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Well, this sucks, & that's putting it mildly. From Kevin Folta's blog, Illumination:

Dr Folta has been under constant attack in recent months since it emerged that Monsanto had donated  $US25,000 to fund a science outreach program he was running. Not his research, but an outreach program. He was accused of a conflict of interest by those opposed to genetic modification (one of the topics covered in the program) & ended up returning the money. However that didn't stop the attacks or the calls for his university to fire him. And so now there's this: the possibility I touched on when I first wrote about this issue has become reality.


And yet it's somehow OK, & not at all hypocritical (/snark) for anti-GMO speakers to demand tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to promote their message, or to pay similarly large amounts for research into eg organic farming. 

On Code for Life, Grant Jacobs has a very thoughtful piece on GMO legislation. And that's what we need from both sides of this question: careful rational thought, not anger.


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I've never heard of gribbles before, & did wonder if they were in some way related to tribbles (or a certain US politician's hair...). But no, it turns out that gribbles are small, wood-boring crustaceans. And they look rather cute: 

A magnified image of the gribble

Image by Prof Simon McQueen-Mason & Dr Simon Cragg 

However, their cuteness should not obscure the fact that gribbles (and their partners-in-crime, the molluscan shipworms & crustacean pillbugs) do a significant amount of damage to the wood of piers, jetties, & vessels. For this reason (Powell, 2012: 326)

Even in today's more ecologically oriented society, a motion to conserve the 'gribble' would receive little support along the world's waterfronts 

And how did I find out about gribbles? Well, a good friend & colleague is a co-author on a just-published paper on the environmental history of marine woodborers (Rayes, Beattie & Duggan, 2015). The authors begin by saying that

While depictions of mariners fighting fearsome sea monsters or battling terrifying storms entertain us to this day, it is perhaps ironic that one of the main threats to commerce over the last millennium or more has come from a series of very small organisms whose history has been submerged in historical accounts.
And they then go on to look at how these marine invertebrates have spread through the world's oceans, disrupting both travel & trade. In New Zealand they found a rich source of information on how European settlers tried to deal with the damage done by the woodborers (aka the "Termites of the Sea"), trying a range of (unsuccessful) techniques in an uncoordinated way.
The depredations of marine woodborers on these structures created headaches for governments, shipping companies and export industries alike, as authorities and companies grappled with the need to repair crumbling infrastructure and ships (ibid).
This was a continuous problem from at least the 2nd millenium BCE - when the Egyptians responded to borer attack by using much thicker ('sacrificial') wood on ocean-going ships & coating it with tar - until the advent of concrete-based infrastructure and ships of iron or steel. I found the history of human responses to the serious damage wrought by these little animals absolutely fascinating. At one point it reminded me of reading - in the 'Hornblower' books by C.S.Forester - of ships being careened in order to replace damaged hull timbers. It's worth noting, too, that some of the treatments applied to timber, while they may have reduced the depredations of gribbles & their ilk, were themselves quite harmful to the environment: think arsenic & mercury, for example.
I was surprised to discover that even in recent times, woodborers continue to do damage. For example
between 1995 and 1997, New York experienced severe woodborer damage, resulting in a 21-metre wharf section dropping into the East River and a six-metre section plunging from the Brooklyn pier (ibid).
New Zealand hasn't escaped scot-free. Shipworm fossils date back around 200 million years, and our native mangroves would have been part of their habitat. However, new niches would have opened up to them upon human arrival, dependent as we were on ships and related infrastructure. And in turn, Maori and then European movement to & around our coasts not only carried the native shipworms to new habitats but also introduced gribbles & pillbugs, now well-established here. However, for a long time after European settlement, responses to the problems posed by marine woodborers were handled in quite a parochial, disconnected manner - the authors have done a very thorough job of reviewing historical documents to pull together this aspect of New Zealand's maritime history. And they've found some fascinating little snippets: in 1889, in Timaru,
the effects of gribbles [on the Timaru wharf] were compared to 'the suckling of a sugar stick by a sweet-toothed infant' (ibid).
Incidentally, non-native woodborers can also do considerable harm to mangroves, which is of concern given the significant ecosystem roles that mangroves can play. However, Rayes & her co-authors also make the valuable point that the various woodborers - while they may be a right royal pain in the planking for mariners - also serve a valuable function in their own, original, tropical ecosystems:
Woodborers provide important ecological services within mangrove ecosystems and along coastlines by removing the build-up of dead woody debris, through increasing their rate of decomposition (ibid).
Indeed, it seems that an enzyme from this little wood-muncher may provide a useful biotechnological fix for recycling cellulose-based materials. (This is a valuable reminder that whether something is 'good' or 'bad' is often highly context-dependent; think also of the case of Helicobacter pylori.)
So why have we paid so little heed to the gribbles, shipworms, and pillbugs (oh my!)? Rayes et al. have this to say (but I really disagree on the claimed lack of cuteness of gribbles!)
There is nothing remotely heroic about fighting a minute-sized shipworm when one could be grappling with a terrifying octopus ... [Marine woodborers] can offer neither the mystery nor appeal of a whale, still less the terror of a Great White Shark, or the cuteness of a dolphin. They have all the appeal of a snail or a slug, and probably induce the same inclinations ...
Yet the fact that gribbles don't sell books or invite the same warm feeling or terror as larger creatures of the sea should not stop us from attempting to rescue them from the enormous condescension of posterity [that ignores their significant role in maritime history].

Powell, C.E. Jnr (2012) Isopods other than Cyathura. pp325 - 343 in Hart, C.W.Jnr (Ed) Pollution Ecology of Estuarine Invertebrates. pub Elsevier.

Rayes, C.A, Beattie, J., & Duggan, I.C. (2015) Boring through history: an environmental history of the extent, impact and management of marine woodborers in a global and local context, 500 BCE to 1930s CE. Environment and History 21(4): 477 - 512. doi: 10.3197/096734015X14414683716163


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The internet is a seething pool of 'stuff', and one of the challenges faced by those using it is to distinguish useful information from foolish fantasy. And there surely is a lot of the latter! Thus we find that

According to a BBC news story, the Indian government's Agriculture Minister  has said that yogic farming would "empower the seeds with the help of positive thinking", and that this 'would help improve yield and soil fertility and contribute to making India prosperous.' This has been quite widely reported, with more details of the Minister's comments given in the Indian Express, including this one:

The idea is to help farmers. With the help of Rajyog [yogic practices], we should enhance fertility of the soil. It will help activity of micro-organisms in the soil too.

Somehow I can't see magical thinking having much effect on seeds, fungi, protozoa, or bacteria...

Lemons neutralise acidity. Yes, you read that right. This bit of mythinformation keeps popping up on various 'natural health' sites - here, for example. These sites all make the same claims: that the stresses of modern life put the body's pH out of whack, and that various foods can fix the problem (some even going so far as to suggest that eating the 'right' ie 'alkaline' foods will help to prevent or cure cancer). And for some weird reason lemons are listed as a food that will neutralise that pesky acidity and set the body to rights. (The site I linked to also lists pineapples, limes, oranges, tangerines, kiwifruit, and vinegar as foods that will make your tissues more alkaline.) 

The fact that lemons contain citric acid, that anything ingested must pass through the highly acidic environment of the stomach; and that the body does an excellent job of maintaining a constant pH environment around its cells - all this is happily ignored. Luckily there are science bloggers out there who do an excellent job of addressing this nonsense - Dr Kat Day's The Chronicle Flask is one of them, & you should go there now & read her great explanation of why lemons are not going to neutralise acidity and why claims to the contrary are nonsensical.

And if your DNA's been damaged by exposure to fluoride, never fear! For you can repair that damage by reprogramming water's memory, or so a commenter on the Girl Against Fluoride's FB page would have others believe. You have to distill the water first:

The forced medication [community water fluoridation] corrupts our DNA, Distilling the water clears any memory in the water, which then allows you to reprogram it.

And how does that work? Apparently you can 

reprogram the memory in it with a water proof speaker. Play the 528hz tone in the distilled water. The distilled water will absorb the vibration and change the structure of the water molecules. This water will help repair your DNA.

So here we have an example of someone who doesn't understand chemistry and also believes in homeopathy (the first is pretty much required for the second). Their thinking seems to be in line with the dangerously crazy idea, promoted by some homeopaths, that homeopathic 'remedies' can be delivered via mp3 recordings. And the idea that water's 'structure' can be modified by good or bad vibrations seems to hark back to the claims made by one Dr Emoto, who claimed that he could distinguish between ice crystals depending on whether they'd been the subject of good or bad 'intent'. Orac did a thorough dissection of these claims back in 2009, so it would appear that some woo never changes.


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This is a cross-post from Talking Teaching.

   The author of this article certainly thinks so. Under that header, he continues:

Do you really believe that watching a lecturer read hundreds of PowerPoint slides is making you smarter? I asked this of a class of 105 computer science and software engineering students last semester.

Well, first up, that's a leading (& loaded) question. And secondly, I'd be surprised if anyone really believed that. Yes, I'm sure that there are lecturers who simply read off their powerpoint slides (which really is a no-no!). And what did we use in the days Before Powerpoint (BP)? Quite likely overhead transparencies, either printed or handwritten, and yes, some of us certainly had lecturers who simply read all the information off the transparency. (I know I did!)

In other words, the header ignores the fact that Powerpoint is simply a tool. Nothing more, and nothing less. It cannot make anyone boring. That's done by the person using it; similarly, the way the tool is used will have a flow-on effect on learners. Indeed, this was the focus of a post I wrote some time ago, and if you haven't already read the 2008 paper by Yiannis Gabriel that I discussed therein, you should do so now.

A better question would be: how do we help professors to use powerpoint (& other technologies) in ways that better support student learning?

That, of course, requires that we are able to measure student learning in meaningful ways. And here I definitely agree with the author of the article: 

Any university can deploy similar testing to measure student learning. Doing so would facilitate rigorous evaluations of different teaching methods. We would be able to quantify the relationship between PowerPoint use and learning. We would be able to investigate dozens of learning correlates and eventually establish what works and what doesn't.

Perhaps we should start thinking about this.

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I've always enjoyed Nick Lane's writing1, so naturally an article he wrote for the ABC Science website caught my eye. Titled "Evolution of complex life on Earth, take 2?", it discusses an organism that appears to be neither prokaryote nor eukaryote, but something in-between.

There's a great divide between the cells that fit the description of 'prokaryote' and those that we view as eukaryotes. Both cell types have a cell membrane, which separates the cell's contents from its external environment; DNA & RNA (the nucleic acids); and ribosomes (where proteins are constructed from their constituent amino acids, in accordance with the information encoded in DNA). But beyond that, prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells are distinctly different.

Prokaryotes have a single, circular chromosome, with no nuclear membrane separating it from the cytoplasm. There are no membrane-bound organelles (as distinct from infoldings of the cell membrane, or 'plasma membrane'), and the cells are generally much, much smaller than a eukaryote cell.

In contrast, in a eukaryote the multiple, linear chromosome are separated from the cytoplasm & its contents by a nuclear membrane. In addition to ribosomes the cytoplasm contains a range of organelles, including mitochondria, golgi bodies, and (if they're photosynthetic cells) chloroplasts.

We spend quite a bit of time in class discussing the evolutionary origin of these more complex cells: for example, it's generally agreed that the mitochondria and chloroplasts are the results of endosymbiotic events. That is, each of these organelles originated from once-free-living prokaryote cells that were engulfed by some proto-eukaryote but not then digested (which is the usual fate for things that cells engulf). When this concept was first proposed by Lyn Margulis, back in the 1960s it received a fair bit of skepticism, but there's now plenty of evidence to support it. However, in class we've never really discussed what a cell in the process of becoming a eukaryote would look like, which is why I found Lane's article (& the original paper by Yamaguchi et al.) so interesting. In it, he discusses the organism pictured in the image below. It's a significant find because, as Yamaguchi & his colleagues point out,

[The] differences in cellular structure between prokaryotes and eukaryotes are so vast that the problem of how eukaryotes could have evolved from prokaryotes is one of the greatest enigmas in biology. If eukaryotes had indeed evolved from prokaryotes, then there must have been viable organisms with intermediate cellular structures.

Image credit: Fig 1 from Yamaguchi et al (2012), doi: 10.1093/jmicro/dfs062. CW: cell wall, N: nucleus, NM: nuclear membrane, PM: plasma (cell) membrane, E: endosymbionts (two of which were rod-shaped; the third resembled a spiral-shaped bacterium)

The image shows an ultra-thin section of a single-celled organism found on a polychaete worm that lived on a hydrothermal vent over a kilometre down in the ocean (Yamaguchi et al., 2012). Now, on first inspection that does look rather like a eukaryote cell, and Yamaguchi et al. point out that it has a volume about 100 times greater2 than that of a bacterium like E.coli. But as Lane notes:

It has a single nuclear membrane, with a few gaps. No nuclear pores. The DNA is composed of fine fibres as in bacteria, not thick eukaryotic chromosomes. There are ribosomes in the nucleus. Ribosomes in the nucleus! And ribosomes outside the nucleus too. The nuclear membrane is continuous with the cell membrane in several places. And some of the endosymbionts ... resemble corkscrew shaped bacteria on 3D reconstruction, making them look more like relatively recent bacterial acquisitions.

While it has internal membranes there is nothing resembling an endoplasmic reticulum, or the Golgi apparatus, or a cytoskeleton, all classic eukaryotic traits. In other words, this cell is actually nothing like a modern eukaryote. It just bears a superficial resemblance.

Unfortunately, as Lane notes, there's no genetic material available for a genome comparison that might help to place this enigmatic organism. This is because only one was found, and that was sliced into multiple ultra-thin sections for microscopic examination (which has, however, allowed a 3D reconstruction of what the original cell - and its endosymbionts - would have looked like).

One of the questions I've wondered about, in teaching about endosymbiosis as an origin for eukaryotes, is 'when did the nucleus develop? Before, or after, the endosymbiotic event that gave rise to mitochondria?' Yamaguchi et al. point out that the cell they've described doesn't have a fully-formed nucleus (only that single membrane and 'fibrous' genetic material), but does have internalised endosymbionts. From this, they suggest that

the nucleus was not necessarily formed when eubacteria started their endosymbiosis in the prokaryote host cell. Thus, the formation of the nucleus and transformation of bacteria into mitochondria might have proceeded independently

and with the host cell wall developing after the endosymbionts entered the host cell.

However, there are a lot of imponderables (& oh! how useful that genome would be here), & so the authors weren't really able to determine just where that unicellular organism sits among the domains of life. (That's assuming it's not simply an artefact of the sampling process.) Lane suggests three alternatives.

One is that it is a 'highly derived eukaryote' ie a cell adapted to a highly unusual environment that has lost many of the normal eukaryote structures. Of this, he says that

If Parakaryon myojinensis really is a highly derived eukaryote, then it's radically different in its basic plan to anything we've seen before. I don't think that's what it is.

The second option is that it's a sort of 'living fossil', surviving only in the unchanging deep-sea environment. This is the option favoured by Yamaguchi & his team. However, it's really really rare (a 12-year project has yielded just the single specimen): would such a rare organism have survived the ~2 billion years since eukaryotes evolved? Lane also comments that it

is not living in an unchanging environment: it is attached to the back of a segmented worm, a complex multicellular eukaryote that obviously did not exist in the early evolution of eukaryotes.

He suggests a third option:

it is a prokaryote, which has acquired endosymbionts, and is changing into a cell that resembles a eukaryote.

We certainly have evidence of endosymbiotic events in modern organisms, so why rule out the same thing happening among prokaryote cells? And Lane argues that when (not if) such events occur, their results are predictable - and are what we see here:

It is relatively large, with a genome that looks substantially larger than any other prokaryote, housed in a 'nucleus' continuous with internal membranes, and so on. These are all traits that we predict would evolve, from first principles, in prokaryotes with endosymbionts.

Obviously this one isn't settled yet. Yamaguchi et al.conclude by saying that

Of course, more specimens need to be collected and cultured to obtain the molecular data, including 16S rRNA genes, which will establish the evolutionary relationships between this microorganism and the prokaryotic and eukaryotic branches of life.

That's an important reminder: this is a big tale to hang on just a single cell. But it's is a fascinating story, nonetheless.


1 "Power, Sex & Suicide" has got to be on the list of the world's greatest book titles!

2 Modern eukaryotes are larger again by a factor of 100.

M.Yamaguchi, Y.Mori, Y.Kozuka, H.Okada, K.Uematsu, A.Tame, H.Furukawa, T.Maruyama, C.O'Driscoll Worman & K.Yokoyama (2012) Prokaryote or eukaryote? A unique microorganism from the deep sea. Journal of Electron Microscopy (preprint) doi: 10.1093/jmicro/dfs062


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This is a cross-post from Talking Teaching.

Image from linguasynaptica

I guess it depends on what they’re using their laptops for.

Most days when I come in at the back of the lecture room & walk down to the front, I’ll see a lot of laptops open & in use. Quite a few students will actually have the (incomplete1) powerpoint for the day’s class open on their screens, but quite a few others are on Facebook (or some arcane form of social media that I haven’t caught up with yet) or just surfing. So when a friend shared an article titled Professors push back against laptops in the lecture hall, I read it with interest & also shared it with one of our big FB student pages for some consumer opinion. (There’s some interesting commentary here, too.)

One of the major reasons many oppose laptop use is their potential to distract students from what’s going on in the classroom, and judging from the ‘consumer feedback’ I received, that can be quite a big issue:

I don’t begrudge others using them except when they are watching videos or checking facebook etc during lectures. That’s very distracting.

It’s only annoying and distracting when people take their laptops and play games or scroll Facebook. Which a lot of people do…

Somewhat surprisingly, that distractive effect extends to students putting their devices to what many of us would regard as ‘legitimate’ use ie searching for information directly related to the class. And I’ll admit, sometimes I’ll ask a student to look something up, especially if I think they’re doing something other than class-related work! For example, this brief report cites a study showing that

students who spent a greater proportion of time seeking course-related sites recalled significantly less than those who were more often browsing sites unrelated to the course (r = -.516, p. < .02).

And worse:

the more students used their laptops, the lower their class performance (β = -.179, t(115) = -2.286, p = .024), the less attention they paid to lectures (p = .049), the less clear lectures seemed to them (p = .049), and the less they felt they understood the course material (p = .024)

Yikes! This really piqued my interest, & led me to a 2014 paper by Mueller & Oppenheimer, which has the wonderful title, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I’ve certainly observed that many students struggle with long-hand note-taking, to the extent that I’ll get the occasional complaint that “she moves on to the next slide before I’ve copied it all down” in my teaching appraisals. (I do explain that they shouldn’t be ‘copying it all down’…2) And I type much faster than I write, so I can sympathise with students who want to use their laptops for note-taking in class. So did some of my students, commenting that

I actually find typing notes better for me, because my typing speed is so much faster than my writing speed.


I would hate it if we were not allowed laptops in lectures anymore! I’d miss half the notes and then have to go home and panopto lectures (or die if they weren’t panoptoed) which just takes up time that i could use studying all my notes properly.

Mueller & Oppenheimer’s paper has really got me thinking. They point out that there is a considerable body of evidence around the efficacy of note-taking, commenting that even without the distraction effect,

laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.

This could have that negative impact on learning by two routes: ‘encoding’, and ‘external storage’. ‘Encoding’ is valuable because – ideally! – students process information as they make their notes, and doing this enhances both their learning & their ability to retain information. ‘External storage’ refers to the ability to review and learn from notes at some later point, including notes taken by others: indeed, we employ note-takers to do this for students who are unable (for a variety of reasons) to take notes themselves.

An important question here is, what are students actually doing when they take those in-class notes? Are they actively summarising what’s been discussed eg via drawing a concept map, or writing a paraphrase? Or are they simply copying, word for word, every single thing I say & show in class?3 While some could argue, “but it doesn’t matter ‘cos I’ll write a summary later”, Mueller & Oppenheimer observe that

verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items.

This underlies their suggestion that while laptops allow more rapid note-taking, if those notes are verbatim, then learning and understanding may actually suffer. In fact, they observe that

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.

So where do we go from here? I must admit to being a tad flummoxed at the moment – with the need to offer more flexible learning opportunities and  the current trend to ‘paperless offices’, we’re moving into a more highly digitised world and those laptops aren’t going to go away any time soon. How, then, to overcome the apparent negative effects they may have on student learning? If part of the problem lies with the ability to take appropriate notes, do we need to somehow teach this skill to all our incoming first-years?


1 I mean, why would I give them the whole lot up front (including the answers to my in-class quizzes)? This way there are always some 'unknowns' :)

2 no, seriously! What I’d much prefer is that they read through the material I provide ahead of class, identify the bits where they have no idea what I’m talking about, & then that’s where they should focus any note-taking during class.

3 and if they are taking such fulsome notes – how much attention is being paid to everything else that’s going on in class: the questions, discussion, extra explanations?


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OK, so I'm back (from a lovely long overseas trip). And I had thought to write something 'light' to ease myself back into blogging, but then I see that scientist and science communicator, Kevin Folta, is currently experiencing some dreadful personal attacks via social media for his stance on genetic modification of crops. You'll find Kevin's take on this here, and examples of what he's facing on sites such as this Facebook page owned by GMO Free USA.

This isn't about the man's science. This is simply a series of extremely nasty ad hominem attacks, which tends to suggest that his opponents can't find any valid critiques of the actual scientific research that Dr Folta carries out. And which in turn leads me to paraphrase the words of the late Margaret Thatcher

I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single [scientific] argument left.

Unfortunately the end result may well be to silence the voices of scientists working in any field that attracts controversy1 - although to some degree scientists are pushing back, as evidenced by the following excerpt from a 2010 letter to the journal Science:

We also call for an end to McCarthy- like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

Hang in there, Dr Folta!


1 For those with a spare half-hour, there's an interesting video on the subject here.

And while I'm at it - could the media PLEASE stop using those photos of syringes stuck into pieces of fruit, to illustrate stories on GM and GMOs? They are just wrong in so many ways!

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Saw the webpage headline

First thought: ewwwwww.

Second thought: ooooh, I wonder what that's all about?

Answer: a little filiarid worm.

FIliarid worms are roundworms (nematodes). I knew about the one that causes the disfiguring disease known as elephantiasis, but hadn't heard about the 'eyeworm', or Loa loa. Elephantiasis is due to lymphatic filiariasis, where the nematodes congregate in lymphatic tissue; L.loa causes subcutaneous disease. Apparently it often presents as 'calabar swellings', typically on the hands & wrists, but can also travel across the eyeball. I can only think that this must be both painful and incredibly disconcerting.`

While L.loa infection isn't itself life-threatening, that changes if someone is also infected with other parasites. As the CDC notes

[r]ecognition of Loa loa infections has become more important in Africa because the presence of infection has limited programs to control or eliminate onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis.

Both these other parasites can be controlled by dosing patients with a drug like Ivermectin. Unfortunately the drugs can't be used in someone with a concurrent Loa loa infection, because where an individual has a high load of multiple parasites, the treatment can cause severe encephalitis, coma, or death

So it's really exciting to hear that health workers can now use a microscope attachment (& relevant app) for a smart phone to screen people for this particular parasite :) And can get results in 2 minutes or less, out in the field, with no need for a diagnostic laboratory. The challenge now is to scale up production of the technology in order to meet burgeoning need in Africa: 

Fletcher admits that for the CellScope Loa to be applied to the many millions of people in Africa who need ivermectin treatments, his lab will first have to figure out how to scale up the technology; right now, they’re assembling each scope by hand in the lab. Getting industry help could also be a challenge, he says. “It’s hard to entice companies to make devices whose very goal is to eventually eliminate the need for the device.”

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I've heard it said more than once that complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) 'does no harm' - here's just one example. I suppose that could be true of a healthy person using something like homeopathy, where the only harm is likely to be to their wallet. But time and again, forms of CAM have been shown to do harm, and now we hear of another tragic, and fatal, case. 

In Sydney, a 7-year-old child with type I diabetes has died following the use of 'slapping therapy'

Chinese therapist Hongchi Xiao, who advocates the use of slapping therapy until ­patients are bruised to cure illnesses and rid the body of poisons, is now being investigated by police over the death.

On what planet is it OK to slap a child until they are bruised, let alone to claim health benefits for this? If an adult is foolish enough to submit themselves to this (& to sustain this sort of damage), it's one thing, but a small child? And it seems it wasn't just slapping.

Participants in the seminar were asked to fast for three days and to undertake the slapping and stretching exercises that can prompt vomiting and dizzy spells, known as a "healing crisis".

Fasting? For a type I diabetic? Fasting while on medication can cause hypoglycaemia, which can be fatal if untreated. Fasting without insulin can result in diabetic ketoacidosis, which is also dangerous.

The 'healer', Hongchi Xiao, has apparently stated that 

The greater the pain and bruises while slapping means there is more poison inside the body,”

and would seem to have developed quite a marketing empire around his bizarre claims, if a quick Google search is anything to go by. Amazingly, it seems that after questioning by the Australian police, this charlatan was allowed to leave the country, and will doubtless continue to promote his nonsense elsewhere and to others.

"Alternative medicine does no harm." Yeah, right.

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On Wednesday we ran our first whanau tutorial with the first-year students - a class for those students who identify as Māori. The driver for this was the observation that a disproportionate number of the Māori students in my first-year class didn't do well in our first test, & as a result I asked Kevin, our Faculty's senior tutor responsible for supporting Māori & Pacific Island students, to see if he could help me by setting up a whanau tutorial.

So he contacted all the Māori students in the class, sorted out a time & day that worked for them, and booked a room, & both of us organised some food and drink. Kev welcomed everyone & one of the students said a karakia (prayer) before we started. Brydget, the senior tutor who runs our first-year bio labs, came along, and so did one of the tutors from Student Learning - who took on the role of asking the 'silly questions', to show the students that asking questions really is a good thing & one that's encouraged. Which gave me the chance to steal one of Brydget's lines: that the only silly question is the one you didn't ask :)

There was a test coming up and so the students wanted to work through questions from previous tests, plus they wanted to know how to learn (& remember) things like the characteristics of some animal phyla. I did a bit of talking but for much of the time we had the students working together in groups after a bit of an explanation from me. It was great seeing the energy levels, the engagement, and the fun in the classroom. Brydget & I both try for that when we're teaching, but this was a whole new level. It was quite a salutory eye-opener for me, as I've liked to think I'm an 'inclusive' teacher, but I'd never had this level of engagement from this particular cohort before, and I've learned now that I still have a long way to go.

We ended up going way over time and the students were buzzing when they left. Kevin always does exit surveys for his group work and I was really looking forward to the results: there's a lot of evidence available on the effect of supporting Māori students' learning styles, but I wanted to see how our own students had perceived the session. Fourteen of the 16 attendees completed the survey, & it turned out that

  • all 14 agreed that they could understand the presenter.
  • they loved the learning environment, commenting that it was easier to ask questions; they liked the interactions and group work & the opportunity to work out the answers; felt that I'd explained things clearly & liked it that I made sure they understood before we went on to a new topic; the sheer informality & friendly environment went down well.
  • they'd all recommend it to their friends (yay!) & rated it as either very good or excellent
  • and felt it was a great way to revise.

As I said, a salutory learning experience for me. I've always tried to make classes inclusive, interactive & so on, but it was obvious that the set-up of this particular workshop - with its focus on a specific cohort - provided the spark that was missing.

Even better, next morning a lot of the whanau participants came along to a standard tut with a lot of other students there, as they usually do - but this time things were different. They were much more active in the class, spoke up more and asked more questions than before; their confidence was at a whole new level. They were the only ones to point out to me that I'd made a mistake with labelling a diagram :) (And I said thank you, & that I appreciated it, & it showed they really understood that particular topic.) And afterwards some came up to say how much they'd enjoyed the whanau tut, and a couple followed me back to my office to ask more questions - also a first. And after the test last night I heard that they felt they were much better prepared, this time round. (I haven't started the marking yet, but I am sooo hoping that this translates into improved grades!)

So yes, we'll continue this for the rest of the semester, and on into the next half of the year. There's nothing novel in what we did, & I certainly can't claim any credit (there's a lot in the literature on how best to help Māori students in tertiary classrooms eg hereherehere, & here). I'm just mentally kicking myself, and wishing we'd done it much sooner.

And I'm thinking: the Tertiary Education Commission has identified Maori and Pacific Island students as groups that TEC would like to see increasingly more involved with tertiary education. And to do that, and to maximise their learning success, we do need to reorganise our classrooms: eg do more flipping; get used to a higher level of chatter as students work together to solve problems; reduce the formality inherent in a 'normal' teacher-driven lecture class & sometimes become learners alongside our students. And that requires recognition that students' needs have changed since those of my generation were on the learners' side of the lectern, and that learning styles can and do differ & can be accommodated by using a range of teaching techniques. In other words, a classroom culture shift - one that sees educators recognising that they, too, can be learners when it comes to meeting the needs of a changing student demographic.

And of course, the evidence is already there that making these changes benefits all students.

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November 2015

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