We rarely see it, but the dirt and rocks below our feet and the water in our lakes and oceans are teaming with life and geologic activity. Take a dive underground and underwater to see what’s going on below the surface.
When I tell people that I study chemistry, the response is usually some version of “You must be bright” or “I hated that class” or, put more simply, “Why?” I’ve grown used to defending my love for chemistry, and I’ve often pointed to its straightforward nature as the source of my affection. I liked that the elements on the periodic table are arranged according to trends in their chemical properties, and that we can infer things about an element’s behavior by its position. An element’s electronegativity (the tendency to attract electrons), for example, increases as you move from left to right and from bottom to top across the table. The size of the atom, meanwhile, increases from right to left and from top to bottom. In class, I labeled different chunks of the periodic table to signify alkali metals, transition metals, lanthanides, actinides, halogens and other categories of elements with neatly-defined criteria for membership. As a straight-A student and a type-A personality, I appreciated how chemistry was so orderly, how there was always a right answer.
Mini-brains—that’s right. It sounds like something from Frankenstein, doesn’t it?
I gazed in awe as my mentor showed me these ‘mini-brains,’ aka cerebral organoids. Much like soufflés, mini-brains must grow without falling apart and require a lot of care and patience. They ‘rise’ to the challenge of helping physicians and scientists better understand the brain and develop treatments for diseases that affect us and our loved ones.
A bionic woman trains her robotic ear to recognize the sound of footsteps two blocks away. A man taps on a holographic screen to view a recording of his own memory. A scientist puts their finger to their temple to mentally command an army of robots.
You might recognize those scenes from popular science fiction, but technologies that can literally read our minds now exist in early forms, thanks to brain research. The nearly 1 in 5 people who have physical disabilities could benefit from devices like these to help them move their artificial limbs using just their thoughts. And as the field of futuristic research develops, we might see cool, new technologies that can improve anyone’s life. But low participation in medical research is preventing progress. Although 57% of Americans believe that it is important for everyone to take part in clinical trials, fewer than 16% have ever done so. More volunteers with and without disabilities are needed to fine-tune these technologies that depend on Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMI).
Last year, my 95-year-old grandfather passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. Although he lived a long life, it was hard to watch him slowly forget the people and places he loved. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s story is all too common. Almost 1 out of every 7 individuals worldwide suffers from a disease of the brain or nerves, aka a neurological disorder.
We know astonishingly little about how to prevent and treat neurological disorders. However, we may be able to find answers in a surprising source: fish. Apart from their culinary value, fish provide key insights into human development and disease. The zebrafish in particular is helping us understand how connections between neurons develop and why disorders like Alzheimer’s occur in the human brain. Through zebrafish research, we may be able to understand—and in turn find solutions to—complex neurological diseases.
As I stood, gazing intently down near my feet, I felt the water flow past my knees. Even with my waders on, I could feel its cool relief in the summer sun. As I looked into the water, I caught a glimpse of a dark, circular shape under the muddy stream bed. I reached down to grab it, and as I pulled, I realized that it was not going to budge. What I thought was a lone bike tire was actually still attached to an entire bike, buried under the muck. I called my teammate, undergraduate researcher Sam Fredrickson, over and we traced the pattern of the metal crossbars and found a place to grip. With our combined effort, we pulled the frame free from under the layers of mud that had accumulated over it.
Why is your cat so judgmental? Sure, you’ve been lounging on the couch stuffing your face and binging on Netflix for like seven hours. But still. A animal who uses their tongue to shower doesn’t get to judge us, right? Nevertheless, our cats seem to direct a thick layer of skepticism and condescension toward us, even though we prepare their meals, clean their litter boxes, and buy them toys filled with catnip.Continue reading “Does Sprinkles McFluffington have Resting Cat Face?”
Summer in Illinois can feel unbearably hot, but how hot is that exactly? At 80ºF, Illinoisans can be found enjoying the sunshine and the reprieve from our winters. At 100ºF, Chicagoans complain incessantly as cautionary heat warnings show up on billboards. But what about, 200ºF? Or 1000ºF? These are the real extreme temperatures, and they are so hot that they literally melt rocks. Believe it or not, parts of our very own planet heat up to these temperatures. Continue reading “Liquid Rocks and Where to Find Them”
Imagine drinking ten glasses of sugar water. What would you do after? Wash out your mouth? Eat something salty? You’d probably eat or drink whatever it takes to get rid of the extremely sweet taste. In the same way, when your body encounters high blood sugar, it tries to lower your glucose back to normal levels. Insulin, meaning island in Latin, is a hormone that is made in your pancreas. Its primary role is to reduce your blood sugar. Defective insulin secretion, which is the hallmark of diabetes, can have adverse consequences in the body, such as unintended weight loss, increased thirst, increased urination, vision problems, and skin problems.Continue reading “A Spoonful of Insulin Makes the Blood Sugar Go Down”
Our planet is home to a diverse array of habitats. These can range from cozy, nutrient-rich, temperature-controlled havens to deadly, gruesome battlegrounds where only the fittest survive. Each habitat, no matter how extreme, serves as home to millions of microbes. For instance, the microbes in our bodies are only happy at a balmy 98.6 °F. They live a cozy life, feasting on food scraps and dead cells in and on our bodies. However, not all microbes live in such luxury. Continue reading “Living the Good Life in Uninhabitable Surroundings: How Microbes Adapt to Extreme Environments”
Sometimes, simplicity is key to success. In our attempts to understand the evolution of animals, from small, single-celled protists to big, multi-cellular animals, we miss out on the story of a fascinating journey of a group of animals which make us wonder “What makes an animal, an animal?”. Continue reading “From Complex to Simple: the Curious Case of Myxozoans”
A mystery red gemstone is in front of you on a table. Is it a ruby? Is it a garnet? Is it a red diamond?
The DeYoung Red Diamond, held in the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection in Washington D.C., presents a perplexing case. Observers originally thought the deep red 5.03-carat gem was a garnet. The large stone was set in a pin and purchased by a Boston jeweler at a flea market. The jeweler, S. Sydney DeYoung, noticed that stone held up better over time than a garnet should. After some testing, he realized that his stone was actually a rare red diamond. He extracted it from the pin and willed it to the Smithsonian, where it is now on display.Continue reading “The Mystery of the DeYoung Diamond”
The age-old question, “how did life begin?” has baffled humans for centuries. Many scholars have theorized about how life began, but in almost every case, they have agreed on one thing: in some way, the creation of life involved water. Continue reading “Did Life Begin in the Oceans?”