Author Archives: Akhil Dharmavaram

The GMO Controversey

Genetically Modified Organisms, more commonly referred to as GMOs, are found in most foods that we eat everyday. GMOs have been in our foods since the mid 1990s. You may be wondering what exactly GMO foods are. GMO foods are normal foods that have been genetically modified to make plants more resistant to herbicides, drought, or disease. In some cases, plants are modified to add extra nutritional value. Some of the most common foods that are genetically modified include corn, soy, yellow squash, zucchini, and alfalfa. 85% – 90% of all corn grown in the United States is GMO corn. It has been modified to be more resistant to survive pesticides which are used to kill weeds in the farms. Prior to this, many corn crops would have died and/or succumbed to blight, hence reducing the amount of corn available in the market. In the case of the soy plants, the plants were modified to contain higher levels of oleic acid which is commonly found in olive oil and has been shown to reduce LDL, (aka “bad”) cholesterol.

Many people believe that because foods are genetically modified, they are harmful to humans and unsafe to eat. A lot of these beliefs also stem from scientific studies but issues arise when some studies are not conducted properly and when people misinterpret the studies’ results. Some of the reasons, listed on written by Layla Katiraee, that people believe GMOs are bad for health (found here) are that the genetically modified DNA of the food might genetically modify their own DNA, GMOs that are toxic to lab animals will also be toxic to humans, etc.

One such improper study (only the abstract is available) found on the National Center for Biotechnology Information was especially interesting to me. The study was an experimental study where the lab measured the effects of pure glyphosphate, a common herbicide used in farming, on estrogen receptors mediated transcriptional activity and their expressions. The experiment was that two breast cancer cell lines, one estrogen sensitive and one not, and exposed them both to levels of glyphosphate that are commonly used in agriculture. This study seemed to come to the conclusion that the estrogen sensitive cancer cell line promoted more growth of the cancer cells than the cell line that was not estrogen sensitive. However, the breast cancer cells themselves require estrogen to grow so it was not the glyphosphate which was promoting cancer cell growth but the estrogen sensitivity of the cancer cell line itself. Monsanto, a massive agriculture and biotechnology company, wrote a response directed at the results if the previously mentioned study explaining why readers should not believe that glyphosphate causes cancer. In the experiment, the tests were done on preexisting cancer cells which simply developed further due to the estrogen sensitivity, and that no further cancerous cells were formed directly because of glyphospahte exposure. The article also cited another experimental study found on the NCBI website. This experiment actually involved eight different human cancer cell lines and found that exposure to glyphosphate actually arrested further cancerous cell development. I do not think it is safe to say that the first study fell victim to the Texas Sharpshooter problem since the data suffered more from technical issues, but it is clear to see how many people can misinterpret the conclusion of a study regardless if it was conducted well or not.

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All this being said, there are some genuine concerns with GMOs and how they can negatively affect the environment. Some of the concerns that not only anti-GMO activists but also some GMO scientists have is that over time, the genetically modified plants will affect the soil in which the plants are being grown. Because many plants are modified to be resistant to herbicides which are sprayed across all crops in a field to kill unwanted plants such as weeds. However, these weeds and other flowering plants are essential for bees and other insects to pollinate to survive. With all of these plants slowly disappearing due to GMO farming, it can seriously disrupt ecosystems that are essential to the environment and planet. Another issue with GMO farming is the fact that it has not been around long enough to study its long term effects. It is hard to predict if there will be any severe long term negative effects on not just the environment but also humans and other animals. This can only be determined by observing the effects of GMOs over time.




Is Spicy Food Good For You?

Across the globe, there are countless types of cuisine from every country and geographical region you visit, each with their own unique flavors and ingredients catering to a variety of pallets. One flavor that many people crave regardless of where they are in the world is spice. Spicy food is found in nearly every cuisine you look at (Korean kimchi to Mexican salsas to American buffalo chicken to Indian curries). Me personally being a lover of spicy foods, I decided to look into any health benefits spice in your diet might have.

What makes peppers spicy if a substance called capsaicin. According to this article, the body’s reaction to spicy food of feeling hot, sweating, and feeling a burning sensation is caused by the signal that capsaicin sends to your pain receptors. Capsaicin affects the body’s pain receptors because your does not recognize the sensation of spice as a taste but rather as a pain stimulus.

I came across an observational study conducted by Lu Qi, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. The objective of this study was to see if there is a correlation between frequency of consumption of spicy foods and total as well as cause specific mortality. This study was conducted with participants from 10 geographical regions in China aged 30 – 79. The study consisted of 199,293 men and 288,082 women and were enrolled over the years of 2004 – 2008. The participants were screened for any preexisting conditions as well as conditions that they are genetically predisposed to.

After a median of 7.2 years in a follow up, the results were that consumption of spicy food was inversely correlated to total mortality by 14%. The inverse correlation also was true for deaths due to cancer, ischemic heart diseases, and respiratory diseases. The results also showed that women that consumed more spicy food were less likely die of infections.

Now obviously these results do not speak on behalf of everyone across the globe. As we have certainly learned in SC200, correlation does not causation. There does not seem to be any evidence of the Texas Sharpshooter problem playing any role in the results of this experiment. Since it was a completely observational experiment, it is very unlikely that there is any bias by the lab that conducted the experiment and it appears that many confounding variables were accounted for prior to observing the participants. This study was only conducted in China so there can certainly be some variations in results if this was conducted in other parts of the world. This can be due to many different reasons such as geographical influences on peoples’ bodies, tolerance of spice, eating frequency habits, etc.

One thing that I would certainly love to explore further is the mechanism of how exactly capsaicin affects the human body and potentially lead to better health. I also would love to see the flipside of this coin and look into the negative effects spicy food has.



Are Certain People More Prone to Addiction?

Many people in America at some point in their lives experiment with drugs and alcohol. Being at Penn State, a huge party school, there is a lot of alcohol and drugs around us. Most people indulge in binge drinking and drug use during their college days and maybe into their early twenties but then stop when they get a little older. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone and drug and alcohol addiction is a very real demon for countless people. According to this article on, “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs”. I was curious as to if there was any relationship between race/ethnicity and proneness to addiction.

This article on Time explained an observational study conducted by professor of psychiatry at Duke University, Dr. Dan Blazer, regarding what kinds of people are more prone to addiction. The “participants” of this study were 72,561 youth that were interviewed for the National Survey on Drug use and Health. The study considered confounding variables such as socioeconomic status due to the drug abuse tendencies that exist among the poor. The results were as follows: 15% of Native Americans had a substance abuse disorder, as opposed to only 9.2% of people of mixed races/ethnicities, 9.0% for whites, 7.7% for Hispanics, 5% for African Americans, and 3.5% for Asians and Pacific Islanders.

There are not too many other details on how exactly this study was conducted but I think it is safe to say that the Texas Sharpshooter problem does not affect the data of the study since it was observational as opposed to an experimental study.

I was actually somewhat surprised by these results. Of course, the numbers probably are not completely accurate due to some of the participants not being completely honest during their interviews. I am very curious to know what exactly is the reason for those numbers. It would be interesting to see if there is a biological mechanism in Native Americans that make them more susceptible to addiction or if there is an underlying sociological or psychological reason behind it. I would imagine it would be difficult to think of and then conduct a study that could determine this. Regardless, addiction is a serious problem with anyone no matter what race or ethnicity.



Creativity and Mental Health

A lot of people are aware of the tendency that creative people such as artists and writers suffer from some form of mental disorder(s) like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and even schizophrenia. This relationship was present even in ancient Rome and Greece. A historical example is painter Edvard Munch and his battles with anxiety to create the famous “The Scream”. I knew about this connection for some time now and things such as comedian and actor, Robin Williams’s suicide a few years ago continue to fortify this relationship. I was curious as to why this happens so much with people so I looked into it.

An article on provides one perspective as to why comedians such as Robin Williams suffer from depression. Clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the California State University, Los Angeles, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, explains “I sometimes opine that the tool of the comedian — to turn the dark or difficult or complex into something ‘palatable’ or funny — can lead to an association between depression and comedy, but being a comedian does not make someone depressed.” In a sense, comedy becomes somewhat of a coping mechanism for the depression but they eventually will merge into one being in his or her head.

An observational study conducted by neuroscientist, Andreas Fink, and his colleagues at the University of Graz in Austria provides more scientific results to this question. His study used a functional MRI scanner to scan the brains of creative individuals and individuals with schizotypy, a less severe manifestation of schizophrenia. His participants displayed a range of levels from low to high levels of schizotypy. While in the MRI, Fink asked the participants to come up with new ways to use everyday objects and then assessed the originality of the responses. The results of this study are summarized in this CNN article about Fink’s study and the connection between creativity and mental disorders. Fink found that with the subjects with high schizotypy scored higher in terms of originality in their responses and also had more brain activity. The MRI scans showed that there was constant activity in the right precuneus region, which is involved in attention and focus. This area tends to not be as activate while processing complex tasks in order to help the person focus. What these results mean is that individuals with higher levels of schizotypy and more creativity “take in more information and are less able to ignore extraneous details” and that “their brain does not allow them to filter”.

I find it very interesting that there is a visible or even tangible positive side to these types of mental disorders. It is also good not only to satisfy my personal curiosity but also to progress in the scientific and medical fields to find a treatment or even a cure for mental disorders such as depression.



Does Time Fly When You’re Having Fun?

Pretty much everyone I think has heard the expression “time flies when you’re having fun”, and this usually tends to be the case. Obviously, having fun cannot alter time itself so thinking about this phenomenon got me curious.

In an article on, psychological scientists Philip Gable and Bryan Pool from the University of Alabama discuss two experimental studies they performed to test their hypothesis of why time seems to run faster in certain “fun” situations. Their hypothesis is that time doesn’t fly when people are having fun but rather when they are participating in actions that are high in approach motivation. A high motivation action is one where it incites feelings of motivation makes people want to accomplish some goal.

The studies had participants view three types of images: neutral images (geometric shapes), positive images but low in approach motivation (eg. flowers), and positive images but high in approach motivation (eg. desserts). The participants were to determine if the image displayed was shown for a short time (400ms) or a long time (1600ms). The results of this study confirmed Gable and Pool’s hypothesis. The participants said that the images of the desserts tended to be shown for shorter times than the other images. This supports the hypothesis that the perception that time runs faster is caused by increased approach motivation.

There is another interesting perspective that I came across while researching this topic. An article on cites a study that suggests that the “time flies when you’re having fun” phenomenon is essentially your own psychology tricking you. The results of this study claim that when participants believe that time has passed much faster than they expected while engaged in some tasks, they tended to rate those tasks they were doing to be more fun and engaging. This mental placebo effect could be the result of people truly believing that time does actually run faster when they are having fun and vice versa. I think an interesting experimental study to also conduct would be the opposite of this study. Participants would engage in whatever activities they find fun and then after some time, have them gauge how much time has elapsed. Another interesting study to conduct would be to somehow find participants that have not been exposed to the “time flies” saying or anything similar and conduct the approach motivation experiment, the time placebo experiment, and the reverse experiment on them. I think that would provide a more solid answer to the question, “does time really fly when you’re having fun?”


Why Are People So Scared of Clowns?

There are certain things in the world that give people “the creeps”. These things are usually dolls, masked figures, and (in light of recent events) clowns. But what makes these seemingly harmless objects so scary? After coming across a Vsauce video on Youtube about why people find certain things creepy, I decided to look further into it.

In light of the recent events that have been taking place across the nation, I wanted to look into why so many people suffer from coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns. In this article, professor of psychology at Knox College, IL, Frank McAndrew, explains that the feeling of creepiness tends to appear when people cannot completely determine if what they are experiencing is a threat or not.

According to this article, Dr. Steven Shlozman from Harvard Medical School, a big factor as to why people get creeped out by clowns due to their unnatural smiles. There is something about someone who is perpetually smiling that makes people uncomfortable. There is a phenomenon known as the “uncanny valley” which explains why things such as clowns, dolls, masks, and even human-like robots an frighten people and make them feel uneasy. The uncanny valley (show below) represents a sudden drop in familiarity and empathy for certain objects. This sudden drop is due to the fact that those objects that people fear are very close to being realistic, but they are just slightly “off”. This is especially visible in dolls, human masks, and human-like robots.

Going back to clowns, There are other reasons to why many people are uncomfortable around them. Dr Scholzman also mentions that people dislike clowns because of how they are portrayed in books and movies. The two most obvious examples of this are Stephen King’s killer clown character, Pennywise, from his book (and later movie) It, and also Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. Both of these characters are portrayed as evil, and this certainly instills the idea that clowns should be feared into the minds of many people. Of course, the recent clown activity across the country plays into this and further promotes this fear.

Another reason as to why clowns are so scary to people is that the masks and makeup they use conceal their true facial expressions. This is related to the permanent smile. People’s inability to see someone’s true facial expressions makes them appear less human, and therefore further down into the uncanny valley. This not only applies to clowns but to any masked figure as well. This directly relates back to the concept of not being able to determine if something is a threat or not. The uneasiness you might experience while looking at a clown or a doll comes in because it seems like it is harmless but at the same time you cannot really tell.

Unfortunately, knowing this will not stop any clowns, but at least you understand why people are so scared of them.



Science is fascinating …but too hard to major in

Hello everyone,

My name is Akhil Dharmavaram. I am a Junior and I am studying Information Sciences and Technology. The reason I am taking this course is because my friend was a TA for SC 200 and told me that it is a relatively easy class and the material covered is very interesting. He also told me that Andrew Read is a fantastic professor and will make sure you learn something in the class. As I looked further into SC200, the class seemed to be fairly straightforward and “bland”. However, my opinion changed when I saw the class schedule on the first day. Reading topics such as “How do physicians kill people?” and “Are animals gay?” really peaked my interest.

Ever since I was little, I have always enjoyed science. I was fascinated by all forms of science and was especially interested in astronomy. I enjoy learning about different fields of science and try to stay up to date with any of the latest news in the scientific community. This interest, however, only goes so far for me. As much as i enjoy learning science and how things work, the level of patience and creativity required to thoroughly ask questions and investigate the smallest details about things makes it difficult to study science as a major. This being said, the content learned while being an IST major is somewhat similar conceptually to another science major (not content itself, but the way to approach problems).

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