Archive | December 2013

The Lakes of Titan

I’ve had a special place in my heart for one of Saturn’s moons ever since I read Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan in high school. It immediately became my favorite book and still is today. But while I had all these warm fuzzy feelings associated with Titan, I had no scientific knowledge to back it up. I knew nothing about what Titan was actually like, but every time I heard the name I felt like I knew the place on an intimate level.

Titan as seen in ultraviolet and infrared from the Cressini space probe

Titan as seen in ultraviolet and infrared from the Cressini space probe

Since my high school days I have learned a lot more about Titan, and it turns out it is a fascinating place. It is believed conditions on Titan are somewhat similar to those on Earth; it even has an atmosphere (although it is way colder than Earth, around -290°F). Its surface is covered with lakes and seas not made of water, but of liquid methane. In fact, scientists recently announced there are 2,000 cubic miles of methane and ethane on Titan. For a little perspective, Earth has about 332,500,000 cubic miles of water. So even though Titan is a bit smaller than Earth (it’s about half the size), its seas still can’t compete with our magnificent oceans. The lakes on Titan are at the most about as deep as the Great Lakes. Not to mention almost all the water is concentrated around the poles, not all spread out like it is on Earth.

The more I learn about Titan, the more I see why it appealed to Vonnegut as an idyllic far away land. A landscape somewhat similar to Earth but just different enough to not quite feel like home, but rolling dunes and an orange sky are not exactly the Titan Vonnegut described. Still, he managed to capture the idea the Titan is a mysterious place luring us in to discover its secrets.


Will my flu shot give me narcolepsy? Probably not.*The journal that published this study has since retracted the article

When you say the word ‘narcolepsy’ to someone, chances are they imagine a person passing out mid sentence and ending up suddenly sleeping face down in their plate of spaghetti. While cataplexy, or the spontaneous loss of muscle tone (incidentally, people suffering from an attack of cataplexy are not actually asleep, they are simply unable to physically stand or open their eyes) can be a symptom of narcolepsy, it is not present in all people. A good friend of mine in college had narcolepsy. We were all shocked because she had never once reenacted the scenario above. She was just sleepy all the time. It was a struggle to get her to go out after 9pm. She became known as the napping queen.

Turns out narcolepsy just meant her REM sleep (you know, the one where your eyes move around which let’s everyone know you’re dreaming) was constantly getting disturbed. Turns out that means she didn’t just miss out on some awesome dreams, but REM is also when the brain restores itself, maybe even cleaning up the waste the builds up there over the course of a day. Since my friend was skipping her REM sleep she was waking up each morning with a very dirty brain. This, unfortunately, is not as much fun as it sounds, and just made her feel like she had barely slept at all.

A new study at Stanford University (woo go Stanford!) showed that narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease, something narc experts (I’m trying to coin the term) have suspected for a while. For those of you who do not know, and autoimmune disease is when a person’s immune cells attack healthy cells in the body (for any House M.D. fans out there you’ll remember every episode featured someone suggesting the patient has lupus, which is another autoimmune disease). This, as you may have guessed, is not good. Immune cells are great when they’re destroying dangerous invaders like viruses and bad bacteria, but not so great when they decide to attack you brain cells. Those are kind of important.

Some have blamed our overall obsession with cleanliness for the increase in autoimmune diseases. Children are no longer exposed to germs when they are little, and as a result their immune system does not get properly trained to be able to tell dangerous cells from helpful cells. It’s like giving a kid an air rifle and not giving him any cans or targets to shoot. He’s going to shoot something, and without an assigned target that could end up being the neighbor’s dog.

Immunologists Elizabeth Mellins and Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford along with other researchers have found evidence that narcolepsy is also a case of mistaken identity. They noticed an increase in narcolepsy cases after the outbreak of H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009. They believe that those whose genetic material already made them vulnerable to narcolepsy developed a new type of immune cell. This immune cell was supposed to fight off a protein found in the swine flu virus, but it ended up targeting brain cells too. And the tricky thing about immune cells is they stick around even after the virus has been fought off.

Now, many perceptive readers of the article will notice that it mentions that a few children who received a swine flu vaccine in Europe were later diagnosed with narcolepsy and the two might be related. I get a little squirmy when I read this because it makes me fear it will offer more tools for the anti-vaccine groups, which for the most part are misinformed and in many cases mislead by faked experiments or as some of us like to call it, junk science.

So I’d like to discuss this here. I want to first point out that the study suggests a strong genetic influence on the development of narcolepsy, which would mean no matter how many flu vaccines you get you will not get the disease if you don’t have those genes. And just because you have the genes doesn’t mean you will get the disease, even if you are exposed to possible triggers.

Second, vaccines work by putting a tiny amount of the dead virus into your body. This way your immune system can learn how to recognize the disease without actually making you sick. You are at just as much risk developing narcolepsy if you get the flu and suffer for a week or more of unpleasant symptoms as you are if you get the vaccine.

So please, don’t let your fear of narcolepsy stop you or your child from getting a flu vaccine the next time around. The flu shot isn’t as big on my list of must gets as some other diseases (like measles, polio, tetanus, etc), but just consider the statistics. In a bad flu season, 0.0032% of Americans may be hospitalized for flu related complications. The percent of children who got narcolepsy in Europe after receiving the vaccine? 0.000067%. You don’t have to be an expert to see which has the better odds.

The nature of wildfires

A smokey haze covers Monterey and gives some beautiful colors as the sun just begins to set

Poor visibility is hardly unusually in the Monterey Bay. In fact, it is the area’s trademark fog that allows the stunning and odd-looking cypress tress to make the area their home. However, the haze that has descended over the bay today is not the typical fog. That becomes obvious the moment you step outside. Instead of the damp ocean smell that is typical of the area, you instead find yourself sniffing curiously at the dry, sweet scent of wood smoke. Yes, even an hour north of the Big Sur fire we can see the effects in brilliant sun rises and sun sets, and smell the destruction miles away.

Wildfires are hardly uncommon in California. Early this fall the media was buzzing over the Rim Fire which threatened many beloved areas of Yosemite National Park. However, since wildfire season is usually over this time of year, the Big Sur fire was a bit of surprise. Many are commenting on how this is a demonstration of how dry conditions in California have been.

Wildfires always draw a lot of attention and resources because they often threaten human communities. The Big Sur fire has already destroyed at least 15 homes and caused 100 people to evacuate. This is why so much effort is put in containing and preventing forest fires. The problem is, forest fires are an important part of the natural process. They clear out brush and debris, and the destruction is crucial for the life cycle of many birds and plants. Fires have been getting worse over the years not just because of drought condition, but also because forest fire prevention has caused a buildup of highly flammable brush that should have been cleared out by other, probably smaller fires.

So when it comes down to it the problem isn’t forest fires, it’s our constant need to build where we really shouldn’t. People keep rebuilding after fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes destroy them. Humans seem to have a constant need to fight nature rather than work with it. It is a difficult problem, many feel that the rarity of these events and the beauty and benefits of living in at risk locations outweigh the potential dangers. I live in an area that could be wiped out by an earthquake or a tsunami at any minute, but it is an excellent place for marine biology research and so I think that makes it worth it. But still, we can’t be surprised when nature runs its course and we find ourselves smack in the middle of it. Because in the end despite our disproportional influence, we are all still just a small piece of this planet.

The final frontier (Hint: it’s not space)

Please excuse my momentary break from professional decorum.


Thank you.

First off, for those of you who may not know allow me to briefly describe an ROV. ROV stand for remotely operated vehicle, which

The MBARI ROV Doc Ricketts casually awaiting its next deployment into the unknown.

The MBARI ROV Doc Ricketts casually awaiting its next deployment into the unknown.

is exactly what it sounds like. It is a large submersible (about the size of a small car) used to explore the deep ocean. Scientists control the ROV from the surface using video cameras to show what it is seeing in real-time as well as depth, oxygen levels, temperature, and probably a lot of other things I don’t understand. It has arms that are controlled by hand using small replicas in the control room. It can not only show what is going on thousands of feet beneath the surface, but it can also collect samples, both living and nonliving, and bring them back to the surface. So now that you know how awesome and ROV is, let me get back to describing how I got to play with one (sort of).

Yes, it is 10 year-old me’s biggest dream come true (OK, maybe not her biggest dream. That would be me being a famous actress and using all my money to run an equine rescue center). As I was brought into the Western Flyer‘s control room for the ROV I was filled with that nervous glee of a child sneaking into a forbidden place despite having been told repeatedly I could go in there at any time. The idea that someone would allow me into what in my mind would be considered a sacred space is baffling to me. Don’t they know I’m just some crazy girl with a weird fascination with science? Then I force myself to remember, everyone in this room is just a crazy person with a weird fascination with science.

The control room showing some of the monitors and the pilots' chairs. The scientist chair (the one I sat in) is out of view to the right.

The control room showing some of the monitors and the pilots’ chairs. The scientist chair (the one I sat in) is out of view to the right.

But still, I sit in the viewing chairs (not unlike those in a movie theater) feeling privileged to be allowed to watch. The room is filled with monitors, some showing things I recognize (like video feed from the camera attached to the ROV) and others that make me feel like I am really in a submarine. Many of them are identified and explained to me, this one is the sonar around the ROV, this one shows the ROV’s location in respect to the ship, but there are still many whose function I do not know.

The chief scientist enters. He sees that the ROV is only a few hundred meters (or about a thousand feet) below the surface. They are interested in the bottom, which is at 3207 meters (a LOT of feet). He tells me if I want, I can sit in one of the control chairs and play with the camera.

“Seriously?” Is all I can say, part of me sure he must be joking.

But he isn’t joking. I get in the chair and feel like I am in a scene from Star Trek/ He shows me how to work the camera, and I put on a headset that lets me talk to the pilot (who is sitting right next to me) and away we go. Tentatively I pan the camera up and down, left and right. Zoom in, zoom out. Focus on nothing and then away from nothing. But soon I am lost just staring into the screen in front of me. It is like being in warp speed in a universe where the stars are moving. Tiny specks flit in and out of the screen. Some are clearly moving under their own power, but others fly by as the ROV plummets downward (I calculate the speed to be roughly one meter per second).

There’s a squid! It’s a Gonatus onyx, one of very few oceanic squid that brood their eggs. I can tell this only because it is actually carrying an egg mass in its arms, looking like it is dragging along a huge blob of black caviar. Everyone scrambles closer to the screen as the pilot tries to maneuver the vehicle to follow the swimming animal. I am frozen in my chair, wanting to make the camera follow the squid into the closing darkness but too afraid of losing it to move. Soon the squid has faded into nothingness and we all settle back down, discussing it with excitement. Even the pilot, who has done countless dives, seems invigorated by the sighting.

Eventually I relinquish my seat of power since I wasn’t doing much more than stare at the mesmerizing screen anyway and the real professionals take over. Their real goal is finally in sight. It is an old corn bale they have deposited here to watch its rate of decomposition to decide if this could be a way to get rid of leftover corn stalks. They spend several hours here taking samples and looking around before finally returning to the surface. Just another day at the office.

You can’t always catch what you want

The mark of the day beginning and the ending of my morning attempts at nabbing squid.

The mark of the day beginning and the ending of my morning attempts at nabbing squid.

The sun is an orange beach ball floating on the ocean’s surface as I go outside to throw the squid tentacle back into the sea. One sad, lonely little tentacle. That’s all I have to show for my morning’s work. Well it’s like my mother always said, there’s a reason why they call it fishing (or in this case, jigging) and not catching. But I still can’t help but think about how this tentacle, a tentacle from a species I don’t even want, represents the truth about science.

I am out on the Western Flyer, a research vessel owned by MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute). Though they specialize in ROV (remotely operated vehicle) deployments, I have hitched a ride with them in my last bid of the year to catch some Humboldt squid, a squid that has proved rather elusive this year and is, unfortunately, crucial for my research.

Nobody ever said science was easy, but when I first started doing research I certainly didn’t expect that the hard thing about science would be the monotonous details that derail you from the start. Such as, what do you do if the thing you’re studying is nowhere to be found?

Science in the movies is always portrayed as a group of brilliant nerds getting together in the lab, white coats clipboards. They think for a while, come up with ideas, test those ideas, and then find the solution. It’s neat, it’s clean, and it’s exciting. Field work, well that’s even more glamorous. Traveling to exotic places, exploring uncharted territory, a grand adventure.

But, as always, television can be misleading. That’s because despite the romantic title, field work is often tedious and uncomfortable. Many of my friends and family express envy when I tell them I am leaving for field work. Days, sometimes week aboard a vessel in often glamorous sounding places. They surely envision thrilling work and adventure with a little vacation

Lonely squid tentacle caught in the wee hours of the AM by yours truly. (For any squid nerds out there, I believe it either came from a small Moroteuthis or a Onychoteuthis)

Lonely squid tentacle caught in the wee hours of the AM by yours truly. (For any squid nerds out there, I believe it either came from a small Moroteuthis or a Onychoteuthis)

thrown in, and in some ways they aren’t wrong. Most of the time, I thoroughly enjoy being in the field, or else I wouldn’t be doing this.

But what they don’t understand is the getting up at 4am to catch squid, sitting there in the cold with your line in the water for hours and then coming up empty only to try again when the sun goes down. Everyone wants to help jig for squid at first, but unless you are lucky enough to drop your line straight into a school of squid interest fades as the realization hits that most of jigging is just waiting, and it’s waiting for something that sometimes never comes. And if it does come you need to scramble and do as much as you can because it might be a year before you get to try this again.

And yet I cannot deny that it has its rewards. No, I did not catch a squid today. I did not get to do the work I had wanted to do. But as I sit at the table lamenting the difficulties of an often frustrating existence in pursuit of the elusive PhD, I am called to the window. There I watch for my first time as the bottom of the ship folds open, revealing startling blue water beneath, and the ROV drops into the depths.

For everyone else on this ship this practice is common place, perhaps even tedious. But for me, it is new. It is an adventure.