Category Archives: Scientist

Science proves becoming a parent sucks the happiness out of life

Someone recently told me I changed 5 years ago, for the worse. I wondered what could have happened that would have turned me into a horrible person, when it dawned on me- 5 years ago I had a kid!

The reality of parenthood, taken 30 seconds after the first, Thanksgiving 2012

The reality of parenthood, Thanksgiving 2012

That was the end of sleep/sleeping in/getting enough sleep, having nice things, cleaning only your own poo, leisurely meals, peaceful car trips, etc. The lack of sleep alone is enough to make people irritable and irrational, never mind the crying. I think most parents would agree that having a kid was a profound, and possibly irreversible, life change.

Et voila! Science proves it.

It turns out parenthood is worse than divorce, unemployment — even the death of a partner

Life has its ups and downs, but parenthood is supposed to be among the most joyous. At least that’s what the movies and Target ads tell us.

In reality, it turns out that having a child can have a pretty strong negative impact on a person’s happiness, according to a new study published in the journal Demography. In fact, on average, the effect of a new baby on a person’s life in the first year is devastatingly bad — worse than divorce, worse than unemployment and worse even than the death of a partner.– The Washington Post

Parenthood is, in its way, worse than getting divorced, losing your job, or the death of a partner. Read it and weep (or perhaps I should say keep weeping if you’re already there).

I can’t imagine being a single parent, or not having the choice whether or not to have a child. Even at the lowest points, at least Mac and I could fall back on, “We got ourselves into this mess.”

It may be a choice to procreate, the end result may be positive, and parents may not choose to change anything, but parenting is freakin’ hard. Especially that first one.

So, on behalf of parents everywhere, apologies that we couldn’t be sunshine and roses when sleep-deprived and devoid of free time. Sincere thanks for folks who tolerated us and supported us during that transition.

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Wordless Wednesday: GMOs

Encountering a lot of people who ‘believe’ the science on global climate change, but reject the science on GMOs. Not sure what the disconnect is. There is no ‘belief’ in science- either the data support the conclusion or it’s not true.10440909_1045963868757957_6873704695044085609_n

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Just don’t negotiate like a girl.

When I negotiated the base salary for my current job the recruiter actually said to me, “If money is that important to you, perhaps this isn’t the right company for you.”

My response was something along the lines of, “I’ve done my research, I am aware of what I am worth.” What I wanted to say was more like, “Oh, so you give back a portion of your salary just for the pleasure of working there?”

In the end, my negotiations netted me the salary and title of Scientist, even though the position they had been hoping to fill was one of post-doc. However, they didn’t actually agree to pay me what I was worth. Lucky for them the other two companies I had interviewed with weren’t ready to make an offer.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and such. I took the job even though the salary was less.

Sharing war stories with female colleagues and we all got bullish!t responses to our attempts to negotiate, some more successful than others.

Recently I read this piece from The New Yorker Lean Out: The Dangers for Women Who Negotiate by Maria Konnikova.

It was depressing, to say the least.  You should read it, but the crux of the article: women are penalized for negotiating.

I feel some of that still in my current job.  The reporting structure above me is all male.  I get comments like, “Don’t be emotional.”* It’s like pulling teeth to get concrete responses regarding performance and promotion.  While I’m reluctant to blame sexism, the three male colleagues hired within months of me were promoted in January. Myself and one other male colleague were not.

It is disheartening.  However, it’s not in my nature to be cowed.  I speak up, I speak out, I ask for answers, I ask for feedback, etc. And according to the data, I can expect to suffer as a result.

Ironically, after reading the Lean Out piece, I then finally got around to reading/watching this item that kept appearing in my FB feed:

 

All I could think were two things:

1.  Just don’t negotiate like a girl.

2. I really hope my daughter doesn’t have to put up with this shit.

 

*This comment is particularly ironic since we all had to do the Myers-Briggs shenanigans and I’m an INTJ (the T being for Thinking, not Feeling) while my supervisor is the “Feeler”.

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West Nile Virus: What is it? Where is it? How to prevent it?

It’s become a yearly tradition- the first confirmed report of West Nile Virus in a mosquito.  The winner in New York State this year is Rockland County!!  They found their first positive mosquito just last week! So far this year there have not been any reported human cases, but it’s still early in the season.  Last year NY had 33 cases.  (Source)

I’ve written before about my not-so-illustrious research career, specifically the summer I spent working for my local county health department doing West Nile Virus (WNV) surveillance, here.  Back then, 2001, West Nile was an emerging disease.  The first cases had been reported in New York City in 1999, and each year subsequent had seen an increase in cases as the virus spread.  More than once that summer, I answered panicked phone calls from residents who found dead birds on their property and were fearful of disease.

As I did then, I hope this post will help allay fears, and educate readers about West Nile, what it is, how it spreads, how it’s monitored, and how you can help prevent it!

What is West Nile Virus?

The structure of the West Nile Virus, solved by a group at Purdue. (Source)

The structure of the West Nile Virus, solved by a group at Purdue. (Source)

As the name implies, West Nile is a virus, of the genus flaviviruses (Dengue virus is in the same genus).  WNV can infect certain birds and mosquitoes as well as many mammals including humans and horses.  The virus is spread by mosquitoes the feed on infected animals and transmit it by feeding on uninfected animals.  WNV was first identified in Uguanda in the 1930s.  How it came to New York City in 1999 is unknown, however, “international travel of infected persons to New York, importation of infected birds or mosquitoes, or migration  of infected birds are all possibilities.” (Source, CDC) Since arriving in North America, WNV has spread over all of North America and Mexico.

How is it detected?

The virus can be detected in samples from infected animals (blood, tissues, etc), including mosquitoes.  The summer I worked for the health department, one of my primary tasks was to collect dead birds and send them to a state lab for testing to detect WNV.  Another was to trap mosquitoes (you can see the type of trap we used below), sort them by species (and gender, only females bite!), and pool them so they can be sent for testing.  Research conducted when WNV first emerged in the US showed that the density of dead crows correlated with the risk of WNV infecting humans (Source).  Thus, our collection and reporting on the species and location of dead birds was crucial.

Mosquito trap:  the bucket contains fetid water, attractive to a gravid female mosquito looking for a place to lay her eggs, some dry ice

Mosquito trap: the bucket contains fetid water (attractive to a gravid female mosquito looking for a place to lay her eggs), some dry ice (mimicking a the CO2 mammals exhale), a net, and a battery-operated fan.  The mosquitoes fly towards the water, the fan sucks them up into the net and keeps them there.  (Image Source)

What are the symptoms of WNV infection?

The vast majority of people (70-80%) who are infected with WNV will show no symptoms at all.  So, you may have already had it and your immune system fought it off without you even knowing you were sick.  The remaining ~20% may have flu-like symptoms- headache, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash– and recover completely.  A very small percentage of people (less than 1%) will develop neurological condition- encephalitis or meningitis (the inflammation of the brain or its surrounding tissue).  The symptoms of the encephalitis/meningitis include headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, coma, seizure, etc.  The neurological condition will prove fatal in about 10% of cases.

What are the treatments?

There is no vaccine against WNV for people (there is one for horses).  There is also no specific treatment for WNV, just over-the-counter pain relievers/fever reducers, and other supportive care (fluids, pain relief).

Who is at risk?

The elderly are most at risk, with most cases of WNV occurring in people over 60 years of age (Source).  Certain illness can make people more vulnerable to complications from WNV infection- those who are immune suppressed (organ transplant recipients, cancer patients, etc.).

Is West Nile Virus in my area?

So far this year, it’s still early in the season.  As I said above, NY just had their first positive mosquito. To view the CDC’s current map of West Nile Virus activity per state, click here.

West Nile Virus Activity by State – United States, 2014 (as of June 10, 2014) (Source)

West Nile Virus Activity by State – United States, 2014 (as of June 10, 2014) (Source)

As our climate continues to change, and warm, data show West Nile will continue to spread.

How does it spread?

The West Nile Virus is primarily spread through mosquito bites.  WNV is endemic in birds and spread vie mosquitoes in that population. Occasionally an infected mosquito bites a human and transmits the virus.  There have been reported cases of human to human transmission, but only through organ donation and blood transfusions.

Transmission cycle of West Nile Virus. (Source)

Transmission cycle of West Nile Virus. (Source)

What can I do keep from getting WNV?

Clatsop County Oregon's approach. (Source)

Clatsop County Oregon’s approach. (Source)

Long sleeves/pants/socks, insect repellent, and window screens can keep you from getting bitten.  You can also make it harder for mosquitoes to breed near you- avoid having ANY STANDING WATER on your property.  That includes birth baths, old tires (there are prime breeding grounds), wheel barrows, sand boxes, water tables, flower pots, tarps, any place water can accumulate, mosquitoes can lay their eggs.

When I worked for my local health department, we routinely kept our eyes out for sources of standing water and encouraged the public to notify us if they found a source.  We’d get calls about abandoned properties (with swimming pools, bird baths, etc) and go out to try and get homeowners and business owners to fix the problems. If you see a problem area, I’d encourage you to call your local health department. Also, if you find a dead bird- give them a call, they may want to send it for testing.

Washtenaw County Michigan's approach. (Source)

Washtenaw County Michigan’s approach. (Source)

The bottom line.

Chances of you or your kids getting sick from WNV are pretty slim.  That said, avoiding mosquito bites is the best way to keep yourself safe.  Keep yourself covered, keep mosquitoes out of your house, remove any sources of standing water on your property.

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New Parenting Study Released

Friends have shared this on FB a lot, and I finally got around to reading it.  It’s short, funny, and worth a look.

“New Parenting Study Released” by Sarah Miller

A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.

I have to say, as much as I post here about parenting studies, I don’t take many of them to heart.  Most of the studies really don’t even apply directly to how one should parent, they are merely spun by the media to imply that they do. My years of experience reading primary literature and my scientific training allow me to filter out all the noise and spin, and drill down to understand what the results mean for me and my kids.

I have friends on FB freaking out about BPA (to the point that one was ravaged with guilt for eating a bowl of canned soup while pregnant), vaccines, GMOs, etc.  It is to the point of ridiculousness.

I often have friends and family approach me for my ‘scientific opinion’ on something- ranging from biopsy results to whether or not the government and pharmaceutical companies have the cure for cancer and are conspiring to keep it from humanity.

When it comes to many studies (i.e. crying it out, BPA, GMOs, etc) I just say, “Don’t worry about it.”

There are bodies of work that allow scientists to come to a clear concensus- the safety and efficacy of vaccines, for example- but on a lot of other issues, there is no clear consensus.  The data aren’t there, the studies haven’t been done, conclusions cannot be drawn.

So, by and large my advice is, “Don’t worry about it.  Don’t kill yourself finding BPA-free everything, don’t bankrupt yourself buying GMO-free everything, don’t exhaust yourself getting up 1000 times a night, etc.”

We’re all gonna screw up our kids in one way or another, so just accept that fact and get on with your life.

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What do you wonder? Nerdy Baby artwork for the young scientist in all of us.

I love Tiffany Ard’s Nerdy Baby artwork.  Her books and flashcards feature prominently on my Amazon wish list.

I follow her on Facebook and was in awe of the artwork she posted today.

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Source: Tiffany Ard (Click on the image to see it full-size and read the text on the Nerdy Baby FB page)

What struck me most about it was the idea that there is wonder to be found everywhere, even in the seemingly mundane. And really, that wonder is science.

I’ve written before about how it’s not just make-believe that can spark the imagination.  The world around us if full of amazing things.  I love how Ms. Ard captures that with “What do you wonder?”

Turns out, lucky for us, that Zulily* is featuring several of Tiffany Ard’s prints on their sale site right now!

I picked up two of these prints- one for my daughter, and the other for her fabulous preschool teacher.

I also picked up this one for Nemo, who at 1.5 years already said, “Three, two, one, blastoff!”

And this set of “Art Prints for Young Scientists.”

If the Zulily sale is over and you would like to order prints, or if you want a signed print, check out the Nerdy Baby Site.

Have fun inspiring your young scientist!

*Note- Zulily requires membership to shop.  Some of the links to Zulily in this post are referral links.  You can click here to join, referred by me.  However, you should know that if you join, and purchase something, I will get a $15 credit.  So, if you have a friend who is a member, have that person refer you and he/she will get the $15.  You can also join without a referral, but it usually isn’t instantly.

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60% Confidence

Now I know that people are always griping that meteorologists are paid to be wrong most of the time, given the inaccuracy of weather forecasting, but today I am not talking about that.*

I spent yesterday outlining a manuscript, basically making all the figures, figuring out what data are missing, how best to tell the story, thinking of something/anything else that might explain the data, etc.  Publication and peer review generally set a high bar.  You have to be pretty much 100% sure that the data you put out there are correct, that your interpretation is correct, that your model is correct (or at least accounts for all the data).

So…. with this in mind, I nearly spewed my coffee when a FB friend linked to a weather forecast with this image:

Oh what I wouldn’t give if I could just publish everything as it stands right now and merely qualify each figure with a confidence percentage.- and that 60% confidence was all I needed!

That said, I am REALLY hoping this forecast is wrong.  As Mabel said when we went for a walk Saturday, “It looks like Elsa** has been all around here!”

*Northeast Storm Center is maintained by a 16 year old budding meteorologist.  I don’t think s/he’s raking in the dough.  I commend him/her for the scientific zeal and think the work and dedication are awesome. This post is just about my reaction to the image- meteorology is clearly a totally different science from molecular/cell biology and not held to the same standards of peer review. Also, I think, in this case, the confidence percentage was a great way to be clear about how much weight to put on the forecast.

**Reference to the movie Frozen.

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