Debbie Knight

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

A brave new (nano)world

In research issue(s) on February 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm

If it weren’t for science…

  • There wouldn’t be antibiotics. But on the other hand, if antibiotics weren’t overused, we wouldn’t have flesh-eating, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • We wouldn’t have petrol for our cars. But on the other hand, if we didn’t use fossil fuels to make those cars move, we wouldn’t have such dramatic global climate changes happening today.
  • We wouldn’t have landed on the moon. And if we didn’t have rocket-launching ability, we wouldn’t have GPS or cable TV via satellites and our local space wouldn’t be crowded with potentially-hazardous orbiting space junk.

Who knows how today’s discoveries will impact the future.

Take, for instance, nanoparticles.  While nanoparticles range in size, it is generally accepted that the largest nanoparticles measure a mere 100 nanometers. This means it would take over 1600 trillion of the 100nm particles to fill one square inch cube.

These tiny beads are used in any number of consumer products. These include:

  • Sunscreens to improve UV protection by increasing the SPF,
  • Cosmetics and moisturizers to help them go on smoothly,
  • Automobile paint to improve durability,
  • Socks to keep them odor-free, and
  • Food to preserve the food item, enhance flavor, or improve nutritional value

And the list goes on…

The use of nanoparticles does not really alarm me – I think many will be beneficial. However, what concerns is that not much is known about their effects on human health and on the environment.


These tiny particles get into the environment where they are difficult, if not impossible, to detect. The impact on ecosystems as microscopic as bacteria or as macroscopic as plants and animals is not completely understood.

What we do know is that hard-working bacteria at sewage treatment plants can be harmed by nanoparticles that get into our waste water when we wash our odor-free socks in the washing maching. Researchers have found that silver nanoparticles may be destroying some of the bacteria which are used to treat sewage. The waste treatment plant “sludge” is often used as an agricultural fertilizer, so beneficial bacteria in the soil may also be harmed.

And it’s possible for nanoparticles to enter into the food chain. Researchers added gold nanoparticles to water (to mimic consumer nanoparticles in wastewater sludge) and used the water on tobacco plants in a hydroponic green house. What they found was that the gold nanoparticles got into the plant’s leaves. And when tobacco hornworms ate those leaves, the gold nanoparticles concentrated 10 fold in the worm’s body. So here’s an example of  bioamplification.

So why have manufacturers chosen to use nanoparticles in consumer products before scientists can fully understand the effects these nanoparticles might have on the environment? And why is the FDA and the EPA allowing it? Well, many of the particles used in the nano-sized range have been deemed safe when they are used in the larger (bigger than nano-size) form. But mounting evidence suggests that nano-sized particles, in part because of their increased surface area, may have very different chemical and physical properties than their larger counterparts.

Many nanoparticles will prove beneficial to society with no detectable harm to the environment. But we, as consumers, need to be aware that some of the products we use may be harming the environment and ourselves more than we know.

What can be done?

More research by scientists, consumer awareness as well as consumer avoidance of products that use uncharacterized nanoparticles, and tighter regulation by the FDA and the EPA are needed.

Yet ANOTHER thing to consider to become environmentally friendly

In observation on February 21, 2011 at 4:00 pm

This past weekend, while attending a scientific meeting, I learned about another “N” word:  nitrogen pollution. And yet another thing to add into the “environmental concern” category.

Yes, nitrogen, the most abundant component of our atmosphere. But I’m not talking about naturally-occurring inert nitrogen (as in N2) found in our atmosphere. I’m talking about reactive nitrogens found in air pollution (such as nitrogen oxides which is produced by the fossil fuel combustion), as well as water pollution (such as nitrates and ammonias which can come from agriculture – fertilizers, livestock feed, animal waste, etc.).  Even the chemical fertilizers many homeowners (including myself) put on their lawns can contribute to the pollution stream.

My personal awareness of nitrogen pollution stems from the incredible number of recreational lakes that were shut down in Ohio this past summer because of toxic algae.  The plumes of algae were blamed on run-off from local farms and residences that contained a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus (from fertilizers or animal waste) and hot summer days.

And while I had learned about air pollution in high school, I kind of forgot about other bad things beyond carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons that come from my car’s tailpipe.

So, nitrogen pollution has become an increasingly larger problem in the past few years. And, sadly, if it were properly managed, much of it could be prevented, according to the experts.

A website ( was launched this weekend that calculates your “nitrogen footprint” and allows you to determine ways you can reduce the size of your footprint.

I was happy to find out that my nitrogen footprint was less than the average American’s footprint. But I also realized there is even more that I can do to reduce my footprint.

A simple way that regular folks such as you or I can reduce our “nitrogen footprint” is to reduce the amount of protein we eat. Most Americans eat more (way more!) than the recommended daily allowance of protein – usually in the form of animal protein (which includes meat, dairy, and even vegetable proteins). If we reduced the amount of protein we consumed, it would reduce our nitrogen footprint by 30%, according to the experts.

Another way is to limit energy use. Using public transportation or turning down the thermostat in wintertime could dramatically reduce nitrogen air pollution.

So, now, in addition to thinking about my carbon footprint, recycling, and all that goes with trying to be environmentally friendly, I will have to add one more thing to my already long list to think about: nitrogen.

How can I be scientifically illiterate?

In observation on February 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm

I attended a science literacy forum on Friday where a panel of eight professors (one serving as mediator) discusses different aspects of science literacy.

So just what is science literacy? Well, according to the April 23, 2010 issue of Science, it involves the ability to understand what scientific discoveries mean and how to communicate in the language of science.

By this definition, that would suggest that I’m pretty literate in my little niche of biology.

And, despite my education, I might be considered somewhat illiterate in other scientific fields such as physics or chemistry and  really illiterate in the social and psychological arenas.

Why?  Well, each discipline has its own lingo, jargon, special terminology.  And I have no idea what those terms might mean. For example, a term that came up in one of my communication classes was “social capital.” This term is used by sociologists. And while I understand what the individual words mean, I have no idea what the concept of “social capital” means — even after a sociologist tried to explained it to me.

So, the professors at the forum were from many disciplines: biochemistry, earth science, medical science, chemistry, English, education, and research communications. It was interesting to hear their different perspectives.  I would like to note here that this is not meant to be a piece of journalism, so I will not include the participants’ names.

The earth science professor suggested that scientists should interface better with the public — especially earth scientists. He also felt that editors from the major news outlets controlled the flow of information to the public — focusing more on health issues than environmental issues.

The medical doctor who was heavily involved in graduate and medical education thought the future of research will require collaboration across disciplines — and not just disciplines within the College of Medicine, for example, but disciplines across the university.  She felt that progress will require the ability to bridge the gaps that exist between those disciplines (i.e., engineers and medical doctors working together might first require that each learn some of the other’s vocabulary so that everyone is speaking the same language).

The chemist didn’t see how a public that is scientifically illiterate could make informed decisions about policy and legislation about scientific issues.

The biochemist brought up the point that many of the ways we test for scientific literacy may not properly assess literacy.  For example, if 75% of the American public “knows” the earth revolves around the sun — does this mean they “know” this because they memorized it as a fact in school or do they “know” this because they understand the scientific evidence that shows the earth revolves around the sun.  And, more importantly, if someone doesn’t know this fact, does that make them scientifically illiterate?

The English professor who teaches technical writing at the university has seen first-hand that integrating science into his classes has helped not only the science majors to become better readers of science, but helped non-science majors understand science and how it’s done better.

The education professor brought up some very good points as well. He said that the order in which things are taught are important. Teaching the concept and then the vocabulary may be a better way to teach science.

” Too often words are used as a mask, covering our lack of understanding, we’ve learned to use words in certain places so that we sound like we know what we’re saying,” he said.

I’ve done that.

He also said that scientists often talk in metaphors to help them talk more efficiently.  Something I hadn’t thought about. For example, “DNA as a code.”  He said this metaphor often leads to confusion and misconception.  Someone might say, “If it’s a code, who put it there?” when all the scientist is saying is that each individual base (A, T, G, or C) when combined in threes, spells out the “code” for a specific amino acid in a protein.

The research communication professor talked about interfacing with the public and the problems that can be associated with that.

At one point, the group discussed public perception of science and the uncertainty of science. The education professor suggested that the public has a common misconception that if something is “known” in science, then it is accepted as an unwaivering fact.

“That’s exactly the opposite of what science is. The outcome of scientific inquiry is more questions,” he said.

The research communication professor said that he tells journalism students that science is a mystery story and if that tactic was used to communicate science to the public, that the public would accept that there’s another mystery just around the corner and would allow for the self-correction that occurs in scientific research.

The education professor said that the public doesn’t realize that the scientific method is really a guide, not a rigid line, that allows imagination, creativity, and a more organic “messiness” to research.

While nothing was definitively decided at this “Literacy in Science” forum, it did open a dialog between professors (as well as the audience) across different disciplines.

It certainly gave me some things to ponder about myself as well as how I should interface with people.

Like Riding a Bicycle…With Flat Tires

In observation on February 4, 2011 at 2:37 pm

As of this month, I am working in my former lab after a brief three-year respite working in another lab. So, returning to a lab where I used to work is a little like riding a bike, only the tires are flat. What I mean is, everything in the lab is familiar, but it’s not.

Things have changed.

For instance, the autoclave (a machine that uses heat and pressure to sterilize things like glassware or liquid reagents) is new. I’ve worked with many different kinds of autoclaves in my research life – starting with one that was totally manual, where you have to tighten a door by hand and it looks like it could belong on a submarine.

This type of autoclave you had to remember to turn on and off the steam (the source of the heat and pressure for sterilization) as well as vent the steam out, either slowly for liquids or quickly for glassware.

Yesterday, I used the new-to-me autoclave, which is pretty automated (you just make a selection and push a button and the autoclave does the rest), to sterilize some glassware. And it worked without a hitch.

And today? I’m trying to sterilize some phosphate-buffered saline (also called PBS — a staple in a tissue culture lab such as mine) on the liquid cycle. And what happens? It malfunctions during the cycle. Of course.

Now, I should note that there’s nobody left on the floor that actually knows what to do in this situation. The person that did know now lives in New Mexico – not a lot of help. And while I’ve had experience with many autoclaves, I’ve never used this particular model – and each model has its subtleties.

Luckily, the manual was left near the autoclave. You’d be surprised how often the manual is stashed away in an unlabeled drawer, nowhere near the equipment.

Ah, the manual. So far the manual has only been helpful in telling me how to turn the alarm off (which is highly annoying – as alarms should be).

Meanwhile, the PBS is still in the autoclave, not sterilized – a metal door stands between us. I have no idea how to get the door to open. I have no idea if I need to call someone to service the autoclave.

I will riffle through the manual once more to see if it will provide any further insights. If not, I’ll have to call for help. But that’s another issue – who to call.

Like I said:  flat tires – and getting nowhere fast!


Epilogue: The manual was no help, so I resorted to pushing buttons. After several attempts, I managed to push the right sequence of buttons and was able to restart the sterilization cycle, successfully sterilizing the PBS.

Gotta love that bicycle I’m riding!


Don’t do this! Digging out of the paper avalanche

In observation on February 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I always remind students coming into the lab that they should make an effort to keep up with their lab notebook.

But do I practice what I preach?

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this photo looks similar to my lab book.

But I’m in the process of catching up my lab notebook. Honest.

I had been pretty diligent at keeping my research notes up-to-date. Then my research project took off and I was cranking out experiments at a flurried pace. I was also taking a work-intensive class and, well, my lab notebook suffered. Oh, I had dated detailed notes and experimental results that I would stuff between the pages of my notebook, so technically they were “in” my notebook. They just weren’t a permanent addition to the notebook.

After a couple of months, the proverbial snowball had turned into an avalanche of paper and I never had the chunk of time needed to organize it and put it more permanently into my notebook. Until now…

Now that I’m leaving the lab and joining a new lab, so my evenings and weekends have been spent transposing my notes, cutting out photos of my results, and taping them into the pages of my lab notebook.

The cutting and taping remind me that things I learned in kindergarten have helped me in my career as a researcher. Who knew?

So, I’m nearly done clearing the paper-lanche, my scissors need sharpening, and I’ve gone through more transparent tape than I care to admit. But at least there is now proper documentation of my experimental results, buried in a several volumes of notebooks. Volumes to sit on a forgotten shelf, gathering dust, waiting for the day when there’s a large enough body of work collectively gathered by the lab members to publish in a scientific journal. That day will come and hope that I have documented my experimental journey well enough that some of my work will be included in that publication.