Archive for: April, 2013

Salt: From "mmm" to "eww"

Apr 10 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Uncategorized

I love salt. It's just delicious. I wrote this post while noshing on deliciously salty popcorn, after a dinner which I put salt on. I crave salt so much that my parents used to joke about getting me a salt lick.

And I'm not alone. Sodium is an incredibly important part of life, which means it's also an important part of what we eat. To make sure we get enough salt, animals have evolved salt-sensing systems, and low levels (below 100 mM of NaCl) of salt are very attractive.

But there IS such a thing as too much salt. High levels of salt (>300 mM NaCl) are really aversive (from personal experience, I wonder if Carrabba's restaurant has concentrations of salt in their food over 300 mM). Most animals will quickly turn up their noses at a high salt concentration.

You probably know that you have classes of receptors on your tongue for taste (though they are not clustered into areas of your mouth, like front for sweetness, as previously thought). You have sweet, umami (savory), bitter, sour, and salt. In most animals, sweet and umami are always attractive, while bitter and sour are nasty (except where we have overcome the aversion to enjoy things like coffee and beer). Salt, though, is the only one that goes two ways, with low levels being attractive and high levels being aversive.

Now we know how low salt works. The salt receptors that are currently known are good for detecting low salt. But high salt, that's more difficult. First of all, our aversion to high salt concentrations is not very selective. While low salt detection is limited to good old NaCl, high salt detection is non-specific, working for many salts including NaCl, but others as well (like KCl).

Not only that, but if you block the low salt pathway (you can block the sodium channels involved by using a diuretic), the high salt pathway still functions, which means that there are other receptors involved. But what other receptors?

Well, it turns out that high salt is not just...salty. It's BITTER. and SOUR. Or at least, your receptors think so.

Oka et al. "High salt recruits aversive taste pathways" Nature, 2013.

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The BRAIN Initiative: BAM or BUST?

Apr 08 2013 Published by under Academia, Behavioral Neuro, Neuroscience

Sci is at SciAm today, talking about the much-talked-of BRAIN initiative. What is it? What are its goals? And will it work? Will it be a BAM (Brain Activity Map) or a BUST (Badly Underfunded S**T)? What do you think? Head over and check it out.


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Friday Weird Science: Eyeballin' the David's Balls

Apr 05 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science


Doooooo your balls hang low
do they wobble to and fro
can you tie 'em in a knot?
can you tie 'em in a bow?


Anyway. testicles. Most people with intimate experience of testicles (and heck, even those who have experienced them second, or even third hand), will know that one testicle generally hangs lower than the other*. In general, the left of the tackle dominates, with about 42% of males having the left hang lower.

And of course, we know this is true in real life. But what about art? Art, after all, imitates life. But does it really?

It's time to to eyeball the David's balls.

I.C. McManus. "Scrotal asymmetry in man and ancient sculpture" Nature, 1976.

(Sure enough! The left is lower! Also I spent a good two minutes staring like this to figure it out. Source)

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Book Thoughts: My Beloved Brontosaurus

Apr 03 2013 Published by under Book Reviews, Uncategorized

Disclaimer: Brian Switek and I are good friends (I have impersonated a squid for him on occasion). In fact we are such good friends that his latest book, My Beloved Brontosaurus, is dedicated to me (I am SO SO flattered and honored. I cried when I saw it, cause BRONTY IS THE BEST). So I don't feel that I can really give a REVIEW of the book, as I'm by default a little biased here (spoiler: you should read it). But I loved the book, and I want to talk about why I liked it (even aside from the dedication!). So this isn't a review, per se. It's my thoughts on the book. Take that as you will. 🙂


As Brian noted in his dedication to his new book "My Beloved Brontosaurs: on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs" (Due out April 16th!), I really loved old Brontosaurus. I still do. I know it doesn't exist, Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, but Brontosaurus remains as a fondness in my memory from my childhood.

But then again, so do ALL the dinosaurs I remember. I love them, in all their cold-blooded slow reptile-ness. I love the idea of the prehistoric world being full of warm swamps with the reverberating stomping of slow giants. I liked the Jurassic Park version, fast, wily, but still ultimately strange and reptilian.

And I really didn't want to believe otherwise. I saw all the changes going on to dinosaurs. Warm blooded. Then feathered (I begin to suspect that dinosaurs tasted like chicken), then brightly colored and social and good moms. The whole deal. And I just didn't really identify with it. Those weren't MY dinosaurs. Those were some other dinosaurs. I couldn't really reconcile the two in my mind, and I didn't really WANT to.

So I have to say that I picked up Brian's book excited about new dino science, but pretty unwilling to be convinced. New science about dinosaurs could not possibly make dinosaurs as cool as the old ones I remembered.

...but I was wrong.

Brian's book (I guess I should say "Switek's book", but these are my thoughts, not a proper review, and I'll dang call him Brian if I want to) reminds us all of those dinosaur days. That dinosaur phase many of us went through, our wide-eyed wonder. He taps in to that old wonder, the amazement at these giants that once walked the planet, and he makes it BETTER.

These aren't your childhood dinosaurs, but their new complexity and the many things we still don't know about them make them an enticing subject. We often think of dinosaurs as the kind of thing you grow out of. Yeah, I was into that when I was five, but now I'm in to new, adult things like accounting and optogenetics. But by seeing these new aspects of dinosaurs, from how they may have communicated to how the heck they could have mated (big spiky tails get in the WAY), you get that sense of wonder all over again. Dinosaurs are for children and adults alike.

Yes, we used to think dinosaurs were slow and cold...but isn't it that much more AMAZING to think of them as fast, bright, and potentially fluffy? We used to think that hadrosaurs used the huge crests on their heads to maybe breathe underwater, but isn't it even cooler to imagine them used for sound, a huge, deep bass chorus honking across prehistoric plains? And while reptilian, lizard-like dinosaurs are nice and threatening on the movie screen, doesn't it make them that much more exciting to imagine them moving fast, cocking their head at you, birdlike, at the top of a set of hollow and perforated bones as light as air?

To show us these new dinosaurs made from old bones, Brian takes us on a tour of some of his favorite dinosaur haunts, from the hills of Montana (where the paleontologist runs up against one of his more implacable nemeses...the cow), to the beautiful arid deserts of Arches National Park. The more I read, the more desperate I was to get out there myself, to see the dinosaur tracks stomped forever in stone, to see bones that crumble right out of the hills. I know that digging bones can be hot, sweaty, and tedious work, but when it culminates in even something as small as a dinosaur tooth, I feel like my life at the bench pales in comparison.

Brian covers many aspects of dinosaur life, from how they may have stood and moved (T. Rex was a clapper, not a slapper!), to how they may have mated. He talks about paleontology with humor (his wife's comment about how dinosaur mating would have been easier if the vagina was on the side "like a gas tank", is my absolute favorite) and with an amused eye at some of the foibles of the scientists involved (the race to find the biggest dino just got absurd), but you can also feel his deep love of his subject, and the places where his precious dinosaurs are found. From what we used to think, to what we think now, dinosaurs get more complex, and more fascinating, as you see them through the eyes of someone truly obsessed.

And in the end: I was convinced. As much as I used to want to see a Brontosaurus, sloshing slow, majestic, and somewhat bovinely through the mud, I think I want even more to see a light, speedy, group of Allosauruses (Allosaurae?), racing like birds over the hills. They aren't the dinosaurs we remember, but thanks to writers like Brian, they are more fascinating than ever.


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Being taken seriously: the double standard

Apr 02 2013 Published by under Academia

As I was discussing bench-friendly hair the other day (currently, I've got piles of pins all in it, holding it back. It may look a little silly, but it's really comfy), several commenters wondered why I didn't just put on a baseball cap or a hairnet and call it a day (we do have to wear the hairnets to do animal behavior work, actually, cleanliness FTW!).

The issue is, aside from looking really silly in baseball caps (and I do), I actually worry that I'll look really unprofessional. "NONSENSE!" Cry my commenters! Wear what you like! You're in academia and you could wear Hawaiian shirts with holey sweatpants in to work every day and no one would care (as long as it's EH&S compliant!) because academia is about what you DO, not what you look like!

And that may be true...if you're a guy. But I have noticed a double standard here.

Everyone talks about that guy, the old one. He's big in the field and he's constantly sought after at conferences. He's got an unkempt beard and does indeed wear a Hawaiian shirt and holey pants and sometimes an old jacket. To conferences. All the time. Because he's a SCIENTIST and he is above such things as cleanliness and matching.

And that's great! That's fine for him. I wish that we could all wear what we wanted and call it a day. But...I've never seen anyone talk about big women in the field like this. And I have NEVER seen a top woman at a scientific conference dressed casually. Oh sure, she'll be more casual than a full business suit. But there is usually a jacket or nice sweater over a nice top, a skirt or a nice pair of pants (or at least very well pressed jeans), and nice (or if orthopedic, clean) shoes. I have seen some women more casually dressed (usually hiking wear), but they are much, MUCH fewer and far between than the number of casually dressed men.

This goes for conferences, but it also goes for labs. In grad school, it seemed that it was no-holds-barred. I wore my holey jeans and I see grad students of all gender identities wearing them here. But when I went into post-doc...well I don't wear t shirts anymore. When I do, I feel awkward and like I'm not dressed appropriately. I never see other female postdocs wearing t shirts either (except on weekends). It's nicer jeans (at least, usually slacks), nice sweaters or blazers, nice tops, nice flats, and one of those pieces of jewelery from Ann Taylor Loft that it seems everyone owns but me, which are designed to make outfits look more dressy.

In contrast, male postdocs who dress nicely are few and far between (though there is ONE very snappy dresser around here who's got some serious STYLE). Most male postdocs here appear to wear exactly what they wore as grad students: cargo pants or jeans and t shirts. Maybe a polo shirt. If there's an important meeting, a button down shirt.

You end up with a dichotomy that looks like this, with very little that falls between:

Screen shot 2013-04-02 at 9.57.51 AM
(All the men's stuff is from Old Navy, all the women's from Ann Taylor Loft. I have seen every single one of these at work, with the exception of that blazer that is orange, but I think that's because it is orange)

And that's just in the day to day! At conferences it gets worse. Men will stick with the button down shirt, while women feel forced to pull out the pencil skirts and heels and makeup and other things.

I say "feel forced", because I really DO feel forced. I don't mind dressing up really (ideally, I'd have a closet like a cartoon character's, exactly the same thing on dozens of different hangers, but I probably wouldn't really care what it was, as long as I was warm enough and could do bench work in it), but now, I feel like I don't fit in if I don't. Further, I worry that people will not take me SERIOUSLY if I don't.

When you reach the postdoc (and further, I imagine), you start to want to be taken seriously, whether it's as a member of your field or in front of the classroom. And at my particular stage, this comes with a challenge, I look as young as (and often AM as young as or younger than) some of the grad students I work with, and I look only a little older than the undergrads I teach. So do the guys (most of them). But while the guys just hop up in front of the class, and get taken seriously...I feel like I have to look nicer. Or I just won't get respected. I hear this from a lot of other women in my field. We feel like we have to dress "appropriately", or students, etc, won't take us seriously.

This double standard bothers me, because it's evidence of some of the deep sexism in our society. Women are required to look like, to "take care of" themselves, to look "appropriate" and "professional". Men, especially in academia, are seen as professional regardless of what they are wearing. In science, success and professionalism are supposed to be the result of what you DO. Not how you look. But it appears, at least to me, that this is only really true for men. For women, no matter what you DO, there's also an element of how you LOOK.

So while I need to keep my hair back to work at the bench, I think a pile of (somewhat artfully) placed pins is more "professional" looking than a baseball cap. Why don't I flout the norm and just go with the hat? I feel like I haven't achieved enough to be taken seriously that way, like I have to combine what I've done and the way I look to be taken as a professional.

Maybe it's just me. Is it just me? If you think it is, feel free to excoriate me in the comments.

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The superiority illusion: where everyone is above average

Apr 01 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

We'd all like to believe that we're above average, but statistically, that just can't be true. But why do we persist in believing it? How does our brain come up with the idea that we must be more above average than the other guy? I'm at SciAm today to talk over a new study that thinks they have the answers. Head over and check it out!

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