Friday, January 18, 2013

Watch this space

Next week, we have big things coming up. First, our new site rollout, complete with a great new look, great new motto, and a great kickoff post from the fabulous Scicurious. After that opening salvo, next Friday, we're kicking off our series, "I Am Mental Illness," with first-person accounts from people describing their experiences having a mental illness. 

So be sure to check in with us next week and let us know what you think! We're excited to be the only outlet dedicated to bringing evidence-based science news and essays to women, and we hope you like the new and improved Double X Science, made possible thanks to a generous grant from the National Association of Science Writers.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

How chili powder can kill

Source. Credit.
How can chili powder kill a child? Dr. Rubidium explains.

by Dr. Rubidium, Ph.D., DXS contributor

On the evening of Sunday, January 6th, 2-year-old Joileen G. was pronounced dead at a San Bernardino hospital. A few hours into Monday, Joileen's caregiver for that Sunday -- Amanda Sorensen -- was arrested. On Wednesday, Ms. Sorensen, who is also the girlfriend of Joileen's father, was charged with "...malice aforethought murder..." and "...assault... by means of force that to a reasonable person would be likely to produce bodily injury, resulting in the child's death." The alleged "means of force" wasn't a belt or a fist, but chili powder.

Though it will likely take weeks before the exact cause and manner of death are known from an autopsy and toxicology tests, various media outlets are reporting that Joileen died of "chili powder poisoning."

Millions to billions of people enjoy chili peppers world-wide each day, from eating handfuls of whole chili peppers to a few shakes of hot sauce on their eggs. Chili peppers and their products aren't considered a poison, but that's because most of us have far too narrow a view of poisons. The field of poisons is actually very broad, as are its definitions. 

For example, for toxicologists, a poison is any substance that is harmful when administered to a living organism. But quantity (dose) and species (you versus, say, a turtle) and route (mouth? skin?) and what it's combined with count, too. Other factors influencing whether or not something will poison you include age, sex, health, and genetics. 

In other words, almost anything can be a poison at the right (or wrong) concentration given the right (or wrong) circumstances1. That includes chili peppers and their products.

Chili peppers, of the plant genus Capsicum, are a diverse bunch from the not-hot-at-all (bell peppers) to the hot-as-hell (bhut jolokia, also known as the ‘ghost pepper’). Hot peppers owe their pungency and heat to a class of chemicals called capsaicinoids. The most prevalent capsaicinoid in hot peppers is capsaicin, a neurotoxin -- meaning its poisonous action involves the nervous system.

Capsaicin binds to a specific molecule on a subgroup of neurons in our sensory systems, called ‘nociceptors’. When capsaicin binds this molecule, called a receptor, the result is fired up nociceptors, which we register as pain2. High temperatures can also act like capsaicin on nociceptors, which is why we feel a burning pain when eating capsaicin laden foods. From no feeling to warm to burning pain, the sensation we feel upon exposure to capsaicin depends on concentration.

We often focus on the pain capsaicin can provoke, but this chemical can elicit a range of other physiological responses. People who eat foods with hot peppers may complain of gastrointestinal issues, which are likely the work of capsaicin. Capsaicin also irritates the skin and mucous membranes (lining the eyelids, nose, mouth, genitals), provoking an inflammatory response often marked by redness and swelling, as well as sensations of warmth and pain.

If inhaled, capsaicin stimulates bronchopulmonary nociceptive C-fibers which can provoke apnea (temporary cessation of respiration), rapid shallow breathing, mucus secretion, bronchoconstriction (constriction of the smooth muscle of the airways in the lungs), and cough. In the most extreme cases, death by asphyxia3 (lack of oxygen) has occured.

In addition to chemical irritation of the respiratory system from capsaicin, particulate chili pepper products can physically irritate this system. Chili powder, like many particulates, can irritate and overwhelm our respiratory system. Inhalation of ground chilies can cause coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose, but the problem with particulates in our nose, trachea, bronchi, and lungs goes beyond coughing, sneezing, and running nose. Inhalation of particulates can physically block airways and lead to death by asphyxia3 (lack of oxygen). Their ability to mechanically obstruct airways adds to any type of physiological effect they might have. Particulates can cause asphyxia deaths by chemically or physically effecting respiration -- or by doing both.

Asphyxia deaths from inhalation have been noted for non-food items like talcum powder and sand, as well for the spices ground black mustard seeds and black pepper. Several black pepper deaths have resulted from this spice being used as a punishment to children. In one case, a foster parent turned to black pepper as a disciplinary tool (note: 'apneic' means "unable to breathe"):
This five-year-old white male was being disciplined for lying. His foster mother stated that she meant to shake a few grains of pepper onto his tongue. She removed the cap of the pepper shaker, and as she had the container poised above his mouth, he allegedly struck her arm with his, causing a large bolus of pepper to go into his mouth. He became rapidly dyspneic, and 5 min after the incident, emergency medical personnel observed him to take a few breaths and become apneic. On laryngoscopic examination, clumps of pepper and mucus were seen. A tracheostomy was performed. The trachea was found to be obstructed with masses of admixed pepper and mucus. Upon arrival to an emergency room he was pulseless and apneic, and he was pronounced dead about 1 h after the inhalation of the pepper. [Homicidal asphyxia by pepper aspiration by S.D. Cohle]
Like black pepper, hot peppers and their products have been used as punishments.
Three children, aged 3, 5, and 7, were repeatedly disciplined over a period of months in the following manner. A split jalapeno pepper was placed in the child’s mouth and a timer set for 15-20 minutes. If the child spit the pepper out, swallowed it, or vomited before the time expired, he was given a fresh pepper and the timer was reset. Liquid dishwashing detergent or tabasco sauce was given in a similar manner.
Interviews of the children revealed that the jalapeno peppers and tabasco sauce burned their mouth, throat and stomach, and in some instances, caused burning at the anus during passage of the stool. The children cried at night from residual pain. Vomiting and diarrhea occurred as a result of some of the mistreatments.
[Capsicum and capsaicin--a review: case report of the use of hot peppers in child abuse by R.L. Tominack and D.A. Spyker]
A search of the scientific literature turned up no chili powder-related deaths4, although a red pepper poisoning death was documented in Johannesburg, South Africa. Red pepper is made using only dried, ground hot peppers. Chili powder is mostly dried, ground hot peppers, but also contains other spices -- usually garlic, cumin, and oregano. Both are 'hot' thanks to capsaicin, but red pepper is 'hotter' because more capsaicin is present. Unlike the hot pepper case mentioned above, in the Johannesburg red pepper poisoning case, punishment wasn't the aim -- treatment was:
An 8 month old well-nourished black male infant was admitted to hospital with a history of 7 days of severe coughing and 3 days of diarrhea and vomiting. These symptoms followed by treatment with a traditional remedy by his grandmother. The original illness was not elucidated, but on questioning the relatives stated the herb used was red pepper in the form of a red powder for which the Afrikaans name is “Rooipoeier”.

He suffered two cardio-respiratory arrests and died on the day of admission.
[A fatal case of pepper poisoning by T. Snyman, M.J. Stewart and V. Steenkamp]
What was the motive in the case of Joileen G.? Is it child abuse involving chili powder or an accident? Those answers may prove elusive. Did Joileen G. actually die as a result of chili powder poisoning? Did the chili powder induce chemical and/or mechanical asphyxia? Only an autopsy will reveal those answers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Is it really healthier to be a few pounds overweight? That’s not what the study says.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

by Jennifer Gunter, MD, FRCS(C), FACOG, DABPM
[This post first appeared at Dr. Gunter's blog, where she wields the lasso of truth.]

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that a body mass index or BMI of 25-29.9 (overweight) is associated with the lowest risk of death and that class 1 obesity (BMI 30-34.9) is not associated with an increased risk of mortality. As this study hit the presses January 2nd (and I’m sure no editorial thought was given by JAMA to such a study coming out at the first of the year) when many people are thinking about weight loss resolutions, it was covered widely in the press and I read several op-eds claiming vindication for obesity. One op-ed on a major news site was indignant that CT scanners couldn’t accommodate a friend (some CT scanners have difficulty accommodating patients over 300 lbs). The author’s solution? Build bigger CT scanners because obesity isn’t bad at all. This new study proves it.

My answer? Back the truck up.

First of all the study doesn’t say that being overweight is good for you and that being an ideal weight is bad. What the study does tell us is that people who have a BMI of 35 or greater are more likely to die. This is not new information. A BMI of 35 is a lot of extra weight, depending on your height it could easily mean 70 extra pounds or more.15% of Americans have a BMI of 35 or greater.Only people with a BMI over 35, way over 35, need bigger CT scanners. I’m not saying that severely obese people shouldn’t have access to imaging studies, but the answer to the epidemic of severe obesity is not to claim vindication based on the inaccurate interpretation of one study and simply build bigger equipment.

What about the lower risk of death in the overweight and class 1 obesity groups compared with the normal BMI group? Well, this can be explained by a variety of factors:
  • The wrong control group. Many researchers question whether the control group should really be a BMI of 22-24.9, not the wider range of 18.5-24.9 used in this study. The reason, many people at the thinner end of the scale are thin because of illness and this obviously skews mortality statistics.
  • BMI is an imperfect tool with which to predict mortality when the result isn’t one extreme (< 18.5) or the other (>34.9). This is not a new finding. BMI just looks at weight, not the proportion of weight that is muscle mass vs. fatty tissue. Many people with a normal BMI have very little muscle mass and thus are carrying around excess fat and are less healthy than their BMI suggests. There are better metrics to look at mortality risk for people who have a BMI in the 18.5-34.9 range, such as waist circumference, resting heart rate, fasting glucose, leptin levels, and even DXA scans (just to name a few). The problem is that not all these measurement tools are practical on a large-scale.
  • A small amount of fat may provide an extra energy reserve for someone who becomes chronically ill, thus skewing the survival stats. For example, consider the dramatic weight loss associated with chemo…if you can’t eat due to extreme nausea and you have a little extra fat then you burn fat, but if you have no fat and can’t eat then you start breaking down muscle. This is a phenomenon has popped up in a few studies and definitely requires more research, because obesity is definitely associated with worse outcomes in many cancers.
  • Not all fat is created equal. Belly fat, the metabolically active muffin top, is what contributes to diabetes and other inflammatory conditions. Having a few extra pounds around the middle is far worse than having a few extra pounds on the hips. Again, not new information. BMI doesn’t distinguish between belly fat and thigh fat.
What is very important is that we don’t take erroneous messages from this study (hello, health reporters for major news outlets looking for attention-grabbing headlines). This study says nothing more than we need better tools than BMI to assess mortality risk for people who have a body mass index between 18.5 and 34.9 and that BMI doesn’t predict “ideal weight,” it only tells us that extremes are bad. This study also confirms that the 15% of Americans with a BMI of 35 are at increased risk of dying prematurely, a point sadly missed by many.

Body mass index simply doesn’t convey enough information to assess mortality risk for 85% of the population, but that fact (which isn’t new) shouldn’t stop each and every one of us from striving everyday to be the healthiest that we can be.

And with that, I’m off for my run.

Dr. Jennifer Gunter is an OB/GYN and a pain medicine physician who has authored the book,The Preemie Primer, a guide for parents of premature babies. In addition to her academic publications, her writing has appeared in USA Today, the A Cup of Comfort series, KevinMD.comEmpowHer.comExceptional ParentParents PressSacramento Parent, and the Marin Independent Journal.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bad flu season in full swing, but flu shot still helpful

This is basically what I looked like getting my Flu Mist vax.
Source: Wikimedia Commons; credit: CDC.
By Emily Willingham, DXS editor in chief

The flu season that is unfolding is a killer, with influenza having already taken dozens of lives across the United States. Deaths from flu during the flu seasons are actually the norm, ranging from 3000 to 50,000 annually, but this year's outbreak arrived early and features a strain that is infamous for its virulence. Forty-four states now have met the cutoff for "widespread" flu activity as of this writing, and in hotspots like Boston, MA, cases are 10 times the number from the same time last year. In many areas, hospitals have taken to setting up temporary tent shelters outside the buildings to manage the flood of cases and prevent spread inside the facility. ETA: This USA Today article gives an overview of how clinicians are experiencing this outbreak on the ground. [Update: As of 1/18/13, a total of 48 states are now at widespread status, and 29 children have died. Forty percent of hospitalized children have had no known underlying medical conditions.]

Public health officials from the US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are urging people who have not gotten their flu shots to do so, saying that there is still time for the vaccination to work for you against the flu. The most vulnerable population is children, and 18 children have already died in the United States during this year's season. According to reports, far less than half of the eligible population in the US has gotten a flu vaccination.

People express reluctance to get the flu vaccine for several reasons. Among them are fears that the vaccine contains mercury as part of a preservative, thimerosal, that has been used for years in various immunizations, although it's been removed from many. For the flu, only vaccines from multidose vials contain this preservative, which is needed to protect the contents from contamination when the vials are opened for repeated use. Single-dose shots and the inhaled Flu Mist do not contain this preservative, which an abundance of studies have shown does not cause harm despite diligent efforts from anti-vaccine organizations to argue otherwise. For more information about this preservative in multidose vials of flu vaccines, the CDC offers a Q&A.

Another source of reluctance is the fact that the flu vaccine, like several other vaccines--or indeed, having the infection itself--is not 100% protective against the illness. In fact, it appears to be about 60% effective in preventing illness, although those who have been vaccinated and do fall ill with the strain included in the vaccine might experience less intense symptoms. The CDC also offers a Q&A addressing why some people who have been vaccinated still catch the flu. My personal feeling is that I'd rather give my children that 60% chance in a rampant flu season with a virulent strain that's hospitalized tens of thousands than give them no protection at all. Any number of interventions don't carry a 100% guarantee of effectiveness, but they certainly enhance the favorable odds. My children and I all received the Flu Mist vaccine back in October. ETA: A recent report found that different forms of the vaccine have different levels of effectiveness in different age groups and that the vaccines and vaccine program require improvement. For more information about the report, which concluded as we've written here that flu vaccines offer moderate protection and have a good safety profile, please see this post by an epidemiologist.

People also forgo a shot because they think that only people in poor health or with pre-existing conditions are susceptible to the most dreaded outcomes with flu: hospitalization and death. That's not actually the case. "Influenza" is the name we give to the highly variable viruses that play games of genetic mix-and-match in different species, with results that are unpredictable and rapidly changing. No one's previous experience with flu will necessarily be predictive of later experiences with the virus. Some flu strains do hit certain populations with specific existing health problems, but other strains kill the young and healthy preferentially. And whether or not you yourself are in perfect health, if you get the flu, you risk passing it along to someone who is not. ETA: For a personal look at who some of those people are, please see the Faces of Influenza site. Some people cannot get a flu shot for medical reasons, and anyone who has had a reaction to a vaccine should obviously consult with their medical professional about vaccines.

A final source of reluctance is that the flu vaccine each year is developed based on educated guesses. No one can predict with certainty which strains will gain the upper hand. As it happens, one strain in circulation this year falls outside of the vaccine target, but medical authorities report that so far, 91% of strains identified in circulation are targets of the vaccine. Because we are talking about influenza and several circulating strains, if you do not get a vaccination, it's entirely possible for influenza viruses to hit you or your family hard more than once this flu season.

Bottom line? Without a vaccination, you're 100% exposed no matter what your age, health, diet, exercise routine, or supplement intake. And if you get sick, you'll endanger everyone you've been around and contaminate every place you've been. Flu carries innumerable potential and unpredictable outcomes, from complete recovery to death, and hospitalizations this year are extremely high. People with a genuine case of influenza end up floored for days, in body-wide pain, with high fevers and wracking coughs and a risk for pneumonia, hospitalization, and death, sometimes with unpredictable rapid progression. Even for those who don't end up in the hospital, complete recovery from these deadly and unpredictable viruses typically takes weeks, meaning lost school, lost productivity, lost work, lost wages. Meanwhile, the vaccine cost ranges from free to about 20-40 bucks at various pharmacies. 

Here is a basic video explaining some of the complexities of the flu vaccine and its success rate:

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect or conflict with those of the DXS editorial team or contributors.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How pregnant are you? Let's find out...

A positive pregnancy test. Source.
By Jeffrey M. Perkel, DXS Technology Editor

There’s an old saying: You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Pregnancy is what you might call a binary condition -- you either are with child, or you're not. Home pregnancy tests embody this thinking. You pee on the end of a stick, and three minutes later you either do or do not see a line in the results window. If the former, then: Congratulations, you’re expecting!

Biologically, of course, things are a bit more complicated. Pregnancy tests check for the presence of a particular protein, human chorionicgonadotropin (hCG), that is also elevated in women with breast and ovarian cancers. As a result, it’s sometimes useful to be able to quantify the levels of hCG -- or any other so-called “biomarker” -- with a bit more precision. A new diagnostic device, developed by a team of Texas researchers and described last month in the journal Nature Communications, can make that happen.

The team designed what’s called a microfluidic device, a circuit of tiny channels etched into glass (or sometimes plastic or a rubber compound) that enable researchers to run chemical assays on tiny volumes of sample. That’s helpful when the sample is particularly precious or hard to come by -- a drop of blood from a newborn baby, say.

Microfluidic devices, sometimes called “lab-on-a-chip” devices (because they resemble computer chips in both design and size), are popular in both drug development and research laboratories, as well as in the clinic. Their reduced volumes and size mean they use less of the materials required (making them relatively inexpensive) and produce less waste. They are also faster and higher throughput (processing a lot of samples at once) than many traditional experiments, and easily automated.

The downside is in the data output. To read the results of a microfluidic assay, researchers generally need some large and expensive piece of hardware that can, for instance, interrogate the chip with a laser to measure fluorescence intensity. That isn’t a problem for most research labs, but it does reduce the likelihood that the technology can be adopted by your general practitioner. And it makes the development of microfluidics-based home tests, analogous to a home pregnancy kit, all but impossible.(*)

To circumvent these problems, the Texas team used a clever “SlipChip” design. A SlipChip is a microfluidic device formed by overlaying two glass plates with channels that can form one of two flow paths depending on the position of the top plate relative to the bottom. In one configuration, the channels flow left-to-right; in the other (that is, after sliding or “slipping” the top plate), they flow bottom-to-top. Samples and reagents are loaded in one configuration, and the chip is “slipped” to start the readout process.

The SlipChip design
Source: Nat. Commun. 3:1283 doi: 10.1038/ncomms2292 (2012).
Here’s how the authors describe it:
In the SlipChip, two pieces of glass etched with microfluidic wells and channels are assembled together in the presence of mineral oil. A fluidic path is formed when the two plates aligned in a specific configuration. Samples or reagents are preloaded through drilled holes using a pipette, and the top plate is then moved relative to the bottom plate to enable the diffusion and reaction of samples or reagents.
 This video shows the concept in action:


The team calls its device a “volumetric bar-chart chip,” or V-Chip. The V-Chip runs what’s called an ELISA (enzyme linked immunosorbent assay), which, the authors note, "serves as the clinical gold standard" (the best practice) in biomarker quantitation. Normally ELISAs are read with an instrument that can measure either color changes, fluorescence, or chemiluminescence. The V-Chip is far simpler (albeit, less quantitative).

It uses an enzyme called catalase to degrade hydrogen peroxide into oxygen gas in volumes proportional to the molecule of interest -- in this case, hCG. That gas, in turn, forces a column of red dye upwards to a height determined by the hCG concentration. The result is an easy-to-read microfluidic bar graph, with the height of each bar indicating not only if a woman is pregnant, but also how much hCG is in her urine. In a comparison against a commercial home pregnancy test, the V-Chip was more sensitive at low hCG concentrations, and more quantitative at very high concentrations.


The V-Chip’s design is flexible, the authors note and can be jiggered to test either a large number of samples for a single molecule (as might be done in a clinical trial) or a single sample for multiple molecules, as in cancer screening. The current design allows as many as 50 parallel fluidic channels, meaning up to 50 molecules could be tested in parallel. In one experiment, the team used a six-channel design to test a panel of breast cancer cell lines for the abundance of three proteins (estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and human epidermal growth factor receptor) commonly found on breast cancer cells.

The simplicity of the test means it should be possible to design a device that can be used at home or in a doctor’s office. It is cheap and fast and requires no special hardware. That means it could be used in areas lacking access to top-shelf medical care. It could even be used in the absence of a physician altogether. "The bar chart could be captured as an image using a smart phone, similar to a barcode reader and transmitted to a cloud computer for instant medical suggestions in the future," the authors write. Now, how cool would that be?

(*) That's not entirely true. Harvard researcher George Whitesides has figured out a way to print microfluidic circuits onto paper, resulting in very simple and inexpensive diagnostic assays. In September 2012, Whitesides and colleagues described one such test for drug-induced liver damage, which is being commercialized by Boston-based Diagnostics For All for use in third world countries. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

FDA proposes new, completely obvious rules for food safety

Produce. Always wash it. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: TheBittenWord

By Emily Willingham, DXS editor-in-chief

If you've read the stories of contaminated spinach and canteloupe killing people, you might think that it's high time somebody took steps to prevent these kinds of contamination-related outbreaks. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has now rolled out two proposals targeting prevention.

Their first proposal is to require all companies that make food, whether in or out of the U.S., to have a contamination-prevention plan in place and a plan at the ready for correcting problems that arise. If you're like me, you might have assumed that kind of requirement was an already-in-place no-brainer, but no. Also, it's hard to see how requiring the plan gives any teeth to prevention. What needs to be required, I'm guessing, is a mechanism to ensure that manufacturers follow the plan. But baby steps, right? At least they look like steps forward.

The second proposal specifically targets developing safety standards for fresh produce. Among the listed goals is ensuring that water for the crops and the people handling the crops are appropriately decontaminated. You'll be relieved to know that also included is a recommendation that livestock grazing--and pooping--on fields be separated in time from using those fields for growing, you know, food you eat. 

As is typical for these processes, farmers and other affected groups have a certain period of time to respond to these proposed rules. If and when they go into effect, another period of implementation lasting longer than two years will follow. In other words, we're looking at almost three years, probably, until implementation of these pretty obvious approaches to ensuring food safety. While we wait for the creaky bureaucratic machinery to put the obvious in place, the best we can do is stick with the safest food handling and preparation practices. The US government offers a complete list here, but we give a sampling below:
  • When buying food, select your refrigerated and frozen items last. Alas, as we all know, most grocery stores are not set up to make that an efficient process. I'm willing to risk a slightly thawed frozen pizza to avoid having to navigate my way all the way across the supermarket five times.
  • Refrigerate your perishables within 2 hours of purchase, or within 1 hour if the temperature is over 90 F. In other words, Texans, six months out of the year, make sure your minifridge is in your trunk, charged up and ready for those groceries.
  • Wash your hands between preparations of different foods and use different utensils and cutting boards for preparing produce and meat. I'm not even going to snark on this one, it's so very, very important. 
  • Cook your meat to the appropriately safe internal temperature, measured with a meat thermometer. For intact veal, lamb, steak, and pork, that's 145 F internal temperature. For ground meats, your target is 160 F, and for all poultry, your target is 165 F.
The greatest risk from food contamination is, of course, intestinal illness. While most people recover from infections with the usual bacterial culprits -- Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli -- some experience a more severe disease called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which leads to kidney failure. This syndrome is most commonly linked to food-poisoning-related deaths in children, typically because of E. coli contamination, but other bacteria can also cause it. Other serious problems include dehydration, nervous system damage, and swelling around the heart. 

The complete proposal text from the FDA is available here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Notable Women in Science: Historical Biochemists

by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Chemistry Editor 

Welcome to another installment of Notable Women in Science! This on-going series highlights women who paved, and are currently paving, the way in science. If you have a favorite woman in science, check out our  past posts to see if she has already been highlighted. Or she may be yet to appear. Tweet us @DoubleXSci with your favorite woman scientist you would like to see in this series.

The four women highlighted today are biochemists who studied the chemical processes in living organisms and were part of the frontier of their field.

Sofia Simmonds was a scholar, researcher, author, professor, and administrator (1917-2007). She earned her B.A. in chemistry from Barnard College at Columbia University in 1938 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cornell in 1942. After a few years as a postdoctoral Research Associate at Cornell, she took an instructor position at Yale University’s School of Medicine in 1945 and rose through the professorial ranks. She also served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry in the School of Medicine at Yale University from 1975-1988 moving to Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the School of Medicine at Yale from 1988-1991. After her retirement, she remained active at Yale University. Dr. Simmonds was the American Chemical Society’s Garvan Medal recipient in 1969.

Dr. Simmonds married Joseph S. Fruton in 1936. Dr. Fruton also worked at Yale, and it is said he was exceptional in his encouragement of female students. Dr. Simmonds’ research focused on the study of amino acid metabolism of bacteria. In 1953, the couple co-authored a textbook that educated a generation in biochemistry. The two died within 2 days of each other in 2007.

Florence B. Seibert, by Smithsonian Institute
Florence B. Seibert, Pebbles on the Hill of a Scientist. (1897-1991) She earned her A.B. from Goucher college in 1918 and her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1923. She had named Fellowships for the duration of her graduate program. Her early work was done at the Sprague Memorial Institute, then she moved through the professorial ranks at the Henry Phipps Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned many, many awards during her research time, including the Trudeau Medal from National Tuberculosis Association, LL.D. (honorary doctorate) from Goucher College, D.Sc. from the University of Pennsylvania, the Garvan Medal, and the John Elliot Memorial Award. 

Dr. Seibert wrote an autobiography, Pebbles on the Hill of a Scientist, to describe to the public what she had achieved as a scientist and how she had done it, as well as to encourage youth to become scientists. She suffered from severe illness throughout her life, and although it did limit her in some ways, it also spurred her interest in biological science. She was also very close to her sister, who assisted her through many years. Her graduate and postdoctoral work determining infections caused by bacterial contamination and creating a new method of distillation improved the safety of intravenous feeding. She then spent 35 years working on tuberculosis, along the way inventing the first reliable test to diagnose the disease. Dr. Seibert broke the stereotype of “scientist” by being one of two women in her field of tuberculosis research presenting at conferences and because of her small physical stature. 

Mary Locke Petermann was a pioneer in cellular chemistry (1908-1975). She earned her A.B. in chemistry from Smith College in 1929 and her Ph.D. in physiological chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1939. She spent six years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin, then a year as a research chemist at Memorial Hospital in New York before becoming a Finney-Howell Foundation Fellow at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, a place she spent her the remaining of her working career until she died. She was the first woman to achieve full member status in 1963 at the Institute, and was the only woman working there for many years. She also was an associate professor at Cornell University during the same time and became the first woman to earn full professor there in 1966. Some of her awards include the Sloan Award in Cancer Research (1963), the Garven Medal (1966), and a D.Sc. from Smith College (1966).

Dr. Petermann’s interest in the sciences began in high school with mathematics. Even though her high-school advisor discouraged her from becoming a mathematician, she pursued a chemistry degree. She also read humanities books to keep up in conversations with her friends who were humanities majors. While working in science, Dr. Petermann encountered much resistance from her male peers, including much lower pay and enduring derogative remarks, such as being “difficult to work with.” She is best known for her work isolating and characterizing animal ribosomes, which were called “Petermann’s particles” until 1958. This work contributed to the Nobel Prize that George Palade won in 1974. In her own research group, she made a special effort to hire women.

Gertrude Perlmann studied protein chemistry (1912-1974). She earned her D.Sc. in chemistry and physics from the German University of Prague in 1936. Born in Liberec when it was a part of Austria (it is now part of the Czech Republic), Perlmann left her homeland in 1937 after the German invasion to work in Denmark, then moving to the U.S.A. in 1939 to work at Harvard Medical School as a physical chemist. In 1945, she began her career at Rockefeller Institute, spending nearly 30 years there but achieving the rank of full professor only in 1974. She received the Garvan Medal in 1965.

Dr. Perlmann’s scientific focus was protein chemistry. She studied the structure of proteins in body fluids and was one of the first to understand the nature of phosphoproteins. Some of her focus was on the human digestive protein pepsin and its conversion from pepsinogen. She determined the sequence of the segment of pepsinogen that is removed from the protein when it changes to pepsin. Despite her years of work, it is very difficult to find any information on Gertrude Erika Perlmann.

The Garvan Medal is an award from the American Chemical Society to recognize distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.

The Trudeau Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association is given to an individual with lifelong major contributions to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of lung disease through leadership in research, education, or clinical care. 

The John Elliott Memorial Award recognizes an individual who has given outstanding service to AABB by demonstrating a willingness to lend expertise to the association through work on committees, the AABB Board of Directors, and other areas.

Much of the information for this article came from Notable women in the physical sciences: a biographical dictionary by Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara Smith Shearer.