Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. The Science of Sexual Preference

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    As the 15th country in the world, the UK (or at least England and Wales) are closer than ever to allow and recognise same-sex-marriage (follow the status of the bill here).

    It might be in relation to this that the Science Museum in London chose to dedicate this month’s ‘Lates’ session, held on the last Wednesday of each month, to exploring sexuality and sexual preference. Yesterday seemed jam packed with activities and lectures to discuss the role of a plastic surgeon in the a transgender person’s life, the sexual behaviour of bugs and to explain the Science of Sex.

    By coincidence, Chinese researchers who have tackled that last topic in the lab released their results yesterday. They claim to have been able to change the sexual preference in mice and thereby discovered the chemical in the brain that makes some people prefer men and others prefer women. Their results showed that by completely removing the neurotransmitter serotonin (known to be involved in different behaviours like mood, appetite and sleep), male mice became willing to mount both male and female mice. When serotonin was injected into these male mice they reverted to mainly mounting females. Therefore, serotonin levels could be involved in sexual preference.

    Since these results were released that conclusion has been heavily criticised. First of all, that serotonin is involved in sexual behaviour is not a new discovery. In fact, one of the side effects of certain antidepressants is a lower sex drive just because the levels of serotonin increase. And if high serotonin levels reduce the sex drive in people, it is not surprising to find that low levels of serotonin increase the sex drive in mice.
    Secondly, the observation that the male mice with a high sex drive are less concerned with the gender of their partners does not necessarily say anything about their sexual preference. Perhaps, they just mount pretty much anything.

    Lastly, as mention before serotonin is involved in many behavioural processes. At present, these observations do not provide enough of a basis to make any big claims about sexual preference. And in addition, since many people are taking antidepressants that do have an effect on sexual behaviour, I suspect that we would have noticed if ‘may change sexual preference’ was one of the additional side effects.

    The whole thing reminds me of that ancient saying: “Beware of confusing ‘preference for sex’ with ‘preference for a particular gender’ and vice versa”

  2. You Are What You Listen To

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    We listen to a lot of music. That is true today more than any other time. I am myself a self-proclaimed music junkie. In research, there has been a long search for a link between music preference and behaviour.

    About a month ago, a study found that college students listening to metal music suffered depression and anxiety to a higher degree than their peers that preferred pop or ‘chart music’.

    This association has been made before: In a study from 2001, Adolescents preferring heavy metal music were more likely to drink alcohol and take illegal drugs. They were also described as more likely to ‘worship music in a more prominent way’ (probably means more passionate about their genre than ‘chart listeners’) and to use music to deal with aggressive emotions.

    Only the teenage girls listening to heavy metal seemed to deal with more feelings of alienation and even showed a suicide risk than same-sex peers. The conclusion is that the heavy metal genre probably is more accepted amongst boys and more alienating amongst girls. (Any female heavy metal fans that want to share their thoughts on that?) Personally, I suspect that listening to music that deals with aggression or feelings of alienation might be a cultural aspect of the genre, rather than actual feelings that individual listeners experience.

    Most research looking at this relationship finds many negative effects associated with listening to heavy metal music, but takes us nowhere closer to understanding if young people with a certain mindset choose specific types of music or is it the music that brings certain behaviours out of them.

    I wonder if it matters? We have all been there. Being a teenager was hard. Your days revolved around fitting in. You did what your friends did. My hunch is that what group you belong to as a teenager is more or less arbitrary – the importance lies in belonging to any group. It is your first attempt at testing the waters and gaining your very first life experience. Of course, you have to start somewhere.

    Maybe the recent Canadian evidence that music you like activates old reward systems in the brain sheds some light on the issue.

    The music we enjoy makes us feel good.
    Maybe that is all that matters?

  3. DNA Is The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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    I love science.

    Perhaps, a more descriptive way to put it would be:
    I love learning new things and I tend to find science at the core of everything. What I find most satisfying is making connections between my personal everyday experiences and scientific discoveries. But before I started looking for science in my everyday life, I was absolutely fascinated by DNA. I still am. DNA is awesome, here are two reasons why:

    Last week, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published their findings in people who undergo gastric bypass surgery and have part of their gut removed to combat obesity. As a consequence of the surgery people lose weight, but until recently it was unknown why the surgery made many lose their type 2 diabetes as well. The new research shows that the way DNA in obese people works makes their bodies unsuccessful at breaking down sugar, leading to type 2 diabetes. When the person loses weight from surgery, the function of the DNA is normalised and breakdown of sugar starts again. So, the DNA is not this rigid big molecule that sits at the nucleus of all cells and dictates how the body works, it is actually affected by what happens in the rest of the body. And as seen here, when we lose control of our body the DNA can lose control of itself as well.

    In addition, the Science news website Phys.org published a story on the size of squirrel offspring today. Apparently, researchers from Michigan State University in the US and the University of Guelph in Canada have found that female squirrels can make their offspring grow faster if there is overcrowding. The mothers increase their own stress hormone levels during the pregnancy and once outside the babies grow bigger, faster. Maybe I don’t need to add that it is the first evidence of animals being able to respond to social overcrowding cues (rather than availability of food) and within the matter of one generation impact on the survival of their offspring.
    Exactly how the mothers are able to control the size of their babies is still unknown, but what is sure is that the DNA holds possibilities that apparently can be manipulated to appear at very short notice.

    It’s not an overstatement to call DNA one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the last century, since we are still learning about it in this century. DNA is a never-ending source of surprises. Prepare to keep on being amazed.

  4. To Clean Or Not To Clean

    Today, The Wellcome Trust published a reassuring post on why it is natural that your desk always is a mess.

    Then what does it mean when my desk is always really tidy?

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  5. 'Endangered' Could Be The Step Before Certain Extinction

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    Stefan Dullinger, Head of the Department of Conservation Biology, Vegetation Ecology and Landscape Ecology at the of the University of Vienna, Austria, has been digging into our past to predict the future and all he can see is extinction debt.

    According to extinction debt ‘endangered’ species are dying out not because of what we do to the environment today, but what we did in the past. In a recent study Dullinger found that the European countries with the most recent extinctions also put the most pressure on the environment way back in 1900. The relationship was there even when taking recent environmental effort into account.

    Like Dullinger says himself in a New Scientist post:

    “Biodiversity takes its time to respond to socio-economic pressures”

    This means that we are not to blame for the endangered species of today, so relax, our time to feel bad won’t come in another 100 years. It could, however, mean that today’s endangered animals already have their fate sealed and have started a slow journey towards certain extinction.

  6. The Second Coming Of Bird Flu

    “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.” – Revelation 1:7

    Just like the Bible predicted an old friend has resurrected over the past two weeks.

    In 2006 avian flu spread across the world and became our first flu pandemic in modern time. Now, bird flu is back and has been winning ground as it has spread through parts of China.

    Jeremy Farrar, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam thinks we need to be “very, very concerned” about these latest developments.

  7. The Greatest Human Accomplishment?

    - “This is pretty good. If you got to pick a species, being human is pretty good. I mean, we got out of the food chain. Something that is the bane of all other existence.”

    declares american comedian Loius C.K. at the O2 Arena in the outskirts of London on a cold March evening in 2013.

    We agreed. Do you?

  8. The Future of Science Reports: The Finkbeiner Test

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    “Woman must be focused inwards where her children are, where her home is”, the Russian Orthodox bishop Kirill proclaimed yesterday.

    He added that he is not opposed to women having a career, but went on to describe women as “the guardians of the family fire, the centre of family life” and that they should prioritise accordingly.

    Unlike the mighty Kirill, the rest of us have moved on from such delusions.

    We think.

    Looking at reports of female scientist in the media, the stories most often revolve around her gender, her children and how she fits her research around her family. I know this is ver much an ‘all women in media’ kind of problem and not unique to women in science. Stories about women sooner or later reach the topic of their fertility. Sometimes that is crucial information because it is the point of the piece. But something that you would expect from a science story is that it focuses on research and possibly discoveries.

    Someone that grew tired of this was science writer Ann Finkbeiner, who back in January this year vowed in a blog post to keep the focus for her next piece on a woman only on science.
    She had recently spent much time interviewing many female physicists and astronomers and got insight into how the very few women in these predominantly male fields were treated differently. In light of that, she wanted to move past changing the society and pretend gender didn’t matter and thus just deal with the science.

    Finkbeiner’s colleague Christie Aschwanden provided more insight into what lead up to this decision:
    “I asked her [Finkbeiner] if there was a particular story that epitomized the problem, and she pointed me to this two page profile of Vera Rubin, published in Science in 2002. (Full text is behind a paywall, sorry.) Twelve of the story’s 24 paragraphs mention Rubin’s sex or gender roles. “Four paragraphs on her science, and she was the one who found dark matter,” Finkbeiner says.”

    Aschwanden’s own conclusion is:
    “It’s time to stop this nonsense. We don’t write “Redheads in Science” articles, so why do we keep writing about scientists in the context of their gonads? Sexism exists, and we should call it out when we see it. But treating female scientists as special cases only perpetuates the idea that there’s something extraordinary about a woman doing science.”

    And in the spirit of cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel who created ‘the Bechdel Test’ to measure gender bias in film, Aschwanden has proposed a Finkbeiner test for science writing.

    To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention

    • The fact that she’s a woman
    • Her husband’s job
    • Her child care arrangements
    • How she nurtures her underlings
    • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
    • How she’s such a role model for other women
    • How she’s the “first woman to…”

    Luckily, according to Aschwanden there are stories out there that do pass the test. So, hopefully the next time you read a profile on a researcher that happens to be a woman, you apply the Finkbeiner Test and it will pass.