Archive for the ‘Other’ category

“The only medical man on the Stanford campus”: A trip back in time with Ray Lyman Wilbur, MD

February 19, 2016
Photo by Mohenjo Daro (Ray Lyman Wilbur family photo)

Photo by Mohenjo Daro (Ray Lyman Wilbur family photo)

When United States President Warren Harding fell gravely ill while visiting San Francisco back in 1923, Stanford’s Ray Lyman Wilbur, MD, was called from his Sierra vacation to Harding’s death bed at the Palace Hotel. He was summoned by the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, a lifelong friend from Wilbur’s days as a physiology undergraduate at Stanford.

A recent Stanford Magazine article tells the tale and sheds light on the life of the university’s former president who helped cement the School of Medicine’s role within the university.

As detailed in the article, Wilbur received his BA and MA degrees at Stanford before earning his MD at Cooper Medical College in San Francisco in 1899. Wilbur then returned to Stanford as an assistant professor of physiology and began a busy medical practice as the only nearby physician. Wilbur recalled treating a professor’s son who was suffering from severe abdominal pains:

As there was no local hospital available, I had to rush the boy up to the Lane Hospital in San Francisco by train, there being no ambulances. The incident led to the discovery that I was the only medical man on the Stanford campus.

Wilbur could often be seen bicycling or riding his horse named Bob all over campus, as he busily made his patient rounds — tackling everything from mishaps caused by excessive drinking to outbreaks of infectious diseases like smallpox and typhoid. But when his alma mater was deeded to Stanford as a gift in 1908 — an acquisition that was controversial in part due to the university’s limited funds — he put aside his thriving medical practice to fight for the school’s survival.

As executive head and then dean of the struggling School of Medicine, he made the novel move of obtaining outside funding to expand the school and its affiliated hospitals and clinics. The article describes his success:

By the eve of World War I, the institute had more applicants than it could accept and had implemented several novel programs, including an emergency dental clinic and a rotation for interns at the Napa State Hospital. (President Herbert) Hoover, by then a university trustee, was so impressed that he took time out of his European wartime relief work to lobby for Wilbur’s leadership of the whole university.

Wilbur, who later served as both president and chancellor of the university, devoted most of his life to Stanford campus and the health of its students. His legacy lives on – particularly in the form of Stanford’s School of Medicine, which may not exist today without his staunch support.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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Toothed Whales Lack Proteins that Fight Viral Infections

July 1, 2015
Dolphins have survived millions of years without key viral proteins (Pete Markham, Flickr)

Dolphins have survived millions of years without key viral proteins (Pete Markham, Flickr).

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have determined that toothed whales lack functional Mx genes — a surprising discovery, since all 56 other sequenced mammals in the study possess these genes to fight off viruses like HIV, measles and flu.

Modern toothed whales, including dolphins, orcas and sperm whales, have inherited defunct copies of the Mx1 and Mx2 genes, profoundly altering their immune systems. The basic role of these Mx genes is to make proteins that fight viral infections.

Although the toothed whales have survived millions of years with this genetic mutation, they are currently plagued by viral infections, such as the recent mass stranding of bottlenose dolphins that was attributed to cetacean morbillivirus. Researchers hope that their new discovery of this mysterious genetic anomaly will help preserve these cetaceans.

Read more about this intriguing research at Stanford Medicine.

An International Endeavor To Solve the Mystery of Neutrino Oscillations

March 29, 2015

Below is a quick post for my former/current high energy physics friends. You can also check out my article for a general audience, which was just published in Symmetry magazine. 

The neutrino physics community has wanted to build an accelerator-based, long-baseline neutrino facility for years. But recent efforts appear to be making this exciting experimental program a reality with the formation of the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) — a truly international collaboration of physicists from 23 countries and 150 institutions.

This worldwide expertise and resources will be needed to make the experiment a reality. DUNE is so challenging that a single nation or continent is unable to do the experiment by itself.

The ambitious experiment will drive a high-intensity, megawatt class neutrino beam from Fermilab through 1300 km of earth to the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota, where it will be detected by a massive liquid argon time-projection-chamber located deep underground. The plan is to first deploy a 10-kiloton underground detector by 2021, which will later be upgraded to 40-kiloton. A high-resolution detector will also be placed just downstream from the beamline to measure the composition of the neutrino beam as it leaves the Fermilab site.

The principal goal of the experiment is to carry out a comprehensive investigation of neutrino oscillations. Scientists hope to observe CP violation – the asymmetry between matter and antimatter – among neutrinos and compare it to the CP violation seen in quarks and antiquarks. They also aim to determine the ordering of the neutrino masses and to test the three-neutrino paradigm. In addition, extensive neutrino astrophysics and nucleon decay programs are planned using the near and far detectors.

The DUNE collaboration hopes to build this experiment on an aggressive schedule, so you will undoubtedly be hearing more about DUNE soon…

Earworms: Those Intrusive Songs Stuck in Your Head

June 24, 2013
manic looking man listening to music on headphones

Photograph courtesy of John Hayes Photography via a Creative Commons license.

If you could hear inside my sister’s head, it would often sound like “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, Fa la la la la, la la la la.” For years, she has had this “earworm” – a song that plays in her head without control. Her mind acts like a broken record player that repeatedly plays the same song again and again, especially during quiet times when she is alone.

Having a song stuck in your head is a common experience. Research has shown that 92% of people experience earworms at least once a week. So it isn’t surprising that many myths exist about them. One common belief is that annoying music is more likely to become stuck.  Another is that certain music characteristics, such as simplicity and repetitiveness, cause songs to become intrusive. It is also thought that having earworms is more likely for certain types of people, including musicians and women. Finally, some people believe that interrupting a song creates a sense of incompleteness that leads the song to remain in the consciousness, making it more likely to become an earworm.

Researchers from the psychology department at Western Washington University have investigated these common beliefs about earworms, as reported in a journal article recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology. They conducted five studies on earworms: an online survey of 299 participants, an experimental diary study of 16 participants, and three lab experiments with 89, 123 or 139 participants.

In the online survey, participants answered questions about their most recent earworm, general music experience and basic demographics. The other research studies used methods to induce earworms. During the lab experiments, participants evaluated three songs, completed a puzzle (maze, Sudoku or anagram), and then reported the extent to which they heard the three songs playing in their heads while completing the puzzle. They completed either an easy or difficult puzzle.

Although annoying songs like advertising jingles can become stuck in someone’s head, this appears to be relatively rare. Researchers found that people generally know and like the songs that become intrusive.

They also found that the intrusive songs are virtually unique to each individual, which suggests that lists of the most potent earworms are misleading. Earworms are mainly formed from recent and repeated exposure to a song, so they’re influenced by listening tastes. This is supported by a previous study that identified music exposure as the primary trigger for earworms, followed by memory triggers.

Researchers found no gender difference in how earworms were experienced. However, musicians did report having earworms more frequently than non-musicians, as did people who listen to music almost constantly.

The researchers also interrupted some of the songs that they played, expecting the interrupted songs to trigger earworms more frequently than the songs played to completion. However, no difference was observed due to song interruption.

Finally, they analyzed how participants responded to completing the different puzzle tasks. Researchers found that the best way to stop an earworm is to perform a verbal task: solve an anagram, have an engaging conversation or read an interesting book. But you don’t want the task to be too easy or too challenging, or your mind will wander and the earworm may return. I guess this means that I should give my sister some engrossing novels and a book of anagrams for her birthday?

For more information about earworms, check out my KQED Science blog.

Science Behind Vampire Folklore

October 30, 2012

Count Dracula as played by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film Dracula, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

Legends of blood sucking creatures have existed for millennia. Why have people around the world always been so fascinated by vampires? Did vampire tales begin as a way to explain frightening phenomena that people actually witnessed? Although there is no scientific evidence for vampires, there is some scientific basis for vampire folklore.

The vampire has evolved over time in countless directions, moving in popular culture from a pure evil being to a conscience-bound but sexy seducer. The vampires of “Twilight” and “Vampire Diaries” act more human than Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” However, in general vampires are predatory creatures in human form that survive by drinking the blood of the living through protruding fangs. They are potentially immortal but they can be killed by a stake through the heart, beheading and direct sunlight.

Many vampire behaviors can be explained by medical conditions, such as the rare blood disease porphyria. People with porphyria have an enzyme deficiency that interferes with the production of an important part of red blood cells, called heme. The skin of a porphyria sufferer burns, blisters and scars when exposed to sunlight, so they can only go out at night. This disease can also cause their mouth and urine to turn red, leading to the misbelief that they drink blood. And porphyria is hereditary, so there may have been concentrations of sufferers in certain areas throughout history.

Of course science can’t fully explain vampire myths. Some supernatural magic is required to do that, which is generally more entertaining. So dress up as a vampire on Halloween and just enjoy scaring everyone.

For more information about the science behind vampire folklore, check out my KQED Quest blog.

Richard Feynman Quote

September 27, 2010

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

— Richard Feynman

Calvin Quote

August 12, 2010

“That’s the whole problem with science. You’ve got a bunch of empiricists trying to describe things of unimaginable wonder.”

— Calvin (and Hobbes)


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