Thursday, November 21, 2013

Recap: Adam Katz of Research!America- How (and why) to engage Congress as a research scientist

Adam is the Policy and Advocacy Specialist at Research!America, where he leads a variety of advocacy initiatives to make science and medical research a higher national priority. When he visited PSPG on Nov. 12th he spoke about how and why scientists, especially those in academia, should engage in the political system. Academic scientists in particular are heavily supported by federal funding and taxpayers, so it is important to initiate and maintain a dialog between researchers, politicians and the American people. Research!America has conducted numerous polls to understand the relationship between these three groups, and they have found that while Americans believe scientific research should be a top priority, the public does not have a clear understanding of how this research is funded (only a small fraction of those polled identified the NIH as the main source of basic biomedical research funding). Therefore it is important that we as scientists, taxpayers and constituents take it upon ourselves to stress to our politicians the importance of the NIH and its integral role in supporting basic science research. There are many ways to make your voice heard: through email, phone calls and even in person, as PSPG has done twice this year. Mr. Katz gave excellent tips on how to address a congressperson and their staff: thank them for past support, keep it concise, lay out your concerns and follow it with a personal story, ask their opinion and reiterate the action you'd like taken. If this type of science policy work sounds like a potential career path to you, we encourage you to attend our next speaker event on Wednesday Dec. 4th at 12pm featuring Dr. Richard Calderone, director of the M.S. program in Biomedical Science Policy & Advocacy at Georgetown University.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Penn Science Spotlight: Manipulating gene expression in single cells

One goal of PSPG is to make science more accessible to the general public. Our first science spotlight features work by Matt Churgin and the Fang-Yen lab.

Scientists who want to understand how specific genes function in specific cells need the ability to manipulate gene expression, but there are few tools that allow us to ask questions at the single cell level. At best these tools can target populations of cells, but that’s not good enough for the developmental biologist who wants to know the fate of a particular cell within an embryo. A recent study out of Penn (Churgin et al. Genes Genomes Genetics, 2013) addresses these limitations by improving on a method that relies on heat-inducible gene expression and a continuous wave laser. This type of laser constantly bombards the specimen with heat and tends to warm up not just the target cell but the cells around it, causing the gene of interest to be expressed in the wrong place. To address this problem the authors used a pulsed infrared laser that heats up only the target cell, setting the stage for single cell experiments. The authors then demonstrated that they could use this to temporarily induce the expression of green fluorescent protein (GFP) in one specific cell. They then took it a step further and showed that they could induce permanent expression of GFP that could be passed down to daughter cells. This new technique will allow scientists to have greater spatial (which cell?) and temporal (when and how long?) control over gene expression. This will help answer questions such as how the fate of cells is genetically controlled during development.

If you are a student or postdoc at Penn and have published recently, we would love to highlight your important contributions to the scientific community on our blog. Please contact our communications coordinator.

Friday, November 1, 2013

An informal discussion with Dr. Paul Offit: recap

Dr. Paul Offit stopped by PSPG to lead a discussion on snake oil and pseudoscience and how scientists can combat misinformation. An excellent example of this issue is the ubiquitous use of dietary supplements to treat everything from colds to weight loss to depression. Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA and are not rigorously tested for safety and efficacy and yet millions of Americans believe that multi-vitamins and supplements keep them healthy. These daily supplement capsules are packed with more vitamins than a person could possibly get from a normal diet, and yet there is no evidence that more is better. Because supplements are unregulated, what you see on the bottle is not necessarily what you get: there have been instances in which the supplement was actually 30x more concentrated than what the label claimed, and there have been cases of contaminated supplements causing death. So why is the general public so easily fooled? Because they believe they're ingesting "natural" alternative homeopathic remedies, rather than drugs which could have side effects, when in reality these supplements are drugs themselves made by the very pharmaceutical companies people are sticking it to. How can we as scientists combat this false narrative? Dr. Offit suggests to first use evidence-based science, and if all else fails appeal to emotion. In an ideal world, facts, evidence and reason would be enough to convince people, but unfortunately that is not the world we live in.

Dr. Offit is the author of numerous books his latest being Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All and Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

Check out Dr. Offit on the Colbert Report in 2011!