Diabetes and hispanic health; we are what we eat

Bandeja Paisa. Image (c) Ivan F. Gonzalez
Bandeja Paisa. Image (c) Ivan F. Gonzalez

November 14th was world diabetes day, a day to mark on your calendar!

Diabetes complications drastically affect your quality of life and cut your life expectancy. Some risk factors such as age and ethnicity are unavoidable, but type 2 diabetes is often preventable and can be treated by changing what you eat and by exercising more.

This advice is well-known, but the number of new patients is not decreasing. More than 371 million people have diabetes worldwide, and the number of people with diabetes is increasing in every country. In the US, the Latino population has experienced an increasing percentage of people diagnosed with diabetes; from 6.3% in 1997 to 9.3% in 2010 (CDC age-adjusted data). Hispanics are hit harder than other populations in the US. The Office of Minority Health reported that: “Mexican Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. They have higher rates of end-stage renal disease, caused by diabetes, and they are 50% more likely to die from diabetes as non-Hispanic whites.”  Latino mortality rates caused by diabetes even break the “Latino epidemiological paradox” that  seemly gives some protection to Hispanics against the health pitfalls associated with lower average socioeconomic standing. Why?

I do not have an answer. The Latino/Hispanic population is very diverse and difficult to characterize, and is by no means a monolithic block: there are differences in how hard diabetes is affecting Latinos of different heritages: Puerto Ricans are the most affected with 11.2% of their population diagnosed with diabetes;  followed by Mexican Americans with 10.2%; and Cubans with 7.3%.

As a Latino, I know I have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than the general population. I can’t change that, but I can cut other risk factors, such as obesity and sedentary lifestyle.

Here is where I get to the part of “we area what we eat”. My grandfather in rural Colombia never had salad. He wouldn’t eat “grass” (salad), because that was cow’s food. His meals were high in calories from starch and fat that he needed for the hard work at the dairy farm, and later as a blue-collar worker for the city of Medellin. Fruit, however, was easily available and he ate it very often. He moved from rural to urban without changing his diet, and I cannot blame him. One of my favorite traditional Colombian dishes is the “bandeja paisa”: white rice with red beans, pork sausage, blood sausage, ground beef, fried plantain, fried pork belly, fried egg, arepa (corn bread like fat tortillas), avocado, and onion-and-tomato sauce. It is delicious, and I highly recommend you to try it,  but eating it regularly is a recipe for obesity. The estimated caloric value for a portion of bandeja paisa is 2,000 calories, more than the total recommended daily value for a 200-lb male working in an office. That was lunch for my grandfather after having a hefty breakfast and before a similar dinner. He worked hard and he wasn’t overweight, but after retirement he started gaining weight fast despite being quite active and not having a car.

Latinos living in a city cannot eat as many calories as our grandparents used to eat. We need to adapt our traditional cuisine to a new environment and requirements and balance our meals. While it might seem easy to “abandon ship” and start eating what the rest of America is eating, the prevalence of sodas, high-sugar snacks and fast food don’t make this jump the best option. I believe it is possible to keep our traditions but to improve them and modernize them to reflect new realities. Less fat is not necessarily less flavor, and we have a lot to gain by reducing our chances of becoming diabetic. Enjoying delicious Hispanic recipes with lower calories is possible, and to have fruit and fresh vegetables available at home for snacks is easy. If eating better and being more active will keep us healthier, why not to start today?

I wrote this post inspired by my friend Elisa, from the blog larval metamorphosis. She is the host of this month’s Diversity in Science blog Carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Contact her if you want to be involved. Thanks!

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From the sledgehammer to a laser dot; using light-sensitive proteins to control signals in cells

I was very fortunate that my homework for Coursera’s “Writing on the Sciences” was selected by Kristin Sainani as an example to edit during class. I got high quality editing for free! This is a short summary of an amazing technique for directing cell movement using laser light. You can read the result here (and the unedited version at the bottom if you want to compare them).

Traditional methods for controlling biological signals in cells are a sledgehammer: global, slow, and often non-specific. But in a 2009 paper in Nature, Levskaya et al. describe a new technique to generate local, fast, and targeted cell signaling in live cells. They reported the first control of cell movement in real-time using light-sensitive proteins.

The researchers genetically altered cells to contain plant proteins name Phytochromes which detect red and near-infrared light. When exposed to red light, Phytochromes bind to phytochrome interacting factor (PIF); when exposed to infrared light, they release PIF. Levskaya et al. added a membrane-localization domain to the Phytochrome and attached a signaling protein to the PIF. The system works for any signaling proteins that are activated by interactions with the membrane. When the scientist points a red laser at the cell membrane, membrane-bound phytochromes bind to PIF, thus bringing the signaling proteins close to the membrane and increasing their activity. Turning off the red laser frees the proteins and turns off the cellular signal.

To demonstrate the feasibility of this new technique, they performed three main experiments focusing on the signaling proteins Tiam and intersectin which help organize actin cytoskeleton during cell movement. The first experiment showed that membrane recruitment of a small part of intersectin (ITSN-DH-PH) transiently increased local protein activity and that this effect disappeared a few seconds after turning off the red laser. The second experiment showed that membrane recruitment of a part of Tiam (Tiam DH-PH domain) was sufficient to induce changes in the shape of NIH3T3 cells. When they illuminated the whole cell with red light for 20 minutes almost 80% of cells made new lamellipodia (acting skeletal projections on the mobile edge of the cell) compared with 10% of control cells. Even more interesting, in a third experiment they pointed a red laser dot on the edge of one cell and gradually moved it outward, slowly extending this red-targeted region from the cell body. They show in movies that they effectively guided the direction followed by the new lamellipodium—thus controlling the movement of the cell.

Swiftly control of local cell signaling has applications beyond cell movement. It allows us to study membrane-receptor cell signaling without the confounding effects from extracellular signal molecules activating multiple intracellular signaling proteins. Using this new technique we will be able to dissect the consequences of each different pathway by recruiting a single kind of signaling protein at a time. Finally, the sledgehammer will be put to rest.


Original file:

“From the sledgehammer to a laser dot; using light-sensitive proteins to start signals in small regions of the cell”

Traditional methods for controlling biological signals in cells are a sledgehammer: they are global, slow, and often non-specific. The authors of this paper describe their effort creating a new technique to generate local, fast, and targeted cell signaling in live cells that are genetically altered to have light-sensitive proteins. They engineered a cellular perturbation system applicable to many signaling proteins. The main requirement for the candidate signaling protein is to be naturally activated by interactions that re-localize it to the membrane.

Levskaya et al. built this membrane recruitment system using photosensitive proteins named Phytochromes. These proteins from plants detect red and near-infrared light through the photoisomerization of a bound chromophore. This light detection changes the Phytochrome’s conformation between a state under red light that binds directly to a phytochrome interacting factor (PIF) and a state under infrared light that doesn’t bind to PIF. The scientist added a membrane-localization part to the Phytochrome, and attached a signaling protein to the PIF to complete their system. A cell illuminated with infrared light under the microscope will have inactive, free-floating, PIF-attached signaling proteins. When the scientist points a red laser in the phytochrome-rich membrane, the PIF-attached proteins are forced to stay close to the membrane; effectively increasing the activity of the signaling proteins. Turning off the red laser frees the proteins and turns off the cellular signal.

To demonstrate the feasibility of this new technique they focused on the signaling proteins Tiam and intersectin, precursors of the Rho-GTPases Rac1 and Cdc42 that have crucial role in the organization of actin cytoskeleton during cell movement. They performed three main experiments: The first experiment tested if membrane recruitment of a small part of intersectin (ITSN-DH-PH) that regulates Cdc42, was effectively inducing transient increases of local protein activity. They shown images of local enrichment of biosensors responsive to Cdc42 activity in the membrane that disappeared few seconds after turning off the red laser. The second experiment tested if membrane recruitment of a part of Tiam (Tiam DH-PH domain) was sufficient to induce changes in the shape of NIH3T3 cells. They illuminated the whole cell with red light for 20 minutes and inmediatly after counted the percentage of cells that made new lamellipodia (actin cytoskeletal projection on the mobile edge of the cell). The result was that almost 80% of cells made new lamellipodia under red-light treatment, compared with a 10% of control populations. To make things even more interesting, in a third experiment they pointed a red laser dot on the edge of one cell and gradually moved it outward, slowly extending this red-targeted region from the cell body. They show in movies that they effectively guided the direction followed by the new lamellopodium– the first reported control of cell movement in real-time using light-sensitive proteins!


Nobel Prize in Chemistry: 140 characters or less

Brian Kobilka gave a talk at University of Washington just two weeks after his Nobel Prize announcement. I will write about my experience live-tweeting his talk; why I think it is important to do it, and why you should put all the information together in a single place afterwards. To learn about Kobilka’s amazing work and G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) I recommend you to check the Nobel Prize announcement and Ash Jogalekar blog post at Scientific American.

What is the value of live-tweeting scientific talks?

Live-tweeting engages multiple voices, widens audiences, and builds communities. Every person in the audience has a unique perspective. Reading a stream of tweets from a talk is more than reading a timeline; a live-twitter stream carries multiple perspectives, each one accentuating the parts of the talk that affected each person. People outside the auditorium will track the hashtag associated with the talk and become part of the audience themselves. It is not uncommon to start dialogs or to share relevant links using the same hashtag. Pretty soon you find yourself in a community of people with similar interest exchanging information on Twitter.

How do you start live-tweeting?

First check if the talk is open to the public. If it is not open to the public, ask the organizers and the speaker about their policies for live-tweeting. The key for starting live-tweeting is to find the right hashtag. Some speakers may have a hashtag for you to use, making the first step of live-tweeting very easy. But very often you need to come up with the right hashtag. Try to make it short, clear, and unambiguous. Try searching for keywords related to the talk and see if other people is live-tweeting with you. In Kobilka’s talk I started using #ChemNobel2012 but soon realized that @MillerLab was using #KobilkaSeminar. I started using both hashtags to merge the Twitter streams and then felt very relaxed knowing that other person was there to help cover the content-heavy talk.

Even if the organizers give you a hashtag you should follow the stream to check if there is no interference with other Twitter conversations. For example, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center “Monster Seminar JAM” was happening the same day as the #MonsterJam concert in Boston, so I switched hashtag mid-talk. Don’t be afraid to switch hashtags during the talk, but communicate this change as clearly as possible to the Twitter audience.

Live-tweeting is simple: set the stage and introduce the subject and the hashtag with the first tweet. Add the Twitter handlers of the speaker and organizers if they have one. Pay attention to the talk, check the Twitter stream periodically. Use quotation marks if you are quoting directly, and make sure to let people know when the talk is over.

Why is important to collect the tweets afterwards?

We live in an era of short attention span, it is hard to get pass the headline and to get complex knowledge. We give the first engagement in Tweeter a place for growth by building a timeline or topic list with more information to click. The fast-moving Twitter feed is replaced by a place where you can take your time, gain perspective, and review contrasting opinions. Make sure you add context and explanations, and links for the original data and figures, if possible.

I use Storify as a tool to curate content of talks and to add some useful links. The software is quite intuitive and the results look professional. If you are curious you can view the story “Kobilka: Structural insights into the dynamic process of G protein-coupled receptor activation.” on Storify.

I hope you consider to start live-tweeting the next public talk you attend. If you do it, have fun!

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Scientists and new media: overcoming a healthy skepticism

Commodore PET computers in use after 30 years after their introduction to the market. They were a very important part of my PhD dissertation as they controlled  the experimental setup. Alas! no internet connection available.

I started a Twitter account two months ago. Somehow during the process I became a Social Media evangelist that pesters old and new friends so they start talking about their science online. I successfully got one friend to open a Twitter account (and use it), and I got another friend to start using hashtags during meetings. And now I want you –yes, I am talking to you– to consider giving new media a try.

Most scientists understand the need to communicate their work to the public, either to help them take informed decisions in the public health and policy area, or to make sure the taxpayers learn the very important labor that scientists do with their money. A lot of my friends, including me, do science communication because it is fun, and because it is great to talk with people about what we love. But when I start telling my friends to put content on a blog or following people on Twitter I see in their faces “a healthy skepticism about return on investment of engaging in new media” as Liz Neeley of CompassBlogs.org puts it (Check this post from Heater Reiff for more). I must concede that engaging your science online takes time, but is it worth it? YES! it is totally worth it.

The learning curve for social media is not too steep, there are plenty of online resources to start –including this Social networking for Scientists WIKI started by Christie Wilcox of Science Sushi— and the benefits are potentially enormous: Two weeks ago I was talking with another post-doc about opportunities to do some science outreach in Seattle. I was surprised to notice that I had so many local people to recommend, most of them I didn’t know before I started using my Twitter account and following the local community. On Twitter you can do several things:  learn about people with similar interest, learn what conferences are popular in your field, find new funding opportunities and get fast answers to questions to the community. More important, when you start building content you also start building relationships and name recognition. Who knows? Maybe a new scientific collaboration or your next job may come from Twitter.

There is more to new media than Tweeter or blogging. LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Google Plus, Storify, and Wikis are great tools that you may consider using.

For more reasons to start engaging your science online and for more information about the different resources available please go to the social networking for scientist Wiki, Have fun!

Update 10/30/12: If you want to start measuring your success with new media tools, you should read Online ROI: How to measure social media impact. This summary from Science Writers 2012 by Christie Wilcox is about the appropriate metrics to measure success in science communication, and the multiple tolls you have to do it.

Deadline: Diversity in Science Blog Carnival

Our friend Elisa Maldonado from Larval Metamorphosis blog is hosting October’s Diversity in Science blog Carnival. Deadline is 29th of October. You can still submit your post!

Reminder: send in your posts!

This is a reminder to send in your blog posts for the Diversity in Science blog Carnival in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

This month’s theme will be Latino / Hispanic Health: Science and Advocacy. Anyone can participate! Even if you don’t have a blog! You can submit new posts as well as relevant posts from their archives by email (please put ‘DIS blog carnival’ in the subject line) or using the online form. The deadline for submissions is October 29, 2012.

Scientific writers come in Trojan horses

A bunch of friends inside the Trojan Horse. I am the guy in the bottom center. © Ivan F. Gonzalez

My last post was about the “Science Salsa Method” to become a better science communicator. In that post I mentioned an awesome Commencement Speech by Robert Krulwich.

This speech in front of the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011 takes half an hour to watch. My friend Jessica Carrilli of “Jessica’s Blog of Bad Advice” made me realize that not everybody has the time to watch it.

If you don’t watch it, you may not know what “looking for friends in low places” means. Let me explain what I meant:

Krulwich paints this picture for the newcomers in journalism:  You are outside the fortified city of Troy and want to get in – to get a job as a journalist in a company. Traditionally you wait on the sandy beaches and send cards to the people inside the fortress until somebody  trows you a key from the high towers and you are allowed to enter.

In the golden age, If you could get yourself into the New york Times or WSJ, and you gave your life for the company, the company would take care of you. That is no longer the case. Krulwich reminded us that “A job at NBC, ESPN, New York Times, NPR, may look safe today – but things change. They always change. And companies won’t protect you from that change. They can’t. And these days, they don’t even try.

As an alternative he proposes this: “Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something.”

The example he used was science journalism. Some people started with a blog, and now “They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!”

Krulwich advice continues: “So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.

Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy.  Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.

And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

The bold font is mine, that is what I meant to say when I said: I am looking for friends in low places!

If you want to read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s speech, please visit this blog post by Ed Yong: “There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine.

Science communication: if you need to start somewhere, start here!


How to become an excellent science communicator?

In science communication nothing beats the dual-package: carefully structured message combined to the ability to hear and read the audience. I am good at engaging the audience but I really want to become the kind of person that can do both engagement and structure effectively; and to keep it fresh, so we can have fun.

I tried the easy way; I searched online for a 5-minute-a-day method for science communication. Results guaranteed after the first two weeks, or your money back. I couldn’t find it.

Plan B is to find my own method for adding formal structure to my own voice. The first step on my method is to learn the craft of scientific writing. There are several things I am doing to make progress in that area: I am using a twitter account to learn to write a compelling message in 140 characters or less; I am taking Writing in The Sciences, an excellent Coursera class taught by Kristin Sainani at Stanford; and I am writing every day, some of those writings you will see in this blog in the future.  I am mainly doing what I do best: learning by observing and by reading other people.

How have other people started as science writers?

I think the best start to answer the question is reading Ed Yong’s blog. Ed is a British science writer with a blog called “Not Exactly Rocket Science” . He is very active in the Science Online community  and he compiled this great list of scientific writers –145 of them– telling you their personal path to get there; Ed said about this group of people, ”You can already see that they’re a varied bunch. Some stumbled into it by accident. Some came from traditional journalistic backgrounds. Others were bitten by a radioactive Carl Sagan. The more the stories accumulate, the better this diversity reveals itself.” The blog post is here: the origin of scientific writers.

I haven’t read all the names in the post. I prefer to read a new one when I have five minutes free, check their web page, maybe start following their blog or twitter account. You may want to do something similar to what I do; find stories that touch you personally, read the author’s work, and maybe contact them.

What path is Science Salsa following?

To properly answer that question, I think you may watch this half-an-hour video about journalism and starting your career by writing your own blog: Friends in low places – Video of Robert Krulwich. I really like his work on the radio, and RadioLab is one of my favorite shows. I think Krulwich makes a very good point in the video about the need to start gaining professional experience blogging from your own living room.

If you really want to know, the answer is simple: I am happily looking for friends in low places.

For more about the video: If you don’t have half an hour to watch it, I wrote another post with relevant  parts of the transcript  here.

The name is out!

Science Salsa is here!

I made public the name of my blog during the Blogging and Twitter section of SACNAS 2012

Sometimes the best option is just to jump into the pool, not to wonder if the water is too cold or if there is a shark lurking underwater. The blog is public!

What a great baptism in the company of Danielle Lee, Cara Santa Maria, Sabrina Bonaparte, Cynthia Coleman, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc.

Ready or not,  Science Salsa is starting to pour right now!


Judging a poster presentation? Try it next time, it may be good for you

My son ‘wearing his first SACNAS T-shirt.
* This was my first blog post, one year ago. The writer on my wants to rewrite it completely, as I believe it does not give justice to the experience of volunteer judging, a really amazing and energizing experience. If you go to SACNAS this year give it a try. It is really going to help some young and passionate scientists and engineers.*

Have you ever tried to help as an organizer or judge in one of the conferences you attended? Why not? You may be missing out!

There are practical reasons to volunteer as a judge or organizer in a conference. The organizers will remember you. They will know and remember your area or areas of expertise. They may invite you as a speaker next year just because your name comes first to their mind.

Additionally, you will have a better understanding of how things work behind the curtains. You may gain a better understanding of what makes a good poster or a good presentation. In some conferences with restricted number of assistants to be an organizer may be your only chance to secure a spot at the conference.

But I am not here to tell you about those reasons. I am going to tell you about my personal reason:

Last weekend I was at the Seattle Convention Center, volunteering to judge poster presentations at SACNAS 2012, “one of the largest annual gatherings of minority scientists in the country”, according to their website. The SACNAS National Conference is interdisciplinary, inclusive, and interactive; the organizers put a big emphasis in mentoring and they ask the judges to give a written feedback to each one of the poster presenters.

Listening to, and talking with the undergraduate students was an immense joy. They are very smart people making a conscious effort to tell you what they did last summer inside a laboratory, or what they did at school during the last year. Most often they do a great job with their poster presentations and I make some small recommendations about style or presentation. I try to always give positive feedback and give a little bit of career advice (little do they know about my own ‘pinball trajectory’ career).

Sometimes there is a personal connection and I see a spark in their eyes when we talk about a shared passion. Moments like that make feel I may have a positive impact on this young scientist or engineer. They certainly make a positive impact on me: they motivate and inspire me.

I see in those amazing young men and women the perfect example, the small little tale to tell my son if –twenty years from now– he decides to pursue a STEM career: They will be great scientist and engineers, and they will have last names that sound like his last name. These future scientists are going places; I can already tell you that!