Author Archives: Kendra Hepler

Why do we “hate” certain foods?

I was eating lunch at the HUB today with some friends, and the topic of hated-foods came up. I had gotten Chik-Fil-A chicken nuggets with waffle fries, and Chik-Fil-A sauce to dip them in. My friend asked me what Chik-Fil-A sauce was, and I told him to try it and decide for himself. He did so, and immediately had a look of disgust and averse reaction to the flavor. I myself love the taste, and know many other people who are die-hard Chik-Fil-A sauce fans. It made me wonder, why do people really hate certain foods? I know many people hate foods such as mushrooms, cottage cheese, olives, but is there scientific reasoning behind it?

I hate broccoli!

This girl is really disgruntled with broccoli.

First of all, its important to note why we like the foods that we do eat. This article explains that humans have “innate preferences” to tastes. From the time you are born, you naturally enjoy things that taste sweet and dislike bitter or sour tastes. This predisposition has allowed humans to live and evolve for thousands of years, because it steers us away from potentially poisonous foods that come with the bitter taste, and towards safe-to-eat sweet foods. Another thing that affects tastes is what mothers eat while their offspring are in the uterus. A study has shown that prenatal exposure to certain foods via the mother’s dietary habits leads to increased liking of those tastes or foods after birth.

One biological mechanism for why we perceive tastes differently is in our taste buds. Scientists categorize three different groups of people, based on genetics: ‘”super tasters”, “non-tasters” and “regular tasters”‘. Super tasters are those who have more “fungiform papillae” taste receptors, and can taste certain things like bitterness more intensely. This leads to a higher likelihood of aversion to foods that are bitter, such as green vegetables.

Other times, people develop aversions to foods after they have become sick from them. An article from the website io9 says, “This taste aversion is a survival mechanism, where your body is essentially trying to avoid a potentially poisonous substance.”

Taste likes or dislikes can also be attributed to culture. Some cultures often adopt certain flavors or tastes that are often used due to availability of certain foods and spices, such as curry in Indian foods. Growing up in a culture which often utilizes curry will make it more likely that you will enjoy the taste of it, as opposed to growing up in a place where the flavor is not used as often.

If you don’t like a certain food but wished you did, you’re in luck! Research says that you can teach yourself to like foods through repeated exposure to the taste. One study says that after around 10 to 15 tries of a “hated food”, you are likely to come around to the flavor. The science behind that is currently unclear.

There is a pattern to food aversions, however. Each individual has different tastes for foods, but collectively, there are a certain few tastes that many individuals dislike, such as dark chocolate, coffee, and brussels sprouts. So if you hate some type of food, you’re more than likely not alone!


Are You Safer Owning A Gun?

With gun control being a hot topic in America lately, I began to wonder if owning a gun affects your safety or risk of being involved in gun violence. Many people who own guns do so for supposed self-protection, but what are the statistics on the subject? Are gun-owners actually safer than those who go without?

Bear Arms

More than 1/3 of U.S. citizens, or around 300,0000 people, live in a household in which someone owns  gun. In a 2014 gallup poll, 63% of Americans said they felt that having a gun in the house makes it a safer place. However, according to a 2014 meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, those with household access to guns are 3 times more likely to commit suicide and 2 times more likely to be victim of homicide.  Another national study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology stated that “regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”

So what exactly are the risks and benefits of owning a gun? The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine broke this issue down in a 2011 study. Between 2003 and 2007, 680 Americans were accidentally or unintentionally killed by firearms. 2/3 of those deaths occurred in home according to data from the National Violent Death Reporting System. In suicides between 2003 and 2007, an average of 16,790 per year were committed with guns. In the same time period, 12,045 homicides per year were committed with guns. With so many deaths being caused from guns in households, how many times have they been used in self-defense effectively? The Violence Policy Center said that in 2012, there were, “259 justifiable gun-related homicides, or incidents in which authorities ruled that killings occurred in self-defense.” The LA Times published an informative article in which it compared this number to the 1.2 million violent crimes that were committed in 2012, making the number of actual utilizations of weapons for self-defense pale in comparison.  Essentially, having a gun in your home means that a weapon in more accessible to anyone who enters- whether that be you or a family member or a complete stranger. While some people will always swear by keeping a weapon for self-defense, there are other methods of self-defense which may be as or even more effective. A study on the effects of victim action on the outcomes of crimes showed that people who used any type of self-defense method other than a gun were less likely to be harmed than those with guns.

The scientific community has come to the consensus that currently for the average person, the risks of owning a gun outweigh the possible benefits. Other factors such as the area you live in can affect your risks, however, so this advice is not necessarily true for everyone. Ultimately, it’s still up to the individual whether or not they chose to purchase a firearm and keep it in their home, but you can’t deny the statistics.

Tattoos and Self-Esteem

I recently came across this article being shared on social media with the title, “Study Finds Tattoos Can Contribute to Higher Self-Esteem.” While I do not have a tattoo myself, I was intrigued by the idea and wanted to learn more. I know many people who have tattoos, whether it be one or a few or several dozen, but I have no idea how or if their having a tattoo changed their perceptions of themselves or not. I also know many people who have bad tattoos, or ones that they now regret getting in the first place, and wondered if that tied in with the results of this study at all.


The observational study from Texas Tech University, called “Tattoos, gender, and well-being among American college students,” gathered data from 2,394 students attending six public universities across the United States. The researchers set out to collect data on the quantities of tattoos individuals possessed, along with self-disclosed levels of, “self-esteem, depression, suicide ideation, and reports of one or more suicide attempts.” To measure these variables, participants were given a survey that used scales to collect data on their self-esteem, levels of depression, and amount of suicidal thoughts. They also collected data on gender and number of tattoos.

The findings showed several expected relationships in the variables, including a positive relationship between suicide attempts and depression/suicidal thoughts, and that reports of depression correlate with suicide attempts, thoughts of suicide, and decreased self-esteem.

The most interesting finding involves the correlation between number of tattoos and the other variables. Reportedly, number of tattoos is not associated with suicidal thoughts, but is positively related to depression and attempted suicide. As shown in the graph below, among all participants with four or more tattoos, 24.5% had attempted suicide at least once. This is more than double the amount for those with 2 to 3 tattoos, and significantly more than the 7% of attempters with no tattoos. The percentage of those who had attempted suicide and had 4 or more tattoos was almost 7% higher among women than men.

Microsoft Word - Figure_1_V2.doc

Despite this, the study found that the number of tattoos also had a positive relationship with self-esteem. Among females, those with four or more tattoos reported significantly higher self-esteem than those with 4 or less tattoos. In the report, the researches suggested a possible explanation for why females with 4 or more tattoos were more likely to have attempted suicide but also to have higher self-esteem: women who have experiences the emotional damages and trauma that come with suicidal thoughts and acts may be more likely to get tattoos as coping mechanisms or efforts of “emotional restoration”. Although this is just a possibility of what could be, the results of the study to hi-light an interesting paradox.

There are a few problems with the study, including the fact that it is purely observational, and participants may not be answering totally truthfully or accurately. Also, because the study is not made up of randomly selected participants, but rather was completed on a volunteer basis, it may not be an accurate representation of young people across the country. More and larger studies should be done to ensure that the findings are consistent. A future survey could also include asking the time order of when participants received tattoos, had thoughts/attempts of suicide, etc., in order to rule out reverse causation.

Energy Drinks and Masculinity

As I was perusing Facebook recently, I came across an article shared by a friend, endearingly entitled, “STUDY FINDS PEOPLE WHO ENJOY ENERGY DRINKS ARE MORE LIKELY TO BE ASSHOLES“. Intrigued, I clicked on the link to read more.


It turns out that the study, published in November 2015 in Health Psychology, was created with the objective of investigating “the relationship between masculinity ideology, outcome expectations, energy drink use, and sleep disturbances.”  Researchers surveyed 467 adult males ranging in age from 18-62 with a series of online questions. The survey focused on three distinct topics, inquiring:

  1. The participants’ belief in or agreement with statements of ‘traditional masculine ideology’, like “‘I think a young man should try to be physically tough, even if he’s not,’ and, ‘Men should not be too quick to tell others that they care about them.'”
  2. How much or little they believed that drinking the energy drink would result in good outcomes for them (good outcomes could be better athletic performance, more energy, increased risk-taking desire, etc.).
  3. Sleep patterns and habits of the participants.

After compiling the data, researchers claimed to have found “associations” between the factors in question. They say that men who endorsed more stereotypically masculine (a.k.a. not always politically correct) beliefs also expected that energy drinks would bring them more positive outcomes (like can be seen on commercials for said energy drinks), which in turn led them to have increased consumption of the drinks, in the end making them more likely to experience “sleep disturbance symptoms”. The researchers conclude the study by suggesting that believing in above-mentioned “traditional masculinity ideology” can have negative health consequences for men.

After reading the conclusion of the study, I realized that the article hadn’t accurately portrayed what was happening in the study at all. While I realize that the article comes from a source whose Facebook description says “We’re not serious”, the title was mostly clickbait, not a good representation of the science being done. In any case, the actual conclusion of the study did not astound me much either. They found a correlation between male beliefs, energy drink consumption, cool. Is this surprising, considering the amount of advertising money spent by energy drink companies to attract a heavily masculine demographic? The study was only correlational, and we’ve been learning all semester how correlation does not equal causation! There is definitely opportunity for reverse-causation here, there is currently no evidence whether drinking energy drinks makes you more likely to believe stereotypically masculine ideas, or if having those beliefs makes you more likely to drink energy drinks. The aspect of sleep disturbance also seemed to be a side-focus of this study. In my opinion, they had too much stuff going on in this research. If they were to do a follow-up experiment, they would need to choose an aspect to focus on, either the connection between thought process and drink consumption or the effect of drink consumption on sleep patterns or health.

Side note: As I closed out of the article, I found myself grateful of the scientific eye I was now observing the world with due to this class. It really reinforced the “don’t believe everything you see on the internet” adage. Stay in school, kids.

How Harmful Actually is BPA?

BPAIf you attended class today, you’ll know that we discussed the issue of bisphenol-A (BPA) in food packaging and plastic bottles/containers. It was concluded that the study featured in the article we read only actually tested whether eating canned soup causes BPA levels in humans to rise, NOT the affect, if any, BPA has on human health (despite the author talking about it in the write-up.) This left me wondering, what actually are the effects of BPA on human health, and should I be concerned about it? I headed to the internet in search of the facts.

What is it?

Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical used for its qualities of durableness and impact resistance in plastics such as beverage containers, toys, car parts, CDs, food packaging, and many other frequently-used objects. BPA was first used commercially in the 1950s, and it it still used heavily worldwide with an estimate of 2.2 metric tons being created each year.

Why should we be worrying about it?

In a 2008 study from the CDC of over 2,500 U.S. citizens, it was discovered that 93% of participants had detectable levels of BPA found in their urine samples. With BPA being such an omnipresent part of consumer products, many are concerned about the potential health effects, but what those are exactly is still unclear.  Despite this, the Environmental Protection Agency currently recommends a tolerable daily intake (TDI) of BPA as 50 μg/kg/day. In 2012 and 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and other infant food packaging/ containers due to public concern and uncertainty on the effects of BPA, however the ban has since been lifted because producers of such goods have stopped using BPA. A fact sheet from the U.S. Center for Disease Control simply says, “Human health effects from BPA at low environmental exposures are unknown. BPA has been shown to affect the reproductive systems of laboratory animals. More research is needed to understand the human health effects of exposure to BPA.”

What does the research say?

BPA is known as an endocrine disruptor, which means it can interfere with hormones found in the human body. In 2013, the journal Reproductive Toxicology published a meta-analysis of 91 studies on BPA and human health. The analysis found that in 70% of the studies, “significant adverse effects” were found in averagely-exposed populations. A total of 16 of the studies found that BPA had no effects on the factors in question.  Factors studied included fertility, infant developmental effects, metabolic disease, and others. The meta-analysis found the following: “strong evidence that adult exposure to BPA is associated with cardiovascular diseases and adverse cardiovascular health, in many populations,” “on the whole… the studies strongly suggest that BPA is associated with neurobehavioral problems in children,” “there is some evidence that BPA may contribute to infertility in humans,” among others. Some rumored effects of BPA, however, were invalidated, such as: “a link between BPA and breast cancer cannot be determined”, and “…the literature does not support a clear-cut link between prenatal BPA exposure and altered birth weight of the offspring.” The analysis clearly listed many correlations between BPA and negative human health effects that were found to be significant, but also listed several cases in which no correlation was found between BPA level and human health. The comprehensive study concluded with data from several studies in which participants (men, women, and children) exposed to much lower BPA levels than the nationally recommended amount of 50 μg/kg/day had shown “significant” adverse health effects. Although it is unclear to me exactly what “significant” means, this knowledge suggests that perhaps that recommendation level should be reevaluated, in the interest of public safety.

On the other hand, some scientists argue that BPA does not pose significant health risks. In a 2012 NPR feature, senior research scientist Justin Teeguarden from the Pacific Northwest National Lab stated that the human body can “inactivate dangerous chemicals like BPA in the intestine and liver”, rendering the trace amounts that make it into the body harmless.

Research chemist Dan Doerge completed studies in infant monkeys, mice, and rats to see if newborns were able to deactivate BPA as well as adults. He found that monkeys had ten times less toxic BPA in their bloodstreams that the mice or the rats, because they have better metabolic ability to detoxify the chemical. Because of this, Doerge argues that since humans are similar to monkeys than rodents, we should also have this increased ability to detoxify BPA.


With conflicting opinions within the scientific community, clearly more research needs to be done on the subject of BPA and its effects on human health. There are many studies that show negative effects due to BPA, but is the exposure level high enough to be of concern to the public? More large-population, long-term studies should be carried out in order to have more complete information on the issue. In the mean time, it is up to individual consumers to decide if the exposure is worth the possible risks to themselves. Many products are now labeled if they are BPA-free, and consumers can choose alternatives to plastic bottles and canned foods. We will hopefully hear more about this issue in the future.

How do we get our voices?

There are currently almost 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, with countless dialects, accents, and quirks to any individual’s speech. A DNA survey from 2002 revealed that all humans are genetically 99.9% identical.  It amazes me that one species (Homo sapiens) can be so similar, yet possess so many variations of speech, which leads me to ask, why do we speak the way we do? How do we get our voices?

An article from Mental Floss claims that our voices are as unique as fingerprints- with no two being exactly the same. The National Center for Voice and Speech offers an “equation” for an individual’s voice: “Voice Quality = laryngeal anatomy + vocal tract configuration + learned component”. Let’s break this down so that myself along with other non-linguists can understand.

  1. Anatomy: The anatomical features that produce human voice are known as the vocal tract. This includes the lungs, the larynx (also known as the “voice box”), and the oral and nasal cavities. The lungs provide the airstream which Vocal Tractpowers human voice. As air is pushed up the windpipe from the lungs, the larynx, which is made up of two vocal folds, opens and closes to produce vibrations. These vibrations are carried through to the throat, nose, and mouth, which act as resonators- morphing the vibrations into distinct human sounds.

2. Vocal Tract Configuration: The shape of any individual’s vocal tract is due partially to genetic makeup: you are born with a certain neck length, pharynx width, etc, all which affect the sound produced. However, you can also manipulate your vocal tract in order to produce a certain sound. Singers practice “vocal tract shaping” all the time so that they can create their desired voice. For example, pursing your lips into an “O” shape elongates the vocal tract, resulting in  a deeper sound. Each small movement of any part of the vocal tract, intentional or not, will affect the sound that comes out of your mouth.

3. Learned Component: Part of our speech is learned traits or habits, formed by our environment. Things like “rhythm and rate of speech and vowel pronunciation”, according to NCVS, are unique to each individual, but can be similar within families or those who spend a lot of time together.We tend to unconsciously mimic the speech patterns of those around us, leading to different accents or dialects of the same language, such as the “southern” accent, Boston accent, New York accent, and many more sub-dialects. Individuals can also “learn” to speak differently over time spent in a new culture, or intentionally though speech therapy.

While these factors all contribute to the uniqueness of our individual voices, there are terms that can be used to describe recurring vocal characteristics. These include the hoarse voice that typically accompanies a sore throat, a flat or monotone sounding voice, a high-pitched penetrating voice, a gravelly or low and rough voice, among others. Pay attention to the way you speak; try changing the shape of your vocal tract to talk in a different accent and I’m sure you’ll be surprised with how you can manipulate your own voice. I tried to maintain a fake “southern accent” for just a few minutes and had to give up because of how difficult it was. Yet our bodies produce our own special dialects every single day without us even having to think about it! Just another way to be amazed by the workings of the human body.

Could Working Less Allow us to Accomplish More?

The United States adopted the 40 hour work week in 1938 in order to establish some sort of control over employee safety and health, at a time when child labor and extremely poor, unregulated working conditions were rampant. Nowadays, middle class workers aren’t as concerned with experiencing a mine explosion as they are with having a better work-life balance. People want more free time to spend with their families and to partake in personal interests. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks 32nd out of 36 in the amount of time “devoted to leisure and personal care” per worker. The U.S. is also one of the only developed countries without a paid parental leave policy in place. Is this a problem?

The 2015 North American Workplace Survey stated that 53% of employees report feeling “overworked and burnt out” as a result of work, which could mean decreased productivity. Many believe that a switch from a fixed 40-hour work week to a flexible schedule is the next step to improving employee conditions in the U.S. Many European countries such as the Netherlands operate on a 4-day work week, allowing more focus on personal lives. A 2014 study from John Pencavel showed that during an average workday, additional output of work stopped increasing at around 5 hours; by 7 output is dropping rapidly, and output would be at zero by the 11th hour.

Although some entrepreneurs and start-up businesses are operating with more flexible time schedules for their employees, maybe its time to get rid of the “40-hour work week” status quo. Instead, offering flexible scheduling for employees will increase productivity and well-being at the same time, and in turn improving the company itself. With the United-States’ results driven nature, it just makes sense that we should be looking to see what helps the employees work best, not forcing a work schedule on them.


Addicted to “to-do” Lists


Despite how technology-driven our society has become, I know that I am not alone in carrying a physical agenda-book in which I write down tasks to be done and reminders for myself. At the end of each class when the instructor reminds us of homework and assignments due, I open my book bag and immediately transcribe the details into my beloved agenda. When I finally finish a task from my agenda, I cross it out in pen to really mark an end to the assignment, and it feels really empowering; sort of like a “self-five” for getting my work done! But why do we get so much satisfaction out of crossing things off of our to-do lists?

Something called the Zeigarnik effect might hold the key to understanding this infatuation with to-do lists. Bluma ZeigarnikIn 1927, Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik completed a series of experiments in which adults and children were asked to complete a variety of tasks including, “manual work (constructing a box of cardboard, making clay figures, etc.) and… mental problems such as puzzles, arithmetic, and the like.” In the different studies, Zeigarnik allowed half of each group to finish the task they were given, but interrupted the other half mid-way through, not allowing them to complete it. The participants were questioned an hour after the end of the experiment to see if they remembered the details of the tasks. In one case, 12% of those who had completed the task were able to recall it, while 80% of those who were interrupted could recall. After repeating the experiments multiple times, Zeigarnik and her partners concluded that uncompleted tasks stick in peoples’ minds much better than those that were completed.

The Zeigarnik effect may explain why we love crossing things off of our to-do lists, and why procrastination stresses us out so much. Once an individual completes a task, crossing it off of their to-do list (literally or figuratively) immediately relieves their brain of that burden because they no longer have to store it in their memory. Procrastinating, on the other hand, forces us to keep that task in the back of our minds until it is completed, causing us increasing stress and frustration.

If you tend to be a procrastinator (like me…), there is a way to beat this effect, and start being more efficient! A BBC article suggests breaking down huge and seemingly impossible projects on your to-do list into smaller, more manageable tasks. Instead of telling yourself to “read entire chapter of Biology textbook before the next exam”, schedule yourself smaller increments of work such as “read pages 1-25 tonight, pages 25-50 on Tuesday, etc.…” This will help reduce the Zeigarnik effect, and help you stay sane when you have a lot of work to get done.

Kendra Hepler’s Initial Blog Post

Hey there!

My name is Kendra Hepler, and I am a junior here at Penn State! I am dual major in Telecommunications and German. I’m from a very small town in eastern-central PA called Pitman. I also live on a farm, which is pretty cool.

I am taking this course because I needed something to fill my GN requirements, and my advisor said that students in the past have enjoyed it a lot. After coming to the first few classes, I am very excited for the semester, and believe that I will take a lot away from it.

The reason I’m not a science major is that I never really took an interest in it in school. I did okay in science classes, but I never felt passionate about it. I did, however, have an interest in video production and German, so that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now!

Germany is one of my favorite places, and I am actually studying abroad there (at the University of Freiburg) next semester! I’m super excited to be eating Currywurst and seeing all of the beautiful sights! Here is a picture I took of the amazing Castle Neuschwanstein from when I was in Bavaria in 2012: