Friday, August 31, 2012

Excusable Absence

This month, in lieu of my usual blog post, I got a PhD.

More science & writing next month after I get back from vacation!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Robyn's Thesis Song

Last week, I completed the first draft of my PhD dissertation. This got me nostalgic in thinking about my early grad school days. Way back when I was preparing for my qualifying exam, I created a rap version of my thesis project proposal. I'd been meaning to make a music video to go along with it, but I never got around to it (which is probably for the best). However, I DID want to share the song before I graduate. So here it is! The accompanying image is the wall diagram I used to organize my thesis project notes. Lyrics are below. Chickity check it out.

Rollin' with the Nigra*
(Robyn's Qualifying Exam in Hip-Hop Form)

* Backstory: This is about a brain area called the the substantia nigra pars reticulata, a.k.a. SNr, a.k.a. the nigra. The song is an accurate summary of all three aims of my thesis project proposal. But, as research often goes, this ended up not being my actual thesis project. 

When I say dopamine, you say you heard it all

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hope and Hype in the World of Stem Cells

If you're looking for revolutionary potential, unprecedented hype, and fierce controversy, you can't do much better than stem cells. Celebrity spokesmen praise stem cells as a miracle cure for apparently everything, while politicians argue whether the use of embryonic stem cells is equivalent to murder. As a field, stem cell biology is just starting to come into its own. A LOT more research is necessary before it can live up to the lofty expectations we've built up. But the scientific breakthroughs are coming fast.

Embryonic stem (ES) cells are controversial
Now a major advance has just been achieved by a group of scientists at the Gladstone Institute. Full disclosure: This is where I work, and I was very fortunate to actually have a small role in the project, which I'll explain in a minute. Readers of my blog know that I'm a shameless proponent of my friends' research. No shame because it's legitimately amazing. The newest study, lead by Karen Ring, will appear in the journal Cell Stem Cell next month (you can access it online now, here). Essentially what Karen and her colleagues discovered is a much better way of creating neurons out of skin cells. Newly-created neurons are the basis for hopes that stem cells might

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Favorite Symbioses

I recently finished a course called “Communicating in a Complex World” that was all about symbiotic relationships in nature.  This was an elective I picked because I wanted something out of my area of expertise (neuroscience), and because it just seemed like a cool topic.  Perhaps this is the Bay Area hippie side of me talking, but something about the idea of different living things coexisting in harmony, and actually working together to be better than they could be alone, is really beautiful.

 The course covered a lot of diverse topics, but I just wanted to share my three favorites with you.  First, though, a bit of terminology.  “Symbiosis” simply means living together, not necessarily good or bad.  What we usually refer to as symbiosis is specifically mutualism.  This is where both parties benefit.  If one benefits and the other is unaffected, it’s commensalism.  And parasitism, as we all know, is one benefiting at the expense of the other.  Those symbioses are no fun and they don’t make my list. 

1. Glowing squid

The bobtail squid hosts bioluminescent bacteria
[image from]

The Hawaiian bobtail squid has a very clever form of camouflage.  A nocturnal creature, it hides in the sand during the day then emerges to feed at night.  Predators watching from deeper waters look upward, searching for the dark squid silhouetted against the moonlit night sky.  To remain unseen, the bottom side of the squid lights up with a glow that mimics the light from above.  It’s the perfect adaptation.

However, unlike many other bioluminescent forms of sealife, the bobtail squid can’t produce

Monday, April 30, 2012

Form and Function: Architecture of the Brain

I recently wrote a News & Views article for the journal Nature Neuroscience.  It was my first primary-author paper as a grad student and I'm super excited about it.  However, it's hard to share this with all my friends and family because 1) the article is behind a paywall, and 2) it was written for neuroscientists, not a general audience.  So, I've decided to present a simplified, free version here!  If you want to check out the actual article, as well as the original research that is summarized, they're both available on the Nature Neuroscience website.

To put the topic of the article in the most extremely generalized way possible:  What can we tell about something from how it looks?

Examples of neuronal architecture, as drawn by
Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the father of neuroanatomy
Form & Function 

We can examine the teeth of a great white shark and assume that it's a vicious predator.  Or we can see a giraffe's long neck and suspect that it needs to reach high places to survive.  Structure often gives us many clues about function.  And this is true in neuroscience too.  A neuron with a broad, elaborate arbor of processes (see right) is more likely to receive and integrate diverse information than a neuron with only a few simple processes.  

However, the story of form & function is usually much more complicated.  Especially when dealing with heterogeneous populations -- groups of neurons with distinct properties all living

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review - How We Believe

How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God
Michael Shermer
2000, Holt & Co.

The debate between religion and science is a delicate one at best, and a hostile, divisive one at worst.  As such, understanding how and why people are religious, and approaching these questions with intelligent and respectful discourse, is essential.  In How We Believe, founder of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer attempts a comprehensive exploration of this highly sensitive and important issue.

With a cautious and critical eye, Shermer examines everything from mythology in indigenous cultures to Gallup polls of religion in modern American society, from philosophy to cosmology, from biology and evolution to messiahs and the end of the world.  Arguing against conciliatory views of religion and science (e.g. intelligent design), he asserts that while everyone is free to have their own religious beliefs, they cannot use science to support their faith.  He ends by speculating about what it means to find meaning and our place in the universe without God or

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A New Target for Parkinson's

More evidence that I work with some pretty amazing people!  A recent study led by Talia Lerner, a former grad student in our lab, has revealed a new target in the battle against Parkinson's disease. Check out this coverage on the local news...


It's actually an incredibly in-depth, thorough study. I'm just going to summarize the main

Friday, January 27, 2012

Dangerous Science

Researchers have reportedly uncovered a dangerous secret, and the way the scientific community chooses to proceed could be a matter of life and death.

The issue at hand is the creation of a modified H5N1 ("bird flu") virus. This is the flu virus that caused global panic several years ago, killing millions of farmed birds and forcing mass-culling of hundreds of millions more to prevent the spread. Hundreds of humans were infected as well, and of those more than half died. This is what sets H5N1 apart -- its alarmingly high mortality rate. Seasonal flus are rarely deadly except in individuals already at risk due to other conditions. H5N1, in contrast, can easily take down a healthy young adult.

A new man-made bird flu virus is easily transmitted in mammals
(image from
Despite the lethal potential of H5N1, previous outbreaks have not resulted in a global pandemic. This is because the spread of bird flu in mammals is very limited - essentially restricted to individuals directly handling infected poultry. A fortunate property of an otherwise very unfortunate virus. Or at least that used to be the case.

Now two groups of scientists have reportedly created a new form of H5N1 that is easily transmitted in mammals.