Conversations about Science Writing: Nick Wigginton

MiSciWriters member Kristina Lenn chatted with Nick Wigginton, the assistant vice president of research at the University of Michigan, about the importance of communication among researchers and the big responsibility science writers carry in the current political climate.

 

 Anyone who has ever done collaborative research can list the benefits of being able to work with another group and learn about the cultural differences between researchers. Dr. Nick Wigginton knows better than anyone else how important communication is to successful collaborations.

Prior to his tenure at Michigan, Dr. Wigginton received his doctorate in Earth Science, and his dissertation was a collaborative effort by his department, physics, chemistry, and biology. This interdisciplinary gauntlet gave him the tools he needed to succeed as an editor for Science magazine where he needed to address the research and cultures of multiple departments.

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Trash Talk

Author: Sara Wong

Editors: Sarah Kearns, Ellyn Schinke, and Shweta Ramdas

Taking out the trash is a despised chore. It’s smelly and heavy, and you have to get off the comfortable couch, put on shoes, and take it all the way to the curb. Yet, we do it because we understand that it is important for the health of our homes and neighborhood, and taking out the trash is better than leaving it in the house.

What you might not realize is that your cells also have to take out the trash. In fact, defects in this process often lead to disease. One example is Niemann-Pick disease, which in severe cases causes death in early childhood. Neimann-Pick disease is caused by defective lysosomes, the trash bins of the cell. In order to understand diseases like Niemann-Pick disease, we must first understand lysosomes.

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Can Patients with Early-Stage Breast Cancer Skip Chemotherapy?

Author: Lei Wan

Editors: Whit Froehlich and Shweta Ramdas

My mom was diagnosed with cancer two years ago. She had early-stage breast cancer: tumor size of less than five centimeters, fewer than three cancer-positive lymph nodes in the armpit region, and no cancer-positive lymph nodes nearby. But hers was also an aggressive type of cancer. At the time, I was a graduate student in the States and my parents lived in China, so we talked on the phone every two days about the progress of her treatment. She received surgery, radiation, a tailored drug treatment, and chemotherapy. My mom is tough and stubborn. Most of the time she just mentioned the good news that the cancer had been eliminated. Occasionally, she would say that her life was changed by the cancer treatment: for example, she had to quit her job.

I was shocked by my mom’s diagnosis. She is always physically active and mostly eats vegetables. I barely recognized her after the chemotherapy. She had lost 30 pounds and all of her hair, her skin was pale, and her nails were purple. Her face was unrecognizable because of the weight and hair loss, and she looked almost 20 years older.

My mom is cancer-free now, but she is not the same person that she was. Her appetite is half of what it was before, and she cannot lift heavy things. As a graduate student studying cancer biology, I had learned that chemotherapy would cause side effects like the ones I saw in my mom, including hair loss, vomiting, and nail loss. However, until my mom’s physical appearance and life were transformed by chemotherapy, I didn’t realize the magnitude of its impact on patients. Looking at my mom, I wish that we had better options for patients with early-stage breast cancer so they don’t have to suffer these devastating side effects.

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Training T Cell Assassins

Author: John Charpentier

Editors: Zena Lapp, Theresa Mau, and David Mertz

 

t_cell_assassin
Figure 1. An encounter between a CAR-T cell and a cancer cell

 

The assassins have a description of their targets, who are hiding in plain sight among the non-combatants. The targets are guerillas who’ve infiltrated the neighborhood, overwhelming the local authorities and fomenting chaos. After only minutes on patrol, the assassins go on the attack, quickly identifying and eliminating the enemy without harming a single bystander.

This scenario may sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it’s also a good metaphor to describe the activity of engineered immune cells against cancer cells. The assassins are called CAR-T (Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T) cells, and they receive their elite training at the hands of physicians and scientists, who teach them to recognize particular molecules on the surface of tumors.

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How Your Electronic Health Records Could Help Biomedical Research

Author: Brooke Wolford

Editors: Jimmy Brancho, Shweta Ramdas, Bryan Moyers

Think back to the last time you visited your primary care physician. Was the health care provider using a laptop or tablet to take notes and update your health information? In many doctors’ offices across the country your health records have gone digital. In addition to their exciting potential to help doctors’ offices reduce human error and better serve patients, electronic health records (EHRs) also make available a new source of “big data” for researchers.

EHRs are patient-specific digital records your health care provider maintains. The information in your EHR helps your doctor efficiently track your health over time and helps researchers learn more about diseases, which ultimately improves the clinical care your doctor provides to you and other patients. Believe it or not, EHRs from patients like you and me have already helped researchers make discoveries that improve health care for everyone!

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Spinach and siderophores, part 2: Getting the upper hand

Author: Ada Hagan

Editors: Alisha John, Scott Barolo

As we discussed last time, bacteria that infect the human body face a major challenge: iron, which is essential for bacterial growth, is hard to obtain from human tissues.  Many pathogenic bacteria solve this problem by deploying “stealth siderophores,” which steal iron from human iron-binding proteins while evading our defenses. In the battle between humans and pathogenic bacteria, our best weapons, antibiotics, are being weakened by widespread resistance. Is there a way to use bacteria’s need for iron against them?

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Regenerative medicine – Panacea or hype?

Author: Kaitlin Weskamp

Editors: Brittany Dixon, Zuleirys Santana Rodriguez, Scott Barolo

Zebrafish may not look impressive, but they can do something that no human can: regenerate large portions of organs that are damaged or lost. These fish, each about as long as your pinky finger, are able to regrow amputated fins, repair lesioned brains, and mend damaged eyes, spinal cords, and hearts. This remarkable ability to heal has fascinated scientists for some time, and in recent years, large strides have been made towards translating this regenerative ability to humans. Continue reading “Regenerative medicine – Panacea or hype?”