Browsing Tag


Planning A Pregnancy in the Time of Zika

By February 9, 2016 1 Comment

Like a lot of couples, my wife and I have waited to start a family until the time was right for us, which just so happens to be now-ish.  Unfortunately the right time for us has coincided with the spread of the Zika virus in North America, a virus that shows an association between infection with it during pregnancy and an increased risk of microcephaly (reduced brain/head size) in newborns. The Zika virus is not a new virus from a historical perspective, however, the newly accepted correlation with microcephaly seems to have given the virus a significant amount of media attention.

For any expectant parent – or couples planning on getting pregnant, like my wife and me  – the possibility of a Zika infection is terrifying.  My wife and I are the kind of people who like to arm ourselves with information, so let’s dive into Zika virus infections and take a look at some facts and figures.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning

“My Kids Aren’t Guinea Pigs,” Says Parent Affected By Porter Ranch Gas Leak

By January 4, 2016 4 Comments

A brave parent stepped forward to talk to The Scientific Parent about the Porter Ranch gas leak, and asked that he remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation against his family. Here is his story.

I am part of one of the 3,000 families displaced by the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) leak in Porter Ranch, but I consider my family lucky, because we’re finally safe. The latest reports say that an additional 3,000 more families are waiting to leave the area, and are still living in a zone that’s being called the biggest environmental disaster since the BP oil spill. Notice I say leave, not evacuate. I’ll get back to that.

On Oct 23, 2015, SoCalGas announced that their Aliso Canyon Storage Facility was leaking a combination of methane and mercaptan gases into my community, which is in Los Angeles, California. Methane is a natural gas. Mercaptan is the chemical the gas companies add to make it smell so people are warned when there’s a gas leak in their home.

At the time, they said the leak shouldn’t affect us, and at that point we didn’t know that symptoms of exposure to those gases are headaches, dizziness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of coordination. If we had, we would have realized that my family had been experiencing these symptoms for some time.

For weeks, our 3-and-a-half-year-old son, was lethargic and didn’t have his usual energy to do things. What normal three year old isn’t constantly running around and into things? My wife was complaining about nausea, and that her breathing was short and challenging. I had headaches every day when I came home from work. We never thought any of those things were related.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health

The Promise of the Human Placenta Project

By November 4, 2015 No Comments

We caught wind of an interesting new project out of the National Institutes of Health called the Human Placenta Project, and reached out to learn more. Today’s post is written by the project’s coordinator, who has a personal connection to his research.


In her second pregnancy, my wife, Cynthia, started bleeding at five months. She hadn’t experienced any complications the first go-round, and we were terrified.

Were she and the baby going to be okay?

Her doctor was concerned but unable to provide answers. Bleeding in the second trimester could mean any number of things: placental problems, impending preterm delivery, even cancer. The ultrasound provided limited information, and he had no other tools to diagnose the problem.

Ultimately, the bleeding stopped, as mysteriously as it had begun. The pregnancy progressed without further incident, and my son Evan was born healthy and on schedule. We soon became preoccupied with his naps, feedings, diaper changes, and all the other things that consume parents of infants.

But that feeling we had during the scare is one I’ll never forget. It shook me to my core. And I know how fortunate we were to have a healthy outcome when so many other families do not.

That was 24 years ago. Today, I work at the National Institutes of Health on a research initiative to help doctors improve pregnancy outcomes. Specifically, we’re interested in learning more about the placenta and its role in maternal and child health and disease.

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Categories: Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Lightning Won’t Make Your Plane Crash, and Other Dad Facts

By June 4, 2015 1 Comment

I swore to myself back in 2002 that I would never fly Delta Airlines again – that is, until this past weekend. In 2002 I was an undergrad and a terrible white-knuckle flyer,  and some horrendous weather delayed my flight from Boston to Atlanta. That meant I missed my connection to Southern California and was stranded for seven hours overnight in the Atlanta airport. I remember asking the attendants repeatedly to let me off the flight while we were still grounded (with the door open) just to avoid it. I was in tears by the time I got to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, especially after the Delta desk attendant gave me a $5 voucher for food from vendors who had gone home hours before, saying it was the only compensation they could offer me. After all, it was a weather delay, and per policy, most airlines don’t do much for their passengers in those cases. But I was hungry, I was tired, and as a 20-year-old female, I was scared to be sleepy in a partially-shutdown airport alone. Delta was a bad word in my lexicon for a long, long time.

So this past weekend against my better Delta PTSD judgment, I booked a last minute set of moderately priced flights with them, from San Diego to Baltimore-Washington International Airport…by way of Atlanta. Eeek, I thought, here’s to second chances. I joked with my fiance  – how many times can lightning strike in the same place?

In this case, the proverbial answer was twice.

With a monster storm system trailing down the eastern seaboard, we spent seven hours overnight on Monday trying to sleep in one of Delta’s Atlanta terminals. Overnight in Atlanta! AGAIN – ACK! A weather delay in Baltimore meant we would either miss our connection in Atlanta or have to take a series of more complicated options Delta offered that would be costly, something we couldn’t afford. So we missed our second flight due to one of the more awful lightning storms I’ve ever witnessed with my own eyes. Lightning was striking over and over, sometimes even touching down around the Baltimore area.

I’m a pretty reasonable person. I don’t blame the crew of that plane or the airport for grounding the flight the way that they did. After all, it’s safety first, and Federal Aviation Administration regulations required it for them and other airlines. I also knew that Delta would be trying to relocate their crews and plane back to their main hub in Atlanta, so they’d likely push to get our flight out as soon as the weather permitted, passengers be damned. It just seemed like a safety stretch to be in the air at all when all other airlines had cancelled their flights.

So, like any rational person scared out of my mind in a metal lightning-rod-tube-with-wings sitting on a tarmac, the sky filled with flashing light, and no reassurances from the crew, I texted my father. He’s a veteran flight operations professional who handles things with both directness and humor. In this case, he was (and is) my Scientific Parent:

Dad quotes 1

My father’s usually a man of few words, so that was pretty much all I needed to hear. He’s a pilot, he’s Federal Aviation Administration certified for a host of compliance and safety topics, and he’s not one to get alarmed. This is a man who can sleep through turbulence and wake up refreshed as though he’s lounging on a beach. But he knows me well enough, and a few minutes later, this dropped in:

Dad quotes 2

Now this I didn’t know. My concept of bad weather+airplanes is something along the lines of the made-for-TV movie of Stephen King’s Langoliers. But the reality is much, much safer.

Static Discharge Points Along A Jet's Wing - via Wikipedia, courtesy Adrian Pingstone

Static Discharge Points Along  a Jet’s Wing – via Wikipedia, courtesy Adrian Pingstone

Lightning happens when high-current electricity is discharged (i.e. it sparks) in the atmosphere. That electricity is created by (to put it simply) liquid and ice and negative and positive electrical charges in the clouds colliding.  That can happen between clouds, within clouds, in the air, or between the cloud and the ground. I’m not going to get into the complicated science about it, but what is helpful to know is that 90% of all lightning strikes happen between clouds and the ground, which is why it’s so vitally important for those airports to operate cautiously. Because a single bolt can contain 1 million volts of electricity. Airports are big, flat spaces with tiny humans and large metal planes, and millions of gallons of combustible jet fuel, which is just asking for trouble.

As our plane sat on the tarmac at Baltimore, ground crews were cleared for their own safety against possible lightning strikes on the ground, and planes were halted in position. And while I was glad that we were safe in the plane both on the ground and in the air, I didn’t quite understand why.  So here’s how it works.

Planes’ fuselages are mostly aluminium, which is a great conductor of electricity. So great that it sounds crazypants to fly in bad weather at all.  Not surprisingly, while 10% of lightning strikes on planes happen due to a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario, 90% actually happen because the plane inadvertently causes it. But they’re also built to protect against that very occurrence. With all the smooth lines and curves of an airplane’s design, and a layer of embedded metal mesh, when lightning strikes, electricity flows over the plane, not within it.  Add in elements on the plane that help discharge additional electricity and ground all of the electrical equipment inside (elements such as shields, wire mesh, strips, etc.), and you’re actually quite safe. For all you freaked-out flyers like myself: this means you’re not going to get zapped, fried, and the plane isn’t going to suddenly stop working and fall out of the sky after a strike. Thank goodness!

From Lightning travels along the airplane and exits to the ground.

From Lightning travels along the airplane and exits to the ground.

Also, if lightning wasn’t a big deal for the plane why in the world weren’t we taking off if we were fueled up and ready to go? Because awful weather means awful turbulence. But that’s a whole other can of worms to open on another day.

I’m glad we’re finally home, and that our flight crew operated with a safety-first mentality, although the inconvenience factor without adequate allowances we experienced was atrocious. As a writer and policy person, I can’t really wrap my head around for-profit companies that have policies lacking contingencies for extended-hour delays, aimed at keeping customers both safe and supported. A kudos to Delta for making customer service more accessible these days  (props to WB at @DeltaAssist on Twitter, and a thank you to the crew and staff for being impeccably kind and warm despite their own exhaustion and lack of resources), but really corporate guys, you can do better than the policies you’ve got. I’m not looking to have that third proverbial lightning strike anytime soon.





Metro Web Reporter. Amazing Picture of Planne Being Struck By Lightning above Heathrow. May 12, 2011.

Jack Williams. How Things Work: Lightning Protection. July 2011. Air and Space Magazine.

Greg Sweers et. al,  Lightning Strikes: Protection, Inspection and Repair. April 2012. Boeing Aeromagazine.

Natalie Wolchove. How Passenger Jet Survived Direct Lightning Strike. May 12, 2011.

Natalie Wolchoe. How Plane Electronics Are Grounded. May 12, 2011.

Clarence E. Rash. When Lightning Strikes. June 2010. Aerosafety World Magazine of

A. Powlowski. Can Lightning Bring Down A Plane? August 17, 2010. CNN.

Jack Williams. Why is an Airplane Safe From Lightning Strikes? August 27, 2014. The Washington Post.

Edward J. Rupke. What Happens When Lightning Strikes an Airplane? August 14, 2006. Scientific American.

Transport Airplane and Engine Issue Area Electromagnetic Effects Harmonization Working Group Task 2 – Lightning Protection Requirements  Policies & Procedures Recommendations. February 2001. Federal Aviation Administration Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Science 101 + Mythbusting