FemInEM blog facilitates conversations about women in emergency medicine

Posted July 14, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health, Science Communication

Tags: ,

Photo by LIOsa

As a female PhD physicist, I was often the only woman in the room as an undergraduate and graduate student and as a research scientist. I faced sexism, unwanted attention and personal criticism — particularly early in my career. So I can relate to the gender equity issues that prompted Dara Kass, MD, an emergency medicine physician at New York University, to found FemInEM.

FemInEM is a blog that explores a variety of issues centered on the development and advancement of women in emergency medicine. Kass said their overarching goal is to make it easier for women in medicine to stay at work, despite conflicting priorities like family commitments, career objectives and personal health issues.

“I started FemInEM because I wanted to build a community amongst the women in emergency medicine,” Kass told me. “I had seen so many women solve their own problems around the expected life changes — like maternity leave, lactation and promotion — but they weren’t talking to each other. FemInEM seemed like a way to solve that problem. I didn’t want others to have to figure it out on their own, like I did.”

In addition to the blog, Kass said they use the power of social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat — to amplify the conversation. “There are about 12 to 15 thousand women practicing in emergency medicine in our country, and we probably reach about half of them on a regular basis. The coolest part is that we reach all levels of learners from all over the world,” Kass said.

Kass explained that the online medium is important because it is “extraordinarily accessible and inclusive.” She emphasized that when discussing something like gender equity and the careers of women in medicine, it can never be only about the women. The conversation has to include men and allow them to reflect on their careers as well.

“We do this in a very inclusive way, so it’s really never about ‘us verses them,’” said Kass. “We’re talking about things like parental leave or salary equity. We base our discussions on data, but more importantly we focus on needing to all work together towards real solutions. Men are cool with it.”

Given the goal of inclusion, the blog uses an open-access submission process. “We take submissions from men, from people not in emergency medicine and from people around the world who have very different issues,” Kass said. “Anyone that wants to write for us just needs to submit an interesting piece that somehow speaks to the issue around gender equity in medicine.”

Kass particularly enjoys writing and reading posts on the struggles of having “multiple personalities.” One of her favorite posts is titled, “They call me #badassdoctormom.” “The #badassdoctormom post was written by a woman physician who talked about her daughter,” she told me. “This woman saved a guy at a train accident by cutting off his leg in the field, which is extraordinary. Her friend called her a bad ass. That night, during a bedtime story, her daughter asked whether she should call her doctor or Mommy. In her mind, she thought ‘How about bad ass doctor mom?’ In reality, her 5-year-old daughter now calls her a real-life superhero — that’s a really cool story.”

However, Kass told me that this blog post and others have gotten backlash from the female spouses of male physicians. This may be because the wives feel like they are being judged if they don’t work outside the home. Kass hopes this will change. Her advice to all women: “Just be who you are. Be happy. Our goal is to make people feel centered about the life they have in front of them and the choices they’ve made.”

Today Kass is spreading her message on how to support women in medicine when she gives grand rounds to Stanford’s emergency medicine residents. She is also expanding beyond online conversations to an in-real life event called the FemInEm Idea Exchange. Kass said this conference, being held in October in NYC, will make in-person conference networking more accessible to help develop women’s careers quickly and provide motivation.

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

Detecting single cancer cells with light: A podcast

Posted July 13, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health

Tags: , ,

Photo by Burak Kebapci

When cancer is spotted early, it’s much easier to thwart. So researchers, including Stanford’s Jennifer Dionne, PhD, are working to detect cancer more effectively. Dionne, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, is developing a nanomaterial-based probe that may be able to detect a single cancer cell.

She described her work in a recent episode of the Future of Everything radio show, hosted by Russ Altman, MD, PhD, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, of genetics, of medicine and of biomedical data science.

“What our lab is trying to do is create light-emitting nanoparticles that change their color when there is an applied force on the nanoparticles. So that way we can make mechanical forces visually perceptible,” she explained to Altman. These nanoparticle already change color in response to the tiny forces generated by cells and groups of cells, she said, and cancer cells are known to exert more force on their environment than healthy cells.

Dionne explained: “Generally a cancer cell wants to take up a lot of nutrients and it’s basically growing and dividing more quickly than a healthy cell. You can imagine given the speed of replication that it’s going to exert a higher force on its environment than a healthy cell. So our nanoparticles offer the ability to detect even a single cancer cell based on the forces that that cancer cell is exerting on its environment.”

That could help pathologists spot abnormal cells in a biopsy sample, she said. “This could be a really cool in vitro probe of whether or not in a biopsy [sample] you have even one cancer cell, which you can tell just by looking at the color the nanoparticles are emitting,” she told Altman.

Although their primary focus was on the development of nanomaterials with energy and biomedical applications, the conversation did take a few interesting twists. I particularly enjoyed their discussion on the design challenges behind making a Harry Potter invisibility cloak. Hint: Like water waves flowing around a rock, you need to create a cloak that allows light waves to flow smoothly around the hidden object so they emerge on the other side as if they hadn’t passed through the object — it’s difficult, but they’re working on it.

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

Stanford headache specialist demystifies migraine auras

Posted July 12, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health

Tags: ,

I have close friends who get debilitating migraines so I knew a bit about auras, which are sensory disturbances that often precede migraine headaches. But experiencing one myself was still quite frightening.

It snuck up on me: I was happily reading a novel in bed when a spot on the page became blurry, even when I closed one eye. It quickly expanded in size, turning into a flickering, zig-zag pattern. After checking online and guessing that I probably had a migraine aura, I tried to go to sleep — and that’s when it really got weird. Suddenly I saw the geometric pattern in color moving across my field of vision, even when I had my eyes closed.

Luckily, my aura lasted less than 30 minutes, so I was eventually able to go to sleep. I was also very happy to avoid the unbearable headache pain common in migraines. But my experience inspired me to learn more about auras.

According to Stanford neurologist Nada Hindiyeh, MD, about 30 percent of people that suffer from migraines get an aura before their headache pain. However, migraine auras can also occur without a headache. This used to be called an ocular migraine, but it is now classified by the International Headache Society as a “typical aura without headache,” she said.

“Aura is a term used to describe focal neurological disturbances that precede a migraine headache and typically develop over a 5 to 60 minute period and last less than an hour. The most common neurological symptoms include visual changes,” said Hindiyeh, who works at the Stanford Headache Clinic. “During a visual aura, people may describe a blind spot in part of their field of vision, sparkles or stars, colored spots, zig-zag lines, flashes of light or tunnel vision.”

A migraine aura is thought to be initiated by a phenomena in the brain known as cortical spreading depression — a self-propagating wave of electrical silence in which cortical neurons stop firing and go quiet. This starts a chain of reactions in the brain that causes the various symptoms of a migraine attack, Hindiyeh explained.

A long list of factors can trigger migraines, she said, including stress, changes in sleep patterns, hormonal changes in women, skipping meals, and eating certain foods and beverages such as high processed foods and excessive caffeine.

“Migraine symptoms can change throughout a person’s lifetime. Attacks of migraine aura without a headache are more common as migraine sufferers get older,” Hindiyeh said. “However, if you are older than the age of 40 and develop a migraine with aura for the first time, you should be evaluated by a neurologist. If needed, you may then be referred to a headache specialist.”

And it turns out I’m not the only one who finds auras frightening. “Having an aura can be quite a scary experience,” Hindiyeh said. “Talk to your doctor about what steps to take when you do have one, such as pulling over if you’re driving, taking deep breathes, lying in a dark room or taking specific medication. That way you have an action plan in place and are prepared when an aura comes on.”

Hindiyeh said she has focused her research and practice on migraines because she believes it to be an underdiagnosed and undertreated disease. “Migraine affects 36 million people nationwide and is the seventh leading cause of disability worldwide. These statistics are staggering. I felt that this was a field in neurology where I could hopefully provide care for many patients, and raise awareness about this disabling disease.”

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

Stanford medical student juggles his studies, graphic art and numerous extracurriculars

Posted July 11, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Science Education

Tags: ,

Collage by Ryan Brewster

I’m a freelance science writer adept at multi-tasking. But I feel like I’ve been sitting on both hands when I read the jam-packed resume of Stanford medical student Ryan Brewster.

For nearly two decades Brewster competed as a nationally ranked mogul skier, but knee Injuries led to his retirement in 2011 and a new career in medicine. While studying molecular biology and biochemistry at Middlebury College, he kept himself busy as an EMT, an advocate of sustainable agriculture in Rwanda, a Spanish-English medical interpreter at a community health center, a senior admissions fellow and the co-founder and graphic designer of Ron’s Closet Apparel Company — and that’s just a few highlights. After working as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School, he headed to Stanford for medical school last fall.

Intrigued, I spoke with Brewster about what he’s doing now. I admit that I was hoping to learn his multitasking secrets, but I was also really interested in his graphic art.”

How did you get started as a graphic artist?

“For as long as I can remember, visual art has been an important tool for self-expression. An engineer, architect and carpenter, my father encouraged me from a young age to communicate ideas in creative ways. I spent most of my childhood drawing before teaching myself computer software, such as Photoshop, in high school. It soon became clear that this interest could be applied to all my activities — from biomedical research to community service.

My skills in graphic design and illustration have been honed experientially rather than through any formal training. Starting a clothing brand, creating visual aids for community health workers in Rwanda and maintaining a healthy habit of doodling, among so many other opportunities, has allowed me to develop technically and stylistically. My style has largely been informed by Owen Davies, Chip Kidd, Jorgen Grotdal, Frank Netter and Mary Kate McDevitt. Furthermore, I have benefitted tremendously at Stanford from the support of Samuel Rodriguez, MD; Audrey Shafer, MD; Jacqueline Genovese; and artist Lauren Toomer, who have provided many opportunities to further my training in the arts.”

What have you been working on recently?

“I was the student coordinator for this year’s Medicine and the Muse symposium. I designed the marketing and branding materials, and exhibited a collection of anatomy-inspired illustrations (shown above).

Another first year MD candidate, Jacob Blythe, and I were fortunate to be selected as recipients of the Stanford MashUp Grant. It awarded us $600 to produce an art installment. We created a 3-D collage of the humerus and associated vasculature encased in glass. The piece is based on the novel Blood of the Lamb, which concerns a young girl who passes away from leukemia. Jacob and I wanted to capture this narrative of illness using related ‘artifacts,’ including blood smears, medical charts and actual pages from the book.

Also, earlier this year, James Lock, MD, approached me on behalf of a Stanford Medicine-wide diversity committee. They wanted to make a pin to be worn by physicians as a mark of LGBTQ alliance. The design features a DNA molecule with the traditional pride colors. This was a particularly rewarding project and we hope to have the pins fabricated and distributed by the end of the summer.”

And you sing, too?

“Another important artistic passion has been acoustic guitar and songwriting. The same imperatives that motivate me as a graphic designer similarly motivate me as a musician. Composing and performing a song challenges you to not only bear your emotions and feelings, but also to communicate them in a way that is relatable to your audience. Knowing that so many students held identities beyond that of future physician, Stanford medical students Shay Aluko, Andrea Garofalo and I founded the Stanford Medicine Open Mic to create a space for musicians, dancers, poets and other artists to showcase their talents.”

Are there other interests you’d like to mention?

“In the fall quarter, I completed the course Biodesign for Mobile Health, which exposes students to the emerging field of mobile technology. My project team — comprising two medical students, an undergraduate product designer and a bioengineering PhD student — developed a platform targeting users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Specifically, our NuLeaf team aims to provide individualized nutritional recommendations based on one’s health condition, budget, location and cultural preference. As Biodesign NEXT fellows, we have developed a functional prototype and have established strong partnerships with the Second Harvest Food Bank, physicians and other stakeholders. We hope to pilot the product with a local user population by the end of the summer.

Athletics also remain central to my wellness and extracurricular activities. Since retiring as a skier and college baseball player, I took up distance running and have struggled through several half- and full-length marathons. I am also an avid backpacker and camper. In fact, a major reason for choosing Stanford was the allure of the many outdoor playgrounds found in the state.”

How do you balance your different interests?

“Each of my activities serves as a reprieve from the other. Art balanced by science. The outdoors and fitness balanced by studying (unfortunately the latter wins out more often than not). Self-care balanced by community. That said, the past months have been a tremendous exercise in time management. ‘Triaging’ my commitments has not been easy, but it has allowed me to continue the things I value most.”

What are your career plans as an artist and physician?

“On one hand, I hope my career will marry the arts and medicine in direct ways, through medical illustration and data visualization. Perhaps of greater importance is the ethic of the artist carried by the physician. Doctors must be storytellers. They must be able to enter the patient’s world, listening, absorbing and acting on his/her narrative to inform treatment. The humanistic orientation in medicine requires the strengths of an artist — the observational skills to examine details beyond how they superficially appear, the perspective to understand information in isolation and in its broader context, and the empathy to acknowledge the human life that stands before them. It is in this framework where I see the noblest goals in medicine.”

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

Taking steps to learn more about obesity with smartphones

Posted July 10, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health

Tags: , ,

Many of my friends use smartphones to track their steps as they walk about town to grocery shop, grab lunch or just take a break from the computer. Their daily goal is typically 10,000 steps. Now researchers are using this type of data to study public health.

Stanford researchers used step data captured by smart phones to analyze the activity levels of over 700,000 men and women from 111 countries during a 3-month period. Although the data was anonymized, it included key health demographics such as age, gender, height and weight so the research team could calculate each person’s body mass index.

The investigator’s goal was to figure out why obesity is a bigger health problem in some countries than others. As outlined in a paper in Nature, they found that people walked a similar amount each day in countries with little obesity, whereas there was a big activity gap in countries with high levels of obesity — and they dubbed this phenomenon the “activity inequality.”

“If you think about some people in a country as ‘activity rich’ and others as ‘activity poor,’ the size of the gap between them is a strong indicator of obesity levels in that society,” said Scott Delp, PhD, a Stanford professor of bioengineering and of mechanical engineering, in a Stanford news release.

Delp and his colleagues also found a gap in activity levels between genders — men walked more than women — that varied from country to country. Overall, their research identified strong correlations between activity inequality, the gender-activity gap and obesity levels.

How did the United States rank? It was ranked near the bottom for activity inequality due to a large gap between the activity rich and activity poor. It also has a large gender-activity gap and high levels of obesity.

The researchers hope their results will inspire designers to make cities more walkable and pedestrian-friendly. “In cities that are more walkable everyone tends to take more daily steps, whether male or female, young or old, healthy weight or obese,” explained Jennifer Hicks, director of data science for Stanford’s Mobilize Center.

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

Stanford experts discuss the future of bioengineering

Posted July 7, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health

Tags: ,

Bioengineering — described by Stanford professor and radio host Russ Altman, MD, PhD, as the manipulation of biological systems to solve problems in medicine, the environment and energy — was the focus of a recent episode of the Sirius radio show The Future of Everything. On hand was Stanford’s Drew Endy, PhD, an associate professor of bioengineering, who spoke with Altman about how to unlock bioengineering’s full potential.

Endy told Altman that bioengineering is already incredibly important to the economy, but challenges to further growth still remain. “Regardless of what type of engineer you are and what kinds of problems you’re trying to find solutions to, you have to navigate what I call the core design-build-test engineering cycle,” said Endy. “So how do we get better at navigating this cycle for living systems?”

He suggested that one answer is synthetic biology. “It became apparent that the core of the engineering cycle for living matter could be massively and systematically upgraded. We could separate design from construction by getting better at printing DNA from scratch, called DNA synthesis,” he told Altman. By making the process more efficient, he said, scientists should be able to more quickly and cheaply create new genes or even organisms with specialized functions.

Endy went on to explain how DNA synthesis works: “This is a technology that lets you go from information to physical DNA made from scratch. So you can think of it like a keyboard with just 4 keys: ATCG. You play the keys as you wish, and the machine makes from raw ingredients the DNA depending on how you press the keys.”

DNA synthesis is a critical tool for many applications, such as vaccine development, gene therapy and molecular engineering. Although it has existed for years, it is now more affordable. “In 2003, it cost me four dollars a letter to press each key. This year, it’s about four cents,” he said. This dramatic reduction in cost makes new research more accessible and scientists are getting systematically better at engineering biology, he told Altman.

Endy envisions a future where we’ve made the living world fully engineerable. However, he said this raises many questions on safety, biosecurity and ethics that we need to address.

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

Pain catastrophizing linked to opioid use, particularly for women, Stanford study shows

Posted June 15, 2017 by Jennifer Huber
Categories: Health

Tags: ,

Photo by ZeeNBee

Our nation is struggling with an unprecedented opioid epidemic, which is pushing researchers to better understand how people experience pain and how this is impacts pain treatments.

A key factor may be something called pain catastrophizing — heightened negative thoughts and emotions in response to actual or anticipated pain. New research recently published in Anesthesiology shows that pain catastrophizing is a risk factor for prescription opioid misuse, and the role it plays is different for men and women. I connected with Beth Darnall, PhD, a Stanford clinical associate professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, to learn more about her new study, whose first author is Yasamin Sharifzadeh-Moghaddam, a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

What is pain catastrophizing?

“Pain catastrophizing is the rumination and magnification of pain, and feelings of helplessness about it. People who catastrophize have a hard time thinking of anything but their pain. It’s common for people with chronic pain to catastrophize to some degree, but when it gets into the clinical ranges it indicates a need for treatment. Treatment involves learning targeted ways to redirect one’s attention, calm the nervous system in the face of pain and stress and cultivate awareness about what one can do to feel better. I think virtually everyone with chronic pain can benefit from learning skills that empower them to have better control over their pain and distress — even those who are not high catastrophizers.”

What inspired you to research pain?

“First, I was intensely curious about pain and why it varies between individuals; a lot of the “why” ends up involving psychological factors. I was fascinated with the connection between stress and pain and wanted to learn more about how they relate. … I also wanted to help people on a broader scale. I can only see a few individual patients in the clinic, but if I develop a treatment that others can use, the ripple effect potential is tremendous.”

How did you investigate the impact of pain catastrophizing on opioid use?

“Pain catastrophizing is associated with greater use of opioids after surgery and with opioid misuse. Across multiple studies, catastrophizing associates strongly with pain intensity, so we wanted to better understand how it might relate to pain medication.

In our study, we looked at patients receiving a new evaluation at the Stanford Pain Management Center. We examined the relationships between pain intensity, pain catastrophizing and existing opioid prescription. We used the Collaborative Health Outcomes Information Registry, a free open source health outcomes platform, to collect data on almost 1800 patients. We aimed to reveal whether sex differences existed for opioid prescription and our other variables of interest, using modeling to explore the associations. We found that almost 60 percent of patients referred to our center are taking prescription opioids, and people with greater pain were more likely to be taking opioids.

We also found that sex matters in the equation. For women, the relationship between pain catastrophizing and opioids occurred at much lower levels of pain catastrophizing than for men. Our data suggest that catastrophizing may be more impactful for women, and that these associations begin to appear at what we previously called ‘subthreshold’ levels. More research is needed to replicate our findings and to understand why we see these sex differences in catastrophizing and opioid prescription. I’m speculating, but women may be better communicators of pain-related distress — verbally and nonverbally — and this may translate into a prescription at the end of a medical visit.”

How can your results improve future clinical practice?

“If replicated, our findings signal that we should be treating our patients before frank problems arise. If we address psychosocial distress early on, we may prevent worsening of symptoms into clinical problems and the need for various treatments. We also need more research to develop a deeper understanding of the relationships between prescription opioids and psychological factors. … Our findings suggest that we need to further examine the prescribing doctor-patient interaction.”

What’s the next step?

“We are currently examining whether presurgical treatment for catastrophizing can reduce post-operative opioid use. Right now we are studying this in women only, but our planned studies include men and women so we can test sex differences in treatment response.”

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


%d bloggers like this: