Zero Order

Diving Head First into the World of Skeptics

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 29, 2012

Things went pretty well at Chicago Skepticamp yesterday.

The event was held at Streetside Bar and Grill in Logan Square. Between 50 and 70 people came out to hear short presentations on a variety of topics and socialize.  Camps are informal events, as noted when the organizers showed the program could be made into a paper hat! The bar was open, but I waited until after my talk to drink.

Beth proudly wears her program/hat! Photo by Ivan Phillips

As I mentioned before, my talk was on stem cell facts and misconceptions. There’s enough material on bogus stem cell information to fill a few hours, but I focused on one particular claim: that embryonic stem cells are useless or not as useful as adult stem cells for clinical applications. These claims are typically made by people who have an ideological opposition to embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). If someone has  a moral opposition to ESCR, I can deal with that, they’re entitled to their opinion. But when ESCR opponents start distorting the science, I get angry.  So I discussed the different stem cell categories, advantages and disadvantages to each in research for disease treatment, and argued that all categories were valuable in further research.

While putting together this talk, I actually learned a lot, particularly about hematopoieitic (blood-forming) stem cells (HSCs). We didn’t talk about HSCs as much in class, but they’ve been used in therapy for years and still being investigated for experimental treatments.   I prepared the talk assuming my audience, being interested in science, already knew quite a bit about stem cells, but didn’t know a lot of details, such as the different types of adult stem cells (e.g., HSCs versus mesenchymal stem cells).  I tried not to get overly technical, so no qPCR results, no graphs, only diagrams of stem cell sources or differentiation.

Chicago Skepticamp attendees wave hello to Skepticamp Madrid, joining us via Skype! Photo by Ivan Phillips.

When the event started, I got a little worried my content was going to be too dry and technical. I hadn’t attended a Skepticamp before, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  One of the early speakers, Ashley, gave a lighthearted talk about bogus anti-aging treatments-all involving lasers, for some reason. The audience got a kick out of the crazy things people will do to get rid of cellulite. I was thinking “Crap, I hope everyone isn’t bored during my talk. The funniest thing I have is a quote from the Institute for Creation Research.”

Despite a little adjustment in speaking in front of such a large audience (and using a microphone-I’m not used to that!) the talk went over well. I had a lot of questions at the end, everything from cost differences to the different phases of FDA clinical trials. During lunch and breaks, many people approached me with additional questions. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to answer all the questions I got, but I did provide resources for more information in my presentation slides.

Overall I had a lot of fun at Skepticamp, although I felt worn out my the end of the day. Everything ran smoothly; very few technical

My talk! The image on the slide is a megakaryoycyte, the cell responsible for producing platelets. Photo by Ivan Phillips.

problems and events didn’t get too far off schedule. My favorite talk was “Canine Aggression and Dominance: Myths and Misunderstandings” by Lynn Liliedahl.  This is a topic I’ve never seen discussed in a skeptical context, but the topic is important because handling an aggressive dog incorrectly could result in physical harm. As much as I enjoy a bizarre conspiracy theory, has anyone been injured from believing the moon landing was faked? Highly unlikely.  I also got a lot out of listening to Ali Marie’s talk “Fostering Curiosity”, focused on encouraging preteen and teen interest in science.

Today I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do with this talk in a longer format. I’d like to go into more detail about the complexity of engineering solid tissues, which I only touched on in this talk. I’d also like to delve into stem cell quackery-charlatans offering stem cell injections (usually outside the U.S.) that don’t actually do anything. What other topics could I bring to Chicago skepticism? Myths about nanotechnology? Studies about belief? The possibilities are numerous!

Short update

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 23, 2012

-I’ve put together my Skepticamp presentation.  The last three slides are more text heavy than I like to go in a PowerPoint, but there’s no way around that. I could discuss incorrect information and scams regarding stem cells for hours, but since I only a short time, I’m going to focus on the belief that one (or more) categories of stem cells is useless in human therapies.  I’m a little nervous I’m going to get a question I can’t answer, and I won’t have a professor to  bail me out. I have given a couple presentations for interviews, and overall those went well. I plan to do lots of reading about stem cells and try to keep my cool.

-I recently finished James Watson’s memoir Avoid Boring People: Lessons Learned From a Life In Science. Watson writes a lot about the people he associated with from childhood through his resignation from Harvard. To be honest, most of the cast of characters were indistinguishable aside from the ones I’d heard of before. Every chapter has a set of lessons learned. Favorite lessons?  Choose a young graduate advisor (young scientists are more likely to be accepting of new ideas). Surround yourself with intellectual equals-someone who can tell you if your ideas are completely wrong. And of course, don’t have a fit if someone turns down your request for funding.

Speaking at Skepticamp

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 16, 2012

A little exciting news: I’ve signed up to speak at Chicago Skepticamp later this month.

What is a skeptic? I like this definition from, which  defines a skeptic as “One who is yet undecided as to what is true; one who is looking or inquiring for what is true; an inquirer after facts or reasons. ” We’re interested in exposing false information about   a variety of topics:

-ESP/Paranormal powers


-Cryptozoology (e.g., Bigfoot)

-Alternative medicine

-Conspiracy theories

EDIT: Well, that’s odd. WordPress ate half my post. Short recap: my talk is titled “Stem Cells: Facts and Misconceptions”. I’m a little nervous since this is my first time at a skeptical event, but I did plenty of presentations in grad school and have a lot of practice speaking and thinking on my feet.  If you’re in the Chicago area and you’re interested in attending, there are spots open-and registration is free!

Bad Depictions of Science in the Media

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 12, 2012

We’ve been watching the reimagined Battlestar Galactica for the past few months. At the risk of geeking out,  I was very upset by the season 2.5 episode “Epiphanies” . Not merely for the absurd plot twist, but for the bad example how to conduct research.  I am distressed by the lack of scientific literacy in our society. I don’t blame TV shows, and I accept that science fiction takes liberties with principles and technology, but science basics should remain intact. Besides, this episode just bugged me. Spoilers ahead!



Quick articles of interest:

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 6, 2012

A quick update on the Pompe disease post I wrote a couple weeks ago.

The  enzyme replacement therapy (Myozyme) I discussed previously decreases in effectiveness if the patient develops antigens to the enzyme. A small clinical trial found patients who receive a low dose of  chemotherapy drugs decreased the immune response and improved the patients’ functioning.

Via one of my FB friends: USF Study links autism to abnormal immune characteristics, novel protein fragment. Researchers found a protein fragment in circulating blood at higher levels in an autistic mouse model compared to nonautistic mice. More testing needs to be done, but perhaps this could lead to a blood test for autism.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Have a good weekend!

New Year’s and Nanoparticles

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 2, 2012

Happy New Year everyone! I rang in the New Year with a performance of A Klingon Christmas Carol at the Greenhouse Theater in Chicago. It was a lot of fun, although I’ve never sang “Auld Lang Syne” in Klingon before.

The New Year is off to a busy start. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to travel for an interview. In the meantime, here’s an article I ran across recently:

Teenager wins $100,000 prize for designing a controlled drug delivery system. Angela Zhang’s  nanoparticles have components of gold and iron oxide and are designed to specifically target cancer stem cells. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find able to find more information about the specifics, but I can talk about some general concepts regarding the design of her system

A  number of research groups have worked with gold nanoparticles (GNPs). GNPs are inert in humans, nontoxic, and are easily chemically modifiable, allowing for the attachment of drugs or targeting molecules. Drug release from GNPs can be activated by light.  Both gold nanoparticles and iron oxide nanoparticles can be used for imaging. The nanoparticles are injected intravenously and can be visualized through medical imaging. In the case of iron oxide nanoparticles, MRI is highly effective. Imaging can be used in conjunction with drug delivery by locating the area with imaging, and then activating the nanoparticles  by heat, light, or ultrasound. In the case of Zhang’s drug delivery system, the nanoparticles are activated by a laser. This localizes the drug’s effects on the affected area, and prevents adverse drug effects elsewhere in the body.

Finally, a word or two about cancer stem cells, the target of Zhang’s nanoparticles. Cancer stem cells (CSCs)  are malignant cells that have properties of stem cells; namely, CSCs are able to differentiate. They are believed to be capable of differentiating into multiple types of malignant cells accounting for the heterogeneity of cells found in tumors.  There is interest in specifically targeting CSCs to prevent tumors from recurring or metastasizing. The study of cancer stem cells is still young, and we have a lot to learn before we can precisely target the cells for destruction.

Zhang  has been working on this project since 2009, but I wasn’t able to find out  what stage her project is in. Still, it’s fantastic to see a young person with great ideas about controlled drug delivery, and I wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors!


Boisselier and Astruc “Gold nanoparticles in nanomedicine: preparations, imaging, diagnostics, therapies and toxicity.” Chemical Society Reviews 2009 38(6): 1759-82

Ghosh et. al. “Gold nanoparticles in delivery applications“, Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 2008; 60(11): 1307-1315

Gupta, A.K. and Gupta M.  “Synthesis and surface engineering of iron oxide nanoparticles for biomedical applications”

Biomaterials, 2005, 26 (18): 3995-4021
Madka and Rao “Cancer stem cell markers as potential targets for epithelial cancers” Indian Journal of Experimental Biology,

2011, 49(11):826-35.