Friday, July 29, 2011

Teens Find Weeds in Tea

Combine science and tea and you have my immediate attention. Three teenage tea researchers used DNA testing to sleuth out the componants of one of the worlds' most popular beverage—tea. Mark me down as one of the more ardent tea fans.

Catherine Gamble, 18, Rohan Kirpekar, 18, and Grace Young, 15, tested commercially available teas using genetic analysis to find the DNA signatures of plants as part of the TeaBOL: Tea Barcode of Life Project. The young scientists tested 70 true teas (those that contain the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis). Of those, only a marginal 4 percent contained plants not listed on the labeling. However, the herbal infusions (tsanes) had unlisted plants in 21 of the 60 samples tested. In sum, 146 products from 33 different manufacturers were tested. The products came from 17 different countries.

Contamination in real teas is rare because they are cupped (taste tested) frequently. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for herbal infusions. This is a concern because of allergies and other health issues.

For example, a bag labeled "St. John's Wart" contained a type of fern. Those drinking herbal blends to avoid caffinee may want to look for a caffiene-free label; four of the "herbal" ifusions contained real tea leaves, Camellia sinensis, which naturally has a low level of caffiene.

Some of the other stow away plants found were:
  • chamomile (Matricaria recutita) – an herb
  • white goosefoot (Chenopodium album) – a common weed
  • red bartsia (Odontites vernus) – a common weed
  • bluegrass (Poa annua) – meadow grass
  • lantana (Lantana spp.) – a garden flower
  • Taiwanese cheesewood (Pittosporum pentandrum) – an ornamental tree
  • alfalfa (Medicago sativa) – a flowering grass
  • lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) – an herb
  • heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) – an herb
  • blackberry (Rubus spp.) – a fruit
  • papaya (Carica papaya) – a fruit

The young scientists also discovered unexpected genetic differences in teas from different areas. This surprising finding is exciting. The broad-leaf “assamica” tea exported from India and small-leaf “sinensis” variety tea exported from China, had new genetic differences scientists in this field of research had never seen.

How did the teens do it? They found high tech equipment for a low cost by purchasing used lab equipment on the internet for less than $5,000. They set up their genetic lab on the dining room table of their mentor, Mark Stoekle, adjunct faculty member with the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University. Genetic samples extracted were sent for analysis at a commercial DNA sequencing facility.

You can read the full results of this tea study in the Nature journal Scientific Reports. Personally, I find this kind of involvement by teens in research to be not only exciting but also promising for the future of science.

Now, pardon me, but all this tea talk has made me thirsty. Time to go brew a cup of my favorite Chocolate Chip flavored black tea.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Physicists Cast Doubts on Time Travel

My time travel dreams have been shattered. Physicists just proved that I cannot jump into Doc's DeLorean, accelerate to 88 miles per hour, and activate the flux capacitor to travel through time. (The flux capacitor is "what makes time travel possible," according to Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown in Back to the Future.)

Despite previous speculation to the contrary, single photons cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Physicists at the Hong Kong University of Science determined this when they achieved the previously impossible by measuring an optical precursor. Optical precursors are the waves that precede photons in a material. Trying to picture photons on their correct scale is hard (leaving aside the even more complicated fact that photons don't actually have a defined, single size). Feel free to join me in imagining the optical precursor as the wind you feel rocking your car at the passing of a semi truck.

Theoretical debates raised the possibility of time travel 10 years ago, when scientists discovered superliminal (faster than light) propegation of optical pulses in some specific medium. Though this was later found to be an opitcal effect, researchers still speculated that a single photon might exceed light speed. The Lead physicist on the project, Shengwang Du, was determined to end the debate. His team managed to separate the optical precursor from the rest of the photon wave packet, prooving that Albert Einstein was right when he theorized that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light.

Not that I personally have the brain power to question Einstein. My brain doesn't work that way. Maybe that's good. It helps the suspension of disbelief required while watching Back to the Future, so that I can at least re-visit the fun to be had in the first and third movies in the trilogy.

Where does that leave the time travel in my book? Time travel by other means has not been entirely ruled out. I'm sticking with my wormhole theory. Imagination still needs the occasional reason to roam.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Milk Can Help You Beat Cancer

I like to blog on public health topics, but colon cancer is a topic that I hadn't even considered fell into that realm, until today when I read "The Cancer You Can Beat Today." Colon cancer is highly treatable, because it takes 30 years or more to develop. Polyps grow on colon walls and slowly morph into tumors. Only during the last few years of that time period are the growths lethal and capable of spreading. This is a public health concern because early detection is hampered by people being squemish about the exam.

Risk factors include:
  • Family history
  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
Methods to reduce your risk:
  1. Step away from your desk. Inactivity may encourage cancer growth, possibly due to inflammation.
  2. Take a baby aspirin a day. The painkillers reduce cancer-friendly inflammation.
  3. Drink more milk. Vitamin D and calcium can help reduce your risk.
I'll add a fourth way to reduce risk. Read the article I linked above for more detail. Knowledge is a powerful tool.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What makes a perfectly normal day extraordinary?

Super toddler loves swimming
Today was one of those perfectly normal days that turned out to be perfectly extraordinary. As a family, we checked out from our usual routine and spent the day together. Highlights play like beautiful snapshots across my memory.
  • A vivid dream yielded to my morning wake-up via a precious, little voice over the baby monitor. 
  • At lunch, 15-month-old son told us very plainly that he was "all done" (via sign language) with his grilled cheese; he wanted more of his favorite cantaloupe, thank-you-very-much. 
  • We browsed children's books together, reading one here and there. Little man made us both laugh as he waited for an isle to clear, rocking to the balls of his feet with his hands tucked behind his back.
  • A late afternoon nap, started with toddler in crib and parents in their bed, turned into a family snooze when my son woke up too soon. Hubby brought son to our bed where he snuggled up between us, using daddy's arm as a pillow. I dozed off again with a smile on my face.
  • As the sun was setting, we closed a banner day by taking our little fishie to the pool. He is taking after his proud ex-lifeguard mother. Phrases said by both parents, in unison, included "Don't drink the water!"
  • Bedtime meant bath, reading a small mountain of books, prayer, singing while cuddling, and then putting baby, I mean toddler, to bed with a final kiss and goodnight wish. We do this every night, but it is always special when my little man-on-the-move slows down enough to cuddle with Mommy.
Days like today leave a lingering warmth that far exceeds the cup of creamy chocolate tea I'm sipping. I just had to try to splash a little of the wonder in your direction. Please share your stories. What are your memory snapshots of a perfectly normal, extraordinary day?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How do you spell ebook / eBook / e-book?

e symbol for electronicMy last blog presented an unexpected challenge. How should I spell the shortened form of electronic book? Is it ebook, eBook, e-book, Ebook, E-Book.... The possibilities continue, but after writing a few versions they all begin to look like gibberish.

Unlike "it" and "it's" or "your" and "you're," all of the spellings mean the same thing. In my online reading, I mostly encounter three forms: ebook, eBook, and e-book. So which is it? As a writer with plans to release a book in electronic format, I really should know.

I tend to eschew the hyphen and capital in favor of ebook, but what do the experts say? Dictionary searches, including the New Oxford American Dictionary on my Kindle, show a preference for the spelling e-book, though some also list ebook or eBook as alternate spellings. The Chicago Manual of Style also favors e-book. News results tend to be split between ebook, eBook, and e-book, with the occasional E-Book or Ebook spelling.

That said, Amazon sells Kindle eBooks, Google has an eBookstore, and Barnes and Noble has an eBook store. Sony also calls them eBooks. Maybe the electronic book sellers have it right.

An interesting Google Awards Experiment, by Richard Adams, on What Spelling of "Ebook" Gets the Highest Response? concluded that Ebook and ebook get a similar number of click-throughs, but eBook received less than half the number of click-throughs. Adams' conclusion:
When using pay per click advertising, if your ad contains the work "ebook" never spell it as eBook
Like e-mail becoming the more popularly spelled email, I suspect that the spelling of ebook is still evolving. For now, I plan to stick with my personal preference, ebook. It's simple to recognize, easy to type, and to the point. What is your preferred spelling?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Can ebooks save children's backs?

Since the launch of ebook readers, there has been much discussion on their viability as textbook replacements. Today I read about Winn Sams, a chiropractor in Columbus, North Carolina, who has even contacted her state legislator about replacing textbooks with ebooks. She lifted one of her daughter's backpacks and was shocked at how heavy it was. Sams said, "When I initially called, he didn’t say much. Then, a couple of years later, he called me back and the movement started blossoming from there.”
Despite the growing interest in incorporating digital technology in schools, few are paying enough attention to the immediate health implications of heavy backpacks, Sams said. “Some kids are carrying twice their bodyweight. Their spines are still developing and these heavy backpacks are setting the way for spine issues,” she said. “Posture has radically changed, as well as the way kids walk. They have to plod their feet when lugging around a heavy backpack. ~ The OH&S Wire
Debate still rages over whether heavy backpacks cause permanant damage to kids' backs. MRI scans of eight children showed compression of disks and spinal curvature caused by typical school backpack loads, but eight is a very small sample. Sources that I would consider reuptable (such as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons) say that, while heavy backpacks can cause posture problems, they do not cause scoliosis or long-term damage to the spine.

Yes, ebook technology has come a long way in recent years, and sales have skyrocketed. According to Amazon, ebooks have been outselling paper books (paperback and hardback) since May. Barnes and Noble's CEO said that the company sells three times as many digital books as physical books on its website.

Despite the popularity of ebooks, early pilots resulted in rejection of the Kindle DX as a textbook. Though 90 percent of students liked the Kindle for pleasure reading, 80 percent would not recommend it as a classroom aid. (Here's an interesting article where students weigh in with their opinions.) Among the reasons cited for rejecting the Kindle as a textbook were the inability to easily highlight and write notes and lack of color charts and graphics. Early results also included lack of accessability to visually impared students. Subsequent Kindle generations did address this by adding text-to-speech capabilities. Unfortunately, this came under fire by the publishing industry.

I well remember the challange of lugging heavy textbooks and/or deciding which ones I could leave at home or in my locker for all or some of the day. As someone who regularly highlights and writes notes in her Kindle, I appreciate the advantages of being able to pull the file containing those notations. However, I tend to agree with this article: Could the Kindle Replace College Textbooks? The technology needs to be improved, but we will be there before we know it.

Do you think ebook readers, such as the Kindle, have a future as textbook replacements?

Friday, July 15, 2011

My newsletter: Improving Newborn Screening to save tiny lives

My son's newborn screen heelstick
I am the Editor of a public health newsletter. This is one of my favorite work tasks. Today I have an extra reason for celebration, because the July issue marks our second year of publication.

  • The Laboratorian, July 2011

  • This issue focuses on ways that we are working to improve a program that I believe in strongly. Despite the recent controversy surrounding newborn screening, it saves so many tiny lives. I gained a lot of peace of mind from knowing that my son tested negative for the 28 disorders covered in our newborn screening tests.

    The lead article features a link to a video that illustrates what happens when a child tests positive on the newborn screen. All of the disorders screened for are highly treatable. The catch: they must be diagnosed early.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Google to Release New Kindle Competition

    Jimi's Kindle
    The release of the Story HD, Google's eReader, is just days away. On July 17, 2011, it will be sold in Target stores for $139. The new eReader comes equipped with a QWERTY keyboard and WiFi capabilities. Though the new device isn't yet ready to be serious competition for Amazon's Kindle, more eBook readers mean more support for digital books. That's a good thing.

    Today, I puffed beneath the weight of the overflowing box of books as I lugged it toward the back of Half-Price Books. The thump of the box on the buy counter brought only relief, despite the fact that it signaled my parting with long-time friends—the survivors of the downsizing from previous moves. An amazing device has prompted the dramatic reduction in my paper book collection.

    When Amazon announced the launch of the Kindle, it was my dream device come true. I love both reading and gadgets, so nothing could be better than combining the two. I could see the end of packing a stack of books for each trip, choosing purses based on whether a book would fit in them, and breaking my back moving multiple bookshelves worth of books every few years. On June 6, 2008, I purchased my first Amazon Kindle.

    Now I am on my fourth Kindle. I sell the previous iteration and trade up with each new model released. It just keeps getting better.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Buy Groceries with Your iPhone

    A grocery store has launched a program to allow virtual grocery shopping using your smart phone. The catch: you have to live in South Korea.

    Tesco's Home Plus supermarket decorated a subway station wall with images of grocery shelves, turning wait time into the opportunity to get a dreaded chore out of the way. To shop, just scan the product's QR code. The item is added to your virtual grocery cart. After check-out, the groceries are scheduled for delivery to your home.

    I'm ready to sign up. Unfortunately, we don't have Tesco in Texas, let alone virtual grocery shelves. Maybe I will get a chance to try it when I visit my parents after their move to Korea. They can at least give me a report.

    Below is Tesco's presentation on the technology. Would you shop virtually, or do you prefer to pick your own produce?

    Sunday, July 10, 2011

    Your belly button is one of the last biological frontiers

    When I do think about belly buttons, which is surprisingly often with a toddler in the house, I usually just smile at the memory of how my son's belly button started as the umbilical cord that nourished him for nearly nine months. This week I learned about a research study called the Belly Button Biodiversity Project. The skin is still not a well studied organism; one set of researchers is working to change this by focusing on the tiny belly button, calling it "one of the last biological frontiers."

    Biologists and science communicators in North Carolina are sampling across the nation for belly button bacteria. The project is as much about teaching as about learning. Many different organisms live on our skin, but most are not bad. Thus far, 662 microbes new to science have been discovered. Nearly half of the 1,400 distinct bacterial strains found have not been seen before.

    Science writer Carl Zimmer (mentioned in my Bibliophile's Dilemma blog) donated a belly button swab. He blogged about discovering his microbiome, which consisted of 53 species of bacteria. Among the more exotic are one species previously only found in the ocean and another only found in living soil in Japan. Zimmer has never been to Japan.

    I'm fascinated and would happily volunteer a to give a sample. However, despite knowing that the organisms are benign and often beneficial, I will be scrubbing my belly button a bit more carefully.

    Click here to learn more about the Belly Button Biodiversity Project. For the baby/toddler set, my son recommends Where is Baby's Belly Button?

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    My Story in a Humor Flash Fiction Anthology

    My very first flash fiction story, "Pink Snowbunnies are the New Pink Ribbon," made it into the Pink Snowbunnies in Hell Flash Fiction Anthology!

    Pink snowbunnies? Where? It's a long, entertaining story. Well, it was entertaining to participants anyway, and we hope the anthology will be as well. I'll try to capture the highlights.

    As things sometimes do in internet land, an innocent chat between writers resulted in a comment that was immediately deemed epic. Debora Geary disputed a post by saying, "I think pink snowbunnies will ski in hell first." This was an artistic version of the "not a chance in hell" idiom. Any number of other writers immediately hopped on the idea, all in the spirit of good fun.

    Debora took it a step further when she quit her day job to write; she celebrated by proposing the Pink Snowbunnies in Hell Flash Fiction Anthology. The requirements: 100-1000 words, must contain some variation of the suddenly famous "pink snowbunnies will ski in hell" phrase, humor, and PG13. Authors took up the challenge. Puns and other hilarity ensued, along with quite a few references to chocolate and Nutella cookies. It must be admitted that many of us were blowing off steam while temporarily avoiding our current work in progress.

    Entries were evaluated by a panel of judges. Their job wasn't easy. The anthology may be available as early as August, so watch my blog for updates. Proceeds will be donated to an animal charity. I also plan to post links to some of the stories that didn't make the anthology. Here's a start:

    I'm excited to have this opportunity to introduce my main character, Jackie Davenport, in a lighter moment. During her first week at The Houston Chronicle, Jackie is given an impossible assignment. Not one to give up without a fight, she writes a unique article. How is a cause for hilarity with a Texas flair.

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    How do you celebrate the 4th of July?

    Happy fourth of July!

    As a child, I remember family celebrations where we enjoyed potato salad, burgers, and so much more. My siblings and I would swoop and dance as we used sparklers to write our names in the hot summer evening. We oohed and aahed over my dad's fireworks show just as much as we did the professional displayes at a nearby park.

    July 4th continues to be a family celebration. The focus has shifted to a birthday festivities with my husband's family as he shares his July 5th birthday with his twin sister. This year we enjoyed my mother-in-law's yummy homemade enchaladas, rice, beans, and salsa. I made Decadant Chocolate Orange Cake for the birthday boy and girl. We worked off the abundance playing with my toddler. He is becoming frighteningly proficient at walking. His favorite game is pulling any available and willing family member around by the finger. He laughs, talks, and squeals as he investigates his world on a whole new level.

    Being able to celebrate in your own way is a wonderful gift that began long ago, following from the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. What did today and the preceeding weekend bring for you?

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    Flu Vaccine Pill Designed by Teen

    Formulation V720 is the world's first and only flu vaccine in pill form. The vaccine is the same as what would be used in vaccinations, but the delivery method is a hard-shelled, multi-component capsule designed to move through the digestive system and release only when it reaches the small intestine. From there, the vaccine can be absorbed into the lymphatic system, which then generates an immune response.
    Grant Sparling
    The vaccine pill was developed by Medicine for a Better Tomorrow, a 10-member team attending an enrichment program at a university. Eighteen-year-old Grant Sparling is the president of the team. They decided to develop the new vaccine delivery system in response to the challenge to develop a product for the aging population of Canada. People age 65 and older are more susceptible to influenza, but as age increases, so does the fear of needles.

    Patents and research are still pending, but almost a dozen doctors have confirmed that the science behind the idea is sound enough for research to be done.
    For more details, you can follow these links:

    Young people have a wonderful way of looking at common problems in a new way. The fact that they have fewer preconceptions about how something should be done, means that they can come up with deceptively simple but innovative solutions. I will be keeping an eye out for more news regarding a flu vaccine pill. Medical research is not a fast process—it is painstaking and thorough—but if the idea can be developed and approved for production, a vaccine pill would revolutionize immunization programs.