Monday, December 20, 2010

It's 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'm on the streets again...

My personal soundtrack to the Full Lunar Eclipse tonight at around 3 am EST is Thin Lizzy's Dancing in the Moonlight. Even though it's not a "long hot summer night," at some point tonight if you're awake, look up and check out the moon. 

Another reason that this song is my song of the night is because I basically want my hair and songwriting to be as full as Mr. Phil Lynott.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I've been trying to meet my goals of making a post on SwM at least once a week, but this week and a bit of the next I'm absolutely swamped with finals and the end of the semester. So please forgive the lack of posts, but after the next week or so I'll have a lot more time to work on writing awesome little posts for everyone reading out there.

To hold you over until I return, here's a cool little article with a video of mechanical engineering students building their own guitars. I'll be thinking of that bit of craftiness while I'm slaving away over my books.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

That's the most festive image I could find of a brain and a turkey. I could have put a less awesome picture of the amino acid tryptophan up, but you guys all know that labeling that little guy as responsible for your post-feast drowsiness is a basically myth, right?

In any case, what do I know? I'm a pescatarian. Happy thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rock Stars of Science!

The new Rock Stars of Science campaign is live! 

 DEBBIE HARRY of Blondie fame, posing with Sloan-Kettering cancer researchers Joan Massague, Craig B. Thompson, and Charles L. Sawyers.

 If you have an opportunity to pick up the December 2010 issue of GQ, you'll be able to see a glossy spread of famous musicians posing with famous scientists. The whole idea is to get the rock stars to shed a little of their light onto the scientists who have accomplished much in furthering our ability to treat diseases and discover more about the world around us. Since many people can name favorite musicians but would be hard pressed to name a favorite scientist, this is a fun and exciting project.

Ann and Nancy Williams of HEART flank two Nobel Laureates, Phillip A. Sharp and Elizabeth H. Blackburn.

Chris Mooney of the Intersection wrote a bit about the musicians and scientists featured last year here, but this year's list is even better! The list of scientists includes four women and two African Americans, which is a good showing that science isn't just for old white guys. In addition, five of the scientists listed also happen to play music! The scientist-musicians include two guitarists, a pianist, a keyboardist in a rock band, and a jazz musician.

One of my favorite pictures of the bunch is the one below of Keri Hilson and Timbaland posing with Bernard A. Harris Jr., the first African American astronaut to spacewalk, and cardiac surgeon Mehmet Oz (also a pianist!).

Everyone in this image just looks so dapper (gold sequins! bowtie!) and I can't help but think that Dr. Harris looks especially fetching holding a NASA helmet while standing next to Kerri Hilson. Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson has planted a special love in my heart for black space scientists.

To see the full set of pictures and list of scientists and musicians, check out the Rock Stars of Science website or just pick up the December issue of GQ!

Friday, November 12, 2010

DOUBLE Brainbows (all the way)

The meaning of the word BRAINBOWS is dualistic and both sides of the coin are equally awesome.

Exhibit 1.
A BRAINBOW of neurons in the auditory cortex. These are the neurons that enable you listen to Exhibit 2.

Brainbows, the awesome imaging technique created back in 2007 by Jeff Lichtman's research group at Harvard, in which he was able to use old scientific tricks such as taking glowing fluorescent colors from jellyfish and coral, combining them in the neurons of mice, and using their color palette to make each individual neuron in the brain emit of different color of pretty glowing light. These images have won a few scientific photography prizes and seem to be a modern-day equivalent of the painstakingly hand-drawn pictures of neurons that Santiago Ramón y Cajal created during the dawn of the study of neuroscience.
Cajal's drawing of a Purkinje cell that lives in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement, enabling Exhibit 2 to play their instruments. 

Exhibit 2.

BRAINBOWS, the band's first show.

Brainbows, the new band that rose from the ashes of the short lived local Chapel Hill/Durham band Just Friends to become a phoenix of frantic energy as illuminating and colorful as Exhibit 1. They are playing an early show (6 pm!) next Friday November 19 at the awesome and also new All Day Records in Carrboro. Now you know what you're doing a week from today.

This post was short and sweet, but I'll be back with more posts next week! Hope the weekend is illuminating.

Friday, November 5, 2010

AVPR1A: Music in your Genes?

I was totally going to save this Tegan & Sara Tiësto trance song for another post about "feeling the beat" because I thought that a dance song with a chorus about feeling things in your bones would go nicely with a paper about the neuroscience of rhythm and beat perception.

But then I thought that old familiar feeling of having something "in your bones" seemed to go better with a post about that seemingly innate quality that musicians seem to have that enables and even compels them to be creative in music. PLUS Tegan & Sara are identical twins who make music together so they fit even better into a post about families, genes, and musical ability. So now you guys get to listen to this song sooner rather than later.

Tegan & Sara & even Tiësto might be feeling AVPR1A in their genes.

The prize gene finding that came back from the results of Ozzy Osbourne's genome is called AVPR1A. Since scientists love to use nifty acronyms, I'll spell this one out for you. The AVP part stands for arginine vassopressin (or just vassopressin for short). Vassopressin is a hormone that does lots of things in the body, from blood pressure regulation to memory formation to pair bonding. The R1A part of the acronym stands for receptor type 1A, which just tells us the specific type of vassopressin receptor we're talking about, since there are a few different types of vassopressin receptors in the body.

So now that we know what AVPR1A stands for, how does it relate to Ozzyome and the ability to make music? Well, a group of researchers at the University of Helsinki recruited a group of 19 families that had musical relatives studying at a local music school. They gave the individuals in the families different objective tests that measured their ability to recognize musical pitch, timing, and their overall musical ability. The individuals also took a separate questionnaire on their strengths in musical composition, arrangement, and improvising. For the genetic analysis, the scientist took vials of blood from the study subjects to test for certain genes that they thought might be related to cognitive processing, emotional behavior, and creativity. AVPR1A was one of genes of interest.

What were the results? People who answered that they were creative in music (indicating that they arranged, composed, or improvised music) got higher scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So we knew then that these people weren't just saying these things to inflate their egos; they actually had some measurable objective musical ability. The cool part is that the people who did well on these tests of musical ability seemed to be in the same families! The researchers found that there were some families that did well on the tests, and others that didn't do so well.

But the REALLY COOL part is that after all the genetic analysis was done, a strong correlation was found between certain types of the AVPR1A gene and high scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So it wasn't just that some families were more musical than others. Some families were more musical than others AND they found a gene in some members that might be responsible for that increased musical ability!

So that's what Ozzy Osbourne has in common with these high musical aptitude-scoring, musical AVPR1A-variant possessing people. Since he has the same variation of AVPR1A in his genes, he is likely to score as well or better than the individuals in the study on the musical aptitude tests. It almost makes me want to get tested for this gene.

As a side note, if you want to bask in the presence of more people who are likely to have the same version of the AVPR1A gene as Ozzy Osbourne and you're in the Triangle region this weekend, check out the Troika Music Festival to see lots of very talented musicians feeling it in their genes (teehee). This is a shameless plug since my band, Pink Flag, is playing on the last night of the festival. BUT you should go regardless since Troika is always the highlight of Durham (and the Triangle at large)'s music scene. If you come up to me Saturday night and mention AVPR1A I'll probably hug you out of joy that someone actually read my ramblings on here.
Ukkola LT, Onkamo P, Raijas P, Karma K, & Järvelä I (2009). Musical aptitude is associated with AVPR1A-haplotypes. PloS one, 4 (5) PMID: 19461995

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Genes of a Rocker

It's been interesting news to hear that Ozzy Osbourne has had his full genome sequenced. The Scientific American article featuring it was the most viewed story on the website last week! My favorite headline that covered the story was one that simply stated, "Genetics to solve why Ozzy Osbourne is still alive." Obviously many people are wondering how in the world someone like Ozzy could keep going after subjecting himself to decades of drug abuse and an extreme rock and roll lifestyle.

Last Friday, October 29th, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne sat down with geneticist Nathaniel Pearson from Knome to publicly discuss about the results of Ozzy's sequenced genome at the TEDMED conference in San Diego. Knome is the genetics company who sequenced all of Ozzy's DNA, and Pearson gave a great SwM-worthy quote. "The genome in many ways is like a great musical score. The score varies from person to person. It's a beautiful metaphor."

Ozzy's personal musical score revealed a few interesting things. He is a distant relative of Stephen Colbert, sharing a common ancestor with him from about 1000 years ago.

Osbourne performing with John Stewart and Stephen Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity this past weekend. Genetics has let us know that him and Colbert go WAAAAAY back.

The most interesting finding of Ozzy's genome sequencing to SwM was that he has a variation of a gene called Arginine vasopressin receptor 1A or AVPR1A that was linked to musical aptitude in a study of 19 Finnish family genomes from last year. Does that mean that there some sort of genetic basis for musical ability that they've found in Ozzy's DNA? Is this why he makes music? I'd like to go into what this really means in more depth, so I'll be detailing the AVPR1A gene variation study and how it relates to Ozzy in a post later this week. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Waves of Mu, Mirror Neurons, and Funny Hats

Mirror neurons have been a hot topic in neuroscience for the past decade or so, and more evidence has been amassed in recent years of their exciting properties. Mirror neurons are so interesting precisely because they fire or are activated both when an individual performs an action AND when that same individual merely observes another performing an action. This intriguing property has lead researchers to speculate that these neurons could be responsible for empathy and the learning of actions and language from others. Recent studies have been performed in an attempt to shed light on the properties and functioning of these neurons.

Before getting into a few of the recent studies, a short background of mirror neurons is needed. They were originally discovered by neurophysiologists at the University of Parma in Italy. While recording from a single neuron in a monkey's brain to observe how it would fire in response to the monkey's hand movements when grabbing and picking up food, they noticed that the neuron would also fire when watching a human caretaker pick up food! Thus, as is often the case in science, something was discovered when investigating something else.

But what is the namesake of Waves of Mu, Amy Caron's performance art piece currently running at Duke?

Well, many researchers have investigated the role of mirror neurons in human brains using an electroencephalogram (EEG). If you were to become a subject in one of these experiments, you might be wearing a cap that looks something like this:

A picture from the Sekuler Lab at Brandeis University

This contraption allows researchers to measure the electrical activity of your brain waves through your scalp. If you were taking part in a study related to mirror neurons, the researchers might be looking for brain activity called mu waves that represent groups of neurons that fire in the frequency range of 8 - 11 Hz. The reason why mu waves are thought to correlate with mirror neurons is because these patterns of electrical activity in the brain lessen in intensity when the subject moves, has an intent to move, or observes the movement of another subject. This is similar to the patterns of activation in mirror neurons, so in studies mu wave activity is taken to be a marker of mirror neuron activity.

A few of the interesting studies that explore the function and use of mirror neurons involve their use in movement, imitation, learning, and perception. One study found that mu wave brain activity was normally suppressed by healthy individuals when moving their hand and when watching a video of a hand moving. However individuals with autism spectrum disorder showed mu wave suppression when moving their own hand, but NOT when watching a video of a hand moving. This study builds some evidence that autism might be related to a malfunctioning mirror neuron system.

It might be difficult for Autumn Ehinger of Cassis Orange to play keyboards without mirror neurons.

Another cool study that relates to this blog involved mirror neurons and music.  The cool thing about mirror neurons is that in addition to being active when seeing another perform a movement, they are also active when merely hearing a noise associated with a movement. Subjects in the study (who identified as non-musicians) were trained to play a short piece of music made up of 5 notes on a keyboard. After learning the music, they listened to the piece of music they had learned to play, a different song using the same 5 notes, and a completely different song using more notes than just the 5 original ones. Even though the subjects listened to the music without moving, the results of the study found that brain activity related to movement occurred when the subjects listened to the song that they had learned to play. The regions of the brain activated in the study are related both to movement and the observation of movement, and are also thought to be related to the mirror neuron system. This study adds to the evidence of mirror neurons as a way to learn movements.

SwM closing statement:

Mirror neurons: they help you learn to rock out!
Oberman LM, Hubbard EM, McCleery JP, Altschuler EL, Ramachandran VS, & Pineda JA (2005). EEG evidence for mirror neuron dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders. Brain research. Cognitive brain research, 24 (2), 190-8 PMID: 15993757

Lahav A, Saltzman E, & Schlaug G (2007). Action representation of sound: audiomotor recognition network while listening to newly acquired actions. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 27 (2), 308-14 PMID: 17215391

Monday, October 18, 2010

First Anniversary of Moxie!

In this month last year, Science with Moxie was born. Happy Birthday to SwM!

If you're local to the NC Triangle region and feel like celebrating with me, the best way to do that would be to go and check out the opening reception of Waves of Mu at the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences tonight. 

Waves of Mu is a performance art installation by Amy Caron that focuses on mirror neurons, which are a type of neuron that is responsible for helping us to identify with others. For example, when watching someone stub their toe or wipe out on a bike, you might wince in response due in part to the workings of this type of neuron in your brain. The weird thing is that these neurons fire no matter whether you stub your toe or your friend does. This leads them to also be known as the "empathy neuron." 

I'll have a more detailed post up explaining mirror neurons later this week, but if you can't drop by opening reception tonight from 5 - 9 pm, you still have time to see the performance itself that's running at Duke from October 20th - 30th. It's free, but tickets need to be reserved here at the Institute's website

UPDATE: All performances all sold out! But you can still go to the opening reception tonight starting at 5 pm, and there is still a waitlist for the two performances on Saturday October 30th. Hurry!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SciMuses: All Your Science

Dr. Lu Lubenstein and Z-Man form the two halves of the guitar-drum duo called All Your Science. While many bands choose names that refer to science without necessarily being made up of scientists, Z and Lu prove the exception to that unspoken rule by being involved in scientific and technological fields. It was a pleasure to get the opportunity to sit down with them both to talk to them about their scientific and musical lives.

All Your Science formed almost three years ago when Lu and Z met at the local Durham Bike Co-op. “All I remember is that he tried to fix my tire and it blew up in my face,” Lu related with a laugh. After that incident they started playing music together and decided on the name All Your Science as a nod to their mutual scientific careers and the ancient internet meme all your base are belong to us.

Any readers that attended the DiVE into Alcohol lab tour at Duke as part of the ScienceOnline2010 conference might have noticed the Z-Man behind the controls of the huge Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) 3D virtual reality stimulator. As a computer scientist holding a bachelors and masters degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Z maintains and writes code for the 3D stimulator. The main types of 3D projects that Z programs are for psychologists who want to create a virtual stimulation of feared objects such as snakes in order to help people overcome their personal phobias. However, one of the smaller projects Z works on involves creating virtual reality musical instruments. He described the experience as using a controller that virtually projects a wand or stick to hit the keys of the virtual instrument. Z appreciates the opportunity to use both sets of skills in his work. “It's one of those things where I am able to overlap some of my knowledge about musical instruments and virtual reality.”

Z had an extensive background in music as well and computer science when he moved to Durham to work with the DiVE stimulator. In high school, he played organ in a ska band, and played in various rock bands throughout college. He usually played rock with others, but also started making avant-garde noise music on his own. He was doing mostly avant-garde solo projects before he met Lu and formed All Your Science. His noise background gets incorporated into their songs at times. “Lu always tries to get me to work [noise elements] into our albums," he said. "Like 'do something that makes it sound crazy!'” Their first album has a song that reflects this, entitled appropriately and simply, "Noise."

Lu and Z seemed to have parallel lives when getting into playing music in high school. While Z was wearing suits and playing the organ in a ska band, Lu was wearing ties and playing guitar in a duo girl punk band called Tomboys. When Lu went to Virginia Tech to study biology and chemistry, her drummer from Tomboys came with her to study engineering. When that band dissolved, she kept playing with another girl band throughout her time in college, graduation, and subsequent move to Washington DC to work at the National Institute of Health. She spent two years at the NIH working in the ovarian oncology unit, using proteomics to look for a drug for use in future clinical trials. She then started her studies at UNC - Chapel Hill for a Ph.D. in pharmacology with a focus on cancer research. While playing in All Your Science, she studied science and recently earned her doctorate. She is set to start a postdoc at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York where she will be working directly with doctors and patients to find new drugs that may work well for ovarian and breast cancers. Lu explained that there isn't nearly as much funding for the study of ovarian cancers as there is for breast cancer, and this combined with the fact that she had a family member with the disease makes her very passionate about her work. She looks forward to seeing a more direct effect of her research through her work at Sloan-Kettering."I just love what I do because it's so rewarding,” she said. “Even though it's frustrating at times, it's easy to get through because I love it.”

When asked about what it's like performing research and performing in a band, Lu piped up. “It's nice. You can go to the lab and you can work all day on complex problems and then you can come home and get some of this built up stress out through playing music. It's so much fun because we don't do it as a profession. We just do it for fun so there's really no pressure on it.” The band records all their albums at home themselves and burns their own CDs for each show. Z spoke of the ease of modern recording software as being helpful to producing decent sound for their records. “As easy as it is, I still think you have to be a little computer savvy to do home recording,” Z said, citing his computer skills.

The new EP from All Your Science was recorded 4 track style and is mostly instrumental. There are more than just guitar and drums on the EP since both members of the band added additional instruments as overdubs on many of the tracks. The EP will be released at a house party that doubles as a final show and farewell party, as Lu leaves soon afterward to start her postdoc in New York. But is this the last All Your Science show ever?

"We keep talking that if we can get the right set up that we're gonna reform to do the tour of Japan," Z said. "But we're still keeping that as kind of a rumor. And we're gonna have to have enough interest from the fans." Since Lu recently gave a talk on her Ph.D. thesis in Japan, they should have no trouble drumming up some support for any future tours in the country.

All Your Science releases their last EP and plays their final show this Saturday, August 28th, at 602 Maplewood Ave in Durham, North Carolina. RSVP to the facebook event here. Thanks to the band for sitting down and talking with me!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Quickie

I love doing what I do here on Science with Moxie, but I've got to admit that I'm a little jealous that I wasn't the one interviewing bassist Chris Cain from We are Scientists for a real live science publication.

Check out the interview with The Scientist, and find out Chris' opinion on whether it's easier to get laid as a rock star or as a scientist. I can't really speak to what I think of that, but I can say that I share his opinion* on what instrument Charles Darwin would play.

*Admittedly, for completely biased reasons.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

SciMuse: Jim Holmquist, of Peat Bogs and Ukuleles

My second SciMuse interview subject is Jim Holmquist, who is a paleoecologist by day and the fearless leader of The Long Holidays by night.

So tell me a little about the science you do by day.

I'm a second year graduate student at UCLA in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I use peat cores from areas adjacent to the Hudson Bay in Canada to reconstruct climate and ecology from macro and micro fossils. I then compare those reconstructions to the rates of Carbon accumulation in the cores. Essentially we're looking for how they reacted to past drought and patterns in warming to understand how they may react to future climate change.

What is a peat core and does it contain fossils? How do you get them?

So a peat core is a continuous sample from the top to the bottom of the soil. It's shaped like a cylinder and gets older as it gets deeper. We have special tools that are like metal cylinders with a flap and a trap door that you can shove into the ground, twist and pull up an intact core.

Here's a picture of a tool used to collect peat cores. Jim drops these from helicopters into the soil of peatlands in the Canadian Hudson Bay!

The reason that we gather them is because peatlands store a lot of carbon in their soils in the form of poorly decayed plant material. This is carbon that is currently not in the atmosphere causing greenhouse warming. However if the climate gets dry and warmer in the future a lot of this soil can decay and put more C back into the atmosphere. Alternatively soil warming can possibly cause increased plant growth and peat formation causing increased C storage in the soil.

The cores contain a record of the rates of C storage and a fossil record of the plants that form the soil. So they do have fossils in them from the recent past... recent meaning as old as about 10,000 years ago.

There are macro-fossils, large pieces of mosses, leaves and wood and micro-fossils, such as microscopic animals called amoeba, and pollen grains. I pretty much go down the core, meaning back in time over the last few thousand years, and look for large changes in the macro-fossil record which could indicate a major change in vegetation.

I also use testate-amoeba's, a microscopic animal that is very sensitive to moisture, to calculate past surface moisture with complex mathematical functions. Overall these two records tell me when there was past climate change in the area. I look at how past climate change has affected the rates of past C storage to see if they were increased or reduced under different climate scenarios.

A picture of a testate-amoeba.

So how'd you get into this stuff?

Originally I was interested in marine biology because I liked snorkeling, scuba diving and surfing as a kid. I was really into nature docs and aquariums. In college I got involved in a multidisciplinary research project that involved wetland ecology, chemistry and environmental science. Me and my mentor tracked metal pollution in Los Angeles wetlands using plant tissues. After that I really like the idea of learning more about wetland ecology, especially paleoecology and Glen's work at UCLA was a great fit.

How long have you been playing music?

I've been playing music since 2000 where I started on guitar. My brother, me and two of our friends started a surf rock band called Caution Heavy Surf and we made two albums "Caution Heavy Surf's Greatest Hits: Vol. 1" and "Oh Yeah! Another Summer."

After I started college at Loyola Marymount I learned how to play ukulele and started a new band "The Long Holidays". We're a bit more eclectic in our influences span the gamete from country to folk to rock and a little bit of surf and uke.

Jim, ukulele in hand, captivating a dog.

How do you find balance between science and music?

The music kind of helps keep me sane through all of the grad school craziness. I'm always trying to learn new instruments so I'm always challenged. Plus, songwriting and performing can be very cathartic.

I think my science helps get me some really cool songwriting perspective. Many of my songs are nautical themed and inspired by my adventures scuba diving. "30ft beneath the waves", from our newest record "The Adventure Through Liquid Space", is actually a description of night diving. I write a lot of ecology into my songs, such as "Suburban Coyote" I use the setting of the regular burning california chaparral as a metaphor for change in life being part of a natural and cyclical progression. In Growing Gills I talk about sedimentary rocks and oil forming at the bottom of the ocean as a metaphor for a relationship becoming less real as it becomes more distant.

These are a couple of examples but these type of themes make there way into a good number of my songs.

I found this on your website: "According to Sean our fan base should be… “goofballs and smart-asses, who like nautical shit and old sci-fi movies” (I paraphrase)." Is this a conscious decision you made when forming the band? Or is it something that naturally extends out of your personality?

In terms of our fan base, the goofballs and smartasses are pretty much just our extended group of friends. I'm trying to reach out to like-minded people on the internet who we think would be fans of the music. Your article may actually be a pretty good outlet for this.

There is a fair bit of smart-assery at the shows, partially because the fans are mostly our friends who like to heckle me (I heckle back of course). We're also pretty loose on stage and I improvise new lyrics and jokes into the songs that we've been playing forever.

What's the lineup of the Long Holidays and how did you put together your self-produced record,"The Adventure Through Liquid Space"?

I put the record together with Kevin who's my main collaborator, but doesn't play live very much. He played drums and piano on most of the songs. Sean and I have been playing together ever since we were roommates in college together, but it took him a while to actually start playing with the band. He plays acoustic guitar on the record and presently in the band. The
record also has contributions from my friend Rob Farley (who has great solo work) and members from my old band Caution Heavy Surf.

For the record premiere I put together a completely fresh line-up to give the songs a completely new sound. Gabriel de'Santana plays drums. He's a real pro, and he always wears suits... makes us look bad. Andy Worshill plays bass and trombone and he always encourages me to be crazier and stranger on stage... bad influence. They were both friends of friends who I jammed with a couple of times and really meshed with.

The whole fluid nature of the band and the music works really well with our theme and image as "Adventure Rockers". We always want to be adventurous, try new things and never be totally sure what's going to happen when we get on stage. Adventure as a theme permeates, not only the lyrics and music, but also the process and presentation.

Thanks so much to Jim for doing this interview. You can check his band out on myspace.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Richard McLaughlin, Local Renaissance Man.

If you live in the Research Triangle area and are a fan of really awesome music and really awesome science, you definitely need to check out what's going down in Chapel Hill tonight.

Rich McLaughlin, of The Pneurotics, will be speaking at the University of North Carolina's Morehead Planetarium tonight at 7 pm on his research that involves underwater oil plumes and how they relate to the BP oil spill. This event is FREE and part of Morehead's Current Science Forums held every month.

Rich is getting a lot of amazing press lately for his research with fluid dynamics. Recently he was mentioned in a New York Times blog AND appeared on CNN.

To add to the awesome, immediately after Rich drops some science at the planetarium, he is heading down Franklin St. to play a rock show at the Local 506. If that isn't the SciMuse lifesyle, I don't know what is. I wonder if the organizers of the Science Forums know about Rich's double life.

I have a new SciMuse interview almost ready to post, and the aforementioned summer beats review is almost ready, but tonight I'm psyched to be nerding out, and then rocking out. Hopefully I'll get to feature Rich on the blog soon.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer Rhythms.

Hello loyal readers.

As you might have noticed, it's been a really long time since I've posted here. That's for a few reasons that I will explain below.

I was all ready to post about an article on the the brain and beat perception last night, but then started to feel like I needed to do a lot more research on neuroanatomy and functional brain imaging before I felt qualified enough to talk about it here. I will definitely post about the article soon, but before I did I wanted to ask for a little bit of input from anyone who reads this blog.

What kinds of things do you want to see here?

I really enjoy writing summaries of scientific research papers that render them easier to understand by a general audience, and I have a ton of papers on the intersection of neuroscience and music that I want to yap about here, but at times I avoid posting on this blog because these papers often require a lot of research on my part in order for me to feel like I'm summarizing them properly. Of course, this will get easier as I learn more about neurobiology, but for now it's resulted in months without any posts.

Thus in order to have some more frequency and variety in posts, I started the scientists and musicians (SciMuses) interview series so this blog would be a little more exciting. I have some exciting prospects that will be showing up here soon as well. But between reading up for current science research posts and tracking down awesome scientists/musicians to interview, I was wondering what I should post about here. Music that I'm currently listening to? Links to related news articles? Things in general I find exciting?

All I'm asking is, let me know! I definitely want to be posting more here, so finding things to post that don't require so much effort to research before posting might be one way to do it.

I'll leave you with my current favorite summer jam:

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Inaugural SciMuse Interview!

I'm pleased to present the subject of the first Scientist-Musician series of interviews, Toaster Sunshine, who is a self-described immunologist, hacker, and musician. This guy is doing so many amazing things that it's hard to not be inspired by his creativity in multiple areas. I'm honored to have him as the first interviewee.

First of all, where did you go to school and sort of research are you doing?

I did my undergrad at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor in Cell and Molecular Biology with an unpragmatic minor in German. I am still working on getting into grad school and am still awaiting word on many of my applications out in this current cycle. I now do research in adaptive immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School. Specifically, I am studying the dynamics of T- and B-cell proliferation in non-lymphatic organs in response to infection. This means I grind up a lot of organs and run them through a flow cytometer.

What got you interested in both science and music?

I was interested in music before I realized I was interested in science as more of a career than as school classes. In fact, at one point in high school while I was in both the school's jazz band (upright bass) and a death metal band (bass guitar) I viewed college as a fallback career if the music I did after getting my degree didn't work out. Heh.

I also played chamber music (and some industrial jazz) through college on cello, but have had to lay the cello aside due to how technically demanding it is to focus on science and making stuff. I also make computer music with Reason 4 and have amassed several hours of finished music. Some of it smashed classical instrumentation together with hip-hop/industrial beats while other bits are more like dubstep.

Do you have any additional projects outside the lab?

When I'm not in the lab, I'm usually working at the hackerspace I am helping to found in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We're called All Hands Active and we maintain a common pool of tools and parts where anyone can build anything they want to. I hope it also becomes a start-up incubator.

In this space, I have built a 2-string slide electric guitar out of a glass bottle, wooden plank, copper wire, and drywall screws and am currently trying to build some flex sensors to be the variable resistors in an Atari Punk Circuit. This latter is a prototype for the suit of flex sensors I intend to build to feed through MIDI to make music based upon my movement.

Lots of the other hackers at All Hands Active make musical stuff as well. One of them recently made a tonal drum out of a propane tank (link to a video of it here!), others are building carbon fiber instruments, and there's one guy who likes to tape piezos to old speakers and route it through an amp, then modulate the resulting feedback by tearing holes in the speaker cone with chopsticks.

Where do you see your multiple interests taking you career-wise? Is science still more of a "fall-back" career for you? Or do you plan to create a career out of a combination of all your interests?

You've asked a good question that I'm wrestling with right now. The biological engineering programs I applied to for this coming fall don't seem to have worked out, so I'm currently trying to suss out the flaws in my plans and records. I really like immunology, it's complex and chaotic and runs all over the place like pancake batter through a sieve. But at the same time, I really like mathematics and computers and building robots and things that go "blwtaga;gb!". I want to merge all of these things together into 1 career of awesomeness, but as of yet I haven't found a viable way forward that encompasses all of these things. Computational immunology seems like a possibility, but then again at the same time I'm currently trying to figure out if I'd rather go for founding a start-up company or whether to continue polishing myself on paper to get into grad school and then worry about possible entrepreneurship afterwards.

Thanks again to Toaster Sunshine for volunteering for the first interview of the Sci-Muse interview series. For more of his creative undertakings, you can check out his blog, Mad Scientist Jr. here. All Hands Active was recently featured on the Make Zine Blog, so check that out too!

If you'd like to participate in this interview series too, please don't hesitate to drop me a line!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Science, Music, Machines, Technology!

Before I leave to play the first show of tour with my band, Pink Flag (check us out if we're coming near you), I just wanted to make a quick post with a couple of things that I feel embody the spirit of Science with Moxie.

First, this whimsical little video by OK Go that has been making the internet rounds recently:

And second, this really rad sinewave synthesizer that makes it easy and fun to create your own little pretty ditties.

I've got some Scientist/Musician interviews in the works, but always looking for more volunteers. Now all I need is a name. All I got right now is SciMuses. I'm open to suggestions.

Monday, March 1, 2010

PLos ONE Blog Post of the Month!

I'm honored to have my post Musical Emotions: Chills Edition selected as Blog Post of the Month by PLoS ONE!

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) has open access model of research publishing that really appeals to me, since many scientific papers are unavailable for viewing without paying a significant fee. This fact puts a major roadblock to scientific discovery by both the general public and people doing research at less-funded institutions. You can read a little bit more about the open access model of publishing here. I'm a big fan!

I'm really excited that my Research Blogging is going well, and you can definitely expect more posts on interesting science publications to come!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Musicians/Scientists Interview Series

I have always been of the opinion that science and art are made of mutual stuff. They are both highly creative, innovative, exciting fields that are born of both the solitude and collaboration of like minds. They are both about discovery and looking at the world through new eyes and a different view. They both have the ability to change minds and culture.

As someone who is a both a budding young scientist and musician, I'm pretty interested in the perspective of everyone else who manages to combine the two forces of logic and creativity. So I'm going to be starting a series of interviews here on Science with Moxie with people who are scientists and musicians. I'm fortunate to know a few people who fit both those descriptions already, but if you want to be added to my list, feel free to drop me a line!

Musical Emotions: Chills Edition


I'm one of the people who gets them when I listen to music I find really, really enjoyable. In fact, there are a whole range of emotions I can go through while listening to something I really like. Last Saturday night, I definitely was on the peak end of experiencing intense music-related emotions while watching my bandmate and favorite drummer, Jessica Caesar play during this song at The Dirty Little Heaters' CD release show. Take a look:

So what is this whole "chills" thing about anyway? What makes listening to music so pleasurable and fun? One theory that a group of researchers decided to test was that music is so much fun for us to listen to because the pleasure we feel while listening correlates to a sort of physical emotional response.

The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal

In order to test this, they got twenty-six suckers experimental subjects to agree to be hooked up to this machine that takes measurements of all kinds of bodily responses that basically told the researchers how psyched the people were to be listening to different types of music. Here's what that machine looked like:

These robotic-looking hand and torso machines measured the listeners' heart rate, respiration rate, body temperature, galvanic skin response (GSR), and blood volume pulse (BVP) amplitude. The music the subjects listened to was music they had picked out themselves that they really enjoyed, so much that it gave them the chills. As a control, the researchers selected music that the subjects rated beforehand as neutral or "boring" in order to compare the subjects' physical response readings from that dull music to the chills-inducing music. The experiment took place as the subjects sat in a sound-proof room, listened to the music, the machines took their measurements, and the subjects pressed buttons on their robot-hands to indicate what they were feeling during each moment that the music played. The ratings ranged from "meh" to "pleasurable" to "whoa, I got chills." But, of course, the ratings were on a more scientific and quantitative rating scale of 1-3 (1 ="neutral," 2="low pleasure," 3 = "high pleasure," and a fourth button = "chills" because, as you can see above, they only had a thumb to work with).

The results were pretty interesting. In all the physical markers stated above (i.e. heart rate, respiration) they saw significant differences in readings between the music the subjects found boring and the music they found pleasurable. The pleasurable music got a higher physiological response out of the subjects, while the boring music didn't seem to have much of an effect on the markers of emotional arousal. This makes sense because my heart isn't exactly pounding when I hear some boring elevator music in a department store.

They also found that the chills were reported at the same moments in the music that the subjects reported ratings of highest pleasure. In fact, 80% of the chills occurred at the highest moment of pleasure reported. Again, this makes a lot of sense to me because I don't exactly get chills when I'm feeling that the music I'm listening to is good, but not great. I get chills when I can't tear my attention away and a musical experience feels all encompassing and highly pleasurable, and it seems that was what the subjects in the study were feeling too.

The most interesting thing they found was that the chills the subjects reported matched right up with the peak readings from the physical markers of emotional arousal. Check it out on the graph below:

The different boxes show the different physical indicators of emotional arousal of which the machines took measurements. As you can see, they all peaked at the moment when the subjects reported experiencing chills. The two exceptions here are skin surface temperature and BVP amplitude, but these actually got LOWER instead of higher like the other factors.

So basically, the researchers came away from this study with a strong correlation between subjective emotional response and objective physical response to music. When we get chills or feel intense pleasure when listening to music we enjoy, there is an actual range of bodily responses that go along with that! This seems like common sense, but this is important scientifically because having an actual, quantitative measure of the changes our bodies go through when experiencing good music opens doors to scientists thinking about other questions like, "why is music so unique that it causes actual emotional and physical arousal?"

Usually emotional responses have a definite function, such as joy from eating good food serves to keep us alive, or bonding with friends keeps us happy and connected to our fellow humans. Feeling these emotions helps us by making sure we keep doing the things that are good for our survival and well-being. But music is one of the only things that makes us happy without having a clear beneficial function to our survival as human beings. I think that makes it pretty special and interesting, and that makes me content to consume and play it.

P.S. Another fun thing to do with the paper is to check out what music the initial pool of subjects picked for the study as their favorites (this link opens a doc file with the full list). As with any wide pool of people, the results range widely!

Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Longo G, Cooperstock JR, & Zatorre RJ (2009). The rewarding aspects of music listening are related to degree of emotional arousal. PloS one, 4 (10) PMID: 19834599

Monday, January 25, 2010

ScienceOnline 2010: A great experience!

After a long hiatus from blogging, I am back, and inspired by the awesomeness that is the ScienceOnline2010 conference here in Research Triangle Park, NC.

I've been an occasional lurker of for a few years now, and reading the informative, insightful, and entertaining posts of the bloggers there is what originally inspired me to start up Science with Moxie. I'm also very interested in the intersection between science, popular culture, and policy, so once I found out that many of the scientists/bloggers/writers/journalists that I've admired over the years were going to be in attendance right in my backyard (less than 15 minutes from my house!) I jumped at the chance to attend.

The conference definitely did not disappoint. There were a couple workshops on the Friday before that I attended on blogging and on podcasting. I was sitting in the second workshop on podcasting waiting for it to begin and trying to do my best impression of the lurking I do while browsing science blogs online when one of the wonderful creators of the conference, Bora Zivkovic, came up to me and greeted me by name. It was completely awesome and kind of surprising considering that I'd only interacted with him through Twitter. That first burst of friendliness was a great representation of the overall spirit of the conference. It seemed that little steps were taken at very turn to ensure a pleasant and fun experience, including a tasty locally grown lunch from two of my favorites, Saladelia's and Locopops.

It was a little surreal to spot all the faces that I've only seen in pixelated photos on the side of blogs or at the top of e-articles. I think the most OMGZ NERD FAMOUS person I recognized there was Mr. Carl Zimmer of New York Times and NPR fame. I didn't take the opportunity to talk to him because it was enough to bask in the radiance of his nerd rays from afar.

The sessions were spectacular. I attended a few that were really helpful in gaining perspective on career options in the broad fields covered by the conference. Actually, one of the most exciting things was the sheer diversity of the professions present at the conference. I got to mingle with authors, journalists, scientists, professors, educators, lawyers, bloggers, and people involved in the entertainment media. I don't think I've ever come across a conference so teeming with energy and excitement about new media, technology, and the places that it can take us as a society. The whole experience was extremely positive, and inspired me to keep typing away at this lil' ol' blog.

P.S. You can view some shots from the conference in the video below. I make a cameo at 4:25!