 months old. My baby’s immune system is not yet fully developed and she doesn’t have good immunity to pertussis. A pertussis outbreak begins in our district. The bacterium is able to infect several school age children, who become sick but can be treated with antibiotics.  But my baby is fragile and doesn’t have immunity. Because the bacterium is circulating in our community (we don’t have good herd immunity because vaccination rates are low), my baby becomes infected and dies. You might think I’m being overly dramatic, but my scenario is based on an actual case that occurred in Colorado in 2000 (reference here). [Added: Thanks to TW who told me about a case much closer to home -- the tragic death of Kaliah Jeffery right here in Snohomish county during our recent pertussis outbreak. Go here for the article.]

Do you see how the issue of vaccination and parental rights isn’t perfectly black and white? Should you be allowed to refuse vaccination when your decision might endanger my baby? But then again, how can the government order you to give your child a medical procedure? It’s not as simple an issue as Mr. Schneider presents it.

Doctors only tell you the benefits of vaccines, and not the risks, because they are in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies who are out to make money (see quote #2 below). I completely agree that pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars and that some doctors over-prescribe certain medications because they are influenced by these companies. However, this is typically  not the case with vaccines and you can check it out for yourself. Look up the financial records of any major pharmaceutical company and check out how they make their money. I will tell you what you will find: they make their money on drugs for chronic conditions. In other words, drugs that people have to take consistently (like drugs for anxiety, depression, acid reflux, or erectile dysfunction). Vaccines are designed to be administered only a few times to give you long-term immunity. Think about this from a business point of view: What would you rather sell, something that people are going to buy every day or something they’ll only buy occasionally?

Here’s my example: I googled “pfizer financial statement” which took me to this document. On page 22, I found a list of the 2011 revenues for all of their products, two of which are vaccines to prevent pneumococcus (a bacterial infection that can cause meningitis in infants). The total revenue for both of these vaccines was $4,145,000,000. You might be thinking that’s big money, but wait. The total revenue for all drugs was $57,747,000,000. That means vaccines only represent 7% of the companies’ total revenue. And we’re just looking at revenue, not the costs associated with developing the drug or vaccines. Vaccines are often much more expensive to develop than other drugs because they require a fair amount of scientific research. The best money makers for large pharmaceutical companies are usually “me-too” drugs — drugs that represent just a slight alternation of an existing drug and therefore don’t require much research. (For more on this, and when you should be very skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, I suggest you watch “Big Drugs, Big Pharma.” You can watch it here on youtube.)

In fact, one of the problems with getting new vaccines developed or improving vaccine technology is that they aren’t very profitable as compared to other drugs. So, the idea that doctors push them on you because someone is making money just doesn’t seem likely to me.

Vaccines haven’t been tested scientifically; they don’t have a proven record of efficacy (see quote #3 below): This is just plain untrue. Vaccines go through extensive testing on small and larger groups of people to make sure that 1) they are effective at preventing the disease, and 2) that any side effects from the vaccine are much less severe and affect far fewer people than the disease itself. In other words, scientists must demonstrate that the benefits of a vaccine outweigh the risks before the FDA will approve the vaccine (for details on the vaccine trial process, go here). After approval, vaccines are closely monitored for “adverse events” like someone get sick or experiencing side effects (go here to learn more about monitoring).  If an approved vaccine causes more adverse events than predicted, it may be recalled or reformulated. For example, the vaccine that contains pertussis — currently Tdap or Dtap in the US — has been changed a couple of times to reduce side effects (to read about a story involving side effects the old vaccine –DTP– in Japan, go here and scroll down to the question “Was the old pertussis vaccine safe?”).

If what I’ve already said doesn’t convince you, or you don’t want to read all those references I sent you to, check out these two illustrations of the efficacy of vaccines. They aren’t exactly studies that compare vaccinated with un-vaccinated people (although those do exist), but I think they get the point across.

Polio in the United States before and after vaccination (Figure from John Hopkins, see reference below)

Global comparison of measles vaccination with cases (hatched lines = vaccination, green colors = fewer cases, orange to red = more cases; for the complete story, see reference below)

Bottom line, I think both of these figures illustrate that vaccines work.

Vaccines are toxic, they contain mercury, and/or they cause autism (quote #4 below).

  • Vaccines may cause side effects, that is true. But in order for a vaccine to be licensed by the FDA, these side effects must be 1) less severe and 2) less frequent than the possible effects and complications of the disease itself. You can look up any individual vaccine and it’s possible side effects here.
  • The only vaccine given to children that still contains mercury (in the form of Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative) is the influenza vaccine. No other childhood vaccines contain mercury. For  more information on which vaccines used to contain mercury and when it was removed from vaccines go here.
  • The British medical  journal that published the original studies suggesting that the MMR vaccine causes autism has since reported that the studies were fraudulent. As a result, the doctor that conducted these studies, Andrew Wakefield, has been banned from practicing medicine in England.  Extensive scientific studies  that examined the proposal of the original Wakefield studies failed to find any evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism (details here). Even the autism society doesn’t recognize MMR as a possible cause of autism (see their list of causes here). (They do mention metabolic disorders that may fail to clear heavy metals from the body, but thimerosal — the preservative derived from mercury — was never used as a preservative in MMR.)

Vaccines are dangerous for infants because their immune systems aren’t developed yet (see quote#5 below). It’s exactly because infant’s immune systems aren’t developed that they need vaccines. Their immune systems aren’t strong enough to protect them from the real bacteria and viruses. So, we give them vaccines instead — most vaccines contain just pieces of bacteria or viruses. These pieces themselves can’t cause disease but what they do is educate children’s immune systems — I like to think of it as taking the immune system to boot camp. By showing the immune system the pieces of the bacteria or viruses, the immune system is trained to fight if/when the real bacteria or virus shows up. A few vaccines, like the oral form of the polio vaccine, contain “live” bacteria or viruses that have been weakened by scientists so they don’t usually cause disease. Although the risks of these live vaccines are slightly higher than for completely dead vaccines, they provide a better education for the immune system (because they have all the parts, not just some). Just like any vaccine, live vaccines have to be extensive tested before they’re licensed.

Doctors give infants unnecessary vaccines/too many vaccines (quotes 6 and 7 below). We do have more vaccines now than we used to, but that’s because we’ve had more time for research and development to occur. The developments in molecular biology that have occurred since the 1960s have improved our ability to develop vaccines, so it’s not surprising that we have more today than we did when I was born (in the 1960s). To me, that’s a logical progression, not signs of a conspiracy.

Mr. Schneider thinks some vaccines, like the one for Hepatitis B, are unnecessary for infants because they’re unlikely to contract that disease. To this, the Vaccine Education Center says “before the hepatitis B virus vaccine, every year in the United States about 18,000 children less than 10 years of age caught hepatitis B virus from someone other than their mother. ” They go on to discuss how transmission can occur. For more rare diseases like this one, I can see how a parent might choose not to get the vaccine.

Mr. Schneider also thinks there’s just too many vaccines and I’ve heard other parents worry that somehow they’ll limit their child’s ability to respond to real diseases in the future if they give them too many vaccines — as if they’ll use up their child’s immune system. Scientists who study our immune systems say that the current vaccine schedule for children only uses the tip of the iceberg of our immune system’s ability to respond (go here for more details).

Parents should get informed about vaccines (quote 8 below). Agreed! I agree 99% with Mr. Schneider. Only 99% because I think his recommendation for getting informed isn’t the best choice. (He recommends a book by a non-MD who is “homeopath, a licensed acupuncturist, and doctor of Chinese medicine” according to Healthy Child. I have an open mind to non-Western practices, but I think they should be used along with, not instead of, Western medicine, and I don’t think all non-Western training is rigorous enough. While getting the best of both worlds is my ultimate dream, I’m still cautious about trusting the advice of people who may not have had rigorous medical education.) My favorite site for vaccine information is at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Site. The answer to every question I’ve tackled here, and probably any others you might have can be found at this site. In the end, it is parents who make the decisions for their children, and I encourage all parents to visit this site to get informed.

One last slightly snarky comment from me about getting informed. Why do some people put so much value on the word of celebrities when it comes to vaccination? Sometimes I say to my students — if you wanted to know if you should have a certain surgery, would you start going up to random people on the street and asking their opinion? Because that’s what surfing the internet can be like unless you’re very careful. Doctors may not be perfect, but they did take a lot of science courses in college and then they went to medical school, which I’ve never heard anyone say was easy. Most of us would go to a doctor for advice about medical issues. If we weren’t sure about the advice, we’d get a second opinion — from another doctor. (In my opinion, both doctors don’t have to be MD’s by the way — one could be an MD and one might be a naturopath, or ND.)

In addition to being a parental and public health issue, vaccination is also a medical and scientific issue. I’ve now spent about three hours compiling this blog post alone, and I can’t even begin to add up all the hours I’ve spent studying vaccines and vaccine safety. I can’t help but wonder how much time and critical thinking some celebrities bring to this discussion. It’s easy to accept what you want to believe; it’s harder to look at reams of scientific evidence and reports. Children, and their health, are very important to me, so I can only hope that parents and future parents who might read this post will put in some real time and thought before deciding whether to vaccinate their children.

Quotes from the video:

1“My wife is 5 months pregnant and I’m for parental rights and not government coercion telling us what we can do and what we can’t do with our kids. There is no other mandated  procedure…first of all, it’s illegal you can’t make people do procedures that they don’t want to. The parents have to be the ones to make the decisions about what’s best for our kids. It can’t be the government saying that — It’s against the Nuremberg laws. It’s ridiculous. t’s against the state constitution; it’s against their own by –laws here. I was reading some legislation that was passed years ago. They used to do state sterilizations and they thought that was a good thing. You know. So you can’t let the state make the decisions. The people have to decide. And parents have to decide. And that’s why I’m here. You know the idea that the state is going to tell me what I’m going to do with my kids.”

2“First of all. The doctors aren’t going to tell you both sides of the issue. They’re not. Because they are. They’re told by the pharmaceutical industry that makes billions of dollars. “

3“There’s no efficacy study. In other words, if you and I were gonna do, if I was gonna have a car seat. You’d have to show some proof that it was a safe seat, right? You’d have to say here’s a thousand accidents with the seat and here’s a thousand without it. And OK you can compare. They have refused to. And no vaccine companies, nonoe of the pharmaceutical companies and government tests have done a thousand kids with the shot and a thousand without. They refuse to. Because it’s not what they want to hear. Because what they’re doing right now, is that the pharmaceutical industries are doing fine. They’re making billions of dollars. And they’re continuing to…they’re increasing more shots. And it’s at the cost of our children. Cause the efficacy of these shots have not been proven.”

4“And the toxicity of these things. We’re having  more and more side effects. More and more autism. When you go from autism that was unheard of in America in 1930. When you go from 1 in 5000 after seeds started being preserved with mercury, the second most toxic thing on this planet next to plutonium. ..Then go up a couple of decades to 1990, it was 1 in 200. Now it’s 1 in 88. Now truthfully, it’s true that a lot of autism rates are grouped into one. But there is something that’s  really happening.”

5But one of the most vulnerable things you can do to a child that doesn’t have an immune system is give them a shot. “

6And I’ll just give you one example. You take the hepatitis B. Now hepatitis, you’ll get that from intravenous drug use and sexual contact. And yet, they won’t let a baby out of the hospital ..insisting on getting the shot. And I’m sorry, but that’s an unnecessary shot that they don’t need to have, especially when the baby’s immune system isn’t developed, it’s the mother’s immune system.”

7“They’ve gone from when you and I were kids they had like 8 shots, now it’s up to 70 shots, multi-shots. “

8 “And there’s a great book for people to go and get. It’s called The Vaccine Guide by Dr. Neustadter. Read that. And then become informed. And then you can make an educated decision. And not a government mandate.”

References

Polio figure: Incidence of Polio in the United States 1941-1971″ from Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases. Available at: http://ocw.jhsph.edu. Copyright © Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

Measles figures: UCatlas

“Incidence of Polio in the United States 1941-1971″ from Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases. Available at: http://ocw.jhsph.edu. Copyright © Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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While I’m away….

I’m at the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology, stuffing my head full of the latest research on microbes and best practices for microbiology teaching.

It’s a small world

For my micro peeps out there, here’s a few fun facts from the meeting:

  • Giant viruses (called giruses) are so big you can see them with a light microscope and they have large genomes (for viruses) that may include genes for their own tRNAs and some metabolic enzymes. This breaks the traditional view that viruses borrow all protein synthesis and metabolic machinery from the host. These facts, as well as some evolutionary analysis, resparks the debate about whether we should consider viruses as “alive” and include them on the big tree of life.
  • The dirtiest places in hotel rooms (most likely to have coliform bacteria) are light switches and TV remotes. Hypothesis is maids don’t have time to clean the little things.
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa uses it’s green pigment as both an electron donor and acceptor, which helps it survive in the damaged lungs of CF patients (when oxygen levels get low and oxygen isn’t available as an electron acceptor). As a CF’s patients lungs get more and more damaged, the bacterium makes more and more pigment.
  • The Japanese were using pasteurization to control the types of microbes present in sake fermentation 300 years before Pasteur was born. Oh, and making sake is more like making beer than wine, and there’s several different varieties ranging from the sort of earthy toned stuff that best with food to a champagne style that tasted to me like alcoholic Sprite. (Yes, there was a tasting session following the sake talk. We have to have a little microbiology-related fun.)

Sake production is very much like making beer. The initial mash is made by inoculating the rice with koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae). The mold digests the starches to sugars. Then, yeast are added to ferment the sugars to alcohol.

  • Engineers who jumped over to biology started a field called synthetic biology that involves building new elements into living cells. This is different than genetic engineering where biologists take something that evolved in one cell and move it into another. These guys really think out of the box and build their own genes and regulators. One of the cool things they’ve built is a sort of genetic circuit that involves two genes, whose gene products each act as the repressor of the other. Depending on which inducer you add to the system, you can flip the genetic switch on or off. One cool thing they’re trying to do with this is engineer normal gut bacteria like Lactobacillus to detect pathogens like Vibrio cholerae. The idea is that you’d put the engineered bacteria into people’s guts (presumably in areas where cholera is a high risk). If the cholera bacterium entered the gut, one of its gene products would act as an inducer to the switch built into Lactobacillus, causing Lactobacillus to start transcribing and translating an antimicrobial to kill the V. cholerae. This is awesomely cool crazy stuff!

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Channeling My Inner Farm Girl

A couple of weeks ago, I put in a new raised bed for our vegetable garden.  For the frame, I “repurposed” the former bottom bunk of my son’s bunk bed (he’s moved up to the top and is using it as a loft).

Bunk bed on its side next to the grass I’m going to remove

Usually for big physical tasks like removing sod, I call for my husband to help me out. But, alas, Mr. Muscles was busy exercising the muscle between his ears and writing a paper (he took two classes this Spring and was crazy busy). So, I was forced to woman-up and do the job myself.

I used a shovel and cut the sod out chunk by chunk, then shook each clump of grass to get as much dirt off as I could before I tossed the grass into the wheelbarrow.

All the sod cut away, one clump at a time.

As I worked, I started wondering — how did I know how to do this? I realized I  must have learned it from  my Dad.

My Dad is in the middle surrounded by his female offspring and next to his mother

We had a vegetable garden every year, and I remember my Dad showing me how to shake off the grass clumps to save the soil. I feel like I don’t remember many details from my childhood, but I do remember the big tomatoes and cucumbers that Dad grew every year.

My little sisters, with Tamara holding a basket of Dad’s produce

My little sister and brother, showing off the produce from the garden

And I wondered about how my Dad knew what to do, and that led me to my grandparents. They also had a backyard garden, plus my Grandpa was an amazing rose gardener.

My grandparents on their porch, with some of my Grandpa’s roses showing below.

I lived with my grandparents for a few years when I was in junior high school. The walkway into the backyard was narrow and it ran next to a planting bed that my grandparents planted with flowers and herbs. As I walked to the back yard, I’d brush the parsley and smell the zinnias that were growing in the bed. To this day, whenever I chop parsley I’m transported back to those golden days in  a sunny California yard.

My Grandpa and my uncle, with the garden behind them.

I’ll have to ask my Dad and my uncle, but I assume that their parents taught them to garden. My grandparents grew up in Belleville, IL, which was home to many German farmers, and my Grandpa grew up on a farm. So I wondered, as I shook the soil out of the clumps of grass to make my new planting bed, how far back could I trace a line of farm people who had done the very same thing? And as I thought about that long line,  I realized that I want to continue it. And that means getting my boys away from their computers and out in the yard more so that they, too, know how to grow their own food.

My new planting bed, planted with tomatoes (surrounded with red plastic).

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Pigs are cute!

I’m starting a campaign to raise awareness of pig cuteness.

Micro piglet hugs strawberry.

Hint: You can go here to sign the petition to ask Tyson to stop using gestation crates.

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