Let’s face it, there are many scientists who are brilliant at the bench but tongue tied at the presenter’s podium. Unfortunately, while graduate school may adequately prepare students for a life of research, not enough emphasis is placed on improving communication skills which can be used to explain complicated research projects to the lay public. That is why it is refreshing to learn that schools such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have created competitions with the express goal of improving scientific communication.
To learn about other fantastic efforts aimed at improving scientific communication, read Science Speak which was published in the Scientists earlier this month.
Regardless of their stage or type, cancers appear to share a telltale signature of widespread changes to the so-called epigenome, according to a team of researchers. In a study published online in Genome Medicine on Aug. 26, the investigators say they have found widespread and distinctive changes in a broad variety of cancers to chemical marks known as methyl groups attached to DNA, which help govern whether genes are turned “on” or “off,” and ultimately how the cell behaves. Such reversible chemical marks on DNA are known as epigenetic, and together they make up the epigenome.
“Regardless of the type of solid tumor, the pattern of methylation is much different on the genomes of cancerous cells than in healthy cells,” says Andrew Feinberg, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine, molecular biology and genetics, oncology, and biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Feinberg led the new study along with Rafael Irizarry, Ph.D., a professor of biostatics at Harvard University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “These changes happen very early in tumor formation, and we think they enable tumor cells to adapt to changes in their environment and thrive by quickly turning their genes on or off,” Feinberg says.
Feinberg, along with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine oncology professor Bert Vogelstein, M.D., first identified abnormal methylation in some cancers in 1983. Since then, Feinberg’s and other research groups have found other cancer-associated changes in epigenetic marks. But only recently, says Feinberg, did researchers gain the tools needed to find out just how widespread these changes are.
For their study, the research team took DNA samples from breast, colon, lung, thyroid and pancreas tumors, and from healthy tissue, and analyzed methylation patterns on the DNA. “All of the tumors had big blocks of DNA where the methylation was randomized in cancer, leading to loss of methylation over big chunks and gain of methylation in smaller regions,” says Winston Timp, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins. “The changes arise early in cancer development, suggesting that they could conspire with genetic mutations to aid cancer development,” he says.
The overall effect, Feinberg says, appears to be that cancers can easily turn genes “on” or “off” as needed. For example, they often switch off genes that cause dangerous cells to self-destruct while switching on genes that are normally only used very early in development and that enable cancers to spread and invade healthy tissue. “They have a toolbox that their healthy neighbors lack, and that gives them a competitive advantage,” Feinberg says.
“These insights into the cancer epigenome could provide a foundation for development of early screening or preventive treatment for cancer,” Timp says, suggesting that the distinctive methylation “fingerprint” could potentially be used to tell early-stage cancers apart from other, harmless growths. Even better, he says, would be to find a way to prevent the transition to a cancerous fingerprint from happening at all.
Thanks to Johns Hopkins Medicine for contributing this story.
Watch this video once and it will stick in your head for the rest of the day. Try it…I dare you!
In an analysis of a recent study published in Inside Higher Ed, author Scott Jaschik looks at the gender gap among tenured professors at research universities. According to the study, overall, males are far more likely to become tenured than their female counterparts, irrespective of their research output. Of course, the study claims that there are significant differences in the gender gap depending on the academic discipline. For example:
- In sociology, women receive tenure 51% less often than men
- In computer science, women receive tenure 55% less often than men
- English is an exception to the rule-however, English is a female dominated discipline
Naturally, as a biologist, I wondered if such a gap exists between male and female scientists. My personal experience is that men and women are treated pretty much the same in the life sciences and I have never seen any gender bias or discrimination in all my years in the lab. Nonetheless, this is my personal experience and I wonder what the data shows.
Surfing the net for some data, I came across a blog post by Emma Pierson entitled In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last. While the article is not focused solely on the life sciences, it hits much closer to home than a study done on social scientists. What Emma Pierson found was depressing (in case you couldn’t already tell from the title). According to Emma’s research:
- While female scientists are often the first author on the papers they write, they tend to publish fewer papers than male scientists and are less to be the final author on the study
- men author 45% more papers that women
- women have fewer scientific collaborations than their male counterparts
Interestingly, the article claims that the reason that females are credited on fewer papers is due to the fact that females are less likely to be PIs, (another depressing statistic), who are often credited on many more papers (due to their passive contribution…i.e. they “own” the lab) than non-PI scientists.
The article offers many explanations for these gaps and suggestions regarding how to close them. I suggest that you read the post for further details.
I would love to hear what your experience has been. Especially female scientists. Have you experienced gender discrimination in your career? Is the gender gap an equal opportunity offender in the biological sciences as well?