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A brief history of laughing gas May 3, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Biology, Chemistry, Health, History of Science, Medicine.
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As a science major, signing lab safety forms is just a normal part of the beginning of every semester for me. We always cover the proper protocol for experiments we’ll be conducting in the lab and the things we probably shouldn’t do in order to remain alive. We take all of this for granted, but hundreds of years ago, the methods for scientific experiment were far different.

The story “The Not-So-Funny Tale Of Laughing Gas” on NPR’s Morning Edition talks about this. In 1799, a young scientists, about 21 years old, named Humphry Davy was doing testing on different gases as potential cures for Tuberculosis, a major problem of the time. To test these different gases (carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, etc.), he inhaled the gases himself and wrote about his reactions to them. Let’s just say, it wasn’t always a pleasant experience. While none of these gases could actually be used to cure tuberculosis, he did notice one of these gases had a particular effect on him. While testing the gas nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, Davy noticed that the toothache that he had been experiencing was gone after the nitrous oxide was inhaled and then later came back. He proposed that this gas could potentially be used in surgery to keep the patients from feeling the pain. Unfortunately, there was no knowledge of any kind of anesthesia at the time and the idea of a pain-free surgery was such a novel idea. Pain was thought to be a sign of a healthy body that would heal quite well, so people shied away from the idea. It would take about 40 years before people would begin to consider Davy’s discovery.


Sleep and stress May 3, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Health, Neuroscience.
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tired and stressed

Finals week has arrived which includes late nights in the library, lots of caffeine and not enough sleep. We all know it’s bad for us, yet we continue to deprive ourselves of sleep just to get that extra hour of work in. We feel so stressed out that we think depriving ourselves of this vital function will help in some way, shape or form.

sleeping helps retention

Science Daily posted an article about stress and its connection to sleep. Studies have shown that “people with chronic stress report shorter sleep duration, worse sleep quality, and more daytime functioning impairments.” The problem is that lack of sleep can also cause more stress upon the person which could lead to an unfortunate and potentially never-ending cycle.  How should someone with this problem begin to address it? Make some lifestyle changes: don’t drink too much caffeine, don’t try to stay up all night studying for a final (I should take my own advice!), make sure you have a wind-down period before bed, etc. This way sleep deprivation won’t be the cause of the stress in your life!

Oil in the Water: the spill in the Gulf and the potential future impact May 2, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Ecology, Environment/Conservation.

Trying to loop off the oil spill from the Lousiana rig explosion

Most of us have heard about the massive oil spill that occurred on April 20th in the Gulf of Mexico when an oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers. It is estimated that at least 1.6 million gallons have leaked into the waters of the gulf. The oil has now officially claimed its first victim, according to an LA News Monitor online story, a Northern Gannet seabird. This death means that the oil has officially started to impact the surrounding environment.

Waterfowl covered with oil during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill

Unfortunately, down the road this could mean bad things for the organisms of the Gulf of Mexico. According to a Science Daily article, the oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill is still affecting the wildlife of Alaska even after over 20 years has passed. This disaster spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil over 1300 square miles. After all of this time some of the organisms, especially the near-shore ones, continue to ingest the residual oil. A group of scientists testing the continued impact of the oil looked at the harlequin duck as an example of a near-shore species. They used biomarker CYP1A, which is induced upon exposure to crude oil, to measure the continued impact. This biomarker was in higher abundance in the harlequin ducks,  strongly suggesting that the oil continues to have an effect on the area where the disaster happened over 20 years ago.

This could mean that many years down the road, the Gulf of Mexico could still be seeing the effects of this oil disaster. The hope for me, I suppose, is that technology has improved enough over the past 20 years to have clean-up equipment that works more efficiently and effectively than it has in the past.

Click on first search result here for pdf of the Harlequin duck CYP1A paper.

current size and spread of spill

satellite image of spill...it's huge!

Marian University encourages the Town of Speedway to Go Green May 1, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Environment/Conservation, Marian University curriculum, Science & Culture.
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This semester, I have been part of a business creation and development class at Marian University called the A-Team. The A-Team is a student consulting group made up of students that come from a number of different backgrounds and disciplines but come together to work on a specific engagement. The team acts as a consulting group for a business or organization that comes forward with a specific problem or question that they would like us to answer. This semester our team chose to work with the Town of Speedway. Speedway has been having a problem over the past 20 years with their population declining causing an increase in housing stock and a decline in the overall upkeep of some of the houses. They came to us to try to figure out how to get young professionals to move to their town as well as how to deal with the blight that has been beginning in their neighborhoods.

modern windspire to generate energy

solar-panels on house

You may be wondering now what exactly that has to do with a science blog. Well, I’ll tell you. We came to the conclusion that

Speedway should work on becoming a green community. There is nowhere else in the Indianapolis area that can make the claim that they are a green community. We all agreed that if Speedway were green we’d move there in a heart-beat. I personally think that the concept of living in a green town would be really cool! What we did as consultants was work on finding some suggestions for things that they could do. Some of the team members found lots of green grants and tax credits that the citizens could potentially use. There are things as extreme as installing solar panels or wind turbines. This would significantly decrease energy costs for the home. Also, there are other, smaller-scale things we suggested they look into.

go green with energy efficient light bulbs

By upgrading appliances to more energy efficient models, the homeowner saves a lot of money over time as well as doing something good for the environment. Houses can be made more green and energy efficient by installing energy-saving windows and insulation, and most simply by putting in compact fluorescent light bulbs.

We hope that Speedway listened to what we had to say (we gave them our presentation yesterday evening) and will work on going green!

Pollution is Good? April 28, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Climate Change, Environment/Conservation, Health, Policy.

Marian University celebrated Earth Week  last week (April 19th-22nd). We even hosted an outdoor movie and taught everyone the importance of recycling!  That same week the EPA put out a report saying that air pollution has dramatically reduced over the past twenty years. To me, that seems like a really good thing, but according to a recent NPR story, clean air could actually be intensifying global warming.

Shocked?  Me too.

But, according to science writer Eli Kintisch, this could be the case.

Why is this so?

Well, there are two kinds of air pollutants: aerosols and greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases warm the planet, which we are well aware of, but recently scientists have discovered that aerosols actually have a temperature maintaining effect for the earth. Apparently if all man-made air pollution was stopped, global warming could be sped up by as much as a degree Fahrenheit. While greenhouse gases absorb heat, adding to global warming, aerosols actually reflect sunlight away from the earth causing the earth to cool down rather than heat up. By cleaning the air, we’re taking away this stuff away, perhaps adding to the increase in the global temperature. These pollutants still cause health problems, like asthma and respiratory disease, so letting them stay in the atmosphere isn’t necessarily the answer. The scary thing is that we don’t know how much these cooling effects have slowed down global warming. If it’s a lot, then taking the aerosols away could cause a huge problem. This would mean that we’ve been causing a larger warming effect than we originally thought. If not, then it may not be as much of a concern.

One idea that has come about from this knowledge is to use geothermal engineering to fix the problem caused by removing these cooling pollutants. What we would do is inject new pollutants into the clouds, allowing for the cooling to occur. Theses sulfur aerosols are distributed naturally during volcanic eruptions, such as the one we’ve been seeing in Iceland. Volcanoes, when they erupt, put out a lot of sulfur aerosols  into the stratosphere and can cause cooling to happen. The idea is that if there is a natural emergency in the future caused by the warming, it might be possible to slow or stop the warming by mimicking the volcanoes and injecting these aerosols into the stratosphere.

Crazy huh?

To hear the whole story, click here.

Deep Dark Sea Monsters April 26, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Behavior, Biology, Ecology, Physiology.

It seems like the things that fascinate us the most are the things we don’t know much about. This is certainly true for the depths of the ocean. One of the most famous organisms that can be found in the Mesopelagic to Bathypelagic zones of the ocean is the Deep Sea Anglerfish. The species I will be referring to is commonly called the humpback angler or the black devilfish (Melanocetus johnsonii).

Yikes! Does it bite?

This fish looks ferocious with its huge mouth and fang-like teeth, tiny eyes and round body. You might think that this fish is huge and could bite your arm off. You’d be wrong. This little cutie actually maxes out around 7 inches (and that’s pretty big). It has a round body with soft muscles and weak bones to deal with the high pressures found at these depths. She doesn’t need to be very muscular because she is actually rather sedentary. She sits and waits for her food to come to her, using her bioluminescent lure to attract prey. The lure is filled with symbiotic bacteria that fluoresce in a fashion similar to the fireflies here on land. She wiggles it back and forth, encouraging her food to get close enough that all she has to do is open her mouth and gobble up the unsuspecting fish. The stomach is extremely expandable, making it possible for the anglerfish to eat things that are up to two times as large as she is! Pretty extreme, but food is hard to come by so beggars can’t be choosers.

Ladies night!

You may have noticed that I kept referring to the angler as a she. This is no accident. The humpback anglers we are most familiar with are actually all females. Their male counterparts are much smaller than the females, being only about an inch long. They look like little jelly beans with fins! Unlike the female anglers, the males are actually very muscular, perfect for active swimming. They need to be good swimmers so that they can find the females. The male anglerfish really only has one goal in life: to find a female angler. This is because the Deep Sea Anglerfish have evolved to have a very bizarre reproductive cycle. Since it is harder to find a mate than to find food for these little fishies, they can’t reproduce like most other fish. The males have special organs by their eyes that allow them to sense the chemicals that are emitted from the female fish. When a male finds a female, he uses hooks in his mouth to attach to the female. Over time, the male becomes part of the female, a parasite of sorts, sharing her blood supply and getting all of his nutrients from her. The only thing that the male fish continues to do on his own is breathe. This way whenever the female is ready to lay her eggs, she has the male there to fertilize them.

Marian Travels to Pensacola April 5, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Biology, Ecology, Environment/Conservation, Marian University curriculum, Science Education.
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Spring Break….and SCIENCE!

Over Marian University’s spring break, the MU Marine Biology class that I am enrolled in took a field trip to Pensacola, Florida. It’s been kind of difficult learning about marine topics while in a classroom in the middle of Indiana…the nearest ocean is hours away. Because of this, I found our Pensacola trip to be vital to my understanding of the topics we’ve covered so far this semester.

Day one

Our group began our caravan to Florida at 5 AM the Saturday of spring break and arrived to our rented beach house in Pensacola about 12 and a half hours later. As soon as we got there, the whole class ran to the beach across the street, and our learning began!

A jelly fish washed up on the beach, so of course we took pictures.

Day two

The following day, we went to Big Lagoon State Park. One of the first things we did in every new place we went to was to check water temperature and salinity. Here, the water was an icy 15 degrees C and had a salinity of 17 ppt. The water here was somewhat less salty because we were looking at an area that acted as a nursery ground to many young marine organisms. To look at these organisms, some of us took a seining net and walked through the water. Some of the organisms we found included snapping shrimp, jellyfish (one was a moon jelly), juvenile sea trout, croaker and mullet, pipefish (related to seahorses), as well as other juvenile organisms.We also looked at the primary producers in this area. Sea grass and eel grass were the plants we saw in the water and Juncus was a terrestrial plant we saw all over.

Seine nets

Day three

The following day, we took a day trip to Mobile, Alabama to look at the mud flats there. Unfortunately, the Gulf coast only experiences one tide circuit per day (compared to 2 on other oceans).   Low tide had occurred at 5:30 in the morning, but we got there around 11 AM. We did what we could as far as looking at soil samples, but information was difficult to gather here. The temperature of the water was half a degree cooler (14.5 degrees) in Mobile Bay and salinity was 10 ppt. The salinity here was so much lower because of the fresh-water river that flowed into the area.

In Pensacola Bay, right behind the house where we stayed, we looked at fouling communities, which are the communities of barnacles, and oysters that attach to buoys, boats, pilings of piers, and any other surface that they can find to claim as home. The zonation depends on how much time the object spends in or out of the water. Oysters tend to live on things that spend all or most of their time submerged. Barnacles can be higher up and can survive for periods of time out of the water.


The beach by our house

One of the final marine aspects our class explored was to look at the water and beach of the Gulf of Mexico right outside of the house we stayed in. We took measurements of the length of the beach (from waterline to area where plant growth began) so that future classes could come down and compare our data with theirs. The water here had a much higher salinity than anywhere else we had tested at 37 ppt. The temperature was the same as most other places we tested (15 degrees). There were some interesting organisms that we came across here as well. One was the ghost crab. If you see the holes that are along the beach, that is most likely the home of one of these creatures. They range in size from very small to about the size of a fist (if you include its legs). We found a large female crab and brought her in to study, but she must have been old because she died the next day. We also tried bringing in a smaller one we found later on in the week, but there was an accident and the little guy got crushed. A third and fourth were brought back to our house and placed in a tank. On was large and the other was small. Unfortunately for the smaller crab, the big guy got hungry. Before we came home again, we let go our lone surviving crab. I’m sure she was glad to be free again.

Willpower and the Brain February 12, 2010

Posted by Colleen in Behavior, Biology, Evolution, Neuroscience.
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It feels like we’re rapidly passing through February, which means March, as well as my spring break Marine Biology trip to Pensacola is quickly approaching. I’m hoping that the weather will be warm because I’d really like to spend some time relaxing on the beach. Naturally, that means breaking out the swimsuits and trying to watch what I eat to be in top shape. Many of my friends are in the same situation and are on diets in order to lose that pesky 5 pounds. We all seem to struggle with making good choices though (why, oh why, can’t I say no to chocolate?). It all leaves me wondering where my willpower went.

The science of will power

The other day while doing some other homework, I came across a radio story on NPR called “Willpower and the ‘Slacker’ Brain”. I had learned in psychology that the brain can memorize about 7 numbers at a time, which is why we’re generally pretty good at remembering people’s phone numbers (most of the time). In this particular study, they had people memorize numbers; some had to memorize a small series of numbers, like two, and others had to memorize a larger series of  numbers, like 7. They were then sent to another room to recite their numbers, but along the way were interrupted and offered a snack: either chocolate  cake or fruit salad. Most people who memorized a large number would take the cake and those with a small number would take the fruit. Apparently, the more you have on your mind, the more likely you are to choose something that you want emotionally rather than what makes logical sense. (Listen to the story to hear the whole study.)

So maybe that’s why I don’t always make the best food choices… I’ve got too much on my mind to think logically.