Author Archives: Giana Shan Yu Han

Underwater Unicorns

For some reason, both my best friend and my little sister are obsessed with narwhals.  Given, they are both a little strange (in my opinion), but there still must be a reason that this sea creature can evoke such a response from them.  So I decided to look at this animal so that maybe I could understand why they love them so much.

My friend's going away gift.

My friend’s going away gift.

The narwhal is an animal found in northern waters near Greenland, Russia, and the Arctic circle, according to  The scientific name is Monodon monceros, and it is part of the monodontidae family.  The other species in that family is the beluga, according to Animal Diversity Web.

It describes the appearance of the narwhal as having “a bulbous forehead, no prominent beak, an arched mouthline, a dorsal ridge rather than a fin, and short blunt flippers with upcurled edge.”  They also have two teeth that grow out of their jaws.  For me personally, this description does not sound all that appealing.  However, for males, one of those teeth grows into a tusk that has a spiral that twists counterclockwise, according to  Animal Diversity Web says that it is usually the left, and the right is just rudimentary.  Basically, the narwhal is like an underwater unicorn.  I can see how that would be cool.

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This “cool” feature, however, is what led the narwhals to have a status of “Near threatened,” as Voices in the Sea labeled them. wrote that European traders used to hunt the narwhals for their tusks which they would sell as unicorn horns.  Since their tusks are made out of ivory, they were also valuable for more than their mythical properties since lots of jewelry was made out of ivory.

Besides being used for jewelry, the tusks are also used for fighting and breaking sea ice, said Voices in the Sea.  However, the true use of the tusk is as mysterious as the unicorn people mistook it for.  Through observational studies, some people have concluded that the tusks are used for “jousting competitions” over females, according to, but they state that this is still under debate.  It also says that there is a theory that status is linked to tusk length.  Other scientists, says National Geographic, think that the tusks are used as a sensor since they are full of nerves.  Two hypotheses they were able to rule out were that the tusk is used for hunting food and that it helps them to survive better.  The reason scientists decided that these weren’t plausible explanations was because, first, narwhals don’t eat food that needs to be speared, and, second, if the tusk gave narwhals an evolutionary advantage, how come females don’t generally have one?

Additional reasons why narwhals are actually pretty awesome are that they are super fat and they travel in huge groups.  Narwhals weigh up to 3,500 pounds and can be up to 15.5 feet, according to Voices in the Sea’s statistics.  I would assume that part of the reason they are so fat is because they live in a very cold climate, so they need blubber to keep them warm. adds that during migration times, huge numbers of narwhals will swim at high speeds together, occasionally leaping and diving together at the same time.  And apparently, they taste good, or at least the native people of Greenland and Canada think so.

Pretty fat narwhal.

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So yes, I would conclude that the narwhal is pretty cool.  However, it is also endangered.  And whether you believe in global warming and climate change or not, between the shrinking ice masses in the Arctic circle and the hunting of narwhals, there has been enough evidence for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to declare the species as near threatened in 2008 (  If we want to keep the underwater unicorn from joining the mythical unicorn on the list of “Animals that do not exist,” we need to take action to make sure the species survives.


The Quest for the Perfect Cookie

A very important topic for Penn State students is chocolate chip cookies.  We talk about where to get the best ones and occasionally argue about it (Redifer’s are decent, the ones in the back of Pollock are good, and West’s are legendary).  We debate whether to eat another one and complain that we are all going to get fat if we don’t cut back on our cookie intake.  Yet we are still delighted when our parents send us chocolate chip cookies.

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The chocolate chip cookie is a legend in and of itself.  According to the New Yorker, it was created by Ruth Wakefield in the late 1930s.  She ran a restaurant called Toll House and, on March 20, 1939, gave Nestle the right to use her recipe.  This is the recipe on the back of bags of Nestle chocolate chips, and it’s the one my mom usually uses.  The New Yorker says that there are many stories explaining how Wakefield invented the chocolate cookie, but “the more believable, if somewhat less enchanted, telling” is the explanation food writer Carolyn Wyman gives.  She believes that the new invention came from Wakefield’s hard work and talent.

After the discovery was shared with the world, the chocolate chip cookie-making business took off.  The New Yorker mentions Famous Amos, Chips Ahoy, Mrs. Fields, and David’s cookies as some of the new cookie businesses.  And somehow, none of these cookies tasted quite the same, even though they were all categorized as chocolate chip cookies.

There is a surprising amount of science that has been done concerning the cookie.  Although  most of the experiments that I found were not on scholarly websites given that it is not the most serious topic, many people have been interested in the topic and have experimented to find the perfect cookie.  There appear to be many different techniques to making different variations of the cookie.

A  website called had heard “a lot of anecdotal evidence that leaving chocolate-chip cookie dough in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours will improve the cookies.”  So they decided to do an experiment to provide more substantial evidence to the anecdote.  They mixed one batch of dough and baked part of it after chilling it for 0 hours, 1 hour, 6 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours, and 48 hours.  I am assuming that by baking only one batch of dough, they were attempting to control the levels of variability.  They found that, while one hour did not make a noticeable difference, they started to notice a change in the results after six hours.  By the time they reached the 48-hour batch, the cookies were noticeably different.  Bakepedia believes that there is a mechanism behind this.  They say that the longer the dough sits, the more time the flour has to soak up the liquid.  Although this causes the dough to become drier, the flour itself is hydrated, so once the cookies are baked they are chewier.

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There are many other cookie “tricks,” according to a website called The Salt.  Apparently more flour makes cookies more gooey (I’m guessing this is for a similar reason as the one above- the flour soaks up liquid) and bread flour makes them more chewy.  If you add baking powder and baking soda, the cookies come out crispy with a soft inside.  For more tips, visit the site.

Now, I’m sure many people have heard before that baking is science; it’s like chemistry.  So what is the science behind the actual baking of the cookie?

The Salt provides an explanation for each aspect of the cookie.

When the dough begins to warm, the butter inside it melts.  The ball of dough begins to soften and lose its form, expanding into a circle.  The time of expansion will determine the diameter of the circle.

Mixed into the cookie dough is water and occasionally baking powder or soda.  As we know, heat turns water into steam, and steam rises.  This causes the cookie to rise as well.  And if there is baking powder or soda, it will create carbon dioxide gas which also contributes to the rise.  The holes that the gases leave as they escape the cookie help create the texture of the cookie.

The Serious Eats website explains that when the cookies reach a certain temperature, the egg proteins and starches become structured, helping to finalize the shape of the cookie.  The author of the Serious Eats’ article actually conducted experiments to find out what each of the ingredients did.  She baked the different batches without an ingredient to see what changed each time.  These experiments, though, had a high chance of variability since even when you bake the same recipe, dishes will continuously turn out to be different.

The final chemical reactions help affect the flavor of the cookie as well as its color.  When the sugar in the cookie caramelizes, it turns into a brown liquid that lends flavor and color to the cookie.  The other reaction is the Maillard reaction, which Food Science TV describes as the reaction of sugars with amino acids.  As they break down due to heat, the sugars and acids begin to bond, forming new compounds that give flavor and aroma to foods.

So.  Every time you eat a cookie, you’re actually eating a chemical reaction.  And when you’re following a recipe, you’re following the perfected instructions of experiments that were tested over and over again- and are still being tested as people search for the perfect chocolate chip cookie. There are so many ingredients and factors that go into making a cookie and so many ways to manipulate the outcomes.  In fact, my final conclusion is that chocolate cookies are way more complicated than I ever would have guessed.

Magical Music

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Recently, my roommate and a group of her classmates organized an event about the “power of music.”  They arranged for performances and speakers with a main focus on music therapy.  While I don’t doubt that it works, I don’t completely understand why or how it does.

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”  According to AMTA, trained professionals determine the client’s needs and assign a type of therapy.  This could involve singing, dancing, creating, listening to or moving to music.

Berklee School of Music offers a degree in music therapy.  Their definition, similar to AMTA’s, is “the applied use of music to measurably improve people’s lives by assisting them in making positive life changes. Music therapy is the functional and scientific application of music by a trained music therapist to enhance an individual’s social, emotional, educational, and behavioral development.”  Since they describe it as a “scientific application,” it implies that this has been proven to work as well as that each treatment goes through the trial and error, hypothesis and testing of the scientific procedure to see whether the prescribed treatment works.

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AMTA claims that the idea of using music to help with healing has been around for centuries.  However, they date the first reference to music therapy specifically at 1789 when an article called “Music Physically Considered” appeared in Columbian Magazine.  Then, in the early 1800s, there were two medical dissertations discussing music therapy.  During the World Wars, use of music for therapy became more widespread with musicians traveling to hospitals and playing to the wounded soldiers.  AMTA said that there were noticeable responses from the patients to the music.

Eventually, they began training people to officially become music therapists.  Now colleges offer degrees in music therapy and places like Hershey Medical Center use music therapy.  Hershey states that “music therapy has been shown to improve the quality-of-life for adults and children with disabilities or illnesses.”

The design for an experiment proving that music therapy works would be quite simple.  Block people according to their ailment or disability and randomly assign people from each block to either the group that receives music therapy or the one that doesn’t.  Although the patients cannot be blinded to the fact that they are partaking in music therapy, you could make sure that they do not know that it is part of an experiment or that there is another group.  Also, the people taking the data would not be told who had participated in music therapy and who had not.

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However, this experiment might not be necessary because the DANA Foundation says that there have been so many experiments that lead to the rejection of the null hypothesis (that music doesn’t help) that it has become accepted that music therapy is effective.  Additionally, they state that some of the mechanisms are starting to become clear thanks to the development of brain-imaging techniques.  Before these techniques were available, music therapy was rooted more in the social sciences which believed that the healing was based on the emotional connections, said DANA.

Now that researchers can watch the brain’s response to music, they are finding that music does more than that.  DANA said, “First, the brain areas activated by music are not unique to music; the networks that process music also process other functions.  Second, music learning changes the brain.”

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The parts activated by music are also activated for “processing language, auditory perception, attention, memory, executive control, and motor control.”  When people listen to music, these parts of the brain are activated, and complex interactions between the different parts may occur.

For more information on how exactly it works, see the DANA Foundation website.

Now that scientists are sure (although never 100% sure) that music therapy works, they are looking at how it works for each individual situation and how to individualize the therapy.  The process is ongoing as they test out new types of therapies and explore the possibilities to see just how many “miracles” (which are actually very scientific) music can work in our lives.

And I think, even if there weren’t a biological mechanism for music therapy and it was having a placebo effect, the fact that so many people believe so strongly in how much it helped their lives, including my roommate, means that it’s a worthy endeavor.  In the end, what matters are the lives it changes, and music is one of the most powerful tools for change.

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To Nap or Not?

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Every day, I return to my dorm and struggle with the same question- do I succumb to the temptation to take a nap or not?  When I wake up in the morning, I always tell myself, “Don’t worry, it’s only two hours until you can go back to sleep.”  Which is kind of sad.  However, when I return to my dorm, I find myself embroiled in a very difficult debate.  I need to catch up on sleep, but is it worth losing the time to do homework? What if it becomes a habit? And most importantly, how beneficial ARE naps?

The National Sleep Foundation states that 85% of mammalian species tend to sleep for a short amount of time throughout the day. Essentially, they like to take naps rather than sleep for long periods of time the way we do.  However, the National Sleep Foundation also states that humans are in the minority because they split their day into two parts, one designated for sleeping, one for activity.  Since the young and the elderly tend to take naps, the National Sleep foundation does not know if this is the natural sleep pattern of humans or if it is one that has evolved because of society.  In fact, sleep historian A. Roger Ekirch argues that there are records showing that humans of the past would sleep, wake up in the middle of the night, do some work, then go back to sleep until morning, and this pattern was changed according to the effects of society.  This seems like a reasonable assumption considering that many people find themselves naturally waking up in the middle of the night.

For many years, both society and science believed that napping was bad for you.  Society placed stigmas of laziness on those caught napping, and people believed that naps interfered with nighttime sleep.  However, with scientists’ society of skepticism and criticism, people soon found conflicting results, and many different studies on napping have been done.

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There are several different types of napping according to the National Sleep Foundation.  The first is planned napping which is when you nap before you are actually sleepy.  This would generally occur when someone knows that they will be up late and need to store up energy.  The next type of napping is emergency napping.  The National Sleep Foundation describes it, saying it “occurs when you are suddenly very tired and cannot continue with the activity you were originally engaged in.”  So basically, what happens when you’re lying on you bed, reading a textbook, and find yourself waking up an hour later with a book as a pillow.  The final type of napping is habitual napping- napping at the same time every day.

After comparing several studies, the National Sleep Foundation concluded that naps are actually beneficial for most people.  It recommends 10-20 minute naps because ones that last longer can leave people with sleep inertia which would impair any activity that took place immediately after.  However, it also refers to a study at NASA that found that 40 minute naps also improved performance of pilots and astronauts by 34% and alertness by 100%.  It did not provide the details of the study, so it is not clear how they tested for alertness and performance of how long after they tested.

An article found on the National Institutes of Health website called “The effects of napping on cognitive functioning” stated that brief naps of five to ten minutes show benefits immediately afterwards which last for about one to three hours.  Additionally, it found that naps longer than 30 minutes often create impairment during the period directly afterwards, but the improvements in cognitive performance last for a longer period than those that came from short naps.  While I can see how longer naps can have a negative effect, it is hard to believe five minutes would do anything, so I continued to search for the perfect nap length.

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Harvard Health also put out an article on napping (although Andrew might look at their slogan with skepticism since it is “Trusted advice for a healthier life,” and we are being taught to not take anything for granted).  It says that there is a pattern of wakefulness called the circadian pattern which includes a hump in the afternoon.  I would guess that my hump is during this class, which is why I am sitting there with coffee to help me focus.  However, Harvard Health said that a study done by British researchers in 2008 found that naps are more effective than caffeine.  Which is unlucky for me.  Like the other sources, Harvard provides tips on how to nap most effectively.  It advises finding a cool, dark place to help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.  Routine is good, as well, because it helps you to get used to falling asleep and waking up so that you can do it quicker.

When we got to Penn State, our mentors told us that, to nap effectively, you should drink caffeine right before to help reduce the sleep inertia after a nap.  Harvard mentions this method and says that this theory is based on a small Japanese study, but it also says it is not positive that this is the best approach.  While Harvard’s suggested sleep time is slightly different than the others (20-30 minutes), it is relatively the same.

If one wanted to find what was the best nap time, I think that a rather simple experiment could be conducted. Randomly assign people to different groups- no napping, 10-15 minute naps, 15-20, 25-30, etc.  Have them all take their naps at the same time unless they are part of the control group.  After they wake up, give them some sort of test for alertness and performance and then repeat the test every hour until they go to sleep at night.  While this experiment, due to randomization, might be able to apply to humans in general, it is important to consider that every person is different, so it would not apply to everyone.

Finally, Harvard addresses the topic of guilt when they advise people not to feel guilty about napping.  They say that researchers at Harvard “and elsewhere” have studied naps and found that sleep “improves learning, memory, and creative thinking.”  So while you probably shouldn’t use a nap as an excuse not to do work, if you really need to catch up on some Z’s, choose to go with a 20 minute nap and don’t sweat the lost time too much.

Who Are You?


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Who are you? What characteristics would you say define you?  I think everyone would answer this question slightly differently.  Even if they were only given one word and two people chose the same word, it could still take on a different meaning.  How do identities develop and how do certain characteristics become more important?  What role do genetics play in developing identity?

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the question of identity is not a single question but a bunch of questions that are connected together.  Each question can be answered in a multitude of ways.  For example, a person can have the same four character traits as someone else, but they each choose different ones as the most important.  Stanford explains personal identity as being “contingent and changeable: different properties could have belonged to to the way one defines oneself as a person, and what properties these are can change over time.”

Stanford also identifies “personhood” as another part of identity.  It involves questions concerning what makes a person and at what point does something qualify as a person.  The answers differ depending on personal philosophy, which is part of why the field is so complicated.  The next major part of identity is persistence. Stanford poses the question “What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another?” Basically, what makes a person exist for however long they do, and what makes them stop existing?

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There are several more categories of questions, but the Stanford article focuses on the persistence questions.  It presents three possible answers to what it takes for a person to persist in existence.  One is the psychological-continuity view which focuses on the mental features that you inherits as what helps you to exist.  Another is the brute-physical view.  It believes that you are the being that has your body; it is focused on the physical aspects rather than the mental.  The final view, anticriterialism, states that, “Psychological and physical continuity are evidence for identity… but do not always guarantee it, and may not be required.”  These different questions and theories show the different levels and characteristics of identity, but they show no clear answer as to what exactly it is since philosophy deals with the abstract.

Another aspect of identity that many debate is the nature versus nurture question.  Is identity something that is shaped by life experiences or by genes? An article in Scientific American details an experimental study done by Julia Freund on the question.  She placed mice with identical DNA in a common environment and observed their behavioral patterns closely.  The unit of measurement was roaming entropy, which is based on “how much you get out, and with how much variety,” and the null hypothesis was that the mice would all act the same way.  As the experiment went on, the researchers noticed that some mice started to explore more than others despite having the same genes.  After the experiment, they looked at the number of adult neurons in each brain, and the mice who had higher roaming entropy (who were more adventurous) tended to have more adult neurons.

The article itself cautions against claiming causation because of correlation, but it notes that, one, the mice developed different behaviors despite having the same genes and DNA, and, two, there seems to be a correlation between how much the mice got out and how many adult neurons they had in their brains.  It comes to the conclusion that the way we live our lives affects our identity.

However, before accepting this conclusion, it is important to consider several aspects of the experiment.  First of all, as the article acknowledges, no two mice were EXACTLY identical, and the slight gene variations might have been enough to create the differences.  More importantly, the study was done on mice.  There are some essential differences between mice and humans.  The main difference would be man’s free will.  Animals tend to live for survival and do not think beyond the next meal, whereas humans have much more complex thought processes.  These differences may be great enough to keep experiments on the identities of mice from being applicable to humans.

The experiments that would be the most telling would be to take genetically similar humans like twins and put them in different habitats to see how their characters and identities develop.  However, these type of experiments have many logistical and ethical problems such as is it ethical to separate families for the sake of science.  Also, it is hard to follow a human’s every move.

Despite the obstacles, a theory about brain plasticity has developed, as detailed in the book Grand Challenge: Nature Versus Nurture: How Does the Interplay of Biology and Experience Shape Our Brains and Make Us Who We Are? The book believes that identity is created by a combination of nature and nurture.  It says that humans are born with their brains already wired a certain way, but the brain develops according to experiences.  For example, if you never use your one eye, the part of the brain devoted to seeing through that eye will never develop.  Genetics affect the “initial formation of a synapse… But if that synapse is not used, the brain will ‘prune’ or eliminate it.”

The question of identity is a complex one that has been pondered for centuries.  Although scientists now have biological mechanisms to help them explain how identity develops, the question is a controversial one that will continue to be debated, especially with the critical aspect of the scientific community.

Out of curiosity, I asked some people that I interacted with what their defining characteristic of their identity was.  These are my results, but I would like to state that they cannot be seen as a legitimate study.  I did not randomize who I asked, and I did not ask nearly enough people for any trends to be applicable to the campus, much less the world.  This was done more out of curiosity than anything else.

Religion Family Ethnicity Interests Values Occupation Gender
Girls 2 4 1 1 0 0 2
Boys 3 1 0 2 1 1 0
Total 5 5 1 3 1 1 2

Makeup: Revealing and Concealing

Walking downtown on a Friday night, it is not rare to see groups of girls in high heels, nice outfits, and makeup.  While I will occasionally dress up and have someone else do my makeup, I generally do not wear any makeup. However, many of my friends do, and I have noticed that, for the most part, once people start wearing makeup, they find it hard to stop.

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Many studies have been done on the subject of makeup, specifically on the correlation between confidence and makeup usage.  A student at the University of New Hampshire wrote her honors thesis on the effects of makeup.  She did research and conducted a survey which showed an indication that women in college tend to be more aware of the beauty industry and use make up more.

She cites a study done by Thomas Cash that found that makeup affects both society’s perception of a woman as well as the woman’s own perception of herself.  By manipulating the variable of the amount of makeup the subjects wore, the researchers could study whether there was any causation behind the observed correlations.  The results found that women tend to overestimate how attractive they are when they have makeup on in addition to underestimating how attractive they are without makeup.  If this is a correct conclusion, then it would be reasonable to assume that the reason women find it hard to stop wearing makeup after they start is because they feel the confidence boost the first time and that emphasizes their insecurities when they do not have makeup on.

Another study, done by Nash, Fieldman, Hussey, Lévêque, and Pineau, that the research paper referenced found that women wearing makeup generally had more self confidence than those not wearing makeup.  However, it did not mention whether the women who were not wearing makeup usually did so, which made the results are ambiguous.  Saying that women who normally wear makeup are more confident with it on rather than off is different than the conclusion that women who wear makeup are more self confident than those who never do because another study she quotes states that there is a negative correlation between women who are more extroverted and self-confident and the use of makeup.

The study by Nash, Fieldman, Hussey, Lévêque, and Pineau also showed that people tend to think that women wearing makeup are healthier and more successful.  This could mean that if a woman started wearing makeup and then stopped, people would think she looked less healthy.  If people did think she looked less healthy without makeup on, they might ask her if she was feeling okay, which would influence her to keep wearing makeup so that she would not get asked those questions.

Hanover University conducted a similar study, but it focused on the anxiety felt when wearing different types of makeup in different situations.  It mentions the fact that makeup is a quick method to making one feel more confident about themselves as opposed to deciding to diet or exercise more.  Generally, makeup usage starts during the adolescent years when girls become more concerned with their femininity, and it continues on, especially during the college years.

The researcher asked four college aged women to fill out a survey about their confidence levels when going to class in their normal “class” makeup and out in their normal “out” makeup and then they reversed the two.  The hypothesis the researchers mentioned was that matching the makeup to the situation would create the lowest levels of anxiety, but the results showed that the lowest anxiety levels always occurred whenever the women were wearing their “out” makeup.  Since there were only four women, more research would need to be done because the sample size was not necessarily wide enough.  Additionally, all the women were Caucasian which raises the question of whether the effects of makeup differ among different races.

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A third paper, “Why women use makeup: Implication of psychological traits in makeup functions,” found that there are two main reasons behind the use of makeup.  These are categorized as “camouflage” and “seduction.”  Those in the first group tend to be less confident and use cosmetics as confidence boosters, while the women in the second group tend to be more sociable and use makeup “to allure.”  The studies conducted used a large sample size, and found that the results were statistically significant in proving that there are different uses for makeup depending on “emotional and psychological profiles.”

These studies all provide interesting insight as to why women use makeup.  It appears that it boosts their confidence, hides insecurities, and helps them to feel more feminine.  However, it would be interesting to examine why some women cannot stop using makeup once they start and others can, whether women who do not wear makeup are as confident as women who do while they are wearing it, and how the usage and effects of makeup vary between races.

Most studies correlate the self-confidence issues and use of makeup with the beauty industry.  As a result, some companies are now taking action to project the image that the “real you” is beautiful.  Dove’s advertisement summarizes the ideas of self perception that many of the studies observed with their commercial, Dove Real Beauty Sketches, which were meant to act as a social experiment.  The results of the video, demonstrate why the use of makeup is so prevalent in our society.

Surprising Health Benefits of Pineapples

One day, not so long ago, I remember a group of people talking about how they read somewhere that pineapples are bad for your eyes.  I was skeptical, so of course I continued to eat them, but the idea lodged in my brain.  My eyesight is so terrible, I don’t need anything making it worse.  And now, with pineapple being served pretty much at every meal at every dining hall, I decided to finally check the facts, and I’m glad I did.

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First of all, someone should probably tell those people that they had it backwards.  Livescience talked to a nutritionist, Laura Flores, and they found that pineapples actually reduce the risk of an eye disease.  This disease, macular degeneration, occurs as people age and makes their eyesight worsen.  Pineapples, however, have high levels of antioxidants and vitamin C which help fight the disease.

Additionally, I found further interesting information on pineapples’ benefits, as well as the benefits of fruit in general.

Pineapples seem to be a magical fruit.  Not only do they taste good, but they can help improve bone strength, digestion, and possibly even reduce the risk of cancer.  Both Livescience and Healthiest Foods discuss the merits of an enzyme, bromelain, which is found in pineapples.  This enzyme helps to break down proteins, making them easier to digest.  According to Healthiest Foods, most of the bromelain is found in the pineapple’s core, so they suggest that you eat a bit of it after high protein meals.

Additionally, they also mention the high levels of manganese in pineapple which strengthens the bones and helps develop connective tissues. Both sites go on to explain many other health benefits of eating pineapples, but the one I found most interesting was the possibility that pineapples reduce the risk of cancer.

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A piece in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology explores the use of pineapples as a folk medicine.  Bromelain seems to be the key to the magic of pineapples, according to this book.  It says that not the exact chemical structure of all parts of this enzyme are not yet known, but it has been observed that bromelain interferes with the growth of malignant cells and it has “therapeutic values in modulating tumor growth.”  In 1972, Gerard treated 12 cancer patients with bromelain and found it had a positive effect, as did Nieper in 1974.  However, the results were not statistically significant enough to confirm their theories.  They also noted that not all preparations of the bromelain had the same effect.  Nieper did believe, however, that the bromelain acted as a way to weaken the shield protecting tumors, allowing the immune system to work more efficiently.

In 1975, they started animal testing to try to provide more information so that they could understand the correlations better.  The results showed that bromelain-fed mice were more resistant to the harmful effects of UV radiation.  Another study dealing with the lungs of mice also supported the findings and helped scientists to determine that Nieper and Gerard’s study findings were not the result of a placebo effect.

Two organizations, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and Chief Medical Officer’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (COMA), conducted studies on fruit and vegetables effects, in general, on cancer.  While their findings varied from cancer to cancer, they were able to come to an agreement and conclude that, overall, eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cancer.

So while pineapple is not a surefire way to prevent cancer or a perfect cure for all health diseases, it definitely doesn’t have the negative qualities I was warned of.  In fact, it looks like the sweet fruit that graces dining tables has even more benefits than I bargained for.



The Magic of KT Tape

One thing that people know about my sister is that she is prone to injury.  It is rare to see her playing a game without some sort of brace on her ankle or wrist or knee.  This past March, she tore her labrum, but it was misdiagnosed, so she did not have the proper surgery until July.  She had to go through intensive physical therapy, but now it’s volleyball season again, and she’s been cleared to play.  However, she has to take precautions to keep from injuring it further.  One of these precautions is wearing KT tape, otherwise known as the “magic tape.”

The first time I really remember KT tape appearing in a huge public setting was during the last Summer Olympics when many of the volleyball players had tape patterns twisting around their shoulders and knees.  No one really knew what it was at the time, but it is gaining popularity.  The KT Tape website describes it as “an elastic sports and fitness tape designed for muscle, ligament and tendon pain relief and support.”  It says that it is a fashionable, lightweight tape that provides external support and does not come off easily during physical activity.  The way it works is by creating “neuromuscular feedback (called proprioception) that inhibits (relaxes) or facilitates stronger firing of muscles and tendons.” Which is all very good, except that I, and I’m sure many others, don’t know what neuromuscular feedback is.

During our first week of classes, we discussed the fact that, despite what we learn in elementary school, there are more than five senses.  According to The London Orthotic Consultancy, proprioception, or neuromuscular feedback, is another one of those senses.  It is “the sense used by the body to determine the position of the other relative points of the body.”  The cells that work with proprioception are called proprioceptors, and the signals they send to the central nervous system help the body with balance, posture, and muscle contraction or relaxation.  Apparently, they are “very sensitive to stimulation and have an effect on muscle tension.”

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KT Tape explains that, depending on how the tape is applied, it will either support, enable, or restrict soft tissue, and its movement.  The tape is designed to have the same elasticity as skin, and, as it moves, it “augments tissue function and distributes loads away from inflamed or damaged muscles and tendons, thereby protecting tissues from further injury.”

The US National Library of Medicine (NLM) collected the conclusions of a series of six studies.  Five of these studies found that KT Tape helps to significantly decrease short term pain but has little effect in the long run, while the sixth found no significant improvement in pain levels coinciding with the use of KT Tape.

However, this information comes from the company that makes KT Tape, so there is a bias in that the company wants people to buy it so that they make money.  While many people buy totally into the idea, others are convinced that it’s just a placebo effect, people are just imagining the “magic” of KT tape.

The University of Franca did a study on this placebo effect by taping elderly people and measuring their ability to balance.  Part of the group had KT Tape, while the other part had a placebo tape, and their ability to balance was measured right after being taped and 48 hours after being taped.  This study, however, was terminated before it came to a conclusion.  As NLM stated, “There are few high-quality studies examining the use of KT following musculoskeletal injury.”

An article by Andrew Griffiths in The Telegraph talked to some scientists dedicated to researching the effects of KT Tape.  The results that Dr. Michael Callaghan and Roger Kerry found were that it is, indeed effective- but taping in general is effective.  From their studies, they had not found any evidence that KT Tape is scientifically better than any other tape.

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As KT Tape’s popularity continues to spread among athletes, many people claim that it’s a fad, a myth, magic.  But there does appear to be a scientific explanation behind it.  And while there is no proof that KT Tape is better than any other form of taping and may just be a placebo effect, there seems to be no harm in improved performances based off of a fun, fashionable, and interesting tape that makes people perform better.





To Hit the Sand or the Court?

Waiting to get into the insanely packed gym to see Penn State face number two Stanford in volleyball was almost as much of an exercise in patience as waiting for a sand court to open up.  It is very clear that volleyball, whether indoor or outdoor, is a very popular sport at Penn State.  Having played indoor volleyball for my high school and outdoor during the summer, I have noticed some basic differences between the two.  Obviously, it is harder to run and jump on the sand court than it is to do so indoors, and beach ball has outside factors like wind and sunlight.  However, since I am often playing beach volleyball with friends, it is harder to tell what some of the other differences might be.  Does one have a higher injury rate?  Will playing indoor help your beach skills and vice versa?  Is it better to go from beach volleyball to indoor or from indoor to beach?

According to the Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine, the overall number of injuries in beach volleyball is comparable to the number in indoor with 4.9 injuries per player per 1,000 hours of exposure for beach and 4.2 for indoor.  However, beach volleyball has a lower number of injuries during practice, and the types of injuries differ in frequency between the two.  In beach volleyball, it is more common for players to hurt their backs or knees whereas in indoor volleyball, ankle injuries are more common.  The Encyclopedia states that the reason for this may be due to the surface played on and the number of players on the court.  Based off personal experience, I believe the number of players on the court would affect the number of ankle injuries because, with six players on a side in an indoor court, there is a much higher chance of a player landing on another’s foot than in beach when there are typically only two people per side.

These results were backed up by another study found on  295 players’ injuries were recorded for a beach volleyball season and then an indoor one.  There were an equal number of men, women, elite, and recreational players who answered a questionnaire for each season.  They also found that there was “an incidence of 4.9 injuries per 1000 volleyball hours in beach volleyball and 4.2 in indoor volleyball.”  Additionally, a pattern was observed that showed that overuse injuries resulting from spiking and field defense were common in beach volleyball, while indoor players usually injured their ankles and fingers while blocking and spiking.

Ed Drakich, Canada’s Beach High Performance Director, wrote a piece on the symbiotic relationship between beach and indoor ball.  He found that both sports are beneficial to the other.  For example, playing beach in indoor’s offseason helps strengthen joints because there is less stress on them due to a lower amount of impact when a player jumps, and the sand is harder to move in, so more strength is needed to move.  On the other hand, playing indoor will improve a player’s spiking skills.  Since it is harder to jump in the sand, the power of the hit is not focused on as much in beach.  So playing indoor ball will help the player to focus on developing a harder swing.

While I could not find a study for which sport is better to start out with, there are simple studies that could be done.  A simple random sample of girls and/or boys of the same age starting volleyball could be taken.  Half would start by learning indoor volleyball first, while the others would learn to play outdoor.  Each person would be paired up with another person who has similar physical qualities and condition.  The two groups would switch to the other sport, and the progress would be compared within the pairs.  The results would determine which sport it is better to start out with.

Although there are many differences between beach and indoor volleyball, there does not appear to be a better option in terms of injury risk based on this research.  Additionally, experts believe it is good to play both, and that each can improve the skills needed for the other sport.  So if you’re one of the many Penn Staters who loves volleyball, don’t be upset if you have to trade in the beach court for an indoor court or vice versa.



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What’s Happening to My Hair?

Ever since my arrival at Penn State, I’ve heard many, including myself, complain that our hair feels different here.  It’s a little frizzier, a little less smooth, a tad bit harder to make look good.  Most of us are using the exact same shampoo and conditioner that we used at home, so that isn’t the problem.  It could be the humidity or the air, but most of us are going with the theory that it is the water that is responsible for our numerous bad hair days.  It sounds a little bit crazy, but could it possibly be true?

Apparently, water quality differs from area to area.  According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), “Water quality can be thought of as a measure of the suitability of water for a particular use based on selected physical, chemical, and biological characteristics.”  USGS lists bacteria, temperature, mineral content, acidity, and electrical conductance as some of the characteristics of water quality.  Additionally, the geography and climate of a location are factors of water quality since water will pick up different minerals and bacteria as it moves across the ground, and the amount of water that evaporates can determine the mineral concentration left in the water.  Naturally in the water are what USGS refers to as “dissolved solids.”  These include salts and minerals, like common constituents (calcium, chloride, etc.), nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), and trace elements (arsenic, chromium, etc.).  Sometimes, there are dissolved gases, like oxygen, in the water as well.

Although water is a liquid, it has different levels of something called “hardness.”  USGS describes hardness as being “caused by compounds of calcium and magnesium, and by a variety of other metals.” Different levels of hardness affect how water is used.  When water is harder, more soap is necessary for washing and synthetic detergents are needed for laundry.  The Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska (IANR) also supports this claim.  IANR explains that, since water acts as a solvent, it picks up minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and holds them in a solution.  The more minerals it holds, the harder the water is, and the more detergent needed for cleaning. The hardness of the water can affect many different cleaning tasks.  Sometimes, the minerals in the water may affect the active ingredient in detergents, reducing their effectiveness, while, at other times, the minerals may combine with soap to create a “sticky soap curd.”

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So what is the water like here in Penn State?  According to the State College Borough Water Authority (SCWBA), the water hardness at Penn State is around 120- 190 milligrams of calcium and magnesium per liter, and anything above 100 mg/L is considered hard.  Which makes the water at Penn State very hard. This is because most of the water is groundwater or pumped from wells, so it picks up many minerals.

How does this affect our hair?  It goes back to the soap curd.  IANR says that soap curd on hair makes it feel “dull, lifeless, and difficult to manage.”  When I read this out loud, all the girls around me nodded in agreement.  So. We aren’t going crazy; there really is a scientific explanation for our multiple bad hair days. That isn’t to say there aren’t any confounding variables, but past studies have supported our observations.  Now the question is- what can we do about it?

There is no easy solution, according to Health Guidance.  One option is to filter the water before using it, which is time consuming, or to use hair products designed to combat the effects of hard water, which is expensive.  Health Guidance also mentions the option of using vitamins C and E on the hair to help make it look “fresh and clean.”  A website about hair products, ,  provides a list of ingredients to look for in shampoos that will help with the “hard water hair problem.”  They list Citric Acid, EDTA, HEDTA, Oxalic acid, Potassium Citrate, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Oxalate, TEA-EDTA Tetrasodium EDTA, Trisodium EDTA, and Trisodium HEDTA as ingredients that can assist in our fight to preserve our hair.  However, if you don’t feel like going to the effort to read the ingredients on the back of the bottle, you can use lemon or vinegar in your hair, or you can hope that this water does not do permanent damage before we move back to where water is normal.

DNA: Discovering Who We Are

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For the first 17 years of my life, I identified myself as half Chinese, a quarter Italian, and a bunch of other things.  Then one day, my dad came home and told us, by the way, we’re part Korean.

I was in shock.  Granted, the amount of Korean I allegedly have in me (1.1%) is so small, it barely counts.  However, I have always considered my ethnic background an essential part of what makes me me.  For so many years, people have kept track of their backgrounds based on what their ancestors passed down or any records they could find, but today there are new ways to test genetics.

One of these ways is a spit test, which is how I found out that I’m (part!) Korean.  My uncle had a DNA test done for medical reasons and was sent additional information about his race in the process. To do this, he simply had to spit in a bag, mail it out, and send along $100.  While I think this is really cool, I also wonder how it works and whether it’s reliable. After all, he literally just spit in a bag.

It started in 1985, when English scientist, Dr. Alec Jeffreys, noticed that certain sequences of DNA repeated itself, and the number of repetitions varied among people, according to John Butler’s book, Forensic DNA Typing.  He used these observations to start performing human identity tests.  Since then, the use of DNA testing has grown rapidly in many different fields.

According to the New South Wales Government Fact Sheet, DNA tests can be done using body tissues like blood, skin, saliva, and hair follicles.  It states, “DNA to be tested can be extracted from the cells of a variety of body fluids or tissues.”  After the samples are taken, the DNA is cut into smaller pieces, called sites, and then they are placed in a gel matrix.  The gel is charged so that there is a positive and negative end.  Since DNA is negatively charged, it will move towards the positive end, but the speed at which it moves depends on the size of the DNA piece, so larger DNA pieces will go a shorter distance.  After the pieces have separated, a probe is placed on top to compare the patterns of the DNA.

Often times, the scientists will use a naturally occurring enzyme to reproduce more of the DNA since it is easier to analyze the genetic code when there are more samples, according to BBC Science.  Much of the decoding is based on comparisons.  BBC Science likens the process to comparing fingerprints.  Since 99.9% of people’s DNA is the same, the DNA test is looking at the 0.1% that makes each person different.

There are many different uses for DNA testing, including forensics, confirming parentage, and looking for genetic diseases.  In my uncle’s case, he was looking for evidence of genetic diseases, but he also got back information about his heritage.  According to the University College of London, the Y-Chromosome would have been tested for his male ancestry.  Based on what appeared in the results, his DNA was matched with the region that shows men with similar DNA patterns.  The testing center might have also done a mitochondrial test for his female ancestry.  UCL states that the results may “be accompanied by a story and a ‘migration map’” to help pinpoint where his ancestors are from.

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Blogger Emma Jolly decided to do three different DNA tests through three different companies.  She found that each one sent back similar results when it came to her main ethnicity, but, as they tried to work farther back in her family tree, there were discrepancies among the different test results.  Since testing and categorizing is based on comparisons, the more DNA entered into the databases, the more accurate the results will be.

There are so many different uses for DNA testing, and the accuracy of the tests depend on what each is looking for.  When it comes to confirming parentage, it is more accurate because there are two definite DNA samples to compare.  If genetic screening or testing is being done, the tests can spot whether someone is carrying a certain genetic trait or has the pattern that is common among diseases.  However, it cannot always confirm that that trait or disease will appear and affect that person.  Finally, when it comes to determining heritage, the DNA tests can spot the more evident ethnicities, but, since it is based on comparisons, it is not entirely accurate as it goes farther back.

Since I am interested in history and heritage, I look forward to when the tests can more confidently identify ancestry.  For now, it appears that, to be more positive of the results, people must take more than one DNA test and compare the results.  However, unless there are  documents proving that the ancestry the DNA tests recover, there is no way to confirm that what the test is saying is right when it comes to heritage.  As time goes on, the science of decoding DNA will become more and more accurate, and with the progress will come many enlightening facts as well as many new ethical questions.

First Post

As I sat in a room in Carnegie scheduling classes, I found myself calling my advisor over as I ran into a problem.  I had no science credits from high school, but I just couldn’t make myself take another science class.

My name is Giana Han, and it is safe to say that I am not a science person.  While I enjoyed high school chemistry, I wasn’t ready to challenge myself with a college chem course that was not related to my major, and biology was a huge “No!” for me.  Luckily, the Comm advisors are used to cases like me and had a list of classes ready.

I was told this class was interesting even to people who are not science-minded, and the professor came with high recommendations.  After reading the class description, I was even more convinced since I saw the subjects were often based off of what was in the news.  As a journalism major, I am not part of the school of science, but I have to be prepared to cover whatever happens.  Hopefully, this class will give me an appreciation for any science-related news.

So, while I am more than happy to leave the labs to other students, I am willing to learn to appreciate science so that I can do them justice when I write about the Penn Stater who finds the cure to cancer.

This is the city of Baltimore, which I live just outside of.  I’ve also been on living classroom trips (science stuff) in the harbor.

This has nothing to do with anything, but this is one of my favorite videos.