A Silent but Deadly Killer

What is the number one killer of women in the United States? The answer may not be what you think it is. Despite the focus on cancer prevention and treatment in the media, cancer is not the number one killer. Rather, heart disease and stroke are responsible for more deaths among women than all forms of cancer combined. So why haven’t we heard about it?

A lack of physician and patient awareness is one major factor that has contributed to the problem. While heart attack symptoms are widely recognized in men, the symptoms are much more subtle in women. These symptoms are often mistaken for other conditions like indigestion and doctors may be reluctant to point out the risk for some women. In addition, they may be hesitant to proactively treat the issue and provide helpful recommendations about prevention. While much research has been done on men’s heart health, knowledge and prevention strategies in the field of women’s cardiovascular health is sorely lagging behind.

Incidence of heart disease related deaths across the U.S.

Incidence of heart disease death rates across the U.S.

While most people realize that both genders suffer from heart attacks and strokes, they often don’t realize that these cardiovascular problems affect men and women differently. A crushing pain in the chest that radiates down one arm is a classic heart attack symptom in men. However, women suffering from a heart attack may not experience this symptom. Rather, a heart attack manifests itself in these easily missed signs: fatigue, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, stomach pain, and pain in the arms, neck, back, or jaw. Some women may feel pain or discomfort anywhere in their chest that can be described as a “squeezing or fullness”.

Women often miss these vague symptoms but even if they recognize them, they may be hesitant to report them; a recent heart association national survey reported that even if women believe they are having a heart attack, 36 percent do not call 911. This startling statistic raises concern about what steps we are currently taking to combat a deadly disease, long thought of as solely a men’s health problem. In a time of rising rates of obesity and hypertension, cardiovascular health demands more attention and a careful consideration of the multitude of factors that are putting American women at risk.

Contributing factors to cardiovascular disease can be categorized as genetic, environmental, and lifestyle. While genetic and environmental factors can significantly influence an individual’s heart health, lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and smoking have been linked very closely to heart attack and stroke risk. A diet rich in saturated fat and poor exercise habits can lead to abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, resulting in high blood pressure. Hypertension has consistently been shown to be the number one risk factor for stroke. Poor exercise habits may also lead to obesity and a predisposition to Type 2 diabetes. An individual with Type 2 diabetes is twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease as an individual without the condition.

Not surprisingly, tobacco and marijuana use significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease as well. Research has revealed that women on birth control pills who regularly use tobacco are especially at risk of cardiac problems. Stress is another lifestyle factor that many women and even physicians may overlook when considering heart disease. Stress can stem from a whole host of sources, including marital and work problems, loss of a loved one, social isolation, and depression.

Fortunately, the factors listed above fall under the category of “modifiable” risk factors. Unlike the risks tied to family history, ethnicity, and age that cannot be modified, lifestyles can be changed. Major lifestyle changes can offer huge benefits, foremost among them being a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular trouble in the future. In order to combat the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in the United States, physicians and other organizations must promote healthy lifestyle options from the start, thereby preventing problems in the future.

When considering prevention strategies, diet and exercise are the first place we should start. These two lifestyle factors play a major role in not only cardiovascular health, but also in mental and overall health. A recent New York Times article titled “One Twin Exercises, the Other Doesn’t” discussed a study that offers insight into the effects of exercise. In a study involving ten identical male twins, researchers uncovered a variety of significant differences between the active and sedentary twins. The active twins possessed lower BMIs, lower body fat percentages, more grey matter in the brain, and no signs of insulin resistance or metabolic problems. Clearly, aerobic exercise contributes to a healthy heart and an overall healthy body.

Diet may exert an even more profound influence on cardiovascular health. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which contain important antioxidants, can make a substantial impact on heart health by keeping LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels low and preventing the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Along with diet and exercise, sleep and taking the time to relax play an important role in heart health. Getting the recommended amount of sleep as well as having a positive outlook on life significantly lowers heart attack and stroke risk.

Just a few heart healthy foods; diet is an essential component of cardiovascular risk.

Heart healthy foods; diet is an essential component of cardiovascular risk.

Like infectious disease, cardiovascular disease can be characterized as being silent and deadly, impacting those who least suspect that they are at risk. However, the two classes differ in this important fact: cardiovascular disease largely depends upon lifestyle choices. This is good news for the current problem in the United States. However, physicians and other organizations like the American Heart Association must take action to stave off the future cardiovascular crisis.   Starting in medical school, future physicians must learn more about how to recognize heart attacks in women and how to better prevent them from even occurring. Current physicians must strive to take these risks seriously and convey the message to their female patients. Diet, exercise, and abstention from smoking should be emphasized especially. Other organizations like the AHA can bring the issue to national attention by promoting heart health awareness, through programs designed to educate and inform American women on cardiovascular wellness. By redefining cardiovascular issues as a problem that affects both genders, we can lower the incidence of heart attacks and strokes among women.

An Eyre-ra of Social & Gender Inequality

For my last Passion blog post, I have picked one of my favorite novels to discuss: Jane Eyre. You may recognize the name as the title of a recent (and might I say disastrous) movie that was released in the United States in 2011. While I certainly do not condone watching the film, I highly recommend the novel. In one of her finest works of classic English literature, Charlotte Bronte recounts the story of brazenly independent Jane Eyre while simultaneously critiquing the oppressive nature of 19th century Victorian England.

To better appreciate the context in which the novel was conceived, we can first learn more about the author. The early life and development of Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, is a story so interesting that it has inspired novels of its own. Born in 1816, Charlotte became the eldest of four sisters (two of whom would not survive childhood) and a brother. As was fairly typical at the time, the sisters received a smattering of schooling from various sources before gaining employment as teachers and governesses. The three sisters collectively published a poetry volume in 1846; they had all began writing stories at an early age. Under pseudonyms (Charlotte’s was Currer Bell), the sisters would go on to publish a multitude of novels.

A watercolor portrait of the Bronte sisters, a trio of classic English literature authors.

A watercolor portrait of the Bronte sisters, a trio of classic English literature authors.

While many of the sisters’ novels would earn notoriety as classic works, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was successful from the start. The novel can be classified as a Bildungsroman, a novel that focuses on the experiences and emotional growth that mark the main character’s transition from childhood into adulthood. Specifically, the novel depicts conflicts between the protagonist, Jane Eyre, and societal values and beliefs. Born an orphan, Jane endures a childhood that is far from happy. From an abusive aunt to a harsh school where she loses her sole friend to typhus, Jane confronts the injustices that are inseparable from her lowly position in society. She later accepts a governess position at Thornfield manor, where she falls in love with owner Mr. Rochester.

As Jane finds out, Mr. Rochester has some sizable ghosts in his closet. However, their social positions make their union even more unlikely. As a scorned and pitiable governess, making advances toward an aristocrat like Mr. Rochester was viewed as completely inappropriate. Not only did she face strict social class standards, but she also struggled to attain equality in the eyes of the novel’s male figures—even her beloved Mr. Rochester. While Jane was his intellectual equal, she could not match his social position and therefore, could not always express her thoughts and feelings.

A famous quote from Charlotte Bronte's most successful novel, Jane Eyre.

A famous quote from Charlotte Bronte’s most successful novel, Jane Eyre.

Through Jane’s character, Bronte addresses the injustice inherent in Victorian England’s social class customs and gender standings. She uses the relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester to highlight the divide that could easily be bridged were it not for strict social order. Bronte’s original creation of Jane, a strong-willed and highly intellectual feminine character, makes her novel an enduring classic. Although the novel was largely popular at the time of its publishing, early critics argued that the novel painted an unrealistic and even shocking portrait by giving a female protagonist and governess such a strong voice—an intellectual and social independence that ran contrary to common views of what was proper behavior for a woman at that time. In addition to being a classic work, Jane Eyre serves as a poignant reminder of the progress that has been made in a fight for gender equality that has spanned centuries.

Superbugs That Aren’t So Super

The CDC estimates that “superbugs” cause 23,000 deaths every year in the United States. While these antibiotic resistant bacteria have been on the scientific community’s radar for years, the recent outbreak in California has brought the issue back into the national limelight. Recently, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles announced that more than one hundred patients had been exposed to a superbug between October of 2014 and this January. But just what are superbugs?

The term superbug refers to a class of bacteria or other microorganisms that have developed resistance to the antibiotics typically used to treat them. Microbes develop this resistance after extended exposure to an antibiotic: a situation that occurs all the time in hospitals or other places that offer medical care. Once the superbug makes its way into the bloodstream, it causes new infections while it also transfers its unique antibiotic resistance to other germs via common cellular mechanisms like transformation.

A diagram explaining the antibiotic resistance process.

Hospitals like the UCLA Medical Center offer prime locations for the bacteria to cause infections, as superbugs involved in the most recent outbreak often require close contact with a wound, a vulnerable part of the body. The recent California superbug is called Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE for short. Patients at Ronald Reagan were exposed to CRE during a standard endoscopy procedure in which the recently purchased endoscopes were not properly sanitized. While doctors can use other, stronger antibiotics in an attempt to combat CRE, the infection is extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to treat.

Naturally, one of the most alarming properties of superbugs like CRE is the mortality rate. Because superbugs rarely respond to other antibiotic treatments, they typically take a deadly toll on those infected. While these rates differ according to each superbug, CRE is known to kill over half of infected patients. These bacteria are so worrisome that Tom Frieden, current director of the Centers for Disease Control, called them “nightmare bacteria” that often do not respond to even the strongest of last-resort drug treatments, leaving patients with untreatable infections.

High mortality rates for superbugs coupled with increasing numbers of drug-resistant bacteria demand swift action in terms of prevention and research. The issue requires a multi-faceted solution that addresses the volatile nature of superbugs. First and foremost, researchers agree that antibiotics must be used wisely. While this idea is certainly not new to the medical community, its implementation is not easy. Refusing to write a prescription for a patient who is suffering from a common virus or who wants pain medication after a minor surgery can lead to conflict and patient frustration. However, using drugs as sparingly as possible is an essential part of the superbug prevention approach. If bacteria are not repeatedly exposed to an antibiotic, they are much less likely to develop dangerous resistance.

Hospitals and other medical care facilities also must play a key role in reducing superbug exposure and illnesses. By taking careful precautions to sterilize all medical equipment and controlling infection, hospitals can minimize the risk of patient exposure during standard procedures like endoscopies. During an outbreak, hospitals must be quick in their responses and group CRE affected individuals in one location with their own rooms, equipment, and staff. Communication among hospitals and medical care facilities can also stem the spread of superbugs via infected patients.

A picture of the CRE superbug, magnified under a microscope.

A picture of the CRE superbug, magnified under a microscope.

The government also plans to play a major role in superbug prevention, as made evident by President Obama’s recently announced national plan aimed at preventing infections. The proposed five-year plan, which dons a price tag of $1.2 billion dollars (nearly twice the current funding), calls for the establishment of a DNA database of resistant bacteria as well as extensive research on new antibiotics and vaccines. The plan highlights the need for better testing, reporting, and cooperation in order to slow the growth of superbugs. Perhaps most notably, the plan urges a 50% reduction in unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions in private practices and a 20% reduction in hospitals. While supporters of the plan acknowledge the necessity of the antibiotic cutback, many doctors are left asking unresolved questions: who determines what is inappropriate antibiotic use? And how should doctors deny a patient’s request for antibiotics while still making them feel like they are receiving good care?

Another major part of Obama’s plan includes eliminating the widespread use of antibiotics to boost animal growth in the food industry. Critics of the plan commend the idea but argue that the proposed limits are too flexible and too narrow in scope. The regulation of antibiotic use in food industry would require wide-scale cooperation and commitment from the FDA, as industry producers heavily rely upon a wide variety of antibiotics to improve product quality. With a reliance that has gone without strict regulation for decades, voluntary participation in Obama’s plan is certainly no guarantee.

While many details of the proposed plan have yet to be resolved, the plan is still a step in the right direction. In an age of increasing global transit and interaction, the superbug issue has no easy solution. Much like vaccines, antibiotic resistant bacteria are part of a much larger network of global interconnectedness: a network where the actions of one nation create ripple effects that can be felt in other nations. By taking steps towards prevention and research now, we can help prevent the spread of superbugs before the problem becomes more serious. This “prevention first” geared approach may perhaps encourage other nations facing a similar problem to contribute to the fight against superbugs.

Despite the scary statistics and mortality rates, the CDC director believes that the problem can largely be fixed. In countries like Israel, where CRE infections are even more prevalent, coordinated efforts by nearly 30 hospitals led to an impressive 70% decrease in CRE rates. Similar efforts made by isolated hospitals throughout the U.S. have yielded similar results. Clearly, steps can be taken to combat superbug prevalence. While success does not look like complete eradication of antibiotic resistant bacteria, it can mean significantly lower numbers of superbugs and an overall safer, healthier nation.

Out of Obscurity & Into Your Bookshelf

Many readers consider Thomas Hardy to be a cornerstone of English literature and poetry. Opinions aside, the man wrote fourteen novels, three short story volumes, and approximately one thousand poems! However, Hardy is most often remembered not for the quantity of his work but rather the quality; his simple style and socially critical tone make his novels enduring classics.

Thomas Hardy, famous English poet and novelist. Hardy was heavily influenced by Charles Dickens, who also was also highly critical of Victorian society.

Thomas Hardy, famous English poet and novelist. Hardy was heavily influenced by Charles Dickens, who also was also highly critical of Victorian society.

Hardy is perhaps most well known for his novel Tess of the D’Ubervilles, a tragic story about a ruined heroine whose poor, rural circumstances constrict her social mobility. Along a similar storyline and setting is the novel I plan to discuss today, Jude the Obscure. While it is not Hardy’s best-selling novel by any means, Jude the Obscure is extremely popular now compared to when it was originally released. The novel’s first release met a wave of public criticism and resentment: so much so that Hardy resolved never to write a book again. So what’s so controversial about the novel?

Well, a number of things in Hardy’s novels reviled the public at the time. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy spares no one in his critical examination of social institutions. The tale follows the life of Jude Fawley, a born orphan who grows up to become a working-class stonemason with high aspirations. Jude wishes nothing more than to attend a university in the city Christminster but his lowly position in society and the tricks of a young woman named Arabella impede his progress. After feigning a pregnancy, Arabella forces Jude into what will become a long and unhappy marriage. She eventually moves to Australia, leaving Jude free to pursue his lifelong dream: a dream that will prove virtually impossible due to the inexorable social class prejudices in academia at the time.

Hardy goes on to tell the love story between Jude and his free-spirited cousin, Sue Bridehead. Although the couple cannot marry because they cannot obtain divorces from their previous spouses, they still try to find happiness. From the beginning, nothing seems to go right and the couple’s story ends with one of the most shocking and deeply disturbing scenes in English literature. Using this scene to shock his readers, Hardy draws their attention to the evils that he believes are prevalent in Britain’s social institutions, including marriage, education, and deeply engrained social class divisions. Hardy’s novel uses the character Jude Fawley as a victim of the the darker sides of these institutions that are often glossed over in favor of traditional beliefs.

One of the most well-known from Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure.

A quote from Hardy’s last novel, Jude the Obscure.

Marriage is arguably Hardy’s central focus in the novel, as it dominates the lives of his main characters. Specifically, Hardy critiques the societal response to Jude and Sue’s relationship and their refusal to acknowledge it as legitimate. Hardy draws on larger issues in society and asks tough questions that do not have easy answers: what is and what is not legitimate when it comes to a relationship between two people and who gets to decide? What are the ripple effects of our ingrained beliefs about marriage on others? These questions are still unresolved today, as we continue the debate over what is legitimate and what is not. If the popularity of this controversial novel is any indication of progress on this issue, then we are moving open-mindedly ahead.


Measles: A Medical & Ethical Dilemma

From the time that Edward Jenner began using scabs to inoculate people against the smallpox virus, vaccinations have been a hot topic. Recently, the debate has reached a new pitch as a wave of measles spreads across the United States. A vaccine has been developed and is widely available; so what’s the big deal?

The process of vaccination is a standard that has been widely implemented in the United States over the past few decades, as evidenced by the dramatic decline in the infectious disease incidence. Upon reaching the appropriate age, children are inoculated by their doctors with weakened strains of various viruses. Their developing immune systems respond and in most cases, confer ideally a lifelong immunity against viruses such as measles, chickenpox, hepatitis, and meningitis.

However, the discussion is not this simple. On one hand, there are people who object to vaccinations on personal and religious grounds. As they are guaranteed freedom by our Constitution, they are granted the right to abstain from vaccinating themselves or their children. On the other hand, there are people of all ages who simply cannot be vaccinated because of existing medical conditions or certain genetic profiles. Within this category are people with weakened immune systems, inherited by birth or acquired by disease, as well as people whose immune systems simply do not respond to the weakened strains in the vaccination. While these individuals may make up a relatively slim percentage of the overall population, they are especially important to the vaccination conversation.

To examine vaccination in other countries around the world, another factor that affects a significant number of individuals must be considered. Poverty has played a major factor in the prevalence of preventable diseases. Impoverished families often do not have access to medical clinics where they be vaccinated or the financial means to procure medical treatment. This problem has led to a host of others; imbalances of vaccinated and unvaccinated people make all of the population prone to outbreaks. As the recent Disneyland outbreak exemplifies, predominantly vaccinated countries cannot live in isolation from countries with unvaccinated citizens. As a global community, the decisions we make in one area of the world will inevitably affect other parts of the world—especially when it comes to vaccination.


Map of the United States


To gain a better understanding of the risks associated with this particular phenomenon and to make an informed decision, a basic understanding of measles is necessary. Measles is one of the most contagious viruses that scientists know exist. In fact, the virus can live on a surface or in the air up to two hours after an infected person sneezes or coughs (the two primary modes of transmission). In a room full of unvaccinated people, one infected person would infect 90% of those in the room. To make matters worse, the virus has an impressively long latency period. After one to three weeks, symptoms including high fever, cough, runny nose, rash, and red, watery eyes typically begin to appear.

Even more alarming however, are the measles complications that affect people across all age categories. Common complications include diarrhea and ear infections that can potentially result in permanent hearing loss. Among the serious complications are pneumonia and encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can cause convulsions, deafness, mental retardation, or even death. Pregnant women who catch the measles virus not only face these potential complications, but complications for their unborn child as well.

From a scientific standpoint, these symptoms and the resulting complications are the direct result of a lamentable decision. Many studies have been conducted on vaccination safety, especially on the link between vaccinations and neuropsychological outcomes. The results of the studies have indicated no link between vaccinations and autism or any other health risks. However, for many parents, the damage has already been done: by Andrew Wakefield, often referred to as the “Father of the Anti-Vaccination Movement”. Wakefield, who has since lost his license to practice medicine, is the author of a fraudulent study that purported vaccines as a leading cause of autism. Despite the plethora of research that concludes otherwise, the counterfeit study has done much to shake public confidence in vaccinations and in the reputations of medical professionals.

Andrew Wakefield, nicknamed "The Father of Anti-Vaccination"

Andrew Wakefield, nicknamed “The Father of Anti-Vaccination”

Typically, those who abstain from the measles vaccinations because of religious objections or medical conditions have a limited effect on the rest of the population. This pattern is known as herd immunity. How exactly does this work? It works on one condition: everyone who is medically capable of being vaccinated gets vaccinated. The probability of the measles virus traveling far is significantly reduced when the majority of the population is vaccinated. However, the most recent rapid spread of the measles virus highlights a fault line among the country’s states: pockets of people who voluntarily chose not to vaccinate themselves or their children. These individuals can then unintentionally spread the virus to those who are most vulnerable—and who can do nothing about it.

For those who can do nothing to protect themselves from the virus, the situation is hardly just. If a child with a comprised immune system attends a school that doesn’t require its students to get measles vaccinations, that child is put at an extraordinarily high risk if parents at the school decide not to vaccinate their kids. That child will almost certainly be at the mercy of other parents, whose own children’s vaccination status is left in their hands.

While the situation is certainly frustrating to scientists and citizens who support vaccination, it also forces the nation as a whole to examine our beliefs and our culture. Can we really make those who are anti-vaccine vaccinate themselves and their children? Which is more important, their freedom to decide or the safety of the rest of the nation? We must also examine the ingrained beliefs that have found their way into our culture. What sustains the enduring mistrust that some hold towards the medical community and vaccinations? These questions don’t have an easy answer but they must be addressed if we hope to solve the problem.

Even on the Chilliest Days, The Sun Also Rises

Ernest Hemingway is perhaps one of America’s best-known authors. Over break, I got to see this popularity reflected in the long lines at some of his favorite hangouts in Key West, Florida. Aside from his unique personality and lifestyle traits, he is a renowned author of several classics. The Old Man and the Sea, a metaphorical tale about an old fisherman and a swordfish, is foremost among Hemingway’s best and most famous works. However, the novel I want to discuss today is a little lower on the list of bestsellers: The Sun Also Rises.

Hemingway's Home in Key West, FL

Hemingway’s Home in Key West, FL

For those readers who have not experienced a Hemingway novel before, I must first give a warning. Remember those rules that we learned in English class about writing—specifically about mixing up sentence structure so the writing doesn’t become boring? Well, you may want to consider repressing those rules for the duration of a Hemingway novel. Hemingway is perhaps so memorable an author because of his unique ability to break all the rules of writing yet write so well (in my opinion at least!). However, even among those who are driven crazy by reading pages of subject-verb, subject-verb sentence formations, Hemingway’s work still possesses literary merit in other aspects.

The Sun Also Rises is no exception to a common core of themes that is prevalent throughout Hemingway’s writing. These themes and ideas reflect much of his personal life experiences, including his service in World War I, his marriage, and his enduring love of fishing. In the novel, Hemingway traces the footsteps of a young, restless crowd living in Paris. Most of the men in the story had just returned from World War I and their difficulty in acclimating back to civilian life reflects much of Hemingway’s experience. The group of friends is composed of the narrator Jake, the agitator Cohn, and the selfish, free-spirited socialite Brett. Hemingway chronicles their restless movements from Paris, to Italy, and to Spain as the characters try to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

This novel, like many others of Hemingway’s, is ultimately a message about the “Lost Generation”: a coined term that describes an age category of people whose early lives were robbed by the war and were therefore doomed (in Hemingway’s eyes) to lead restless, aimless lives. Hemingway displays the aimless nature of his characters’ lives not by explicit words but by the stark contrast of their words and actions. Fueled by alcohol, the characters’ constant merrymaking and search for excitement masked their sorrow underneath. Their multitude of meaningless words and actions parallels their lives, which are devoid of any real meaning.


Along with the lost generation theme is the theme of male masculinity. Hemingway uses several scenes to highlight the standard that men were held up to at the time; any signs of weakness or cowardice were frowned upon and made someone “less of a man”. This attitude towards returning veterans was representative of the time period: a time when the psychological effects of war were not clearly understood. In this aspect, Hemingway’s tale is a sad lesson on the attention that we must give our veterans when they return home, to ensure their physical and emotional well-being. Overall, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a classic that offers insight into history and into the life of one of America’s favorite authors.

E-Cigs: A Public Health Improvement or Crisis?

You have probably seen these devices being sold in the mall. You may have even seen them being used outside of a school or grocery store. Electronic cigarettes, called “e-cigs” for short, are making their way into our daily lives for better or for worse.

Tobacco products have a long and rich history in the United States. In fact, tobacco played an important economic role in the 17th and 18th century colonies. Although the substance was lauded as an invaluable cash crop, chewing tobacco or snuff was far lower on the popularity scale. However, a new form of tobacco took a hold of America in the late 1800s: cigarettes. The ease of production and ease of use enabled this rolled-up and compact tobacco package to reach an unequaled popularity in the United States.

Just as the need for easy use drove the transition from chewing tobacco to cigarettes, a need for a safer and more convenient alternative is also driving the latest shift from cigarettes to e-cigarettes. What exactly are these e-cigs? E-cigarettes contain a battery-powered heating coil that heats a liquid to produce an inhalable vapor (which is why the practice is often called “vaping”). Like cigarettes, these non-traditional versions contain nicotine. However, they do not contain as many of the harmful compounds found in their traditional counterparts and they do not involve any actual burning. The e-cig activates upon taking a drag and even comes with an LED light, in order to simulate the real smoking experience (Wagstaff).

The benefits that a large-scale shift to e-cigarettes could create are quite momentous. First are the environmental benefits. E-cigs don’t involve the burning of harmful chemicals that are then released into the atmosphere; they simply produce vapor, not smoke. Secondly are the public health benefits. Without smoke production, secondhand smoke is no longer an issue. Users no longer have to worry about their loved ones inhaling the toxic chemical residues from their cigarettes. Users also no longer have to consume nicotine at the expense of consuming other harmful compounds found in cigarettes. In addition, e-cigarettes are slightly more affordable than traditional cigarettes.

Physicians belonging to Britain’s Royal Academy, an organization that is a major proponent of the devices, argue that nicotine, while addictive, is not particularly harmful by itself. They maintain that e-cigs are a major step towards “harm reduction” and towards saving thousands of lives (Rodu). Top tobacco companies are taking a similar stance towards this new window of opportunity. Altria, the largest cigarette producer in the United States, has already begun selling a new line of e-cigs. Following in Altria’s footsteps is Lorillard (the third largest American cigarette producer). The company has already begun advocating the smoke-free e-cigs as part of a harm reduction campaign to improve our quality of life (Rodu). But can we trust these companies who have financially vested interests in the success of e-cigarettes?

Many governmental and medical organizations are currently saying no. The Food and Drug Administration in particular has declared that we simply do not yet know enough about the potential drawbacks of e-cigs. Stacey Anderson, an assistant professor who specializes in tobacco marketing at the University of California, argues: “To say that it’s [e-cigarette usage] less harmful is like saying it’s better to jump out of the 40th floor than the 100th floor of a building” (Beck). While she acknowledges that these devices certainly sound safer, she insists that e-cigarettes are simply cigarettes with a new name and a battery instead of a flame. Anderson also points out an unanticipated but negative consequence of e-cigs; their perceived safety may lead those who avoided traditional cigarettes to experiment with this new, seemingly safe device (Beck).

Recent statistics appear to confirm Anderson’s fear about e-cigarettes. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, among youths who had never smoked before, a threefold increase has been seen from 2011 to 2013. Many e-cigarette opponents suggest that an e-cigs act as a type of gateway to a lifelong smoking (of various drugs) habit. Another blow to e-cig innocence is the fact that as of now, there are no regulations or required postings of the chemicals used in e-cigarette liquid. In a Daily Beast article titled “E-Cigarettes: The Side Effects Nobody Talks About”, Dr. Norman Edelman explains that e-cigarettes contain suspected lung irritants: a danger especially for those who have asthma, allergies, and those who exercise regularly. These irritants are responsible for lung inflammation identical to that caused by regular smoking. Completely contrary to claims made by e-cig proponents, Edelman, a Long Island professor of preventative and internal medicine, insists that “Nicotine is a poison” (Woerner).

As the opposing sides demonstrate, the e-cigarette debate is a public controversy at its core. At stake are the lives of millions of Americans smokers and non-smokers alike. Recent research suggests that bystanders are exposed to some level of nicotine from the e-cigs (Woerner). On a larger scale, taxpayers may pay the price in the future if e-cigarette users have to rely on healthcare for lung cancer or disease treatment. However, the possibility of a better, smokeless alternative to traditional cigarettes remains. Is this possibility worth the risks?

This is an issue that American citizens will have to confront sometime in the near future. However, to make such an important decision, it is clear that more information from scientists and e-cig manufacturers is required. This lack of research has been a common theme amongst the protests of e-cig opponents. Very little is known about the short-term or long-term effects of usage. This ignorance faintly resembles that surrounding traditional cigarette usage; cigarettes were widely used and even believed to have dietary benefits until mid-twentieth century scientists correlated and established a causal relationship between cigarettes and cancer. Are we willing to face this risk in the future for the potential harm reduction in the present? As a nation, we must not take such a decision lightly. Both sides must be weighed, and weighed again as we come to terms with the new technology of e-cigarettes.


Works Cited & Links

Beck, Julie. “Schrödinger’s Cigarette: Is Electronic Safer?” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media

Company, 13 June 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.



Rodu, Brad. “The Electronic Future of Cigarettes.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media

Company, 20 June 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.



Wagstaff, Keith. “Vaping 101: How Do E-Cigarettes Work?” NBC News. NBC News, 24

Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015. <http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/vaping-


Woerner, Amanda. “E-Cigarettes: The Side Effects Nobody Talks About.” The Daily

            Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.



Some more information about e-cigarettes. Source: http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ecigs.jpg Some more information about e-cigarettes. Source: http://blog.thomsonreuters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ecigs.jpg%5B/caption%5D A woman smokes an e-cigarette. Source: http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/059/269/i02/e-cigarette-woman-131114.jpg?1384453444 A woman smokes an e-cigarette. Source: http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/059/269/i02/e-cigarette-woman-131114.jpg?1384453444%5B/caption%5D


Say ‘Ello to This British Classic

When spoken to students who have taken high school English, the name Charles Dickens is enough to evoke shudders and sighs. Dickens’ reputation as an Old English-enthusiast and unnecessarily lengthy and flamboyant writer is not often viewed in a positive light. After reading the first chapter of Oliver Twist, I was ready to join the Dickens hate club. However, I am awfully glad I didn’t; as the story went on, I found myself drawn to the valuable messages that Dickens was sending through his creative work of art, Oliver Twist.

Set in mid-nineteenth century Victorian England, Oliver Twist revolves around the main character who gave the book its namesake, Oliver. The reader learns about Oliver’s tragic birth circumstances and about his equally challenging childhood, spent in a miserable orphanage. He is transferred to a workhouse despite his young age, where he meets the miserable Mr. Bumble who all too happily sells him to become an apprentice. After an angry outburst, Oliver runs away: only to be to get caught up in a pack of thieves, a common feature of London at the time. Dickens goes on to recount young Oliver’s encounters and eventual rescues from this horrible pack; a rescue accompanied by a thrilling secret about Oliver’s deceased parents.

While the story certainly can identify with the “good guys, bad guys” story line, it is far from superficial and cliché. Dickens uses many symbols and themes throughout the novel to signal the deeper messages he wishes to send about the society in which he was living. Perhaps most obviously, Dickens juxtaposes the hypocritical middle-class, which professes to be charitable, with the harsh treatment of London’s poor. In addition, he places Oliver’s childlike innocence alongside London’s rampant crime at that time. These juxtapositions draw the reader’s attention to the duplicity and insincerity that Dickens believes has captured Victorian England.

Ultimately, Dickens’ Oliver Twist is a social and political commentary that still holds relevant truths for us today. Dickens subtly critiques his government’s 1834 amendment to the Poor Laws. By this amendment, the government refused to give handouts and instead offered the poor food and shelter only in workhouses. Families were separated and the conditions in the workhouse worsened in an effort to teach the poor their lesson. Many in the upper and aspiring middle classes viewed their self-sufficiency as a reward from God for their hard work and patience; likewise, the poor had received their punishment for being irresponsible and incapable of taking care of themselves.

Through Oliver Twist’s commentary, Dickens brings these harsh realities to the eyes and hearts of its readers. The scenes in Dickens’ Victorian England are full of injustice; from child abuse to poor maltreatment, from orphan criminals to hypocritical “do-gooders”. While every reader will derive his or her own message from Oliver Twist, a common message that I derived from the novel was this: in a world of misfortune, a genuine deed goes a long way, creating ripples whose impact we may never see. But as individuals and as members of a collective society, leaving behind the poor by our actions and by our laws is not an option if we wish to make the world a better place.

English workhouse. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/shp/britishsociety/thepoorrev1.shtml English workhouse. Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/shp/britishsociety/thepoorrev1.shtml%5B/caption%5D The cover of one of Dickens' most famous novels. Source: http://www.pagepulp.com/wp-content/124.jpg The cover of one of Dickens’ most famous novels. Source: http://www.pagepulp.com/wp-content/124.jpg%5B/caption%5D



-For more on the novel: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/oliver/summary.html

-For more on the history of the Poor Laws: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/shp/britishsociety/thepoorrev1.shtml

-For more on world poverty: https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle

For my last Passion blog of the semester, I’ve selected one of my favorite novels to discuss. Although I call it one of my favorite books, I feel a bit guilty in doing so—I only finished reading it this past March and that, after years of reluctance. For me, the first mention of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was in a book about the United State presidents. Although I’m a biology major, I’m also a United States history geek who loves to read about the presidents. The novel was mentioned in the context of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. As the 26th president of the United States, Roosevelt established the Food and Drug Administration and passed several sequential Pure Food and Drug Acts. What inspired such radical actions? Incredibly, the answer lies solely in Sinclair’s novel.

Following its release, The Jungle sparked public outcry. Seeking to expose the appalling conditions for laborers and immigrants in the United State, Sinclair had painted an ugly portrait of the worst side of the early 20th century capitalistic society through the story of a dirt-poor, immigrant family. Facing insurmountable odds, the family struggles to sustain their existence; jobs are scarce and the only available jobs can be found at the Chicago meat factory, a monopoly that used immigrants like animals to get maximum work for minimum pay. The family endures appalling living conditions as they slowly lose their little money to traps designed to rob money from inexperienced immigrants. As the family falls apart, the main character lands himself a job in the corrupt Chicago political machine. After the elections are over, he becomes a thief and then a socialist activist in Chicago.

Perhaps what is most significant about The Jungle lies in its power to encourage political action. Very rarely do novels possess power beyond their fictitious worlds. In this way, Sinclair’s The Jungle closely resembles Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both novels have been extremely influential in our country’s societal and political historical spheres. While I enjoy Sinclair’s writing, style, and the message that he sends through this novel, I most enjoy the precedent that it sets: novels are not just pretty things to be looked at and read. Rather, a novel has the potential to radically change the world we live in, for the better of those inhabiting it.


First Semester Reflections

My first semester of college has been a unique learning experience. While I was first overwhelmed with the seemingly unending possibilities that such a large campus offers, I think that I have settled in and learned a lot in the process.

One of the major contributing factors to my success in RCL, and at Penn State in general, has been the multitude of relationships that I have formed with new friends and professors. This semester, I truly enjoyed learning from each one of my professors. Whenever I had questions about assignments, I knew that my professors would be more than willing to accommodate me and answer any of my questions. My classmates have also contributed to my success inside and outside of the classroom. No matter the class, I knew that I could turn to those around me for additional explanation and support.

One factor that has inhibited my success is the workload this semester. While I like my classes, the homework that has to be completed outside of class has been a challenge. I’ve found that when I have twenty things I need to do, I spend too much time stressing out about them rather than dividing my tasks into manageable pieces and not letting them overwhelm me.

Areas in which I have succeeded include organization, time management, and teamwork. Unlike my high school track record, I have not picked up the habit of losing important papers or forgetting about important assignments. I also feel like I learned how to work well and timely in a group setting. On the other hand, I have struggled with procrastination and stress management throughout the semester. Learning how to cope with the amount of work, my busy schedule, and the resulting stress has been a challenging process. Procrastination sometimes appears as the easy way out when really, it actually keeps me from doing my best work.

Overall, I have to learned how to stay organized, work well in teams, and keep track of my schedule during my first semester. In RCL specifically, I’ve gained a new mindset for analysis and critical thinking when it comes to rhetoric. While I still have a lot left to learn about translating my thoughts into a well-written, insightful essay, my RCL experience has greatly contributed to these skills and to my overall understanding of my civic duties.

My roommate and I at a Penn State football game!

My roommate and I at a Penn State football game!

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