Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough? An educator’s response.

Credit: Stephen Janis

This is an educator’s response to my earlier post: Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

by Eric Klein

     Evidence of the effect of external factors such as recession on academic achievement will lag far behind the actual occurrence of the factor. Let me explain what I mean with an example. Suppose Billy’s dad loses his job tomorrow and the family goes through a crisis that hinders Billy’s education. Billy shuts down academically, stops doing his schoolwork. While this will affect his grades for this year, it is unlikely to show up in his performance in standardized testing this year. However, the long-term effect of losing a year’s, two years, three years worth of learning will be exhibited in the data some years down the road.

     When state and local governments choose to underfund their school systems, this same lag occurs. It takes years for the effects of educational policy to appear in the data. Thus, I suspect it is too soon to draw any conclusions. The State of Maryland tests its kids at the beginning AND end of each school year, which makes their data valuable for assessing rate of growth in student achievement. That might be worth taking a peek at. Bare in mind, that funds from the stimulus package were allocated to keep teachers in the classroom for the 2009-10 school year, so the true effects of the recession on academic achievement don’t appear until 2010-11.

     That said, the recession is not the first instance of government underfunding education. The decline started 25 years ago when states began to fund their schools through sales tax, which is a regressive tax in that it does not keep up with growth in the economy. Thus, the recession cuts in education are not so much a disastrous event as the next phase in the deconstruction of our public infrastructure.

Related Reading:

Confessions of a ‘Bad’ Teacher

Obama urges governors to boost education funding, calls it key to competitiveness

Eric Klein fills students’ brains with math and numbers as a Michigan high school teacher.


The Biology of Star Wars: Are exogorths just really big caecilians?

     ResearchBlogging.orgDon’t be fooled, what you’re looking at is a recently discovered species of a limbless amphibian called a caecilian. They prefer tropical climates and can be found in South and Southeast Asia, East and West Africa, and parts of South America. These creatures are burrowers and have adapations that make them well-suited for life underground. Their heads are reinforced through the fusion of bones in the skull and they are capable of using their bodies like a piston to drive through earth. Caecilians also have “primitive” eyes that allow them to see light and dark. Some species are known to secret toxins from their skin like other amphibians do.

     As hinted by the picture, caecilian mothers tend to their offspring by building a nest and staying with her eggs until they hatch. Unlike other amphibians that have a larval stage (think tadpoles), caecilians emerge from their eggs as miniature adults. Some species of caecilians continue to care for their newly-hatched young through an interesting exfoliating behavior: (see video).

“What’s the secret to my youthful, radiant glow? I make my kids eat my skin.”

Evolution of Caecilians     The story of caecilian evolution is rather murky given their incomplete fossil record. In fact, the evolutionary history of the living amphibians (frogs, salamanders, & caecilians) remains  a hotly contested debate in the field of batrachology(study of amphibians). Who knew! While its accepted that frogs, salamanders, & caecilians all belong to the subclass Lissamphibia (a subclass of Amphibia), there is disagreement about the evolutionary relationship of these amphibians with now extinct subclasses of amphibians. Currently, there are three competing hypotheses:

  • current day amphibians are monophyletic, meaning they all share a common ancestor with either 1) Lepospondyli (a subclass of “newt-like, eel- or snake-like, and lizard-like” tetrapods) or 2) Temnospondyli (a subclass of primitive, amphibian tetrapods)
  • current day amphibians are polyphyletic, meaning that they were derived from different ancestors 3) with frogs and salamanders being more closely related to Temnospondyli and caecilians more closely related to Lepospondyli
     Now depending on which strategy is used to build the phylogenetic tree–it’s like a family tree that shows the degree of evolutionary relatedness–different conclusions are reached. Using morphology and the fossil record, Anderson et. al (1) place the caecilians among the Lepospondyli and frogs and salamanders with the Temnospondyli, which supports hypothesis 3:

     However, taking a molecular clock approach Diego San Mauro (2) estimates that caecilians split from the other amphibians around 315 million years ago which is a timeframe more in line with hypothesis 1 or 2:
     The molecular clock is a technique that is used to estimate when in geologic time two species diverged. When species diverge from each other, scientists noted that the DNA sequence between the two species will change over time at a fairly constant rate. Scientists thus can use the number of DNA sequence changes (percent difference) in combination with this rate to back calculate the time at which the divergence occurred. The problem is determining the rates at which these changes occur. Here is a great example/analogy from The Molecular Clock and Estimating Species Divergence:

“Assume, for example, that researchers have two DNA sequences that have a content difference of 5%. From this information alone, it is not possible to tell whether these sequences have diverged from each other at a rate of 1% per 1 million years over a period of 5 million years, or whether they have diverged at a fivefold higher rate over a period of just 1 million years…This is equivalent to trying to determine the average speed of a car merely by looking at its odometer. To deduce the average speed, one would also need to know the length of time for which the car has been travelling.”

     To circumvent this, molecular clocks need to be “calibrated” against the fossil record which can tell us when an evolutionary event occurred, such as the split between bird and lizards lineages. Armed with that date and DNA sequence data of modern day birds and lizards it is possible to calculate the rate at which DNA sequences change between birds and lizards. For amphibians, however, this is problematic because the fossil record is pockmarked with gaps, so San Mauro calibrated the molecular clock against the 3 evolutionary events: the split between reptiles and mammals, the split between the Archosauramorpha and Lepidosauromorpha reptiles, and the split between birds and reptiles. The molecular data he compared was the DNA sequence of 23 different genes from 18 representative species of current day amphibians. As more of a molecular biologist, I am biased toward San Mauro’s approach. However, both strategies could benefit from a more complete amphibian fossil record, which could not only move some of the branches of the morphologically-based phylogenetic tree but also provide for a better calibration of the molecular clock. Alas, the controversy lives on.

But I thought this post was about the biology of Star Wars…
     Sorry for the bait and switch. Now after all this talk about evolution and after watching the caecilian video (especially the yawning juvenile), let me come back to my original premise: Are exogorths just gigantic caecilians? You know, the giant space slug that tries to eat the Millennium Falcon:

According to Wookieepedia, exogorths are a silicon-based, “gigantic species of toothed gastropod” that generally reaches 10m in length. Thesespace slugs inhabit the caves and craters of asteroids where they feed on minerals, stellar energy fields, and mynocks. They also reproduce “asexually by fission. Once an adult slug reached a certain size, a chemical trigger would cause it to split apart into two identical slugs. The two new space slugs would immediately become self-reliant. Space slugs also molted as a result of their growth.”

Ok, so maybe I was wrong about that one, but you can’t tell me they don’t look a lot alike.

Next up in the Biology of Star Wars series, I’ll cover the ever divisive midichlorians.
Correction: In the original post I misspelled exogorth as exogarth.
Picture credit for amphibian taxonomy.tif  (edited by me)

1. Anderson, J., Reisz, R., Scott, D., Fröbisch, N., & Sumida, S. (2008). A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas and the origin of frogs and salamanders Nature, 453 (7194), 515-518 DOI: 10.1038/nature06865

2. San Mauro, D. (2010). A multilocus timescale for the origin of extant amphibians Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 56 (2), 554-561 DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2010.04.019

Vietnam: New Bat Capital of the World?

Check out these ugly suckers:

“Leaf-nosed? Who you calling leaf-nosed?”

     Scientists in Vietnam recently identified a new species of leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros griffini) on Cat Ba Island located in Ha Long Bay. Using a combination of comparative morphology (skull and forearm measurements) and genetic analysis (comparing the DNA sequence of the cytochrome b gene), the researchers determined that H. griffini is distinct from the other Southeast Asian Hipposideros bats which are classified into 5 groups: bicolor, pratti, armiger, speoris, and diadema. Appropriately named after the late Professor Donald Redfield Griffin in recognition of his pioneering work in bat echolocation, Griffin’s leaf-nosed bat is distinguised from other Hipposideros bats in Southeast Asia by its use of distinctively high frequencies (76.6–79.2 kHz) for echolocation. In comparison, the closely related species H. a. armiger and H. a. terasensis use frequencies in the range of 64.7–68.8 kHz and 65.9–71.4 kHz, respectively. Echolocation is a sonar system that bats use in which they emit a sound and use the echo of that sound to determine the position and identity of objects in their path. The time delay before a bat hears the echo can be used to determine distance while differences between when the sound reaches one ear and the other ear provides horizontal positional information of an object. Echolocation is vital for bats to navigate as well as hunt or forage.

     Interestingly, the researchers point out that H. griffini and H. armiger are sympatric, which is the scientific term for living in the same geographic area (AKA “cohabitatin'”). They suggest that using different frequencies for echolocation may have played a role in their speciation warranting further study. And no, the researchers make no claims that the bats are using different frequencies to adapt to climate change.

Biodiversity in Vietnam

     Vietnam is no stranger to the discovery of new species of plants and animals. Just last year the Beelzebub’s tube-nosed bat, thus named due to its resemblance to the demon lord, was discovered in Vietnam.

“I came for your soul..but I’ll settle for your thumb.”

And before that a new species of “only-female” lizards was found being served in local restaurants as a delicacy. The lady lizards, Leiolepis ngovantrii, reproduce asexually through parthogenesis, a process whereby an embryo develops without fertilization.

Leiolepis ngovantrii: Latin for no sperm required.

     However, as with many developing countries, Vietnam’s biodiversity is threatened by deforestation, urban encroachment and poaching. Last year the last Javan rhinoceros in Vietnam was killed by poachers. “Reintroduction of the rhinoceros to Vietnam is not economically or practically feasible. It is gone from Vietnam forever” lamented WWF’s Asian Elephant and Rhino Program Coordinator Dr. Christy Williams. In an effort to avoid attaining a similar fate as the Javan Rhino, officials in Vietnam are setting up a nature preserve to protect the saolo, otherwise known as the Asian Unicorn. As for the leaf-nosed bats, their current habitats are protected as they are found in the Cat Ba and Chu Mom Ray National Parks. The bats of Cat Ba are doubly protected given that the island is found in Ha Long Bay, a popular travel destination, which was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

AmasianV. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam 2009

Vu Dinh Thong, Sebastien J. Puechmaille, Annette Denzinger, Christian Dietz, Gabor Csorba, Paul J. J. Bates, Emma C. Teeling, Hans-Ulrich Schnitzler. A new species of Hipposideros (Chiroptera: Hipposideridae) from VietnamJournal of Mammalogy, 2012; 93 (1): 1 DOI:10.1644/11-MAMM-A-073.1

Are Obama’s STEM Initiatives Enough?

This is a follow-up to an earlier post:

     Obama’s STEM education initiatives were formally proposed last week with the unveiling of his budget for fiscal year 2013. The purpose of these initiatives is to train 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020 as well as generate 1 million new STEM graduates as part of a broader plan designed to make America the leading innovator of STEM technologies. Obama’s STEM initiatives face several problems however, the biggest being the fat chance that his budget, which rings in at $3.8 billion, gets approved by Congress. And just for argument’s sake, let’s say his budget does get passed, will his STEM initiatives be enough to counteract the affects of the recession on science and math education/achievement? Or are we effectively fighting the tide without knowing how to swim?

How the recession effects academic achievement

     The early effects of the Great Recession that officially started in December 2007 were dominated by the collapse of the real estate market and the subsequent fall of several Wall St institutions. The panic that hit the banking industry quickly spread through the country, compounded by rising oil and food prices as well as unemployment. Although, the recession itself, was a short-lived event (ending in the Summer of 2009) the lingering effects of the recession can still be felt. At the time of this post, the US employment rate was still high at 8.3%. Now four plus years out from the recession, the economy is still sluggish albeit showing signs of slow recovery.

     Long-term effects of the recession can also be felt in education. One particular area that the Economic Policy Institute identifies as being “economically scarred” is academic achievement. There report indicates that “Unemployment and income losses can reduce educational achievement by threatening early childhood nutrition; reducing families’ abilities to provide a supportive learning environment (including adequate health care, summer activities, and stable housing); and by forcing a delay or abandonment of college plans.” Echoing the EPI’s findings, the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study measuring the effects of statewide job loss on student achievement concluding that “job losses decrease scores,” particularly in math. Not to mention that “Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding than last year in at least 37 states, and in at least 30 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels – often far below.

Rhode Island NECAP scores

     Given that the recession really took a turn for the worse in September 2008, we now have a 3+year-cohort of students (of various grades) whose standardized test scores we can track.  Rhode Island participates in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP, often pronounced knee-cap), which is a series of standardized tests that measure student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science. Other states that take part of the NECAPs are New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Using RI as an example, I compiled RI’s math and science test scores from 2008-2011 (available from the RI Department of Elementary and Secondary Education):

     One would have expected worsening scores, however, year-over-year math and science scores either improved or stayed roughly the same for each grade. Either the recession had no effects on RI NECAP scores or the scores are a lagging indicator of recession effects. We have to keep in mind that unemployment did not hit its peak (~10%) until October 2009 and that state education budget cuts were not cut until about a year or two ago. Therefore, it would be imperative to track NECAP scores beyond 2012.

     Of course this exercise is not meant to discredit the effects of the recession on academic achievement. What we see in RI is by no means indicative of trends in math and science scores across the country. It should be noted that the RI education budget changes (FY08 to FY12) are on the lower end (see chart above) and also that RI is among the few states increasing its education budget over last year (FY11):

Are you an education policy expert? Or do you have particular insights into the effects of recession on math and science education? Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me: I would love to hear your thoughts.

Money Mayweather vs Linsanity

Occasionally, I will take a break from writing about science and health issues to concentrate on other topics. Today is one of those occasions.

     Earlier this week, in response to Linsanity, boxer Floyd Mayweather tweeted:

     This was by all accounts extremely tame for Mayweather, who in the past has gone on inflammatory rants such as this one directed toward Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, “As soon as we come off vacation, we’re going to cook that little yellow chump. We ain’t worried about that. So they ain’t gotta worry about me fighting the midget. Once I kick the midget ass, I don’t want you all to jump on my d—. So you all better get on the bandwagon now. … Once I stomp the midget, I’ll make that mother f—– make me a sushi roll and cook me some rice…You know how it is, we gonna cook that motherf*cker with some cats and dogs.” Regardless, Mayweather has gotten a good amount of flak for his tweet which prompted lifelong Knicks fan and movie director Spike Lee to tweet back, “Floyd Mayweather I Hope You Watched Jeremy Hit The Gamewinning 3 Pointer With .5 Seconds Left.Our Guy Can BALL PLAIN AND SIMPLE.RECOGNIZE.” (I love tweet battles!) While a panel on ESPN debated whether Mayweather’s comments were Fair or Foul, curiously without an Asian-American commentator:

Tale of the Tweet

Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian.

     In one sentence Mayweather simultaneously gives Lin props as a player and then disregards him for being Asian. Let’s face it, a big (if not the biggest) reason why Lin is getting all this attention is because he’s Asian-American. Another factor is that he playing in a HUGE media market: New York. But not to be overlooked is the fact that he’s good. And he’s been doing it at every level: high school, he was captain of a 32-1 Palo Alto High School that upset Mater Dei for the California Interscholastic Federation Division II state title. After being ignored by schools like Stanford and UCLA, he went to Harvard where he made the All-Ivy First Team twice and Second Team once and finished his college career as the first player in Ivy League history to record at least 1,450 points (1,483), 450 rebounds (487), 400 assists (406) and 200 steals (225). Now, after being waived by the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, he’s making the most of his opportunity with the Knicks. (Don’t believe he’s good? It’s actually SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN.) The hype is because he’s good AND Asian. No one would be talking about him if he was the first Asian-American player warming benches…and no one was when he was warming benches for the first 20 games or so. This is the story–as Spike Lee puts it “a great American story”–of an underdog breaking a racial ceiling. Only time will tell how good a player he’ll turn out to be.

Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.

     This is a tough one because it’s hard to parse out to which black players he’s referring. The NBA as it stands is dominated by black and African American players (85%). The superstars who grab the headlines are predominately black. (And yes this includes criticism as well as praise.) Think D.Wade, LeBron, D.Rose, Durant, Kobe, & Paul Pierce. OK The Truth is a stretch, but this Amasian bleeds Green. Now, if Mayweather is  referring to  good black basketball players and not necessarily the superstars– well, these players play in the shadow of the aforementioned giants. Fairly or unfairly, they are measured by a different yardstick.

The Pitfalls of Linsanity

     There are, however, some real downsides to the media’s Linfatuation. Eventually, the saturation will lead to Lin fatigue and Linevitable backlash. This might explain Mayweather’s comments. And then there’s the unfortunate timing of Linsanity coinciding with Black History Month. Media coverage of Lin crowds out stories that pertain to the history of black players such as the NBA’s first black player Earl Lloyd, who was honored 5 nights ago.* It also distracts attention from a larger racial issue that exists in the NBA. While 85% of the players are black, one cannot ignore the overwhelming “whiteness” of team ownership (minus Michael Jordan). The racial subtext of this dichotomy is unavoidable and the dynamics of which were at play during the lockout negotiations last year  (see: NBA lockout: Negotiations could be hijacked by racial perceptionsECONOMICS, RACE, AND THE N.B.A. LOCKOUT, & Is the NBA Lockout About Race?). Furthermore, Linsanity and the coverage of Mayweather’s tweets contributes little to the discussion of larger issues, such as whether sports (college and pro) are exploiting black athletes and the continued practice of stereotyping blacks as athletes.

     Following criticism of his comments, Mayweather responded, “Other countries get to support/cheer their athletes and everything is fine. As soon as I support Black American athletes, I get criticized,” Mayweather posted on Twitter. “Wow what a country,” and later added, “I’m speaking my mind on behalf of other NBA players. They are programmed to be politically correct and will be penalized if they speak up.” I just wish he had used the opportunity to bring into focus some of the more pressing issues facing black athletes rather than vaguely supporting black athletes and dismissing Lin as a Asian basketball player.

*Interestingly, it was a Japanese-American, Wataru Misaka, who broke the NBA color barrier in the 1947-48 season. Who did he play for? The New York Knicks.

Related reading:

Breast Cancer Awareness. More harm than good?

     Perhaps lost amid all the controversy of Susan B. Komen defunding Planned Parenthood and their subsequent about face, is a re-evaluation of the organization’s effectiveness and message. Susan G. Komen for the Cure was founded in 1982 by Nancy Goodman Brinker shortly after her sister and namesake of the organization died of breast cancer. Its mission? To find a cure and eradicate breast cancer. As of 2010, the organization has contributed “nearly $1.5 billion for research, treatment, health and education services.” For fiscal year 2009-2010 alone, Komen devoted $140.8 million to public health education, $46.9 million for health screening services, and $20.1 million for  treatment services. Not to be overlooked, Komen also invested $75.4 million for research illustrating the importance of non-profit organizations in plugging in federal research funding shortfalls. Komen’s presence is felt worldwide and breast cancer awareness has benefited as exemplified by the ubiquitousness of the Pink Ribbon. It’s hard to argue with success.

Komen’s narrative can lead to over-diagnosis

     Or is it? Komen’s main strategy is to advocate for early detection of breast cancer as a means to prevent death. This is accomplished through self-breast exams, universal screening mammography as well as other methods for diagnosis. Critics, however, point out that universal screening is indiscriminate and that ignoring the varying degree of risk that women have in developing breast cancer leads to over-diagnosis. Consequently, the resulting treatment, whether it be surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy could cause more harm since some cancers can regress on their own or develop so slowly that they would not impact a woman’s life. As Christie Aschwanden writes on The Last Word On Nothing blog, “the notion that breast cancer is a uniformly progressive disease that starts small and only grows and spreads if you don’t stop it in time is flat out wrong. I call it breast cancer’s false narrative, and it’s a fairy tale that Komen has relentlessly perpetuated…Years of research have led scientists to discover that breast tumors are not all alike. Some are fast moving and aggressive, others are never fated to metastasize. The problem is that right now we don’t have a surefire way to predict in advance whether a cancer will spread or how aggressive it might become.”

     Aschwanden points out three possible outcomes in early screening mammography: 1) a potentially non-life threatening tumor is found and removed, in which case a woman is labelled a breast cancer survivor, 2) a life-threatening tumor is found and the patient dies despite detection, or 3) a life-threatening tumor is found and the patient is successfully treated. She later concedes that, “Right now mammography is the best tool we have…Komen isn’t wrong to encourage women to consider mammography. But they’re dead wrong to imply that “the key to surviving breast cancer” is “you” and the difference between a 98% survival rate and a 23% one is vigilance on the part of the victim. This message flies in the face of basic cancer biology.” These concerns are reminiscent of the controversy surrounding prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening used routinely for the detection of prostate cancer. In October 2011, United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) advised against PSA screening for healthy men, stating that the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment outweighed the potential rewards. Coincidently, 2 years prior to their PSA screening recommendation, the task force also recommended that women in their 40s should no longer get routine mammograms.


     Komen also engages in cause marketing to increase awareness and raise funds. Over $35 million a year is raised through corporate partnerships. Cause marketing is a form of fundraising whereby brands can associate their product with Komen. This is beneficial for both parties as Komen simultaneously raises funds and increases awareness through entering the consciousness of consumers (think of all the products that display the Pink Ribbon) and brands can associate their products with a good cause. However, this practice has also come under fire over the years as products that do not promote or are inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle have been allowed to use breast cancer awareness and the Pink Ribbon in their marketing campaigns. This has been referred to as “pinkwashing.” Products ranging from KFC’s “Buckets for a Cure” to Smith & Wesson’s Awareness Gun have adorned Komen’s signature ribbons.

Shoot For The Cause
Eat For The Cause


     Last October, the NPR program “All Things Considered” examined whether the saturation of Pink is undermining effective breast cancer treatment. As Komen founder Nancy Brinker explains, “”[Breast cancer] is the second leading cancer killer of women in this country. As long as a woman, or even a man, dies every 74 seconds from this disease, there’s not enough pink.” In response to criticisms of pinkwashing, Brinker responds, “At Susan G. Komen, we have a very strong code with our cause-related marketing partners and a very strong agreement that these programs must be upheld. There’s a strict guideline for what a partner must do to be able to use our Pink Ribbon but there are of course people who are going to abuse anything that seems to be working well.” However, Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, says, “there’s often a misconception that anything with a pink ribbon on it is supporting and funding research for a cure…the branding has probably oversimplified the disease, its detection and treatment in people’s minds.”

Did you know that February is American Heart Month?

    Don’t feel bad, neither did I (and I know someone with a history of heart disease…Amasian Dad). In my opinion, perhaps the most significant unintended consequences of Komen’s success in raising breast cancer awareness is how it overshadows the impact of other health problems. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women (and men) in the US. The CDC figures for 2007, show that heart disease accounts for 25.1% of deaths in females. Cancer (all forms) comes in at second (22..1%). After lung cancer, breast cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death among cancers in women. For perspective, in 2007, 40,598 women in the United States died from breast cancer whereas 306,246 women died from heart disease. This, of course, is not meant to minimize or dismiss the impact of breast cancer on the lives of patients and families (believe me, Amasian Mom was successfully treated for breast cancer only a few years ago–and I am very grateful). I also can respect how this particular cancer resonates with women as it affects a part of the body that is often attached to the identity of a woman (oh for my sake I hope I phrased that properly). But having said that, the awareness and attention that breast cancer garners compared to heart disease in women is disproportionate. This often leads to misconceptions about what poses the greatest risk to a woman’s health. In a 2010 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 54% of women that were surveyed correctly identified heart disease as the leading cause of death, an improvement over the 30% of women that correctly identified heart disease in 1997. Despite this improvement, however, 28% of respondents identified breast cancer as their “perceived” greatest health problem versus 16% who identified heart disease as the greatest threat to their health. Whereas 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer at some point in their life, 1 in 3 will develop heart disease.

     Breast cancer awareness is not the only kid on the block. In 2004, the American Heart Association created the Go Red For Women campaign to bring attention to the fact that heart disease was the leading cause of death in woman. According to their website, “In 2003, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the American Heart Association and other organizations committed to women’s health joined together to raise awareness of women and heart disease. The NHLBI introduced the red dress as a national symbol for women and heart disease awareness and the American Heart Association adopted this symbol to create synergy among all organizations committed to fighting this cause.” Interestingly, the campaign also uses cause marketing. Let’s hope that “redwashing” does not become a problem for them.

February is also Black History Month. Please read Black History Month: Celebrating Blacks in Science, Promoting Diversity in STEM by DNLee.

Mosca, L., Mochari-Greenberger, H., Dolor, R. J., Newby, L. K. & Robb, K. J. Twelve-Year Follow-Up of American Women’s Awareness of Cardiovascular Disease Risk and Barriers to Heart Health. Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes (2010).doi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.109.915538

Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Evolution can’t catch a break.     

     Today marks Charles Darwin’s 203 birthday. It’s been 153 years, since On The Origin of Species was published and yet according to a 2009 Gallup poll only 40% Americans “believe” in evolution (more on this poll in a moment). Of particular concern, four states are considering legislation that would impact or limit teaching evolution in highschool. Kimberly Winston reports

“One of the bills, New Hampshire’s House Bill 1148, not only singles out evolution, but would require teachers to discuss its proponents’ ”political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.” 

— In the Indiana Senate, a bill would allow school districts to

‘’require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of

life within the school corporation.” That bill has already passed a statehouse

committee and was scheduled for a vote on Jan 31.

— The “Missouri Standard Science Act” would require the equal treatment of evolution and “intelligent design,” an idea that the universe was created by an unnamed “designer.” A second bill would require teachers to encourage students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.”

— A bill in the Oklahoma Senate would require the state’s board of education to help teachers promote “critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning” if a local school district makes that request.

— A second bill in the New Hampshire House would require science teachers to instruct students that “proper scientific inquir(y) results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established.”

— A bill in Virginia would make it illegal for state colleges to require a class that conflicts with a student’s religious views. Critics say that would enable a student to receive a biology degree, for example, without studying evolution if he or she objected to it.

     As Brown University Professor Ken Miller points out, “Our Darwin problem is really a science problem. The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest immersed in the culture wars, the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings. We see this everywhere in American culture and politics today, from the anti-vaccine movement to the repeated assertion that global warming is a deliberate “hoax” rather than a straightforward conclusion driven by reams of scientific data.” 

What’s in a Question?

The problem with polls is that it’s all in the way the question is phrased. The 2009 Gallup poll posed the question as such:


By framing the question in the context of belief, it places evolution in the realm of faith and by extension equates the theory with religion. This makes it easier for the religious community to reject evolution. However, the currency of science is not belief. Science deals in knowledge ascertained by testing proposed explanations (hypotheses) of phenomena. Where faith is essential for religion, proof and evidence is required for science. Furthermore, the poll assumes that the respondent knows or understands what the theory of evolution is. Without properly defining it, it doesn’t take into account misconceptions or preconceived notions that the public often has in regard to the theory. Practically speaking, it would be impossible to properly define the theory in the context of a poll, but a more honest attempt could be made.

The question should be posed this way:

I don’t know that rephrasing the question would necessarily change the outcome of the poll, but I do…believe think we should be mindful of the language we use when discussing science.

Supercontinent Amasia Meet the Scientific Amasian

     I’ve been (publicity) scooped! Clearly ignoring the power of synergy, Yale geologists pre-empted the unveiling of my blog and presented their model predicting that the next supercontintent dubbed, Amasia, will form near the North Pole. Continents are fidgety by nature and have been moving around for billions of years. The last supercontinent, Pangaea, formed 300 million years ago while Rodinia existed about 1 billion years ago. The oldest known supercontinent, Nuna (aka Columbia) formed 1.8 billion years ago. The Yale team modeled the movements of these past supercontinents by using a combination of paleomagnetism and polar wander like a paleo-GPS to obtain longitudinal and latitudinal positions. Paleomagnetism as Charles Q. Choi explains is “the impact that Earth’s magnetic field has on ancient rocks. Magnetic minerals in molten rock can act like compasses, aligning with the planet’s magnetic field lines, an orientation that gets frozen in place once the rock solidifies. Since these lines generally run north-south, looking at the way these minerals point can shed light on how the landmasses they are a part of might have drifted in space over time.” Their prediction of where Amasia will form is extrapolated from their modeling of how past supercontinents formed. But don’t hold your breath, it’s not expected to happen for another, oh, 50-200 million years.

Geology and Biology: Helping Hands

     The study of geology and biology have long been complementary. For instance, the break up of Rodinia coincides rapid global cooling, changes in atmospheric oxygen as well as changes in ocean chemistry that may have jumpstarted the Cambrian Explosion, the rapid appearance and evolution of the majority of animal phyla that occurred around 500 million years ago. The appearance of the same (or similar) species in the fossil record in areas separated by great geographical distance supports the existence of past supercontinents. For instance, fossils for Lystrosaurus have been found in Africa, India and Australia, providing fossil evidence for the existence of Pangaea. The prospect of a new supercontinent will have profound impact on evolutionary biology as newly-formed environmental niches will be exploited while new interactions between species previously isolated by geography will occur. Too bad none of us will be there to confirm the prediction.

Is Sugar Really Sugar?


     Last week an article published by Nature proposed that sugar be regulated in much the same way as tobacco and alcohol. Citing the UN, deaths caused by “chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes pose a greater health burden worldwide than do infectious diseases, contributing to 35 million deaths annually.” The authors go on to describe the connection between increased rates of sugar consumption and the rising cases of metabolic syndrome worldwide.  These disorders are characterized by, but not limited to, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular and liver disease.

     This has prompted the American Beverage Association to respond, “There is no evidence that focusing solely on reducing sugar intake would have any meaningful public health impact. Importantly, we know that the body of scientific evidence does not support that sugar, in any of its various forms – including fructose, is a unique cause of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or metabolic syndrome.” The Sugar Association largely concurs and adds that the use of beet or cane sugar has decreased over the same time period that the obesity epidemic has increased. Conveniently, the Sugar Association fails to mention that the use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) filled in the gap:

     Why would the Sugar Association not mention HFCS? That’s because they don’t represent the HFCS industry–that’s the job of the Corn Refiner’s Association. And they have remained relatively silent on this front. Maybe they’ve been humbled by all the irony wrapped up in this episode. It’s no secret that HFCS has taken a few bumps over the last few years. The growing natural, health food trend has seriously impacted HFCS’s image and has affected sales. In response, the CFA has spent the last 2 years on a marketing campaign to rebrand their product as corn sugar, stating that, “Health and nutrition experts, including doctors, dietitians, researchers and professional organizations, are in agreement that whether it’s corn sugar — by which we mean HFCS, a sugar made from corn — or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar.” Further muddying the waters is that corn sugar has long been the FDA-approved name for dextrose, which is corn-derived glucose (confused yet?). No love has been lost between the two competing industries as sugar growers have accused the corn industry of deceptive practices and a national false advertising campaign. If you ask me, looking at the graph above, the Sugar Association missed an opportunity to stick it to the Corn Refiner’s Association and lay the obesity blame at the feet of HFCS through the power of correlation!

Many shapes, one flavor

     Sugar is a loose term used to describe a class of molecules known as carbohydrates (organic compounds consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) characterized by a sweet taste. Dietary sugars typtically come in two forms known as monosaccharides and disaccharides. For instance sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar, is a disaccharide consisting of the monosaccharides glucose and fructose chemically linked together. Another example of a monosaccharide is lactose.

     Which brings me back to the premise that HFCS is a sugar. If A=B and B=C, then sugar must be sugar. Or is it? The authors of the Nature article explain, HFCS “is manufactured from corn syrup (glucose), processed to yield a roughly equal mixture of glucose and fructose.” However, there are chemical differences. Sucrose is extracted primarily from sugarcane or sugar beets, whereas HFCS is produced by a multistep process that starts with milling corn into corn starch, processing that corn starch into glucose syrup followed by enzymatic conversion of glucose into fructose. HFCS (55) is a blend of 55% free fructose and ~42% free glucose, while table sugar (sucrose) is 1 molecule of fructose chemically linked to 1 molecule of glucose.

Dangers of Fructose?

     Although sugar has long been thought of as “empty calories” that contributes to obesity, a growing body of evidence points to the connection between sugar, in particular fructose, and chronic illness such as high blood pressure, liver disease, and cardiovascular disease. Whereas glucose metabolism mostly yields the cell’s main fuel, ATP (adenosine triphosphosphate), fructose is primarily shunted into replenishing the body’s stored energy in the form of glycogen and fat. Chronic exposure to a high fructose diet may lead to elevated levels of fats (triglycerides) and cholesterol in the bloodstream which in turn increases the risk of metabolic syndrome. This has prompted researchers to target either the composition or bioavailability of fructose in HFCS as a potential difference between sucrose and HFCS. Bioavailability is the amount of or rate at which a substance or drug is accessible to the body. Scientists hypothesize that the higher % composition of free(unlinked) fructose in HFCS may in fact make HFCS more unhealthy than sucrose because more fructose is immediately available. In the case of table sugar, the bioavailability of fructose would be limited by the rate at which sucrose is cleaved into glucose and fructose.

     Two recent studies have suggested that sucrose and HFCS are not equivalent. Research conducted at Princeton revealed that mice fed water sweetened with HFCS gained more weight than mice fed water sweetened with equal amounts of sucrose. Furthermore, the researchers monitored rats fed a HFCS-diet for 6 months and observed signs of “ metabolic syndrome, including abnormal weight gain, significant increases in circulating triglycerides and augmented fat deposition, especially visceral fat around the belly.” In a study published in December 2011, healthy individuals who drank HFCS-sweetened Dr. Pepper had higher systolic blood pressure and higher amounts of fructose and uric acid in their blood serum (the blood fraction without blood cells and clotting factors) when compare to individuals who drank sugar-sweetened Dr. Pepper shortly after exposure.

    Dr. Pepper Throwback: I got 23 flavors but high-fructose corn syrup ain’t one…

     High uric acid is known to increase blood pressure and is associated with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. However, the authors could not make definitive conclusions regarding the the relative bioavailability of fructose from HFCS vs sucrose. The amount of sucrose in the sugar-sweetened Dr. Pepper at the start of the study had already partially broken down into glucose and fructose and by the end of the study had completely converted into equal parts glucose and fructose. That being said, the total amount of fructose in the HFCS-sweetened Dr. Pepper was still higher at the start and end of the study than the amount in the sugar-sweetened Dr. Pepper. This suggests that the higher fructose content led to an increase in blood pressure, and higher fructose and uric acid serum levels. Needless to say, as with much of science, more work needs to be done.

You say tomato, I say tomahto…

     Perhaps this may all seem like a bit of semantics. After all, it is difficult to exactly pinpoint the causes of metabolic syndrome given that the overall eating habits of Americans have trended up and is confounded by a sedentary lifestyle. But from a public and health policy standpoint it is important that clear definitions and distinctions be made regarding added sweeteners– whether it be sugar or HFCS. Otherwise, it allows for claims like these to be made by the Heritage Foundation, “will higher-priced sugar lead to less consumption? If this logic held, America would already be healthier. Here’s why: The price of sugar is artificially high thanks to federal sugar subsidies and other regulations that, yet Americans still have a sweet tooth,” without acknowledging that the food industry more often than not turns to using HFCS, the price of which is kept artificially low through federal subsidies to corn growers.
Is it fair to say that Americans need to eat less? Yes. Is it fair to say that Americans need to exercise more? Yes. Is it fair to single-out one industry (well really 2, 3 if you count the food industry as a whole as well)? Maybe not. I don’t pretend to know whether added taxes or regulations on added sweeteners would stem the metabolic disease tide but we surely can’t ignore it and its public cost. And in that light, I commend the authors of the Nature article for kick starting a very important conversation, one in which I’ve heard very little in terms of alternatives from the targeted industries. Maybe we should start with re-examining the ways in which we subsidize our foods…

Le, M.T. et al. Effects of high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose on the pharmacokinetics of fructose and acute metabolic and hemodynamic responses in healthy subjects. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental (2011). DOI:10.1016/j.metabol.2011.09.013

Lustig, R.H., Schmidt, L.A. & Brindis, C.D. Public health: The toxic truth about sugar. Nature 482, 27-29 (2012). DOI: 10.1038/482027a

Improving STEM Education

Obama’s STEM Initiatives

     Earlier this week, President Obama hosted the second annual White House Science Fair where 100 students were invited to present their research and inventions. The President used the opportunity to speak with students such as Samantha Garvey, who garnered much attention earlier this year after being named a semifinalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, shortly after her family was evicted on New Year’s Eve. Her research focused on predator-prey interactions between an invasive species of Asian shore crab and the ribbed mussel (Geukensia demissa), which is native to Long Island Sound. In her study, she compared the shells of mussels raised in tanks in the absence of crabs and in the presence of crabs that were separated by cages. She found that the mussels that were raised in the presence of the crabs had thicker shells suggesting that the mussels were able to sense the presence of predators and in response produced a thicker shell for defense. President Obama also tested out a marshmallow cannon designed by with Joey Hudy (defense contractors take note!):

President Obama also used the Science Fair as an occasion to highlight his STEM (science, technology, education, and math) education initiatives:

  • A priority on undergraduate STEM education reform in the President’s upcoming budget, including a $100 million investment by the National Science Foundation to improve undergraduate STEM education practices.
  • A new K-16 education initiative jointly administered by Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to improve math education
  • Commitments from private sector groups and coalitions to do more to get students excited about STEM-related
  • New policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers, along with an $80 million investment in the President’s upcoming budget tohelp prepare effective STEM teachers.
  • A new $22 million investment from the philanthropic and private sector to complement the Administration’s teacher preparation efforts. (

PISA score results indicate: American 15 year olds are “meh” at science and math

     In an CNN Opinion article published today, former secretary of Education William Bennett writes “Two indicators are particularly worrisome, especially as this country experiences greater global competition and high unemployment. American students score 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries. In math, we are beaten by countries from Lichtenstein and Slovakia to the Netherlands and Singapore. In science, we are beaten by countries from New Zealand and Estonia to Finland and Hungary.” Damn those Lichensteinians! The results Bennett cite are from the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). Conducted by the Paris-based  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA is a standardized-test that measures literacy in reading, science, and math. Started in 2000, the test is administered worldwide every three years. There are currently 65 member countries.

     The PISA, although well-respected, is not without its critics. Mel Riddile, Associate Director for High School Services of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has argued that PISA ignores a significant indicator of educational performance: poverty. When Riddile adjusts the scores to take into account poverty levels, students from areas with low povery score very high on the PISA while students from areas with high poverty score fairly low on the PISA. However, Riddile compared “the scores of American schools with comparable poverty rates to those of other countries.” By doing so, Riddile assumes that the poverty rates in other countries is uniform, which is clearly not the case for the US. (Read more about poverty and education.)

Improving STEM education

     In addition to President Obama’s initiatives, William Bennett proposes five ways in which to improve STEM education–the main theme being integration at all levels. Math and science should be integrated earlier in the curriculum. The methods of science and math instruction should also be adopted in other classes to reinforce scientific ways of analysis. He argues that this integration should be carried out at a physical level too, in that science and math classes should not be segregated from the school building and should not be spun off into specialized, magnet/charter schools. Furthermore, students who excel at math and science should remain integrated with the rest of the student body to avoid being seen as different or other associated stigmas. Lastly, Bennett calls for the proper amount of (continuing) training for educators to implement these changes.

Luckily, his proposals did not include performing demonstrations that can go horribly wrong

Read the follow up blog post here.