How The Black Death Caused Medieval Women To Shrink

The Black Death (the OG “plague”) killed a large proportion of the population of Europe in the 14th century (30%!). But even after it had run it’s course it left long lasting and interesting effects on the population left behind.

People were on average healthier after the Black Death passed through. And for some reason, women were smaller. What’s interesting is these two factors might be correlated.

What does being healthier have to do with being shorter? Read about it here!





NASA Twins Study spots thousands of genes toggling on and off in Scott Kelly

When astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after a year floating about the International Space Station, he was noticeably different from his identical twin, Mark Kelly. For one, Scott temporarily grew two inches taller, but what really fascinated people were the change in his genes. “There are over 50,000 genes in the human genome, and when floating in zero gravity, the body is trying to manage that situation in new ways,” Chris Mason, one of the principal investigators of the Twins Study and a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, told PBS NewsHour. “Both DNA and RNA were found to express genes in order to compensate for a lifestyle in space.”

Which is really cool, and really important for long periods of space flight. Say, for example, to Mars…

Read about it hereImage result for Scott and Mark Kelly


Moving for Science: the Coming to America Edition

In our ongoing “When I Grow Up” series, my close friend and great scientist Dr. Simon Uribe-Convers writes about the experience of coming to the United States for Science. In additions to his scientific contributions, he was notorious at the University of Idaho for two things: 1) He was a great mentor to other PhD students who were moving to a small town in Idaho from various South American countries and 2) He started the tradition of the PhDerailer (it tastes like angel tears and happiness). Both lasting legacies of his time at Idaho. 

It’s been over eight years since I arrived in the United States from Colombia to start my graduate career. I began with a Ph.D. in Biology at the University of Idaho, followed by a postdoc at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and a second postdoc at the University of Michigan. Not only have I lived in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a large sprawling city in the Midwest, and a buzzing college town crazy for (American) football, but I have driven from coast to coast, traveled to more than 20 states, and married an American—so you can say I know the country quite well. When asked to write about my experiences in this country as a foreign scientist, I took the opportunity to think introspectively and to reflect about it all. Even though I am writing these words with the US in mind, they can completely be applied to other countries—I lived in Germany and Spain for a year each and the experience of being a foreigner is, as a whole, similar. By the way, I’m not going to mention some very important things to keep in mind because a friend of mine just wrote about them last week!

Do your homework and find a good principal investigator (PI) to work with 

This one is straightforward and also applies to Americans, but it is absolutely essential. You will spend a lot of time with your graduate or postdoctoral advisor—they will guide and influence your research and take decisions that will affect your development as a scientist, so working with a person with whom you have nothing in common is a bad move. As foreigners, we are mostly aware of the big universities (i.e., Ivy League schools) but the US has so much more to offer! Instead of focusing only on the big name schools, focus on the person you want to work with first. A good approach is to think of the scientific papers that you like or that have had an impact on your research, and to pay attention to the author list. You should also do this with a few scientific journals that are relevant to your field. Do you see people that keep popping up? These are the people you should work with! Write them an email—almost everyone is nice about getting questions about working with them—and start a conversation. Be aware that people are busy and that PIs get many (~100) emails a day, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately. Also, and this is key, be sure to send a polite and casual reminder with your first email attached to it if you haven’t heard back in a week or so. Again, people are busy and your email might have gotten lost among the others.

Integrate—you are not in your country.

So you traveled to the US to pursue a Ph.D./Postdoc. That’s great, enjoy it, but don’t forget that life exists outside of school! Now is the time for you to adapt, integrate, and familiarize with the local culture. First off, do you feel comfortable with the language? If not, try to take courses before you arrive or soon after, as this will make the transition to your new life much smoother. Second, learn about the acceptable social norms and abide by them, and be accepting and respectful of the way people operate here. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t like for a foreigner to come to your country and disrespect what makes your country special for you. Don’t be that person. Third, make local friends. We are always drawn to people who are similar to us (e.g., same culture) but if you are, for example, Latino and you only have Latin friends, you will not learn anything new about the local culture. Having American friends will also help you with my first and second points because you will speak English constantly and friends will let you know if you are disrespecting their local culture. Moreover, you will experience things that depending on where you are from, you haven’t been exposed to; such as skiing, sledding, or other winter sports. Bottom line, go make friends; carve pumpkins in Halloween, get invited to a proper thanksgiving dinner, and be open to new experiences within a community.

Share what’s yours

Now that you have American friends, be sure to share your own culture, language, and social norms! Throw a party to celebrate one of your country’s holidays, make some of your country’s food, and show people a part of your heritage. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world and people love experiencing new cultures and cuisines, so share what’s yours and highlight your own culture!

Understand the American system

Each country has its own way of doing things and the United States is not different. Within the first two weeks of arriving you will have to: get a social security card, a phone, a driver’s license or state ID, open a bank account, etc., and each of these transactions will require different documents and forms. It’s not difficult but it can take time to figure out. The good thing is that most universities have a group of people in charge of international students, and who will give you lots of information about all this. Take advantage of the facilities that your university has and make your life easier. One thing I struggled with (as many people from all nationalities including Americans) was understanding the healthcare system. What’s a deductible, what’s a co-pay, what’s covered and what’s not? These are complicated questions and are different in every state and insurance company, so make sure you understand them well and if you don’t, ask for help! Again, universities have people who can help you with this, so do your homework and avoid massive medical bills. Concerned? Don’t even get me started with taxes! Bottom line, find the information and help you need to navigate the system and you’ll be fine.

Enjoy your time in the United States!

I have traveled throughout the country, camped in breathtaking national parks, visited cities that blew my mind, and most importantly, created long-lasting friendships along the way. This country has been very good to me and I hope that it is as good, or better, to you. Now, go explore it!

Do you have any questions, comments, or recommendations for someone coming to the US? Leave them in the comments below, I would love to hear what others have to say about their experience!


Revisiting Gattaca in the Era of Trump

I have written exhaustively about CRISPR-Cas technology, and its potential to change science and the world as we know it.

But with this change in science as we know it, we’re faced with some pretty important ethical questions (also not the first time I’ve talked about this on NiB). However, what is new is this excellent post by Osagie K. Obasogie, who researches ethical issues surrounding reproductive and genetic technologies.

He addresses how the Trump administration, and the rise of white nationalism is concerning with the new CRISPR possibilities. It’s not like we haven’t experienced scientific projects trying to engineer better humans, one only needs to remember the aftermath of the Holocaust and the public Nuremburg trials.

It’s an interesting line of thought to walk down, and I strongly recommend reading the piece here.


Going to a really macabre candy store-except instead of sweets there are tapeworms

If you’re not reading everything that Ed Young writes, you’re missing out.

And he’s once again hit it out of the park with this great post about America’s Largest Collection of Parasites (although when my coauthor Kim Lackey and I cleaned our the parasitology lab a few years ago, it could have been in the running).

These jars of wonder/parasites are kept in my favorite of the Smithsonians, the Natural History Museum. Read all about Ed’s exploration of this TREASURE trove of awesome here.

And remember, Parasitism really is the sincerest form of flattery.lead_960.jpg


Permanent jobs in academia are scarce, and someone needs to let PhD students know

Sociologist Chris Platts found that 1% of young footballers actually gain professional contract. Take away message: becoming a professional footballer is hard.

However, Nature has surveyed more than 5,700 early career scientists who are trying to pursue an academic career. And they found that the chances of getting a job are only slightly better than the footballers’, 3-4%.

Simply put, most PhD students need to make plans for a life outside academic science. And more universities and PhD supervisors must make this clear.

Want to know more? Read about it here!


Moving Abroad for Science: US to Europe Edition

A few weeks ago a colleague of mine wrote about pursuing a PhD in Europe, and tried to highlight the ways it is different than the U.S. PhD.

But there’s more to being abroad than simply the difference in acquiring a PhD.  While I can only speak of my experience as a postdoc moving to Germany, there are a few bits of advice I can impart to others considering the big move.

  1. Find someone to rely on back home. There are all sorts of problems you won’t expect and you’d need to be in the States to deal with, but you won’t be. So you’ll need someone there who can handle things for you. Sometimes it’s small things (mailing address for your US bank account), sometimes more substantial things, but either way, having someone to take care of these needs is SUPER important. In my case, it’s my mother (side note, she’s also my editor… and a number of my blog posts are a collaborative enterprise). She has a power of attorney over my affairs, so when my credit card needs verification, and the company refuses to allow me to call from any number besides a U.S. number, my mother can step in and handle it. It solves all sorts of problems, and I’ll be honest, I would be screwed without her help (not just editing help, although that’s pretty awesome as well). So find someone who can handle such things and then tell them all the time how awesome they are for helping. [Editor’s note: A power of attorney is a very powerful document, so be very cautious in selecting the person to whom you grant power to manage your financial matters.  And a specific power of attorney, limited in scope, is a better choice than a general power of attorney.  Make certain it has an expiration date – better to go through the hassle of reissuing one and sending the new one out than to have an open-ended document.  Just ask legions of U.S. Navy sailors who have come home to find all their belongings disposed of by “friends.”]
  2. Figure out how to move money. I won’t recommend specific ways to move money internationally and deal with currency exchange (although I have strong opinions and if you want to know them, email me), but regardless how you do it, you’re going to need to figure out how to do it. There are still some bills I need to pay in the U.S., that I can’t pay from my European account, and vice versa. This was startling for me at first, because I hadn’t considered it (what do you mean I can’t set up auto payments from my European account?), and seemed difficult to figure out. But I have great friends who have already solved this problem, and reached out to help, and while I won’t endorse services here, if you find yourself in the same situation, feel free to reach out.
  3. Set up temporary housing for your arrival. Every time I’ve moved in the U.S., I usually have had an apartment sorted before I arrive in my new location. I know the routine:  you find a place online, contact the owner/management company, pay the deposit, move in. This is not how it worked in Germany (and when I explained this simple system to Germans, they were blown away). In Germany, when you rent an apartment, it is viewed as an intimate relationship between you and the building owner. You have to see the apartment (sometimes a few times), you have to provide evidence that you have money/a paycheck, you have to talk about each others’ families and goals and dreams, and after they have done that with you and a few other perspective tenants, you all gather for a ceremony where the owner gives out a rose to the person they choose… just kidding about that last part. But the other bullets are all true. Culturally, this is SO different from the U.S. (where the relationship is: “Here is my money, I’d like to move in now”).  I was fortunate and had a place to stay for 2 months, but you should plan (including budgeting) to have a temporary place set up while you sort out your semi-permanent home.
  4. Culture shock is a real thing. I have traveled all over the world (see blog here), and I’ve even lived abroad a few times. But boy, almost none of that prepared me for the culture shock of being in Germany. And Germany isn’t even the most extremely different place I could have moved! There are all sorts of quirks ( ingredients that aren’t available, always paying cash for everything, the entire economy and all grocery stores being closed on Sundays), but the biggest thing is that tasks that were easy at home are more difficult abroad. An excellent case study is the experience of buying a lightbulb. If a light goes out at home in the U.S., I’ll casually stroll down to any number of stores where I know I can purchase a replacement. In Germany, none of those stores exist. And lightbulbs aren’t sold where I thought they should be. And I don’t know how to ask for help at the stores where they might be sold (I don’t speak German). So an easy, mundane task is now a HERCULEAN issue that takes energy and perhaps half a day to solve. And once I succeed, I need to go home, curl up in a ball and sleep from exerting so much effort. Things definitely get easier, but expect there to be a transition period.
  5. ADVENTURE! There are many difficulties of moving abroad, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome it can be as well. I get to travel to cool places around Europe for the weekend. A Friday night in Paris has become the norm. I jaunt up to Berlin for an afternoon. The Alps are a short train ride away. And mundane things are sometimes more difficult, but they are also sometimes more spectacular. I will be walking home from work, or grocery shopping, or going out to eat, and it’ll all of a sudden hit me: I live here. My every day is an adventure, because I choose to go on this adventure. I often think of Bilbo Baggins (“I’m going on an adventure!”) and embrace the struggles because they are only small speed bumps on the massive highway of fun I’m having.

Again, this is just my experience and I tried to make it general. Also, I moved for my postdoc, and as mentioned before, the PhD is VERY different in Europe.

But I’d be happy to hear other experiences! Comment away!