Summer Science – A Blast!

By Bryan Nelson

As my second week of my 6 week long Summer Institute for Training in Biostatistics at Boston University comes to an end, I really cannot even begin to process how much I’ve learned in such a short amount of time.

Being part of a program with only 22 people is a great opportunity to make connections as well as get one on one time with the professors, all of whom are incredibly dedicated to making sure we are all prepared for whatever the future holds. Some days we even get to attend a lecture by a guest speaker and then sit with them at lunch picking their brain. As far as I’ve been able to tell so far, it is incredibly wise to follow the saying,  “hang out with people smarter than you.”

Okay, now it’s time to talk about math. As anyone that has ever talked to me for 30 seconds knows, I am crazy about math, so my favorite part of the program so far has clearly been the math! In the first (almost) 2 weeks we have covered basically a semester’s worth of biostatistics in the mornings, followed by instruction in SAS (a statistically software used by most large companies and by many statisticians such as those working on the Framingham Heart Study). After lunch, we work on projects in SAS using data from the Framingham Heart Study (one of the most influential studies in the history of medicine), the Jackson Heart Study, and other miscellaneous studies.  It is a real honor to get to work with data from the Framingham Heart Study, for any statistician, especially for a rising junior in college.

*For anyone confused by what the distinction between biostatistics and statistics is (I was too): Biostatistics is basically statistics for medical and public health research. It is essentially a specific subset of statistics.

I can’t wait to see what else I can learn in the coming weeks and more importantly, how it will help me with future research! It’s safe to say that curious mathematically-oriented kids never grow up, we just go to math camp for adults! Be sure to check out the MAS blogs for more updates!  Next time I’ll talk about our upcoming visit to the Framingham Heart Study (which does not normally allow visitors)!

Thanks for reading!

Hazards of Cell Phone Use

Do cell phones cause cancer? This question is one that has been put on the back burner of many people and researcher’s minds for decades. Maybe our dependency on our electronic devices is causing us to push off the inevitable truth. With all of the other carcinogens that are present in the world it makes it hard to determine the root cause of our cancers. All of these dilemmasare ones that are striking through scientists and interested consumer’s minds.

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According to the World Health Organization cell phones have now been placed in the carcinogenic hazard group. To put this into perspective, this category contains lead, engine exhaust, and chloroform. There are no definite effects that will lead researchers into claiming that cell phone use leads to cancer, as of now. Glioma and acoustic neuroma brain cancer have showed a link with cellular devices, but there is not enough evidence to prove anything for sure. Drawing conclusions for cancers will take decades in order to collect enough data.

The type of radiation that a cell phone gives off is one like a microwave. This radiation is called non-ionizing. Dr. Black refers to the use of cell phone by describing it as “cooking the brain”, just as a microwave cooks food. This effect could cause a loss of cognitive memory function as well as cancers and tumors. This is because the temporal lobes are located in close proximity of where we hold our phones.

The reason for the delay in answers is due to the fact that brain cancers generally grow slowly.  Cell phones have not been around and used by the general population for very long. A study did show that those who have used cell phones for ten years have doubled their rate to get brain glioma. Another study showed that using a phone for just 50 minutes artificially stimulates the brain. Scientists have yet to discover the consequences of this stimulation.

 

 

Coffee: A Pick Me Up?

As I sip on my much needed coffee, I cannot help but wonder how this cup-of-joe gives me energy when all I want to do is take a nap. I’m sure you’ve seen adults frantically drinking their coffee at home or on the go every morning, but what is it? Coffee comes from a shrub of the bedstraw family that yields the coffee seeds, two of which are contained in each red berry. Most coffee is grown in tropical America and then distributed to places all over the world. Coffee contains a drug called caffeine. In humans, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness.

There have been many studies on this popular drink to better understand how coffee affects us. According to Coffee & Health, the scientific institute for scientific information on coffee, caffeine can improve wakefulness in situations of reduced alertness or lack of sleep, like when studying late for an exam and then having to stay awake in your class the next morning (a situation I’ve been in many times).While caffeine may enhance memory performance, particularly when tedious, repetitive tasks are involved, higher intake may decrease performance, possibly due to over-stimulation.

Before you go brew yourself a nice cup of coffee, studies have shown that children should not consume coffee due to many possible health risks. Caffeineis absorbed in every tissue of the body. It increases your heart rate and as well as your blood pressure.  The brains of child are more sensitive to caffeine’s effects than the brains of adults. As a result, children can become hyperactive, nervous, and anxious, worsen stomach problems and create sleep problems. If you ever find yourself always depending on coffee to get you through the day I recommend you make more time for sleep. Remember everyone should be getting 8 hours of sleep a night!

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Humans vs. the Octopus

OctopusHumans take pride in their intelligence, strength and ability to manipulate their environment. We are an elite species, the top of the food chain, and better yet, the kings and queens of the jungle. It is no surprise that we view ourselves as “better” than all the animals on planet Earth, but what about the octopus? After all, octopi have four pairs of arms, compared to our less than impressive single pair. Unlike us, octopi have no internal or external skeleton allowing them to squeeze through tight places. How cool is that? Octopi are among the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible animals, just like humans! Every animal on Earth has their own special characteristic that makes them unique; whether it is the way they live their lives or how they act with their environment.

Octopi are surprisingly similar to humans. For example, octopi have a huge head with well-developed brains. Their eyes even have sophisticated lenses. Humans also have very large brains in proportion to their bodies, with great vision. Octopi have separate sexes along with courtship rituals. Did you know that their mating rituals consist of a spectacular light show, which emits from their tentacles? While humans have their own “courtship rituals” they don’t come close to being just as exciting. Intelligence in both animals is a characteristic that sets them apart from other organisms such as brainless clams and oysters. Humans may praise themselves with their intelligence, but octopi have been known to outsmart other humans!

Humans and octopi interact with their environments differently. Octopi swim by moving their fins as if they are flying through the water. Humans, as you already know, do not live in water, but instead use their two legs for walking across the ground. What makes octopi really cool is their use of chromatophores to camouflage into their surroundings. Watch the video and prepare to be amazed! (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmDTtkZlMwM).http://massacademy.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/octopus.png

Humans and octopi are extraordinary in their own special ways! As far as I am concerned, octopi are not that much different from humans, besides the oddly shaped heads, eight arms and remarkable chromatophores. Therefore, we should not be calling ourselves “better” than octopi because we might just be underestimating their intelligence.

 

Cramping Our Children’s Creativity

The other day, I was helping my girlfriend with her calculus homework and there was a true/false question about the chain rule:

           

TRUE/FALSE: To apply the chain rule to sin(x^2) we select f(x)=x^2 and

g(x)=sin(x).

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My initial reaction was “True! Obviously! g(f(x))=sin(x^2) where g(x)=sin(x) and f(x)=x^2”…..but, she quickly pointed out to me that it was false because her teacher had taught her that it was always f(g(x)), which would mean that the question implies sin^2(x) not sin(x^2). And therein lies the problem; we give homeworks with trick questions to check if students have memorized formulas rather than harboring creativity.

 

We focus so much on making tough subjects like math accessible to every student that we make them actually more difficult to understand. Why do we need to explain the chain rule in terms of d/dx[f(g(x))]= g’(x)(f’(g(x))) when we could much more simply explain it as the derivative of the inside multiplied by the derivative of the outside, e.g. f(x)= sin(x^2); f’(x)= 2xcos(x^2)? A formula list is far more difficult to understand than learning the concepts behind them. We need to make concepts relatable and engaging. A sequence of numbers and letters falls out of our heads as soon as the exam is finished, but remembering that velocity is the derivative of position is something we never forget.  Understanding how it works is far more important than just worrying about being able to solve it. 

 

It reminds me of when I was in middle school and was learning algebra. My teacher got mad at me for skipping steps when solving simple problems. She would remind me “the x stands alone!!” even though I knew how to solve the problem and was saving myself some work and writing. I am 100% for teaching people how to solve problems so that they have a template, especially if they are struggling with a concept. I struggled with integration by parts last fall and the quick formula int(vdu)=vu-int(udv) saved me on several quizzes.

 

However, when those helpful templates begin being taught in place of understanding, I have a problem.  We shouldn’t punish students for not following the pre-prescribed template, because this conditions them not to dare to try different methods for problem solving. What this could lead to is a country of calculators rather than innovators. I hope that, in a few decades, when I have children they will be taught to use formulas as a tool for quick problem solving, but not to ruin their ability to think creatively and effectively, because that is what STEM is all about! Thanks for reading!

The Importance of Academic Writing Skills

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In my opinion, as well as my personal experience, nothing hurts one’s argument more than poor delivery. In any walk of life, people take you more seriously and treat you with more respect when you are well-spoken; academia is no different. People sometimes make the mistake of believing that wanting to be a scientist means that you don’t need to worry about mastering essay writing. That could not be farther from the truth.  We all need to develop good writing and speaking skills if we ever intend to share our research, and even if we are able to share our research without good delivery, it will most likely not be treated seriously.

 

My number one piece of advice I have for any student wanting to get involved in science fairs is to pay attention to your English teacher and work on your expository writing skills. Aside from being tremendously useful in everyday life, writing will captivate your reader and help to display your hard work in an intelligent, thoughtful manner. I have a few general pieces of advice for writing your first research paper:

 

1)     Keep a good lab journal; keeping a good journal will make writing your paper much simpler since everything is organized and ready to come together.

2)     Keep your writing formal, but never at the cost of your own voice. Don’t try to mimic what you think a judge wants to read.

3)     Similarly, be yourself when presenting to the judge. In this way, your writing and presentation will both be in your natural voice, therefore sounding more natural. Yes, by the way, judges can tell if you aren’t genuine.

4)     Explain everything as if the listener/reader has never encountered the topic before while avoiding condescension.  I’ve judged science fair projects that I had very little background knowledge on and always appreciated having the basics explained to me.

5)     Work on putting things into context and explain the “bigger picture,” also known by my former English teacher as “why should I care?” Even if your research was not successful in proving your hypothesis, it is very important that you finish with conviction and explain why your hypothesis being unsupported is significant.

6)     Revise, revise, revise. Some of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever had go through several drafts for each article they write, most believing that it’s the only way they ever really improve as writers.

 

I hope my list is of some use as you work on effectively relaying information about your project. (I also hope that I effectively relayed my opinion to you.) Here is a link to one of my papers, “The Effects of Self-Esteem on Exercise Frequency,” which I was fortunate enough to win first place with at the Massachusetts State Science Fair my sophomore year and got to present at the MJAS Fall Symposium my junior year:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259572789_The_Effects_of_Self-Esteem_on_Exercise_Frequency

 

In my (clearly-biased) opinion, it is a good example of effective academic writing for a science fair project. Feel free to use it as a point of reference. Good luck in your writing!  Thanks for reading!

Welcome to the Galactic Neighborhood

I’ve been watching a lot of The Twilight Zone lately, and it has gotten me thinking about how much different and more exciting the idea of extraterrestrial life must have been in the 1950s when mankind had never explored outward. In many episodes, aliens are shown speaking English and looking completely human (with the addition of an extra arm and a third eye perhaps). Astronauts travel millions of miles in an afternoon and arrive on asteroids with Earth-like atmospheres. How wonderfully fantastic it must have been to live in an age of science fiction and unrealistic possibilities. At first, I felt that reality must have been a let down.

 

But that couldn’t be farther from the truth! Knowing the truth is always more incredible than fantasizing, and it makes our accomplishments that much greater when we understand how difficult they were. To understand that we have never been able to send human astronauts to Mars because it would be incredibly expensive and would have very serious health risks keeping the astronauts in zero G for months at a time (the shortest ever proposed Mars mission was 245 days, while a typical proposal is 500) will give us that much more respect for our species’ ingenuity when we make it to Mars. If aliens were so easy to find and so similar to us, would it feel like a special moment when we finally make contact?

 

Mankind has wondered if we are alone for thousands of years, but there are more planets out there than there are grains of sand on Earth; we statistically cannot be alone. But when will we make the greatest leap in human history? Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute believes that we will have evidence of life within the next 25 years (http://m.financialexpress.com/news/humans-will-find-aliens-by-2040-us-scientist/1225061?rhnews/). But assuming Dr. Shostak is correct, we may be in for a huge surprise. When we find extraterrestrial life, we will need to reassess what it means to be alive. We won’t see three armed humanoids, Daleks, or Spock. What we find will be far more exciting; we will have evidence that lighting could strike twice so to speak. Even if it is “just” a single-celled organism on an Earth-like planet 6.5 light years away, the fact it exists will be stranger and more exhilarating than anything from science fiction. It is extremely likely that we will be at a different stage of evolution and technological development than our first contact. Are we prepared to potentially feel outwitted?

 

As amazing as it must have been to live in Rod Serling’s time of exploration and possibility, *WE* are in the time where we have the chance to bridge the gap between fact and fancy, and that is the beauty of STEM, each generation can do what the previous could only dream of.

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