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May 2010 Archives

From time to time the media present us with reports of 'miracles': the most recent is probably that of the 9-year-old Dutch boy who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Libya. Frankly I would have thought it more miraculous if everyone on board had survived... But anyway, 'miracles' are often presented in the context of medicine. The thing is - they aren't the result of some miraculous intervention, but of the skill & dedication of a whole range of medical practitioners (surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists, oncologists; the list goes on).

Why are some people so ready to ascribe these outcomes to some other cause?


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I've just been sent through an article from an Australian news site, which suggests that the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetrics will next month be discussing the possibility of doctors offering 'ritual nick' - a form of female genital mutilation that entails a small incision on the clitoris. (In this they seem to be following in the footsteps of the American Academy of Paediatrics.)

I am commenting as both a biologist & a woman when I say that I find this practice abhorrent. At its most extreme, female genital mutilation (FGM, sometimes called 'female circumcision', presumably in an attempt to make it sound more acceptable) sees the removal of the clitoris & the labia minora & majora; women are often also infibulated ie the wound is stitched to heal in such a way that only a small opening is available for the passage of urine & menstrual fluids. I say 'women' but the whole process is performed on young girls. The outcome of this extreme mutilation - if the child doesn't die of infection - is complete loss of any pleasurable sexual sensation and the real potential for further damage during intercourse & childbirth, not to mention an increased risk of urinary tract infection. The 'ritual nick' is far less extreme, but it still involves damage to a particularly personal part of a girl's anatomy for no good medical reason.

The rationale for the doctors' consideration of this issue appears to be that it's already done in a 'backdoor' way by various ethnic communities in Australia, without anaesthesia or proper surgical tools, & making the less extreme 'ritual nick' legitimate might stop the whole backdoor thing in its tracks. (In some cases families take their daughters overseas & the FGM is done there. It's hard to see how people who feel so strongly about subjecting their daughters to this would settle for 'just' a nick...)The problem I have with this is that it legitimises the idea that it's OK to scar young women in this way. The practice may have a lengthy cultural history but that doesn't make it right. Nor is there any good biological or health-related reason why it should be encouraged - I fail to see, for example, how cutting away any tissue around a woman's genitals can is some way improve personal hygiene. Yet it's sometimes justified (ha!) as making a young woman 'more beautiful.' More tellingly perhaps, in many proponents of the practice feel that it reduces the young woman's libido, making it less likely that she will engage in 'illicit' (ie outside of marriage) sexual intercourse. This is an incredibly misogynistic view. (And no, I don't see the point of male circumcision either.)

OK, if an adult genuinely consents to such a procedure, & knows what the outcomes are, then it's their decision (although I find it hard to imagine why a woman would wish to go ahead with it). But not a child. Children cannot possibly give informed consent for this.

And - for the doctors - whatever happened to 'first, do no harm'?


PS (29th July): the College has put out a press release saying that it does not support the use of the 'ritual nick'. Thanks to Mark for passing this on.

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For teachers (& students): a biologist's song for Mother's Day. (Yes, I know it's late, but my wonderful tutor just found the video!) It makes the point that, thanks to cytoplasmic inheritance & the nature of what goes on in the womb, slightly more than half of every mammal is due to the mother: we're not simply the result of a 50:50 genetic combination of maternal & paternal DNA :-)


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There's been a lot of hype - & some overwrought responses - surrounding the announcement that Craig Venter & his research team have 'created' a novel life form (a mycobacterium with a completely artificial genome). I wasn't going to weigh into it.

And I'm still not - but I am going to reproduce in full an excellent comment by PZ Myers. (Go back to Pharyngula if you'd like to join in the comments there.) If after reading it you want more, then here's the place to go: the 'Reality Club' at The Edge has an extensive & high-powered discussion around the issue.

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I've had this one in my 'must write about' file for a little while: in the May 7th edition of Science, a large research team announced that they'd produced a draft sequence of Neandertal DNA (Green et al. 2010). Using DNA from 3 individual Neadertals, the multi-institutional team managed to decipher more than 4 billion nucleotides from the Neandertal genome. Considering that Neandertals disappeared 30,000 years ago, this is a stunning achievement.

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I've just spent an interesting hour down at my optometrist's rooms, having my eyes looked into. And learning a whole lot of new stuff.

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The tutor running our first-year labs does a wonderful job of seeking out quirky little video clips that she can use to illustrate a particular point & pique her students' interest. But I think I might have beaten her to this one (courtesy as usual of PZ): a time-lapse sequence of germination & growth of maize.


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 I had another learning experience down at the gym this afternoon. There I was, happily pedalling away on the exercycle (I believe in varying my cardio, otherwise it gets boring!) & reading a fitness magazine (what else?) when I came across an article on whether or not drinking/eating dairy products is bad for you.

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OK, not biology :-) But what follows could equally well apply to teaching problem-solving in any of the sciences.

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From time to time (well, OK, quite often!) I write something about the nature of science. One of the things that I think is often misunderstood is that science is not about certainty, it's about knowledge. Because we are constantly adding to our understanding of how the world works, we're never 100% certain about our findings. 99.9%, maybe, but there's always the possibility that new data may make us question that :-) The trouble is that humans seem to want certainty, & if you're craving that certainty, & don't understand why science can't give it to you, then it's easy to deny the science in favour of some other 'way of knowing'.

Anyway, Orac has just written a great post entitled Knowledge versus certainty in skepticism, medicine, & science. It's based on a research paper examining people's reluctance to change particular beliefs when presented with 'belief-challenging' scientific information. I found it a fascinating read :-)

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 Every so often the issue of regulating supplements and complementary & alternative medicines comes up. And when it does, you tend to get responses that include: these 'treatments' are natural & so completely OK; people have the right to use them to self-medicate; & so on.

I don't have an issue with the 'right to self-medicate' part - as long as the products people are using are fit for purpose. Now this should really include some form of regulation, so that the folks using the products can be sure that said products contain the claimed 'natural' active ingredients, and that those ingredients are present in a standardised form - there shouldn't be dose variation between different batches of product, etc.

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Had a not-the-best ending to a platelets donation today (syncope = fainting; very strange for platelets since you get all the red stuff back...) & I'm still feeling somewhat under the weather & don't feel like writing a 'serious' post. So... what follows is something I've had tucked away for a while, wondering when to post it.

From Thunderfoot: a visually stunning video clip highliighting some of the achievements of science & technology - made in response to a 'creation science' claim that the Bible is a one of the top science books around. All to the sounds of one of my most-favourite pieces of music by J.S.Bach: the toccata & fugue in D minor, played by Vanessa Mae :-)


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It's 'science fair' time of year again & I've volunteered to be a judge at the local fair. I've always enjoyed science fairs, starting from way back when my siblings & I regularly entered in the Hawkes Bay event. It's great meeting a whole bunch of up-&-coming young scientists, & they do some wonderful projects. Some of which, like Emily Rosa's examination of 'therapeutic touch', go a very long way indeed.

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The idea for this post comes via the team at the most excellent Silly Beliefs blogStuff (repository of news & what looks like an awful lot of other stuff) reported about a Massey University research project. The Stuff report kicks off by saying

Spirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand, spurred on by celebrity ghost whisperers.

Hmmm. I have to say, what first came to mind was the Dr Who episode where the good folks at Torchwood had been fooling around with the space-time continuum, so that cybermen were pushing trhough from some other dimension, & people were interpreting their partial manifestations as ghosts. (It all turned to tears, even for the Doctor, although he did eventually save the day.) But here I am, getting side-tracked again. Back to the chase!

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Personal & societal attitudes to death shape the way we view the inevitable ending of our lives. And experiencing the deaths of others, particularly those close to us, can affect us greatly. But at a much deeper, cellular level, death shapes our very being.

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One of the biggest challenges faced by students of biology (or any science, really) is coming to terms with the language of science. Scientific language is precise, it's concise, and it uses a dauntingly large number of new terms. (I saw it written somewhere - sorry, too much marking & the memory's gone bad! - that learning the last is like learning French or some other foreign language.) Going by the conversations I've had with some of my first-year students, just that overwhelming number of new words can be enough to make some people seriously reconsider taking the subject. Which is kind of sad, really - & one reason why I always take a great deal of care in my lectures to introduce new terms carefully & explain what they mean & how we use them. (OK, maybe not every new word, but at the very least, the ones that I know they have trouble with.) It also highlights the fact that it's so very important to be meticulously careful in how you use words, when communicating about science with a wider audience. While the language can add precision, its sophistication & complexity can also be a real barrier to understanding (Snow, 2010).

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