Thursday, June 30, 2011

Meet Vidusha Devasthali, Our Newest New Voice

Name: Vidusha Devasthali

Position: Research!America Science Policy Intern

Education: BS in Biochemistry from New Mexico State University; MA in Biochemistry from University of Texas at Austin; Masters in Public Administration from University of Oregon expected in June 2012.

Previous experience:Vidusha has worked in academia and industry for a decade, experience that has led her to transition into science policy.

Fun fact:Vidusha ran a half marathon in January in Carlsbad, California and like her runs, she's in this for the long haul!

Please welcome her to New Voices!

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Getting Rational About Public Health

Spoiler alert: This talk is about public health policy regarding HIV and methods of transmission, including drug use and sex.

If you were giving a TED talk, what health policy issue would you want to talk about?

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Spending cuts again?

Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America, September 15, 2010
Appropriations season is upon us! This is that special time of year when Congress makes funding recommendations for all discretionary programs. I wanted to take this opportunity to provide a quick rundown of how health research agencies have fared, and what the prospects are for the next fiscal year.

As part of the recent FY 2011 budget deal, the White House and Congressional leaders agreed to a budget that would fund the government through September 30, 2011. Remember, this was the 11th hour deal that narrowly averted a government shutdown. However, this deal resulted in budget cuts to several health research agencies.

NIH was cut by $320M (1.2%), CDC received a whopping 11% cut – dialing their funding back to 2003 levels, the NSF was cut by $53M, which will mean about 250 fewer awards, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality was cut by $25M (6%). The FDA was given a $107M boost in funding (for FY 2011), but the House recently passed an FY 2012 cut of $285M.

In general, the House is highly averse to any new spending and is even reluctant to accept flat budgets for discretionary agencies. Many of the new Members in the House feel that they are in office to slash agency budgets and deeply cut government spending.

On the Senate side, Members are more open to flat-funding government agencies. It’s hard to say what all of this will mean for health research in the FY 2012, but given the current political climate and state of our national debt, we can expect cuts to continue.

That is why it is more important than ever that you reach out to your representatives and let them know that further cuts are unacceptable. At the end of the day you are their constituent - this means that your representative’s work for you. If you talk, they will listen.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Five at Five

Five quick quips as we round-up the week here at New Voices...

Cancer and cancer research are always hot button issues and this week was no exception with lots of ink covering cancer from patient advice (cancer is like improv?) to new graphic warnings for cigarettes to how a sitting at work can lead to specific types of cancer.

Ed Yong (again) shows us how research can be made accessible to the public with his piece on herding HIV to an evolutionary dead end.

Here at New Voices we talk about the NIH a lot, but were surprised to learn today's 27 institutes started as a one-man shop in 1887.

Good news for those who don't have time to call Congress during the day: 33 members of Congress sleep in their offices. I wonder if any of them are using hammocks to help them sleep more deeply?

On this day in New Voices
2010 - We got an inside look at the Barresi Lab at Smith College.
2009 - We talked about Engaging Audiences.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Issue Close to my Heart

The heart is an amazing organ. I work on heart development which makes me a little biased, but let me tell you why I think so. Every cell in your body requires oxygen and the way oxygen gets around is in blood. The heart is required for pumping blood that has been loaded up with oxygen to the tiniest capillaries in your brain and the very tips of your fingers and toes. Once the blood has given up its oxygen, it has to be pumped back from the furthest reaches of your body to your lungs to reload. The heart does all of that pumping. But wait- there’s more.

The heart is one of the first organs to form during embryonic development. It starts out as a simple tube but quickly folds up and pinches off into hollow chambers. Think of those balloon animals you got at birthday parties as a kid, that’s what your heart has to do only it has to work while it’s doing it! This is something like driving a car while building its engine at the same time.

Needless to say, heart development is very complicated and a lot of things can and do go wrong. In fact, congenital heart defects are one of the most common birth defects in America and the leading cause of birth defect-related death. Heart defects are present in 50 out of every 1000 live births. Apart from the emotional difficulties of dealing with these illnesses, they also come with a high economic cost. The lifetime costs associated with heart defects for all of the babies born in a year exceeds $1 billion.

While physicians have made a lot of progress in diagnosing and repairing these defects, little is known about what causes them. This is where basic science comes in. Scientists are hard at work trying to understand how the heart forms and what genes are involved in the process. We have to first understand normal development if we want to figure out what is going wrong when defects occur.

If scientists can identify the key genetic players at work in heart development, it could lead to improved screening and treatments. In order to shed light on congenital heart disease they need a lot of support which is just one more reason why we need to make sure the NIH has the funding it needs. The tiniest Americans are depending on it.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June Open-Thread

Key West is a wonderful summer hangout and place to discuss research and policy issues!
With summer officially starting yesterday and June quickly passing us by, we thought we'd check in with you - our New Voices readers - on what issues have really come to the forefront for you this year? What concerns do you have about policy, health, research, employment, the future?

The comments section is open...

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pew Research Scholars

Any video that shows off the awesomeness of researchers is good for us.

Want to be a New Voice? Leave us a comment or drop us a line at programs at

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Alzheimer's in America

Neurological disorders are straining America. These illnesses can deprive us of our happiness, alter our personality, and cause untoward suffering for our loved ones.

In addition, society bears a massive cost burden for neurological disorders, estimated to be $350 billion per year including direct and indirect costs. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, has an annual cost of $183 billion in the US alone.

The NIH spends about $450 million per year on Alzheimer’s research, which may sound significant, but it is equal to only one quarter of one percent of the $183 billion that Alzheimer’s costs Americans. Given the current fiscal environment, it will be an uphill battle to secure new funding for Alzheimer’s research, even though estimates show that 14 million baby boomers will be living with the disease by 2050.

Patients with Alzheimer’s rely heavily on Medicare to cover their medical bills. The average cost of an Alzheimer’s patient to Medicare is $13,000 per year, which is $8,500 more than the average cost of Medicare recipients without the disease.

As a nation, if we want to reign in the deficit we must control the cost of health care. Bringing new treatments to market could help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and one day, eradicate the disease all together. In doing so, we could save billions in care costs.

But in order to take advantage of today’s scientific opportunities, we must resist the urge to cut spending on research. Cuts will set all of us back and deprive a generation of the hope that robust medical research represents. Make sure Congress knows where you stand and convince others that share your views to reach out. We are, after all, in this together.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Good luck Molly Round-Up

Hooray for Friday! It means the last day of in-office work for many of you, but also the weekly New Voices round-up. (You know that's what makes Fridays so exciting!)

Unfortunately, our Friday is bittersweet this week with the departure of our newest blogger, Molly Maguire. Molly finishes her internship today and is moving on to a position as an associate at Lewis-Burke Associates, LLC. We are sad to see her go, but excited for her new adventures and looking forward to hearing about her work there soon.

In that spirit of new adventures, two federal agencies have made major announcements this week:

The FDA releases the new sunscreen guidelines in time for another fun-in-the-sun summer. Looking for some good beach reading? Seems like neuroscience and brain books are the page-turners for 2011.

The USDA releases new food guidelines, explicitly encouraging Americans to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. While raw fruits and veggies are predictable, it turns out figuring out what really has whole grains can be a bit trickier.

On this day in New Voices:
2010 - We launched our summer series, Images from Around the Lab. If you'd like to contribute pictures from your lab, drop us a line in the comments or via email at
2009 - New Voices Matt, Takao and Rashada participated in the first blog point/counterpoint on policy related to Combating Cancer.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

More with Marcy Maguire, NIH fellow

Yesterday, we shared the first half of our interview with Marcy Maguire, MD. Marcy is a fellow at NIH doing research on reproductive health.

NV: What are the potential applications of your research or treatments that could result?

Marcy: The applications for the first project are pretty theoretical at this point, and its purpose is to add to our basic understanding of reproduction. For the second project, its applications are also unknown, but the results are probably more understandable and interesting to the non-scientist. A woman’s fertility declines with increasing age, and by 40 it can be difficult to conceive spontaneously. Most women undergo menopause around age 51. Given the increasing tendency to delay childbearing in our modern society and the ongoing controversies surrounding hormone replacement therapy after menopause, the cellular processes associated with age-related decline in fertility and the onset of menopause are both interesting and socially relevant.

NV: You've explained how your work contributes to infertility treatment and care. Can you talk a little about your impact on your community? In other words, how does your NIH fellowship allow you to make a contribution to your local economy and the health of others?

Marcy: I’m the mother of a 3 year old daughter, who goes to daycare. I rent a house in Bethesda, and contribute to my local economy in pretty normal ways-grocery shopping, restaurants, etc…I think my contribution to the health of others is probably a more unique and interesting story.

Although my last year at NIH has been research-focused, I still see patients. What is great about my clinical experience is that I see patients who are afflicted with very rare disorders. By coming to the NIH, these patients are given the opportunity to be cared for by physicians with expertise in the particular disease that afflicts them. The patients in turn contribute to science by allowing researchers here to study their health in the context of their disorder.

Also, because we are government funded, we are heavily connected to the military system, especially Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center. We are able to treat men and women in the military who are experiencing infertility or who require specialist reproductive endocrine care. The great indirect benefit to all of this is that our interactions with patients often spur individual research projects. Every patient is unique and there is something to be learned from every person we meet.

NV: Do you have any memorable experiences from your time working with patients?

Marcy: I’m lucky in that I can watch the gradual results of a woman’s infertility treatment take shape-in the form of a child! There is one couple that I treated early on in my fellowship who now has a child. I’ve run into them a few times outside of the hospital. It makes me so happy when I see them as a family, and to know that I contributed to that is a pretty gratifying feeling.

NV: What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a researcher or an advocate for research?

Marcy: My advice would really be to just dive in, find a hospital or lab in your area, and expose yourself to multiple fields to see what triggers your interest. There are so many fields of medicine to specialize in, and the earlier you can become exposed the better.

My other advice would be to get started as early as possible. There is an unbelievable amount of information out there, so the more time you give yourself to build your knowledge base, the better.

Special thanks to Marcy for sharing her research with us. We look forward to seeing the results of her projects.

If you're interested in sharing your research story on New Voices, email us at

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Interview with Marcy Maguire, NIH fellow

Today we're sharing the first half of our interview with NIH fellow Marcy Maguire, MD

NV: When did your interest in science and medicine begin?

Marcy: I have always been interested in science, probably because my dad, who is also a physician researcher encouraged curiosity and analytic thought when I was younger. I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a doctor until I took a course on human genetics, reproduction, and public policy in the molecular biology department at Princeton University. This course covered many interesting topics, including in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis i.e. PGD, (the process whereby disease-free embryos are pre-selected to be implanted), and even cloning. I thought the science of reproduction and the early stages of embryo growth and development were fascinating.

After Princeton, I studied medicine at the Medical College of Virginia for medical and then completed a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center. Presently, I am completing the final month of my reproductive endocrinology and infertility fellowship at the NIH. The first 1.5 years of my fellowship were largely clinical and patient-based while my final 1.5 years have been basic-science-oriented.

NV: When did you begin to specialize in OBGYN? What about infertility inspired you to focus your time and energy in this field?

Marcy: In med school you don’t really specialize in anything, kind of like law school. You go and learn a lot and graduate but you don't really specialize in a particular medical field. During residency you learn how to care for patients within a particular medical field, like obstetrics and gynecology. If you want to focus in-depth on an even more particular subset of patients, you complete fellowship training in a subspecialty within your field- for me reproductive endocrinology and infertility within the field of ob/gyn.

What really locked me into infertility was my interest in reproduction and genetics. For instance, a couple might come in, both of whom are carriers for Huntington’s or Tay-Sachs disease, and who didn’t want to pass the disease onto their children. The idea that you could select embryos without mutated/affected genes and thereby enhance the chance that such a couple would have a healthy baby is a very powerful thing. Now that I have spent a few years doing research in reproduction, I have come to realize that not only is this a fascinating field, but it is also incredibly conducive to research. There are a million fascinating questions that remain to be answered.

NV: Now that you are doing research in your 3rd year, what are you researching? What questions are you seeking to answer?

Marcy: I’m doing two projects. The first involves reproductive hormone receptor signaling in mouse ovarian cells. Reproductive hormone receptors play a major role in ovulation, menstruation, and many, many other cellular processes. A better understanding of how these receptors work could help us to better understand and possibly treat infertility, endocrine disorders, and even some types of cancer.

My second project deals with ovarian aging. I am comparing steroidogenic enzymes and regulatory molecules in ovaries from old and young mice.

Check in tomorrow when Marcy shares more about her work, it's applications and advice for early-career researchers.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Bicameral and Bipartisan Support for NIH

Letters have made their way to the House and Senate subcommittees dealing with the NIH appropriations. The Senate version, penned by Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), and Richard Burr (R-NC), asks the subcommittee’s Chairmen and Ranking Member to “maintain a strong commitment to funding for the NIH.” Twelve Republican House members join Brian Bilbray (R-CA), the author of the House letter, in asking the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education to avoid deep cuts to NIH’s budget.

Together, these two letters present evidence of bipartisanship in an overtly partisan environment where fiscal policy has become politically charged. This is a positive indication that both sides, Republican and Democrat, agree on health research as a priority that must be protected. Both letters cite the dual role health research can serve in the economy; not only does it advance the health and well-being of Americans, but it is critical in our efforts to strengthen the economy and create opportunities for innovation. Lastly, the letters reflect the growing consensus that scientific and medical research are necessary for American competitiveness.

The consequences of reduced funding are clear: fewer postdoctoral positions, increased competition for available resources, and a decline in the supply of young researchers will further erode American preeminence in the sciences. Against this background, the letters reflect a recognition that science and health research, and NIH funding in particular, bring multiple and long-term gains requiring sustained investment by the government.

The timing of the letters-the House version in late May, and the Senate’s in early June- suggest that critical agency funding decisions are close at hand. Make sure your representatives know that cutting medical research is not in our nation’s interest.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

A Viral Round-Up

In my ideal world, a viral New Voices Round-Up would be one that is so popular it flies around the web at previously unknown speeds of electron transfer. In reality, New Voices has been quieter this week than any week since we began posting in December of 2008 because of a freakishly powerful virus that attacked my work computer.

We're glad to be back online now and even more excited to catch up on our theme-day pieces that got missed between help desk calls.

Monday is typically our day to cover science policy, so to make sure you're getting your full dose, read this article in The Hill about 12 GOP lawmakers asking their colleagues to spare NIH from massive cuts in the FY 2012 budget and then ask your senators to sign on to the Casey-Burr letter.

Thanks to New Voice Elyse for sharing a link perfect for our usual Tuneage Tuesday: a trailer for the upcoming The PHD Movie, based on the very popular (and often shown here) Piled Higher, Deeper comic strip about life as a PhD student/post doc. After you see this, you'll definitely be requesting showings at your university:

PHD Movie Trailer from PHD Comics on Vimeo.

We don't have a bunch of other links from this week (what with limited Internet access), but get your fill of New Voices with these historical posts, and we'll have quite a reading list for you next week.

On this day in New Voices:
2010 - Ryan made us aware that June is Aphasia Awareness month in his post, Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously.
2009 - Matt told us about his Experiences with H1N1 in China. Seems like E.Coli is trying to earn the same epidemic status in Europe right now.

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Urge Your Senators to Support NIH in FY 2012

Considering the current budget environment, it has never been more important to speak out about the importance of research to improve health. U.S. Senators Robert Casey (D-PA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) are circulating a letter in support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which finances lifesaving research at hospitals, universities and other research institutions across the country.

Take action now! Contact your Senators and request that they sign on to the Casey-Burr letter to show strong, bipartisan support for NIH and its critical mission of advancing medical research.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Technical difficulties are prohibiting us from posting right now, and as soon as we get those worked out, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled posts.


Friday, June 3, 2011

National Doughnut Day Round Up

It's National Doughnut Day, so grab a delicious snack and settle in for this week's favorites from around the web.

Want to be inspired by getting knocked in the head with an apple? Sadly, that's no longer a possibility under Sir Isaac Newton's 400 year-old apple tree.

However, if you get hit in the head elsewhere, you can now quickly and easily find out if you have a concussion. Yup, there's an app for that. The best part? It includes data from the CDC and provides users a medium to contribute to research on youth sports and concussions.

Science Communication
If the heat is keeping you indoors, you'll definitely want to read about how the Science & Entertainment  Exchange is helping keeping what you see on TV scientifically feasible (pages 12 to 14).

Research to Improve Health
When is MRSA really MRSA? And what do new methods of diagnosing infections mean for medical research?

On this Day in New Voices
2010 - We introduced two New Voices, Alissa and Ryan. Alissa is currently in Mozambique serving in the Peace Corps, and Ryan is at the American Chemical Society.
2009 - Takao told us about Sensationalizing Science Journalism.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Snapshot: Migraines

Comic credit: Linda Causey
I started getting migraines when I was 16, a genetic gift from my mom. (Thanks, mom!) I participated in clinical trials throughout high school, after which they began to recede slightly. In college I began noticing that alcohol was a trigger, so I stopped drinking.

After college the migraines began ramping up, but as they did two fortunate things happened: I met a great neurologist and I started recognizing the various triggers. Over four years we have developed a strategy for both preventing and treating my migraines. I now take daily preventatives, and carry a stash of medication with me at all times.

Migraines are often misunderstood as merely headaches, but worse. Migraines are a completely different animal, characterized by debilitating neurological symptoms like aura, nausea and intense throbbing. Add to this the incredible diversity of symptoms and reactions to medications that migraine sufferers experience, and a migraine is not just a minor inconvenience; it can be completely debilitating.

While a headache can often go away with an over-the-counter treatment, like ibuprofen, one of my migraines would laugh hysterically were you to offer an ibuprofen to treat them.

Migraines affect as much as 10% of the population, including children. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines contribute to 113 million missed days from work each year. Therefore not only are they a serious impediment for individuals, but their incidence constitutes a wider public health problem.

There are many treatment and prevention options available, but they often require a substantial investment in time - think years, not days - to determine what works, and a dedicated neurologist who can help a patient track their treatment. Despite years of treatment, my migraines have reduced in intensity and frequency, but not been eliminated.

As difficult as my experience with migraines has been, it actually falls on the luckier side of the spectrum. The reality for many migraine sufferers is mixed: a successful regimen of medication will often only work temporarily or sporadically.

My mom got her first migraine while pregnant with me. During my childhood, I can remember being woken up in the middle of the night to her crying; sometimes my dad would take her to the hospital just to receive pain medication strong enough to put her to sleep. She would give herself shots in the leg and sit in complete darkness for five days at a time.

If sporadic migraines weren’t bad enough, around 4% of the US population has daily migraines. A family friend has had a migraine for three years, almost uninterrupted. He has lost his job and basically remains in seclusion.

So what can be done? Clearly, more research is required to understand migraines, especially the factors that determine susceptibility and treatment success. Some of the current research examines genetic factors, changes in brain circuits, the role of estrogen, and the prevalence of “rebound headaches”.*

For the sake of all Americans who suffer from migraines, more research and better options are vital. Migraine research represents another critical part of the NIH portfolio. For patients, research could answer questions about why drugs work well for some but not others, thus cutting down the trial and error time. But most of all, it would spell relief for the millions who spend so much of their life in debilitating pain.

*Rebound headaches are a perfect example of the uncertainty and constant balancing act that migraine management requires. Some medications will take away your migraine for that moment, but will increase the odds of a rebound headache occurring at a similar time the following day, thus giving you a rebound headache.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Little Pony & Effective Communication

Finally! I get to write about ponies. At work! No kidding folks, anyone in my family would tell you I was an avid fan of My Little Pony through about age 10, and so I'm thrilled to show you this student presentation examining the physics of My Little Pony.

I just want to clarify that
My Little Pony used to
look like this.
Of course, grown-up Heather is more impressed with the physics than the new adventures of my favorite ponies. Beatledude64 took creativity to a new level and approached his homework assignment with humor and finesse; exactly the sort of thing to celebrate, since June is Effective Communications Month.

Here at New Voices, we are huge fans of science communication and the sub-type of communication known as advocacy, so throughout the month we'll be sharing examples of great science communication to help all of us on our journey to become more effective communicators and advocates for research.

What makes this a great jumping off point? Most of us got our first experiences speaking in front of groups in classrooms, and regardless of where we're speaking now, the same general rules apply:
  1. Speak to your audience. Know who you're talking to, and find something that will be interesting to your target demographic; whether that's sports, a movie, a TV show, or a local legend. Be sure to take the time to mention the pertinent details (ex.: "ponies fall a lot") that way anyone who isn't as intimately familiar with the example can follow along, too.
  2. Talk about what you know. If you choose to make an analogy to driving a motorcycle, and you've never actually ridden one, you're not doing your presentation justice.You will be the best at talking (and responding to questions!) about the things you're most familiar with.
  3. Make it a dialogue. If you get a question or comment mid-presentation, respond. Ignoring it doesn't make it go away. Laughter and heckling only gets bad when you don't take it in stride.
  4. Work through any trouble spots. Your technology might not work. It may not even be plugged in. But if you don't make a big deal out of it, chances are, no one else will either. Not wasting time repeatedly apologizing for video delays or technological hiccups will keep you on your presentation rhythm and your audience engaged.
  5. Be confident. You know more about your topic than probably anyone else in the room. If that wasn't the case, you probably wouldn't be the person  everyone came to hear in the first place.
Fear not, super presenter, you can do this. It takes practice. Lots of practice, usually out loud, and preferably in front of a mirror or friendly audience.

We may not be magic ponies, but your New Voices compatriots are here to support you in your endeavors, too. Drop us a line in the comments or by email if you have questions about effective communication.

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