Before & After #1

These texts were produced by a student taking part in the “Writing Labs” that I regularly offer at the MDC. These individual workshops give students a chance to write about science for a nonspecialist audience. Usually I have the students write two short articles: one regarding their own research, or a project closely related to it, and another regarding work they are less familiar with. Generally they have more distance from the latter paper and do a better job. It’s a good exercise that has a lot of secondary pay-offs: not only do students develop general writing skills, it helps them structure their thinking about their own work and present it more clearly. More on that later.

Finally, I’ll publish some of their work on the blog so that they can rack up “publication credits.” If you want to make a career in science communications, you need to be ready to show some examples of your work. We’re developing other places for students and scientists to publish such pieces. (See, for example, – the magazine for science teachers I helped develop while at the EMBL.

This is the “unfamiliar research” article from a student who very generously allowed me to publish both versions of her text on the site.

I haven’t included the “work” stage, where we analyzed and restructured the content, fixed grammatical errors, etc. First I’ll let the texts speak for themselves.

If you’re interested in doing such an exercise, or knowing more, get in touch!

“BEFORE” text

Aging: one protein,
multiple molecular defects

While we all look to reverse the signs of aging, scientists have been for long trying to pinpoint the molecular mechanisms behind it. A two people work in Science, 19th of May 2006, by NIH researchers Paola Scaffidi and Tom Misteli, have identified an important player that, solely, could lead cells to aging-associated defects.

As society pressurizes for long-lasting young-looks, teenager stamina and increased life-spam science tries to come up with solutions for this first-world problem. Developments in aesthetic and plastic medicines and increased awarenessess in anti-aging food diets have been helping the most concerned preventing premature aging and minimizing the aging signs. Although many theories have been proposed by scientists of how molecular mechanisms are disrupted throughout one’s lifetime, we are far from understanding the source of the problem. In this paper, Scaffidi has revealed that Lamin A, a protein located at the nucleus envelope (structure separating the DNA packed nucleus from the cytoplasm) participates in the aging process by disrupting relevant cellular functions.

The authors have compared skin cells from normal aging individuals with premature aging HGPS (Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome) disease patients. HGPS is a rare disease that leads to premature dead (mid teens, early twenties). Growth defects are accompanied with accelerated aging processes such as hair loss, atherosclerosis, wrinkled skin, etc. The genetics behind this disease is a mutation in the Lamin A gene, an integrative constitutive of the nuclear envelope. This structure is responsible for the organisation of chromatin (DNA and proteins called histones) and regulation of gene activity (usually “off” when associated with the lamina).

Lamin A was also found to be mutated in normal aging cells. Scaffidi showed that, like in HGPS, the nucleus presents an irregular shape, abnormal amounts of proteins associated with the nuclear envelope structure and an accumulation of DNA errors by disruption of repairing mechanisms (upon each cell cycle, where mother cells generate two daughter cells, the DNA is checked and repaired by appropriate mechanisms). As researchers revert these phenomena’s by inhibiting the mutated Lamin A protein version, it opens new avenues for the research of therapeutics against mutated Lamin A.

Using HGPS as a model system seems to be helping scientists figuring out clues into the normal aging mechanisms. As the scientific knowledge on aging grows, the players are slowly being unravelled raising a robust set of potential targets which usefulness, solo or in a cocktail, could be further explored.

“AFTER” text

On growing old:

From a wrinkled cell nucleus
to the symptoms of aging

A protein that is mutated in an extreme rapid-aging disease also shows defects during normal aging processes

Most of us would like to enjoy a long-lasting youthful appearance, the stamina of a teenager, and an increased lifespan. The causes of aging lie in molecular processes within our cells which scientists have been trying to pin down for a long time. In a paper in the May 19, 2006 edition of Science, NIH researchers Paola Scaffidi and Tom Misteli identify an important protein that, on its own, seems to lead to age-associated defects in cells.

Developments in plastic surgery and “aesthetic medicine,” as well as an increased awarenessess of the contributions of diet, have played the largest role in preventing premature aging and minimizing its symptoms. Scientists have proposed a number of theories to account for the way molecular mechanisms are disrupted throughout one’s lifetime to cause aging, but we are far from understanding the real sources of the problem. Now Scaffidi and Misteli reveal that a single protein participates in the process by disrupting a number of important cellular functions.

Their work focuses on a protein called Lamin A. It is found in nearly every human cell and makes up part of the nuclear envelope, a membrane that surrounds the DNA in the cell nucleus and separates it from the surrounding cellular compartment called the cytoplasm. As well as giving the envelope a regular shape, Lamin A helps organize DNA in the nucleus and control the activity of genes. It binds to strands of chromatin (a mixture of DNA and the proteins that are attached to it), which usually keeps nearby genes “switched off.”

The authors came across Lamin A when comparing skin cells from normal aging individuals with those of people who suffer from a type of extreme premature aging called HGPS (Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome). HGPS is a rare disease that leads to premature death in a patient’s teens or early twenties. Those with the syndrome suffer the symptoms of accelerated aging such as hair loss, atherosclerosis, wrinkled skin, etc. Several years ago scientists discovered that patients with this disease have a mutation in the Lamin A gene.

Scaffidi and Misteli now show that Lamin A is also mutated in normal aging cells. As in HGPS, the nucleus presents an irregular shape. They also found that that cells produce abnormal amounts of proteins associated with the nuclear envelope structure. Additionally, the cells display an accumulation of DNA errors by disrupting mechanisms involved in DNA repair. (Normally, each time mother cells generate two daughter cells, the DNA is checked and repaired by appropriate mechanisms.) The scientists inhibited the mutated version of Lamin A protein by providing cells with a healthy version. This procedure reversed the defects caused by the mutation. So the work opens new avenues for research into therapies that target mutated forms of Lamin A, which might correct – or at least slow down – some of the problems associated with normal aging.

This makes HGPS a model system that may help scientists figure out normal aging mechanisms. As our scientific knowledge on aging grows, new molecular players are being identified, revealing a set of potential targets whose usefulness will be explored in further work.


Scaffidi P, Misteli T. Lamin A-dependent nuclear defects in human aging. Science. 2006 May 19;312(5776):1059-63.


Best of PubMed #2

Today’s picks from PubMed explore head-banging in rock concerts, sending e-mails in your sleep, the effects of Polka music on developing Alzheimer’s Disease, how to tell the difference between good and bad conspiracy theories, potato chips that look like Elvis, and, of course, more insights into the zipper phenomenon. For links to the full articles, and deep insights go to and type in the PubMed or DOI number.

Neurology. 2001 Oct 23;57(8):1485.

Polka music and semantic dementia.

Boeve BF, Geda YE.

PMID: 11673594 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Am J Emerg Med. 2005 Jul;23(4):480-2.

Comparing 2 methods of emergent zipper release.

Inoue N, Crook SC, Yamamoto LG.


Department of Pediatrics, University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, Honolulu, HI 96826, USA.



There are several types of emergent zipper release methods described. The standard method can be difficult. The purpose of this study is to determine if an alternate method of zipper release can be easier to accomplish.


Subjects were provided with zippers and were taught 2 methods of emergent zipper release using a standard method (cutting the median bar of the actuator) and an alternate method (cutting the closed teeth of the zipper). The elapsed times to successful zipper release for both methods were measured.


Mean zipper release times were faster for the alternate method (10.5 seconds) compared with the standard method (75.8 seconds) ( P < .001).


The alternate method of zipper release is faster and easier than the standard method of zipper release; however, the optimal procedure is also dependent on the location of the entrapped tissue relative to the zipper actuator and the type of zipper.

MMW Fortschr Med. 2013 Apr 18;155(7):24.

 Bach, but not heavy metal is good for heart patients

[Article in German]

Stiefelhagen P.

PMID: 23668166 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Ann Thorac Surg. 2012 Dec;94(6):2113-4. doi: 10.1016/j.athoracsur.2012.05.054.

Mediastinal emphysema after head-banging in a rock artist: pseudo shaken-baby syndrome in adulthood.

Matsuzaki S, Tsunoda K, Chong T, Hamaguchi R.


National Hospital Organization, Tokyo Medical Center, Tokyo, Japan.


A 34-year-old man was seen because of severe right neck pain. He was a guitarist in a special type of heavy metal rock (so-called visual-kei, a subgenre related to glam-rock) band and habitually shook his head violently throughout concert performances. He regularly experienced neck and chest pain after a concert, which persisted for some time. Computed tomography scanning of the neck showed mediastinal emphysema. We surmise that head-banging resemble those of shaken-baby syndrome.

Copyright © 2012 The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

PMID: 23176926 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Am J Forensic Med Pathol. 2004 Dec;25(4):273-5.

Velocity necessary for a BB to penetrate the eye: an experimental study using pig eyes.

Powley KD, Dahlstrom DB, Atkins VJ, Fackler ML.


Forensic Laboratory, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.



To determine the V-50 threshold velocity needed for a steel BB to penetrate the eye of a 230-pound pig.


BBs were shot at a distance of 10 feet into the corneas of pig eyes with a pump-action BB gun.


The V-50 velocity for corneal penetration and serious disruption of the eye was found to be 246 ft/sec.


Due to the nearly identical size and anatomy of the human eye to the pig eyes used in this study, it is felt that 246 ft/sec is a reasonable approximation of the velocity needed to penetrate the human eye.

PMID: 15577514 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Singapore Med J. 1998 Mar;39(3):121-3.

“I’ve got a UFO stuck in my throat!”–an interesting case of foreign body impaction in the oesophagus.

Yip LW, Goh FS, Sim RS.


Department of Otolaryngology, National University Hospital, Singapore.


This is a case report of an elderly lady with odynophagia because she accidentally swallowed a tablet which was still wrapped in its blister pack. A discussion of foreign body ingestion, particularly in the elderly, is included. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first paper that includes a lateral cervical radiograph of an ingested blister pack.

PMID: 9632971 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Science. 1993 Nov 12;262(5136):987.

UFO Sighters not Batty, Study Finds.

[No authors listed]

PMID: 17782045 [PubMed]

Appl Opt. 1978 Nov 1;17(21):3355-60. doi: 10.1364/AO.17.003355.

Insects as unidentified flying objects.

Callahan PS, Mankin RW.


Five species of insects were subjected to a large electric field. Each of the insects stimulated in this manner emitted visible glows of various colors and blacklight (uv). It is postulated that the Uintah Basin, Utah, nocturnal UFO display (1965-1968) was partially due to mass swarms of spruce budworms, Choristoneura fumiferana (Clemens), stimulated to emit this type of St. Elmo’s fire by flying into high electric fields caused by thunderheads and high density particulate matter in the air. There was excellent time and spatial correlation between the 1965-1968 UFO nocturnal sightings and spruce budworm infestation. It is suggested that a correlation of nocturnal UFO sightings throughout the U.S. and Canada with spruce budworm infestations might give some insight into nocturnal insect flight patterns.

PMID: 20203984 [PubMed]


Sci Am. 2010 Dec;303(6):102.

The conspiracy theory detector. How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories.

Shermer M.

Erratum in

Sci Am. 2011 Apr;304(4):10.

PMID: 21141366 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Cereb Cortex. 2012 Oct;22(10):2354-64. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr315. Epub 2011 Nov 10.

The potato chip really does look like Elvis! Neural hallmarks of conceptual processing associated with finding novel shapes subjectively meaningful.

Voss JL, Federmeier KD, Paller KA.


Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.


Clouds and inkblots often compellingly resemble something else–faces, animals, or other identifiable objects. Here, we investigated illusions of meaning produced by novel visual shapes. Individuals found some shapes meaningful and others meaningless, with considerable variability among individuals in these subjective categorizations. Repetition for shapes endorsed as meaningful produced conceptual priming in a priming test along with concurrent activity reductions in cortical regions associated with conceptual processing of real objects. Subjectively meaningless shapes elicited robust activity in the same brain areas, but activity was not influenced by repetition. Thus, all shapes were conceptually evaluated, but stable conceptual representations supported neural priming for meaningful shapes only. During a recognition memory test, performance was associated with increased frontoparietal activity, regardless of meaningfulness. In contrast, neural conceptual priming effects for meaningful shapes occurred during both priming and recognition testing. These different patterns of brain activation as a function of stimulus repetition, type of memory test, and subjective meaningfulness underscore the distinctive neural bases of conceptual fluency versus episodic memory retrieval. Finding meaning in ambiguous stimuli appears to depend on conceptual evaluation and cortical processing events similar to those typically observed for known objects. To the brain, the vaguely Elvis-like potato chip truly can provide a substitute for the King himself.

PMID: 22079921 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE] PMCID: PMC3432238 [Available on 2013/10/1]

Sleep Med. 2009 Feb;10(2):262-4. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2008.09.008. Epub 2008 Dec 6.

Writing emails as part of sleepwalking after increase in Zolpidem.

Siddiqui F, Osuna E, Chokroverty S.


Seton Hall Univ. School of Graduate Med. Edu., New Jersey Neuroscience Inst. at JFK Medical Ctr., 3000 Arlington Ave, Toledo, OH 43614, USA; Neurol. Dept., Univ. of Toledo Medical Center, 3000 Arlington Ave, Toledo, OH 43614, USA.

PMID: 19059805 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

The future will come sooner than you think: A manifesto for science communication in biomedical research

Note: This is the first of two parts. The second, which I will publish next week, discusses strategic and practical measures which will be necessary to address the issues it raises. I hope that the two pieces will trigger a very wide debate in the science research, communication, and teaching communities, and I will use this site to integrate comments and feedback along the way.


For biomedical researchers, learning to communicate with the public is more than a way to acquire useful skills – it’s a social responsibility. Today’s scientific work will have profound effects on society that may come sooner than we think. Researchers need to help prepare for change, and they need to start now.


For years, biomedical scientists have spoken of a revolution in which findings from basic research will lead to new forms of diagnosis, treatment and prevention for major diseases that affect mankind. The pace of discovery and development has surpassed the most optimistic predictions of researchers from even just a few years ago. The public may have a different impression: Research operates on a different timescale than daily life. Scientists know that it may take decades for “potential drug targets” or “new therapeutic approaches” to affect a broad group of patients. The road from the laboratory to the clinic has more stages than the Tour de France, and it takes a lot longer to reach the finish line. Yet records are continually being broken all along the route – in terms of time, costs, automation and efficiency. There is no speed limit on biomedical progress; it is zooming down the fast lane at a pace that threatens to leave political, economic and social structures lagging far behind. It’s impossible to predict when and where the next leap forward in biomedicine will occur – breakthroughs often appear in the places you would least expect. Take the case of the biotech company that was using genetic engineering to try to create tulips with a more vivid purple color. In the process they discovered small interfering RNAs – which have become immensely important tools for research and the basis of numerous experimental therapies.

Cumulatively, progress arising from across the spectrum of research is starting to have significant effects on society. This impact will surely increase, and it will happen even if progress comes in small steps rather than some single, magnificent cure for a major disease. My children can surely expect to live a decade or two longer than I – and this is probably a conservative estimate. They will have to support an elderly population that lives longer and longer, will likely have to deal with the political fallout of an increasing health gap between industrialized countries and the rest of the world, and will face other serious consequences. Something similar happened over the course of the 20th century: vaccines, antibiotics, modern sanitation, and the development of modern surgical techniques added decades onto people’s life expectancy, but this happened at a time of rising birthrates in the developed world.  Today’s situation is different, and unless we plan for these situations well in advance, society will face dramatic and difficult adjustments. Coping with the biomedical revolution will require intensive interactions between scientists, physicians, politicians, economists, lawmakers, insurance companies, sociologists, and many others. Currently these groups receive almost no training in talking to each other and have little experience working together.

I think this has two important implications for scientists. First, they should accept a greater degree of social responsibility for the consequences of their work. This means doing everything they can to ensure that society is prepared to integrate their discoveries in the healthiest way possible; it also requires high standards of ethical behavior. This suggests the second point: Researchers must become much more engaged in public education and communication and will require new kinds of training to become involved. Scientists and clinicians will be the first to have a sense of the pace of change, and should serve a central role as both multipliers and a kind of early-warning system for the public. Professional science communicators will have an important role in this process – for example, by helping researchers develop their communication and teaching skills – but the task is too important to leave entirely to them.

We urgently need to start a very wide, public debate that engages all future stakeholders (i.e., everyone). It should draw on creative new modes of reaching school children, who are the scientists, decision-makers, patients, and workers of tomorrow and will directly experience the effects of the biomedical revolution. Society is already feeling the first symptoms; we can’t wait any longer. People need to learn to communicate across disciplinary boundaries at an early age and keep talking to each other as they advance along different educational paths and careers. This will require that they develop new skills, but that should happen anyway: The ability to communicate clearly and effectively pays off at every stage of a career in science and nearly every other field. Sadly, most European schools and universities lack a system to accomplish this – a point addressed in part 2.

Adequately addressing these issues will require the cooperation of partners at many levels: individuals, schools, institutes, and state and federal governments. The next section of this paper presents some specific ideas for short- and long-term actions that would be helpful and need to be undertaken soon. The most urgent point is to help teachers, scientists, and other groups of potential “multipliers” develop new skills and new, creative ways of engaging their pupils and the public. These groups will need to work closely together to prepare society to cope with the effects of biomedical research – which may be quite dramatic, and may come much sooner than we think. That can only happen if they first learn to talk to each other, are motivated, and are given many opportunities to do so.