Life’s lil’ surprises

After working with the same laboratory animals for years, one gets accustomed to the regularity of the same species, from the same conditions, over and over again. But every once in awhile, those same, highly controlled and selected lab species can still surprise you. Considering how our lab uses thousands of fish embryos for our research, with a little luck, we get surprised more than just occasionally. This is a photo of Lil’ Spencer, a Japanese medaka (Oryzias latipes) larva, just after hatching as a control fish in one of my experiments. It’s immediately obvious what makes Lil’ Spencer so special: her (their?) two, fully formed heads (eyes, brain, mouth and all), emerging from a single body. Also present, but not quite visible from this view, is a single, bulbous and misshapen heart, four pectoral fins (the inner two which constantly knock against each other), and a bent spine.

We weren’t able to pinpoint her/their exact mutation, but based on developmental studies in zebrafish and Xenopus frogs, it’s likely that there was a major mutation in the anteroposterior organizer, which is an important set of cells that controls regional differentiation and body axis patterning during early development. Manipulations of signaling molecules like β-catenin and bone morphogen protein (BMP) and pathways such as canonical and non-canonical Wnt pathways have produced a myriad of altered fish development, including secondary body axes complete with their own head! Unfortunately, Lil’ Spencer died a week after hatching, her body unable to support a heart too large and one head too many. But their short time in our lab served to remind us that despite the expertise you gain, the simplest fish can still surprise you in delightful ways. We’re just waiting to see what life surprises us with next.

Diversitea and Cookies: Supporting Trans and Queer Students of Color

June of every year serves as Pride Month for members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Despite the current president not recognizing June as National Pride Month (unlike his predecessor), Pride is very much celebrated on a national level this month with, most visibly, pride parades happening all over the country.

In spite of massive increases in acceptance towards the LGBTQ+ community, queer individuals still face major risks by being out in the United States. 20-25% of lesbian and gay individuals still experience hate crimes within their lives and queer people of color, particularly trans people of color, are at a much higher risk of experiencing physical and psychological violence than cis white queer individuals. This is a fact that many people, even within the LGBTQ+ community, aren’t aware of and don’t recognize as a major priority (check out #NoJusticeNoPride for more on this lack of intersectionality within the LGBTQ+ community).

In light of Pride Month and to highlight the intersectional nature of the obstacles still obstructing many marginalized queer individuals, we wanted to share a resource that supports members of the LGBT community and people of color in academia: the LGBT Resource Professionals from the Consortium of Higher Education’s policy and practice recommendations for supporting trans and queer students of color (TQSOC).

Incredibly comprehensive and intersectional, this resource identifies common ways multicultural spaces restrict access to queer students and how LGBTQ+ resource centers reinforce institutional whiteness. The emphasis on collaboration between ethnic and queer resource centers is key to addressing institutional racism, heterosexism, cissexism, bigotry, and white supremacy. The authors provide concrete ways to address systemic barriers obstructing our TQSOC and provide excellent exercises and questions for self-reflection as well as actual suggested actions one can do to make things more LGBTQ+ inclusive (such as programmatic and material resources, visibility, leadership opportunities, etc.).

Although the information is targeted towards administrative professionals and undergraduates, this resource is useful to all who operate within the realms of STEM and academia.

Fight on and get your Pride on,

– Irvin & Priya

Welcome to Diversi-tea & Cookies: #marginsci

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Irvin is a graduate student at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences studying aquatic toxicology. He blogs about all things related to environmental sciences, including diversity and inclusion in science, at his blog Toxic Musings.  

Priya is a technician with the Bodega Ocean Acidification Research group at UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory, who also runs a series on Medium exploring diversity and inclusion in science and academia: The Prosaic Mosaic.

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We are both early career scientists of color in STEM who are deeply invested in diversifying the people within the scientific community as well as the communities that scientists and their science engage with. Priya is the daughter of Indian immigrants and Irvin is the son of Taiwanese immigrants who happens to be gay. We’ve worked with and around each other since we met during our undergraduate education, and we have commiserated on the issues affecting minority scientists and shared resources that have helped us grapple with them. We now want to shine a spotlight on those which have helped us most.

As we’ve just passed the one month anniversary of the March for Science, we wanted to start having more open discussions on the impact the march has had, particularly in bringing up issues of diversity and inclusion that plague science and academia. We started talking about diversity, inclusion and equality in science due to the March for Science leadership’s poor management of this complex and critical issue. At first, we wanted to re-hash everything the March for Science did wrong, because the lead up to the March for Science and the leadership’s treatment of marginalized members of the scientific community are certainly indicative of larger systemic issues in science, but plenty of people have described these and other concerns in greater depth elsewhere.

Instead, we decided it would be more prudent to provide tools that increase awareness about the lack of diversity, inclusion & equality in academia. And, instead of diluting the impact of each of these powerful resources that resonated with us in a single post, we wanted to share them in piecemeal fashion so that we can amplify their worth in a series we are calling Diversi-tea & Cookies.

In this introductory post, we share a resource that was generated in response to the March for Science’s dismissal of marginalized scientists, the Twitter hashtag #marginsci (initially founded by Dr. Stephani Page). This hashtag is a rallying point for many scientists to discuss and share the various ways science is still failing its marginalized scientists. This hub of conversation is also a resource that serves to educate and inform us all about the many issues affecting diverse and intersectional scientists. This oftentimes means that we read things that counter our personal perspectives, but through this painful learning process our empathy increases.

We encourage you to peruse #marginsci and expand your worldview.

~Irvin & Priya

 

Marching for science as a minority scientist

On April 22 (Earth Day), scientists and supporters of science will descend upon Washington D.C., as well as in hundreds of other cities in sister demonstrations, to show their support for government supported science during the March for Science (MfS). While having so many scientists and supporters actively engaged with politics is exciting, and the event sure to be historic, I have mixed feelings about it.

To have so many scientists and supporters this engaged with political demonstration (because this march, and science at large, is very political in nature) is, no doubt, exciting. Unfortunately, the MfS organization, particularly the national march in DC, has been rife with organizational issues that have left many on unsteady ground, and people like me conflicted.   

For those who follow this blog, you’re already aware that I am a Concerned Scientist when it comes to the leadership of this country and what it means for science. I’m concerned that there are plans to slash funding for the NIH and DOE and to completely abolish the EPA, that the administration doesn’t believe in climate change, that there’s heavy investment in fossil fuel industries (through Native lands, no less). So it’s hugely important (and I would argue, our responsibility) to take a stand against these actions and demonstrate the value and need government-backed science has in our society. 

I’m also a concerned scientist when it comes to the state of science and academia. I’m concerned with science’s diversity problem, with its sexual harassment problem, with the fact that so many scientists participate in and reaffirm sexist, racist, homo/transphobic, and ableist actions. It is because I am a Concerned Scientist in both these regards that I am left conflicted by the MfS movement.

I won’t rehash the many missteps MfS has made (you can read up on them here and here), but I’ll sum up that the issue, at least for me, is that MfS has done a dismal job in making this movement diverse and inclusive. Recent statements from individuals who have left the MfS organizing committee (you can read some of that here and here) have made it explicitly clear that the MfS organization not only lacks commitment to making the march accessible, diverse and inclusive.

This is particularly offensive considering how scientists from marginalized communities are going to be disproportionately impacted by President Trump’s administration. Yes, budget cuts and gag orders are harmful to all of science, but minority scientists will have to deal with that in addition to other attacks from this administration (think Islamaphobic travel bans, increased deportations, repealed protections for LGBTQIA people, or health care repeal, which directly harms the poor as well as the disabled and chronically ill). So to dismiss diversity and inclusion as a major mission statement is a dismissal of the most vulnerable members of the scientific community.

So for concerned scientists, what are we to do? For many, the answer is to not march at all – it means investing time and energy into actions or movements that are more inclusive and productive towards those goals. For others, it’s about holding the organizers accountable for their mistakes and forcing those in attendance to recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion. For others still, the answer is unclear. In the end, though, the final goal is to ensure the continuation of robust scientific research in our society, whether that’s defending science’s place in government or defending marginalized communities’ place in science. Regardless of anyone’s decisions about this weekend, though, this work of defending science and promoting an unapologetically inclusive form of science, requires long term committed work – more than what can be accomplished in single day’s march.

Making a case for the EPA – saving lives through regulations

From climate change denial to the rise of ‘alternative facts’ (which, just so that we’re all clear, is another name for ‘lie’), not to mention the widening gulf between scientists and public opinion, it’s hard times being a scientist. Earlier this week, President Trump instated a freeze on all Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and contracts, started a media blackout, ordered the removal of the EPA’s climate change webpage, and will start a review all EPA scientists’ work on a case-by-case basis.

As Toxic Musings is a blog concerned with all things in environmental toxicology – it would be irresponsible of me to ignore this issue, considering the important role the EPA plays in conducting and funding toxicology research throughout the country.

The EPA is tasked with protecting natural resources that are required for the public to live healthy lives, from the land, to the water, to the air. None of these resources are partisan issues. Clean air and safe drinking water is not a ‘coastal elite’ conspiracy. Pollution harms human health across party lines. So why is the EPA such a vilified agency? What’s the deal?

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Smog is a direct result of air pollution and can significantly impact human health. Extreme smog events have even lead to widespread death, like the Great Smog Event in London in 1952, which lasted for 4 days and was so severe, that over 12,000 people died while over 100,000 people got severely sick from inhaling it.

Yes, industry lobbyists have done a good job painting the EPA as some power hungry agency hell bent on destroying the American economy through fines and unnecessary regulations (not true) and yes, some people have it in their heads that environmental protection necessarily comes at the cost of economic growth (not true), and yes, people don’t like it when the government tells them not to do things (…okay, true). But I think that there are a lot of people out there who would really appreciate the EPA, if only they knew the real impact it has on their (actual) lives.

Because, as it turns out, the EPA saves lives. Not in heroic, bursting through fiery buildings or arresting criminals sort of ways, but through a more subtle approach. The EPA protects human health by passing environmental regulations, preventing diseases you didn’t realize you might have developed and saving lives that you didn’t even realize were at risk. And this is why the EPA matters.

Let’s just take air pollution as an example. The EPA regulates the emissions of 6 major air pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Lots of studies have shown that these pollutants are closely tied to all sorts of health issues, including respiratory diseases (bronchitis, asthma, etc.), heart diseases, cancer, and even death.

But by regulating the amount of pollutants that any one car, building, or industrial plant can release, the EPA is able to limit the extent of those health problems. And it’s working – emissions of priority pollutants are steadily decreasing in nearly all areas of the country for the decade, which has real human health benefits! It’s estimated that by 2010, EPA regulations had cut particulate matter air pollution enough to save almost 160,000 people’s lives. By 2020, it could be as many as 230,000 lives saved. Unfortunately, that figure could be a lot smaller if the EPA is gutted following President Trump’s plan. That’s what’s at stake if the EPA is lost to partisan politics – 70,000 additional lives. And that’s with just particulate matter – not to mention the millions of people who are or will become ill with diseases from particulate matter, as well as other pollutants.

Particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions of other pollutants like lead, ozone, and carbon monoxide, have seen a steady decrease in the last decades due to environmental regulations put forth by the EPA, significantly improving environmental and human health.

Particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions of other pollutants like lead, ozone, and carbon monoxide, have seen a steady decrease in the last decades due to environmental regulations put forth by the EPA, significantly improving environmental and human health.

But what about the money? Air pollution related health costs can be staggering. For example, air pollution plays a large role in the severity of asthma attacks, which at times can seriously incapacitate people. This means increased medical bills (including medication and hospital visits) and loss of work hours, school days, or and restricted activity, altogether costing over $3000 per person every year. In total, the US spent over $56 billion in asthma related expenditures in 2007, and that’s just one of the many diseases linked to air pollution! Think of how the total costs bronchitis, chronic heart disease, or cancer would add on. But thanks to EPA regulations, reductions in air pollution and improved air quality have prevented over 1 million cases of severe asthma attacks by 2010, saving the economy untold amounts on pollution and health related costs. In fact, the health benefits of tight regulations greatly outweighs costs that might come with them.

Many people out there want you to think the EPA is bad for you, bad for the economy, and bad for the country. But your individual health is deeply connected to the health of the environment you live in, and while it may not be obvious, the EPA is working hard to save lives. Gutting the EPA will have real and dire consequences for people. Entire communities, those with low income, who live in poorer, more polluted and industrialized areas, those with high risk of health conditions and diseases are most at risk and have everything to lose without the EPA. The right to a healthy environment is pivotal to the American way, so call your representatives, your senators, your friends and family and fight for the EPA. Fight for a cleaner future.

Toxic turkeys?

Now that the Thanksgiving feasting is winding down, now would be a great time to tell you that that succulent turkey you’ve been scarfing down for the last couple of days contains measurable amounts of carcinogens. That’s right: your turkey has toxic chemicals that cause cancer. No this isn’t some conspiracy – Big Turkey hasn’t been pumping cancer causing chemicals into the birds. It’s a natural product found in turkeys (in all cooked products, actually), and while the risks are real, they’re actually really low (so go on and continue eating).

Surprisingly, people don’t really like it when I bring this up at mealtimes. And I’ve brought it up enough times to know that you’re probably still concerned and have some questions, so let’s just nip those in the bud while we are here.

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Turkey meat contains measurable amounts of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory studies.

Q: How do turkeys naturally have cancer causing chemicals in them?

A: Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are classes of compounds that occur naturally throughout the world (including your turkey). These are diverse groups of chemicals that are all large and perfectly flat, which means they easily insert themselves into your DNA, disrupting the structure and causing DNA damage. This is the first step to cancer (and only the first step).

Q: Is there a way to avoid eating HCAs and PAHs?

A: HCAs and PAHs are natural byproducts formed by incomplete combustion of organic material. If you remember your middle school chemistry class – fires start when a fuel (organic matter) and oxygen combine and rearrange their chemical bonds to form water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), which releases a lot of heat. If organic matter is not fully combusted, in addition to CO2 you get things like HCAs and PAHs. Some marinades help reduce HCA and PAH formation and avoiding direct contact to flame (like grilling and barbecue) can also reduce their formation. But since meat is organic matter, and cooking is essentially very inefficient burning, it’s pretty much unavoidable in your plate.

Q: So why doesn’t everyone who has ever eaten a turkey in their life have cancer?

A: Well, part of it is that DNA damage is only the first step to cancer. There are a lot more required before you need to get worried. As it turns out, your DNA gets damaged pretty frequently – UV light damages DNA (hence all the hubbub about sunscreen), and a lot of times DNA gets damaged when your cells are dividing, just by chance. So your cells, in turn, have evolved quite a few ways of repairing your DNA all the time.

Q: But what about those studies that show increased risk of cancer with meat consumption?

A: You mean like those released by the World Health Organization about bacon causing cancer? Okay, yes, like I said before, the risk is low, but it’s still a risk. While your body is capable of defending itself from HCAs and PAHs at any given time, the more meat you eat, the more your body will have to defend itself, meaning eventually your cells may not catch the damaged DNA in time, resulting in cancer. Think of sun exposure as an example – if you go out into the sun more, you’re more likely to get skin cancer because you’re exposing yourself to UV light more than someone who likes to stay inside. So if you eat more meat, you’re exposing yourself more to HCAs and PAHs, then you’re increasing your risk for cancer.

Q: Do I have to stop eating this turkey?

A: Probably not. I certainly haven’t stopped. Like everything else in toxicology, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Too much of anything, even something that’s good for you, eventually becomes bad for you (again, think of sun exposure and skin cancer). But to put things in perspective – the Global Burden of Disease Project estimates 34,000 deaths per year result from diets high in processed meats. In contrast, about 600,000 people die each year from alcohol consumption, 200,000 people die every year from air pollution, and about 1 million people die each year from cancer resulting from smoking. Thanksgiving turkey isn’t really the top of my list of toxic worries.

The early bird gets the quantum dots

Earthworms are kind of a big deal for environmental scientists. As it turns out, they’re not just food for those early birds – earthworms are detritivores, meaning they feed on dead organic matter and help decompose it, releasing nutrients that were sealed up back into the environment for plants and microbes to use. They’re a key player in the circle of life. However, sediment and soils have a tendency to accumulate a lot of pollutants, making it tough living for soil dwelling animals. Luckily, earthworms are masters at detoxifying pollutants through their unique physiology. Heavy metals, like lead or cadmium, are easily captured and stored away using specialized proteins called metallothioneins. These proteins have a remarkable capacity for binding onto free metals and transporting them away where they can’t cause any harm to sensitive tissues, sequestering them for long periods of time. Metallothioneins are common proteins – even we, humans, have them. What makes the earthworm system special is that the metallothioneins transport the bound metals to the liver (or the earthworm version of the liver, the chloragogen) where it covers the protein-bound metals with layers of amino acids and proteins, most likely to help eventually excrete them later. Earthworms are so good at this that oftentimes entire populations of worms that live in highly contaminated areas become almost completely resistant to the metals. This makes earthworms ideal candidates for cleaning up major chemical spills, remediating and cleaning the environment.

Inside the lowly earthworm lies a metal processing facility like no other. And as it turns out, a nanotechnology factory as well.

Inside the lowly earthworm lies an impressive metal processing facility (and nanomaterial factory). These little guys chomp down on soil, heavy metals and all, and processes them using a series of detoxification proteins called metallothioneins to capture and store toxic metals for safe keeping.

What’s even more interesting, however, is that this same metal detoxification pathway makes them an efficient (and more importantly, cheap) semiconductor factory. Researchers have found that the choragogen provides just the right conditions that allow metals like cadmium and tellurium to react and create tiny (high quality) nanoparticles called quantum dots. These miniscule particles, ranging from 2 to 10 microns across (that’s about 10 to 50 atoms!), are incredibly useful in the tech industry. When quantum dots are hit with a beam of light or have an electric current passed through them, they emit colored light, which happens to be sharper, brighter, and more vibrant than traditional LED lights. If you’ve recently bought a high definition TV then it’s very likely that the display you use to watch your favorite TV shows uses quantum dot display technology. But that’s not all, quantum dots can potentially revolutionize much of the tech industry, changing the way we approach anything from solar panels to lights, inks, and even biomedical technology.

Quantum dots are tiny (2-10 micrometers across!) particles that emit sharp, bright, and vibrant light when hit with light or an electric current. They have diverse uses and are currently used in high definition electronic displays.

Quantum dots are tiny (2-10 micrometers across!) particles that emit sharp, bright, and vibrant light when hit with light or an electric current. They have diverse uses (from solar panels to TV displays) and are a major milestone for the technology industry.

What makes earthworm quantum dots so intriguing (aside from the fact that they come from worms) are the potential biological uses. Remember that layer of amino acids and proteins that the worms use to cover the metallothionein-metal complex? That is what chemists call a passivating layer, which means it helps protect the interior complex but also helps them dissolve and distribute in water. Nanomaterials are notoriously hard to dissolve in water as they tend to clump (much like when you mix oil and water), and as they say, the human body is mostly just water (roughly 60% or so). So any biomedical use needs to find a way to make quantum dots behave in watery bodies. So far all solutions people have come up with either make the quantum dots toxic to living organisms (which kind of defeats the purpose) or alters the quantum dots so much that we see a loss in performance. The humble earthworm seems to have found a way around all of that. Laboratory experiments show that quantum dots made by earthworms are easily dissolved and taken up by mammalian cells in petri dishes, with no signs of any toxic effects.

Rat macrophage-like cells (right) are stained green with quantum dots made by earthworms. On the right are cancer cells green with quantum dots made by earthworms (and nuclei stained blue with a chemical stain). Quantum dots made by earthworms are easily dissolved and distributed into living cells and are not toxic to cells, unlike quantum dots made artificially in a lab, making earthworm quantum dots a potentially important tool in biomedical fields.

Rat macrophage-like cells (left)  and cancer cells (and nuclei stained blue with a chemical stain; right) are stained green with quantum dots made by earthworms. These particles are easily taken into living cells and are not as toxic as man-made quantum dots. Sturzenbaum et al., 2013. Nature Nanotechnology.

To be sure, there’s still a lot of quirks that need to be worked out and much to be learned still about the system before we’ll be seeing earthworm biotechnology farms cropping up (though wouldn’t that be something fun to imagine…). So for now, just bask in the mysterious glow of natural selection and ponder the series of serendipitous events that led to the evolution of a tiny nanotechnology factory within the humble earthworm. That’s certainly enough to keep me busy for a while.

Read more about earthworms and quantum dots doi:10.1038/nnano.2012.232

Just be yourself

This blog is first, and foremost, a platform for me to communicate my science and to share my world with you all. With that being said, it’s important to consider the impacts that current events have on society as a whole, since our science only exists because the world around us does too.

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Unless you’ve been living underneath some very large, fortunate rock, you’re aware that Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States of America. I (and many, many others) are quite alarmed by this at many different levels: as a person of color, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a scientist. As impartial and objective science supposedly is, scientists can, are, and should be partisan (there’s definitely going to be more on this in the future). It’s no secret which candidate most scientists backed in this last election: the one that believes that climate change is a real and human driven phenomenon, the one that doesn’t believe that vaccines cause autism, the one that does not want to slash scientific funding. And unfortunately that was the candidate who lost.

Not 24 hours after the election, word of Trump’s plan to appoint Myron Ebell as head of the EPA was announced, solidifying many environmentalists’ worst fears. Mr. Ebell is a notable climate change skeptic and has been a vocal opponent to the Clean Power Plan, a bill introduced during President Obama’s administration to drastically reduce emissions from electricity generation (which greatly curtails the coal industry). That was just the first of many announcements of key members of Trump’s cabinet and staff – most recently including Steve Bannon as chief strategist, a noted anti-Semitic white nationalist. Considering that it’s been less than a week since the election and so much has already been stirred up, it’s no wonder we all feel worried about the future of science in America. And that’s not to say the other looming implications of Trump’s presidency aren’t terrifying as well: a step back in human rights for ethnic and religious minorities (particularly Muslim people), transgendered people, the disabled, and women, just to name some of the groups at stake.

While the wound may still be fresh, there’s already been an outpouring of the community around the world and online. People are reaching out to each other with affirmations: you are valued, you are safe, and we will get through this together. Dr. Josh Drew at Columbia University wrote an open letter to his students on the importance of continuing their work in environmental science. Dr. Meghan Duffy of the University of Michigan wrote a beautiful piece reminding all of us to say ‘Yes’ to meaningful goals beyond our own research, which may have larger impacts in the long run. Dr. Terry McGlynn from Cal State Dominguez Hills, wrote a fantastic call to protecting those who are most vulnerable in this time. Dr. Andrew Thaler, editor in chief at Southern Fried Science, wrote a Mandate for Ocean Outreach, a call to arms for all scientists to critically think about how to fix our shortcomings in bridging science to stakeholders. I highly recommend reading these pieces, and any others that you can find.

While I am not nearly as established, knowledgeable, or eloquent as these writers, I do want to throw my own voice into the mix, particularly as one vulnerable person to another. To my brothers and sisters worried about the future: the bravest thing to do right now is to be yourself, your truest self, and then double down on it. It’s a scary time to be gay, or Muslim, or Black, or a woman, to be yourself, but now is the most important time to be all those things and more. Be everything it is that racist, homophobic, white nationalists hate most.

It’s petty of me, but I fully believe in spiteful pleasure, finding happiness in defiance to those that hate you. Take heed in the fact that the powers that will be are so threatened by the mere thought of you that they felt it necessary to take the White House, the House, and the Senate, in order to address your existence. That’s how much power you hold over them. By simply existing, by continuing to live your life despite whatever it is they try, you are partaking in the biggest act of rebellion possible. So live your life as a person of color, as a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a Muslim, as yourself, with twice the commitment: once for you, and once more for them. Know that I’m right there with you, along with 61 million other people.

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Many thanks to Kevin Kohl for use of his graphic, which was inspired by a tweet from Fryda Wolff.

A Primer: Behavior as a toxicology research tool

Oftentimes when we think about an organism’s health, we don’t really think about including behavior. Maybe it’s just me, but behavior was something associated with the brain, and that thing is just too complicated to think about that they really should just get their own category (which, to be fair, many research groups do separate neurobiology and behavior into their own group, which might contribute to this way of thinking). But, ever since I’ve started my dissertation work, I’ve definitely come around and seen the light – behavior is an incredibly important aspect of physiology and we should all care about it!

Sure, behavior is extremely important part of social interactions; it doesn’t take a scientist to know that. But it’s not always as obvious how behavior is related to your health. Your body comes equipped with many amazing strategies to deal with stress, but it’s your behavior that determines how much stress your body experiences. Changes in behavior are really easy ways for animals to quickly avoid stress. Think about what you’d do if you were stuck outside on a hot summer afternoon. Sure, your body can deal with that stress through all sorts of neat ways like sweating, changing your breathing and heart rate, making new, more heat-sturdy proteins, etc. Or, you could just go find some shade or go inside where it’s air conditioned. Maybe grab an ice cream cone. Your body is capable of some amazing coping mechanisms, but does that mean you have to always use them? A simple change in how you behave can save you a lot in time and energy when dealing with a stressful environment.

More than that though, lots of behaviors may seem really simple on the surface actually involve a lot more than we realize. Let’s use another example – this time imagine yourself as a small fish trying to remain uneaten (a pretty important behavior, if you ask me). The obvious thing to do when a fish senses a predator is to quickly swim away and find somewhere safe to hide out in. Not exactly rocket science. But let’s break that down into the various steps it takes to complete that action. First, you need to realize that the predator is there to begin with. You might see the predator, hear it, or maybe even smell its presence. That requires a fully functional sensory system. Your eyes, ears, nose, and touch receptors need to be on point and they need to transmit that message to your brain. Well, that’s a huge complex system right there so you better be sure your brain is working properly as well. But that’s not all, your brain has to tell your muscles which way to move, and how much to move, so your nervous system needs to be in tip top shape. Your body is also going to help you prepare for this escape by changing its hormone balance. It’s fight or flight, is not a great time to be thinking about making babies or putting on fat reserves, so your endocrine system is going to temporarily turn the dial down on things like sex hormones, growth and fat storage, and instead mobilize stored energy to make sure you have enough fuel to get away. So right there, in this little fish swimming away from a predator, you need a fully functioning sensory organ system, nervous system, endocrine system, and who knows what else – all to tell your body to just keep swimming. Those systems are some key places that a pollutant can muck it all up and cause real problems for a fish (or any animal, really). So as a toxicologist, when I see a fish that’s behaving abnormally, that is a clue that at least one of these systems is off in some way, as well as potentially which areas might have been affected.

Behavior can be complex but with that complexity comes with a wealth of potential for researchers to study. It takes a lot of work, for sure, but behavior is such an important part of an animal’s life that we really shouldn’t be leaving it out anymore. There’s not doubt, studying behavior has many challenges (and the more complex the behavior, the more challenging it becomes), but that just means we have to get creative. In future posts, I’ll be introducing you to the different ways I, and other scientists, study animal behavior and show you some really creative solutions people have come up with to tackle these complex behaviors.

A Primer: your introduction to introductions

What’s a primer? Well, it really depends who you ask. If you ask someone who’s maybe a little more handy or artsy, a primer might be that first coat of paint that goes on before the real color does, either to help the color stick better or to prevent other things like rust from attaching on. If you ask someone who’s a little more mechanically oriented, a primer is a small pump or cap that brings in small amounts of fuel to the engine to get it started. A molecular biologist, like myself, might say that a primer is a small molecule (usually a pair of them) that helps start a polymerization reaction.

Or if you're a real film buff - a primer might be that really really confusing 2004 movie about time travel. These will be much easier to understand. Hopefully....

Or if you’re a real film buff – a primer might be that really really confusing 2004 movie about time travel. These will be much easier to understand. Hopefully….

What these all have in common is that a primer is something that helps get things started; it provides the first bits of fuel or sets up the system so that it’s all ready to go. So for you, dear readers, a primer might be something that serves as an introduction to something scientific. Your brain is the system and I’m providing you that basic knowledge, the starting material, for you to build upon. In this ongoing series of posts (which will be tagged with ‘A Primer’), I’m going to be introducing the background reading, the basic material behind some very important concepts, methods, and procedures that will let you better understand what it is that biologists are doing. Stick around, read up, and let’s see what your mind is ready to do once it’s gotten primed up.