Friday, July 29, 2011

Political Discourse & Going Bananas Round-Up

On the Policy Front
Talks on the debt ceiling continue leaving some wondering, what if the climate "ceiling" got as much attention as the debt ceiling?

What words you use matter in activating groups.

Food Research & Health
A new study has shown that folks who push a cart in the grocery store make healthier purchases than those who carry baskets. Any guesses as to why?

Bananas are facing a deadly threat and genome mapping may be able to solve it.

On this day in New Voices:
2010:  We took a look inside the Greco Lab at Yale University.
2009: Heather wondered Can you name a living scientist? (this post had the highest one day traffic of any post in New Voices history.)

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Medical Research will Keep us Working

Polling by Research!America in 2011 showed overwhelming support for increasing government investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and that most people feel federal funding of research is necessary to improve state economies. With the current budget woes, can we truly expect increased funding for the NIH? What could that investment do for our nation? The answer is a whole lot more than you might think.

As an example, in 2010 more than 4,000 jobs in Virginia were directly due to NIH-funded research, which totaled more than $300 million for the state that year. An additional 2,000 out-of-state jobs were attributed to NIH grants received by Virginia institutions demonstrating broad economic impact. In addition, the biosciences industry in Virginia, which expands around and benefits from NIH-sponsored institutions, was responsible for more than 80,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state. The NIH clearly has made an impact on Virginia's job market.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) industries have the most growth potential, pay higher salaries and need more skilled employees. Virginia exemplifies this trend. In order for the entire country to benefit similarly, our nation must make the upfront investment in scientific research.

Everyone needs to understand that the NIH can provide us with great opportunities to work and excel in biotechnology and medicine. In the next post, I will expand on this by discussing a successful bioscience company that developed from federally-funded small business grants. In the meantime, call your representatives in Congress today and tell them you support the NIH and bioscience research!!

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Discouraging Self-Confidence?

From the vault on May 6, 2008
Perhaps the epitome of self-confidence, fictional Dr. Gregory House said,
"If you're right and you doubt yourself, it doesn't help anybody."
I read this piece on smart kids who over estimate their intelligence which included, among other things, the following quote:
"I'd like to caution especially my younger readers that you may be very smart, but you should assume that you are making a mistake if you find yourself thinking you are smarter than every scientist in the world put together. A feeling like that is wrong a million times for every time it's even half right."
I'm not sure I agree with this author's tone toward young people. It is hard enough to get smart kids through schools and into the world of science (or any advanced realm) without discouraging them. Although there are clearly times when young people will be wrong, there are other times when they are right.

And I know it is movie-esque to imagine that there is this solution that a student reads about purely as theory and then toils over, confronts barriers of adults who blindly believe in the impossibility of them understanding, and then eventually discover something genius. But there are countless examples of young people today doing just that. Popular online applications like YouTube and Facebook are both products of garage-style ingenuity, for one.

It is a bit precocious (arrogant?) to assume that, as a teenager, you are such a rockstar that you are smarter than everyone else on the planet (and are telling the press about it!). But, it will be true that teachers are wrong - or that students will be more accomplished in a subject than they are. There are textbooks with mistakes and calculations with errors.

In my humble opinion, some kid who wants to spend their spare time calculating the difference between the orders of magnitude of anything should be encouraged to do so. In my limited experience, it seems that even if they are eventually wrong, they will have learned something valuable.

Where is the line between teaching limitations and asking students to stay in line and hampering brilliance? Science may be a team sport, but every sport has rookie all-stars.


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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Ever-Changing World of the FDA

Photo Source: NCI, Linda Bartlett
Have you ever been watching T.V. when a commercial comes on? You see happy people playing with their kids, eating ice cream, or biking in the park while a soft spoken person tells you the benefits of their latest medication with soothing music playing in the background. Suddenly, the voice quickly starts listing possible side effects like nausea, heart attacks, stroke or even death. What is that all about? You have just been offered the message of regulatory science and the FDA.

Although safety is the utmost concern of regulatory science, enforcing magazine and T.V. ads is only a small part of it. Regulatory scientists examine toxicology reports, monitor clinical studies, make recommendations and restrictions, and may even perform laboratory tests when necessary to ensure marketed food and drugs are not hazardous to our health. They basically have the last say on whether these items are allowed on the market for consumption.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the key Federal agency for regulating food and pharmaceuticals for public use in the United States. This agency was established in the early 1900’s, but actually arose from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Department of Chemistry created in the late 19th century to monitor the additives in food and drugs without regulatory powers.

In 1906, Upton Sinclair reported on the unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants in his book, “The Jungle.” That year, public pressure led the federal government to pass both the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act. The latter would eventually lead to the formal establishment of the FDA as a regulatory agency nearly two decades later.

Since then, the FDA has shown its flexibility through its numerous decisions. As times change, food and drug industries evolve and this means the FDA must always restructure itself to meet the needs of both companies and the public. In 1938, Congress gave the FDA authority over the expanding cosmetics and therapeutic device industries, which were then unregulated, after changes to the Food and Drug Act are proposed by the agency earlier that decade.  In the 1940’s, the FDA demonstrated its authority over medications, assuming responsibility for testing insulin used to treat diabetes and also requiring testing and certification of the popular antibiotic, penicillin.

Perhaps, the case most noted in FDA history is its decision on thalidomide in the 1960’s. Thalidomide was a sleeping medication that caused birth defects in many babies after its release in Europe. When the media reported the FDA’s role in preventing thalidomide’s release in the U.S., there was overwhelming public support for increased pharmaceutical regulation.

It has remained a regulatory force since then, although it has received a number of “facelifts,” especially in recent years. Many argue whether FDA regulations should be loosened to make new drugs available more quickly, but others feel they should remain very careful in their decisions to prevent unnecessary deaths. In fact, a 2010 Research!America poll indicates that Americans are split on this issue. It highlights why the FDA process has been a topic of debate for many years, factoring into the many changes made to the agency throughout its history.

How do you feel about the FDA and the role of regulatory science in the pharmaceutical industry?

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rockin' Out for a Good Cause

This week's Tuneage Tuesday features N.E.D., a sweet band made up of gynecologic oncologists. The band's name stands for No Evidence of Disease and the "rock docs" hope to use their talents to raise awareness of gynecologic cancers and the 90,000 women who struggle with them every year.

Let us know if you know of other scientist musicians! We'd love to feature them on future Tuneage Tuesdays.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Complacency is Not an Option

Earlier today I saw a tweet from one of our New Voices, @JLVernonPhD:
"If you haven't called your Congressional Representative and Senators about the debt ceiling, you are as much at fault as they are."
He couldn't be more right, which is why I'm sharing a modified version of a letter that Research!America's President & CEO Mary Woolley sent to the Research!America membership last week.

Decisions will be made soon. That is why it is critical to speak up now. You know and I know that researchers, research-based institutions, patients and their families and our nation’s economic future will all be worse off if Congress chokes off funding for health research.
  • We can’t afford to lag other nations when it comes to R&D. Without research-fueled innovation, our economy will continue to sputter.
  • We can’t afford to stall progress against life-threatening and disabling diseases, biding our time as chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autoimmune disorders, depression, PTSD and other health threats take a rapidly increasing human and fiscal toll.
  • We can’t afford to dismantle the basic research infrastructure at universities, academic medical centers and independent research institutions across the country, hamstringing the U.S. R&D pipeline.

You and I know that whether the goal is to wage battle against diseases like Alzheimers or to ensure our nation remains competitive in the global economy, it is counterproductive and counterintuitive to divest from medical research. Now we must get that message across to Congress. Research!America is committed to providing advocacy tools to help you do just that.

Today's Tool: A script for when you call Congress.

Phone calls are an effective way to connect with your representatives and can have greater impact than emails or other forms of electronic communication. The script below is just a template. Providing in-district or state examples of the impact of NIH funding will strengthen your argument and demonstrate just how important this issue is to you. It can also be tailored for use in advocating for other key health agencies. Drop us a line in the comments if you would like assistance in tailoring this script.
  • Hello, my name is __________ and I’m calling from ________ in your district.
  • I am calling because I’m very concerned about the current debate over federal spending for programs that are important to me and all Americans.
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH) play an essential role in discovering life saving cures and treatments while enhancing our nation’s economic competitiveness.
  • Unfortunately, these difficult fiscal times have resulted in over $300 million in cuts to the NIH budget, and obtaining funding for medical research is harder than it has ever been.
  • As your constituent, I urge you to support legislation that provides robust NIH funding and I urge you to convey this message to your colleagues in Congress.
  • NIH research is crucial to improving the health of all Americans and creates the high quality jobs that our nation needs today.
  • Thank you for speaking with me and I look forward to hearing more from your office on this key issue

If we keep fighting together, we will make a difference.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Signs of Research Round-Up

The Ellen DeGeneres Show's photo Today’s lesson is about how to write an effective sign.
via The Ellen DeGeneres Show on WhoSay

This week's challenge: Create an advocacy message as effective as that sign.

Head on over to Scientific American and check out the blossoming blog network. Lots of our favorites from around the web have found new homes there, including Christie Wilcox of the renamed Science Sushi and Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics.

Do naked mole rats know the secret to a cancer-free life?

Parting is such sweet sorrow. This week the nation says farewell to the space shuttle program. With it goes an era of exploration that fueled the imaginations of millions of Americans.

Your iPhone now has additional capabilities, including being able to detect cataracts. Don't worry, you can also use your iPod touch and some other smart phones as well.

On this day in New Voices:
2010: We got a sneak peak at Pipetting at Harvard.
2009: The New Voices bloggers debated Health Care Reform.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011


From the vault on February 1, 2008

In New Voices we talk about research and about communicating it.  But, as Michael Tobis brings up in his recent post at Wired Science, sometimes we are advocating the types of changes even we may not be making.  He discusses his ideas for counteracting global climate change in the context of his inability to counteract his obesity.

As a science communicator, when we make recommendations, they need to be things we are sure to be doing (or would be willing to do) ourselves; for a number of reasons.
  1. We're sure they actually work, because we've done it.
  2. Personal examples are the most compelling.  In every possible form of communication, a story, quote, or image tends to bring the abstract into reality.  Also, we tend to be most passionate about things that happen to us, so it adds a persuasive element to our arguments.
  3. Leading by example is a great way to gather followers.
  4. We can also report on challenges.  By saying, yes it may be difficult to schedule that yearly exam because your doctor's office isn't close by/accessible/affordable/etc., you can provide rationale for why those burdens are worth overcoming.

For what other reasons is it important to "practice what we preach"?

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tell Congress: No More NIH Budget Cuts

Photo credit: Heather Benson
The recent budget deal for fiscal year 2011 reduced the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by over $300M. The NIH director has reported that grant funding rates are at an all time low.

On July 26, the House of Representatives is scheduled to make their funding recommendation for NIH. Let them know that NIH is critical to our nation’s health, competitiveness, and economic vitality. Our nation needs robust support for health research now more than ever.

In addition to sending a message to your members of Congress, pass this alert on to others who will speak out in support of health research. 'Like' this alert on Facebook and share it with your networks.

Our federal budget will continue to be a critical issue and we need every willing voice to send our message loud and clear to our elected officials in Washington. Act now to support research.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Google Science Fair Winners

These ladies will either inspire you or make you feel old. Contestants in the Google Science Fair came from all over the world, but three Americans triumphed. Could these three be members of the next generation of New Voices? We hope so!

Share this video with the aspiring young scientists in your life.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Working Together on HIV/AIDS: Scientists

Photo courtesy of the NIH

This year marks the 30th anniversary of two mysterious outbreaks in America. One was of a form of pneumonia called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and the second was a skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Both diseases were quite rare, especially considering the patients were all young men in their 20's. These outbreaks actually marked the beginning of our awareness of a new disease we now know as AIDS.

Today’s post is the first in a series about HIV/AIDS, including where we were and how far we’ve come in treating this devastating disease. However, I’m not planning on focusing on the science behind HIV/AIDS since others have already done a great job of explaining this.

Instead, I want to talk about the different groups that were involved in the amazing progress we’ve made in our understanding and treatments. In just 30 years, HIV/AIDS has gone from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. Who made that possible?

The first answer that probably comes to mind is scientists and physicians who had to figure out what caused the symptoms they were seeing in clinics and how the disease was spreading. This was a daunting challenge, but with the support of the US government as well as governments around the world, they identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and figured out how it was transmitted.

Almost two decades before the emergence of HIV/AIDS, scientists had the idea that cancers might be caused by a special type of virus called a retrovirus. They developed a drug against retroviruses in the hopes that is would cure these cancers. Unfortunately it didn’t work. But, HIV is a retrovirus, so they were able to revisit their old drug. The drug, AZT, appeared to slow the progression from HIV infection to AIDS and represented the first major breakthrough for infected individuals. Not bad for a failed experiment!

Since then, science has produced several other drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and many people are living long and symptom-free lives as a result. But scientists didn’t work alone. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss the crucial role advocacy groups played in fighting this epidemic.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

New Series: From the Vault

The Vault
Photo credit: aconoway1 on Flickr

As I mentioned last Friday, New Voices for Research existed as a private online community long before this blog or any of our other social media tools were available to anyone who wants to become an advocate for research. As we transition the community to Facebook (are you a fan yet?), we're also cleaning out the archives of discussion board posts and activities we developed for the private community.

Though a lot has changed in the past few years, there are a lot of advocacy and science communication basics as well as culture of science issues that are still relevant today. So we're breaking open the vault door on those posts* and sharing them here in a new occasional series, From the Vault.

We hope you'll join us in discussions regarding the posts' relevance today, advocacy, and- as always - how these issues affect you.

*Privacy and respect for members of the New Voices community is incredibly important to us. Comments or posts generated by members of the New Voices community will not be shared without their express approval.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Although scientists are in a long term relationship with federal funding, the two don't always get along.

By now, you are probably well aware of the debate over the use of stem cells for scientific research. For many people suffering from debilitating diseases like Parkinson’s or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research offers hope for a future free from disease. For others, it represents a moral failure to protect embryos that, if implanted, might develop into a human fetus.

While it may seem that the public is divided on this controversial issue, a recent poll commissioned by Research!America shows that 72% of Americans favor expanding embryonic stem cell research.

This debate could rage for a long time, but what impact does it have on medical research? In the Spoonful of Medicine blog, Elie Dolgin points out that the on again/off again relationship between the US government and hESC research has left some scientists wondering if it’s time to break up with the feds and find a new partner.

Several states have attempted to stabilize the funding environment for this controversial research by awarding their own grants to scientists. The most notable example is California, whose Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) had, as of last July, awarded over $1 billion to stem cell researchers at more than 50 institutes.

There are now over 100 new faculty recruits in California who have CIRM funding for their research. Hundreds of CIRM-funded projects have also appeared in peer-reviewed articles published in respected journals.

A report by from the Berkeley Research Group, estimates that 24,000 jobs will be created in California by 2014 as a result of CIRM spending. Concentrating funding in California will also strengthen biotechnology clusters. Such clusters have been shown to encourage business formation and start-up employment as well as to attract venture capital.

While the controversy over hESC research continues to play out, California, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland have seized on the opportunity to woo scientists. If the new relationships prove fruitful patients and jobseekers may have these states to thank.

Do you know where your elected official stands on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? Have you told them where you stand?

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Meet Mark Stevens, PhD, Visiting NHLBI Fellow

On a boat in Boston Harbor New Year's Day 2011.
Name: Mark Stevens, PhD

Position: Visiting National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Fellow

Education: Mark has a BS in biochemistry from SUNY-Geneseo and a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona.

Previous experience:Mark has been working at the NIH for 3 years as a post doctoral fellow where he chaired the Fellows Advisory Committee and helped plan the NHLBI fellows retreat.

Fun fact: Mark is an avid hiker and has hiked in the desert in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and more recently tackled Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains.

Please welcome him to New Voices!

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Evolution Rap

You've heard about evolution. You've heard about the "controversy" surrounding evolution. Now you can hear how evolution and pop culture intersect.*

* The views expressed in the rap are those of the artist Baba Brinkman.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Debt Ceiling Deal and Health Research

Time is running out to cut a deal. On August 2nd, the US debt ceiling will be reached and meanwhile, talks between the White House and Congressional leaders have stalled.

If Republicans and Democrats can come to an agreement it may be a short term increase in the debt limit to provide additional time for negotiations. However, President Obama has indicated that he has little interest in short-term measures and prefers to craft a far-reaching compromise that could fundamentally alter the fiscal state of the federal government.

If a major deal can be struck, it will likely contain spending cuts and possibly caps for government programs. On the mandatory side, these cuts could mean reduced benefits for Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security beneficiaries. The cuts could be dramatic as these programs are considered to be the primary driver of federal spending and have seen unprecedented growth in recent years.

On the discretionary side, caps would limit the amount by which agency budgets are able to grow. The NIH budget, for example, is currently at about the $31B level for this fiscal year. A long-term cap on discretionary spending could place restrictions on spending by budget function, which is a high-level aggregate of spending. The NIH and health research fall into the function 550 category, which is broadly labeled ‘health.’

Caps or cuts to the health budget function could place major constraints on the nation’s ability to carry out health research. In the short term, appropriations hearings are underway in the House and these decisions may impact the makeup of a broader compromise over the debt ceiling and federal spending.

Health research is an engine for innovation critical to the future of our economy, and a source of treatments and cures critical to the health of our population. Act now so your representatives know that cuts to research should not be part of any deal now or in the future.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

New Voices is Now on Facebook

As some of you may know, New Voices began as a private online community. It had the same mission - to empower early-career researchers to become advocates for research - that we have here in the public spaces today. However, the idea was that some scientists might feel uncomfortable talking about issues in places their advisors might have access too, and that communicating about science and advocating for research were a bit taboo in the scientific community.

As that trend changes, and more and more young scientists are interested in communicating about research to their communities and elected officials, we're breaking out of our shells and going public with the New Voices for research community. First with the blog in December 2008, then with Twitter in March 2010, and now with Facebook in 2011.

We hope you'll become a fan and join us in our quest to become advocates for research!

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Twitter Townhall

Watch President Obama's Twitter Townhall live now and submit your own question using the #askObama hashtag. How many questions about science and medical research can we get into the queue? Here are some of the questions currently being asked:

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

30 Seconds or Less

Whether they call it an elevator pitch or a spiel, almost every professional communication seminar is going to include a section on explaining what you do in 30 seconds or less. In a soundbite society, that skill is becoming more and more important. Here's a great example (and a retake) on how it can be done:

Today's Tuneage Tuesday challenge: Record a 30 second or less video of yourself talking about your work and send us a link or the file to see yourself on an upcoming Tuesday! It's super easy to use your computer, smart phone*, or digital camera to record 30 seconds. Try it now!

*If it's easier to send your video phone to phone, email me at hbenson at so I can send you the appropriate contact line.

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Friday, July 1, 2011

Independence Day Round-Up

Concerns for All Scientists
New Voice Jaime Vernon reviews President Obama's press conference on Wednesday and wonders whether it is foreshadowing bad things for medical research in a guest blog over at The Intersection.

In the Lab

From Bench to Bedside
14 universities were among the top recipients of U.S. patents in 2010.

Exciting News!
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Association will officially declare rinderpest the second disease in history to be eradicated, after smallpox. Although this disease doesn't directly afflict humans, it has led to massive famines throughout history by killing livestock.

On this day in New Voices
2010 - Alissa took us on a tour of the rest of the Barresi Lab at Smith College
2009 - Matt did a round-up of all the health holidays in July, and New Voices was advocating for an increase in funding for the NIH. Just like we are today.

New Voices will be off on Monday celebrating America's birthday. Stay safe out there amongst the barbecues and fireworks - we'll see you on Tuesday!

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