28 Nov 2014

DePizan Awards go to Three Amazing Scientists! Who Ahem Happen to be Women...

Posted by Helaine Becker

Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending the award ceremony for the De Pizan Awards, given by the National Women's History Museum in Washington, DC. The awards are named for Christine de Pizan, the first woman in the West to write about women's history (that was in the 14th century!).

This year, the awards went to three incredible women, all of whom worked in STEM fields, and all of whom work to make the world a better place.

The first was Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior. Trained as an engineer, Jewell has worked tirelessly for environmental issues. The award she received is named for Rachel Carson, scientist and the author of Silent Spring, the book that 'kickstarted' the environmental movement.

Sally Jewell accepting her award, chokes up as she thanks her 'brave' grade 4 teacher!
Jewell gave a moving speech in which she thanked yet another woman for inspiring her love of science - her 4th grade teacher. She said how this 'brave woman' took an entire class of 9-year-olds out into the woods for two weeks to give them a chance to explore, and to do science investigation in the field. She owes her career, she said, to this one great lady.

The second winner was Katherine G. Johnson, a pioneering mathematician who calculated the trajectories to the moon for the Apollo space program. She received the Maria Mitchell Award, named for an influential American astronomer and educator (more about Katherine below!)

Katherine Johnson sent a video acceptance for her award.

Johnson's daughters, Kathy and Joylette, shown here with NWHM's President,
 Joan Wages, accepting the award on Johnson's behalf.

The third award went to  Debbie Sterling, the inventor of Goldieblox. Sterling earned a degree as a Mechanical Engineer. She tells how she had a revelation when visiting a toy store, and being shocked and disgusted by the 'pinkified' toy aisles featuring toys ' for girls' - toys that included ironing boards and dress up princess outfits. She decided she'd use her training as an engineer to create construction toys that would defy stereotype and convention. Check out this PSA which Sterling spearheaded: "This is Your Brain on Princess."

Debbie Sterling, accepting her award, speaks out against sexism and 'pinkification.'
I had attended the event because I intend to write a biography about Katherine Johnson. I learned about her inspiring career this past summer, when working on a book about space for National Geographic Kids. I was shocked - and disgusted - that there isn't a single book about Katherine Johnson out there.

Why is this? It's not bad enough that girls and women have been denied opportunities in the STEM fields.

Or that girls and women are told, explicitly and implicitly, that science careers are not for women (witness the pinkified toy aisles, or the teacher who holds up one of my science-related books in front of a class and says, 'You boys will like this one!').

But even when women DO make careers in science, and contribute hugely, like Katherine Johnson, their accomplishments are ignored, swept under the carpet, neglected. Their stories are lost to history, confirming what is patently false: that women don't do science.

Here is the truth:

Women do science. They excel at science. They make great discoveries and advance the knowledge of the human race, just as capably as men.

So I have decided to correct the injustice, in my own small way, by making it my 'mission' to tell stories like Johnson's. I'm a writer, and a science writer. I can do this!

But where to start?

In August, I contacted the Johnson family and told them what I wanted to do. I asked for Johnson's blessing, and permission to interview her and her family about her extraordinary life.

Johnson was delighted - no one had ever asked her if they could write a children's book about her! It turns out she'd volunteered as a literacy tutor for much of her adult life, so the idea of having children be able to read about her...well, let's just say it made her happy to imagine kids being inspired by her story.

That initial conversation brought me to D.C. for the De Pizan awards, where I was able to meet Johnson's family in person for the first time.  They have so, so graciously invited me into their lives, and are giving me the opportunity to conduct interviews with them all! I am looking forward both to getting to know this wonderful family better, and to hearing what I am sure are going to be some incredible stories.

I know I'm not alone in wanting to tell stories like Johnson's. The We Need Diverse Books campaign evolved out of frustration at the glacial pace of change in the children's book industry. The campaign seeks to correct the imbalance that exists in children's books, which still predominantly feature subjects and authors that are primarily white and primarily male.  (For more info, see  stats here.)

So let's get cracking! Please support the We Need Diverse Books Campaign, and the National Women's History Museum!

21 Nov 2014

Why You Don't Bite Your Tongue Every Time You Eat and Other Amazing Tongue Facts

by Jan Thornhill

Most, though not all, people can make a simple tongue roll. A few
can make multiple rolls. Four is called a "cloverleaf." (Wikipedia)


I went out for dinner with friends a couple of nights ago. Chinese dumplings. Yum! I was so hungry and was eating so fast that I chomped down on my own tongue. Hard. The cut was deep enough that I thought for a minute I might need stitches...except there were more dumplings to eat. Though it hurt like heck (tip: stop eating hot sauce or anything acidic for a day or two after biting your tongue!), I decided to leave it and see what happened. By the end of dinner it had stopped bleeding. By bedtime, the flap that I'd almost sheared off had sealed itself neatly back in place, and by the end of the following day it appeared to be completely healed. Amazing!

If you look under your tongue, you'll see how rich it is in
blood vessels it. (Miserlou - Wikipedia)
Our tongues, it turns out, heal faster than any other part of our bodies except our corneas. Unless you have a severe tongue injury, in which case you should visit the ER, your tongue is so rich in blood vessels that nutrients and oxygen and other repair factors are delivered with such speed that a small self-inflicted wound will completely heal in only a day or two.

Why We Don't Bite Our Tongues Every Day

Your tongue's primary job is to move solid food into position between your teeth to be chewed, and then to shift that wad of mashed food, properly called a bolus, toward your throat so you can swallow it. The amazing thing is how precise this complex action is. Though we are capable of consciously controlling how we chew, most of the time when we're eating we're not thinking about what our tongues and jaws are doing at all. So how do we, and other mammals, manage to avoid eating our own tongues? Well, science is making great strides in answering this question. New research with mice has now shown that, while eating, connections between premotor neurons that control jaw and tongue muscles are exquisitely coordinated, making it impossible to automatically close the mouth without the tongue being simultaneously retracted.  

As well as helping us to eat, the tongue is also adept at cleaning our teeth and helping us drink. It also works like a piston, allowing us to suck, which is a vitally important function for toothless babies: the tongue produces low pressure when it moves backwards with the mouth closed, which causes fluid to be sucked in. Next time you're having a drink using a straw, try to get some liquid in your mouth without moving your tongue—you'll see that it's impossible. 

Talking Tongues

Owen Price's 1665 illustration of human speech. 

Bet you can't say this three times fast: "The sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep's sick." New research is now offering an explanation for why tongue twisters like this twist our tongues (I think I just made up a new one!). 

When we speak, the brain acts like a symphony conductor, perfectly coordinating the complex movements of tongue, lips, jaw, and larynx to produce words. But how does it do it? Using electrodes on brain surgery patients, scientists have recently been able to pinpoint the specific locations of brain activity that coincide with the enunciation of various common English syllables. When these areas of the brain were mapped out, it was found that consonants and vowels are controlled quite differently, even when the sounds enunciated are produced in the same parts of the vocal tract. On top of that, the brain appears to coordinate the formation of words according to the muscles that need to move to produce them instead of by sound, as was previously thought. Front-of-the-mouth sounds, for instance, like "sss" and "shh," are clustered very closely together in the brain, which makes it much easier for our mouths to get confused when trying to produce these sounds in an overlapping series, hence our difficulty in repeating tongue twisters.

Stick Out Your Tongue!

Two pages from a treatise on the diagnostic value of the appearance
of the tongue by Mosai Tsuchida (1765-1837) (Wikipedia)

Have you ever wondered why your doctor asks you to stick out your tongue? Doctors can actually tell a lot about your health by looking at your tongue. In Western medicine, a darker or lighter than normal tongue can be a sign of serious medical issues, as can dark spots or patchiness. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine take the state of one's tongue even more seriously and believe that even subtle changes in the tongue's colour, coating, and shape can tell them so much about other parts of a patient's body that there are whole books devoted to the practice of tongue diagnostics. 

Fun Tongue Facts

Fountain in Pontevedra, Spain (Joseogon)
  • In many parts of the world, sticking your tongue out at someone is considered childish or rude behaviour. It is such an insult in Italy that in 2009 a man was fined almost $2,000 for sticking his tongue out at his neighbour! In Tibet, however, sticking one's tongue out is a friendly greeting. This practice began centuries ago as an offering of proof that someone is friendly, not an incarnation of Lang Darma, a cruel, black-tongued, 9th century king.
  • Proportionately, the human tongue is has the most powerful muscles in the body. The record weight lifted by a tongue is 12.5 kg by Thomas Blackthorne.  
  • The bumps on your tongue are called papillae. These papillae are covered with taste buds, which are collections of nerve-like cells that connect to nerves that transmit information about taste to your brain. We each have between 3,000 and 10,000 taste buds in our mouths.
  • The tongue is the most sensitive part of our body for touch. This high sensitivity allows us to test various aspects of food, such as shape and heat, and also protects us by magnifying unwanted objects, such as fish bones or small stones.
  • The tongue can move in all directions, up, down, sideways, and back and forth. It can also roll, curl, hollow, and make grooves. 
  • Contrary to what was once believed, the tongue senses sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami tastes all over its surface, not just in specific areas.
  • On average, men's tongues are longer than women's.

Fun Animal Tongue Facts:

  • A blue whale's tongue weighs as much as an adult elephant!
Blue whale's have the biggest tongues on the planet. (NOAA)

  • A chameleon's tongue can extend twice the length of its body and can move faster than the human eye can follow, hitting its target in about 30 thousandths of a second.
  • When a dog exercises, its tongue increases in size with greater blood flow and hangs out of its mouth. Moisture on the tongue along with panting help to cool the blood before it circulates back through the dog's body. 

The longest dog tongue belonged to a boxer
named Brandy. It was 17 inches long!
  • A cat's tongue has backwards-facing, hooked spines that help it comb its fur, removing dirt and parasites.
  • Hummingbirds have long, forked tongues covered in grooves. New high-speed photography shows exactly how this special tongue draws liquid into a hummingbird's mouth. See video here.

Hummingbirds have very specialized tongues that allow them to
sip nectar from deep flowers. (Dick Daniels)

  • An anteater's tongue is covered in sticky saliva while it feeds and can be flicked in and out of its mouth, entrapping ants and termites, up to 150 times a minute.

And, Finally, Something Really Gross

A "tongue-eating louse" that has replaced the
tongue of a sand steenbras fish.
A dastardly parasite called Cymothoa exigua, or the tongue-eating louse, enters its fish victims through the gills. Once inside the fish's mouth, the female attaches itself to the tongue, eventually removing so much blood from it that the tongue atrophies. "How horrible!" you might say. But it's not quite as bad a situation for the fish as it sounds. Once the tongue is gone, this little crustacean latches onto the muscles of the remaining stub and BECOMES THE FISH'S NEW TONGUE! In this position, the parasite lives out its life, feeding on blood from the fish or mucus.  
The tongue-eating louse, Cymothoa exigua, is the only known parasite that
acts as a working replacement for a host organ! (Frank Schulenburg)

References & Resources:

Edward Stanek IV, Steven Chang, Jun Takatoh, Bao-Xia Han, and Fan Wang. "Monosynaptic Premotor Circuit Tracing Reveals Neural Substrates for Oro-motor Coordination,"  eLife, June 3, 2014. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.02511

"Why tongue twisters are hard to say" - Nature.com

14 Nov 2014

Struck by Lightning: Creative Insight in Chemistry

Chemical Heritage Foundation
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Struck by Lightning: Creative Insight in Chemistry
                   by Judy Wearing

Imagine your garden variety chemistry scientist at work. Did you conjure up a picture similar to mine? A man, in a white lab coat with several golden-brown stains on the front, or a ripped pocket. He’s well worn, and slightly careless with his appearance because he’s got better things to do with his time, i.e., make lots of precise measurements of mysterious powders and liquids, which he swirls in large beakers, very carefully because if anything splashes he’ll carry the scars of the resulting flesh wounds forever. He bends over a lot, paying close attention to his mixtures and balances, and hence has a hunched back. He is rather antisocial, or at least socially-stinted as he does not use words much in everyday life; his writing centres around equations and long names of compounds with unaesthetic suffixes like ene and ic. He is considerably less romantic than my imaginary physicist, and far more esoteric than my biologist. He is the first to leave the pub, never buys the beer, and is unlikely to believe in fairies.

I don’t know any chemists, and I cannot conjure a single scrap of remembrance of any of the half dozen undergraduate chemistry profs who tried to teach me their discipline, such was the impression they made. I am quite sure that my imagined, biased, and uninformed stereotype is false. In fact, I am ashamed that I possess it in the first place – it is wrong, and I know better, for lots of reasons, one of which is that I’ve spent a good chunk of time with scientists of many stripes. They are generally nice people of both sexes with active social lives and a range of talents and abilities. I’d be more embarrassed to admit such a stereotype if I was not convinced it is so common to possess it, and that many will recognize or appreciate aspects of the image portrayed.

This stereotype, like many others through which we unwittingly perceive the world and the people in
Friedrich August Kekule
it, affect our perception of creativity. Take the story of August Kekulé, arguably Europe’s most prominent chemist in the latter decades of the 19th century. It was Kekulé who theorized the concept of chemical structure – envisioning how atoms are arranged in molecules without any means of actually observing them. This insight was a leap forward that enabled organic chemistry to blossom. Kekulé described the moment of his best-known scientific breakthrough, the ring structure of benzene, as a daydream:

"I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis…Let us learn to dream, gentlemen."

Kekulé was not under the influence of drugs, hallucinogenic or otherwise. And his description of the
process of creative thinking is not so strange, though it does not fit with the stereotypical methodical, plodding scientist. For example, the mention of lightning figures in the descriptions of other chemists asked in a questionnaire in 1931, by two men named Platt and Baker, how they make scientific progress. “I decided to abandon the work and all thoughts relative to it, and then, on the following day, when occupied in work of an entirely different type, an idea came to my mind as suddenly as a flash of lightning and it was the solution.” Another chemist wrote, “One day all of a sudden the whole became as clear and comprehensible as if it were illuminated with a flash of light...” The mathematician Gauss described the moment when he solved a troublesome problem whose solution had eluded him for years, “like a sudden flash of lightning the riddle happened to be solved.”

These rational, scientific men are all evoking some external and sudden force to describe their creative insights. To avoid a new stereotype of chemists who stand out in the rain waiting to be struck by lightning in order to achieve scientific fame, here is how other scientists have described a moment of clarity:

“…as if from the clear sky above me – an idea popped into my head as emphatically as if a voice had shouted it.”

“in all directions…happy ideas came unexpectedly without effort like an inspiration.” Von Helmholtz, physicist

“Again and again the imaginary plan on which one attempts to build up order breaks down and then we must try another. This imaginative vision and faith in the ultimate success are indispensable. The pure rationalist has no place here.” Max Planck, physicist.

The experiences of these men and women are not reserved for the particularly fanciful or brilliant. In Platt and Baker survey of chemists, 33 % stated they received frequent assistance from intuition, while 50% occasionally experienced these insights. If you, like me, have a stereotype of the rational scientist, you will be mildly surprised by the more fanciful workings of their minds. These anecdotes suggest three conclusions:
  1. creativity is important for all sorts of mental processes, across disciplines - both science and art; 
  2. a person who is an excellent analytic thinker can also be an excellent creative thinker; and, 
  3. at least some common aspects of creativity happen in our brain without us being conscious of it, which gives the sensation of a vanilla shock. Or, being struck by lightning.

7 Nov 2014

Science fairs and competitions: Young scientists lead the way

By Marie Powell

In 2010, 14-year-old Rui Song discovered the molecular markers for two fungi killing lentil crops in Canada, Bangladesh, Syria, and Ethiopia.

In 2011, 16-year-old Marshall Zhang made the groundbreaking discovery of a drug cocktail to help treat cystic fibrosis, a disease affecting the lungs and digestive system. The following year, 16-year-old Janelle Tam became the first to show the antioxidant properties of wood pulp. And in 2013, Arjun Nair developed an experimental cancer therapy using gold nano-particles.

Photo by Stilfehler (Creative Commons)
These ground-breaking discoveries began as projects for the national Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition. Science and math are known to be subjects where young minds can lead the way. Science fairs across the country help Canadian students explore science concepts in a hands-on participatory way, and share results in a display or report.

There's even a virtual science fair that posts reports and projects online. Many science fairs offer prizes and accolades for the winners, as well as an opportunity to advance new ideas in all fields of science.

The Google Science Fair also has a Canadian competition resulting in significant breakthroughs, such as 18-year-old Hayley Todesco's sand-and-bacteria filters for cleaning up toxic waste. The Google competition is open to anyone 13 to 18, and offers a variety of prizes.

The Sanofi Biogenius Canada competition offers high school and CEGEP students from across the country an opportunity to submit biotechnology projects for consideration. Those chosen work with mentors who are experts in their fields to develop these projects for regional and then national competitions.

For example, in 2014 students submitted more than 200 biotechnology projects, proposing research in such fields as diabetes, stress management, Alzheimer's research, pulp production, and chromosome research. The 15-year-old national winner Nicole Ticea developed an innovative test for diagnosing HIV in newborns.

For more information on these competitions and projects, try the following links:

Sanofi Biogenius Canada: http://biogenius.ca
Articles: "Calgary student takes prize for 'nano-bullet' cancer research," CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/calgary-student-takes-prize-for-nanobullet-cancer-research-1.1369403; "British Columbia student's new method for diagnosing HIV in Newborns...," Market Wired, http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/british-columbia-students-new-method-diagnosing-hiv-newborns-wins-sanofi-biogeneius-1915010.htm

Canada-wide 2015 Virtual Science Fair: http://www.virtualsciencefair.com

Science Fair Project Ideas: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas.shtml

Google Science Fair: https://www.googlesciencefair.com/en/
Article: "Calgary's Hayley Todesco wins Canadian Google Science Fair," CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/calgary-s-hayley-todesco-wins-canadian-google-science-fair-prize-1.2704257