“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Book Review

As a journalist interested in science, I had been meaning to read this novel for a while. I hadn’t gotten around to picking it up when my mom brought it home saying one of her professors she works with wanted me to read it for it’s journalistic value (Thanks Donald!!).

Skloot book cover

Front cover of the book by Rebecca Skloot

I picked up this book and couldn’t stop reading. The author, Rebecca Skloot was able to capture my attention by switching between the distant past of Henrietta’s life, and the near past anecdotes of her attempting to obtain information from friends and family of Miss Lacks.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer living in Maryland in the 1950s whose cells were taken from a tumor when she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to treat cervical cancer. It is unclear if these cells were obtained with consent, but these cells, known as HeLa, were able to continue to replicate themselves. This allowed for scientists all over the world to research how human cells work, how disease effects cells, and eventually led to the production of vaccines for many ailments.

This book touches on the issues of racial inequality, economic inequality, patient disclosure, and the balance of rights to tissue and scientific research.

While Lacks’ cells were important to scientific research, her family remained in the dark about how important her death really was. This is where Skloot comes in.

Skloot spent years trying to gain the trust of the family, particularly Lack’s daughter Deborah, so she could write the real story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Skloot was able to get the story of Henrietta’s life through many interviews and was able to tell her family just how important she was.

The book was wonderfully researched, well written, and gave me a great example of someone who was willing to put blood, sweat and tears into the sake of writing a story about a woman who was left under appreciated for the sake of science advancements.

Check out Rebecca Skloot’s website here.


Artificial blood may soon be a tool in the future of medicine

Red Blood Cells Photo Courtesy of Shaskin

Artificial blood, a substitute for real blood needed for transfusions, has recently become the latest innovation that adds promise to the future of medicine.

This replacement is manufactured by taking fibroblasts that have been reprogrammed into mature blood cells and growing them into red blood cells. Fibroblasts are cells of connective tissue that are critical in the process of wound healing.

This blood was developed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service . They have been producing Type O negative blood, which is known as the universal donor blood and can be used in patients with any blood type.

Marc Turner, the principle researcher of the project, told The Telegraph  the plans are for the trial to be conducted by 2016 or 2017, which are likely going to be through the use of treating three patients with Thalassaemia, a genetic blood disorder that requires frequent transfusions.

“Although similar research has been conducted elsewhere, this is the first time anybody has manufactured blood to the appropriate quality and safety standards for transfusion into a human being,” Turner told The Telegraph.

Being able to produce blood on a large scale has plenty of good uses in medicine. Because the blood manufactured is Type 0, anyone can receive it. It would also cut down the need and costs associated for blood donations, which would most likely cut down costs of blood when it’s needed in medical situations.

Turner does say there might be some challenges to bringing this production, mainly because laboratory conditions are hard to replicate to an industrial scale.

Hopefully, they can find a way to do this and save some human lives as a result.

Is pollution in China causing erratic weather in the US?

Deep convective clouds are linked to intense storms. Photo courtsey of The Earth System Research Laboratory

After the few days of spring we got here in Upstate New York, it was a bit of a shock for a lot of people when they woke up this morning to snow. Recently, it’s seemed like Mother Nature can’t make her mind up.

But is it possible Mother Nature has nothing to do with this and there’s someone else to blame? I just came across an article from The Guardian that says air pollution in China may be linked to the erratic weather patterns in the United States.

This study, conducted at Texas A&M, used a multiscale global aerosol–climate model to simulate the effects the particles in the smog from China have on the weather patterns that form over the Pacific Ocean. 

They found that compared to pre-industrial days, the smog from China helps form deep convective clouds, which result in intense storms. These clouds are moving east from the Pacific Ocean and causing erratic weather in many parts of the United States.

While I’m not sure if this would have any effect on the snow I saw this morning, I do think it can be problematic for North American.

But this isn’t the first time pollution has effected the climates of neighboring continents. In 2013, research was done at the University of Washington that showed the sulfate pollution from coal factories in the US and Europe may have contributed the widespread drought of West Africa in the 1980’s. Previously, the drought had been blamed on overgrazing and bad agricultural practices.

I don’t know about you, but this is further proof to me pollution isn’t a good thing and should probably be addressed.

Yuri’s Night at Cornell attracts community to celebrate space exploration

Asteroid mining, deep space exploration, and improving astronaut food were the main topics of discussion at the Yuri’s Night event last Friday at Cornell’s Fuertes Observatory. 

 The event was put on by Cornell’s Astronomical Society. It included two lectures, tours of the museum, observatory viewings, a viewing of different types of pre-packaged astronaut food, a flight simulator, space food samples and a screening of the film First Orbit. 

Yuri’s Night is a yearly international celebration to commemorate the first human launch into space, which occurred on April 12, 1961. These events occur all around the world with the intent to celebrate and promote space exploration milestones.

The event ran from 7:30 to midnight last Friday, and about 175 people attended.  Cornell sophomore Brecken Blackburn coordinated Yuri’s Night at Cornell. Blackburn said in the past, this scientific holiday had mainly been celebrated at Cornell by people in the Astronomical Society in a smaller event, but this year, it was promoted to also include the general public.

“We [Cornell Astronomical Society] think it’s really important that people understand space and understand why we go into space,” Blackburn said. “So we think Yuri’s Night is a really great way to reach out to people and explain why these sorts of things are so important.”

Topics of Discussion

The first speaker at Yuri’s night was Cornell Professor Mason Peck, a former Chief Technologist at NASA. Peck spoke about the need for space exploration, and the possibility of mining asteroids for minerals and precious metals. He stressed the importance of citizen science in making advancements in space information.

Cornell Professor Jean Hunter was the second speaker at the event. She presented from her research on creating the best space food that will both satisfy and adequately nourish astronauts.

Last year, Hunter worked on a research project that was funded through NASA’s Human Research Program. The project, led by Cornell and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was a simulated Martian base where six “astronauts” lived to compare how taste and nutritional value compared in foods that were pre-packaged to foods that were freshly prepared by the crew themselves.

Hunter said it is important to present scientific research to the public because it helps people understand more about the world they live in and the possibilities to make advancements.

“A lot of what NASA does is very technologically complex and sometimes we [researchers] tend to go off in our own little pool of jargon and we miss a chance to engage with people who could really help us with good ideas,” Hunter said.

Community Interest in Astronomy

Gary Bergstrom, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell, attended the event because of an ad he had seen in the newspaper to promote the event.

“It’s funny because my wife and I had talked about coming over here [the Fuertes Observatory] for probably 30 years and this is the first time I’ve been here,” Bergstrom said. “We decided we wanted to do something fun this evening and we had always talked about doing this … I’m glad we finally made it, it was really fun and interesting.”

Medicine to erase memories; Sci-fi plot or real life?

I wanted to dedicate my blog post today to something I’ve been learning about in my Cognitive Psychology class. We are currently learning about memory and how malleable it is, but something was brought up that caught my attention.

Beta Blockers, traditionally prescribed to treat high blood pressure and anxiety, have been the subject of a lot of research in treating patients with PTSD or other disorders brought on by traumatic events.

People with PTSD usually have “triggers,” or things that remind them of the experience. When these triggers happen, they often go into a state of panic. Researchers are trying to find ways to get rid of or make memories of the event less vivid in order to reduce these stress responses.

When traumatic memories are bought up, or reconsolidated, in the mind, propranolol (a beta blocker) is administered. This makes it so the chemicals associated with strengthening memory are greatly lessened, and in turn, making the memory less memorable.

In a 2007 study by Brunet et al, compared to a placebo, patients who were administered propranolol experienced less PTSD responses(high heart rate, sweaty palms, etc.) after a two week period when the mental imagery of their traumatic experiences were brought up.

One thing people are concerned about is the possibility of the drug being “used for evil,” like some of the “mind eraser” devices or techniques used by evil villains in scifi stories. But most ethicists feel the research proves it only makes memories less memorable, and doesn’t completely erase them. The use of beta blockers would most likely be used along with therapy to speed up the recovery process.


Propranolol, like the neuralizer in the Men In Black series, is being researched to help people forget traumatic events. (Photo by Sony Pictures)

Overall, I think this type of research is great for the field of Psychology. People with PTSD, or even people with phobias, have another possible resource for treating their mental illness.

The quickly changing state of the news media

Recently, the Pew Research Center released their State of the News Media for 2014, and found some not- so-surprising facts (at least to me) about the current state of the media.

Following a few scary years where a lot of jobs in journalism seemed to be disappearing, this new report gives a positive view into the future of journalism. I think this shows the industry has been adapting well to changes in technology that once threatened to knock out journalism.

Overall, they found digital media is rapidly expanding. This is not surprising considering most people are walking around with mini-computer in their pockets.

Here are some highlights of the findings from the report:

  •  Local broadcast news is still the most widely used place for adults to find news and saw an increase in viewership. But because most of these stations are being bought up by bigger companies (like how Sinclair Broadcasting owns 167 stations in 77 markets), we are seeing more and more companies use the exact same newscasts and reporting.
  • Online news video is growing and ad revenues tied to them grew 44% from 2012 to 2013.
  • Nearly 50% of social media users share or repost news stories, images and videos.
  • Many digital news sites (like Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Vice) are expanding to have overseas reporting. Many news sources are also expanding to have a Hispanic version of their publications or sites, due to the growing population of Hispanic people in the United States.

So for all of the haters of the journalism field, this should prove to you journalism isn’t a dying industry! We are changing our process to adapt to advance technology to get you reliable news in fast and creative ways. Watch out for what we’ll be doing in the future!

Stores suffer loss of business due to Ithaca Commons construction

Businesses located on the Ithaca Commons are feeling the negative effects of recent reconstruction, despite efforts by the City of Ithaca and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance to attract people to the area.

The project has recently begun its third and final stage and will be finished in November, when it’s contract runs out with Vacri Construction Corp, the company hired to carry out the new Commons plan.  

Michael Kuo, Project Manager, said the main reason for the construction is to update aging infrastructure, plant new trees to improve plant health, update the streetscape, and install a new telecom system.

Many of the updates were needed because the original Commons was constructed in 1974 and parts of it were aging and overgrown, which cost a lot in maintenance fees. 

“It’s really important for the livelihood and the development of the city,” Kuo said. “It was time to hit the reset button and we were fortunate to get a mix of financing from federal, state and local government, as well as contributions.”

Kuo said these updates will be beneficial for local businesses because it will create an aesthetically pleasing environment outside of their shops and will attract people to the Commons.

Businesses feel the impact

Ithaca Hemp Co, a business located on the commons, will be closing its doors on March 30, citing the construction as the cause for loss of business. Christian Diemand, founder and owner of the company, said he his store has been located in the commons for 17 years and has seen profits of 20 to 30 percent every year except last year, in which there was a 40 percent loss. 

“There’s not a chance in hell we’ll survive if we wait it [the construction] out,” Diemand said.

Diemand also said his store’s basement flooded several times because water mains were being updated, which cost him a lot of money in both labor and clean up. 

Jerry Martins, co-owner of Now You’re Cooking, a kitchen utensil store located on the Commons said he has seen some loss of business, but some of it could be explained by the cold winter.

Martins said he is optimistic about the outcome of the project and that construction is a necessary negative aspect of updating any location.

“We are taking out parts of the Commons people didn’t like and what we like is being kept,” Martins said

Minimizing Impact 

 Tammy Baker, the outreach coordinator of the project, said the majority of reactions to the construction have been positive.

Baker said in an effort to minimize the impact of the construction, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance has actively been promoting the Commons through events, signage and the art located on the barriers of construction.

Diemand said tax breaks were given to property owners in the Commons, but did not really trickle down to business owners. He thinks more should have been done for the business owners because they are the ones taking serious losses from the lack of foot traffic the construction has caused.

Diemand also said the culture of the pedestrian mall is diminishing, and the construction has hit the stores located there hard.

 “We [local businesses] had a real good niche down there for quite awhile,” Diemand said. “But people are not going to come back immediately, it’s going to take a few years to rebuild business down there.”