Today, July 31st would have been inventor Stephanie Kwolek’s 95th birthday. Kwolek was a chemist at DuPont, where she invented Kevlar, the first synthetic material of exceptional strength, which is used in bullet-proof vests. She has won multiple awards and is featured in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
As you may or may not know, my day job is to be a scientist. I work at a small pharmaceutical company in their skin biology or “IVPT” (In Vitro Permeation Testing) department. Let me warn you right now, if you’re squeamish about dead stuff/the human body you should probably click away. I’ve got nice, fun articles about traveling in New York or making yummy veggie squares that are not gross at all.
Okay, non-squeamish people, thank you for sticking with me! My job is to test various topical products (skin ointments, creams, gels, etc) on various membranes, most commonly on human cadaver skin. I’ve also worked with fresh/flash frozen human skin (skin that was removed during surgery), pig skin, and nasal tissue cultures.
My least favorite was the pig skin; after awhile I couldn’t get those little dead piggies out of my head. I don’t know how folks work with animals that they are conducting studies on and then have to euthanize. It’s definitely not for me! However, it is a necessary evil: the FDA requires animal testing for all pharmaceuticals (including things like sunscreen) before they can reach human clinical trials. Luckily, there is no live animal testing at my company, and the pig skin (which was harvested off-site) is my only experience working on any kind of animal testing.
Most of my work is with human cadaver skin, which is donated by 100% consenting human adults! I am tasked with mounting pieces of skin onto diffusion cells, applying a topical formulation on top, and removing samples throughout the testing period. I also have to separate the skin layers and process the samples for analysis. They’re then passed on to another scientist who analyzes the samples on a Liquid Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry or High Performance Liquid Chromatography/fluorescence detector. Analysis is super complex and not my job so I’m not even going to try to explain it!
I’ve also done a variety of non-lab work for the support of the skin biology department. Writing protocols, placing skin orders (way creepier sounding than it is. I like to say “My job is to order dead people’s skin off the internet.”), organizing tissues and other supplies, and other boring office stuff are the less-cool parts of my job.
I mostly wanted to share with you all a little bit more about me. I hope you learned something new! The US’s drug approval process is long (10-15 years) and I participate in one tiny sliver of it. There are definitely movements to shorten the process, but having seen a little of the behind-the-scenes, let me tell you, you do not want it shortened at the expense of your safety. So much goes into testing the safety, stability, and bioavailability* that it’s difficult and unsafe to rush.
I would love to see a reduction in animal testing, which brings me to my secondary goal with this post: to encourage you to become an organ donor/donate your body to science. So many fields benefit from having real human organs/bodies to conduct tests on; from pharmaceuticals to medical schools, to forensic science to transplant centers: the list goes on and on. An increase in the availability of human organs in pharmaceuticals would not only reduce the animal testing needed, but increase the accuracy and reliability of the results. I’ve linked a few different guides to the steps you need to take to donate your body to science.
Are you an organ donor? Do you plan to donate your body to science? Why or why not? Tell me about it in the comments below! Share this post via Facebook or Twitter and, as always, follow me here on WordPress for more GREAT content like this!
*basically how well the drug will actually work with your body. See linked article for a more detailed explanation.
Essential oils have been quickly gaining popularity in the past few years. Multi Level Marketing Schemes (also known as MLMs or Pyramid schemes) like Young Living and doTERRA have caused an explosion in the availability and popularity of essential oils. These companies advertise essential oils as “all-natural” and “therapeutic.” This marketing technique is designed to make potential buyers think that the oils are 100% harmless. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many essential oils are highly toxic to animals, especially to cats.
You may hear people argue that “therapeutic grade” essential oils are less harmful because they’re more pure. This not at all the case. More concentrated oils are significantly more harmful to your feline friends! Cats lack certain enzymes in their liver that humans have which helps us to metabolize toxins like essential oils.
According to Kia Benson, DVM via the Pet Poison Helpline:
“Essential oils can pose a toxic risk to household pets, especially to cats. They are rapidly absorbed both orally and across the skin, and are then metabolized in the liver. Cats lack an essential enzyme in their liver and as such have difficulty metabolizing and eliminating certain toxins like essential oils. Cats are also very sensitive to phenols and phenolic compounds, which can be found in some essential oils. The higher the concentration of the essential oil (i.e. 100%), the greater the risk to the cat.”
Okay, so which oils have been found to be dangerous? Eucalyptus and tea tree oil have both been found to be damaging to cats, but any concentrated oil is potentially dangerous. If your cat has been exposed, consider taking them to a vet to have them checked out.
For the sake of your feline friends, be careful what you use in your home. Have a diffuser, make your home smell great, but don’t use oils that are known toxins if you have pets. Keep the diffuser in a room your pet can’t access; they could potentially knock over the diffuser and be exposed to the toxins in a concentrated form. I’ve included many articles from different sources (including the ASPCA’s poison control) warning pet owners about the dangers of these substances. Don’t be stubborn, listen to the experts and take care of your pets.
ASPCA general article harms of EOs: https://www.aspca.org/news/latest-home-trend-harmful-your-pets-what-you-need-know
Pet Poison Helpline: http://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/blog/essential-oils-cats/
Metro Dangerous to cats: http://metro.co.uk/2018/01/11/essential-oils-aroma-diffusers-dangerous-cats-7222598/
The Spruce EOs and cats: https://www.thespruce.com/dangers-of-essential-oils-555089
Scientists generally agree that dogs genetically diverged from wolves between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. However, the circumstances from which dogs became domesticated are disputed. Until this past July, geneticists and archaeologists believed that dogs were domesticated on two separate occasions: one domestication evolved into Eastern breeds and the other into Western breeds of dogs. However, recent genetic evidence suggests dogs were domesticated only once, and that the East/West split occurred after domestication.
In July of 2017, a study was published which studied several dogs’ genomes (genomes are the map of all of an organism’s genes). This genetic evidence lead the researchers to believe that there was a single domestication event. “We really don’t know where dogs were domesticated and as far as we can tell it happened once,” Pontus Skoglund, geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “The researchers estimate that dogs and wolves diverged genetically between 36,900 and 41,500 years ago, and that eastern and western dogs split 17,500–23,900 years ago. Because domestication had to have happened between those events, the team puts it somewhere from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.” (Nature.com)
One earlier theory suggested that dogs may have begin to evolve alongside farms, developing the ability to digest grain. This theory indicates that wolves who could digest the grain stored on the farms were later domesticated by the farmers. However, the genetic evidence from the dog genomes studied this year suggests that they evolved the ability to digest grain after domestication. The ability to digest grain is marked by the number of copies of the AMY2B gene. The researchers found that dogs who lived thousands of years after domestication still did not have the genetic markers for the ability to digest grain, strongly suggesting that the previous theory (that wolves became able to digest grain, and were then domesticated by farmers) to be untrue.
Archaeologists still believe that dogs were domesticated twice, due to archaeological evidence. In time, I am confident more research will be conducted, and a clearer picture drawn so that scientists can pin down what truly happened thousands of years ago. However, one thing is clear–dog has been man’s best friend for a very long time.
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You are probably familiar with elephants…
Yeah, these guys:
You were probably taught that there are two species of elephants, Asian elephants, and African elephants. You were also most likely taught that they’re distantly related to Wooly Mammoths.
It’s true that for years the family Elephantidae was believed to have two extant (currently living) species: Elephas maximus (the Asian elephant) and Loxodonta africana (now known to be the African savanna or bush elephant).
However, in recent decades it has been discovered that African elephants actually fall into two species, Loxodonta cyclotis (the African forest elephant) and Loxodonta africana (the African Savanna Elephant).
(Top photo: African forest elephant; bottom photo: African savanna elephant)
Recently as of 2001, morphological comparisons of skull measurement and molecular tests were performed on nearly 300 elephants, and distinct differences were found between the two kinds of African elephants
The forest elephant differs from the savanna elephant in several distinctive ways, including:
- Ear shape
- Tusk anatomy
- Distinct skull morphology
This lead scientists to often classify the forest elephant as a subspecies, L. a. cyclotis.
However, there was much controversy and these differences were often ignored.
By using previous data gathered from mitochondrial DNA analyses, scientists have found that the closest living relative of the extinct woolly mammoth is the Asian elephant.
(Top photo: Asian elephant; bottom photo: Wooly Mammoth)
It is now believed that the two species of African elephant actually diverged from one another in the more distant past than Asian elephants diverged from the extinct genus Mammuthus (including Mammuthus primigenius, the woolly mammoth), meaning that African elephants are far less closely related than scientists once believed.
The mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) analysis suggests that wooly mammoths and Asian elephants diverged 5.8–7.8 mya (million years ago).
MtDNA analysis also suggests that the 2 species of African elephant diverged earlier; about 6.6–8.8 mya.
Through DNA analysis scientists discovered a lot of new information about elephants. They realized that African elephants actually fall into not one, but two species. They learned about the extinct woolly mammoth, and its connections to the extant Asian elephant. Finally, scientists concluded that African elephants diverged from one another in the more distant past than Asian elephants diverged from wooly mammoths.
Do you like elephants as much as I do? What do you think about these discoveries? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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African Elephant photo 1: https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/species-spotlight-african-elephant
Asian Elephant photo 1: http://elelur.com/mammals/asian-elephant.html
Wooly Mammoth photo 1: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/animals/woolly-mammoth/#woolly-mammoth-standing.jpg
Elephant family photo 1: https://iso.500px.com/baby-elephant-photos/
Nadin Rohland, David Reich, Swapan Mallick, Matthias Meyer, Richard E. Green, Nicholas J. Georgiadis, Alfred L. Roca, Michael Hofreiter “Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants” Plos Biology
Alfred L. Roca, Nicholas Georgiadis, Jill Pecon-Slattery, Stephen J. O’Brien “Genetic Evidence for Two Species of Elephant in Africa” Science Magazine
When asked about your origins, do you tell others you’re 50% German and 20% Irish and a little bit Polish, Dutch, and French? Have you ever wondered exactly where your family is from? For around $200 you can unlock the secrets of your own genetics. Many online services including 23andMe, Ancestry.com, Orig3n, and others offer kits to test your genes. Simply spit in a tube and send it off with the fee and they’ll send back stats about your roots. Pretty cool, right? But what about the other information they can provide? Your risks for certain cancers, diseases, and other disorders could be given to you in hard numbers. But what do you do with that information?
When these tests first came out, they handed you an armload of information, but no means to interpret it. The FDA realized that this information was causing people unessescary panic, so they froze the ability to provide information about genetic predisposition to diseases, only allowing companies to provide the public with their family history of origin. This past April (2017) the FDA partially lifted this ban, allowing 23andMe to provide you with your risk for 10 diseases. According to CNN, these diseases are: “Parkinson’s; late-onset Alzheimer’s; celiac disease; a movement disorder called early-onset primary dystonia; a disorder that elevates your risk for lung and liver disease called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency; a blood clotting disorder Factor XI deficiency; an organ and tissue disorder called Gaucher disease type 1; a red blood cell condition known as G6PD; hereditary hemochromatosis, an iron overload disorder; and hereditary thrombophilia, a blood clot disorder.”
While it’s amazing that this information is available to you at a low cost, what do you do with it? So you find out you have a 90% of developing Alzheimer’s. There is no cure, no treatment, nothing you can do about it. I would highly recommend talking to a genetic counselor. They can discuss with you what these numbers mean, and what you can do about it. Always keep in mind that your results are not a diagnosis. Even a high risk of a disorder does not guarantee that you will develop it.
Genetic testing is an amazing scientific advancement. If you can afford it, I would recommend getting your genes tested. You can learn so much about your family history and yourself. Just be aware of the accuracy of the tests and what to do with the information you receive. Happy learning!
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- Marie Curie
One of my personal favorite scientists is Maria Skłodwska Curie, better known as Madame Marie Curie, is one of the most well-known scientists in history. She was born in Warsaw, Poland (which was controlled by Russia at the time), where she began her studies. Dr. Curie went on to become the first female professor at the University of Paris, the first woman to win a Nobel prize, and is the only person (not just the only woman, the only person) to win a Nobel prize in two different science categories. She was a physicist and chemist who pioneered research in radioactivity (she even coined the term “radioactivity”), and paved the way for women like me to become scientists.
- Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin was a major contributor to our current understanding of the structure of DNA. Using X-rays, Dr. Franklin examined DNA, and her images helped Watson and Crick to discover the double helix structure, a discovery that earned them a Nobel prize (which was unfortunately awarded after Dr. Franklin’s death, and therefore she was not a co-recipient of the award). In addition to her work with DNA, Dr. Franklin also researched virus structure, for which her co-worker, Aaron Klug earned a Nobel prize in chemistry (again, this was after her death, so Dr. Franklin was not a co-recipient).
- Flossie Wong-Staal
Flossie Wong-Staal, as the image above states, was the first researcher to clone and map the genes of HIV. Her research was instrumental in the discovery that HIV causes AIDS. She also discovered the function of the genes in the virus. Currently, Dr. Wong-Staal is the chief scientific officer for iTherX, a pharmaceutical company she co-founded.
- Barbara McClintock
Dr. Barbara McClintock’s biggest achievement is the discovery of genetic transposition, for which she earned a Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. She is the only woman to earn an unshared Nobel prize in that category. Dr. McClintock conducted her research on maize, where she studied chromosomes. Her research led to many discoveries in the field of genetics, including crossing over during meiosis, also known as genetic recombination, the roles of various chromosomal segments, and theories on the suppression and expression of genes.
- Valentina Tereshkova
On June 16th, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to go to space. After being honorarily inducted into the Soviet Air Force, Tereshkova joined the cosmonaut corps, and became the first civilian to travel to space. After her cosmonaut career, she attended the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy where she graduated as a cosmonaut engineer; she later earned a doctorate in engineering. Dr. Tereshkova was a prominent member of the communist party, and remained politically active after the fall of the Soviet Union. She is still well-loved and in 2013 expressed her love of Mars and desire to travel there. Dr. Tereshkova was quoted saying “We know the human limits. And for us this remains a dream. Most likely the first flight will be one way. But I am ready.”
- Stephanie Kwolek
You may not have heard of Stephanie Kwolek, but I assure you, you know her legacy, Kevlar. While working for DuPont as a chemist, she was tasked with developing a new fiber to be used in tires. The mixture she created was almost thrown away, but Kwolek convinced a co-worker it should be tested, and it was found to be incredibly strong, especially considering its weight. This fiber was perfected into what we know as Kevlar, the material bulletproof vests are made from. Her discoveries also led to the rise of the polymer science.
- Shirley Ann Jackson
In 1973, Shirley Ann Jackson became the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from MIT, and the second African-American woman to earn a doctorate in Physics. Dr. Jackson spent her scientific career as a theoretical physicist, an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. She has contributed to over 100 scientific articles. In 1995, Dr. Jackson was appointed to serve as the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commision by President Clinton, and was the first woman and first African-American to hold the position. In 1999 she became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and was, again, the first woman and first African-American to hold the position. Since then, Dr. Jackson has become one of the highest paid professors in the United States and serves on the board of directors for over a dozen companies including IBM, FedEx, and the New York Stock Exchange.
- Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and computer scientist in the 19th century. She is widely considered the creator of the first computer program. Lovelace created an algorithm to be run on an “Analytical Engine” which would compute Bernoulli numbers.
- Mary Jackson
In 1958, Mary Jackson became NASA’s first African-American female engineer. After graduating college with a dual degree in math and physical science, Jackson began her career as a teacher at a black school in Maryland (public schools were still segregated at the time). Her first job at NASA was as a mathematician, and after 34 years she had achieved the most senior engineer position at NASA. Throughout her life she tutored high school and college students, and was an advocate for women and other minorities.
Hypatia, also known as Hypatia of Alexandria, was a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in 300-400 CE. She collaborated with her father and fellow mathematician, Theon of Alexandria. No written work of hers has survived to modern times, however, it is documented that she was head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria sometime around 400, where she taught philosophy.
I barely hit the tip of the iceberg with this post. These women contributed so much to the scientific community, as did many, many women like them. I could write ten articles about amazing women in science, but I chose these ten women for their groundbreaking contributions to science and/or for being the first woman to contribute to their field.
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