Leah Gerber, conservation biologist and lover of sushi


Leah Gerber and her little lovelies!
Leah Gerber is an Associate Professor of ecology at Arizona State University.  Her research is motivated by a desire to connect academic pursuits in conservation science to decision tools and effective conservation solutions. This approach includes a solid grounding in natural history and primary data collection, quantitative methods and an appreciation for the interactions between humans and the environment. She is keenly aware of the need for the communication of scientific results to the public and to government and non-governmental agencies.  This communication is essential for the translation of scientific results into tenable conservation solutions.  
DXS: First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?

LG: I learned about ecology and environmental conservation as an undergraduate and quickly became  motivated to do science that impacted the real world of conservation.  Learning about the impacts of humans on nature was a wake-up call for me, and inspired me to channel my feeling of concern for the demise of nature in a positive way.

From there, I have walked the tightrope between science and policy.  After getting my undergraduate degree in environmental biology, I wanted to do more than just the science.  So I enrolled in a masters program at the University of Washington – an interdisciplinary program called Marine Affairs.  It was a great experience, but I wanted to have more substance to my science background – I wanted to know how to do the science in addition to how to apply the science. 

This compelled me to enter a PhD at the University of Washington, which was largely funded by NOAA.  My thesis involved trying to figure out how to make decisions about endangered species – how to determine which were endangered and which were threatened.  This was a perfect project given my interest in developing tools to solve problems.  After finishing my PhD, I did a postdoc at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and developed approaches for marine reserve design and endangered species recovery.  I was at NCEAS for three years before starting on the tenure track at Arizona State University.  I’ve been at ASU for about 10 years now.   

A major theme in my work has remained constant – that is, how to use the information we are generating in the natural and social sciences to better manage our natural world.  Pre-tenure I focused a lot more on doing the science, publishing in good journals, and hoping that it made its way into good policy.  Now that I am midcareer, meaning that I have a good amount of papers and tenure, I am enjoying the opportunity to work with practitioners outside of academia.  For instance, I just got off the phone with someone from National Geographic regarding my recent publicationon seafood health and sustainability.  In that study, we performed an analysis regarding seafood in the context of health and sustainability, to answer simple questions like, what to order when out to sushi?  How do we educate about health benefits and risks?  We will be organizing a workshop to help restaurant chains, grocery stores, as well as environmental NGOs identify a path forward in informing consumers about healthy and sustainable seafood choices.  As a tenured professor, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work at the science-policy interface and to give society some science that is truly applicable. 

DXS: It is too bad that you have to wait until you are more established and have tenure to go out and engage with the public, because this type of thing is just so important!

LG: Yes, I agree.  There isn’t a clear path in academia when it comes to public engagement.  But in recent years I have felt optimistic – the landscape within academia is starting to change, and at ASU this change is noticeable.  We have a fabulous president, Michael Crow, who has really transformed ASU from just another state institution to a leader in sustainability.  Part of this is the establishment of the Global Institute for Sustainability, and one of Michael Crow’s mantras is “community embeddedness.”  He is really on board with this type of thing and I have seen evidence of his commitment trickle down throughout the University.  For instance, when I first arrived, I had to justify and explain why I was serving on these federal recovery teams for endangered species.  Now I feel that there is no justification needed.  Developing solutions is not only so important for society, but should also be a key aspect of what we do at Universities.

DXS: We were introduced by another fantastic science communicator, Liz Neeley, who you met at a communications workshop.  Why is it important to take part in this type of training? 

LG: I met the Fantastic and Fashionable Liz through the Leopold Leadership Program, offered through the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.  The Leopold Leadership training was the best professional development experience of my career, and has made me a better translator and communicator of science to policy.  Pre-Leopold, I had little training in communications, and there I was, in a teaching position where I taught hundreds students. I thought to myself, well, how do I do this?  The Leopold experience has solidified my commitment to teaching students about communication and engaging in policy.

One development emerging from this training is a science communication symposium at the AAAS meeting.  Elena Bennett and I are giving a talk on overcoming institutional barriers for community engagement, and we will address the issues head on.  We put out a survey asking others if they faced institutional barriers, and how they might work to engage more. 

DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?

LG: I have 2 young kids, a 3yo and a 7yo.  Being a mom helps me keep it real -  I love that I get to enjoy the awe of discovering the world with my girls.  We just got a puppy this weekend and we are having fun dressing her up and painting her nails (only partly joking).  Other things that I do that are creative – truthfully, I am uninteresting – I don’t bake bread or go to the opera.  I just work and take care of my kids.  I practice yoga for my own sanity and also love to work in the garden.  Doing these things gives me a reason to pause and step off the treadmill of keeping up with everything. 


DXS: Do you find that your scientific background informs the creativity you have with your kids or your yoga practice, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?

LG: I think there is synergy with my science and my kids and my yoga practice in helping me to accept things and be mindful – but not in any conscious way.  For instance, when doing my science, the type A person that I am, I have an inclination to keep pushing, pushing, pushing.  My kids and my yoga help me to shift gears and accept that things are going to happen when they happen.  I try to let the kids be kids, including the associated chaos, and accept that this is a snapshot in time that they will be little.  Now I find joy in that chaos.  Having kids and yoga gives me a little more perspective, and the knowledge that things aren’t lined up and neatly placed in a box.  It rounds me out.

DXS: Are your kids are major influencers in your career?

LG: My first child, Gabriella, was born just after I submitted my application  for tenure – so it was good timing.  And I was able to slow down.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t able to work a 60+hour week.  Before kids, I lived to work.  Now, I work to live.  I absolutely love my job and I feel so lucky that I have a career that I believe in and that I am actually paid to do it – it’s not just a hobby.  But having kids made me chill out a little.  If I get a paper rejected, I can let it go instead of lamenting about it for weeks.  It has made me healthier.  I don’t necessarily know if it has had positive impact on my career – time will tell.  While my publication rate may be slightly smaller, I think my work now has different dimensions, and greater depth. 

I am still pretty passionate about my work, and my kids know what I do and are proud of it.  They share it with their classmates, and take every opportunity to wax poetic about how their mom saves animals in the ocean.  They also have a built in conservation effort – my 7YO gets irritated when she can’t find a compost bin, and her new thing is to only fill her cup half way because she will only drink a little bit of water.

DXS: When you decided to have children, did your colleagues view you differently?  Did they consider that you were sending your career down the tubes or was it a supportive environment?

LG: I honestly had a really positive experience.  I can’t think of any negative sentiments from my colleagues, and they were actually really supportive.  For instance, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, ASU did not have a maternity leave policy.  Before that, you would have to take sick leave.  So my colleague worked within the parameters of the unit to give me maternity leave.  And then with my second daughter, our new president had established a maternity policy. 

The support of my colleagues at ASU has made me feel loyal to my institution.  Normally, I am loyal to people and not institutions, but overall, the support has been fabulous.  Of course, with having the kids in each case, I did decline a lot of invitations – some pretty significant ones – but I did not have a desire to drag a newborn to give a talk, especially when I was nursing.  And it was hard for me to do this at times, especially given my career driven nature, and I had to learn to accept that there would be other opportunities.

I had to shift it down a notch and realize that the world wasn’t going to freeze over, and that I could shift it back to high gear later.  With “mommy brain”, I knew I wasn’t going to be at the top of my game at that point in my life.  But I have incredible role models.  Most notable is Jane Lubchenco, currently the Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  During the first part of her career, she shared a position with her husband – each did 50% – and they did that on purpose so they’d be able to enjoy having children and effectively take care of them.  Now, she is in the National Academy, is having major scientific impacts, and she did it all despite having kids.  If she can do it, why cant the rest of us?

DXS: Given your experiences as a researcher, as a mother, and now as a major science communicator, do you feel that your ability to talk to people has evolved?

LG: Absolutely.  I think that the Leopold Training Program, which selects 20 academics from North America to participate in retreats to learn how to be better communicate and lead, has re-inspired all who attended.  It has recharged our batteries and allowed us to make realizations that doing good science and putting it out there via scientific publication is just not enough.  We also have to push it out there and make it available to a broader, more diverse population.  As part of the training, we also learned about different thinking styles – super analytical or super emotional – and after I returned, I had my lab group participate in this type of exercise.  And now I feel like I can better assess a persons thinking style and adjust the way I communicate accordingly.

DXS: Did you always have the ability to talk to the general public or does having kids help you to better understand some of the nuances associated with science communication?

LG: I think so. In fact, I am thinking back to when I had a paper in Sciencecome out around the time that I had my first child.  It got a lot of news coverage and was featured in Time magazine. I thought it was so cool at the time, but looking back on it I realized that have come a long way.  I said something to a journalist, who then asked me to translate it into “plain English.”  It was a little bit of a jab. 

Now, with kids, I can tell you a lot more about my research and can better see the broader impact.  Talking to them helps me to do that. Here is a conversation about my research with my daughter:

L: Mama is working on figuring out how to help the whales that people like to eat.  It’s a big problem because some people like to eat whales and some like to see them swimming in the ocean.

G: What we have to do is let the people eat the whales in the ocean, and buy some whales from the pet store to put back in the ocean.  How much do whales cost?

L: Good idea. But you can’t buy whales at the store. They are too big. And if we take them all out of the ocean there will be none left.

G: Well instead we should ask the people to eat bad things like sharks.

L: Another good idea. But if we take sharks out there will be no predators to eat the big fish. And the whole ecosystem would collapse.=

G: Well then the people should eat other things like fish instead of whales. They should buy a fishing pole and catch a fish and eat those instead of whales.

L: What about chicken, shouldn’t people just eat chicken?

G: Mama, we can’t kill chickens. Chickens are nicer than fish, so that’s why we have to eat fish.

L: What about just eating vegetables?

G: Oh mama, some people are meat-eaters.  And there are no more dinosaurs.  They all got extinct.  They should have saved some of the dinosaur meat in the freezer for the meat-eaters.  When the dinosaurs come back, there will be enough meat to eat and people won’t want to eat whales.

The simplicity of taking myself out of my research bubble and engaging with a creative (and nonlinear?) 7YO has taught me how to be a better communicator – with the media, with my students, and with the general population.

DXS: Do you think these efforts in science communication are helping to shift other peoples perspectives about who a scientist actually is?  For instance, are we changing the old crazy haired white guy stereotype?

LG: Well, I hope so.  A couple of examples – again, as a mom, one of my daughters a Girl Scout and I get to help with the troop.  One of the themes was to teach about environmental and conservations awareness.  We did this Crayola molding experiment where we put our fingers into cold water.  We then did the same thing except we put modeling clay over our fingers before putting them into the cold water and to learn about adaptations to extreme environments.  Also, we play games where they simulate fishing – what if there is plastic?  What happens to you if you eat that?  My hope is that this shows these young girls that science is both interesting and fun. 

Another thing that just happened today is that I was contacted by Martha Stewart’s office, and it seems that some of my research results will be featured in the October issue of Martha Stewart Living.  The message here is that I happen to care about the ocean, but I also love sushi.  I also I care about health. I am not just a nerd in a lab coat. I am a mom, I do yoga, I have wonderful friends, and here is the kind of science that I do.  It seems to me that it is better to connect with others when I can give them something that is relevant to their lives instead of a more abstract ecological theory. 

DXS: If you had something you could say to the younger you about getting on your chosen career path, what would you say?

LG: I feel like I have been very effective at figuring out how to get from point A to point B, but less successful at savoring the process.  I think that I’d tell myself to make time to celebrate the small victories. I have also learned to identify what kind of research is most exciting, and I would tell myself to say “no” to everything that is only moderately interesting.  I tell my grad students that if you don’t dive in head first, you won’t ever know. So why just not give it a try!  And if it doesn’t work, move on.  Also, if something isn’t making you happy, change!  Academia isn’t for everyone, and there is a lot more to life than science. 




Motherhood Defined: It is in the heart of the beholder

“Motherhood”: Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Motherhood.  It can mean many things, and our own definition of it is largely defined by our individual experiences.  To one person, motherhood might simply mean the act of raising children; to another, motherhood might be what defines them.  

It is not uncommon to generalize the concept of “motherhood” and lump everyone who upholds a single criterion – being a mom – into one group.   But, really, motherhood affects us all in one way or another, and that way is as unique as the pattern of curves and ridges on a fingertip.

Despite the recent outbreak of (heated) discussion surrounding the Time cover story depicting a beautiful and young woman nursing a toddler, and the questioning if following a certain philosophy makes one more or less of a mother, humans, as a whole, are truly bound by a common goal: to raise the next generation to the best of our abilities under the circumstances at hand.   
But, there is no one answer.
Every mom will have her own definition of motherhood.  But, being a mom is by no means a prerequisite for understanding motherhood as it relates to an individual.  For this special Mother’s Day post, we would like to pay homage to motherhood in its many forms.  Here you will not find a singular description of motherhood.  What you will find, however, is what it means on a more personal level, which is to say that the definition can only come from the heart. 

Thank you to all of the wonderful people who participated in this project (and with short notice!) – we have answers in paragraph, tweet, and prose forms.    

Ilina Ewen, Blogger at Dirt and Noise@IlinaP

What does motherhood mean to me?

Motherhood means feeling a kaleidoscope of emotions simultaneously – fear, glee, worry, angst, pride. And it means being an advocate and a revolutionary who empowers her children to engage in society in a meaningful, fun, vibrant way. And lastly, motherhood means always giving up the biggest piece of cake and the last popsicle and being okay with that.

Momma, PhD, Scientist/Wife/Mother

Motherhood means accepting responsibility. If you read the news or listen to the hype, you know what I mean.  Every choice you make, from before a child is conceived, until long after you’re dead, there is someone out there that will tell you how it impacted your kid. As my nana always said, “It’s always the mother’s fault.”  I just hope that as the time passes I get more credit than blame for how my kids turn out.

Motherhood is how you stretch your heart in ways you never thought possible. It’s how you love through the ups & down, the challenges that life brings. And, it lasts a lifetime from that first tiny cry. 

Chris Gunter, Director of Research Affairs, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, @Girlscientist

I’m a human geneticist by training, so I’ve been told having a child is the ultimate version of participating in my research. But the science analogy that best summarizes it for me is maternal-fetal microchimerism. Data demonstrating that my son and I each likely have some of each other’s intact cells inside us forever — as I have with my mother, and she with hers, and so on — beautifully represent to me the meaning of motherhood. As the quote from Elizabeth Stone goes, having a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” To me, that includes half my DNA, some of my cells, and so many of my hopes and dreams, all in one sweet, kissable package.

Dr. Cheryl G. Murphy, Optometrist and Science Writer, @MurphyOD

Motherhood: As a mom of triplets, some would say I have triple the work but I like to think of it as triple the hugs, triple the joy, triple the fun! And when people ask me what it’s like to become a mom I tell them “it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Happy Mother’s Day to all of you amazing, do-it-all moms out there! 

Matt Shipman, Science writer, and founder of the First Step Project@Shiplives

I’m a man, so I obviously have no first-hand experience as a mother. That said, I was raised by a (wonderful) single mother, and have had the pleasure of watching my wife be an awesome mom to our three daughters. Those experiences have shaped my impressions of motherhood. To me, motherhood means being kind, but honest. Being gentle, but strong. Being nurturing, but encouraging independence. Motherhood is letting your kids think you are ten feet tall and bulletproof, so they feel you can keep them safe — even though there’s stuff out there that scares the hell out of you. It’s encouraging your kids to learn new things and to work their butts off in school, without making them feel stupid. Motherhood is leading by example when it comes to telling right from wrong, and showing your kids which battles are worth fighting. And, when the time comes, motherhood is letting go of the reins to see where the kids go on their own. Motherhood is not for wimps.

Julie Marsh, VP of Operations, Cool Mom Picks + Cool Mom Tech@coolmompicks@coolmomtech 

To me, motherhood means leading by example in the most pivotal role I’ve ever accepted.

Emily Willingham, PhD, managing editor, Double X Science, science writer and editor, biologist, autism parent, mother, @ejwillingham

The greatest realization of motherhood for me was that the children we have are people of their own, not “our” children or some kind of nutty, messy, screaming, demanding “other” invading our space, disrupting our lives, and taking our precious time. They are people I love to have around me because they make me laugh, they bring out the teacher in me (not hard to do), they are cool and interesting and imaginative and fun, and each of them (I have three) is a complete individual with a unique personality, outlook, potential, talent, and beautiful, beautiful face that I love to see every day. Just as I choose to spend time with others whom I love, respect, admire, and laugh with, I choose to do the same with my children. That said, I also still have what I had before my children arrived–a happy, full busy life with a partner to whom I seem to grow closer every day, and work that I love. Thanks to my children, I’ve got something even more–three more wonderful people added to my life whom I am deeply delighted and, frankly, honored to know. As Bill Murray’s character in Lost in Translation observes, “They learn how to walk and they learn how to talk… and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.”

Alice Callahan, Science of Mom@Scienceofmom

What does motherhood mean to me?

Motherhood is humbling. Of all the endeavors I have tackled in my life, never have I wanted so badly to get everything right and yet known that I would not. Never have I been so emotionally invested in the results, so exhausted by the labor of it, and also, so strangely confident that it will turn out OK. It is the most human thing I have ever done.

David Wescott, It’s not a Lecture@dwescott1

For men whose ideas of fatherhood were shaped in large part by its absence in our own lives, motherhood may mean something a bit different.  I’m by no means a scholar, but I’ve had the opportunity to speak often and at length with women across the globe on this topic, and to curate their thoughts a bit. These women talk about the feeling of connection to their children they know no one else has.  They describe the magic of watching their little ones narrate the moments of discovery in their lives. They talk about how their children “complete the circle” and teach them the other side of unconditional love. They help you understand why people invoke the lioness or the grizzly when describing the protective instinct.  

My perspective of motherhood is a lot like that last sentiment – it’s the unyielding power that rises up in you when you realize a little person depends on you for everything.  I know that many men step up when left in that situation – I’ve seen it first-hand – but I suspect the feeling is different for women because this little person actually came from you, is an extension of you, is connected to you in ways no man will ever fully understand. 

When I think of motherhood, I think of unconditional love. It’s what my mother gave to me, and it’s what I expect I would feel for the children I don’t intend to have. My mother made countless sacrifices for me, but she was independent and did not allow motherhood to define her. She has always encouraged me to be my own person and chase my own dreams. She didn’t want me to feel constrained by gender roles. I feel fortunate to live in a time when motherhood is a choice, not an obligation. I admire my peers who have chosen to have kids, but I’m content to enjoy the rich mother-daughter relationship I have with my mom without feeling obliged to replicate it. 

Editors note: Christie has recently written a wonderful piece on motherhood at Last Word On Nothing.  Go read it!

Carin Bondar, Blogger and Filmmaker for Scientific American, the David Suzuki Foundation and Huffington Post, @drbondar

As a working mother of 4 very young children, I don’t have much time to reflect on much – this stage of my life is pretty much dedicated to surviving.  I do know that once I decided that I really wanted to start having children (when I was almost finished my PhD) – my life seemed oddly empty.  It was as though I realized that something tremendous was missing and I became completely obsessed with wanting them.  Now that I have them (yes all 4 of them!) there are many times when I feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted, but  I will always remember the feelings of desire to have a family.  I know that my life would be empty and incomplete without my lovely babies.

Jeanne Garbarino, Biology Editor at Double X Science and Rockefeller University Postdoc, @JeanneGarb

For five years, I have been a mother.  I have learned – and am still learning – some very difficult lessons on time management and prioritization, on choosing my battles wisely, and on being ok when things aren’t exactly perfect (or even decent).  But, to be honest, these are all lessons I really needed to have in my life.  Though it might seem a bit counterintuitive, the mostly delightful chaos associated with rearing my girls has given me more focus.  For me, motherhood is more of a state of being, and it has helped me learn how to not sweat the small stuff (for the most part), to be more mindful of the present, and to think more about the future.  Oh, and motherhood also gives me that special golden ticket to buy really cool games and toys (because who isn’t interested in seeing what Doggie Doo is all about), as well as provides a dependable companion for roller coaster rides.

Motherhood had made me stand in my living room as my kids run around me and think how odd it is that I protect these three little persons. Motherhood has made me weep at the sight of children hurt or hungry; has made me rageful at a world where monsters are free; has made me face my own capacity for anger; and it has graced me with random gifts like hysterical laughter over blueberry waffles at the breakfast table. 

Rebecca Guenard, PhD, Atomic-o-licious@BGuenard

Motherhood

Listening to stories,

admiring all they know.

Hugging, kissing,

holding Cheeto-covered hands.

Tightening hockey skates,

washing baseball uniforms.

He stands on the mound alone.

From Twitter

@Scientistmother: motherhood means joyous bittersweet scary make a better person love no matter what

@Cbardmayes: mh=if my heart was as the universe, still would not be big enough to hold all the love for my son & his smiles #happymunkimama

@Labroides:motherhood is seeing my wife find reserves of strength patience and love that we didn’t know she had

@Babyattachmode:to me motherhood means realizing that I have this enormous amount of love for such a little person!

@Jtothehizzoe:The “motherhood” is that end of town where all the moms hang out, actin’ all hard, right?

The path from science to alarmism: How science gets twisted before it gets to you



Source.


Today’s post is long. It’s long because it involves the winding path that science can take from ignition to exploding into the public view… and how the twists and turns in that path can result in a skewed representation and understanding of the science. Read the whole thing. It focuses on an example that involves autism–which seems to pop up in skewed representations every day–but certainly this path from science to you, the consumer, happens with scientific information in general. The author is Jess, who blogged this originally at “Don’t Mind the Mess” and graciously gave us permission to reproduce it here. Jess, an attorney with a B.S. in biochemistry, parent of an autistic child and brand new baby, and self-described “Twitter fiend,” tweets as @JessicaEsquire
—————————————————————
I am putting my foot down.
As the parent of an autistic child I hear a lot about vaccines and about half a million other things that people think cause autism.
I’m hyperaware of the attention autism gets in the media. So I know about the CDC’s new stats on autism rates. I know about the debate on whether the increase in autism is due to more awareness and diagnosis or more actual occurrences. (Personally, I find the former to be a serious factor, though who’s to say how much.) And I see all the articles that come out week after week about the millions of things that are linked to autism.
There’s a recurring problem here. Valuable research is done. Research is disseminated. Information is reported. Articles are read. Findings are spread. What starts in a lab ends up in a Facebook status. What starts as truth ends up as mistruth in something like a child’s game of telephone. Along the way, piece by piece, truth fades away in favor of headlines and pageviews and gossip.
It’s getting just plain stupid. I’m starting to suspect these articles have nothing to do with serious research but with a search for traffic and hype, an attempt to ride the wave of a trendy topic as concerned parents read every horror story they can find.
A particularly egregious one came up recently. This one doesn’t just cite some random correlation. This one is just plain making things up. The problems here just pile one on top of the other. So let’s consider it piece by piece, a case study in how real research becomes misinformation.

Part One: Research

It starts with scientists. It starts with research. They write up their findings and publish them in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In this case there are several papers published over a few years about chemicals and their link to brain development. They cover a wide variety of issues and present a wide variety of conclusions. All of them suggest further study.
Maybe they have bad methodology or use statistics incorrectly. Only a few people would ever know the difference. That’s not my concern today. Bad science is one thing, but bad information on good science is another. So let’s assume we have good, solid science in this research.

Part Two: The Conference

Scientists and researchers with similar interests get together and discuss their findings. It’s not that difference from any other conference. There are panels and presentations.

Part Three: The Op-Ed

Next, a group that works on environmental hazards for children publishes a paper. Not a research study but an op-ed in a peer-reviewed journal. In this op-ed they review the conference from Part Two and encourage the study of environmental factors and their relationship to neurodevelopment disorders. Autism is one of many neuro-ish disorders and is mentioned by name in the piece and its title. It’s unclear to me why they zero in on autism. They have a couple vague pieces of evidence that are autism-specific, but the vast majority of what they’re looking at has never been demonstrated to have any kind of relationship to autism, not even a correlation.
Problem #1 is the unnecessary autism name-checking. Problem #2 is much worse, it’s the list of 10 chemicals they suggest for future study. The list itself isn’t a bad idea, I guess. They’re suggesting places for potential research, which certainly needs to be done. But it does reek a little bit of the kind of thing magazines do, you know what I mean, 10 Ways To Get Your Guy All Fired Up! and such. Still, it’s their prerogative.
So let’s examine their evidence for these suggestions. They cite at least one paper for each of these chemicals. I checked them all. The vast majority of them have never shown any connection to Autism (or even ADHD, another diagnosis they name-check). In fact, many of them show that with exposure to these chemicals, the outcome differentials between exposure and non-exposure is 5 IQ points.
FIVE IQ POINTS. Statistically significant? Perhaps. Practically important for a parent? No.
IQ itself is a strange and vague thing. And 5 points isn’t going to move your super-genius down to the level of an average person They’d still be a super-genius. And adding 5 points to someone with severe deficits isn’t going to make them average, either. It’s hard to imagine what difference you’d see between two people whose IQ’s are 5 points apart.
Such statistical differences may well be a sign to warrant further study. And they may be a sign that these chemicals affect neurological development. But it’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves to say they are suspected of being tied to autism. Many of these papers are in areas of research that are just beginning. Many of them involve homogeneous groups (for example, all the participants are Mexican-American migrant workers) which makes issues of genetics and heredity very difficult to account for. Many involve parents self-reporting by filling out surveys rather than having the children examined by professionals.
Let’s be fair. These are the very beginnings of research. You’ll need to do all sorts of rigorous testing and consideration to make real connections. Of course more research is needed. And it’s important that we keep that in mind as we move forward.
(Though, of course, no one else will.)

Part Four: The Press Release

The op-ed is about publicity so it’s the beginning of the problem. But it gets worse. A press release comes out with the list of ten chemicals and already the twisting starts. These are chemicals suggested for further research, but suddenly they’re a ”List of the Top Ten Toxic Chemicals Suspected to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” This, unsurprisingly, is the headline you’ll see all over the internet when news organizations report on the press release. Already it’s turned from suggestions for research into a watchlist.
It gets worse. The press release has this second headline:
The editorial was published alongside four other papers — each suggesting a link between toxic chemicals and autism.
No, actually that’s not at all accurate.
Let’s start with the first paper, which examines the possibility of a connection between maternal smoking and autism. What’s their conclusion?
The primary analyses indicated a slightly inverse association with all ASDs[.]
What does that mean? Among the autistic kids vs. regular kids, there was actually LESS maternal smoking in the autism group. The paper does point out that when it comes to “subgroups,” for instance high-functioning ASD or Asperger’s, there may be a possibly positive relationship. But there are so many caveats I can’t even get to them all. Let’s just take this one:
The ASD subgroup variables were imperfect, relying on the child’s access to evaluation services and the documentation by a myriad of community providers, rather than direct clinical observation.
This means that when they’re saying some groups of ASD kids may have this relationship, they didn’t actually classify these kids. They never saw these kids. They’re relying on data collected by other people. Not even by a consistent set of people. It comes from 11 different states and who knows how many providers. Who’s to say how accurate any of it is. And who’s to say whether these kids are correctly classified at their particular place on the spectrum.
So take all that with a whole jar full of salt and you’re still looking at, overall, no connection with smoking. If anything, the data would indicate smoking has LESS autism rather than more.
After this there are 2 papers on the same chemical. One of them does not contain the word “autism” anywhere. (One of its references has it, but nowhere does it appear in the text of their paper.) The second paper is better. It focuses on the chemical’s effects in particular processes which have been linked to autism. This is very micro-scale science, there are no people involved, just cells and chemicals. It’s important research, but there’s a long stretch between cellular interactions and a person’s diagnosis. It didn’t involve any analysis with autistic individuals. This is certainly the most useful paper of the bunch by a long shot, but it still just sets the stage for further research.
The fourth paper is a review. That means it asserts no new information but summarizes the research on a particular issue, specifically pesticides and autism. Technically I suppose it does assert a link, but none of this is new information.
So I think we’ve pretty much destroyed the headline in that press release. There were not 4 articles suggesting a connection between chemicals and autism.
Is it likely that the writers who take this press release and write articles on it are going to read the papers it cites? Are they going to realize that what they’re saying isn’t actually true? They should. Of course they should. But they don’t.
This list has chemicals suspected of being tied to neurological development. And we should just leave it at that. It’s not that they shouldn’t be studied. They should. But we shouldn’t be throwing out buzzwords like ADHD and Autism when the research doesn’t show any firm data.

Part Five: News Articles

This is a process, though. First research, then op-ed, then press release and finally news articles. So what’s the headline of our news article? “Top 10 Chemicals Most Likely to Cause Autism and Learning Disabilities.” Guilty of serious fearmongering, no? A more accurate title may be: Researchers propose list of chemicals potentially tied to neurological development for further study. But I doubt anyone’s going to write that.
The article itself, to be fair, is full of caveats. The reasons for the increase in autism are “controversial.” There is a “gap in the science.”  But then you get a sentence like this:
But clearly, there is more to the story than simply genetics, as the increases are far too rapid to be of purely genetic origin.
Clearly? Clearly says who? What source says it’s too rapid? The author certainly isn’t a reliable source. She is Robyn O’Brien, a writer for Prevention who posted this article. Her scientific credentials are nonexistent. She is a former financial analyst who now writes about the food industry. She has an MBA, and her undergraduate was in French and Spanish.
Full disclosure: I have a B.S. in Biochemistry, but I feel I’m unqualified to write this article. I’d much rather it be written by someone with a PhD. I’m married to a PhD, which has given me a lot more exposure to science since leaving school, but I fully acknowledge that I shouldn’t be the one doing this. I know how to read a scientific article and examine its conclusions, but I certainly am not someone who can tell you if their methods and analysis are correct.
But I’m talking because there aren’t enough people talking about it. Because the PhD’s aren’t generally science writers. They are scientists. They write about their research in journals, not in the newspaper. And certainly not on a blog for a healthy living magazine.
The author goes on to restate the inaccurate subheadline of the press release verbatim.
In the end she suggests things like buying organic produce, opening your windows and buying BPA-free products.
This is part 5 of our process, but it’s where many of us start. Many of us will only read this article and not the press release or the op-ed or the research papers. Most of us aren’t qualified to do so, all we have is this article. Well, we have that and what other people tell us. Which leads us to our next step.

Part Six: Readers

The article is frustrating, but I can only get so mad. She is saying what the scientists told her to say. She has even included some cautionary language. The problem is that when writing for laymen, you have to be careful.
And with AUTISM? You have to be really careful. Just for you I’m going to venture into the comments to this article to show you how people have responded.
–How about we quit injecting our kids with aluminum, formaldehyde and the rest of the toxic stew that they call vaccines — we bypass every natural defense our bodies have (skin, saliva, stomach acid) to put these things directly in the blood stream.
–Thank you Robyn for always providing sound information to continue guiding our decisions.
–What about heavy metals like Arsenic that are trapped in soils that our “organic” brown rice is growing in to be made into brown rice syrup to sweeten organic foods and baby formula? Not to mention the reports coming in regarding the radiation and contamination from Fukushimi that has reached the west coast an is spreading across this country in the produce and even the pollen…
–Unvaccinated children are some of the healthiest little people on the planet. As far as the Autism link, who really knows but why risk it.
–Thank you for this information. It confirms to me that we should keep doing what we are doing. It also helps me to enforce our no shoes policy in our home. Some people are so disrespectful and just don’t take them off and I hate to sound like a nag and ask even though they already know its what we prefer.
Thankfully there are some people in there who take the writer to task, but how is a reader to trust any one commenter over another? You have no way of knowing from a comment what someone’s experiences or qualifications are.
There’s a reason we need responsible scientific reporting. I’m all for the open dissemination of information, but I’m also aware of what happens when people read something they don’t understand.
autism FB The Whole Truth About Autism
I encountered this FB conversation the other day. Usually I overlook such things but I could not help myself. I jumped in. I tried hard to be polite and present facts. When all that was over, no one was convinced. The response?
autism FB 2 The Whole Truth About Autism
Enough articles on vaccines and people are scared even without evidence. Enough headlines and people don’t bother reading articles. It doesn’t matter how much is retracted or debunked, the damage is done.
We need responsible science reporting. We need responsible reporting, period. I’ve seen plenty of lazy articles on Supreme Court opinions that lead me to read the opinion myself only to realize that they’ve stated the conclusions all wrong.
I don’t want to go on all day, but I do feel like it’s important for us to put our foot down and demand better.
We aren’t all scientists. But we can ask for science writers with the appropriate qualifications. We can ask for links and citations in their articles. (I spent quite some time tracking everything down for this post, and luckily I’m relatively familiar with looking up scientific articles online.) We can ask for articles that show failed connections. It doesn’t all have to be “Autism linked to X” there’s plenty of “Autism not linked to Y” that happens in these studies but you never see that, do you?
As for us laymen, we have to find our own trusted experts. Ask your pediatrician. And if your pediatrician’s not qualified (most of them are MD’s but not PhD’s) ask them if they have a trusted source. Track down specialists in Autism with PhD’s and ask them what they think of the research. Find reliable books and articles and spread them to your friends. We can’t necessarily do a lot, but we can do our part to stop the spread of misinformation and demand better.


These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the DXS editorial team.
—————————————————————
We also suggest

Anorexia nervosa, neurobiology, and family-based treatment

Via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Sandra Mann
By Harriet Brown, DXS contributor

Back in 1978, psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published the first popular book on anorexia nervosa. In The Golden Cage, she described anorexia as a psychological illness caused by environmental factors: sexual abuse, over-controlling parents, fears about growing up, and/or other psychodynamic factors. Bruch believed young patients needed to be separated from their families (a concept that became known as a “parentectomy”) so therapists could help them work through the root issues underlying the illness. Then, and only then, patients would choose to resume eating. If they were still alive.

Bruch’s observations dictated eating-disorders treatments for decades, treatments that led to spectacularly ineffective results. Only about 35% of people with anorexia recovered; another 20% died, of starvation or suicide; and the rest lived with some level of chronic illness for the rest of their lives.

Not a great track record, overall, and especially devastating for women, who suffer from anorexia at a rate of 10 times that of men. Luckily, we know a lot more about anorexia and other eating disorders now than we did in 1978.

“It’s Not About the Food”

In Bruch’s day, anorexia wasn’t the only illness attributed to faulty parenting and/or trauma. Therapists saw depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and homosexuality (long considered a psychiatric “illness”) as ailments of the mind alone. Thanks to the rising field of behavioral neuroscience, we’ve begun to untangle the ways brain circuitry, neural architecture, and other biological processes contribute to these disorders. Most experts now agree that depression and anxiety can be caused by, say, neurotransmitter imbalances as much as unresolved emotional conflicts, and treat them accordingly. But the field of eating-disorders treatment has been slow to jump on the neurobiology bandwagon. When my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2005, for instance, we were told to find her a therapist and try to get our daughter to eat “without being the food police,” because, as one therapist informed us, “It’s not about the food.”

Actually, it is about the food. Especially when you’re starving.

Ancel Keys’ 1950 Semi-Starvation Study tracked the effects of starvation and subsequent re-feeding on 36 healthy young men, all conscientious objectors who volunteered for the experiment. Keys was drawn to the subject during World War II, when millions in war-torn Europe – especially those in concentration camps – starved for years. One of Keys’ most interesting findings was that starvation itself, followed by re-feeding after a period of prolonged starvation, produced both physical and psychological symptoms, including depression, preoccupation with weight and body image, anxiety, and obsessions with food, eating, and cooking—all symptoms we now associate with anorexia. Re-feeding the volunteers eventuallyreversed most of the symptoms. However, this approach proved to be difficult on a psychological level, and in some ways more difficult than the starvation period. These results were a clear illustration of just how profound the effects of months of starvation were on the body and mind.

Alas, Keys’ findings were pretty much ignored by the field of eating-disorders treatment for 40-some years, until new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and research gave new context to his work. We now know there is no single root cause for eating disorders. They’re what researchers call multi-factorial, triggered by a perfect storm of factors that probably differs for each person who develops an eating disorder. “Personality characteristics, the environment you live in, your genetic makeup—it’s like a cake recipe,” says Daniel le Grange, Ph.D., director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Chicago. “All the ingredients have to be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.

Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.

Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.

Food Is Medicine

Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.

Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.

FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.

But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.

That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.

The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.

The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.

A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.

Change comes slowly. But it comes.

* * *

Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

be there for that person to develop anorexia.”

One of those ingredients is genetics. Twenty years ago, the Price Foundation sponsored a project that collected DNA samples from thousands of people with eating disorders, their families, and control participants. That data, along with information from the 2006 Swedish Twin Study, suggests that anorexia is highly heritable. “Genes play a substantial role in liability to this illness,” says Cindy Bulik, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and director of the University of North Carolina’s Eating Disorders Program. And while no one has yet found a specific anorexia gene, researchers are focusing on an area of chromosome 1 that shows important gene linkages.
Certain personality traits associated with anorexia are probably heritable as well. “Anxiety, inhibition, obsessionality, and perfectionism seem to be present in families of people with an eating disorder,” explains Walter Kaye, M.D., who directs the Eating Disorders Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego. Another ingredient is neurobiology—literally, the way your brain is structured and how it works. Dr. Kaye’s team at UCSD uses fMRI technology to map blood flow in people’s brains as they think of or perform a task. In one study, Kaye and his colleagues looked at the brains of people with anorexia, people recovered from anorexia, and people who’d never had an eating disorder as they played a gambling game. Participants were asked to guess a number and were rewarded for correct guesses with money or “punished” for incorrect or no guesses by losing money.
Participants in the control group responded to wins and losses by “living in the moment,” wrote researchers: “That is, they made a guess and then moved on to the next task.” But people with anorexia, as well as people who’d recovered from anorexia, showed greater blood flow to the dorsal caudate, an area of the brain that helps link actions and their outcomes, as well as differences in their brains’ dopamine pathways. “People with anorexia nervosa do not live in the moment,” concluded Kaye. “They tend to have exaggerated and obsessive worry about the consequences of their behaviors, looking for rules when there are none, and they are overly concerned about making mistakes.” This study was the first to show altered pathways in the brain even in those recovered from anorexia, suggesting that inherent differences in the brain’s architecture and signaling systems help trigger the illness in the first place.
Food Is Medicine
Some of the best news to come out of research on anorexia is a new therapy aimed at kids and teens. Family-based treatment (FBT), also known as the Maudsley approach, was developed at the Maudsley Hospital in London by Ivan Eisler and Christopher Dare, family therapists who watched nurses on the inpatient eating-disorders unit get patients to eat by sitting with them, talking to them, rubbing their backs, and supporting them. Eisler and Dare wondered how that kind of effective encouragement could be used outside the hospital.
Their observations led them to develop family-based treatment, or FBT, a three-phase treatment for teens and young adults that sidesteps the debate on etiology and focuses instead on recovery. “FBT is agnostic on cause,” says Dr. Le Grange. During phase one, families (usually parents) take charge of a child’s eating, with a goal of fully restoring weight (rather than get to the “90 percent of ideal body weight” many programs use as a benchmark). In phase two, families gradually transfer responsibility for eating back to the teen. Phase three addresses other problems or issues related to normal adolescent development, if there are any.
FBT is a pragmatic approach that recognizes that while people with anorexia are in the throes of acute malnourishment, they can’t choose to eat. And that represents one of the biggest shifts in thinking about eating disorders. The DSM-IV, the most recent “bible” of psychiatric treatment, lists as the first symptom of anorexia “a refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.” That notion of refusal is key to how anorexia has been seen, and treated, in the past: as a refusal to eat or gain weight. An acting out. A choice. Which makes sense within the psychodynamic model of cause.
But it doesn’t jibe with the research, which suggests that anorexia is more of an inability to eat than a refusal. Forty-five years ago, Aryeh Routtenberg, then (and still) a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, discovered that when he gave rats only brief daily access to food but let them run as much as they wanted on wheels, they would gradually eat less and less, and run more and more. In fact, they would run without eating until they died, a paradigm Routtenberg called activity-based anorexia (ABA). Rats with ABA seemed to be in the grip of a profound physiological imbalance, one that overrode the normal biological imperatives of hunger and self-preservation. ABA in rats suggests that however it starts, once the cycle of restricting and/or compulsive exercising passes a certain threshold, it takes on a life of its own. Self-starvation is no longer (if it ever was) a choice, but a compulsion to the death.
That’s part of the thinking in FBT. Food is the best medicine for people with anorexia, but they can’t choose to eat. They need someone else to make that choice for them. Therapists don’t sit at the table with patients, but parents do. And parents love and know their children. Like the nurses at the Maudsley Hospital, they find ways to get kids to eat. In a sense, what parents do is outshout the anorexia “voice” many sufferers report hearing, a voice in their heads that tells them not to eat and berates them when they do. Parents take the responsibility for making the choice to eat away from the sufferer, who may insist she’s choosing not to eat but who, underneath the illness, is terrified and hungry.
The best aspect of FBT is that it works. Not for everyone, but for the majority of kids and teens. Several randomized controlled studies of FBT and “treatment as usual” (talk therapy without pressure to eat) show recovery rates of 80 to 90 percent with FBT—a huge improvement over previous recovery rates. A study at the University of Chicago is looking at adapting the treatment for young adults; early results are promising.
The most challenging aspect of FBT is that it’s hard to find. Relatively few therapists in the U.S. are trained in the approach. When our daughter got sick, my husband and I couldn’t find a local FBT therapist. So we cobbled together a team that included our pediatrician, a therapist, and lots of friends who supported our family through the grueling work of re-feeding our daughter. Today she’s a healthy college student with friends, a boyfriend, career goals, and a good relationship with us.
A few years ago, Dr. Le Grange and his research partner, Dr. James Lock of Stanford, created a training institute that certifies a handful of FBT therapists each year. (For a list of FBT providers, visit the Maudsley Parents website.) It’s a start. But therapists are notoriously slow to adopt new treatments, and FBT is no exception. Some therapists find FBT controversial because it upends the conventional view of eating disorders and treatments. Some cling to the psychodynamic view of eating disorders despite the lack of evidence. Still, many in the field have at least heard of FBT and Kaye’s neurobiological findings, even if they don’t believe in them yet.
Change comes slowly. But it comes.
* * *
Harriet Brown teaches magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York. Her latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia (William Morrow, 2010).

Biology Explainer: The big 4 building blocks of life–carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids

The short version
  • The four basic categories of molecules for building life are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.
  • Carbohydrates serve many purposes, from energy to structure to chemical communication, as monomers or polymers.
  • Lipids, which are hydrophobic, also have different purposes, including energy storage, structure, and signaling.
  • Proteins, made of amino acids in up to four structural levels, are involved in just about every process of life.                                                                                                      
  • The nucleic acids DNA and RNA consist of four nucleotide building blocks, and each has different purposes.
The longer version
Life is so diverse and unwieldy, it may surprise you to learn that we can break it down into four basic categories of molecules. Possibly even more implausible is the fact that two of these categories of large molecules themselves break down into a surprisingly small number of building blocks. The proteins that make up all of the living things on this planet and ensure their appropriate structure and smooth function consist of only 20 different kinds of building blocks. Nucleic acids, specifically DNA, are even more basic: only four different kinds of molecules provide the materials to build the countless different genetic codes that translate into all the different walking, swimming, crawling, oozing, and/or photosynthesizing organisms that populate the third rock from the Sun.

                                                  

Big Molecules with Small Building Blocks

The functional groups, assembled into building blocks on backbones of carbon atoms, can be bonded together to yield large molecules that we classify into four basic categories. These molecules, in many different permutations, are the basis for the diversity that we see among living things. They can consist of thousands of atoms, but only a handful of different kinds of atoms form them. It’s like building apartment buildings using a small selection of different materials: bricks, mortar, iron, glass, and wood. Arranged in different ways, these few materials can yield a huge variety of structures.

We encountered functional groups and the SPHONC in Chapter 3. These components form the four categories of molecules of life. These Big Four biological molecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. They can have many roles, from giving an organism structure to being involved in one of the millions of processes of living. Let’s meet each category individually and discover the basic roles of each in the structure and function of life.
Carbohydrates

You have met carbohydrates before, whether you know it or not. We refer to them casually as “sugars,” molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. A sugar molecule has a carbon backbone, usually five or six carbons in the ones we’ll discuss here, but it can be as few as three. Sugar molecules can link together in pairs or in chains or branching “trees,” either for structure or energy storage.

When you look on a nutrition label, you’ll see reference to “sugars.” That term includes carbohydrates that provide energy, which we get from breaking the chemical bonds in a sugar called glucose. The “sugars” on a nutrition label also include those that give structure to a plant, which we call fiber. Both are important nutrients for people.

Sugars serve many purposes. They give crunch to the cell walls of a plant or the exoskeleton of a beetle and chemical energy to the marathon runner. When attached to other molecules, like proteins or fats, they aid in communication between cells. But before we get any further into their uses, let’s talk structure.

The sugars we encounter most in basic biology have their five or six carbons linked together in a ring. There’s no need to dive deep into organic chemistry, but there are a couple of essential things to know to interpret the standard representations of these molecules.

Check out the sugars depicted in the figure. The top-left molecule, glucose, has six carbons, which have been numbered. The sugar to its right is the same glucose, with all but one “C” removed. The other five carbons are still there but are inferred using the conventions of organic chemistry: Anywhere there is a corner, there’s a carbon unless otherwise indicated. It might be a good exercise for you to add in a “C” over each corner so that you gain a good understanding of this convention. You should end up adding in five carbon symbols; the sixth is already given because that is conventionally included when it occurs outside of the ring.

On the left is a glucose with all of its carbons indicated. They’re also numbered, which is important to understand now for information that comes later. On the right is the same molecule, glucose, without the carbons indicated (except for the sixth one). Wherever there is a corner, there is a carbon, unless otherwise indicated (as with the oxygen). On the bottom left is ribose, the sugar found in RNA. The sugar on the bottom right is deoxyribose. Note that at carbon 2 (*), the ribose and deoxyribose differ by a single oxygen.

The lower left sugar in the figure is a ribose. In this depiction, the carbons, except the one outside of the ring, have not been drawn in, and they are not numbered. This is the standard way sugars are presented in texts. Can you tell how many carbons there are in this sugar? Count the corners and don’t forget the one that’s already indicated!

If you said “five,” you are right. Ribose is a pentose (pent = five) and happens to be the sugar present in ribonucleic acid, or RNA. Think to yourself what the sugar might be in deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. If you thought, deoxyribose, you’d be right.

The fourth sugar given in the figure is a deoxyribose. In organic chemistry, it’s not enough to know that corners indicate carbons. Each carbon also has a specific number, which becomes important in discussions of nucleic acids. Luckily, we get to keep our carbon counting pretty simple in basic biology. To count carbons, you start with the carbon to the right of the non-carbon corner of the molecule. The deoxyribose or ribose always looks to me like a little cupcake with a cherry on top. The “cherry” is an oxygen. To the right of that oxygen, we start counting carbons, so that corner to the right of the “cherry” is the first carbon. Now, keep counting. Here’s a little test: What is hanging down from carbon 2 of the deoxyribose?

If you said a hydrogen (H), you are right! Now, compare the deoxyribose to the ribose. Do you see the difference in what hangs off of the carbon 2 of each sugar? You’ll see that the carbon 2 of ribose has an –OH, rather than an H. The reason the deoxyribose is called that is because the O on the second carbon of the ribose has been removed, leaving a “deoxyed” ribose. This tiny distinction between the sugars used in DNA and RNA is significant enough in biology that we use it to distinguish the two nucleic acids.

In fact, these subtle differences in sugars mean big differences for many biological molecules. Below, you’ll find a couple of ways that apparently small changes in a sugar molecule can mean big changes in what it does. These little changes make the difference between a delicious sugar cookie and the crunchy exoskeleton of a dung beetle.

Sugar and Fuel

A marathon runner keeps fuel on hand in the form of “carbs,” or sugars. These fuels provide the marathoner’s straining body with the energy it needs to keep the muscles pumping. When we take in sugar like this, it often comes in the form of glucose molecules attached together in a polymer called starch. We are especially equipped to start breaking off individual glucose molecules the minute we start chewing on a starch.

Double X Extra: A monomer is a building block (mono = one) and a polymer is a chain of monomers. With a few dozen monomers or building blocks, we get millions of different polymers. That may sound nutty until you think of the infinity of values that can be built using only the numbers 0 through 9 as building blocks or the intricate programming that is done using only a binary code of zeros and ones in different combinations.

Our bodies then can rapidly take the single molecules, or monomers, into cells and crack open the chemical bonds to transform the energy for use. The bonds of a sugar are packed with chemical energy that we capture to build a different kind of energy-containing molecule that our muscles access easily. Most species rely on this process of capturing energy from sugars and transforming it for specific purposes.

Polysaccharides: Fuel and Form

Plants use the Sun’s energy to make their own glucose, and starch is actually a plant’s way of storing up that sugar. Potatoes, for example, are quite good at packing away tons of glucose molecules and are known to dieticians as a “starchy” vegetable. The glucose molecules in starch are packed fairly closely together. A string of sugar molecules bonded together through dehydration synthesis, as they are in starch, is a polymer called a polysaccharide (poly = many; saccharide = sugar). When the monomers of the polysaccharide are released, as when our bodies break them up, the reaction that releases them is called hydrolysis.

Double X Extra: The specific reaction that hooks one monomer to another in a covalent bond is called dehydration synthesis because in making the bond–synthesizing the larger molecule–a molecule of water is removed (dehydration). The reverse is hydrolysis (hydro = water; lysis = breaking), which breaks the covalent bond by the addition of a molecule of water.

Although plants make their own glucose and animals acquire it by eating the plants, animals can also package away the glucose they eat for later use. Animals, including humans, store glucose in a polysaccharide called glycogen, which is more branched than starch. In us, we build this energy reserve primarily in the liver and access it when our glucose levels drop.

Whether starch or glycogen, the glucose molecules that are stored are bonded together so that all of the molecules are oriented the same way. If you view the sixth carbon of the glucose to be a “carbon flag,” you’ll see in the figure that all of the glucose molecules in starch are oriented with their carbon flags on the upper left.

The orientation of monomers of glucose in polysaccharides can make a big difference in the use of the polymer. The glucoses in the molecule on the top are all oriented “up” and form starch. The glucoses in the molecule on the bottom alternate orientation to form cellulose, which is quite different in its function from starch.

Storing up sugars for fuel and using them as fuel isn’t the end of the uses of sugar. In fact, sugars serve as structural molecules in a huge variety of organisms, including fungi, bacteria, plants, and insects.

The primary structural role of a sugar is as a component of the cell wall, giving the organism support against gravity. In plants, the familiar old glucose molecule serves as one building block of the plant cell wall, but with a catch: The molecules are oriented in an alternating up-down fashion. The resulting structural sugar is called cellulose.

That simple difference in orientation means the difference between a polysaccharide as fuel for us and a polysaccharide as structure. Insects take it step further with the polysaccharide that makes up their exoskeleton, or outer shell. Once again, the building block is glucose, arranged as it is in cellulose, in an alternating conformation. But in insects, each glucose has a little extra added on, a chemical group called an N-acetyl group. This addition of a single functional group alters the use of cellulose and turns it into a structural molecule that gives bugs that special crunchy sound when you accidentally…ahem…step on them.

These variations on the simple theme of a basic carbon-ring-as-building-block occur again and again in biological systems. In addition to serving roles in structure and as fuel, sugars also play a role in function. The attachment of subtly different sugar molecules to a protein or a lipid is one way cells communicate chemically with one another in refined, regulated interactions. It’s as though the cells talk with each other using a specialized, sugar-based vocabulary. Typically, cells display these sugary messages to the outside world, making them available to other cells that can recognize the molecular language.

Lipids: The Fatty Trifecta

Starch makes for good, accessible fuel, something that we immediately attack chemically and break up for quick energy. But fats are energy that we are supposed to bank away for a good long time and break out in times of deprivation. Like sugars, fats serve several purposes, including as a dense source of energy and as a universal structural component of cell membranes everywhere.

Fats: the Good, the Bad, the Neutral

Turn again to a nutrition label, and you’ll see a few references to fats, also known as lipids. (Fats are slightly less confusing that sugars in that they have only two names.) The label may break down fats into categories, including trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and cholesterol. You may have learned that trans fats are “bad” and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, but what does it all mean?

Let’s start with what we mean when we say saturated fat. The question is, saturated with what? There is a specific kind of dietary fat call the triglyceride. As its name implies, it has a structural motif in which something is repeated three times. That something is a chain of carbons and hydrogens, hanging off in triplicate from a head made of glycerol, as the figure shows.  Those three carbon-hydrogen chains, or fatty acids, are the “tri” in a triglyceride. Chains like this can be many carbons long.

Double X Extra: We call a fatty acid a fatty acid because it’s got a carboxylic acid attached to a fatty tail. A triglyceride consists of three of these fatty acids attached to a molecule called glycerol. Our dietary fat primarily consists of these triglycerides.

Triglycerides come in several forms. You may recall that carbon can form several different kinds of bonds, including single bonds, as with hydrogen, and double bonds, as with itself. A chain of carbon and hydrogens can have every single available carbon bond taken by a hydrogen in single covalent bond. This scenario of hydrogen saturation yields a saturated fat. The fat is saturated to its fullest with every covalent bond taken by hydrogens single bonded to the carbons.

Saturated fats have predictable characteristics. They lie flat easily and stick to each other, meaning that at room temperature, they form a dense solid. You will realize this if you find a little bit of fat on you to pinch. Does it feel pretty solid? That’s because animal fat is saturated fat. The fat on a steak is also solid at room temperature, and in fact, it takes a pretty high heat to loosen it up enough to become liquid. Animals are not the only organisms that produce saturated fat–avocados and coconuts also are known for their saturated fat content.

The top graphic above depicts a triglyceride with the glycerol, acid, and three hydrocarbon tails. The tails of this saturated fat, with every possible hydrogen space occupied, lie comparatively flat on one another, and this kind of fat is solid at room temperature. The fat on the bottom, however, is unsaturated, with bends or kinks wherever two carbons have double bonded, booting a couple of hydrogens and making this fat unsaturated, or lacking some hydrogens. Because of the space between the bumps, this fat is probably not solid at room temperature, but liquid.

You can probably now guess what an unsaturated fat is–one that has one or more hydrogens missing. Instead of single bonding with hydrogens at every available space, two or more carbons in an unsaturated fat chain will form a double bond with carbon, leaving no space for a hydrogen. Because some carbons in the chain share two pairs of electrons, they physically draw closer to one another than they do in a single bond. This tighter bonding result in a “kink” in the fatty acid chain.

In a fat with these kinks, the three fatty acids don’t lie as densely packed with each other as they do in a saturated fat. The kinks leave spaces between them. Thus, unsaturated fats are less dense than saturated fats and often will be liquid at room temperature. A good example of a liquid unsaturated fat at room temperature is canola oil.

A few decades ago, food scientists discovered that unsaturated fats could be resaturated or hydrogenated to behave more like saturated fats and have a longer shelf life. The process of hydrogenation–adding in hydrogens–yields trans fat. This kind of processed fat is now frowned upon and is being removed from many foods because of its associations with adverse health effects. If you check a food label and it lists among the ingredients “partially hydrogenated” oils, that can mean that the food contains trans fat.

Double X Extra: A triglyceride can have up to three different fatty acids attached to it. Canola oil, for example, consists primarily of oleic acid, linoleic acid, and linolenic acid, all of which are unsaturated fatty acids with 18 carbons in their chains.

Why do we take in fat anyway? Fat is a necessary nutrient for everything from our nervous systems to our circulatory health. It also, under appropriate conditions, is an excellent way to store up densely packaged energy for the times when stores are running low. We really can’t live very well without it.

Phospholipids: An Abundant Fat

You may have heard that oil and water don’t mix, and indeed, it is something you can observe for yourself. Drop a pat of butter–pure saturated fat–into a bowl of water and watch it just sit there. Even if you try mixing it with a spoon, it will just sit there. Now, drop a spoon of salt into the water and stir it a bit. The salt seems to vanish. You’ve just illustrated the difference between a water-fearing (hydrophobic) and a water-loving (hydrophilic) substance.

Generally speaking, compounds that have an unequal sharing of electrons (like ions or anything with a covalent bond between oxygen and hydrogen or nitrogen and hydrogen) will be hydrophilic. The reason is that a charge or an unequal electron sharing gives the molecule polarity that allows it to interact with water through hydrogen bonds. A fat, however, consists largely of hydrogen and carbon in those long chains. Carbon and hydrogen have roughly equivalent electronegativities, and their electron-sharing relationship is relatively nonpolar. Fat, lacking in polarity, doesn’t interact with water. As the butter demonstrated, it just sits there.

There is one exception to that little maxim about fat and water, and that exception is the phospholipid. This lipid has a special structure that makes it just right for the job it does: forming the membranes of cells. A phospholipid consists of a polar phosphate head–P and O don’t share equally–and a couple of nonpolar hydrocarbon tails, as the figure shows. If you look at the figure, you’ll see that one of the two tails has a little kick in it, thanks to a double bond between the two carbons there.

Phospholipids form a double layer and are the major structural components of cell membranes. Their bend, or kick, in one of the hydrocarbon tails helps ensure fluidity of the cell membrane. The molecules are bipolar, with hydrophilic heads for interacting with the internal and external watery environments of the cell and hydrophobic tails that help cell membranes behave as general security guards.

The kick and the bipolar (hydrophobic and hydrophilic) nature of the phospholipid make it the perfect molecule for building a cell membrane. A cell needs a watery outside to survive. It also needs a watery inside to survive. Thus, it must face the inside and outside worlds with something that interacts well with water. But it also must protect itself against unwanted intruders, providing a barrier that keeps unwanted things out and keeps necessary molecules in.

Phospholipids achieve it all. They assemble into a double layer around a cell but orient to allow interaction with the watery external and internal environments. On the layer facing the inside of the cell, the phospholipids orient their polar, hydrophilic heads to the watery inner environment and their tails away from it. On the layer to the outside of the cell, they do the same.
As the figure shows, the result is a double layer of phospholipids with each layer facing a polar, hydrophilic head to the watery environments. The tails of each layer face one another. They form a hydrophobic, fatty moat around a cell that serves as a general gatekeeper, much in the way that your skin does for you. Charged particles cannot simply slip across this fatty moat because they can’t interact with it. And to keep the fat fluid, one tail of each phospholipid has that little kick, giving the cell membrane a fluid, liquidy flow and keeping it from being solid and unforgiving at temperatures in which cells thrive.

Steroids: Here to Pump You Up?

Our final molecule in the lipid fatty trifecta is cholesterol. As you may have heard, there are a few different kinds of cholesterol, some of which we consider to be “good” and some of which is “bad.” The good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, in part helps us out because it removes the bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein or LDL, from our blood. The presence of LDL is associated with inflammation of the lining of the blood vessels, which can lead to a variety of health problems.

But cholesterol has some other reasons for existing. One of its roles is in the maintenance of cell membrane fluidity. Cholesterol is inserted throughout the lipid bilayer and serves as a block to the fatty tails that might otherwise stick together and become a bit too solid.

Cholesterol’s other starring role as a lipid is as the starting molecule for a class of hormones we called steroids or steroid hormones. With a few snips here and additions there, cholesterol can be changed into the steroid hormones progesterone, testosterone, or estrogen. These molecules look quite similar, but they play very different roles in organisms. Testosterone, for example, generally masculinizes vertebrates (animals with backbones), while progesterone and estrogen play a role in regulating the ovulatory cycle.

Double X Extra: A hormone is a blood-borne signaling molecule. It can be lipid based, like testosterone, or short protein, like insulin.

Proteins

As you progress through learning biology, one thing will become more and more clear: Most cells function primarily as protein factories. It may surprise you to learn that proteins, which we often talk about in terms of food intake, are the fundamental molecule of many of life’s processes. Enzymes, for example, form a single broad category of proteins, but there are millions of them, each one governing a small step in the molecular pathways that are required for living.

Levels of Structure

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. A few amino acids strung together is called a peptide, while many many peptides linked together form a polypeptide. When many amino acids strung together interact with each other to form a properly folded molecule, we call that molecule a protein.

For a string of amino acids to ultimately fold up into an active protein, they must first be assembled in the correct order. The code for their assembly lies in the DNA, but once that code has been read and the amino acid chain built, we call that simple, unfolded chain the primary structure of the protein.

This chain can consist of hundreds of amino acids that interact all along the sequence. Some amino acids are hydrophobic and some are hydrophilic. In this context, like interacts best with like, so the hydrophobic amino acids will interact with one another, and the hydrophilic amino acids will interact together. As these contacts occur along the string of molecules, different conformations will arise in different parts of the chain. We call these different conformations along the amino acid chain the protein’s secondary structure.

Once those interactions have occurred, the protein can fold into its final, or tertiary structure and be ready to serve as an active participant in cellular processes. To achieve the tertiary structure, the amino acid chain’s secondary interactions must usually be ongoing, and the pH, temperature, and salt balance must be just right to facilitate the folding. This tertiary folding takes place through interactions of the secondary structures along the different parts of the amino acid chain.

The final product is a properly folded protein. If we could see it with the naked eye, it might look a lot like a wadded up string of pearls, but that “wadded up” look is misleading. Protein folding is a carefully regulated process that is determined at its core by the amino acids in the chain: their hydrophobicity and hydrophilicity and how they interact together.

In many instances, however, a complete protein consists of more than one amino acid chain, and the complete protein has two or more interacting strings of amino acids. A good example is hemoglobin in red blood cells. Its job is to grab oxygen and deliver it to the body’s tissues. A complete hemoglobin protein consists of four separate amino acid chains all properly folded into their tertiary structures and interacting as a single unit. In cases like this involving two or more interacting amino acid chains, we say that the final protein has a quaternary structure. Some proteins can consist of as many as a dozen interacting chains, behaving as a single protein unit.

A Plethora of Purposes

What does a protein do? Let us count the ways. Really, that’s almost impossible because proteins do just about everything. Some of them tag things. Some of them destroy things. Some of them protect. Some mark cells as “self.” Some serve as structural materials, while others are highways or motors. They aid in communication, they operate as signaling molecules, they transfer molecules and cut them up, they interact with each other in complex, interrelated pathways to build things up and break things down. They regulate genes and package DNA, and they regulate and package each other.

As described above, proteins are the final folded arrangement of a string of amino acids. One way we obtain these building blocks for the millions of proteins our bodies make is through our diet. You may hear about foods that are high in protein or people eating high-protein diets to build muscle. When we take in those proteins, we can break them apart and use the amino acids that make them up to build proteins of our own.

Nucleic Acids

How does a cell know which proteins to make? It has a code for building them, one that is especially guarded in a cellular vault in our cells called the nucleus. This code is deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The cell makes a copy of this code and send it out to specialized structures that read it and build proteins based on what they read. As with any code, a typo–a mutation–can result in a message that doesn’t make as much sense. When the code gets changed, sometimes, the protein that the cell builds using that code will be changed, too.

Biohazard!The names associated with nucleic acids can be confusing because they all start with nucle-. It may seem obvious or easy now, but a brain freeze on a test could mix you up. You need to fix in your mind that the shorter term (10 letters, four syllables), nucleotide, refers to the smaller molecule, the three-part building block. The longer term (12 characters, including the space, and five syllables), nucleic acid, which is inherent in the names DNA and RNA, designates the big, long molecule.

DNA vs. RNA: A Matter of Structure

DNA and its nucleic acid cousin, ribonucleic acid, or RNA, are both made of the same kinds of building blocks. These building blocks are called nucleotides. Each nucleotide consists of three parts: a sugar (ribose for RNA and deoxyribose for DNA), a phosphate, and a nitrogenous base. In DNA, every nucleotide has identical sugars and phosphates, and in RNA, the sugar and phosphate are also the same for every nucleotide.

So what’s different? The nitrogenous bases. DNA has a set of four to use as its coding alphabet. These are the purines, adenine and guanine, and the pyrimidines, thymine and cytosine. The nucleotides are abbreviated by their initial letters as A, G, T, and C. From variations in the arrangement and number of these four molecules, all of the diversity of life arises. Just four different types of the nucleotide building blocks, and we have you, bacteria, wombats, and blue whales.

RNA is also basic at its core, consisting of only four different nucleotides. In fact, it uses three of the same nitrogenous bases as DNA–A, G, and C–but it substitutes a base called uracil (U) where DNA uses thymine. Uracil is a pyrimidine.

DNA vs. RNA: Function Wars

An interesting thing about the nitrogenous bases of the nucleotides is that they pair with each other, using hydrogen bonds, in a predictable way. An adenine will almost always bond with a thymine in DNA or a uracil in RNA, and cytosine and guanine will almost always bond with each other. This pairing capacity allows the cell to use a sequence of DNA and build either a new DNA sequence, using the old one as a template, or build an RNA sequence to make a copy of the DNA.

These two different uses of A-T/U and C-G base pairing serve two different purposes. DNA is copied into DNA usually when a cell is preparing to divide and needs two complete sets of DNA for the new cells. DNA is copied into RNA when the cell needs to send the code out of the vault so proteins can be built. The DNA stays safely where it belongs.

RNA is really a nucleic acid jack-of-all-trades. It not only serves as the copy of the DNA but also is the main component of the two types of cellular workers that read that copy and build proteins from it. At one point in this process, the three types of RNA come together in protein assembly to make sure the job is done right.


 By Emily Willingham, DXS managing editor 
This material originally appeared in similar form in Emily Willingham’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology

Mariette DiChristina

Mariette DiChristina is editor in chief of Scientific American.

[Ed. note: This interview is the second installment in our new series, Double Xpression: Profiles of Women into Science. The focus of these profiles is how women in science express themselves in ways that aren’t necessarily scientific, how their ways of expression inform their scientific activities and vice-versa, and the reactions they encounter.]

Today’s profile is an interview with Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief, Scientific American, who answered our questions via email with DXS Biology Editor Jeanne Garbarino. Read on to find out what a Marx Brothers movie has to do with communicating science.

                         

DXS: First, can you give me a quick overview of what your scientific background is and your current connection to science?

MD: Like most kids, I was born a scientist. What I mean is, I wanted to know how everything worked, and I wanted to learn about it firsthand. At a tag sale, for instance, I remember buying a second-hand biology book called The Body along with my second-hand Barbie for 50 cents. “Are you sure your mom is going to be OK with you buying that?” asked the concerned neighbor, eyeing the biology book.

I memorized the names and orbital periods of the planets and of dinosaurs like some kids spout baseball stats (which I could also do as a kid, by the way). We didn’t have a lot of money, so I caught my own pet fish from a nearby pond by using my little finger as a pretend worm. I scooped up my fish with an old plastic container and put it on my nightstand. If it died, I buried it and dug it up later so I could look at the bones. My proudest birthday gifts were when I got a chemistry set and a microscope with 750x. A girlfriend and I got the idea to pick up a gerbil that had a bad habit of biting fingers, just so we could get blood to squeeze on a glass slide. (She was braver than I was about being the one to get bitten.)

In middle school, I was a proud member of the Alchemists—an after-school science club—so I could do extra labs and clean the beakers and put away Bunsen burners for fun. I knew I would be a scientist when I grew up.

But somewhere during my high school courses, I came to believe that being a scientist meant I’d have to pick one narrow discipline and stick to it. I felt that I liked everything too much to do that, however. As an undergraduate, I eventually figured out that what I really wanted was to be a student of many different things for life, and then share those things I learned with others. That led me to a journalism degree. It also means that, as far as knowledge about science goes, I fit the cliché of being “an inch deep and a mile wide.”

DXS: What ways do you express yourself creatively that may not have a single thing to do with science?

MD: This one is a tough one for me to answer because I am always trying to convince people that pretty much everything they care about in the headlines actually has to do with science! In my case, I’ve also always been interested in drawing and in visuals in general. I was a pretty serious art student in high school as well, although I later decided that I didn’t have enough passion for it to make that my career choice. My interest in art partly led me to work at magazines like Scientific American and Popular Science, where the ability to storyboard an informational graphic and otherwise think visually is very helpful.

When I’m home, I really enjoy making things with my two daughters, such as helping them with crafts or scrapbooks, although I definitely spend a lot more time on planning dinners and cooking for (and with) the family than anything else. I like the puzzle solving of setting up the meals for the week during the weekend, so it’s easier for my husband to get things ready weeknights. We’re big on eating dinner together as a family every night. I like gardening and mapping out planting beds. I’m better at planting than at keeping up with tending, however, because of my intense work schedule and travel. In short, if I have free time at all, I’m enjoying it with my family. And if we’re doing some creative expression while we’re at it, great!

DXS: Do you find that your connection to science informs your creativity, even though what you do may not specifically be scientific?

MD: My connection to science informs most things that I do in one way or another. When I’m making dinner, I sometimes find myself talking about the chemistry of cooking with the girls. Especially when our daughters were smaller, if one of them had a question, I’d try to come up with ways to make finding the answer together into a kind of science adventure or project.

I suppose that since I spend most of my waking hours thinking about how best to present science to the public, it’s just a mental routine, or a lens through which I tend to view the world.

DXS: Have you encountered situations in which your expression of yourself outside the bounds of science has led to people viewing you differently–either more positively or more negatively?

MD: It’s more the other way around. I get amusing reactions from people once they find out what I do. How could I seem so normal and yet work in a field that relates to…shudder…science? An attorney friend has sometimes kidded me, saying there’s no way he can understand what’s in Scientific American, so I must be incredibly smart. I don’t feel that way at all! Anybody who has a high school degree and an interest in the topic can understand a feature article in Scientific American. Science is for everyone. And science isn’t only for people who work in labs. It’s just a rational way of looking at life. I also believe science is the engine of human prosperity. And if I sound a little evangelistic about that, well, I am.
DXS: Have you found that your non-science expression of creativity/activity/etc. has in any way informed your understanding of science or how you may talk about it or present it to others?

MD: I think it’s helpful to look to non-science areas for ideas about ways to help make science appealing, especially for people who might be intimidated by the subject. My main job is to try to make a connection for people to the science we cover in Scientific American. I once had a boss at Popular Sciencewho made all us editors take an intensive, three-day screenwriting course that culminated in the showing and exposition, scene by scene, of the structure and writing techniques of Casablanca. When I came back, he gave me a big grin and said, “So, what did you think?” I got his point about bringing narrative techniques into feature articles. Like most people, I enjoy movies and plays; now I also look at them for storytelling tips. And there are lots of creative ways to tell science stories beyond words: pictures, slide shows, videos, songs. Digital media are so flexible.

DXS: How comfortable are you expressing your femininity and in what ways? How does this expression influence people’s perception of you in, say, a scientifically oriented context?

MD: I was the oldest of three daughters raised by a single dad (my mom died when I was 12) and I was always a tomboy, playing softball through college and so on. So I can’t say I’ve ever been terribly feminine, at least in the stereotypical ways. At the same time, I’m obviously a wife and a mother who, like most parents, tries not to talk about my kids so often that it’s irritating to friends and coworkers. I once was scolded in a letter from an irritated reader after I had mentioned my kids in a “From the Editor” column about education. He wrote that if I was so interested in science education and kids, I should go back home and “bake cookies.” I laughed pretty hard at that.

DXS: Do you think that the combination of your non-science creativity and scientific-related activity shifts people’s perspectives or ideas about what a scientist or science communicator is? If you’re aware of such an influence, in what way, if any, do you use it to (for example) reach a different corner of your audience or present science in a different sort of way?

MD: I’m sure that’s true. I think personality and approach also might shift perspectives. A girlfriend of mine once called me “the friendly face of science.” I guess I smile a lot, and I like to meet people and try to get to know them. That ability—being able to make a personal connection to different people—is important for every good editor. My job, essentially, is to understand your interests well enough to make sure Scientific American is something that you’ll enjoy each day, week, month.

Increasingly, also, the audiences are different in different media, so we need to understand how to flex the approach a bit to appeal to those different audiences. In print, for instance, according to the most recent data we have from MRI, the median age of Scientific American readers is 47, with 70 percent men and 30 percent women. The picture is quite different online, where, according to Nielsen, our median age is 40 and the male/female ratio is closer to half and half, with 56.5 percent men to 43.5 percent women. You need to bring a lot of creative thinking to the task of how to make one brand serve rather different sets of people.

Fortunately, I have terrific, creative staff! And another part of the way you do that, I think, is to invite your readers in to collaborate; we’ve done a bit of that in the past year on http://www.scientificamerican.com/, and I’m looking forward to experimenting further in the coming months. Ultimately, I’d like to turn Scientific American from a magazine with an amazing 166-year tradition of being a conduit of authoritative information about science and technology into a platform where curious minds can gather and share.

DXS: If you had something you could say to the younger you about the role of expression and creativity in your chosen career path, what would you say? 

MD: I was pretty determined to do something—whatever it was—that would let me satisfy my curiosity and passion about science. I would tell younger me, who, by the way, never intended to go into magazine management: It’s just as fun, rewarding and creative to be a science writer as you suspect it might be. I’d also tell the younger me something that didn’t occur to me early enough to pull it off—that a double major in journalism and science might be a good idea. And, I would add, it’s also a good idea to take some business classes, so you’ll be better armed for dealing with the working world.


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