Posts byGuest Blogger

Biosensing at the bedside: Where are the labs on chips?

The past year saw a high profile failure in the emerging field of point-of-care diagnostics. Here’s a science-focused take on why. In October of 2015, biotechnology enthusiasts and investors across Silicon Valley reacted with varying degrees of shock and disappointment as the Wall Street Journal reported that promising diagnostics startup Theranos was hiding serious flaws

The Most Important Sentence

In his Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman imagines the following scenario: some cataclysm destroys all scientific knowledge, but modern scientists have the opportunity to pass down a single sentence to future generations. What should that sentence be? What single statement would allow future generations to rebuild science? That sentence, Feynman argues, would state the atomic

Self-domestication and the evolution of human language

These are exciting times for research in language evolution! Never before have we been so close to solving this evolutionary puzzle, and you can also be part of this exciting moment in science history! It has been suggested that many human-specific traits, such as language, evolved as humans found new ways of controlling their environment.

East Bay Biohackers

Title image: Counter Culture Labs consists of DIY biologists and citizen scientists. Courtesy of Counter Culture Labs. Biotechnology has blossomed in the Bay Area but it doesn’t have to stay restricted to just industry or universities. The do-it-yourself biology movement is bringing biotech to the heart of the Oakland community. Counter Culture Labs (CCL) is

Sleep debt

Image credit: Henry Meynell Rheam , via Wikimedia Commons For students across the world, and especially at Berkeley, sleep seems to be a commodity that is scarce. I know that many of us are willing to risk hygiene, public embarrassment, as well as a healthy social life for the chance to eliminate a couple

Archaeology and untold stories of the African Diaspora

Feature image details: Annelise showing her great-aunt Margaret an artifact during an excavation. Courtesy of Johana Pacyga, University of Chicago.   As you flip through the pages of a history book, you are immersed in stories of past human civilizations curated from written records and other forms of documented communication, but what happens if these

Wise as Athena, Swifter than Hermes

The Computational Problem in Science Scientific discovery increasingly relies on software and computation. Database interfaces and content management systems have replaced the lab notebook, simulations are replacing pencil-and-paper analytics, and nights once spent leaning over an experimental benchtop are now spent glued to a computer screen. But, we’re doing it wrong. The dream, of course,

What are the next generation’s science standards?

Science literacy in the United States is substandard, and the reasons are far too numerous to list in a single blog post. Experts in the field of education concluded that one of the factors was our lack of up to date national science standards. The last time that national science standards were developed and recommended in the U.S. was 1996. Because adoption of the standards was not compulsory, each state developed its own set leading to large discrepancies in the quality of science education between states. Some states’ standards have been criticized for presenting students with too many facts, figures, and tongue-twisting scientific names—all seemingly disconnected, and leaving many students without the necessary tools to learn or think critically about scientific subjects.

Let’s talk about science

Quick quiz: Does the earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the earth? If you answered that the earth goes around the sun, congratulations! You scored better than 26% of respondents in the NSF’s 2014 Science & Technology: Public Attitudes And Understanding survey. Yes, let that sink in for a moment.

Researchers consider a probiotic approach to plumbing

<span style=”display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;” data-mce-type=”bookmark” class=”mce_SELRES_start”></span> When you think about probiotics, you might picture fancy yogurt, or perhaps the kombucha that you innocently tasted at the farmer’s market downtown. Now scientists are considering a probiotic approach to water plumbing systems in buildings, as a way to suppress growth of harmful

An Ode to Patch Clamping

I’ve been a graduate student in bioengineering for quite a while now—let’s call it “more than five years”—but I harbor a far more embarrassing secret (for a bio-centric program) than that. I’ve only known how to pipette for four of them. When I entered graduate school my lab experience had been limited to computer work: mostly data analysis in Matlab. I had never actually gathered my own data. Perhaps I should’ve directly mentioned this in my application, though at times computational work is all one does to complete a PhD in bioengineering (the field is diverse).

AllYourBugAreBelongToMeThere were many times as an undergrad that I was so frustrated troubleshooting code in Matlab I actually yelled at whatever living thing was inside the computer and obviously out to get me. But I eventually figured out how to massage the computer into doing what I wanted. And that particular problem was solved.

As a grad student I’ve come to know the pains of experimental work with actual living things. One particular technique deserves the utmost reverence: patch clamping.

Less widely practiced than computer programming, patch clamping is one of the most transformative techniques in neuroscience. It’s a delicate process in which you, the experimenter, first bring the tip of a microscopic glass pipette down to a cell membrane ever-so-gently under a microscope. You then physically apply suction with your own mouth on the other end of the pipette, which is archaically connected though a long rubbery tube. By applying suction you draw the cell membrane so close to the pipette tip that it adheres and forms a seal on the rim of the glass. Then with more powerful suction, you break open the bit of membrane that’s stuck to the pipette opening, all while the cell is still alive.

Toolbox – Atom Interferometry

From the side of the road, police officers cannot peer at the speedometers of cars passing by. Unfortunately for speedy drivers, all the information needed to enforce speed limits can be attained indirectly. This is because radar guns used by officers emit radio waves that are reflected back from moving cars. An accurate measurement of

The Science of Touch and Emotion

2933605871_601998ca2dIn social species, prosocial emotions are those that promote the well-being of the group. By engaging in acts of trust and cooperation, social groups survive. Parents and offspring form attachments, and individuals act in mutually beneficial, altruistic ways to sow trust between one another. A growing number of studies on touch and emotion reveal our deep-seated need for human contact and warmth. Touch may be the key for communicating prosocial emotions, and for promoting group cohesion and survival.

Dr. Dacher Keltner from the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology and Dr. Matthew Hertenstein (now at DePauw University) have conducted extensive research on how touch communicates emotions. In their 2006 paper Touch Communicates Distinct Emotion, Keltner and Hertenstein investigated the ability of touch to convey various emotions. Given the importance of cooperation and altruism in social groups, Keltner and his colleagues hypothesized that it should be possible to communicate prosocial emotions through touch alone. For their study, 212 volunteers between the ages of 18-40 were sorted into pairs called dyads. In each dyad, one person did the touching (the “encoder”) and the other received the touch (the “decoder”).

Each dyad sat at a table that was bisected by an opaque black curtain, and had no opportunity see or hear one another. The decoder was instructed to place a bare forearm through the curtain. On the other side of the curtain was the encoder, who presented one of twelve emotions to the decoder by touching the decoder’s exposed arm. In addition, the encoder was given freedom to choose how best to communicate each of the emotions, including anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, sympathy, embarrassment, love, envy, pride, or gratitude. The decoder then chose which of the twelve emotions best described what the encoder was attempting to communicate. Keltner and Herenstein found that anger, fear, and disgust were communicated at levels above chance (which was set at 25%) along with prosocial emotions such as love, gratitude, and sympathy.

Interestingly, this experiment revealed that we use consistent types of touch to communicate particular emotional states. Research assistants, unaware of the emotions that the encoders were instructed to communicate, monitored the “tactile displays” of the encoder on a second by second basis. Research assistants used a survey of coding systems that is routinely used by researchers investigating touch. The types of tactile displays, including tapping, stroking, squeezing, poking, pushing, and tickling, among others, were noted and quantified in terms of frequency, duration, and intensity. Although 106 different encoders participated in the experiment, they tended to use similar tactile displays to convey emotion.  For example, sympathy was most likely to be communicated with patting or stroking, while anger was most likely communicated with pushing.

In a 2009 paper that re-examined this data, Keltner and his team found some interesting patterns of gendered communication. The dyads were either Male-Female (where the encoder was male and the decoder was female, and vice-versa), Male-Male, or Female-Female. Only when the dyad consisted of males was anger communicated at greater-than-chance levels. Only when the dyad consisted of females was happiness communicated at greater-than-chance levels. Sympathy was communicated at greater-than-chance levels only when there was at least one female in the dyad. One of the more humorous findings of the study was how helpless men and women were at communicating specific emotions to one another. As Dr. Keltner explained in a public lecture, “When women tried to communicate anger to the man he had no idea what she was doing and he got nothing right. And when the man tried to communicate compassion to the woman she got zero right. She had no idea what he was doing.”

Make Awesome: the story of elastic electronic skin

Of the five senses, touch is the most widely distributed throughout the body, and perhaps the most fundamental. A single fingertip has over 2500 touch receptors, which sense and transmit enough information to allow us to discriminate spatial distances as small as 40 micrometers (Tee, et al, 2013). Receptors distributed throughout our hands can sense extremely gentle pressures of around 100 pascals (equivalent to the feeling of a penny resting on a fingertip) as well as pressures of greater than 100 kilopascals (the feeling of gripping an object very tightly). Having such a wide range of sensitivities allows us to perform extremely delicate tasks, such as flipping the pages of a textbook, or pipetting primers into tiny PCR tubes.

From a materials engineering point of view, human skin is nature’s version of an elastomer-based pressure sensor, or, in layman’s terms, an extremely flexible material that is able to feel when it’s being pushed on, pulled, flexed or grazed. For many years, recreating the features of human skin by artificial means eluded researchers. Recently, however, several labs have made enormous strides in recreating the properties of human skin electronically. Over the past decade, Prof. Ali Javey and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a number of plastic- and rubber-based electronic skin prototypes. Meanwhile, in the laboratory of Prof. Zhenan Bao at Stanford University, graduate student Benjamin Tee helped develop two types of flexible electronic skin, including one that is able to repair itself after being damaged.

skinThe first prototype developed in the Bao laboratory relies on capacitors to detect changes in pressure and flexible organic transistors to amplify and relay signals emitted by the capacitors in a system known as a capacitive pressure sensor. This system is likely familiar to you, because a form of capacitive sensing is used in touch screens for smartphones and tablet computers. The basic building block of capacitive sensing systems are capacitors, devices that are used to temporarily store electrical energy. Though there are several types of capacitors, all contain at least two electrical conductors—usually metal plates—separated by a non-conductive insulator known as a dielectric. When current flows through a circuit and hits the capacitor, a difference in electrical potential is created between the capacitor’s plates, causing positive charge to collect on one plate and negative charge on the other. This in turn causes an electrical field to develop across the dielectric. The electrical field that is created can remain in the capacitor even if the current ceases to flow through the circuit. In this way, energy can be stored by the capacitor in the form of a static voltage spanning the conductors. When stored energy is released, the resulting current can be picked up by devices called transistors and amplified into a readable output current that is much stronger than the input current.

Learning about touch sensation from an unlikely creature, the star-nosed mole

This is the first in a three part series introducing the science of touch sensation.

TouchMe Star

1) The molecular basis of touch sensation – Learning about touch sensation from an unlikely creature, the star-nosed mole
2) Engineering touch sensation for robotics and prosthetics
3) Communicating emotion through touch

All in preparation for our Bay Area Science Festival event, Touch Me! Sunday, October 27th, from 6-10 PM at The David Brower Center in Berkeley. Click here to learn more and purchase tickets.

There’s a big difference between abruptly bumping into a stranger and being touched gently by someone we love.  We use touch to interact and communicate with other people, as well as to sense the physical objects and forces within our world each day.  We encounter a wide variety of different sensations, and need to be able to distinguish between them.  But how do we actually sense mechanical forces on our skin?  This is an important and long-standing question in neuroscience, and Professor Diana Bautista and members of her lab at UC Berkeley are working to find an answer.

In humans and other animals, nerve cells (called neurons) extend out from the brain and the spinal cord, the major processing regions of the nervous system, to the rest of the body. In order to sense signals at your fingertips and toes, neurons must send out projections that travel the entire length of your arm or leg. Many types of sensory neurons extend into the skin, where they detect different types of stimuli, including touch, temperature, and pain.

Neuroscientists have worked out the mechanism by which neurons respond to pain by using a natural compound that produces painful sensations.


Me vs Myers-Briggs

“Can you talk to a stranger for an hour?”

Despite coming from a computer, the question felt almost aggressive.  Of course I can talk to a stranger for an hour.  I was a reporter for over a decade; you can’t do that job without learning to talk to almost anyone for an hour.

Still, I wanted to say no.  Just like I’d wanted to say no to several other questions the computer had just posed, even though the true answers were all yeses.  It was the night before a school-sponsored Myers-Briggs personality workshop, and I was taking the famous test for the first time.  And I was starting to think it was rigged.  Every time I admitted that I could make small talk or navigate a party, I knew I was edging one step closer to being labeled an extrovert. What the test didn’t seem to understand was that my social skills are just that – skills.  Learned skills.  I was not born gregarious.  One of my mom’s favorite stories from my grade school years is about the time one of my teachers called her in for a meeting to discuss how many recesses I was spending in the school library.  In junior high, if my best friend was sick, there was a good chance I’d end up eating lunch alone.  Still, when I walked into the workshop the next day, there was only one component of my personality the test was able to distinguish unequivocally: according to Myers and Briggs, I am an extrovert.

How to become a data scientist before you graduate

So you’re considering careers outside of academia, and you’ve heard all the data science hype. Sounds like a pretty good gig, doesn’t it? But because data science means different things to different people, it can be hard to figure out just what you should do now to prepare yourself for a job as a data scientist after you graduate.


Conveniently, data science isn’t very different from graduate research—in fact, there are some small but important ways you can change your time in grad school that will make you feel like you’re already a data scientist by the time you graduate. I’ve had a lot of fun taking this approach for the last year and a half, and I’m feeling pretty good about my job prospects once I graduate in December. Plus, many of the steps I explain here are also applicable to other non-academic careers, especially in the Bay Area tech scene. (Take all this with a grain of salt, though: I don’t have a job lined up yet!)

With no further ado, here are 10 things I’ve done during grad school to become a data scientist.

1. Start early. This is a long list and most of the steps take time. Plus, the sooner you start thinking about this stuff, the sooner you can decide if data science is a good fit for you. Better to find that out before you get the job than after!

Impact factor? More like job ruiner and ego booster

A recent article published April 9, 2013 in Science talks about “interactive peer review” and what different open access journals like Frontiers are doing to make science publishing available to the general audience—that is, the taxpayers. The article explains some of the advantages of open access publishing but derails from good intentions by integrating the low impact factors of several of the open access journals. The authors then go on to mention how significant this metric is by listing some pros and cons to publishing in open access journals. impact2

Like others, I think it’s fair to say that impact factors are NOT and should not be a direct measure of the caliber of a scientist that you are. Yet sadly, this article laces its commentary with the phrase impact factor. As if these two words encompass the entirety of your career/life as a researcher. What if they did away with impact factors? What if it didn’t matter where you published but the quality of the work you published? And don’t tell me there’s a correlation between quality work and impact factor. That’s total bs. Reviewers from Science or Nature are not exclusive to those journals and are reviewers elsewhere. Published “top tier” works are debunked all of the time as well. Yet there’s a distasteful air of prestige when your name precedes the stupid word “Science” on a publication. As much as you’d like to think your work is influential, it’s not if no one cites it.

From particle physics to radiation oncology to public health

Today’s post comes from the Cancer InCytes Magazine Blog; you can find the original post by M. R. Raju, here.

Architecture Future The Nobel Laureate, Henri Bergson, succinctly stated as early as 1927 that: “Progress in mechanical inventions took place during 19th century. It was assumed that the material development would raise the moral level of mankind. Experience proved that it does not automatically result in moral perfection in men— may even present dangers unless accompanied by a corresponding spiritual effort.”

I was very happy to note that the American President, Mr. Obama, brought out the name of Mahatma Gandhi in his election campaign while no such sincere mention is being made by Indian political leaders. Some of the best human resources from all over the world are contributing to America’s progress. I am glad to note that the new public health magazine Cancer InCytesfocuses on the healthcare needs of disadvantaged populations.

In spite of the major developments in science and technology, the health care needs of the common man are not being satisfactorily met, especially in developing countries. In India, nearly 75% of the population lives in rural areas, while most of the cancer centers and medical specialists live in major cities. Mahatma Gandhi believed that the future of India depended on the future of villages. Long before the Indian Independence Movement, he launched, by direct participation, a unique movement to improve sanitation, which included efforts to clean public toilets. The movement recognized that a practical solution for many health problems, including cancer, is prevention. It is important to note that the lowered mortality from infectious diseases in the industrialized world was achieved through sanitary engineering, public health measures, and better nutrition, long before the introduction of modern medical practices using immunization and antibiotics. Malnutrition is a leading cause of immune deficiency, especially in the developing world.

Volunteer at Sciimpact 2013

Today’s BSR guest post comes from Charina Choi.


You know those moments when you are thrilled to be a scientist or engineer? Like when you build an instrument that starts to work as designed, or see single atoms with an electron microscope, or hear the most inspirational research talk. Sciimpact is a conference aimed at creating some of these moments for students from underserved Bay Area high schools. This one-day event will feature diverse dynamic speakers, a panel discussion, hands-on experiments, and a campus tour of UC Berkeley.

As a scientist or engineer, you can be an integral part of this conference by eating lunch with students, chatting about your work and career path, guiding students to their breakout activities, or taking students on a campus tour. We are also looking for volunteers to help with registration, setup, and takedown. If any of this sounds like something you’d enjoy, contact Charina at to sign up. It would be awesome to have you there.

Sciimpact takes place on April 6, 2013 from 9:30am – 4:30pm at Stanley Hall. For more information, visit

Mobile technology is changing healthcare in developing nations

Today’s post comes from the Cancer InCytes Magazine Blog; you can find the original post by Uduak Thomas, M.A., here.

Cancer and mHealth: A Case Study in India

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “mobile health,” or mHealth, as a subset “electronic health” that is concerned with the “use of mobile and wireless technologies to support the achievement of health objectives.” It covers things such as health call centers, emergency tool-free telephone services, mobile telemedicine, mobile patient records, decision support systems, and other services.

It’s clear that mobile technologies, particularly cellular phones, are becoming cheaper and gaining in popularity globally including in poorer countries. One statistic from the International Telecommunication Union puts the number of wireless subscribers at around 5 billion with over 70 percent living in low and middle income countries.


Five hidden facets of numbers

We live in a world flooded with numbers. News stories, nutrition labels, results from research studies, and even sports highlights are riddled with numbers! Numbers are comforting; they seem solid and dependable.

“The numbers don’t lie.” But what if they do? Numbers can be manipulated to tell contradictory stories. Here are five things to think about next time you see a reported number:

1. Error Margin
2. Sample Size
3. Sample Bias
4. Replication
5. Rounding Errors

BSR Issue 23 Highlights

It’s not too late to get your hands on the Spring 2012 issue of the Berkeley Science Review, released last month. Magazine racks located in front of science buildings all over campus are ready and waiting with fresh copies of the issue that will be stocked throughout the summer. If you haven’t had a chance yet to catch up with the BSR, here are a couple of snapshots of what you’ve missed.


Freeze frame: what lies beneath the permafrost

Microorganisms exist all around us, as well as in us. In fact, humans contain more bacterial cells than human cells. Entire communities of bacteria can be studied through metagenomics, the sequencing of DNA from an environmental sample directly, without first culturing each of the organisms in the sample individually. Metagenomics has been used to study bacterial communities in environments ranging from oceans to the human gut. In “Finding a Needle in the Permafrost,” Susanne Kassube reports on a recent metagenomics study of microorganisms in permafrost. First published in the journal Nature, the study reports the draft genome assembly of a previously unidentified methane-producing microorganism and analyzes changes in the abundance of genes involved in carbon and nitrogen cycling upon thaw to understand how microorganisms in permafrost could respond dynamically to climate change.

Call for Pitches – Write for Issue 23 of the BSR! (Pitches due May 25th)

Friends of the BSR,

First of all, thank you to everyone who came out to the seminar and release party last week. We’re really excited about the spring issue (and hope you are too!) and fired up to get started on the next installment for fall 2012.  So, seasoned and aspiring science-writers and bloggers alike, please contact us and let us know what you’d like to see in Issue 23!

BSR issue 22: Letter from the editor

The Spring 2012 issue of the Berkeley Science Review hits the stands this week! Like all BSR issues, issue 22 is easy on the eyes but hard on the mind, challenging its readers to think about how we can achieve a future of abundant and sustainable energy. Look for a hard copy on magazine racks near campus (it’s free!) or read it online here (also free!). And for a sneak preview, read through the “Letter from the Editor”, reproduced below.

Dear Readers,

There’s a lot of energy on campus, whether you’ve seen the new buildings to house research laboratories on the northwest side of campus, or attended the BERC symposium that brought together 700 members of the UC Berkeley community to talk about carbon emissions and clean technology. In this issue of the BSR we’re putting a spotlight on energy, from biofuels to solar cells, and examining how Berkeley is experimenting with novel technology in a number of fields, to maintain an energetic and cutting-edge research community.

Getting personal with Martie Chalfie

In the latest print issue of the Berkeley Science Review I wrote about my experiences at the Lindau Meeting last summer, where graduate students and Nobel laureates from around the world mingle for a week in Bavaria.

One of the scheduled participants in the meeting was Martin Chalfie, a co-recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering use of the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) in non-invasive biological imaging. Unfortunately, he had to skip the meeting at the last minute. However, through a fortuitous series of coincidences he and I ended up participating in an online dialogue about making ones way as a young scientist. It was pretty cool to get advice from (and maybe even prod just a little bit) such a distinguished scientist. Check it out here if you are interested.

On the elephant’s trail

There’s a sea breeze blowing, only it’s not the sea – the wind is rolling over the fields of sugar cane in front of the field station.  A few hundred meters up, the road meets a single-lane highway and beside it is the electric fence. On the other side amble hopeful giants.  They’re elephants, eyeing the little fruit stand across the way and biding their time until some passer-by passes over the goods.  The evenings are cool, even chilly.  Now and then you hear the burst of what sounds like a firecracker – elephant ‘shots’ meant to drive fence-breakers away, but unsuccessful so far as each evening these days someone has been going through.  Word is that at least one of them is a one-tusked male trans-located into the park a short while ago.  So far we have not managed to catch the culprits in action, although our housekeeper spotted one strolling past the gate of our field station early one morning.  That describes a typical evening for me last summer.  I’ve been studying the Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka for the past six years.  Currently, I’m trying to raise money to find ways to help elephants and people live alongside one another.  How did I get here?  It’s a long way from Berkeley.

Berkeley hyenas alive and well for now

I apologize for leading many readers to believe that the Berkeley hyena colony is already shut down and that all of the animals have been euthanized. This is not the case. There are 20 spotted hyenas living in the colony, and they have funding through the end of January 2012. The fight for funding for has been a long and fierce one, and although researchers there are running out of time, they have not run out of hope. They are currently exploring different funding options, including NSF grants and private donations.

In the event that the colony is not funded, they hope to place the animals in zoos or sanctuaries. They already have an amazing track record of donating animals to zoos–41 have been relocated throughout the history of the project. Despite this past success, there may not be enough time to place all of the hyenas before the colony shuts down. If researchers discover that their requests for funds have been denied in December, they will scramble to place the hyenas before money runs out and the animals have to be euthanized.

The Berkeley hyenas: an abbreviated memoir

I have not had the opportunity to know the Berkeley hyenas as individuals, but as a member of the scientific community, I am saddened by the loss of the Berkeley colony for both personal and scientific reasons. I’m a graduate student in Dr. Kay Holekamp’s lab at Michigan State University, which studies a wild population of hyenas in the Masai Mara in Kenya. Despite not having had the opportunity to see the Berkeley colony (I blame my sister, a graduate student in chemistry at Berkeley, for not being willing to use our vacation time together in San Francisco to chase down hyenas), members of my lab have enjoyed a strong collaboration over the years with Dr. Stephen Glickman and his cohort of hyena researchers at Berkeley.  Needless to say, we were distressed to learn that the colony had run out of funding, resulting in the euthanization of many of these amazing animals and the loss of an irreplaceable scientific resource.

One can’t help but be fascinated by spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), which are some of the most flagrant “rule-breakers” of the class Mammalia. These are social carnivores that share a surprising amount of behavioral characteristics with old world primates, despite having diverged from them over 80 billion years ago. Like old world monkeys, they live in large groups (the largest of any carnivore), which are characterized by strict social hierarchies. Primates and hyenas also share some surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities, such as recognizing third party relationships. That means an individual doesn’t just know who tends to pick on him. He also knows who tends to pick on that poor other schmuck over there. By comparing the cognitive skills of hyenas and primates, we can better understand the forces behind the evolution of intelligence.

Good science isn’t bad for our diet: a critique of Michael Pollan’s food politics

No recent writings on food politics have been as influential as those of Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. Perhaps on account of Pollan’s uncanny ability to make anything from agricultural policy to moral philosophy seem exciting, his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and In Defense of Food (2008), as well as his writings in The New York Times Magazine, have opened the eyes of millions of readers to the ills of the modern food system — everything from the feedlot steer sleeping in a pile of manure to the baleful influence of the food industry on our agricultural and public health policies. Too often, however, the same works vilify and otherwise misrepresent science, drawing from selective readings of sources and an overly simplistic view of scientific inquiry to attribute the poor health of modern society and the environment to shortcomings inherent in the scientific method.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan suggests that developments in the field of agricultural science have been detrimental to our “national health.” In particular, Pollan cites Baron Justus von Liebig’s 19th century discovery that plants need only nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to grow as a possible reason for our society’s poor nourishment. Leaning heavily on Sir Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament (1940), Pollan criticizes the practice of substituting these three nutrients for biologically-rich humus (the decomposing organic matter in topsoil), a practice rooted in what Howard called the “NPK mentality” after the symbols for those three nutrients:

To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.

Reading Pollan’s summary of An Agricultural Testament, one might easily be led to believe that Howard’s book was some kind of anti-science screed. However, although Howard devoted a full chapter to criticizing agricultural science as it was typically practiced in his day, criticism of the scientific method more broadly is nowhere to be found in the work.

Announcing the winners of the BSR Issue 20 Reader’s Choice Award

We are very pleased to announce the results of the first ever Berkeley Science Review Reader’s Choice Award: a tie between Azeen Ghoryashi for Reading between the genes and Jacqueline Chretien for Baby lab. You can read these articles and the rest of issue 20 here. I’d like to extend a big thanks to everyone who voted online for your favorite article from the last print issue. In the spirit of the blog, Jackie and Azeen recently joined me for an online conversation about science communication, life, and cute babies. 

-Greg Alushin

GA: So, congratulations once again to both of you.

JC:  Thank you!

AG:  Thanks!

GA: We got a couple hundred responses, and it was interesting to see what got a reaction out of people. Azeen, most of the respondents really liked the illustrations with your piece. How did they come about?

AG:  I think a lot of the issue with people who aren’t in the science world picking up a science magazine is that the old ball and stick model can be sort of off-putting. It’s very dry and looks like stuff they’ve always seen but have never understood, so it’s nice when people do something different to try and cross that barrier. Joe is a great artist and is really into science, especially the look of old science illustrations before the dawn of the ball and stick model. Very little credit goes to me in that department.

GA: Jackie, you took a different route to reaching out to a general audience, in that your piece was really injected with your personal experience. How did you come up with the concept?

WikiWomen: A new kind of party

Earlier this year, while I was sequestered in the bat-cave studying for my qualifying exam, I came across something very distressing. Widely reported from the New York Times to the feminist blog Jezebel, the study has been done and the verdict is in—only 13% of the people editing Wikipedia articles are women. Though there are endless articles debating the causes, my interest in the issue lies elsewhere: what can be done to change this?

I believe that more women would be involved in editing Wikipedia if it were a social activity, rather than an insular one, so I hosted a WikiWomen party at my house to make the experience collaborative. In attendance were five female chemists: myself, Anna Goldstein (your favorite blogger on BSR), Rebecca Murphy, Chelsea Gordon, and Helen Yu. We started the night with a dinner, over which we discussed the experience of being a graduate student, and how writing for Wikipedia compares to teaching undergraduates.

Scientifically proven: You can’t buy happiness

Well-being has been one of the most important concerns for humans since we evolved big enough brains to contemplate more than mere survival. Researchers measure well-being as feeling satisfied with your life and experiencing more positive than negative affect, but colloquially, most of us just refer to it as happiness. We spend much of our time pursuing what we think will make us happy. We surround ourselves with friends, find hobbies like stamp collecting, and seek out pleasures like good food.

One of the most controversial debates in the well-being literature is about money. While it seems obvious that money can buy us many of the things that make life more enjoyable, most of us (myself included) shudder to think that a material object can have such a strong influence on our well-being. So, how important is wealth to happiness?

In an effort to understand how economic hardships could affect well-being, Gallup Polls—one of the largest polling agencies in the country—collected one million responses assessing Americans happiness, well-being, and how much individuals felt they were thriving, struggling, or suffering. They looked at the period from 2008 until 2010, with a particular focus on the effect of the 2009 economic recession.


Science writing seminar next week- featuring Mary Roach

The Berkeley Science Review invites you to our yearly science writing seminar featuring best-selling science writer Mary Roach!

Mary Roach is the author of Bonk, Spook, Stiff, and Packing for Mars. Come hear about making a career as a science writer from one of the best practitioners in the field, and learn how to improve your own writing, how to write for a popular audience, and how to ask impertinent research questions.

Wednesday, April 20th, 6-7pm
106 Stanley Hall, UC Berkeley campus

Dead salmon finds home. Still dead.

It isn’t breaking news, and it’s hardly science. Still, considering last month’s discussion of statistical rigor and the recent kerfuffle over a paper in a well-respected psychological journal purporting extra sensory perception, now is the perfect time to revisit the dead salmon study.

In 2005, a graduate student in the lab of Abigail Baird at Dartmouth College needed to test his fMRI protocols for an upcoming experiment. Having already tested a pumpkin and a cornish game hen, the obvious next step was to scan a whole salmon from the local supermarket.


Issue 20 announcement: Pitches requested

Friends of the BSR, it is that time once again. The Berkeley Science Review is seeking story proposals for the Spring 2010 issue.

However, something is going to be different this time. As we approach this, our 20th issue and 10th anniversary, I am very pleased to announce the inception of the Berkeley Science Review Reader’s Choice Award. After the next issue is published, we will have an open voting competition to determine the recipient of the award. To put it simply, the article which readers like the best and receives the most votes, wins.

The award includes:
A $150 cash prize
-I will interview the winner, and the interview will appear on the blog, as well as being prominently featured on the front page of the website until the next cycle.
-You know, feeling like you might be a little bit too awesome.

A heroic stand against the evils of particle acceleration

It looks like the famous case between Walter Wagner and the US government has been dismissed once again, after Wagner appealed a previous court decision. Wagner has spent a good amount of time trying to shut down the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) because he believes it will destroy humanity. These apocalyptic theories about the LHC are nothing new, but Wagner is certainly one of its most active opponents.

I wonder what Mr. Wagner thinks the US can do to shut off an international operation located in Europe (headquartered in Geneva). I’m sure Obama can just go over there and press the power button on the LHC, because the US can do whatever it wants, right?

Making a dent

Editor’s note: Today we have a guest post from Anthony Fu, a graduate student in Chemistry here at UC Berkeley. Guest contributors are always welcome at the blog; just email and let us know your thoughts.

I am a graduate student in science because I love gaining new information on how nature works, and I enjoy using this knowledge to improve society. Occasionally, it’s nice to get some perspective on what my contributions mean in the grand scheme of things.