Esa, on Lost Time

June 24, 2009

Hello again everyone,

I would like to apologize for my absence over the last month, much of which I was without internet access for.  My life got more than a little busy and, as I had not yet made a habit of writing here, it fell by the wayside.

Where have I been? Well, graduating from college, visiting old friends, moving to a new city, and starting graduate school is the short list. However, in that time, I have also been making plans for a collaborative series of posts with a fellow blogger and outlining future posts.

What I’m trying to say is that I’m back, and just as determined to make an impact as ever.

Best Always,

Esa

First, I will warn you: this post has nothing to do with graduate school or science. Second, I’m sorry I have been neglecting my blogging duties. I actually just had my college graduation last week and have been packing to move off to graduate school. (Fine, you caught me, I wasn’t officially a graduate student when starting this blog – but I will be in a matter of weeks! Woohoo!)

So… Rush Limbaugh…

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In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of restoring science to its proper place. This statement was as heartening to me as to any other scientist, but I fear that the unspoken premises behind it may ultimately prove detrimental to the goal. It is all too easy to fault the previous administration for the recent descent of science in the public eye. However, the issue is vastly more complex, and a change in government policy cannot alone alter the public perception of science.

There are other forces working against scientific progress. For example, in his commentary, Wolpe states, “Science tends to be portrayed by the media in extremes, as a series of sensationalized discoveries punctuated by conflicts and scandals” (p. 1023). This is a valid point of contention between scientists and mass media in an age where networks are dismissing their science reporters, replacing them with young journalists, so eager to get “both sides of the story” that they miss the fact that one side is complete bunk. Unfortunately, just as blame does not lie solely with the government, scientists cannot automatically demonize journalists for vandalizing their ivory towers. Scientists must accept some of the responsibility and, in doing so, come down from those towers and participate in public discourse.

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The anti-vaccination movement has been in existence nearly as long as people have been receiving vaccinations. When the cowpox immunization to smallpox was discovered by Edward Jenner at the end of the eighteenth century, the “germ theory” of disease had not yet been established. Therefore, it is not surprising that vaccine contaminations occurred from improper production and handling, nor that a number of immunization-related deaths resulted at a rate outrageous by today’s standards, warranting the public outcry that ensued. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of this new technology far outweighed the risks, especially when compared to contemporary medical practices, making vaccination the new gold standard in medicine and earning funding support from governments across Europe (Stern & Markel, 2005).

It took eighty years for another effective vaccine to be produced, but, once the theory behind the process of vaccination was understood, the practice expanded rapidly to encompass increasing numbers of diverse diseases. In 1902, Congress passed the Biological Control Act, which established the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, headed by the surgeon general, after a number of children died from a diphtheria vaccine contaminated with tetanus. Since then, the responsibility for ensuring safe and effective vaccines has shifted to the National Institute of Health in 1948, followed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1972, where it remains (Junod, 2002). The widespread use of vaccines, coupled with improved sanitation and nutrition over the past two centuries, has lead to a dramatic decrease in the infant mortality rate and an increased life expectancy. In spite of this evidence of benefit, the anti-vaccination movement has persevered, often ignoring or marginalizing the impact of vaccines on these phenomena.

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While this blog remains in its infancy, I need to get to the heart of why you are likely to find an apparent excess of information pertaining to autism while perusing these pages. The full background on this is likely to be a future post in itself, but, to preface this entry, let me just say that my family has been affected by the disorder and that my research interests have since focused on it. That said, I have gotten into rather heated debates with anti-vaccinationists online at various public forums. Actually, the fact that some of them have gotten quite ugly is what has led me to begin my own blog in anonymity. Recently, in one of these other forums, a particular argument against my position, or rather, against me, was used that was too perfect to pass up discussing here.

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Esa, on Law & Order

April 29, 2009

No, I’m not talking principles here, I really do mean the show.

I’ve always found it uncanny how the writers of Law and Order: SVU somehow manage to take whatever issue it is that’s eating away at my mind and make it into one of the most entertaining hours on television.

For anyone who didn’t see tonight’s episode, I’ll provide a brief synopsis:

(SPOILER ALERT)

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If you’re like me, then all of your life has been a giant question mark.

The answer: 42.

No, but seriously, there was never really any doubt that I’d become a scientist. I can remember being four years old and wandering around my yard examining plant life and watching animals interact (usually my dogs tormenting a squirrel, but still…). There was also little doubt that I would be a skeptic – at five, after getting home from Easter Sunday Mass, I tormented my mother with questions about how we know God exists (she couldn’t answer my questions very well and I didn’t go back to church much after that…).

How I got from those preschool days to applying to Ph.D. programs would make a very long, boring book, but here is some interesting trivia:

  • I grew up in an average conservative town in New York.
  • I could talk about anything with my parents, but they taught me that politics and religion are societal taboos – I didn’t often listen.
  • The first thing I ever wanted to be was a detective, then an astronomer. (Now I am neither, but a lab rat instead.)
  • My favorite question was “How does this work?”. Followed closely by “But how does THAT work, then?”.
  • Evolution was taught at my school – and no one complained.
  • The question was always “WHERE are you going to college?”
  • My little cousin was diagnosed with autism at age 4.
  • The most important phrase I learned in college was “It depends”.
  • Statistics has always been my forte.