Blobologist-approved reads: oops, is it May?

Apologies, my dear, neglected readers, for posting so infrequently, but things have been a little hectic in the House of Blob this semester. Sadly, this meant there was no time for blogging. On the positive side, I did at least spend that time writing about science, InDesigning up a storm, creating a hella professional social media strategy for a clinical research group and building a pretty respectable looking website for a local non-profit.

But now I’m left with a blobology backlog that I will address with the following strategic plan:

1) Present my ScienceSeeker picks from the past few months, even though they are now horrifically out-of-date

2) Post a couple of my favourite science writing class assignments

3) Mix myself a Dark ‘n’ Stormy

I might not follow this plan in the prescribed order.

My ScienceSeeker editor’s picks: The semester shell-shock edition

The Unresolved Mysteries of the Mold in Your House
Contains the answer to the question, “What do your dishwasher and fruit bat’s colon have in common?”
Rachel Adams at Your Wild Life (guest)

When #chemophobia isn’t irrational: listening to the public’s real worries.
Part of the on-going conversation about chemophobia, which is the blanket distrust that many people feel towards anything they consider “chemical.” But shouting at people that they don’t understand what that word means doesn’t help anyone, least of all chemists.
Janet D. Stemwedel at Doing Good Science

How genetic plunder transformed a microbe into a pink, salt-loving scavenger
A tale of genetic thievery on an epic scale.
Lucas Brouwers at Thoughtomics

How to protect lions?
Can we really protect lions by fencing them in or by hunting them?
Colin Beale at Safari Ecology

Ducks Meet the Culture Wars
A beautifully written defense of basic science and the point of studying duck penises.
Carl Zimmer at The Loom

The Narcissism of De-Extinction
If you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed that the TedX DeExtinction conference got me uncharacteristically irritated and even made me break out some ALL CAPS OUTRAGE. Thankfully, by the time I extricated myself from TweetDeck Hannah Waters was already ON IT, explaining much more thoughtfully and lucidly than I could why it was just ALL SO ANNOYING.
Hannah Waters at Culturing Science

Roller Derby Teammates Give Each Other Bacterial Hugs
Roller Derby teams are close and so are their skin microbes.
Kate Clancy at Context and Variation

The two ideas to fix the gender balance that do not make me cringe
Two recent (at least, they were recent when I made this pick) initiatives for addressing the fact there are not enough women in the most powerful positions in science.
Eva Amsen at Occam’s Typewriter (guest)

There Should Be Grandeur: Basic Science in the Shadow of the Sequester
On the risks posed to basic research by the sequester. Featuring the line: “paying for basic research is a bet a society makes on its future.”
Tom Levenson at Scientific American Guest Blog

Buzzsaw Jaw Helicoprion Was a Freaky Ratfish
So paleontologists finally solved the mystery of where to put the the spectacular buzzsaw jaws on their Helicoprion reconstructions.
Brian Switek at Laelaps


Carey Morewedge serves up an imaginary feast

Dear Blobologist,

I know I’ve been neglecting you recently. As a peace offering, here’s a class assignment I did a few weeks ago, based on an interview with a researcher from my university. I hope it will tide you over.


Cristy xx


Imagine your favorite food.

Chocolate, cheddar cheese, chicken tikka masala, whatever your weakness, picture it just out of reach, glistening enticingly.

Although this food isn’t real, your body might be responding as if it were. Perhaps your mouth is watering or maybe you’re feeling the pang of cravings. But Carey Morewedge, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says food fantasies can have an even stranger effect; he has shown that we can be satisfied by imaginary food.

When Morewedge and his collaborators, Young Eun Huh and Joachim Vosgerau, began their research into imaginary feasts, most psychologists believed that the more you thought about food, the more you craved it. The problem with this idea was that when you eat food in real life, you crave it less rather than more. Our first mouthful of a favorite dish makes us desire it more, but as we eat bite after bite, we start to lose interest. This loss of interest is called “habituation” and is part of every pleasurable experience, from food to sex to watching Gangnam Style.

So why doesn’t imagining food also make us lose interest? Morewedge and his group asked this question because when we imagine an experience, our bodies and minds often respond as if that imagined experience were real. They guessed that the reason previous studies had not observed habituation was because study participants didn’t take their imaginary experiences far enough.

“If I’m thinking about a Chipotle burrito, I’m thinking about the shape, what’s inside it, what it will taste like on the first bite, what it might smell like, or how warm it might be,” says Morewedge. “But I do not think about biting, chewing and swallowing the whole burrito.”

So the researchers asked people to think about biting, chewing and swallowing M&Ms. Each person in their study imagined performing 33 repetitive actions: either inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine, inserting 30 quarters into the machine and then eating 3 M&Ms, or inserting 3 quarters into the machine and eating 30 M&Ms. Inserting quarters was chosen as a control for imagining an action similar to picking up candy.

After their mental exertions, the participants were allowed to eat as many M&Ms as they wanted during preparation for a fictitious “taste test.” Psychologists often include these kinds of deceptive scenarios to prevent people guessing what behavior is being measured, which can influence their response.

After each experiment, Morewedge’s team weighed the M&M bowl to see how much the participant had eaten. The results showed that people who had imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate almost half as many real M&Ms as those who imagined eating only three. In effect, they had satisfied their desire for M&Ms without actually eating any.

This only worked when people pictured eating the M&Ms. When they instead imagined moving the candy into a bowl, the people who moved more imaginary M&Ms ended up eating more real M&Ms, rather than fewer. That kind of imagery only whetted their appetites.

But was this really habituation? To test this, the researchers looked for one of the hallmarks of habituation, called sensory specificity or the “dessert stomach” effect.

“We’ve all heard of this phenomenon,” says Morewedge. “When you go to a restaurant, you finish your entree and you can’t even imagine eating another bite. And then someone rolls out a cart of cheese or cakes, and all of a sudden you have a renewed interest in food.”

Just like real habituation, the imaginary M&Ms did not affect participants’ desire for other types of food, in this case, cubes of cheddar cheese. It worked the other way as well: eating more imaginary cheddar cheese meant people tended to eat fewer real cheese cubes, but it had no effect on how many M&Ms they ate.

So does this mean you can think yourself thin? Probably not. The dessert stomach effect is one reason why Morewedge doesn’t think we’ll see their results become the next diet craze. Imaginary eating habituates you to the food you have imagined, but makes other foods seem even more appealing.

Instead of using the research to come up with a diet miracle, the group is trying to apply their results to other contexts, like cigarette smoking, to see if mental habituation might be a useful tool for modifying addictive behavior.

But even if we are never able to harness the power of that imaginary chicken tikka masala for practical use, Morewedge and his colleagues have made an important theoretical advance. The line between imagination and physical experience is blurrier that we used to believe — a pleasant idea to contemplate the next time you get a hankering for something just out of your reach.

m&ms on asphalt

Photo credit: Flickr user Zen. Shared under this Creative Commons license

Blobologist-approved reads: Privilege, pigeons, polyester, paleontology & pythons

My ScienceSeeker editor’s picks: The between conferences edition

A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity by Miriam Goldstein at Deep Sea News

A much-needed list of the barriers that can prevent people from making it in science. If you’re a scientist, I insist that you read this.

A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door good by Danielle Lee at The Urban Scientist

Miriam Goldstein’s field guide prompted an important post from Danielle Lee, in which she shares her stories from the trenches of high school science fairs. Even if you’re not a scientist, I insist that you read this.

Pigeons: Darwin’s Unappreciated Avian Assistant by Michael Wheelock at The Incubator

Why pigeons and not finches should be remembered as Darwin’s best feathered friends.

My Sweaty Valentine by Rebecca Guenard at Scientific American Guest Blog

Why is it that polyester always make you smell so bad? Rebecca turned her sweaty synthetic experience at ScienceOnline2013 into a wise-cracking journey into the science of B.O.

Why Paleontology Is Relevant by Sarah Werning at The Integrative Paleontologists

Turns out it’s not just because paleontologists often teach anatomy to med students.

Calories aren’t right on labels and maybe that’s OK by David Despain at Evolving Health

Does a doughnut = an apple? Does a calorie = a calorie? Does a whole rat = a blended rat? The answers to these questions and more in David’s fascinating write up of a AAAS meeting session on counting calories.





Two books that made me a biologist and the common ancestry of me and my not-especially-adorable study organism


Last year on Darwin day I had the time to write a personal reflection on my Darwin fangirldom. This year, I have no experiments to tend to, but I still have six impossible deadlines to make before breakfast (seriously, I do). So, with no time for reflection, I’ll just recycle my thoughts from a year ago, warts and over-earnestness and all:


203 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. Darwin’s most wonderful idea, evolution by natural selection, eventually became the organising principle around which the field of biology is built. But from a more self-absorbed perspective, that idea is also what first attracted me to biology.

I’m wearing my ScienceOnline2012 temporary Darwin tatoo for the occasion.

In high school, I wanted to grow up to become either a filmmaker or an English professor. But I was also a giant nerd, and in Year 11 I won an award for biology, the prize for which was a book voucher. For the sake of the award ceremony I decided I should choose a book about biology–The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould. The cover featured a panda intensely inspecting its thumb, which resembled another intensely focused panda displaying another thumb, which was yet another panda, and inside were 35 essays on topics close to the paleontologist-writer’s heart: evolutionary theory, Darwin, the history of science, and the politics of human difference. Frankly, to my teenaged eyes it looked boring, but I read it anyway. I had long known the principles of natural selection, but in school the ideas seemed dry and cramped. My dinosaur phase had come and gone without me ever thinking too hard about the processes that turned the descendants of walking reptiles into flying birds. Gould’s reflections, on the other hand, gripped me with an intensity that I think is best encapsulated by the expression of the panda from the front cover. He (Gould, not the panda) made me think about adaptation and change in new ways. He used unforgettable stories from nature, like bacteria that sense magnetic fields, the pseudogenitalia of female hyenas, the mites that die before they are born, and of course, the panda’s ‘thumb’ that is really a modified wrist bone. He turned the bearded anonymity of Darwin into a tangible person, one that grappled with real data and put together his ideas as best he could. He picked apart those ideas with fire and grace. He drew me in to a world of scientific debate and I couldn’t get enough.

I quickly read every Gould essay I could get my hands on, and because I was spending so much time browsing the biology shelves of the public library, I started picking up other books on biology.  One day, I came home with The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind by Steven Rose (fully illustrated). The book was not only about the neurobiology of memory, it was about what it meant to be a scientist. It opened with a kind of ‘day in the life’ of a neuroscientist and an extremely memorable description of a two-scientist production line, in which one person was responsible for cutting the heads off baby chicks, and the other scooped out the brains for analysis. As a vegetarian, and a snuggler of all things adorably fluffy, that book made me squeamish, but it also gave me the strange idea that I too could be a scientist, chipping away at our understanding of the world.

Factoid that connects the two books that made me a biologist: Rose was a Marxist. Gould was not, but was often accused of being a secret Marxist by his detractors.

But the book also made me sad. I thought science was out of reach for a book geek like myself. One night, at a gathering of restless teens, I told a friend about my new idea.

“I want to be a neurologist. But I can’t be, because I don’t think I could cut the heads off chicks all day.” My friend looked like she wanted to shake me.

“You could totally be a neurologist,” she insisted. “I want you to be one. You could employ me to deal with the chickens for you.”

Although that didn’t sound like a practical solution, the more I talked about my idea, the more confident I became. I asked my school’s vice principal if it was too late to drop my humanities electives and pick up chemistry. It was. He talked about how many months I’d missed, and how I would have to catch up by myself with the textbook. Then he told me that he knew I could do it.

So, fifteen years later, here I am, a soon-to-be-unemployed biologist. I lost interest in neurology at some point, but I never lost my love of Gould, and of Darwin, and their beautiful ideas. I tried, briefly, to become an evolutionary ecologist, before I realized I didn’t have enough maths training. Instead I find myself a specialist in the ways of the bakers’ yeast (brewers’ yeast, to its friends). Yeast are fungi, like mushrooms, but single-celled and not especially adorable. However, they do have their benefits as a study organism. The most important of those benefits, for my line of work, is that like every other living thing on earth, yeast are my relatives.


OK, I guess giant yeast can be cuddly. Photo from flickr by piefairy.

About a billion years ago, there was a free-living, single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a yeast, or a cell from my body, or one of the rat cancer cells in petri dishes that I will feed  as soon as I have finished this post.  That ancient organism had a nucleus, which is to say that a membrane separated its DNA from everything else inside the cell.  That cell also carried a vital, energy-generating, pet bacterium (the mitochondrion). It also had a system for transporting things in and out of the cell in bubbles of membrane (the endomembrane system). At some point in its life cycle, it must have had a single, whip-like flagellum that flapped from its posterior end. This busy cell was the last common ancestor of  both me and of the yeast I have just arranged onto a nutritious bed of jelly to be ready for an experiment next week.

Because we are related by heredity, many of the things I learn about those yeast cells will also be true of my own cells. I take advantage of this fact to study a human disease called antitrypsin deficiency using quickly dividing, cheap-to-grow, non-adorable yeast cells. When I make a discovery in yeast, I test whether it might also hold for mammalian cells by repeating the experiments in those rat cancer cells I should be tending. If my ideas are borne out by those experiments, then I turn them over to the medical scientists that study antitrypsin deficiency in the millions of humans that are afflicted by the disease worldwide.

Without an evolutionary framework, the way that I study antitrypsin deficiency wouldn’t make sense. It’s thanks to Darwin’s ideas that I became a biologist, but it’s also thanks to Darwin’s ideas that my work has value. So, please raise a glass of whatever you like to drink on a Sunday and wish a Happy Darwin Day to biologists, to all of humanity, and to our Opisthokont* cousins.

*Opisthokonta is a class of organisms that includes fungi and animals. Yeast and I are both opisthokonts because we are eukaryotes, but are more closely related to each other than to plants and our other, weirder, eukaryotic cousins.

Curiosity killed the parrot? My guest post at Scientific American blogs

There’s too much to say about kea, those playful, destructive and slightly obsessive-compulsive snow parrots from New Zealand. I wrote a guest post at Scientific American Blogs this week on the problem of lead poisoning in wild kea populations, but there were a million things I had to leave out for fear of boring people with kea overload. If I ever finish my homework, maybe I’ll  write more about them, in the meantime please enjoy:

Wheelie bin raids

The Kea Conservation Trust

The 1993 documentary Kea: Mountain Parrot

Kea - Mountain Parrot

Update (24th Jan):

Just plain ol’ footage of kea flying around: