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Fear of Brave New Worlds, or Uninspired Headline Writing?

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Summer 2016 marked the 85th anniversary of novelist Aldous Huxley completing his manuscript for Brave New World. The widely read novel, a dystopia of happiness-led oppression (in contrast to the fear-controlled populace in Orwell’s 1984), anticipates global adoption of advances in science and technology such as subliminal learning and reproductive medicine. Published in 1932, the book is still a… Read More »Fear of Brave New Worlds, or Uninspired Headline Writing?

Boo! Zombies are real!

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512px-placid_deathWith Halloween just around the corner, how about a little creepy science for the season?

Zombies are real.

Yes, you read that one right. The undead do exist, and not just in fiction…but maybe I should clarify before you dive right back behind the sofa. Relax; it’s not a whole-body reanimated dead-to-alive apocalypse, just a finding from a group of researchers who saw that in death, a whole series of genes come to life.

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Enchantment and wonderland: 4D LABS

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4D Labs. Image E. Rickert.

Scientists aren’t as uptight or as mad as the stereotypical personalities shown in popular media. No, they buy burgers for the BBQ, drop off dry cleaning and use public transit—just like everybody else. I know for a fact that some even go “squee!”…but not so much over kittens (okay, maybe about kittens too).

So, how do I know about the “squee!” bit?

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was guilty of a squee! and so were two other Talk Science to Me team members, mastermind Eve Rickert and associate editor Roma Ilnyckyj, as we toured SFU’s impressive 4D LABS facility on the Simon Fraser University Burnaby campus. Each turn of the corridor seemed to bring new laboratory delights in the shape of adorable compact electron microscopes, bright and shiny clean lab facilities, and a laser lab that belongs in a Marvel superhero film set.

Squee! indeed.Read More »Enchantment and wonderland: 4D LABS

Around town: The 6th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

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Conferences are great places to hang out if you’re a scientist. The buzz of knowledge fills the air, and it’s often the only chance you get to brainstorm with like-minded enthusiasts in your field. By the end of the conference, you are high on knowledge transfer and giddy with sharing the science…and exhausted. But then you take it all back to your lab and the sharing process begins again.

This week, Vancouver hosts the 6th Annual Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Hosted by Interprofessional Continuing Education of the University of British Columbia, the conference brings together delegates with expertise in research, teaching, counselling, justice and other related fields to highlight recent research progress. It is truly a multidisciplinary event, because FASD affects people in so many different ways and touches every level of society. Read on to learn a little more about what’s happening in your neighbourhood and beyond.

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Client showcase: UBC Chemistry grant proposals

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Lots of beautiful science happens in the chemistry building at UBC. Photo by Tr1plefilter, 2008 (public domain).The University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Department of Chemistry is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings on campus (which you may have seen in one or two X-Files episodes). But even more beautiful is what goes on inside the building: it’s home to world-class researchers whose work has contributed to groundbreaking discoveries and scientific developments.

And since these scientists are in the same city as Talk Science to Me, we were excited to have an opportunity to work with some of them last month. Talk Science was hired to copy-edit seven grant proposals for funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The proposals we worked on outlined innovative ways to address issues ranging from climate change to cancer treatment.Read More »Client showcase: UBC Chemistry grant proposals

Caveat lector or reader beware!

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Repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation

In April, the Journal of Neuroscience published the paper that apparently everybody had been waiting for—definitive proof that even recreational cannabis use messes with your head. As soon as the publication embargo lifted, the headlines screamed into action, suggesting the danger to developing brains from just a few puffs of weed per week. According to the press release from one of the associated research institutions, casual marijuana use was linked to brain abnormalities—“more ‘joints’ equal more damage.” Even the paper’s senior author, Hans Breiter, questioned the safety of pot use in anyone under the age of 30.

Cranial MRI. © Flickr user John M, 2003 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

But is this really what the paper’s results showed?


The study, cross-sectional and retrospective in design, used MRI scans to compare brain morphology of 20 self-reported recreational 18- to 25-year-old marijuana users with appropriately matched controls. At a single interview, each subject estimated their cannabis consumption over the previous 90 days and underwent an MRI scan.

From the results of the neuroimaging interpretations, the researchers found that there were indeed differences in certain areas of the brains of the marijuana users compared with their matched controls at the time the scans were taken. The intensity of these differences also varied according to the self-reported cannabis intakes in the users—heavier drug use correlated positively with more pronounced changes. Although changes were evident, the authors state at the start of the paper’s discussion that their study group was not large enough and their experimental design was insufficient to determine what caused them.

However, this is not what was widely reported. Instead, headlines announced that recreational pot use damaged young people’s brains. Perhaps the focus was on the abstract, the thumbnail of text at the start of a scientific paper that gives readers a sneak peek at what it’s all about, where the authors state, “These data suggest that marijuana exposure, even in young recreational users, is associated with exposure-dependent alterations of the neural matrix …”  Or maybe the writers were swayed by the press release quoting the senior author. … suggests … associated with …

Read More »Caveat lector or reader beware!

$1,000 genome is here (at last)

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Last week, San Diego life sciences equipment developer, Illumina, announced the arrival of the $1,000 genome. According to their stats, running an entire human genome through one of their fast process HiSeqX 10 sequencing machines could spit out the US$1,000 result in a day. Although commercial companies already offer personal partial genome analysis for a lower price, the Illumina revelation places widespread, population-based whole-genome profiling in the realm of possibility rather than science fiction.

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NASA launches MAVEN, there is much rejoicing

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We’re talking about water on Mars! Again! I think even hardcore Mars nuts might be getting tired of this, which is kind of a shame because it is really interesting. With varying caveats, we’ve known for a long time that Mars had water. More recently we got confirmation that it still does. But a lot of that water is still unaccounted for. The geology tells us that there were vast bodies of water at one time; NASA is interested in finding out where that water is now. To that end, they shot another amazing piece of engineering, MAVEN, into space yesterday—but with much less fanfare than the Curiosity launch.

Read More »NASA launches MAVEN, there is much rejoicing