Zero Order

On-screen women in STEM: Nerd edition

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on February 28, 2012

Today the American Association for University Women (AAUW) posted “Our Favorite On-screen Women in STEM”.  While they had some good choices,  I found a few of them questionable.  Hermione Granger? She was a wizard.  Are there really so few female scientists they had to name Sandy from Spongebob Squarepants?

So with that, I give you my top five onscreen women in STEM. I will warn you it’s going to be heavily sci-fi biases. This not geeking out thing on the blog isn’t going well at the moment…

1. Martha Jones, Doctor Who

Martha met the Doctor when she was a med student. Through her travels in time and space, she was able to get out of scrapes by thinking on her feet, solving problems, and occasionally, treating a dislocation in a humanoid fish. Oh, and she saved the world.

2. Toshiko “Tosh” Sato, Torchwood

Tosh was the computer and technology expert for Torchwood, a secret alien-fighting agency. Access to government databases? Alien technology? No problem.

3. Leslie Winkle,  The Big Bang Theory

Leslie is an experimental physicist who uses likes to use lab equipment to prepare her breakfast. Although Amy Farrah Fowler gets more attention, I’ve always like Leslie. She had decent social skills and didn’t hesitate to put Sheldon in his place.

4. B’Elanna Torres, Star Trek: Voyager

Flunking out of Starfleet Academy didn’t stop B’Elanna from becoming Chief Engineer when Voyager was flung to the Delta Quadrant. She was tough and could fix anything. And don’t laugh; Voyager had some good episodes.

5. Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and lesser known sequels

Although she never graduated high school, Lisbeth is a brilliant computer hacker. She’s curious, strong willed, and insists on justice, even if she has to take drastic measures.

Honorable Mentions:
Jean Grey, X-Men movies
Jordan Cochran, Real Genius
Kaylee Frye, Firefly
Liz Shaw, Classic Doctor Who

What was interesting about coming up with this list was how few women were eligible and how long it took to think of them.  There are over 100 recurring characters on The Simpsons; not one is a woman in a STEM field.  There’s no shortage of women executives, lawyers, or politicians on TV, but scientists? Not so much.

On the upside, I had a much easier time thinking of actual women in STEM. Marie Curie. Rosalind Franklin. Maud Lenora Menten. Barbara McClintock. Danica McKellar. And of course, there’s all the women faculty members and industry people who aren’t famous.


Publications and easy caffeine

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on February 19, 2012
Tags: ,

Hello there.  I haven’t had a whole lot to write about. I’ve been focusing on the job search and some home repair things that unfortunately, keep jumping in price. It’s so much fun to find out the previous owner installed something wrong!

I do have a little exciting news:  A paper I co-authored has been accepted for publication! The paper examines cell viability when encapsulated in superporous hydrogels. This paper was originally written by a previous Master’s student, but had been rejected for publication. I rewrote the intro and conclusion, and one of my labmates rewrote some of the methods and discussion in addition to improving the quality of the images.  “Macroporous Hydrogel Scaffolds: A Platform for Cell Encapsulation” will be published in Biomedical Materials in April.

In the news:

Pharmacy on a chip gets closer: Researchers at MIT performed a clinical trial with an implantable drug delivery device for osteoporosis patients. This is the first implantable drug delivery device I’ve read about that uses electronics; typically the release is governed by diffusion or degradation. Externally programmable pacemakers exist, so why not a drug delivery chip?

FDA to review inhalable caffeine: Aeroshot was actually developed by a bioengineering professor at Harvard. As a Diet Coke addict, I approve of this development 🙂  At $2.99 a tube, it’s cheaper than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.


Quick links: Biocapsules and 3-D printing

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on February 9, 2012

The folks at Gizmodo were impressed by a controlled drug delivery system using carbon nanotubes. The nanotube capsule is implanted under the skin and releases a drug or protein when exposed to a stimulus. For example, a capsule for a diabetic would release insulin in response to high blood sugar. The creator also proposed putting cells in the nanotubes that would secrete a necessary protein.

There are a number of examples of stimulus responsive drug delivery systems in the literature. The cell angle is unique, but I think there’s a lot of challenges to this sort of system. Can cells secrete enough of the protein to have a therapeutic impact? Is the trigger for release sufficiently sensitive?  I also wondered about the long term viability of the cells, but the system’s creator, Dr. Loftus, addresses this in an update to the article.

Next up: New jaw for woman fabricated using 3-D printer. I’ve always been fascinated by 3-D printing, and I’ve read predictions that someday we’ll be using 3-D printers to create vital organs. I am worried about what happens to body parts when you’re printing and run low on toner!


Targeting MMPs in Crohn’s disease

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on February 5, 2012

I’ve been meaning to write about this article for a few weeks: Synthetic Molecules Treat Autoimmune Disease in Mice. The synthetic molecule in question is an antibody to the enzyme matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9). Since my research project involved manipulating MMPs in controlled drug delivery, I make it a point to check out related topics.

This particular article is about a treatment for Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is a disorder in which the body’s own immune system (hence, autoimmune) attacks the intestines, causing inflammation and lots of unpleasant symptoms I’m not going to mention in case you’re eating.  The exact cause of Crohn’s disease is unknown.  Crohn’s can be treated with lifestyle changes and medications, but some cases are severe and refractory to all known treatments. I saw a few severe cases  in my old job as a medical records coder. Severe or mild, this is Not Fun.

Now a little about MMPs. MMPs are a family of enzymes that degrade the extracellular matrix (ECM), the proteins in your body between the cells. Collagen is one type of ECM protein.  They’re all identified by numbers, so MMP-1, MMP-2, MMP-3, and so forth.  In normal function, MMPs contribute to many normal body functions, such as growth and wound healing. In certain diseases, including cancer and Crohn’s disease, MMP expression and activation is well above normal levels. In inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s, the overactive MMPs  (namely, MMP-2, 9, and 13) have been suggested in the breakdown of the intestinal walls, leading to the ulceration or fibrosis (1). So, by stopping the MMPs, we should have a treatment for the disease, right?

Well, yes and no. MMP inhibitors were examined in the 1990s as a cancer treatment. Since MMPs contribute role to the growth of cancer by creating space for tumors to grow, aiding the formation of new blood vessels, and being involved in metastasis, inhibition seemed like a good route to pursue. The MMP inhibitors did well in studies with animals, but poorly in trials with humans.  The actual picture of the relationship between MMPs and tumors was much more complicated than previously thought; some MMPs had a protective effect against cancer (2). Also, the MMP inhibitors stopped the spread of cancer, but weren’t able to attack the tumor that was already present (3).

This particular paper seems more promising. The research group developed molecules that when injected, would cause the body to develop antibodies to MMP-9 (which they dubbed metallobodies).  The researchers tried this in a mouse model of Crohn’s disease and were able to detect metallobodies in the mice’s blood and prevent the symptoms of Crohn’s. The metallobodies bound to MMP-2 and MMP-9, which isn’t surprising since MMP-2 and MMP-9 are very similar in structure and function (The enzyme I worked with for my research was MMP-2, so I’m well acquainted with both).  The specificity is encouraging, as the inhibitor won’t interfere with the normal functions of the other MMPs.

Other questions remain to be answered: the human immune system is more complex than that of a mouse, will this molecule have the same effect? What effect will the molecule or the metallobodies have on the rest of the Crohn’s disease process? We’ll see how this pans out.


1. Altadill, et. al. “Comparative Analysis of the Expression of Metalloproteases and Their Inhibitors in Resected Crohn’s Disease and Complicated Diverticular Disease ” Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, 2012, 18 (1) 120-130.

2. Martin and Matrisian. “The other side of MMP: Protective Roles in Tumor Progression” Cancer Metastasis Reviews, 2007, 26(3-4), 717-724

3. Coussens et. al. “Matrix Metalloproteinase Inhibitors and Cancer: Trials and Tribulations” Science, 2002,  295(5564): 2387