May 11, 2014

Wild axolotls near extinction :(

One of the animals I study is the amazing axolotl, known for its impressive regenerative properties throughout its lifetime!  I am studying the cellular and molecular basis of spinal cord regeneration in the axolotl because the ability to reconstruct lost or damaged organs is a remarkable phenmenon we can't do.  I hope my research provides new therapeutic strategies to improve post-injury rehabilitation in human patients afflicted with major injuries.

Unfortunately, it's an endangered species and it's been rarely seen lately in its homeland of central Mexico in recent years.  I share this brief article with you in hopes we can better protect it from extinction in the wild.  We're still learning the amazing capacities of many animals and plants and we should do our part to protect them all!


http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/05/slideshow-search-bizarre-amphibian

Dec 6, 2013

Is science accessible for everyone today?

Hi everyone!

It's been a long time (my life as a postdoc is exhausting and leaves me no time to blog), but I admire this year's Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman's (of UC Berkeley, go Bears!) efforts to raise an important issue regarding the rising cost of higher public education during his acceptance speech in Stockholm next week.

Could This 2013 Nobel Laureate Afford College Today?
Nobel laureate Randy Schekman (center) gets his Nobel parking pass at Cal.  If you've ever tried to park at the UC Berkeley campus, you'll understand why this is a coveted bonus! http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113883274

I worry for the future of (academic) science that we are moving towards a less diverse workforce in the sciences as the opportunity to obtain a good college education in the sciences in America is becoming less and less possible for more Americans.  Is a career in science moving back towards an option only for the upper-class, like that circa pre-1950's?

One part of this problem is due to the way American universities has grown over the last couple of decades, away from focusing on quality education to having a more corporate-feel to generate revenue.  Many public institutions displace the costs of rising education onto students because state funding has been cut. It is crazy to think that for some low- to middle-income students that attending an elite private university is more affordable than a public institution in CA due to the available financial aid packages!

I raise this point because I'm also proud to be a product of the UC system (B.A., Ph.D., postdoc), and even though I graduated 10 years ago (wow, time has flown by!), I managed with financial aid, scholarships and work-study positions (at the library and finding research positions in labs) to come out with a B.A. in molecular cell biology and integrative biology from U.C. Berkeley almost debt-free (which I paid off within 3 years on a grad student income!).  I even had the luxury of staying a fifth year by choice (with the help of a nice research scholarship) to take time to explore more biology courses in college and develop my senior honors research project before starting grad school, even though I could have graduated in 4 years.  That extra year was invaluable, because it boosted my confidence as a scientist as I was lucky to generate 3 publications from that year of undergraduate science research.  Sadly, I think my college experience is hard to achieve today.

However, don't think the burden of higher education is solely on students.  Faculty alike at both public and private institutions have to front part of the bill (for example, many faculty in the biomedical sciences at research universities are required to bring in external funding to support their own research that provide revenue in overhead costs to the university).  This structure in university funding began with the expansion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supporting biomedical research in the US in the 1950s, and while that was a great equalizer of opportunity to have a career in science for Americans (and foreigners) from the 1950s-mid 2000s, the pinching of science support in America makes it difficult for young scientists to think that academic science is a feasible career choice today.  I mean, I grew up from a modest background where our family constantly worried about money, so when I got to college I derailed (like Dr. Schekman) from becoming a medical doctor and I envisioned a career as a professor/academic scientist in college as a way to improve my socioeconomic status.  At the time (in the late 1990s/early 2000s), there was a world of possibility in biology with the growth of molecular genetics and growing support by the NIH to biomedical sciences at my hands!  But now, that support has shrunk, and as a postdoc you get a modest salary for our educational level (on the basis of being a trainee towards becoming faculty), but I struggle to live in San Francisco and help out my dad.  This is all towards the unrealistic goal (for the majority of postdocs) of becoming an assistant professor, but the reality is that you're very lucky to find a job as an assistant professor.  The downer is that you'll still constantly worry about money if you're lucky to find that faculty job, trying to find funding to support your people in your lab so you can keep your job despite getting tenure.  So, while I'm still committed to this career path because of my commitment to higher education in the sciences, especially public education and public outreach, it's not particularly an attractive career choice anymore for today's college students, who like me, might come from low- or middle-income backgrounds.

How do we make a change in the structure of academic science?  How can we make it more accessible and more attractive to all Americans from diverse backgrounds?  I think we can do it, but it will have to come from hard work from my generation of young scientists (B.A. early 2000s-) to come up with ideas and implement it.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

Aug 5, 2012

Curiosity has landed on Mars!


I should have been working on a talk for a conference, but I nerded out and watched the awesome landing of Curiosity on Mars!  Check out its first pic!

First picture by Curiosity, taking a picture of its shadow on Mars.  Way to stick the landing! 10.0!  (image courtesy NASA)

Jul 20, 2012

Gene Therapy to block HIV


The other day, I posted about Truvada, which is a drug that blocks HIV from replicating inside an infected T cell.  This can help uninfected people reduce their risk to become HIV positive by preventing it from making copies of itself and spreading to other T cells at a very early stage, so that the immune system still has enough cells to combat an attack against HIV, get rid of its sick cells and keep the person HIV free.

Here's an alternative way to stop HIV at yet an earlier step: prevent it from getting inside the host T cell by getting rid of the receptors HIV exploits on those cells.  Check it out!

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/07/16/156846209/how-hiv-hijacks-the-immune-system?ps=cprs

http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2011/09/gene-therapy-may-thwart-hiv.html

Jul 16, 2012

Truvada: the first FDA approved drug to reduce HIV risk

Dear readers,

Sorry I've been MIA from my blog.  1st year postdoc is not the easiest job for sure, but there's a lot of interesting new research directions I'm exploring that's kept me busy.  I will follow up on my new year's resolution and share my thoughts on the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the recent exciting news on the possible Higgs-like boson soon, so stay tuned!

Today, the news media reported the FDA approved Truvada, the first drug that significantly reduces the risk for HIV infection for uninfected people, when taken daily.  http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/07/16/156850747/fda-approves-first-drug-to-prevent-hiv-infection.  

Curious about how Truvada functions at the molecular level, I found this video through the makers, Gilead Sciences, that implicate this drug blocks HIV from replicating its RNA genome by inhibiting its reverse transcriptase activity to make a copy of its genome into DNA (that the virus then exploits the human host's cell machinery to make more copies of).  Check it out!
http://www.truvada.com/pat115_how_works_video.aspx

For those readers out there who want more insight to what entails getting approval of any drug by the FDA, I found this recent post by Science Magazine that highlights the lengthy discussion over this drug.  In short, the key to make this drug effective is that users must take the drug daily and without using other HIV treatment drugs, otherwise HIV resistance may form over time.  This is from its previous and current use as an anti-HIV drug in infected patients.  Some members in on the discussion worry that it may mislead prescribed users to assume this drug will protect them and engage in more risky behaviors.  This drug reduces HIV infection risk in uninfected folks, but does not completely block it. 

Jan 12, 2012

2012 New Years resolution

Dear readers,


Happy new year!  In reflecting on 2011 and what's to come in 2012 over the holidays, I admit that I'm not the best blogger out there.  As such, one of my 2012 new years resolutions is to adhere to my blog's mission statement and keep you informed about science!  To make the resolution achievable, I plan to give myself 'homework' due at the end of each month and pick 12 topics (1 for each month) that I think are worthy of discussion with you.  


To give you a taste of what's to come, January 2012 will cover the the issue of bioethics and insights to the personal side of scientific investigation, as I am currently reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).  After hearing about its release in 2010, I spent a long time at the 2010 American Society of Cell Biology's Annual Meeting in Philadelphia searching for a copy to buy in publisher's row in the big poster session room.  With no luck.  That surprised me because cell biologists are one of the largest users of HeLa cells, and this is a story about the woman and family behind those cells.  By the time I found a copy of the book in 2011 at the local bookstore and got swept into reading the first half of the book, I got sidetracked in April to write my Ph.D. thesis.  So, months later, I've started from scratch to read the book again (it's a compelling non-fiction story) and I'll share with you the life of Henrietta Lacks and the heartbreaking story of her family in the aftermath of the birth of HeLa.  Maybe some of you will read the book with me!  I also hope to open a discussion about bioethics in science.


In February 2012, I will go outside of my biology comfort zone and discuss the current search for Higg's boson and particle physics, which I got intrigued by at a network meeting for my postdoc research fellowship in November.  I'll do my best to summarize what I learn about the current state of particle physics, and what makes gravity so hard to reconcile with the rest of the forces of the universe.  It's an issue that stumped Einstein himself!


If you have any suggestions for topics to cover for the rest of 2012, please let me know!


Cheers,
Saori

Sep 28, 2011

A sweet lesson on ligand-protein binding affinities

When I was learning biochemistry in college (from good ol' Lehninger's Principles of Biochemistry), the section on protein function, protein binding affinities and dissociation constants with pKas and Kds being thrown around was a little hard to follow without good examples.  I thought this story on the miracle berry's 'magical' effects might help any of you out there who are trying to learn about protein function and binding affinities:

Miracle Berry’s Sour-Sweet Mystery Cracked


Then ask yourself:
- Does the miraculin or sugar has a higher binding affinity?  
- Which one has a higher Kd?
- If miraculin can only activate its receptor, hT1R2-hT1R3, at a low pH, can you guesstimate the pKa value is of the amino acid(s) on miraculin responsible for activating the hT1R2/hT1R3 receptors?


For the science nerds, here's the free, open-access original article out in PNAS that's out early ahead of the print date:
Human sweet taste receptor mediates acid-induced sweetness of miraculin