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Science & History Lessons

Ada Lovelace, Women’s History, and the Challenge of Science While Parenting

By March 28, 2016 2 Comments

If you are up on your women in science trivia, you are likely familiar with Ada Lovelace. Lovelace is credited with writing the world’s first computer code. Remarkably, she created code way back in 1843 for a machine that wasn’t even fully functioning yet. 1843! The “Analytical Machine” was built by her colleague Charles Babbage and Lovelace described at length how the machine would work in all its algebraic detail.

English mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace juggled child-rearing and scientific study in the 19th century just as many scientists do today. Photo: Wikipedia

English mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace juggled child-rearing and scientific study in the 19th century just as many scientists do today. Photo: Wikipedia

English mathematician and writer Ada Lovelace juggled child-rearing and scientific study in the 19th century just as many scientists do today. Photo: Wikipedia

What I have found even more remarkable is that Lovelace conquered this feat when she had a lot more going on. In the midst of her pursuit of mathematics, Lovelace also bore three children. During the years she had children, she had to step away from her studies. This was true especially after the birth of her second child, when she fell ill for several months. This hiatus from her mathematics work no doubt took a toll on her scientific progress. And it’s worth noting that Lovelace was affluent and thus, likely had more resources to help her manage children and a career than would have been available to most women at the time.

Can scientists take a hiatus to care for family?

As I return from four months of maternity leave this month, I am even more appreciative of the tremendous challenge of doing science while meeting demanding family commitments. I was lucky to get the time off to care for my newborn, but many others aren’t so fortunate today. And even if new parents do get time off from work, scientific institutions aren’t necessarily forgiving of this time away from the lab bench.

Scientists in academia and elsewhere are judged by productivity. A year or several without publications can have implications for one’s standing in the scientific community. Assistant professors are “on the clock” before they get tenure, and must demonstrate their productivity in their first years on the job. Having children during this crucial time period can limit the amount of work scientists—especially mothers—get done. Today, science and engineering departments in American universities are still predominantly male, despite roughly equal numbers of STEM PhDs awarded to female and male students. While the reasons women choose to leave academia are complex and varied, the pressure to get tenure during the times women would want to start a family is often cited.

Improving family leave for scientists

While on my maternity leave, I met another new mom who was a research scientist at a nearby university. She talked about all of the work she had to do even though she was officially on leave—incorporating peer-review edits, reviewing papers for others, reacting to emails, etc. She said if she’d known about the constant time demands of science, she might of have chosen a different career path.

We need to do better. The challenges that Ada Lovelace faced trying to raise children and be a scientist in the 19th century are disturbingly similar to the challenges faced by parents today, especially for women who tend to bare the greatest parenting burdens.

What can we do? We need to create a culture that is not only tolerant of scientists’ who want a work-life balance, but helps them to thrive. Better leave policies at both public and private institutions would be a great start. When academic scientists are up for tenure or applying for jobs, awards, and fellowships, selection committees should take into account any children had during that time period.  This type of consideration, along with other family friendly policies, is more customary in many European countries. The US needs to catch up.

This month, the Royal Society launched the #AndAScientistcampaign to highlight scientists who are also parents or caregivers. With a goal to create a more inclusive environment in the sciences, the campaign highlights stories of scientists who have time-consuming family commitments outside of work and also continue to produce science. Campaigns like this can help shine a light on the issue and hopefully change the conversation. But we also need policies to follow.

In the meantime, and as I settle back into work life, I’m especially aware that I’m now a mother and a scientist.

This post first appeared on the blog for the Union of Concerned Scientists on March 28. It’s reproduced here in its entirety with the author’s permission.

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Passive Immunity 101: Will Breast Milk Protect My Baby From Getting Sick?

By January 10, 2016 15 Comments

As a neonatal nurse specialist, mothers often ask me about the antibodies found in breast milk and how they can work to protect their babies. To explain it to them, and to you, I have to delve into immunology, and those conversations are usually too technical for most readers and mothers I meet in the NICU. Unfortunately, the information that is readily available to mothers that isn’t highly technical is a large body of conflicting information. So I’m here to talk more about this very important topic in a way that makes it straightforward! My goal is to answer very common reader questions like these:

“Why does my infant need any vaccines at all since she’s getting all the antibodies she needs from my breast milk?” and,

“Why does my seven-month old son need to get a flu shot if I received it during my pregnancy?”

Both, excellent questions! Parents, take note – there are 2 ways babies acquire immunity: through passive transfer, and active transfer (also known as acquired immunity).

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Food, Nutrition, + Infant Feeding, Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Newborns + Infants

Your ‘Stomach Flu’ Isn’t a Real Thing, You’ve Caught Something Much Grosser

By December 16, 2015 2 Comments

The stomach flu isn’t a real diagnosis – there’s no such thing.  I remember finding that out as a kid and being confused; after all, everyone around me had had it at one point or another. How could everyone be wrong? We’ve all used this term at some point to describe an illness that’s forced us to pray to (or sit with) the porcelain gods. However, it turns out it’s one of those generational quirks of language that’s been passed down, and it’s not founded in science.

The viruses or bacteria that we attribute to “the stomach flu” are very real, however, as I can tell you from personal experience.  There’s just no such thing in epidemiology as a family of viruses or bacteria called “the stomach flu.”

Let’s start off by defining what the flu is. “Flu” is short for influenza, which is a viral infection that affects your respiratory system, namely your nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms include coughing, congestion, fever, and muscle aches. According to the CDC, there are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The seasonal flu is typically an A or a B type, and it runs in cycles that are heavily skewed to wintertime in the United States. The C type is considered milder, and isn’t seasonally dependent or the type that’s a cause for epidemic concern. All three types are spread through contact with an infected person’s respiratory secretions, meaning contagious droplets of water that you inhale or get in your eyes, nose, mouth, when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes around you. Ewwwww.

The stomach flu, on the other hand is what we colloquially call a variety of digestive-related illnesses that involve distressing gastrointestinal symptoms (i.e. vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, etc.) combined with malaise, and a low-grade fever, when in reality it’s a form of gastroenteritis (“gas-tro-enter-EYE-tis”). Gastroenteritis is caused by viruses and bacteria (and rarely, parasites) that infect the digestive tract, none of which are members of the influenza family.

I repeat: the “stomach flu” is a virus or bacteria that has much grosser consequences, and is not at all related to influenza.

Viral gastroenteritis is the most likely culprit when it comes to most of the so-called “stomach flus,” and it’s typically the result of one of two groups of viruses: Noroviruses or Rotaviruses.  And, ick alert: you typically catch it from direct exposure to an infected person, exposure to infected fecal bacteria (poop), or exposure to things cross-contaminated by fecal bacteria like food that’s been handled by contaminated hands, since it’s so hard to completely sanitize against, as any Celebrity Cruise worker can tell you.

Grossed out yet?Norovirus flu FINAL

A read-through of this horrifying in-depth article from
National Geographic on

the science of the Norovirus
describes how it causes your body to become a walking germ factory; how hard it is to kill it on surfaces including your own skin, and how easy it is to infect those around you as you’re purging liquid from your intestinal tract cells at a rapid rate, and loading up each gram of your diarrhea with five billion Noroviruses. You read that right. Five billion. As for the infectiousness of your vomit? I’ll just leave this article on a the Norovirus Vomit Machine here. I can’t even.

Horrors of science aside, viral gastroenteritis is rotten because in addition to the symptoms listed in our handy-dandy graphic in this article, it’s completely exhausting and there’s nothing you can do other than rest, stick with eating what you can hold down, which may or may not include the once-heavily recommended B.R.A.T. diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast) to coax your stomach into digestion,  and to stay as hydrated as possible. Dehydration is the danger zone of these type of illnesses, which is where gastroenteritis can turn from miserable to deadly. It’s essential to replace liquids lost from loose stools and vomiting. For parents of kids who have had this, I’m sure you’ve had the hard task of trying to pressure these foods and liquids into your child who is exploding from both ends, and feeling like it’s all a waste because it’s coming back out as quickly as its going in. I’m sorry. You’re doing the right thing, though, since nutrients and liquids are critically important to maintain during these illnesses.


The Norovirus: Courtesy of the CDC

In my recent experience, I went to my local emergency room five days after my symptoms began, but only after I started to have heart palpitations and an unbearable case of heartburn. I managed to stay hydrated as I’d choked down an entire Pedialtye (ack!), but I was wrecked. The doctor attributed my illness to a nasty case of Norovirus, which is circulating in the San Diego area again, but he said those extra symptoms were actually from exhaustion and hunger – I needed more nutrients and rest. How could I get more nutrients if nothing was sticking in my stomach? I asked him. He said to keep eating anyway, since “your body has to finish shedding the diseased lining of your intestines for all of the purging to stop.” Fabulous, right?

Here’s the problem with waiting it out, however. You shouldn’t make the call to simply rest and switch to a BRAT-like diet on your own for you or your children and wait for the symptoms to pass for more than a day or two. Rest, hydrate, and bland diet, yes. However, viral gastroenteritis and bacterial infections (i.e. c.diff., salmonella and e.coli) that affect the digestive tract can initially look the same, be acquired through the same channels (contaminated food, etc.), but can’t be treated the same way.

You must treat the bacterial infections because they don’t just “run their course” without having massive impacts on you or your child’s system – and you likely need medical intervention like antibiotics to make them stop in a timely manner. Below are threshold recommendations per the Mayo Clinic, but your family physicians may have other guidelines so we urge you to contact them first:

Seek immediate medical care if in addition to the previously mentioned symptoms of malaise, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, you or your child havethe following symptoms:


  • You’re not able to keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • You’ve been vomiting for more than two days
  • You’re vomiting blood
  • You’re dehydrated — signs of dehydration include excessive thirst, dry mouth, deep yellow urine or little or no urine, and severe weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • You notice blood in your bowel movements
  • You have a fever above 104 F (40 C)

For kids, seek medical care if they:

  • Have a fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher
  • Seem lethargic or very irritable
  • Are in a lot of discomfort or pain
  • Have bloody diarrhea
  • Seem dehydrated — watch for signs of dehydration in sick infants and children by comparing how much they drink and urinate with how much is normal for them

For babies seek medical care if they:

  • Have vomiting that lasts more than several hours
  • Haven’t had a wet diaper in six hours
  • Have bloody stools or severe diarrhea
  • Have a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on the top of his or her head
  • Have a dry mouth or cry without tears
  • Are unusually sleepy, drowsy or unresponsive

As always, self-diagnosis is not the way to go when you’re dealing with an illness, particularly one that’s this high-impact – consult your physician or child’s pediatrician for an exam and testing if you have any of the above symptoms and have a concern about you or your child’s well-being. And remember, until you do, hydrate, eat, and rest as much as you can!

For illness spreading and prevention tips, see this helpful guide.


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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Science 101 + Mythbusting

Science Fair Projects: Lessons in Parental Torture

By December 9, 2015 2 Comments


I was a science fair nerd from the 3rd to 10th grade, so I can say with certainty that I put my parents through seven years of unabridged science fair hell. Parents who are working on those projects now, can you imagine? Seven years of what you’re doing right now?

Hopefully this post offers you some solace, because your cursing of the science-fair-powers-that-be is not unique. In fact, I’ve been watching science fair rage trickle across my social media feeds all week, and hearing about it for decades (from, ahem…my mom). So if you’re one of these frustrated parents, just know that you’re not alone. There are many, many others trying to guide their children to success on this required and often exhausting homework project.

I do have mixed feelings about science fairs, because as a student I loved learning about science through my participation in the fair. However, I should be clear: that only happened AFTER I was being guided by actual scientists for my projects. We’ll get to that in a moment.

What you should know is that the frustration you’re feeling as a parent (or are about to feel) is normal and officially generations old. Parents or not, most of us understand this feeling since we also remember what it was like as kids to put these projects together. I’m going to go out on a limb here and hypothesize (oh-ho-ho!) that the whole process was nearly as ridiculous then, as it is today.

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Categories: School-Aged Children, Tweens + Teens

The Best Science-Based Pregnancy + Parenting Books

By November 30, 2015 4 Comments


I’m enjoying my first few weeks of maternity leave after the birth of my daughter, and I have to say, it’s been a different experience than the last time I was pregnant. Between being more aware and educated on what to do with a newborn, and the wonderful lack of colic this time around, I have actually had time to rest and reflect on things.

One of those things (and veteran parents know this) is that when you or the mother of your child becomes pregnant, one of the first things people will do – besides terrify you with horrifying birth stories – is recommend pregnancy and baby books for you to read.  When this happened to me, I started to read some of these books, but each one seemed to have a specific parenting angle they were working.  Not to mention that there were usually a plethora of products endorsed by the authors that were hawked for sale. It started to be a red flag to me if someone passed along a book and at the front or end were instructions to go to a website in order to buy products to use to carry out the advice in the book (slings, oils, creams, CDs, cosleepers, you name it!).

Midway through my first pregnancy I’d finally found a set of books that worked for me.  They were no-nonsense, based on science, and backed by recognized health and medical organizations.  So for you, dear readers, I’m passing along my recommendations for the best baby books that will give you the facts, only the facts, and won’t lead you down the rabbit hole to huckster products and new parent guilt:

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

Caring for Sick Kids: Know the Difference Between “Natural Remedy” Facts and Fallacies

By November 18, 2015 3 Comments

It’s hard to watch our kids suffer when they’re not feeling well. c/o M. Weinberg-Anderson

Taking care of an ill child is challenging. On one hand, a parent wants more than anything in the world to relieve their child’s discomfort, but it’s also perfectly reasonable to have concerns about the potential side effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications. It is also completely understandable that many well-meaning parents seek out remedies that are marketed as being “natural” because they believe that these types of remedies will be safer than conventional treatments. Unfortunately, many of these concerns are unfounded, since most so-called natural remedies are ineffective or even unsafe, as I have explained in my previous post.

Before I address a few specific bogus remedies for sick children here, I want to tackle a few equally bogus claims that are often raised during discussions of alternative approaches to health care. Whenever I question the safety or effectiveness of a “natural” remedy, I am invariably faced with one or more of the following rebuttals: natural means safer, natural means more effective, and finally, doctors only recommend drugs and surgery. None of these generalizations are remotely true, and here’s why:

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Newborns + Infants, School-Aged Children, Science 101 + Mythbusting, Toddlers + Preschoolers, Tweens + Teens

A Lesson on Homeopathic “Medicine” and Why the Remedies Aren’t Harmless

By July 29, 2015 11 Comments

In the late 18th century, German physician Samuel Hahnemann faced a complex problem. He was dissatisfied with the conventional medicine of his day, which was reasonable considering that pre-scientific medicine was more likely to cause illness and injury than to cure it. He began a search for a better way to treat his patients and eventually had a great idea. That great idea was clear, simple, and also completely wrong. That idea was homeopathy.

What is homeopathy?

Trying to explain what homeopathy was when first invented, versus what we know it to be today through its two centuries of evolution is a bit challenging.

As originally conceived, homeopathy consisted of one basic principle: the Law of Similars. Based on personal observation, and an emotional bias that sprung from his dedication to uncovering the grand mysteries of the human condition, Hahnemann believed that the effects of a substance on a healthy patient were a clue to the condition that substance could cure. That’s right – the side effects that a substance had on a healthy person were equated to the substance’s ability to cure symptoms of the same kind in an illness.

So if ingesting cinchona bark makes you feel like you have fever, chills, and achy joints, as it did one fateful day when Hahnemann consumed some, it would therefore cure the same symptoms if you had malaria. Confused? Don’t worry, so is everyone else. It’s the exact opposite of sound logic.

Hahnemann recruited healthy friends and family members to help him “prove” what symptoms a substance might cure by having them log each and every mental or physical change they experienced after taking a variety of them. There were no controls for bias or outliers, there were no medical backgrounds for these individuals, and it was under no circumstances the equivalent of what would be considered peer-review in today’s modern scientific environment. Using this substance-trying process with people he knew, Hahnemann pieced together a compendium of substances and side effects which to this day help practitioners of homeopathy decide what remedy best fits the complaints of their patient.

Why is this pediatrician practicing newborn medicine in the year 2015 writing about it?

The answer to this question is easy, though mind-boggling. Hahnemann’s idea was eventually revealed to be impossible by our advanced scientific understanding of the universe, and considerable negative research has showed beyond a reasonable doubt that it is ineffective for any human ailment. Yet we hear about it today because it still remains one of the most popular approaches to health in countries around the world.

Consider an example with your own child, who might have a viral infection known as hand, foot, and mouth disease. According to the CDC, this infection is characterized by:

  • Fever
  • Poor appetite
  • Lack of desire to do anything/malaise
  • Sore throat
  • Mouth ulcers/blisters
  • Skin rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; it may also appear on the knees, elbows, buttocks or genital area
  • Dehydration if unable to swallow enough liquids

A homeopath might, after an hour of asking a variety of questions about your child’s symptoms, behavior, and personality, prescribe a remedy like borax. Borax, or sodium tetraborate is a naturally occurring substance produced by evaporation, and most of us know it as a gentle but common household chemical used for home cleaning, laundry washing, and as an insecticide. When ingested, it’s considered harmful, and according to the NIH it can produce symptoms including, but not limited to (you may be able to guess this):

  • Fever
  • Lack of desire to do anything/malaise
  • Ulcers/blisters
  • Skin rash
  • Less urine output (via dehydration)

Borax might be preferred by a homeopathic specialist over another potential remedy for this condition because of the child’s refusal to speak due to their sore throat and mouth blisters, and their dry mouth from dehydration. But as referenced above, it causes the very symptoms it’s purported to treat.

What is the difference between homeopathy and taking an herbal remedy?


Common homeopathic remedies, including belladonna and arsenic.

One might reasonably point out that they’ve understood homeopathy to be no different than taking an herbal supplement. And aren’t herbs the same as pharmaceutical drugs in that they can change the physiology of our bodies, and thus might ameliorate a symptom or even cure a disease? Using the Borax example, since it’s a naturally occurring alkaline compound, isn’t it supposed to promote health when used in extremely small doses, as a range of herbal/homeopathic sites purport? Could proponents of homeopathy have stumbled onto a successful remedy every now and then even if their rationale is pre-scientific nonsense?

There is a nugget of truth to this. The key difference, however, is that prescription and over-the-counter drugs consist of isolated active chemicals that have been tested and regulated for safety and efficacy in specific doses, rather than the less precise and unsupervised use of whole plants or plant parts. In the case of many so-called herbal remedies, the potential active ingredient is unknown and often unproven.*

To be clear, homeopathy at its origin was no different than herbal medicine. But it is very different in its current state, today. What would come to be known as the second law of homeopathy renders arguments connecting the two moot. And why that is, might surprise you.

Why homeopathy is not the same as medical treatment, or herbal medicine

After his invention of homeopathy, Hahnemann “discovered” what would come to be known as the Law of Infinitesimal Doses. Worried about the side effects of his remedies when taken in large amounts, he experimented with increasingly diluted doses. He noticed that dilution reduced the side effects and that the patients seemed to get better more quickly, This is a perfectly plausible outcome considering the substances were causing symptoms, and likely because a lack of those adverse symptoms allowed for more significant placebo effects to occur.

Hahnemann took this to ridiculous extremes, and many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that all of the molecules of the original substance have been removed. Often, when you are taking a homeopathic remedy from a homeopathic specialist, you are literally taking nothing at all.

It can be quite comical to apply this to the real world. The commonly prescribed 30C dilution is so diluted for example, that a suffering patient would have to ingest all of the atoms in the solar system in order to be certain that they get even one full molecule of the original substance! In response, proponents have resorted to claiming things involving “water memory” and quantum mechanics. Hahnemann, who practiced before we could figure such things out with actual science, is off the hook for the lack of sense of this practice, but modern practitioners have been forced to hide behind blatant pseudoscience to support their practices.

It’s no wonder that homeopathy isn’t effective because its two core principles violate fundamental laws of physics and chemistry! Even without the piles of negative studies (too numerous to list here), which have wasted millions of dollars of taxpayer money, the plausibility of homeopathy is as close to zero as is allowed in science. Homeopathy is, when you think about it, belief in magic.

How has homeopathy evolved over the years?

Depending on where you live, you can still schedule a visit with a practicing homeopath and go through their lengthy process of figuring out what remedy best matches your complaints. In the United States, the vast majority of homeopathy happens in the form of over-the-counter products bought at the local pharmacy. Instead of an intense session where the ideal concoction is prescribed, parents can simply self-diagnose their child and pick up a corresponding treatment by just reading a package label.

There are hundreds of these products available for stressed out parents. They focus on common, and usually self-limited, concerns such as infant colic, teething, and cold symptoms to name just a few. All are equally unhelpful beyond placebo effects but are allowed to be labeled as effective because of a legal loophole protecting homeopathic remedies from regulation since the 1930s. Some may be safe if they’re made along the diluted framework mentioned above, and some may not be, depending on if a parent takes them into their own hands and attempts to concoct a remedy themselves. Above all, they’re not harmless, however. Anything that might lead to a delay in the appropriate evaluation of an ill child can result in a bad outcome.

*Editor disclaimer: natural supplements and cures such as using peppermint for stomach upsets, or eating more vitamin-rich foods for certain types of anemia, as recommended by your M.D. or D.O. is not the same as “herbal remedies” purporting to cure ailments that require medical supervision, attention, or intervention.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting