Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Drop.io (The Next Generation)

Y'all know how much I've been raving about the drop.io "instant web locker" and its potential uses for communicating with our students . . .

Well, they just keep rolling out new improvements! So a great tool just keeps getting better!

I recently heard about the rollout of the "next generation" or redesign of drop.io . . . and "dropped" you a phone message moments later at this blog's "sample drop" at
[NOTE: those of you who have already "subscribed" to or regularly visit the drop heard about this redesign yesterday . . . when I dropped a voicemail there.]

drop.io, as they say, is the simplest way to privately share any sort of media or data online, period.

In literally a matter of 2 clicks with no registration drop.io allows you to take anything ranging from photos and video to documents, voice notes, web links, email etc. add them all to a private space online, and then share them with exactly whom you want, how you want, for as long as you want.

Files you share on drop.io are not searchable, and they are not networked. In a sense, each 'drop' you make is a very simple private 'website' which you can password protect and set to expire, designed to help you take control of how you share.

This is an easy way to make a course blog!

With this release drop.io is making the interface significantly easier to interact with, and adding both customization options, and much richer collaboration options (with things like in-line commenting).

Want to check it out? There are details at http://drop.io/blog

There is a great video explanation you can spin through http://drop.io/howto

and there's a drop with some media about the redesign http://drop.io/redesign2008

Please let me know if YOU are using drop.io, and how you are using it!

{a few statements in this message were adapted from a drop.io email}


You've probably heard of brain pigments . . .

No, I don't mean "figments" . . . that's a whole other topic, eh?

I'm talking about neuromelanins, which are melanins that accumulate in brain cells as we age. These pigment molecules build up inside little organelles within neurons and seem to protect cells against natural processes of degeneration and aging.

Who knows? Maybe if we learn more about how this works, we'll be able to promote and enhance this natural protective process! Thus possibly treating neurodegenerative diseases or reducing the effects of aging.

New melanic pigments in the human brain that accumulate in aging and block environmental toxic metals
Luigi Zecca et al.
Published online before print November 6, 2008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0808768105
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)November 11,2008 vol. 105 no. 45 p.17567-17572
[This is the original article]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

At the Clicker Conference!

Remember that Clicker Conference I recommended?

I didn't see any of you there! What's with that?!

Oh well, I guess you knew that anything wonderful I learned would eventually get back to you, right? Of course . . .

I can't give it all to you in one dose, so here's the first little bit . . .

The folks at i>clicker hosted a reception the night before the conference. Kevin's Rule #1 of professional conferences is "always go to the cocktail parties." Even if you don't drink cocktails (or anything at all), there's usually some goodies to be had there. I don't mean stuff to eat. Well, OK, I do mean that. But also . . . it's a great opportunity to meet people and learn things and expand your professional network.

Of course, Kevin's Rule #1 worked like a charm this time, too.

One of the many wonderful folks I met was Derek Bruff, who has written a book about the best practices in using clickers in your classroom. The book is about to come out and, after hearing Derrek's stories about all he learned when interviewing all kinds of master teachers who use clickers, I can't wait to read it!

You can learn more about Derrek and his book at his blog Teaching with Classroom Response Systems. While you're there you can learn some things about the conference and about teaching with clickers.

Coming soon . . . specific lessons I learned at the conference . . . and why you really should consider using clickers in your classroom!

Don't forget about my online clicker seminar!

Skin ecology

You'll likely be wanting to wash your hands after reading this.

I continue to be fascinated with the fact that we do not walk through this world alone . . . we have a host of bacteria and other tiny organisms living in us and on us. The ecological balance of these diminutive communities is crucial to our good health. In my opinion, the body's management of microbial flora is an important part of our defensive strategy against infection.

The general public is slowly becoming aware of the importance of an ecologically balanced flora in and on the body. Witness the ongoing campaigns marketing the various health benefits of the bacterial colonies in yogurt.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focuses on the ecology of human skin. Researchers surveyed the DNA of bacteria present on the hands of 51 male and female subjects and come up with some interesting results . . .

Here are a few interesting data discovered by the researchers:
  • Females have a higher diversity of bacteria on their hands than males . . . perhaps due to a slightly higher skin pH in women, or perhaps the mix of sebum, sweat, and lotions, or maybe even hormonal differences . . . they couldn't really say for sure at this point
  • Females have more bacteria living under the surface film of skin than males
  • 4, 742 different species of bacteria were found in the whole group of subjects
  • The species each of has on our hands is a rather unique mix--only 5 (out of 4,742) species were found on every hand in the group
  • Most of the 150 or so different species of bacteria found on skin of an individual hand are beneficial or harmless . . . only a small minority are pathogenic
  • The diversity of bacteria differs between a person's right hand and left hand
  • Hand washing (as practiced in this group) did not remove many of the bacteria (or the populations recovered rapidly after washing)
Want to know more?

The influence of sex, handedness, and washing on the diversity of hand surface bacteria
Noah Fierer, Micah Hamady, Christian L. Lauber, and Rob Knight
published 12 November 2008, 10.1073/pnas.0807920105

[This is the original article]

Hands down, women lead in diversity of bacteria
Randolph E. Schmid
The Seattle Times (online). November 4, 2008.
[Summarizes some of the results of the study.]

The Bacterial Flora of Humans
Kenneth Todar
Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Accesseed 5 November 2008.

Scientists work at recruiting "good bugs"

Robert S. Boyd
The Seattle Times (online). November 5, 2008.
[Summarizes current research with engineered "probiotic" beneficial bacteria to treat or prevent disease; cool image of MRSA bacteria]

Click this thumbnail for a FREE image of the skin structure that you can use in your course!

More than one type of itch

I've been itching to tell you about this . . .

Science News has a great feature article (with a nice diagram) on the different senses of itch, a rapidly expanding area of physiology these days.

An added bonus is a set of links to relevant journal and magazine articles.

By Laura Sanders
Science News November 22nd, 2008; Vol.174 #11(p. 16)
[Feature article available online]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is the scientific method working?

Many of you know that the big push in K-12 science education for a long time has been to stress "the scientific method" at the expense of the actual discoveries that have been made and that inform the development of new hypotheses. And of course we know that a lot of these ideas "trickle up" to college-level education as well.

OK, I guess my bias is showing here. I think this movement is a natural outgrowth of the reaction to earlier practices of focusing on content only at the expense of a good understanding of how science works. In addressing that earlier problem, I think we've gone a little overboard in at least two ways:

1. I think we have swung the pendulum to the opposite imbalance between "how science is done" and "what science has discovered." I think we are now seeing some movement back to the center (hopefully for a more stable balance).

2. In trying to find a way to teach "how science is done" we've distilled it to a rigid formulaic summary that does not reflect the reality of "how science is really done." Again, I think we are seeing some movement to expand beyond a simple definition of "the scientific method" toward more discussion of the variety of methods, some of them sloppy yet productive, used in modern science.

In the first chapter of our textbook Anatomy and Physiology we've addressed "the scientific method" in a way that provides the standard formula for how science is done while also sufficiently explaining that it's flexible and dynamic . . . and that methods and approaches evolve. Then throughout the book, we often bring up examples of how scientists, using the process of science, have made some core discoveries.

[NOTE: See my previous article on Nobel Prize winners to see how I use this award to illustrate the process of science.]

Occasionally, reviewers chide us for including this "unnecessary" information. I guess they are looking for a "just the answers, ma'am" when we are more interested in telling a story. Often, the story includes how we know what we know. And why what we know now is different from what we thought we knew a few years ago. It's our attempt to achieve a balance between "what we know" and "how we know it."

We also sometimes get a note from a reviewer or copyeditor who wants to "tighten up" the language in our text by changing vague statements like "some scientists believe that . . . " to "scientists believe that . . . " --or simply dropping the reference to scientists and stating something as a simple fact. But usually those passages are intentionally vague, to imply a significant level of uncertainty or disagreement about the fact that is stated. We believe that this helps inform students regarding how science really works. This approach would not work for every concept . . . it would muddy up the clarity of the narrative . . . but a few indications here and there of the dynamic, slippery nature of human science is useful.

Then throughout my course, I bring in more recent stories of discoveries . . . or even failures . . . in science so that students deepen their understanding of where all the concepts crammed into their A&P course comes from. And by doing so, I hope they won't be too surprised when breakthroughs are "taken back" or a new muscle is discovered (or maybe not) after all these years of human dissections.

[NOTE: One of the main reasons I produce The A&P Professor blog, newsletter, and website is to share what I'm learning as I scan the recent literature for these stories.]

One of the issues that really dogs scientists . . . and by extension students of science, too . . . is how scientific information is disseminated. In journals, of course. But there are SO MANY stories of good science that could really spark a new line of discoveries being blocked from publication by factors (power struggles, politics, etc.) that have nothing to do with the quality of the research.

A new essay in the online journal PLoS Medicine talks about a disturbing pattern in scientific publication that may adversely affect what we can learn from science . . . and how the scientific story will continue to unfold . . . .

Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science.
Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O
(2008) PLoS Med 5(10): e201 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050201

This article explains in a straitforward way how "the current system of publication
in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic."

If you want to deepen your own understanding of the modern process of science . . . so that you can pass it along to your students . . . I highly recommend this article.

Where does fat come from?

The short answer to the question is . . . .

French fries!

But the more technical answer regarding the developmental origin of adipose tissue is one that has eluded scientists for some time now. Exactly where and how adipocytes arise is the subject of a recent article in the journal Science.

Researchers looking at mice found that adipocytes in white adipose tissue (WAT or white fat) arise from progenitor cells located within the walls of blood vessels. Apparently, these progenitor cells commit to producing fat cells just before and/or just after birth. However, this happens only in vessels of tissues that will become fatty--not in the vessels of other tissues.

Exactly how this all plays out is yet to be worked out--but now we have something to work out!

Check out these resources:

White Fat Progenitor Cells Reside in the Adipose Vasculature
Wei Tang, et al. Science 322 (5901), 583. (24 October 2008) [DOI: 10.1126/science.1156232]
[Original article explaining that dipocytes (fat cells) originate from precursor cells that reside within the walls of the blood vessels that feed fat tissue.]

Can We Nip Obesity in Its Vascular Bud?
C. Ronald Kahn
Science 322 (5901), 542. (24 October 2008)[DOI: 10.1126/science.1165667]
[Journal editor's summary and perspective on the original article. The full summary has a great image showing the concept.]

Can we extend our lifespan?

One of the things that students often hope to get from A&P class is some information on how they can live healthier and live longer.

Well . . . except that smokers and heavy drinkers often do not want to hear about the hazards of their addictions and most of us don't want to hear about how our favorite food could be bad for us if not consumed in moderation.

A brief article in the journal PLoS Medicine showed that four pretty easy lifestyle choices combine to extend a person by about 14 years!

And find out (one) answer to the question "does vitamin C really help?"

Check out this brief article for a bit of info that could spark a great classroom discussion!

Combined Impact of Health Behaviours and Mortality in Men and Women: The EPIC-Norfolk Prospective Population Study
Khaw KT, Wareham N, Bingham S, Welch A, Luben R, et al.
PLoS Medicine Vol. 5, No. 1, e12 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050012

And now for something completely different . . . look what vitamin C did to animate this orange!

[The video may not appear in your news feed or emailed newsletter. Go to The A&P Professor blog to access the video viewer. Go to The A&P Professor website to learn how to embed the video in your PowerPoint or webpage . . . or simply link to it from your own email or webpage.]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Salt of the earth

If you're worth your salt as a teacher, you're often struggling to come up with informed answers to students questions.

In the typical A&P course, students get the message that sodium and chloride are essential to life. In fact, throughout the course they learn about many of the central roles these ions play in the function of the human body.

It's no wonder that salt has played such a central role in human history. Which reminds me of a great book I listened to (it was the audio version) a couple of years ago. Salt: A World History (by Mark Kurlansky) ought to be on your list of "must read books for A&P professors."

Besides learning about salt, you'll also come away with an appreciation of the interconnectedness of things.

If nothing else, it will give you a lot of anecdotes and factoids that you can use in your A&P class.

One of the questions that I often get in class is, "if salt [or sodium] is so essential to life, why is it bad for you?" Wow, what a great teaching moment! I can help bring the student to a higher level of thinking by dissecting the false choice of "good" and "bad" in this case and revealing the "gray."

But of course, what is the latest story on the role of salt in creating hypertension (HTN) or other problems? Check out this recent article from the LA Times to help sort out the latest thinking on this one:

Salt and high blood pressure: New concerns raised
by Emily Sohn
Los Angeles Times online, 27 October 2008
[Article summarizing the link between HTN and salt]

Here's a FREE video that does a good job of outlining some central ideas about salt's health connections:

[The video may not appear in your news feed or emailed newsletter. Go to The A&P Professor blog to access the video viewer. Go to The A&P Professor website to learn how to embed the video in your PowerPoint or webpage . . . or simply link to it from your own email or webpage.]

For additional FREE resources, visit the expanded version of this article at The A&P Professor website.

Want to check out that Salt book I recommended? Click the Amazon link below to see reviews or to download the audio version.

Free genetics - genomics resources

At the NABT (National Association of Biology) professional development conference in Memphis TN a couple of weeks ago, I ran into the folks from the Community of Genetics Educators (CoGE).

At first glance, I thought this was strictly for folks teaching a course in genetics. Wrong! It's for biology educators in general who have some level of genetics content in their courses. Well, that's us!

Although our textbook Anatomy & Physiology has a chapter on genetics, I do not teach this as a separate unit in my course. However, I do weave the concepts of genetics and genomics throughout my course . . . as I suspect you do.

Wow, does CoGE (an effort of the National Institutes of Medicine [NIH]) have a lot of FREE resources to help me understand current genetics better . . . and use in my course materials!

Here's part of an email I recently received from CoGE telling you all about it. They told me to share it . . . so here it is:

"Here it is:


It will take you about three minutes to register in.

Please do me a favor and leave a short bio. It helps people know who you are.

And leaving a photo is even better. Leave a photo when you register in between now and

the end of November and you quality for a special CoGE door prize (worth owning).

A few things you might want to know:

Everything is free and the site is part of educational programming at the National Institutes of Health. We will not share your email address, or ever try to sell you anything.

What is there?

(1) This coming Wednesday evening there is a live lecture on “The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA).” Starts at 7pm and you can call in free from home and see the slides on any computer. There is an hour of Q&A from teachers attending with the speaker after a short talk

(2) Over 100 excellent copyright-free genetic illustrations by NIH illustrator Darryl Leja. Darryl pretty much defined how we draw the double helix with his excellent work during the mapping of the human genome.

(3) Resources submitted by other teachers and searchable. Lesson plans, valuable internet sites, and tips on everything from DNA and Darwin Day to extracting DNA from just about anything.

And a lot more.

Here’s what we know. If you do not take time to register now, you probably never will.

So please… pause, link in, and join the more than 500 other biology teachers already using CoGE.

In return you can find them, they can find you, and we all can share resources that work to

make bio teaching that much more effective and enjoyable.


Jeff Witherly
CoGE, Mayor

(don’t you love that title?)


And now for something completely different . . . a cute music video regarding Mendelian genetics (from YouTube, not from CoGE!)

[The video may not appear in your news feed or emailed newsletter. Go to The A&P Professor blog to access the video viewer. Go to The A&P Professor website to learn how to embed the video in your PowerPoint or webpage . . . or simply link to it from your own email or webpage.]

New information about glia

The old ideas of neurons be "it" and the glia (or neuroglia) being merely "glue" are just getting shot all to pieces these days, eh?

The latest volley of shot comes from a recent article in the journal Science. Researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York found that in worms, "glial cells assist sensory neurons to perceive and respond to stimuli by improving signal-to-noise ratio." In fact, they found more than that . . . removal of the glia just totally messed up the neurons and made them nonfunctional.

So which are the cells vital to nervous function now, eh?

Check out the new findings . . .

Glia are Essential for Sensory Organ Function in C. elegans
T. Bacaj et al.
Science 31 October 2008:
Vol. 322. no. 5902, pp. 744 - 747 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1163074]
[The original article]

A New Glance at Glia
A. Reichenbach, T. Pannicke
Science 31 October 2008:
Vol. 322. no. 5902, pp. 693 - 694 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1166197]
[Editor's perspective includes a great image explaining the discovery.]