December 4, 2016

What's Next for Me?

Presenting research at the European Sleep Research Society's
meeting in Bologna, Italy this past September. Great
experience — and my first time abroad!
Since defending my dissertation in June, I've remained in the same sleep research laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher — expanding upon the findings of my dissertation, attending conferences (in Italy!) to present my work, and collecting data for a new pilot study in the sleep clinic.

As many of you know, I've known for a few years now that I wanted to use my extracurricular writing and communication experience toward a career in science policy. During my time as a student, I sought out advocacy projects that allowed me to interact with lawmakers, such as Capitol Hill Days in D.C. with the Society for Neuroscience and inviting my Congressman to tour our laboratory.

I was thrilled this past summer to see advertisements about the William Penn Fellowship, a brand new program designed for recent grad school graduates interested in public service. Working full-time with the Pennsylvania state government, fellows are paired with state agencies "to complete impactful projects based on their personal interests and skillsets."

After two months of preparing my application and interviewing, I'm excited to announce that I'll be serving as one of ten inaugural William Penn Fellows! Beginning next summer, I'll be working in the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) working on policies related to the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania.

I'm incredibly excited and feel empowered knowing that I can use my science degree to help others and be a voice in government — especially now, where I feel it's needed more than ever. I'm also thrilled for this opportunity to learn and grow in a career that I know so little about, yet have wanted for so long. Without a doubt, 2017 will bring some amazing changes and challenges.

I want to sincerely thank you, the readers of this blog, for keeping me "in business" and engaged with my science writing. Your unending support is the reason I've stuck with it all these years, giving me the experience I needed to hone my skills outside of academia.

You can learn more about the William Penn Fellowship here.

(And don't fear. The brain blogging will continue!)

October 21, 2016

What are Migraines, and What Do They Feel Like?

I am lucky to have never experienced a migraine before. *knocks on wood*

Sasha Wolff (Wikimedia Commons)
But 15% of the world's population suffers from migraines, and those folks will easily rattle off all of the painful symptoms: pulsating pain — sometimes localized to one side of the head — often accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. Some also experience nausea. About 1/3 of migraine sufferers perceive auras before the onset of pain, or brief periods of strange visuals, scents, or confusing thoughts.

In more lay terms, Huffington Post columnist Lisa Belkin once described a migraine as feeling "like you are trying to give birth through your forehead."

But what exactly causes migraines, and how are they different from headaches?

It's important to know that although the brain perceives pain from all parts of the body, the brain itself does not feel pain. The brain lacks nociceptors, or specialized sensory nerve fibers that transmit pain signals, which are present in our skin, muscles, and joints.

Headaches, then, are not pain in the brain, but rather activation of nociceptors located in the layers between the brain and the skull: the pia mater and dura mater (collectively, the meninges):

The pia mater (yellow) and dura mater (gray), collectively called the meninges, cushion and 
protect the brain from the skull. OpenStax (Wikimedia Commons)

As you can see from the image above, these layers are highly vascularized, or contain many blood vessels. Common headaches are triggered by fatigue, stress, head injury, or medications which, one way or another, lead to dilation of blood vessels, blood vessel spasms, or inflammation of the meninges.

While the source of pain in migraines is similar to that of headaches, migraines are actually thought to originate in the brain. Many specialists believe auras are caused by sudden increased, then decreased, neural activity in the cortex (outer layer) of the brain.

The activation of these nerves releases a number of proteins, such as serotonin, which can cause inflammation to the meninges as well as dilate blood vessels. A family of migraine medications called triptans work by constricting blood vessels and blocking serotonin. Many people report that "triggers," such as certain foods or changes in the weather, will reliably cause the onset of their migraines, though it is not entirely clear why this happens.

Do you suffer from migraines? Are there specific things that "trigger"  your migraines? What treatments work for you (or don't work)? Let me know in the comments.

October 6, 2016

Scientists Should Advocate for their Own Research

Why (and how) scientists should advocate for their research with journalists and policymakers

Long gone are the days of the lone investigator who discovered a new scientific truth, published the finding in a journal, and continued doing bench research. Nowadays, scientists have to wear any number of different hats: experimenter, data analyst, teacher, mentor, negotiator, financial planner, writer, boss, philosopher, and speaker.

We have to be team players, but also self-motivated. We have to pay meticulous attention to detail while also under- standing how our research fits into the bigger picture. A good scientist performs well in many of these roles, but one person can’t be good at everything.

I am a postdoctoral researcher whose favorite hat is “writer.” It’s exciting to craft my message, put years’ worth of work down on paper, and add my own results to the literature of a decades-old research field. Scientific publications give us the potential to change the status quo in how other researchers approach their own work—and that’s a big deal.

But when we pour all our energy into communicating only with other scientists, we miss the mark on targeting two other crucial audiences who can help us make an even bigger impact: journalists and policymakers.

To read the rest of this op-ed at The Scientist, click here.

August 11, 2016

#PhelpsFace and the Neuroscience of Getting “in the Zone”

Social media exploded earlier this week with a bevy of tweets and memes featuring a rather unimpressed Olympian – and this time, it wasn’t McKayla Maroney.

On Monday night, cameras captured a hooded Michael Phelps appearing to brood and snarl in the direction of South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who was shadowboxing in preparation for the 200-meter butterfly semifinal.

#PhelpsFace. (NBC; gif via Imgur)

Thus, #PhelpsFace was born.

Despite the intense focus we’ve seen since the Sydney games in 2000, Phelps’ ADHD presented him with a struggle early on. As his mother Debbie described in a 2008 article with The New York Times, “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’” Attending regular swim practices – sometimes more than four hours’-worth each day – gave him an outlet for his boundless energy and a lesson in self-discipline.

In fact, many of Phelps’ pre-swim rituals align with what scientists have recently been learning about how we focus to get our heads in the game.

April 25, 2016

The False Dream of Less Sleep

During a typical week in college, I slept four or five hours a night. Between evening classes, club meetings, and writing lab reports, I was lucky if I made it to bed by midnight before my 5  a.m. alarm wailed each morning for rowing practice.

I never actually felt too terribly tired, which was the strange part. Naturally, I likened myself to Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and other greats who claimed to need just a few hours of sleep each night. Little did I know, the damage was already being done.

It wasn’t until I started researching sleep for my PhD in neuroscience that I realized only a handful of people actually succeed at getting by on just a few hours of rest—and they’ve got genetics on their side.

Read the rest at PrimeMind here.

February 23, 2016

Pregnancy Brain: A Neuroscientific Guide for the Expectant Mom (Part 2 of 2)

Pickles and ice cream, anyone? Shutterstock
My forgetful friend – the subject of my original article – gave birth to a baby girl on Thanksgiving Day. She’s a beauty, and I know Mom agrees that the morning sickness, crazy sense of smell, and forgetfulness were worth it in the end.

In the meantime, while she’s experiencing a whole new set of biochemical processes that happens when a woman becomes a mother, let’s re-explore even more crazy changes that affect – or originate in – the brain during pregnancy. What causes clumsiness, food cravings, and moodiness?

February 15, 2016

3 "Takeaways" from the 2016 AAAS Meeting | #AAASmtg

Aaaand that's a wrap on my first-ever AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting!

This was the first conference I've ever attended totally by myself, and I enjoyed the freedoms (attending whatever sessions I want to attend!) and challenges (who will I eat dinner with tonight?) that came with it. Being exposed to the greatest minds in ALL fields of science was particularly exhilarating, as was adding to my ever-growing list of Twitter-friends-I-finally-meet-in-real-life!

Presenting in the student poster competition on Saturday afternoon. You can read press coverage of this research here.
I'd like to extend my deepest gratitude to the society for providing me with the Helen F. Holt Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science, which covered my travel, lodging, and membership with AAAS. The award was presented on Saturday morning at the Women and Minorities breakfast in honor of AAAS CEO Rush Holt's mother, who passed away in July just shy of her 102nd birthday. Helen Froelich Holt was a college science teacher, the first woman to hold statewide office in West Virginia, and a federal housing official and eldercare advocate who helped re-vamp long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Holt briefly on Friday afternoon, and he spoke warmly of how his mother's first AAAS meeting attendance, in 1938, truly validated her standing as a member of the scientific community. I felt exactly the same way this week after attending my first AAAS meeting.

I could write a textbook about my experiences — but as I was reminded of the average reader's short attention span at a communication session on Thursday, I'll briefly outline three "takeaway" messages from the meeting!

January 14, 2016

Should I Stay Up an Extra Hour Being Productive, or Give Myself an Extra Hour of Sleep?

It’s every student’s dilemma. Should you keep studying and delay your bedtime, or shut the books and hit the hay?

My little stinker of a cat, Yoshi, understands the
importance of sleep.
In college, I regularly stayed up until midnight or 1am studying and writing lab reports, even though my alarm went off at 5 each morning for rowing practice. It was always so tempting to stay up late when there was just so much work to be done. So much work, all the time.

Although running on 4 or 5 hours of sleep in college let me finish a lot studying, I was sleepy. I found myself nodding off during class, eating more food to keep myself awake, and I became more susceptible to catching colds. I found it harder to study because I hadn’t paid attention well in class. On occasion, I didn’t do as well on tests as I would have liked to. Sometimes I even found myself being short-tempered toward my friends.

Sound familiar?

These days, after working in a sleep research laboratory for the past four years and becoming intimately acquainted with what the research says about sleep curtailment, I am much more inclined to shut the books, close my laptop, and crawl into bed.

In short, there are literally no benefits – none, zip, zero, nada – to depriving oneself of necessary sleep.

Read the rest of this at Beasts, Unburdened  here. Beasts, Unburdened is a community of future veterinarians who come together to discuss challenges they face in their journey. If you or someone you know is a veterinary student, follow the blog! It's run by my brother, and he's pretty cool.

January 10, 2016

What Explains the Allure of Adult Coloring Books?

Lea Latumahina (Creative Commons)
A few months ago, I caved: I bought myself a coloring book.

And maybe you did, too, or perhaps you received one as a gift for the holidays. According to a recent Fortune article, adult coloring books are one of the biggest contributors to this year’s boost in print-book sales. With over 11,000 search results total, five of Amazon’s current top 15 best-selling books are coloring books.

A few nights a week, I look forward to curling up on the couch with my ever-growing collection of colored pencils, tuning in to the latest episode of Serial, and scribbling away at mandalas and Harry Potters — but I still find the trend strange.

I’ve always had a penchant for making new things from scratch — painting, knitting, writing, drawing, baking. But with my coloring book, I’m not really creating anything. The designs are already on the page — I’m just filling in the white spots. And yet the activity is just as soothing to my mind as my more traditionally “creative” hobbies. So what is the psychological draw of a task that feels creative, but doesn’t actually involve creating anything new?

Read the rest of this at New York Magazine's Science of Us here.