Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Devices & Desires

I thought it was amusing that the first condoms in history were made from the casings of animal intestines. Yet, when I tried to share this information I was met with the typical head shaking, and entreaties to find different reading material characteristic of me sharing new found knowledge with friends. In my post about Mary Roach's Stiff, I mentioned how my friends don't find the interesting tidbits I gleaned about cadavers to be proper cocktail conversation. Well, the same goes for all the interesting tidbits I gathered from reading Andrea Tone's Devices & Desires.

I am taking a history of science course this semester on the history of women and health in America. As a grad student in an undergrad class, I have to complete extra work to make the requirements. One of the extra assignments was to read and discuss Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America with the other grad student and the professor. I am a fish out of water in this class, having no background whatsoever in women's issues (aside from, you know being a woman myself), and while I was aware of the timeline for the development of contraceptives there was a lot about them I didn't know. Thus my excited, and apparently gross, interest in what I learned from the book.

Devices & Desires can be broken roughly into three sections: condoms, the pill, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). The section about condoms was by far the most interesting and engaging. My professor (Karen Walloch) suggested that perhaps this was the section that Tone researched for her thesis, and while that is just speculation it does seem to be the part of the book that the writer was most invested in. Fun fact: when scientists first developed a way for rubber to be shaped and thus used as condoms, companies that today we associate with tires (Firestone, BF Goodrich, Goodyear) all dabbled in condoms.

My favorite chapters in the book dealt with the military's stance on condoms during WWI, and how they eventually had to cave and endorse them because the health care cost of venereal diseases was through the roof. The book had a few different advertisements and propaganda posters for servicemen urging them to stay away from women that I found highly amusing. Apparently just say no, and taking the moral high ground are no match for a dame in a dress.

After the condom chapters the book tackles the birth control pill. While I found the information interesting, I felt like it fell a little flat. For such a controversial topic, that had such a drastic impact on women's lives I think Tone could have infused the writing with more personality. It just wasn't as colorful as the condom chapters. As a science writer, I did really appreciate the description of the research process that went into making synthetic hormones and how these were tested. The initial testing on the pill was done in Puerto Rico, because the researchers/financiers thought there wouldn't be as much controversy and public push back. They were very wrong. But, if you aren't interested in the scientific process, I feel like these chapters might drag on for you as a reader.

From the pill, the book moves on to the IUD. Tone focuses on a particular IUD, the Dalkon Shield. I was really shocked by this part of the book. Shocked, and really kind of outraged that I hadn't heard about this health scandal. In the 1970's the Dalkon Shield was the cause of more than 200,000 lawsuits due to a high percentage of severe injury among its users. The design of this IUD made it a ticking time bomb that women were sticking into their bodies. Infections (and subsequent Pelvic Inflammatory Disease) caused by the materials used in the device caused severe damage to women's reproductive systems (even sterility), the device could also perforate the uterine wall, and women who did get pregnant while wearing the device often had children born with severe birth defects.

Lawsuits against the A.H. Robbins Corporation (who marketed the Dalkon Shield) won millions of dollars in damages for women and families that had been affected. The real tragedy in the Dalkon Shield scandal is that the company was well aware of the device's problems. Internal documents and studies proved that the company knew the device was dangerous, and marketed it anyway. As a result of the scandal, in 1976 the Medical Device Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act mandated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first to time test and approve of medical devices.

It is important to note that the major flaw in the Dalkon Shield: a porous, multifilament string that was basically a highway for bacteria straight up into the uterus, isn't a part of IUDs currently on the market. I know several people who use IUDs and am relieved to know that the devices have been improved since they first debuted on the contraceptive scene. However, the Dalkon Shield story really made me stop and think about the human cost of not only contraceptive devices, but all new medical breakthroughs.

As much as I learned from and was moved by reading the chapters about IUDs in Tone's book, these chapters left me wanting more. I felt like the book ended very abruptly, and that there was still a lot that could have been said about the topic. My professor pointed out that when you are writing a book like this, you have to choose a place to stop, otherwise you could just go on and on. I understand that, but I think the book could have ended more smoothly.

Overall, I thought Devices & Desires was a great read and I learned a lot from it that I hadn't been aware of otherwise. The book was a little disjointed in parts, and you have to be invested in seeing it through (and apparently not squeamish) but if you come from an uninformed background like mine, I can almost guarantee you'll learn something new.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dinosaur Stopped Dead In Its Tracks, Literally.

We know a tremendous amount about dinosaurs from studying their fossilized remains, but the amount that we don't know or haven't seen in the fossil record far surpasses our knowledge. I'm a sure sucker for a good dinosaur fossil story, and pitched several while interning at Geekosystem over the summer. I'm still working through my list of links that didn't make the cut this summer, and wanted to share this dinosaur discovery (that I read about in this New Scientist article).

Image credit: Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki
To say that something stopped dead in its tracks is a common phrase, but it is really an uncommon occurrence. That is what makes the discovery by Polish paleontologists of a Protoceratops fossilized alongside impressions of its final footprints so impressive. This dinosaur was literally stopped dead in its tracks. The fossils were found in Mongolia, and belong to a dinosaur that lived approximately 80 million years ago. Due to the fact that finding fossilized remains of land animals and their tracks is so rare, the discovery is particularly exciting. 

It is rare to find a fossilized land vertebrate alongside its footprints, because generally the conditions needed to preserve tracks and bone are different. It is easier to observe invertebrate marine creatures fossilized with their tracks because a single layer of sediment is more likely to be able to preserve both. Adding to the difficulty is the challenge of matching tracks with a specific creature. The pads or soft tissue that covers a foot isn't going to be preserved on the skeleton, which will make it harder to match tracks with a species.

Identifying footprints by the creature that created them is so complex, it has its own scientific field of study. As a subspeciality of geology, ichnologists study footprints and can typically narrow a footprint down to a specific type of animal, and sometimes the species. The Protoceratops fossil was discovered by a joint Polish-Mongolian team from the Gobi Desert in 1965. Yes, 1965. It took 45 years for the fossil slab to be analyzed, but when it finally was, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki of the University of Warsaw was shocked at what he found. 

Niedzwiedzki and colleagues discovered an impression near the dinosaur's pelvis. The shape and size correspond with what would be expected from the Protoceratops' four-toed foot. This is the first time that scientists have observed fossilized Protoceratops tracks from this region and time period, in addition to being the rare tracks of a land animal preserved next to that animal. If you are interested in learning more about this find, the researchers published their study in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The States Of Matter

This is a special post for my science blogging buddies in Mrs. Podolak's (my Mom's) class at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School. This year I will periodically be blogging about the topics the first graders study for their science units. All of these special posts will be distinguished by the title "Science For Six-Year-Olds." Even if you've already passed the first grade, I hope you'll still enjoy these posts as we go back to basics to learn about science.
Hello First Graders! I am so excited to be your blogging buddy this year. My name is Erin, and I'm a science journalist. A science journalist is someone who writes about different science discoveries, and tries to talk about science in ways that everyone can understand. I go to school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Have any of you ever been to Wisconsin? Mrs. Podolak can show you where Wisconsin is on the map. I grew up in New Jersey just like you, but now I'm pretty far away. I moved here to learn more about being a science journalist.

I heard from Mrs. Podolak that you are studying the states of matter. Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. Matter comes in different forms, which you should already be familiar with. There are solids, liquids, and gases. A solid is firm or hard and has a fixed shape. A liquid flows and moves, and can change shape based on the container it is in. A gas is something that expands to fill any space available.

I think the following song could help you understand the difference between solids, liquids, and gases. It is by a band called They Might Be Giants:

Can you come up with some examples of things that are solids, liquids, or gases? Let me know if you have any questions, you can leave them in the comments and I'll write back. I hope you are loving first grade so far and I'm looking forward to talking to you throughout the year!

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Pollution Solution, Brought To You By Lehigh University

The Lehigh Mountain Hawk in 2008
photo credit: Erin Podolak
If you've ever checked the About section of this blog, you'll know that my alma mater is Lehigh University. I loved my time at Lehigh (it's where I first learned about science writing) and thinking about the university evokes a lot of positive memories. But, as much as I love Lehigh, I have to admit it isn't exactly a premier research institution (despite what they might tell you in the pamphlets). Not that research doesn't go on at Lehigh, but it's no University of Wisconsin-Madison as far as a reputation for cutting edge research is concerned.

Imagine my surprise as I was perusing Scientific American a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon Lehigh while reading an article (reprinted from ClimateWire) about a newly developed material that has the ability to pull carbon dioxide and methane pollution from other gases. The material was developed by Kai Landskron, Paritosh Mohanty and Lillian D. Kull of Lehigh's department of chemistry, and could potentially be used to help capture greenhouse gases.

Creating carbon-sucking materials has been a goal for scientists for years as a way to combat the effects of climate change caused by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, existing systems tend to be expensive, use a tremendous amount of energy, or don't work well at high temperatures. The new material developed at Lehigh avoids these problems.

The new substance was created using chemicals called diaminobenzidine and hexachlorocyclotriphosphazene. These chemicals are cheaper than others used for carbon absorption, and can operate at heat as high as 400 degrees Celsius. In addition to avoiding the problems that have plagued early carbon capture systems the researchers also had to create something that could take carbon dioxide and methane out of a gas stream, but then release it at a later time for permanent storage underground once compressed.

Coal power plant Somerset NY
Credit: Matthew D. Wilson/Wikimedia Commons.
When they developed their "sponge" the researchers found that the material drew more carbon dioxide and methane from the air than other gases, like nitrogen. This makes the material idea for capturing harmful greenhouse gases out of mixed emissions. The researchers have suggested that the material could be placed inside a tower located adjacent to a coal burning power plant, the flue gas generated from the burning coal could then be transported via pipeline through the material to capture greenhouse gases from the emissions.

According to the researchers, the material has a 90% success rate capturing CO2 from a gas stream. However, some problems with the mass production of this material include the fact that real power plants would emit a more complex mixture of gases than was tested by the Lehigh research team, the material may be too dense for manufacture on a large enough scale, and production would create chemical byproducts that may become difficult to control.

The researchers are confident however, in the product they have created. Landskron told ClimateWire:
"There is no fundamental difference in doing this in the lab versus doing it at an industrial scale." This material hasn't been tested on a commercial scale and it remains unknown if it could actually be implemented practically, so we'll have to wait and see if the material can stand up to the high expectations its creators have set up for it.

Even though the chemicals used in the material are cheaper than others used for carbon capture, the cost of producing and implementing the technology is still a barrier to its use. The researchers hoped to test the material on an existing coal plant in the US earlier this year, but the effort stalled due to a lack of funds, even with a 50% investment by the Department of Energy.

On campus with friends before my graduation from
Lehigh in 2009.
So, while the research is promising and it demonstrates an interesting idea with a lot of potential for carbon capture it needs support and further research to make it something that could actually be used commercially. If you'd like to know more, the research was published in July in Nature Communications.

I was excited to see Lehigh in the news for scientific research. Research wasn't a big part of my life at Lehigh, in fact I rarely encountered it, but Lehigh is where my passion for science evolved into a career. It is where, with the support of the journalism department and the wonderful professors who gave me my first real introduction to writing, I realized that I could have a career dedicated to science without being a scientist, and that has shaped the course of my life. I'm proud of my school, and even prouder to know that Lehigh researchers are working to find solutions to our greenhouse gas problems. Now lets get some funding to make that research a reality!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Halfway To My Master's

I successfully made it back to Madison in time for the first day of classes on Friday. After the usual grocery shopping, school supply gathering, schedule printing, and bus pass acquiring that goes along with getting oriented for the school year I kicked things off with my zoology class, the Extinction of Species.

UW Madison Campus, Bascom Hall
This is my second zoology class. If you read this blog regularly you know that I loved/struggled with my zoology class last semester about the psychology and biology of human and animal behavior. I really want to do my out of department electives in the sciences but I don't have most of the pre-requisites for biology and environmental science classes. I'm not interested in taking classes that don't count toward my degree, so that has made it difficult to find the right electives. Looking elsewhere, I found the zoology department and the classes offered seem to be really interesting. Even though it is sure to be a challenge I'm excited about the Extinction of Species course.

This semester I'm also taking a multimedia journalism course and a history of science course about women and medicine. I think all of these classes will push me out of my comfort zone and challenge me to learn new things. They are all correlated with and applicable to my interest in science writing, but I've never taken any classes on these specific topics before. Which really is why I'm here, right? I'm looking forward to getting underway with the semester and getting back into a school frame of mind. I like the freedom that goes along with being an academic versus being part of the working world, but I still like the routine of having certain work due every week. I also love not only having time to read, but having to read as a requirement. I managed to get lost in Memorial Library yesterday, but eventually (with the help of a map) found my way around.
Madison Farmer's Market

When I moved to Madison in August 2010 the idea of living here for two years seemed so daunting, and here I am halfway through. This morning I went to the Madison Farmer's Market (which if you don't know is pretty amazing) and just enjoyed being part of the city. I was by myself, but still enjoyed walking around the capitol square looking at all the vendors. I ended up buying some wildflowers and apple cider before heading home. It is really nice to feel more comfortable living here, I feel like I spent all of last year figuring this place out. It just has such a different vibe from the East Coast. It can be hard to describe what makes it different, because it just has to do with the way the community feels.

I'm excited to finish my Master's and move back to the East Coast, but I want to make sure that I make the most of the remainder of my time in Madison. This community has so much to offer in terms of activities and I want to do a better job taking advantage of them. I know that the chances of me living here after I finish my program are basically non-existent so I need to get the most out of Madison while I still can.

Things on my Madison to do list for the Fall include:

  • Attend a Badger football game
  • Attend the Farmer's Market on a regular basis
  • Take advantage of free/low cost concerts
  • Take part in at least one of the many activities centered around Madison's lakes (canoeing maybe?)
  • Try Babcock Dairy icecream

I have to come up with a Winter/Spring to do list. I know for sure I want to make it out to Chicago, but if anyone has any suggestions for things I should do in Madison (and the midwest) during my last year let me know, I'm sure there are things I'm not thinking of right now. I'm especially interested in class recommendations for next semester, I'm not sure what I should take but I'm definitely open to trying new things.