Author Archives: Katherine Jane Ballantyne

Pick one: 4.0 or Alcohol?

In college, it’s pretty clear that a lot of students consume alcohol on the weekends and even days other than friday and saturday. However, at an academically-strong university such as Penn State, one would think that even people who drink on the weekends are able to maintain high GPAs. So, I decided to look into the matter.

Northwestern University made a compilation of studies which looked into the effects of regular alcohol consumption on academic performance. First, it was found that binge-drinking, even on the weekends, correlated with an increase of absences in classes, especially those that the students disliked. Prior to this class, I would say that drinking alcohol causes students to miss class. However, now I’ve realized that correlation does not equal causation. There could be a confounding variable, such as spending a lot of time with friends. Spending time with friends could mean drinking more alcohol and also spending less time studying.

The studies also found that high risk drinking has a negative correlation with GPA. According to the article, “Among drinkers, the lower the GPA, the higher the percentage who drank or were heavy drinkers.” This makes sense in theory because people who are always drinking on the weekends heavily clearly do not have time to study for big exams or write papers. Also, I considered the different ways that correlation would not equal causation here. Again, confounding variables can occur, such as high involvement in extra-curriculars that focus heavily on drinking and allow for less time for academics. Also, reverse causation could be relevant here– I know that a poor GPA would drive me to drink!

Despite my previously mentioned theories, in the grand scheme of things, academics and GPAs are probably more important than alcohol, so it might be smarter to focus on the academics while at school. Throughout all of the studies, it can probably be concluded that a 4.0 is hard to achieve with constant heavy drinking, so guys, please– lay off the drinking, at least before big exams.


“Please Turn Cellphones Off”

Ever since I can remember, every time we get on flights, the flight attendants have asked us to turn off our cell phones shortly before takeoff. However, I’ve always just accepted this as fact, and never thought very far into it. Recently,  the recommendation was taken back because now people believe that it doesn’t affect the flight and it’s radar.

The reason that this is a rule is because of speculation that cell phones interfere with the plane is because of electromagnetic interference. This has long been based on anecdotes from different aviation companies– for example: that there was an issue with the flight radar when a flight attendant saw a passenger with a cell phone, or that a video game was in use and the radar shifted 30 degrees.

However, because not one specific event has happened proving that cell phones interfere, the Federal Aviation Administration as of recent, allows for usage in flights. So, soon enough you’ll be seeing implementations of cell phone usage on flights.

What I found interesting is that we started believing all of this without even having any concrete data on whether cell phones affect flight systems. One reason could be is because planes are kind of risky in and of themselves, so it would be giving up just a few hours on your cell phone to avoid a speculated risk. This brings up this issue of whether something should be given up over a little speculation– like the opportunity cost of turning off the TV to avoid the risk of depression. Studies for this type of thing are kind of hard because no one really wants to experiment with a flight because each holds the lives of many people. Possibly in a simulated flight or a drone?

It is hard to make such a hard rule like the one that was followed for so many years which was never based on any real data. Therefore, it’s interesting to see the ban on phones be lifted by the FAA so that we can use our phones in peace– unless some real information comes out someday against it.


Austism and Vaccines

A controversy that was big a couple of years ago was whether or not vaccines cause autism. Jenny McCarthy, a big name celebrity, used to spend time in the spotlight speaking out against vaccines, claiming that they caused autism in her son. The idea of stopping vaccines to prevent autism is worrisome for many doctors because all of the devastating diseases that have been eradicated by vaccines have the potential to come back, like polio for example.

The issue came about when in 1998, a medical journal named The Lancet, released a paper claiming that vaccines can cause autism in growing children. It was later found that this writer changed his findings, was completely biased, and unethically conducted research. This might seem plausible because children receive the suspected vaccines around the time they should be starting to talk/walk. So, when the children don’t begin to talk or walk, it seems like vaccines could be the cause. Therefore, despite the completely unreliable study, it is still a worry of many confused parents. This goes to show that one study can completely change the public’s opinion about a topic which can be severely detrimental to us, if we are wrongly informed.

Loads of studies have been done to see if there is a link between the disease with no known cause and vaccines. It was at one point thought that mercury-containing thimerosal causes the developmental issues so it was removed from vaccines. However, if this actually caused autism, there should have been a decrease in autism rates. There was no drop in the rates, so that adds a point in the favor of vaccines.

Studies to find evidence on the issue can be based on children who get vaccines and seeing their development in the years after. Many studies such as this have been done by the CDC and show no causal link between autism development and vaccinations. It might not be ethical to try studies such as a double-blind placebo trial.  We have established that vaccines prevent often-deadly diseases, so to randomly prevent children in a trial from getting them would be silly and potentially dangerous. It would be different if the vaccines were something like a controversial new cancer treatment, but we have pretty much decided that vaccines are good, so it would be of poor decision to deny children them.

Considering all of the studies done in favor of vaccines, and only one super-biased report against them, I, along with most scientists, would conclude that vaccines are safe and should be administered because there is no link between them and autism.


Using HIV to Cure Cancer?

I was introduced to a video at Atlas, a THON org here, in which a little girl, Emily, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia is cured by using a modified HIV virus. However, I’m sure this seems a little alarming for a lot of people, so I decided to look a little further into the topic. Emily was part of a small clinical trial. But, this concept is not completely new. Studies and experiments on this idea have been going on for about a decade.

Basically, what the doctors do is take the T-Cells which are immune cells in the cancer patients, and inject them with a modified virus which the purpose is to attack the cancer cells and kill them that way. The idea is great in theory because our own immune systems can, in theory, be made to attack the disease that our bodies create on its own. Cancer researchers are spending time trying to figure out why our immune systems can’t recognize these tumors growing and how to make the immune system fight them, hence this trial.

So far, it has cured Emily, two out of three adults in one trial, nine out of twelve in another, and five of five in one more reported.

After Andrew’s lesson in class the other day about pediatric cancer and the ethicality of using children in trials. I thought about this topic using his teachings. Although the results seem promising, a lot more research will have to be done in order to consider this to be a more widespread treatment for leukemia, rather than just an experimental drug. Double-blind placebo trials could be used in order to further test the effectiveness of this treatment. It would be ethical to use patients in trials because cancer drugs have been shown, on average, to have a 50% chance of working or killing the patient, so receiving the drug or not receiving the drug gives you the same chance of not doing anything, vs working to cure/killing the patient. I’m sure in the upcoming years we will see how this treatment plays out.


Doomed to Fail in Hockey if born in Summer?

A widely debated topic in the sports world is whether or not being born in the first months of the year determine which hockey players make it to the NHL. I found the base article debating the issue on and then followed it to the actual paper. The theory that the best hockey players are born in the winter was made famous by Malcom Gladwell. Basically, players that are born after January 1, which is the age group cut-off date in Canada, a big hockey country, will be more strong and skill-established than their younger counterparts in their age group at the ages where a couple of months can make a difference in size. These older players will, which sounds plausible, be the fastest, make better teams, stand out and get better coaching, all leading towards increased skill compared to the younger players in the groups. Therefore, Malcom Gladwell claims that the NHL has more players born in the first quarter than any other year.

However, this may not be true; the matter was studied by Robert O. Deaner in depth. In hockey, players drafted to the NHL are not guaranteed a spot on the teams; more than half will never play in the league’s games. Although many coaches draft the older players, as seen below, many of them don’t live up to their expectations, because of the selection bias placed on them.  It was actually shown in a study of all of the drafted players from 1980-2006 that the players born later in the year were twice as likely to succeed in the league, even though they were often picked many slots later than the older draftees.


According to the paper by Deaner, draft selection measures the perceived talent and their performance in the league determines their realized talent. It seems to me that the older players are less likely to make it because they were chosen due to the bias that is placed on the NFL prospects. The younger players made it because they showed exceptional talent and are placed less on a pedestal because of their age and their perceived belief to be less likely to succeed, which seems to be wrong.


You can see in these graphs from the study, the productivity vs. the perceived ability.

Personal anecdote here: I met Marty St. Louis and Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers in June of this year. They are both two of the best players on the Rangers and played major roles in bringing NYR to the Stanley Cup Finals this past season. Funny enough, it was both of their birthdays, so my story further supports Deaner and his paper.

“Studies say 100% of Students Claiming to have the PSU Plague are Actually Lying.”

It’s inevitable here. People say getting sick in college is the worst, but I haven’t had any time here where I haven’t been sick. Last night, while my roommate was coughing up a lung, I quickly wondered if the Emergen-C in our drawer would help the disease from spreading to my side of the room. However, I went to sleep anyways and woke up this morning feeling awful. So here I am, left wondering if the huge amounts of Vitamin C found in Emergen-C or Vitamin C supplements actually make a difference when suffering from a cold.

According to this article, a lot of experts claim daily exposure to Vitamin C hasn’t been found to make much of a difference in sick days. It’s heavily debated over but what’s clear is that too much Vitamin C can be harmful to the body. It can cause nausea or other stomach issues, so it’s best to not consume more than 2,000 mg per day.

However, this doesn’t help me, because I’m still looking for a way to avoid getting sick.

Colorado State University says that it’s important to be physically healthy with what you can control– like your sleep habits, your physical activity, and the types of food you eat. Balancing all of these well, and also avoiding major stress, should help to make for a strong immune system.

Another way to avoid getting sick and missing class is by getting the flu shot. Dr. Mark Hyman claims that it doesn’t actually do much for people outside of the very elderly and infants whom  for them, the flu could be fatal. However, using my newfound scientist skills, I will follow the majority of doctors recommendations by getting the flu shot this year to give myself the best chance possible. It isn’t too hard to stop by the HUB and get one, that is of course unless I’d be late to class..



Does Practice Make Perfect?

I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life believing that I was destined to suck at sports for the rest of my life. I’ve tried every sport you can think of, all resulting in failure. Perhaps that was my issue; maybe if I practiced more I would be able to have a real talent. The answers are varied. According to this article, very little of the success stories we hear of athletes or other talented people comes from birth.

Benjamin Bloom studied 120 of these talented people and found that most didn’t show any real talent until their proper training began. He concluded that most people can learn to do something well if given the proper tools to learn.

This article however, claims the opposite. It says that under 90 studies, only 20 to 25% of the differences between the goods and greats of whichever field was the practice they put in. These scientists decided that natural born talent is more important.

In the same article as previously mentioned, other scientists argued that those studies that were published by the New York Times were not done perfectly. It claimed “practice,” but does that mean a couple hours or 70 hours a week of practice? It also varies among specializations. For example, I’m sure anyone can be taught to be a better reader (barring impairment), but not everyone can be taught to be an excellent award-winning artist.

Personally, I think that it’s a mixture of the two–nature and nurture. This is an age old debate that is common among many phenomenas in science. I think that if someone is born into a family of professional athletes, they’re more inclined to be great but if they never picked up a sport, I’m sure they would not be amazing at first try. That’s another thing that leads towards nuture for me. A personal anecdote: I have friends who have parents that were amazing at their respective sports and the children are often good because of the relentless coaching by their parents and the practice they put into it.

Also, there is the whole theory in the book “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell, that if anyone puts in 10,000 hours of work, they will be masters of their chosen field. There’s a theory in the book about why the most professional ice hockey players are born in January, and it’s not because they’re used to the cold.. But more on that in a later blog!

Maybe if I stuck with one of the sports and truly practiced hard, I would be able to be an Olympian.. Maybe not.


Coffee Naps?

A cup of coffee is a great mid-day pick-me-up. Power naps, as well, are also great for the same purpose, (but I wouldn’t know, I only take naps for hours). Anyway, you wouldn’t think that a cup of caffeine-filled coffee would be good for taking a nap. However, a new study shows that drinking a cup of coffee, followed by a quick 20 minute nap improves cognitive function.

The study was done on 24 year old men, who took these “coffee naps” and then took cognitive tests. They performed better on these tests than people who were given decaf secretly. This is a blind placebo test for the participants.

Supposedly, caffeine takes 20 minutes to settle in, so when you wake from the power nap, you’re supposed to be extra alert. However, the study didn’t go out to prove that the combination causes people to be more attentive; it was made to show how the reason for the increased alertness, which is adenosine, a chemical in the brain.

I was actually a little skeptical of this article because you’d think that caffeine wouldn’t mix well with a nap, but it’s definitely interesting because I often find myself extremely tired and unrefreshed after naps. I will definitely use this method for becoming more awake.


The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie

What really is the perfect chocolate chip cookie? I like mine warm, thin, crispy on the edges and chewy/soft on the inside. Some people I know like them thick and soft or with butterscotch chips in their cookies. I know that I can never get my chocolate chip cookies right, but I found out the way to do that is within the chemistry of the ingredients.

It makes sense of course– each ingredient in a recipe, especially baking recipes, is made to do something else to the cookie. So, it’s easy to see that in order to get the perfect cookie, one must mess with the different ingredients to get the properties that they desire. A picture has been circulating online recently of 8 different cookies labeled with the changes in their recipes to really cater to everyone’s cookie needs.

For example, if you want the thicker, soft cookies, it’s best to use a recipe with more flour. The molasses in the brown sugar vs using regular granulated sugar definitely affects the color and taste of your cookies. It’s also important to me to use both baking powder and baking soda so that my cookies will have the texture I enjoy most. In this article, there’s even a way to get your cookies to taste store-bought, (but I don’t know why anyone would seek that).

There you have it; it is possible to get baked goods in the fashion that you decide.


The Biological Birds and Bees?

In my Freshmen Seminar class, my teacher asked us why we were interested in the traits we look for in the opposite sex. She said that the media shapes the things we look for in potential suitors– that’s the basis of our class. However! I digress and believe that humans are biologically inclined to look for tall men and women with curves. I decided to look further into the matter.

The article I read claims some of my ideas to be true. As a believed product of evolution, women with big “child-bearing” hips, tend to be considered more attractive because they supposedly show fertility. Something I found to be interesting was that who people are attracted to are often affected by their parents. Sounds creepy right? Not necessarily. First, on average, people born to older parents are more attracted to mature faces and vice versa with younger parents. Psychologists have found that people are often more attracted to their opposite sex parent’s hair and eye color. Psychology also shows that people are attracted to that same parent’s personality attributes, the Oedipus Complex.

We are also biologically programmed to look for symmetry in the face– that is a large part of what we are supposed to view as attractive. Studies have also shown that people with dark rings around their irises in the eyes are generally more attractive. We are also programmed to think that deep voices in men are better and the same for higher voices in women. See?! It’s not all just from the media.. Take that Dr. Nichols!

Guys– there’s a reason that us ladies find stubble attractive. It suggests maturity but still freedom and that a more full beard suggests that a man would be a great, caring father. That, I think comes from the media.


Yoga has been around for a while and I’ve done a little here and there. However, up until this summer, my knowledge of yoga was little to none. My friends begged me all winter long to go to class with them at the local studio in my town but the straw that broke my back and forced me to go was my best friend’s mother. She took my mom and I to the “Hot Yoga Spot,” a studio about five minutes from my house, specializing in hot yoga. I got into it quickly and started taking classes four times a week and started referring all of my friends to yoga. It also helped that I think yoga clothes are super cute and I love the way it makes me feel. Hot yoga is a general umbrella of classes but can refer to different types of heated yoga classes, postures, temperatures and tempos.

This brings me to my first point. I’m clearly no scientist, hence why I’m taking this class, and I’m also not a yoga expert because I just started a few months ago. If you’ve never heard of hot yoga, it’s basically a yoga class in a heated room. One might not think that yoga is a hard form of exercise, but believe me, after about ten minutes in class, you will be sweating from places you didn’t know existed. I know as a non-scientist, there are benefits to sweating a lot, I’m just not sure what. I also know that yoga makes you more flexible, and the heat helps muscles become more bendy and work better. Heat is also why we are encouraged to stretch and do other exercises after building up our heat rate, when we’re sweaty. From my experience, doing yoga in a heated room increases the intensity of the workout and your overall heart rate, making it harder than normal yoga. Yoga also has a tendency to make you happy. After leaving yoga class, I always have peace of mind, a feeling I encourage everyone to search for. Hot yoga creates an emptiness in the mind even more than non-heated classes because all I think about is the heat and the poses.

But that’s just me. I know that there are more benefits, but as I said, I’m no expert, so I had to look online for some information. Although gym rats and lots of athletes I know bash on yoga, it really does help improve strength. Yoga doesn’t feel like running five miles or doing squats but I swear, holding “warrior 2” for more than a few seconds is one of the hardest thing in the world. Yoga tends to tone your body instead of building bulky muscles.

Poses that cause you contract muscles and use balance, combined with the heat have been shown to have the same effects on heart rate as running or any other cardio activity. In fact, according to Yoganonymous, a 90 minute class of hot yoga can burn up to 1,000 calories.

Another benefit is the detox that comes with sweating and twisting. Sweating in large amounts releases toxins through the skin that would otherwise be in our bodies. I’ve learned that certain poses, which your body doesn’t normally twist into, help to stretch out your organs and make them function better. Each pose has its own organ benefits, due to the massaging of the organs in positions you wouldn’t normally be in.

Hot yoga has the benefit of strengthening essential body parts such as the spine and injury prone spots to prevent these happenings. It’s been proven to be good for arthritis patients, sufferers of carpal tunnel, and people nursing joint injuries.

Honestly hot yoga has the power to just make you feel awesome. No other activity is as fun for me or has to power to make me feel as good. I’m able to focus on something so intensely for an hour a day that I forget about all the stresses of my life. Plus, the best at my studio at home is at the end when you’re in the final pose, “Savasana,” the instructors walk around with cooled towels infused with mint extract. I also love seeing progress in my yoga practice, between weeks of classes, and just in a single class itself. “Downward Facing Dog” becomes ten times easier from the beginning to the end of class.

The moral of this blog post is to go to hot yoga, or at the minimum, regular yoga! Remember, when attending hot yoga, make sure you drink plenty of fluids continually throughout the day, get energy from healthy foods, and definitely bring a towel to wipe up your sweat. Although unlikely, if any of you ever end up in the Capital District in New York and are looking for a yoga studio, go to the Hot Yoga Spot— it’s the best!


Science in Grey’s Anatomy

Don’t get me wrong, “Grey’s Anatomy” is my favorite show of all time. I’m currently watching it on Netflix, in bed, as I write this blog post. I’ve seen each episode countless times and I actually think I’m in love with Dr. Shepherd, (I’m also willing to have a secret love affair with McSteamy). The show, which aires on ABC, is a hospital-based drama, which takes viewers through the lives of surgical interns on their way to becoming Attendings. Of course, the show is made to entertain, so it doesn’t always give an accurate depiction of medicine or hospital life.

The first inaccuracy I will bring up was realized when Andrew told us on the second day of class that stomach ulcers do not form from stress, they form from a bacteria. In the third season of “Grey’s,” the main character, Meredith, is forced to chose between two men, Finn and Derek. During this episode, (season 3, episode 4), Meredith gets sick from a stomach ulcer due to the stress of choosing between Derek and Finn. However, we all now know that ulcer formation from stress is a myth.

**Spoiler Alert**

Some like to joke that the death rate is higher for the doctors at Seattle Grace-Mercy West than the patients; so much so that it has been called “Seattle Grace-Mercy Death.” But seriously.. how likely is it that a group of doctors/friends would go through such terrible tragedies during their residencies. First, Meredith has her hand on a bomb inside of a patient, she drowns but later comes back to life after a very dramatic scene, one doctor gets hit by a bus and one has metastatic melanoma. Not to mention the shooting that takes place there, killing what seems like half of the doctors, followed by a devastating plane crash which ends up taking the lives of two of my favorite doctors. As you can see, this has been noticed by more people than just me.


However, after further research, I’ve realized that the show has actually attempted to increase medical awareness over certain issues, and it has been studied. For example, there’s an episode in which an HIV positive women has an internal conflict over whether or not she should abort her baby because she isn’t aware that with the proper medical care, she is highly unlikely to pass on the disease. The medical writers of Grey’s wanted to use the episode to act as a PSA, to spread awareness on the issue– and it worked. Something I found interesting about the study was that one week after watching the episode, people’s opinions and knowledge increased, but then after six weeks, it decreased again. Any readers have an idea of why this would happen? It would of course be better explained in the study but I think it could be due to forgetting the facts.

Something else in the study I found interesting was that younger people and of lower income were more likely to claim that they learned something from the show. I think that this is because they probably don’t have proper medical training so anything learned on the show, true or not, would add to their knowledge of medicine.

Although some of what is on Grey’s Anatomy is for entertainment, the medical issues and jargon are often real and have been shown to increase the knowledge of medicine for some.

Hello friends

I. I am taking this class because it was recommended by my advisor in DUS. I had no idea that a class like this even existed, but I am so happy it does, for the sake of a Chem 110 professor who would be forced to grade my pitiful work. After further review, I’ve decided that I’m very excited for this class because I believe it also deals a little bit with social science and what us non-scientists see in the media and how it effects the world. It sort of reminds me of my high school physics teacher, Mr. Ross, who opened my mind to see that not everything we see on the internet about science is set and stone or even true at all.

II. I actually have no idea what I want my major to be but I know that I am not interested in science because I don’t have the brain capacity to focus on things that I can’t see. I also don’t like the idea that a lot of what people accept as true is known in science to be false. Kind of like the disagreement between theories. And science scares me sometimes. Like black holes.. those are scary. Like this is actually mind blowing.