Thursday, October 29, 2015

The (Science) Monster Mash!

By Paola Salazar

Want to do more than just trick or treat this year? How about making some gooey, weird, possibly tasty experiments that will give you some goodies to show off during Halloween weekend?

If you're interested, look no further! We scoured the world for some of the best creepy crawlies, smushy witches (that's right), and a few more activities that you and your family can do to have fun this weekend while still learning the science behind them.

1. Glow in the Dark Drinks & Ice: 

If your family is hosting a Halloween party, did they buy a blacklight? Do you just have a blacklight at home because you're cool like that? Well get ready to be cooler--with glow in the dark drinks. 

If you use it for the punch bowl, you can even add other accessories to the bowl for extra creepiness!

Tonic water can glow in the dark, giving the drinks you serve an eerie look. You can mix tonic water in several different drinks, whether they're adults-only or not. Click here for some tasty recipes! 

Also keep in mind, you don't have to use it in the drink itself, but can also make some ghostly ice cubes (try mixing in small googly eyes to give it an extra ghoulish look).

2. One Melted Witch Coming Up!

This is quite literally what it sounds like. Generally, what you do is get a large (gallon size at least) Ziploc bag, some fake eyes or googly eyes, something slimey/gooey in a large enough quantity to fill the ziploc bag, a small witch hat, black string, and whatever creepy things you think a witch would be made of, and stick all of the above inside the Ziploc bag. You can also double bag it, if you don't want mom to have a heart attack.


If you want to spice it up a little more, you can use cooked pasta with green food coloring and throw that in as well--this allows for some great sensory exploration as well, adding to the squishiness and sliminess of the contents in the bag.

As for "something slimey/gooey," there are two ways you can approach this--you can use clear hair gel and get some green food coloring to make the hair gel have a green consistency for our melted witch, or you can make the slime yourself. 

This being a hub for young explorers and future mad scientists, we know many of you will likely want to make it yourself. So we've recruited Science Bob to give you the full instructions here

3. Creepy Howls

This one is simple, but fun because you may actually give someone a small fright! Purchase a nut from the closest hardware store and place it inside a regular balloon, then inflate it and tie it off at the neck. Hold the balloon by the knot and begin to swirl it around. As the nut whirls inside, it will begin making an eerie sound perfect for Halloween chills. You can up the freaky factor by getting a white cloth with two black circles drawn in for eyes and a bigger one for a ghostly mouth, cut a small hole at the center of the cloth and then poke the balloon's knot through it. Now they're ghostly moans!

4. Brains!!

While we can't get into super detail on this one due to the sheer number of possibilities that come with it, we couldn't resist sharing the find. There are molds for jello shaped like a brain!! While it may be too late to find one in time for Halloween, this mom shows that there are countless times and ways in which you can use this to play and learn. Our favorite is the play-doh brain, because you can easily use different colored play-doh to represent the different parts of the brain and make it a true learning activity. The full list is here
                             Play Dough Brain Surgery Left Brain Craft Brain

5. Hands, Ice, and Creepies

Did you know salt can melt ice faster than it would melt on its own? We found a great way for you to find out, using the items below and some Halloween spirit.

You'll need some surgical gloves, Halloween trinkets small enough to fit inside the gloves' fingers and palm area, water, food coloring, salt (lots) and freezer space. Start filling in the finger space first, then place some slightly bigger items in the palm space. Fill the glove with water and mix in some food coloring. Tie off the base of the hand as securely as possible, then shake it up a bit (preferably above a sink) to get the color well distributed. You can mix different colors in and this way, discover the color they blend into as well. Once it's settled, put the glove in your freezer for the day.

                                                            frozen, water-filled surgical gloves for kids' science experiment

The next day, mix some food coloring with the salt. You can fill a bowl with it and throw in some creepies in there too, then with any tool with a scoop or outlet, begin glazing the gloves in salt and watch it work. You can make this a bit more fun by trying to dig out the different items you put inside the glove as the salt makes its way through the ice! See here for an example.

6. Spooky Eruptions

fizzinf halloween sensory

Because what's a science experiment without baking soda eruptions, am I right?

First, find a bin about the length of a keyboard, if not a bit longer, with a good width to it. Fill a layer of inch with baking soda  mixed with black tempera powder paint . You can toss in other food or slimy elements in as well (here they used black beans). Using Halloween cups or neon shot glasses, fill them with baking soda mixed with food coloring or Kool-Aid for good "fun" measure, Then, with a squeeze bottle filled with lemon juice, you can begin making some neat eruptions inside the bin!

7. The Thing!

Now for my personal favorite, the play-doh that wasn't. Or, rather, how to make play-doh that will only be solid while you're fiddling with it...and will have a mid-life crisis and "melt" in your hands if you stop.

You can find more detailed instructions here, but basically, you get to mix sand and corn starch with washable paint or food coloring, a bit of water, and then let it solidify. You can play with it, mold it, etc, but if you're still for too long, (you were warned) you'll be looking at a puddle of goo. 

If I were you, I'd put this muck inside of a pumpkin or , and have people stick their hands in it as part of a Monster Table--you know, the ones where you put things that have a funky feel to them in bowls and containers then have your guests blindfolded as they try to guess what's in the bowl!

Anyway, we hope that you and your families enjoy a super fun weekend filled with lots of candies, lots of exploring and hopefully, some in-season experiments! 

P.S. For mom and dad, we also got you a way to help get rid of the excess/old candy while steering clear of your child's tears: look here for some fun experiments using candy! 

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Blood Moon Super Moon!

Flickr/ NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

By Paola Salazar

Families and friends across the globe were watching the stars and sky Sunday night, whether cozily on porches and balconies, in the streets, at museums or at observatories, for a view they won't get for quite a while--the blood moon super moon! We dare you to say that five times fast.

But among our curios explorers at the Cambridge Science Festival, some may have been wondering--what exactly causes a blood moon, what makes this one a super moon or just generally, what is this big red thing in the sky where our "normal" moon should be?!

Fear not, for we are going to break it down for these curious minds right here, right now.

If we pretend this is an equation, the layout is like this:

Super Moon + Total Lunar Eclipse = Blood Moon Super Moon

But before we get into the nitty gritty details behind that, first we need a briefer on how the moon moves.

The moon and Earth both have elliptical orbits, meaning they move around in a not-quite circular fashion. The Earth revolves around our sun, while the moon completes a revolution around the Earth every 27 or so days.

Now, moving in an elliptical orbit also means that the moon and Earth don't have a set distance between each other. The average distance between the earth and the moon is 384,600 kilometers.

However, the distance varies at two points in particular--the apogee and the perigee. While not exactly the same, this is generally like the shape of an egg--one side is "taller," or further away (the apogee), while the end opposite that is closer to the center, or the "perigee."

The other thing is, the moon doesn't create its own light, it simply reflects the light that hits it from the sun. As the moon changes position around the earth, the side of the moon facing us reflects a different amount of sunlight as the light bounces off the surface of the moon--this is why every month, you can see a difference in what the moon looks like when it's waning, waxing, full and a new moon.

The amount of light and shade of color that we see from the moon depends not only on the postion of the moon, but on the type of rays that hit the moon. This is a form of "filtering" of colors that occurs because of the particles in our atmosphere at the time of night.

Every so often, the alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth, and the type of light that hits the moon during these alignments, result in some really neat tricks that can be visible to the naked eye (although sometimes, we need to wear protective sunglasses to see it).

For example (check out this video!)...

The Super Moon

source: DeviantArt | Nope, not that kind of Super Moon.
When the moon is in perigree, and the closest to Earth that it ever gets, we see it bigger and brighter than ever! The moon, at a distance of 363,700 km away, appears to be about 14% bigger from our perspective, and about 30% brighter. The size and brightness of it is what led to astronomers dubbing it the super moon!

When the moon is the furthest away from Earth, or in apogee, it's at about 405,600 km away and is the smallest that we can see it, appearing dimmer because of it. For these reasons, when the moon is in apogee, we refer to it as a minimoon.

Total Lunar Eclipse (AKA Why was the moon red?)
 A total lunar eclipse occurs every two and a half years when the Earth is aligned right between the moon and sun. While you might think that because the Earth is bigger than the moon, the moon should be entirely dark, the reason we don't see that happening is because the sun is, of course, even bigger than the Earth!

What that means is that when the moon is caught behind the full shadow of the Earth, the moon will still have some  reddish rays hit it as they get bent by the Earth's atmosphere, but only those reddish tones because of the "filtering" in our atmosphere, as mentioned above (read here for more). 

Or, rather, "You're basically seeing all of the sunrises and sunsets across the world all at once being reflected off the surface of the moon," as Dr. Sarah Noble, a program scientist at NASA, said with the New York Times.

The Blood Moon Super Moon

What made last night's viewing especially awesome for spectators is that while a total lunar eclipse and super moon occur pretty frequently, a super moon that coincides with a blood moon has not occurred since 1982--that's 33 years ago! The next one isn't expected for another 18 years too. That's quite a long time ago, and quite a while until we get to see this again! 

Seeing something this unique last night gets people across generations and continents to look back up at the stars with wonder, Dr. Noble suggested, resulting in the birth of the next generations of future astronomers.

Will you be among them?

NASA/Lauren Harnett/Wikimedia Commons

Food for Thought:
Ask your older family members if they remember seeing the blood moon super moon back in 1982--what were they doing when they saw it and who did they see it with?
What did you do to see the blood moon super moon last night?
The next one will be in 18 years. What do you think you'll be doing then? How do you think the world might be different 18 years from now? 

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Homo naledi: A new Homo Species Shrouded in Mysteries

By Paola Salazar

Picture this: a woman covered head to toe in dirt and debris, her hair in a ponytail under a helmet, loose long clothing enveloping her lanky body, her hand reaching up to her cheek to wipe away sweat.
She’s wearing a helmet with a big bright flashlight attached to the front, and as she approaches a crack in the ground ahead of her, she switches the flashlight on. The fissure is about 7.5 inches wide, and is the entryway to a cave system that’s about 30 meters deep.

Robert Clark/National Geographic: Lee Berger’s daughter, part of the excavation team (left). Paola Salazar/Facebook/American Association of Physical Anthropologists: The FB announcement from Lee Berger (right).
This is one of the “underground astronauts” who flew to South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind when in 2013, paleoanthropologist Lee Berger announced the need for researchers who could fit into the cave entrance of what would then be known as the home of a newly discovered extant species related to modern humans, the Rising Star Cave. 

It’s through her and a team of five other female explorers that two years later, Berger was able to announce last Thursday that after two excavations, the results of their efforts was a whopping 1,550 hominid bones--hominid meaning humans and their fossil ancestors--and what’s more, that these fossils were attributed to at least 15 members of a new species, Homo naledi.

The researchers say that the species had a brain about the size of an orange, stood about 5 feet tall, and weighed about 100 lbs. They've also revealed more on its anatomy within their paper, published on the journal eLife.
Homo naledi/Witswatersrand University

But first of all, what exactly is a paleoanthropologist?

A paleoanthropologist is someone interested in studying, finding and/or analyzing modern human’s ancestors--human-like creatures known as hominids that, depending on how old they are, may still have some ape-like features.

Hominids come in two different genera, which is the general name for species or animals that are more closely related to each other than to other species--like how dogs are related to wolves and cats are related to wildcats under the same genera--Canis and Felis, respectively.

Depending on which anthropologist you ask, there are generally two genera for human ancestors: Australopithecus, for earlier and much older ancestors, and Homo, for the more recently extinct species and the current species, Homo sapiens. While paleoanthropologists have currently discovered numerous species related to humans, in each of the different species groups, they don’t have very many individual examples of each.

This is part of what makes the Rising Star Cave so unique--15 individuals were found! Not only that, but they found some that were children, some that were adults and even the elderly.

During the excavations back in late 2013 and early 2014, Berger and his research team shared much about the process of the excavation. They also provided an exciting day-by-day number count of the amount of bones being collected that started wowing interested parties across the globe from the very beginning (see the NatGeo blog here).

Most researchers will only release such information over time or with the actual publication itself, which can take years. However, Berger and his fellow researchers on the analysis and excavation teams strongly support open scientific communication with the public.

Still, he left one very important question unanswered: what was it? Was it a close relative to humans? Was it an australopithecine?

And now that Berger finally revealed the identity of Homo naledi...he then left many new questions for us to ponder!

So we at the Cambridge Science Festival tried getting some answers from one of the researchers, former Boston University professor, Jeremy DeSilva, who is now an associate professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

One of the new bits of mind-boggling information we got from Berger was the suggestion that the cave itself, being so far deep into a larger cave system (see here) was actually being used as a burial site by Homo naledi during its time as a living species.
    National Geographic: The fossils were found in the Dinaledi Chamber--look how far down that is!

National Geographic

DeSilva explained that while this idea was the first of its kind for species this old (since most signs of purposefully burying the dead are about 100,000 years ago), it was the only one they could seem to fit with the evidence they have so far.

“The thing is, with cave sites, we can usually tell what the caves are used for. For example, if there are signs of bite marks on the bones found and if we find bones of other animals that are not hominids, then we know it was likely a dump site for predators. Here, we really only found Homo naledi--that’s it.” Any animal bones found were higher up within the cave system.

He also said that there was sedimentation between each different fossil group that they found, meaning that after revealing one set of bones, the next set of bones would be another layer or two of digging below.

To top it off, there’s also ways of telling if the bones got there by natural causes like landslides, or perhaps rain carried sediment further down the cave system, and the bones traveled with it. Again, there was no sign of this on the site!

Another odd thing about the site was that they weren’t able to date when Homo naledi was actually walking around on land, which is information that’s highly important for researchers trying to figure out the significance of the discovery.This is again because of the fact that Homo naledi was found by itself, or isolated, from other signs of life during its time.

See, having the bones of other animals would mean that the researchers could analyze those bones as well, trace where and when in time that animal was alive, and be able to tell from there when Homo naledi was alive.

But because there were no animals found with the Homo naledi fossils, and because cave dirt and mud is very hard to analyze for dating purposes as well, the researchers won’t be able to date Homo naledi until they’re done analyzing its bones and can “sacrifice” one to someone on the team who can analyze the bone directly to date it.

“When this guy was walking around makes a big difference,” DeSilva said. “If it was older than 2 million years old, then it could be the earliest member of the Homo genus; if it’s around 2 million years old then it’s adding to the collection of cousins to modern humans; and if it’s younger than 1 million years old then that’s huge, because it could mean that earlier versions of modern humans weren’t the only ones walking around at the time,” DeSilva explained, since right now, that is what human evolutionary history suggests.

Still, DeSilva said that going by its anatomy, he does not think Homo naledi would be younger than 1 million years old--though he admits he’d be excited if it was.

Aside from the significance of when exactly they were alive, something else that’s intriguing about Homo naledi is that whenever it is that they were walking around, they actually walked around with features that were still somewhat primitive (more ape-like), which is odd for something that has so many human-like features.

For example, their shoulders and slightly more curved fingers suggest that they were still much better at climbing than we are now. Were they climbing in trees or through caves? Was it for shelter or to escape predators?

That’s also unknown, unfortunately, according to DeSilva, who specializes in the functional morphology (how and why bones look the way they do) of foot bones and the lower limbs. He said there aren’t enough studies on the biomechanics of cave or rock climbers--meaning we don’t fully understand the range of motion that cave/rock climbers use, or what kind of forces they exert on their bones, or how those forces affect the shape and density of their bones after years of climbing in that way.

DeSilva said that while the big reveal has just happened now, they’ve already spent the last year focusing on more detailed analyses related to how Homo naledi lived: how it walked (this is what he and a few others are working on), what it ate, trying to see if they can recover any DNA, and more.

While they work towards better defining Homo naledi, the release has brought criticism from other researchers as well, due to disagreement on whether or not Homo naledi is actually a new species or an addition of specimen for an already known early Homo species.

The research team welcomes the criticism though, and has even made the fossils available online (link at the bottom) to anyone wanting to see the fossils out of curiosity or out of the desire to find evidence for whatever is believed to be incorrect in their conclusions. They did this because in addition to their open-access mentalities, they realize that some of the conclusions they made after careful consideration of what was discovered are hard to wrap our heads around--burials, new species, its features, dating, etc.

“There’s no doubt that this is a significant find,” DeSilva said. “But without the date, we can’t fully tell just how significant it is.”

“It absolutely questions what makes us human,” Lee Berger said in an interview for CNN, “And I don’t think we know anymore.”

Berger, his fellow researchers, and South African leaders and government officials suggest that one of the more important aspects about the discovery is that it introduces or reignites people’s interest in human origins, field work, and science in general across generations.

Speaking to a group of high schoolers for the World Science Festival, Berger said younger generations are crucial to making even more discoveries not just in technology, but out in the open.

“We need [these] generation[s] to get out from behind those computers and start exploring,” Berger said, “Even areas where we think we know what’s there, because there are still things to be discovered.”

Want to see the actual bones? Click here!
For more on Homo naledi, the researchers, and the excavation, click here!
Want to see and read more on how hominids move? Catch more info from Prof. DeSilva here!

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

More on the Brain: How Do Our Brains Control Our Bodies?

By Paola Salazar

[“El Jaleo” by John Singer Sargent, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA.]

12-year-old Amanda Kelly asks how it is that one organ (the brain) can control an entire body’s functions and motions. Again, the MIT student group Communicating Science provided an answer for us.

The brain is made up of a vast number of special communication cells called neurons that carry signals around the body. The brain has a sort of special highway of neurons that carry instructions directly to your spine. This is the spinal cord, where motor (for motion) and sensory (for feeling) nerves branch out.

From the spinal cord, the motor signals are sent out to your muscles, where they release tiny signal molecules called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters cause your muscles to contract, leading to motion. 

We don't really understand how the spinal cord knows which signals to send to which muscles, though - these kinds of questions remain open for the next generation of scientists, like yourself!

For anyone wanting to read more on what we know about how the brain controls movement, click here

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

How Does the Brain Work?

By Paola Salazar

 The Curiosity Challenge

Why is the sun yellow? Why do grass and dirt have a stronger scent after it rains? How and why do my nails keep growing? What is a black hole?

A while back, we offered children and teens an opportunity to submit questions related to any topic in science, tech, engineering and mathematics that they may have, and here we've done it again. 
The Curiosity Challenge for ages 5-14 encourages curiosity.  We ask the students to enter their question about the world in whatever form - essay, poem, drawing, photograph.  All good science starts with our curiosity and questions of the world around us.  This series of blog posts will highlight some of the questions we have received through the Curiosity Challenge and some answers to them.

We’ve reached out to graduate students and researchers in each field, and have begun getting some great feedback on some the questions we all wonder at some point in time.

So without further ado, here’s round one of the Curiosity Challenge Q&A!

How Does the Brain Work?

Alex Lee, Age 11


A long time ago, long before there were dogs or monkeys or people, the planet was mostly covered in very simple organisms like worms. As the worms got bigger, they realized they had a problem - the head of the worm might want to go in one direction, but it had no way to communicate with the tail of the worm to get the tail to go in the same direction.

The worms figured out that they would be much more successful if they had a special kind of cell that communicated between the head and the tail to coordinate movement. We now call these kinds of communication cells "neurons." As animals became more and more complicated, they got more and more neurons and the neurons had to be connected in more complicated ways in order to successfully control the body.

The brain is the end product of that process of evolution - a highly sophisticated organ that coordinates your movement and your thoughts. Our brains now do many other things, like keeping memory and emotion. We still don’t fully understand how these things work in the brain though. If you become a neuroscientist, one day you could figure out how the brain works and add to what we know!

Responder: Communicating Science @ MIT (, a student group at MIT

Paola is a Boston-based science journalist with a background in social and life sciences.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Catching a Sea Perch

by Eric Bender
The underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) run by offshore industry or the Navy or scientists are usually big brawny fellows, designed to grab a valve on an oil platform at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico or scan remote areas of the Pacific sea floor or pluck cargo from the Titanic. But you can build a model ROV that fits inside a milk crate and zooms through water in basically the same ways.

That's exactly the role of MIT's Sea Perch project, which builds these small educational wet wanderers, and exactly what teams of middle and high schoolers accomplished Wednesday at the MIT Museum.

At the start, about half the kids said they were enthusiasts for science and engineering, and the other half cheerfully said they had been forced to come by their parents. Ably led by Kathryn Shroyer, mechanical engineer and Sea Grant educator, they all plunged together into designing and building their own Sea Perches.

To keep the exercise within three hours, Shroyer had painstakingly pre-assembled the most complicated components. Each team received a set of four motors tucked into film canisters, waterproofed, topped with propellers, and hooked up via a long thin power cable to a battery and a control box. That let the groups focus on creating their own frames, and connecting the motors and floats.

Most teams came up with a similar design theme for their pocket submersibles: small, fast and
maneuverable. Pieces of PVC and flotation were soon flying through the air. The kids rethought and rebuilt their frames, and bandied about names like Hot Dog Mark 1 and Magical English Kangaroo.

Each team then marched its contender down to first floor of the museum, which was awash in a Dive into Ocean Science exhibition for Earth Day. Here, the team members would work their way through the crowd, gently lower their contraption into a large aquarium tank and smile
and puzzle as it bumped and scuttled around the tank. After a few minutes, each team would pluck the ROV from the tank and head back to the lab to fiddle with flotation and weights and make other tweaks.

Back down into the tank again, the kids would look again to spot what now worked and what didn't really. And like the operators of fullscale ROVs, they got splashed sometimes.
 Photos courtesy Kathryn Shroyer, MIT Sea Grant

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Safety first

by Mary Alexandra Agner

The Volpe Center's railroad simulator and its control room.

Anxious about air travel? Apprehensive about automobile recalls or the reliability of the next bus you board? Concerned your cruise ship may stall in the Gulf? The Volpe National Transportation Systems Center is working to make your transit options as safe as possible.

For the Volpe Center's first appearance in the Cambridge Science Festival on Tuesday, four staff members presented "transportation ideas worth sharing" about passenger safety during plane, bus, car, and ship travel. The event culminated in a tour—with hands-on participation—of the Center's plane, car, and rail engine simulators.

After director Robert Johns gave an overview focused on the history and mandate of the Center—"advancing transportation for the public good"—two speakers addressed aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

Kathryn Bernazzani discussed aircraft wake turbulence, explaining the concept of a wake vortex—a horizontal tornado off the plane's wing occurring during flight—with a clip from Die Hard 2. Getting more serious, she discussed the damaging effects of wake vortices from a leading plane on a trailing plane, and how the vortices persist after the plane has flown past. With NextGen's increase of closely-spaced parallel runways, the effects of one plane's wake on another pose more of a hazard. Bernazzani and her colleagues are working to mitigate that through updated requirements for safe following distances assigned to types of planes.

Ruth Hunter focused further on safety issues raised by the changes to existing airport, air traffic control, and airplane behavior outlined in NextGen, all designed to increase airport capacity. Hunter works with a multi-discipline, multi-agency review group looking at how common anomalies, such as sudden stops and missed departures and arrivals, are decreased by NextGen. The group's first step was to model existing anomalies. Hunter showed a number of real events, recorded from radar, GPS, and other data, which could be autonomously detected by software that would alert humans as the event occurred.

Brian Sumner's discussion of mobile apps moved the topic of safety from air travel to buses and automobiles. Sumner is part of an effort creating tablet and phone apps, free for public use, which provide safety ratings of cars, car recall notification, and safety records for drivers and vehicles from bus lines—all gathered from national agencies. Additionally, the team built an app to aid government employees tasked with inspecting trucks and buses on highways. Sumner reported over 10,000 downloads of this app for the Android operating system alone.

In the final presentation, Kam Chin shared ship-tracking software, bringing up a web page displaying over 50,000 ships based on their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder data. He showed how to overlay ship history onto a world map, and to access a ship's heading. The software is used by a number of U.S. government and foreign organizations to track events at sea.

Mary Alexandra Agner writes nonfiction, poetry, and stories in Somerville, MA.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Personalized Medicine: Our Human Genome

Our genome is the “code of our bodies.” Every cell in our system contains a complete set of DNA that contains “recipes” which influence every aspect of an individual. These genes work together to create each piece of who we are, this includes everything from eye color, hair color and hand size to which diseases a person will get or is susceptible to. The first gene sequences were completed in the late 70’s and since then genome sequencing has been revolutionized. Recently, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have been able to curate a person’s entire genome sequence for personalized treatment. This personalization of medicine gathers ones genetic information and family’s genetic history to better diagnose and treat diseases.

Personalized medicine can help diagnose many different types of cancers, some forms of Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS and many other diseases. This range to cure seems to be limitless. Over the past 20 years the price of genome sequencing has gone down from a few million dollars to a few thousand dollars, making it much more accessible to patients. The increase of genomic data and understanding of how genes contribute to diseases improve clinical decisions and patient care. With more research, genome sequencing can also contribute to other area of science and innovation.

The Brigham Research Institute (BRI) at Brigham and Women’s Hospital will host a symposium on “The Future of Genetics in Healthcare: From Sequencing to Treatment” highlighting science from our community in areas such as DNA sequencing, precision medicine, global phenotyping and more. Speakers include Calum Macrae M.D PhD, Robert Green M.D MPH, Tamarra James-Todd PhD and Raju Kucherlapati PhD. Join us this Thursday, April 23 to learn more from experts in one of the leading healthcare fields and hear about how the science of today will impact patient care in the future.

Register for the event here.

Piece by Alessandra Maahs Co-op Intern at the Brigham Research Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital with a focus in Biology and Communications.

Monday, April 20, 2015

One More Cup of Coffee

by Katie Oleksak

Coffee, one of life’s finest staples. It controls me, annoys me, and causes me to be late to obligations and short of cash but I love it. Living in Dunkin’ Donuts nation and socially acceptable coffee shop culture, I wonder whether the 6 o’clock news stories of coffee’s antioxidant and anti-aging affects are simply appeasing us so that we do not feel bad about our bean-wielding lives? Possibly. But in any case, on Sunday I received much more than I bargained for in “One More Cup of Coffee,” a two-hour interactive session at the Cambridge Science Festival, rich with science, samples and coffee freaks like myself.

I arrived at the MIT Museum just in time to hear Harvard researcher Daniel Chasman describe some exciting science behind the physiology of coffee on the brain. A crowd of all ages had gathered and was plenty attentive although it was not even allowed at the sample tables yet. If there was any doubt that feeding your daily habit causes short-term or long-term effects on your body, Chasman’s talk, rich in biology and medicine, would have removed it. Although research continues on the health benefits of coffee drinking, habitual drinking—duh, I didn’t think there was another way—does lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and increase metabolism. This even goes for decaf! Additionally, some major genes that play a role in behavior and psychological patterns are influenced by coffee, in a good way!

Sanjiv Chopra, a liver specialist Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, assured the crowd that the research on coffee shows that benefits outweighs the bad, and the best things you can do for yourself to increase longevity are to exercise, get plenty of Vitamin D, meditate, eat nuts and, you guessed it, drink coffee. He further elaborated on coffee’s antioxidant effects and its ability to decrease risk for heart attack, atrial fibrillation, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline, suicide and certain cancers. Java is the most consumed beverage in the world for a reason.

Sandy Pentland, a professor at MIT, followed up with interesting facts about how the coffee break increases socialization, trust and trouble-shooting among co-workers, therefore increasing productivity. The smell of coffee alone in the break room can initiate this process. So much for the water cooler, head to the coffee pot! Also, he suggested, coffee itself can increase rapid eye movement sleep and decrease incidence of mental illness.

Samples always draw a crowd and this event did no less, as local baristas and brewers from Aeronaut Brewery, Barismo, Darwin’s Ltd. and Flour Bakery shared their secrets about cold and hot drip roasts. I’d give a special bonus for the talk from the co-founders at Aeronaut about their collaboration with Barismo on a coffee milk stout—a coffee-infused beer!

The speakers were smart, well-informed and engaging. Sampling was allowed for 5-10 minutes between speakers, and it didn’t hurt that Flour Bakery was giving out chewy double-chocolate walnut espresso cookies to go along with their French roast.

In my experience, Cambridge is rich with open-minded, intelligent, coffee-loving folk. Sitting through “One More Cup of Coffee”, I felt lucky to live here. For those of us held hostage by the bean, don’t feel guilty or alone. Simply help yourself to one more cup of coffee!