Educating in Science: The Need for Change

October 2, 2008



A teacher is a compass that activates the magnets of curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom in the pupils.
~Ever Garrison

After the vice-presidential debates, I find myself looking to the main political issues I have always been passionate about. One of the biggest problems in the United States today is inadequate education. Public school teachers work extremely hard, for extremely long hours and get paid very little –certainly far less than what they are worth to our nation and our future!

Education ought to be a major focus for our nation’s new president, as well as creating a focused initiative for a nationalized renewable energy plan. Though there are numerous important issues (and certainly we all have pet issues we care more about than others), I suspect that we can all agree on the significance of education.

The United States’ students are falling behind dozens of nations around the world, and this must change in order to secure our economy and the future of ‘our children’ (I put this in quotes because I am one of these children whose future is in jeopardy).

What needs to be done? I could write a book on the needs of the current education system, and indeed, many books have already been written by those more qualified than I, yet I would like to focus on one small facet of the subject.

Science. Finding a way to create new ways of interesting and captivating students with the wonders of the human body, of the physics of the world and thus fueling their pursuit towards careers in medicine, engineering, research, etc. Teaching has been underfunded and has not caught up with the tools of the time. Technology is a vital tool that teachers can use to create 3D environments to explain that which previously could only explained in 2D. Imagine being back in your first high school biology class, and instead of learning about the structures of a cell from this picture in your text book…

…instead you learn from a cinematic-like fascinating 3D animation of the cell:

Hi Res:

Lo Res:

Every one of those cellular activities is occurring in your body right now. Stunning, isn’t it? Not like you remember that awful biology class to be like, eh?

This animation was created by a cooperative effort between leading animation experts and several of Harvard University’s medically experienced faculty. It is a fantastic example of the use of modern technology to create a more accessible understanding of science.

More research needs to be done on how best to teach students, especially with the U.S.’s failing scores in science and math. Then, schools and teachers need to be equipped with the tools (and funding) to implement these innovative teaching methods. Thus, we can bring education into the modern day and out of the comparative dark ages.

The above video is enthralling and beautiful, so I hope you’ve taken a moment to watch (and listen) to it. There is an educational version which explains the actual biological events occurring, which can be seen here:



Chlorine and Bacteria in Pools: You just can’t win.

September 25, 2008

Public pools hang in a delicate balance between fostering an environment for bacteria and being over chlorinated and posing severe chlorine-based health problems.

“Chlorine breaks down very fast in the presence of high contamination and swimmer load and due to the effects of the sun’s UV rays and heat.” (1) This can cause the pool water to be less effective in killing the pathogens which cause diseases like Gastroenteritis, Dysentery, Giardia, Dermatitis and more. (1)

Often pool caretakers overcompensate for this and thus over-chlorinate pools. When chlorine comes in contact with organic matter like dirt or leaves it can produce dioxins, furans and trihalomethanes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer are anticipated carcinogens which can build up in the bodies of a human. (2)

One study shows that there seems to be a strong correlation between children who swim very often in chlorinated pools and those children developing asthma. (3)

There has been a move to utilizing non-chlorine products to sanitize pools, including copper and silver which are known anti-bacterial and anti-viral instruments. (1)

I myself can remember jumping in a pool with a bunch of friends ‘just for fun’ after it was closed. It alarms me to learn that, due to chlorine degrading in the sun, pool caretakers put chlorine into pools at closing time so that the chlorine has time to circulate and become evenly distributed during the night.

I was unintentionally exposing myself to potentially high concentrations of chlorine, which can be toxic.

Perhaps more studies need to be done to determine an effective yet safer method of sanitizing pools.


Could Antibiotics be the Enemy, and Bacteria our Allies?

September 19, 2008

“Medicine sometimes snatches away health,
sometimes gives it.”
~Ovid (Ancient Roman classical Poet and Author of Metamorphoses, 43 BC-17)

Antibiotics have contributed to diminishing and, in some cases, irradicating disease around the world. It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to suggest that we should stop using antibiotics; however, it is vital for the public to be aware of the dangers they face with incorrect antibiotic use and over-prescription of antibiotics in a pharmaceutical company dominated medical field.

“Even though these antibiotics are very profitable for pharmaceutical companies they are creating a potentially widespread problem.” (3) For years, antibiotics have been overprescribed in medical practice and have been a major contributing factor to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (1) This occurs when the antibiotic kills a large number of bacterial organisms in the body, but does not kill those bacteria which have developed a slight resistance to the antibiotic. Thus, these antibiotic resistant bacteria remain alive, while their competition for food and nutrients in the body have been killed off by the antibiotic. This causes proliferation of the resistant bacteria, which often can cause worse illness that can be transferred to others in a community.

It is a common misconception that antibiotics can kill any sickness causing organism. Often, an illness is caused by a virus, and antibiotics cannot kill these. Antibiotics are designed to only affect bacteria. It is important for concerned parents to not “expect or insist on an antibiotic if the doctor says the cause of the child’s illness is viral.” (2)

Another contribution to antibiotic resistant bacteria is patients who have been prescribed an antibiotic not taking the drug for the doctor-set amount of time. Many discontinue the medication when they start feeling better. However, by stopping the treatment early, the patient is not killing off every last infective bacteria in his or her system. When the symptoms go away, it only means that a lot of the bacteria have been killed, but not all. Most importantly, the bacteria that are killed first are those which are most susceptible to the antibiotic, and those which are left still alive are the most resistant to the antibiotic.

By stopping the treatment early, patients are destroying the weak bacteria and allowing the strong bacteria to remain. This can cause the illness to reinitiate and this time, it will likely be much more difficult to treat.

Everyone, yet especially women, should be conscientious of only taking antibiotics when absolutely necessary, due to their side effects. Antibiotics are non-discriminatory, and will kill off both good and bad bacteria. Believe it or not, in the space that your body occupies right now, 10% of your cells are you (mammalian cells), and 90% of the rest of the cells are bacterial. Granted, those cells are so small that their mass is much less than that of the mammalian cells. The average weight of all the bacteria in and on a person is said to be around 3lbs. (5) However, it should be noted that these bacteria are vital for our health.

Called your “normal flora,” the bacteria which exist naturally in your body all the time have created a cutthroat environment. They compete for space and nutrients to grow, but typically no one bacterium can out-compete the other; all the different species remain limited. They make it difficult for new bacteria to find a foothold to start infections.

Yet, when a person takes antibiotics, he or she kills of most of this normal flora of bacteria. By doing this, one kills off the weak bacteria and leaves strong bacteria which, due to the new lack of competition, can overgrow and cause illness.

This is why the side effects of antibiotics are yeast infections, diarrhea, and fungal infections of the mouth (thrush). These areas were high in bacteria, but now only those organisms which are strong enough to resist the antibiotic remain and over grow to cause a variety of sicknesses.

Responsible use of antibiotics by both the patient and careful prescription by doctors is vital to the long term health of society. More patients need to be educated on the way an antibiotic affects the body and how best to utilize this valuable, yet problematic medicine.

1. <>
2. <>
3. <>
4. <>
5. <>

Can honey kill you? Well, yes actually. It can.

September 5, 2008

“[Botulism] is caused by neurotoxic proteins so poisonous that one-millionth of a gram of them can kill a man and one pint would be enough to kill everyone on earth.”

-New York Times

Honey contains spores from the deadly bacterium that causes Botulism

Honey contains spores from the deadly bacterium that causes Botulism

Honey has always been remarked for the length of time which it can be stored without spoiling. It is a unique substance in that it has many antimicrobial and antifungal properties to it. For example, it is so high in sugars that very little water exists in it, thus most microorganisms cannot grow in this ‘hypertonic’ environment. It likely could be stored forever if its container is kept airtight and in a cool area.

So how could this un-spoilable substance cause as deadly an illness as Botulism? The secret lies in the bees. Bees, while collecting pollen, are continually in contact with soil and dust particles, which inevitably make it back to the hive and into the honey being produced. These particles nearly always contain spores of the common bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the causative agent of Botulism.

Now, on their own, these spores never cause illness. Spores are a dormant form of the bacterium, but when these spores are put into ideal conditions (with sufficient nutrients, water, etc) they germinate. The bacteria itself will not hurt you either. Yet, when in a low oxygen environment like your stomach, they begin to produce a protein called botulin. This is a neurotoxin, meaning it is a substance known to be poisonous to nerve tissue.

The neurotoxin affects the body by interfering with the way nerves tell muscles to contract, and thus move. This limpness is termed ‘flaccid paralysis.’ Death typically occurs via respiratory failure, when the neurotoxin causes the diaphragm muscle in the chest to no longer move. Without the diaphragm, the lungs can no longer fill with air and thus one becomes unable to breathe.

Yet, if Botulism is so bad, then why do we eat honey and never become ill? The answer is in our immune system and our digestive system. In a healthy individual, the stomach and immune system will destroy the botulism spores before they germinate and begin to produce the toxin. However, those whose immune systems are compromised, such as HIV/AIDS patients or infants, are unable to combat the Botulism spores. These individuals are highly susceptible to being infected with the bacteria.

Botulism spores

Botulism spores

Botulism is not only contracted through eating honey, either. Often the soil that contains botulism spores ends up on the outside of some fruits and vegetables commonly used in canning. Due to the low oxygen environment in a can, botulism spores often germinate and produce large amounts of the botulin neurotoxin, which when ingested, cause the botulism illness. This can be prevented with proper sterile technique during the canning process.

Of all botulism cases, only 25% are food born, but 72% are infantile botulism. This is indicative of how many parents are unaware that honey can be highly toxic to infants.

The fundamental message here is that honey could kill you, but only under the right circumstances. It is important to be aware of the dangers botulism spores pose to individuals with weakened immune systems. Because babies are so often afflicted with infantile botulism, it becomes aparant that this awareness of botulism in honey is not widespread enough.  Botulism is nearly extinct in modern countries, and these cases of infantile botulism are highly preventable via dissementation of this simple lesson: don’t feed honey to babies.

What you don’t know…

September 5, 2008

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”  ~Isaac Asimov

Science. Whether or not we know much about the enigmatic subject, it has shaped and helped define our natural world. Researchers the world over have labored over books and magnifying glasses, tables and charts, to give us essential information about the workings of the Earth, our universe, and ourselves.

Yet, unfortunately even in this ‘information age,’ the average American knows little more about science than what his doctor tells him if something goes wrong. The average American student’s ability to apply scientific reasoning in real life concepts is ranked 17th in the world, behind countries like Finland, Canada, Japan and Korea.

How many Americans know not to mix ammonia with bleach? How many know not to feed honey to infants? How many know mice droppings can contain Hanta virus? Aside from the major reform needed in the education system, what can we do to protect ourselves from those biological dangers which we know very little about?
It comes down to better dissemination of pertinent information to the public, in formats a non-microbiologist can understand.

As a junior Microbiology major, I’ve found myself learning a variety of things in my studies which should, by necessity, be common knowledge. My intention with this blog is to discuss health issues that are little known to the American public, yet pose a danger to all of us.

I am an aspiring researcher and plan to continue on to graduate school for my doctorate. I have been working in a research laboratory for 3 years now, mentoring under a microbiology professor and continuing my own research project under a grant awarded me by the American Society for Microbiology.

In this blog, I will attempt to translate the scientific jargon and I will post in general terms the straightforward information everyone ought to know about little known microbial dangers.