Author Archives: Alex Felton

Sweet, Sweet Chocolate…. I ALWAYS HATED IT!

It’s 2 am.  Maybe you’ve had a long night of studying for an exam, going out to party or binge watching Netflix.  You have got to be hungry after these night time activities but what is your go-to late craving?  I personally am a Doritos type of guy.  But why do I crave certain things while others crave food I wouldn’t touch.  Does craving depend on gender?  Why are girls stereotyped to love chocolate especially around their time of the month?  Is there any fact in the perceptions that men love meat and women love chocolate and other sweets? These questions all revolve around the topic of cravings and more specifically gender differences in cravings (if there is actually any evidence to support this).

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The Studies (small and inconclusive)

Chocolate is a very common variable used for these craving studies due to the hysteria surrounding the hypothesis and observation that women seem to want this based on observation and just common knowledge at this point.  Is there a mechanism to this ludicrous and possibly media induced claim? In these experiments, food scientists attempted to test to see if women really indeed do crave chocolate by using various methods including brain scans and surveys (observational and experimental studies).  They wanted to determine if chocolate connects to a part of the brain that women are more in touch with than men or if the chocolate premenstrual connection is a ploy by companies to sell more product by power of suggestion.

The first study, courtesy of NBCI, was conducted which polled Spanish and American women asking if they craved chocolate premenstrually.  The percentage of American women was much higher than the Spanish women. (40% to 4% on the open-ended questions)  Men and women reported wanting chocolate at the same times of day, which were common hunger periods for wanting food for example after studying.  This suggests near to no evidence for the chocolate craving claim in women alone.

In another study published by Dr. Julia Hormes, 97 women were surveyed.  This observational study was also in the form of a survey and rejected the null that women crave the sweets because of a biological or brain factor.

The last study by Paul Smeets focused on brain scanning and concluded there was a difference response to chocolate in men and women, however the sample size was very very small resulting in a larger value.

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Suspicious…

From the turn out of these trials the link of chocolate to cravings between women and men seemed to differ very little.  What is the third variable here causing speculation about this correlation.  I believe in this case the third variable is actually causing the correlation. (meaning its not really a third variable after all)  The real link that should be looked it at is the effect of marketing chocolate to women or marketing in general.  Marketing teams do a great job of making you convince yourself you need a product and in these cases it seems to single genders out as potential buyers.  Commercials time and time again show men chowing down on something meaty or savory while women something sweet.  To me, the advertisers seem to create these illusions that genders like certain products better when they are really just convincing us what to buy.  So listen to your stomach… and eat what YOU like.

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Sources:

Huffington Post

Verywell

Study 1

Study 2

Study 3

Study 4

Photo Credits:

Here

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Here 4

 

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome!!

Does Chinese food cause headaches?  When my brother and I were younger, I can vividly remember eating at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants at the local mall with the bright yellow sign. (This helped me create a rule of thumb: Don’t trust the restaurants with the neon yellow signs) It was a tiny little joint with all the food sitting there, warmed buffet style under a light, right in front of you. This seems to be the setup of most of the lower end ones.  About an hour after chowing down our orange chicken and spring rolls, my brother would complain about a pretty nasty headache.  It almost happened like clockwork; it was uncanny. Even if we ate at a similar restaurant this would happen to him.  My mom made him stop, saying it was the MSG in the food causes the discomfort.  I had not the slightest clue what that was, but it turns out she may have been on to something.

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The Scoop on MSG

MSG or Monosodium Glutamate is a common food additive used to enhance flavor.  Glutamate alone is found in many common foods like cheese and fish, however MSG is fermented or extracted sort of like the process used to make beer. Like my anecdotal story above, it is commonly used in Chinese food and many other processed and canned goods.  MSG is not something new.  It has been used since just after World War II after its flavor potential was discovered in Japan, then patented when the scientist realized it could be a hit.  Through the 20th century, MSG has definitely been something discussed in regards to safety and how it affects those who consume it.  Many scientists have done animal and placebo tests to attempt to uncover if indeed it is harmful.  To date, the FDA only labels Monosodium Glutamate as generally recognized as safe.  We should believe the FDA, right? Are these trials and anecdotal stories enough to show there may be something to worry about or is this all a hoax?

The Tests

Chinese Restaurant Syndrome has been a term used since the 1960s referring to these supposed negative effects of MSG.  This controversy has been a real question stirring experimentation with scientists then, and even still today as the controversy continues.  There is also the people that merely think this syndrome is the power of suggestion which creates seemingly very real physical symptoms.  Some of the anecdotal symptoms, like by my brother reported, were headache, sweating, chest/head numbness, and nausea.  These symptoms are precisely what scientists were looking for while putting MSG to the test.

Two blind placebo studies were conducted.  Scientists Morselli and Garatini used a sample of 24 people and fed broth to them every 20 minutes.  The control group said they had no such symptoms while the participants who received MSG in their soup claimed they did.  Keep in mind this would probably result in a relatively high p-value that this was due to chance because of the small study.  However, also interestingly a scientist named Richard Kenney, MD, fed claimers of MSG sickness soda with MSG and soda with no MSG. They reacted the same way to both the drinks with and without the MSG. Other early experiments claimed that MSG made mice obese.  They suspected a correlation between the Monosodium and damage to the brain resulting in the weight gain.

Just Stories or Real Danger?

These small and somewhat conflicting studies seem no more convincing than the anecdotal stories.  The fact that the FDA has not done more extensive investigation or regulation of MSG probably hints it is a means of food sensitivity, rather than a real hazard to health.  If MSG was actually dangerous I think we would know it by now considering it has been used in commercially sold foods for almost 75 years.  If you seem to be experiencing some reaction to foods containing it, do yourself a favor and stay away from them. There is most likely something going on here even if it’s something minuscule.  It is probable from the volume of small studies and stories that MSG correlates to some kind of discomfort and reaction in certain people. Luckily many restaurants specify if they do not have MSG (Panda Express at the HUB) to help all those suffering from Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.

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MSG YouTube

Sources:

Harvard.edu

Georgetown Faculty.edu

Mayo Clinic

Truth in Labeling

FDA

Study Outlined on Science Direct

Photo Credits:

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What Baseball’s Decline says about our Attention Spans

Is baseball no longer America’s pastime?  Why does it seem that this traditional American sport is losing more and more popularity by the year?  The sport originated before the Civil War, and the first league was created in 1876. It is a classic.  I have certainly loved every second of playing baseball when I was younger and I know many feel the same way.  It is a sad reality to see a possible decline of the sport but why is this in the first place? Why does it seem like this respectable sport cannot keep up with professional football, basketball or even hockey in regard to television ratings?  Attendance is down for 18 ball clubs, and television ratings for several networks like Fox and ESPN are at lows.  Can this correlation be explained using science?

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Attendance decline since 2007 around the same time the first iPhone was released

The Question?

We live in a fast-paced internet world.  Information and highlights are viewed and shared at the click of the mouse, or touch of a screen.  It seems logical that a faced-paced internet generation led by video games and twitter would more likely enjoy faced paced action packed sports like football and basketball, right?  Attention spans are rapidly decreasing and this is not fairing to the slow, more thought out game of baseball.  This definitely seems to be showing as ratings and attendance take a hit for the sport.  The Huffington Post shared an eye-opening statistic about the MLB, 50 percent of baseball viewers are 50 or older.  This speaks volumes to the younger generation maybe giving a hint into the attention span claim.

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Attention Span Study

Perhaps the most talked about and impressive study on attention span was done by Microsoft which stated human attention spans had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000, to 8 seconds.  The news grabbing headline for this study was that this proclaimed the human attention span is less than that of a goldfish.  The trial surveyed 2,000 Canadian participants in an observational study, and scanned the brains of 112 of them to conclude the attention span decline over the decade.  The recent excessive smart phone use seemed to be the clear culprit.  The survey showed signs of constantly checking social media created a lack of focus as 19% of tech users switch to the next task or new thing within 10 seconds.  According to the study, since there is so many opportunities to find rewarding information on the internet or on a social media site, the users are constantly searching for that release of dopamine which is a neurotransmitter for a good feeling in the brain.  Something Is definitely going on here but does it relate to our initial question?

Does this correlate? It’s no wonder the slow-moving strategic sport of baseball is losing interest.  How can a game of waiting and long observation, connect to a generation raised on information given to them in an instant?  It seems for the ones who aren’t patient enough there will never be a solution.  It is highly unlikely for baseball to tweak its rules or play style to accommodate a new generation.  Will the sport survive?

Will it Survive?

Even though it seems like the attention span is a direct correlation to the recent lessened popularity of baseball, there are so many third variables needing to be considered in this observation.  Correlation does not always equal causation, and while it is very probable that the lowered attention spans due to social media and technology (courtesy of the Microsoft Study) contribute to the decrease ratings, youth involvement in the sport, etc., it’s not the only thing to blame.   Many things like a select few MLB power houses, bad televised matchups, and the rise of other new televised events all can create a seeming decline.  We also have to take into account that all professional sports experience high and lows (the baseball ratings now are beating those from the 80s).  Even though it seems like baseball is in worse shape, I think the sport will definitely have a place even with this new more distracted generation.

MLB’s Best Playoff Moments

Sources:

The Telegraph

Microsoft Study

Huffington Post

SB Nation

History Channel

Another SB Nation Article

Photo Credit:

Here

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Is it too Late to Learn Spanish?

That dreaded 8 am Spanish class.  Nothing is worse for me than waking up early to struggle to memorize tedious endings to verbs and vocabulary words.  Times like these I am extremely jealous of anyone who lived in a multi-language home growing up.  Key words in there were growing up.  Now why does it seem that kids raised around two languages seem to pick them both up with extreme ease, no memorizing and studying?  It always seemed to be common sense that children picked up languages, like most other concepts, more quickly than adults or even teenagers, but why?  I bet you do not really remember learning English.  It almost seemed as natural as learning to walk.  You did not have to overthink grammar rules too much (except for like first grade), but it’s nothing compared to trying to learn Spanish. The answer to the question probably has something to do with brain development.

Background

In 1967, Lenneberg formed a hypothesis that our brain’s only had a critical frame where language was easiest to acquire.  This still seems to remain the popular belief and observation today, as I stated in the opening.  People generally assume that children process and retain a second language much easier than adults can.  This is definitely a hard thing to study, especially keeping all the third variables that would affect the null hypothesis that children learn second languages faster, including how often the language is exposed to them, and how focused the adults are to learning it considered they face many more distractions/responsibilities compared to a child.

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Studies

Going back to Lenneberg, most studies that agree with the argument that youth is better for language learning agree that there are neuromuscular mechanisms that work better early on in youth to process information and make connections.  One scientist used brain scans to try to prove the point that the language capacity decreases with age.  Monika Schmid, a professor at the University of Essex, used an interesting experiment to measure the brains by scanning them.  She gave sentences with grammar mistakes to native speakers and people who learned it later in life as a second language. She found the people who learned later were less quickly to recognize small errors unlike the natives.  The age ranges in the observational study were not specified which led to the conclusion that there was no particular age that was best to learn.

Another small randomized observational study was conducted by Petitto, PhD.  This tiny study concluded the same thing as the first mentioned.  The kids who picked up the second earlier were better at it.  This study by Petitto also however noted that the kids learned better in their community through conversation, rather than in the classroom.  Both of these observational studies agreed that the younger the better.

Contrary Trial

A contrary experimental trial was performed right here at Penn State.  This trial provided different results than the previous two mentioned.  The researchers conducted a brain scan on 39 English speakers.  The speakers then went through lessons in mandarin and after 6 weeks the brains were scanned again.  The results showed brains with more functional changes and greater activity than they assumed from a 6-week course.  This was definitely evidence against the argument: aging results in more difficulty learning the language.  The researchers suggest the brain was more plastic than they thought which means it has a greater ability to learn new things and form more of those connections associated with learning a new language.

Conclusion

What do the results of these small observational and experimental studies say?  I keep stressing small because every one of these trials was indeed very small, with the most being only over 100 people.  The p-values were definitely high which could have resulted in two false negatives and a false positive.  However, these do suggest that scientists are heading in the right direction while studying the brain If they can even pick up tiny functionalities like this with scans.  The answer is definitely looming, and with larger trials the p-values can conclude these findings less likely due to chance.

Discovery News on Language Acquisition

Sources:

Independent

Study Outlined on PLOS ONE

European Parliament

WEB MD

Penn State University

Photo Credit:

https://memegenerator.net/instance/58403732

 

Genetics and Anxiety

Anxiety has always played a big part in my life.  Sometimes casting a showdown of doubt and fear over daily living, while other times getting me motivated to start a task or stay away from bad situations.  Definitely downsides and upsides.  Some anxiety is normal, but when it starts to take over is where the problems occur.  Some big questions for me have always been where does anxiety come from?  Why are some people seemingly immune to worried-ness while others overthink and get upset about even the most trivial things or decisions?  A correlation relating to those specific questions that I personally have observed is that it seems anxiety and related mental disorders seem to plague members of the same family, whether immediate, relatives, or ancestors.  My own family definitely struggles with this, with my Grandmom jokingly saying it is those good old “Italian Genes.”  As funny as it sounds, this statement brings up a very interesting question.  Does anxiety relate back to genetics or are there third variables such as environment that we have to take into consideration other than blaming genetic makeup alone?

Background

This has certainly been a question for scientists interested in psychology and the way it relates to brain function and genes.  To try to uncover this question, scientists began to look a little more deeply into the human brain, specifically the neurons and fatty acids.  They found that people with a certain gene have less FAAH. About 20% of people. (According to Heather Salerno, Cornell Writer) FAAH is a fatty acid that technically regulates happiness and I will explain how.  This fatty acid is responsible for bringing down levels of Anandamide in the brain.  Now this is where the neurons come in.  Neurons are the way for the brain to transmit information.  The neurotransmitter Anandamide is the one responsible for the transfer of happiness and joy.  If the people with the special gene have less FAAH, there will not be as much regulation of the Anandamide neuron resulting in more happiness, joy and relaxation information meaning less anxiety.  With more of the FAAH, scientists tested that people had an easier time forgetting negative behaviors or thoughts resulting in anxiety.

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Studies

A team from Cornell University headed by Dr. Lee and Dr. Casey tested this theory in two very interesting experiments on both mice and humans.  For the mice, they mutated the genes of some of the mice to give them the gene leading to less FAAH and more of the Anandamide.  The mice were now put through tests with noise and mazes. The noise test related a shock to a loud noise.  When the shock was removed, the mice with the new gene seemed to get over their fear much faster than the ones who did not receive it.  They also seemed to be less frightened in the maze, not standing by the walls like the control group.  The humans showed the same results in a similar noise test in which a loud bang was associated with a picture and then the noise was removed.  P-values came out to 0.0007 and 0.01, strongly suggesting this was not due to chance.

Conclusion

Do these tests by the Cornell researchers prove the special gene and less FAAH means anxiety is directly related to genetics alone?  Certainty not.  Many other factors and third variables need to be considered including environment which also plays a huge part.  These other factors need to be thought about before coming to a compete conclusion and claiming this study says it all.  The study also importantly noted that these tests showed a decrease in anxiety-like behavior because measuring anxiety alone would be almost impossible.  More studies and trials would give a stronger link to the relationship of anxiety and genetics but this is a great start.  Meta-analyses would greatly lower the p-value that this was due to chance even though it was already low. However, these trials give a great insight into the role that genetics plays and might even be able to help develop better relief for patients.

For someone who deals with anxiety it was interesting to learn about how it happens on the brain level. It gave me more explanation on why it seems anxiety runs in a families based on my earlier observation and what my Grandmom had said. Although it does not prove any sort of link, the Cornell study strongly suggests correlation, and maybe in time more similar trials, will dig even deeper to this panicky disorder.

Ways to reduce anxiety:

http://www.rd.com/health/conditions/natural-anxiety-relief/

Sources:

Study outlined in Neuropharmacology on Science Direct

Weill Cornell Medical College

Scientific American

Photo Credit:

http://www.everydayhealth.com/anxiety/anxiety-and-depression.aspx

 

Nail Biting… Is There Actual Health Risks?

I have always been a nail biter.  As far back as I can remember, I have always gnawed on my nails, a terribly annoying habit.  The life of a nail biter isn’t always easy, and anyone else who has this chewing habit will understand.  Its such a hard routine to break and it seems to be almost on the addictive level.  One time, my Grandmom even bought me bad tasting nail polish made specifically to break the habit.  That lasted for all of maybe two days until I got tired of polishing my nails every morning which was one of the weirdest things ever.  At this point in my life, I have come to terms with it, knowing I could have far worse habits.  That doesn’t mean nail biting isn’t harmful to your body because it definitely is.  Chewing your nails indeed creates all different kinds of health problems as well (as people telling you to stop all the time or how bad your fingers look).

The Cause

Nail Biting seems to arise early on in life, and stress and anxiety seem to be the problem.  I consider myself an overly stressed person so this comes as zero shock to me or probably anyone else reading this who bites.  According to WEB MD, nail biting is even labeled under forms of OCD and its shown correlations with ADHD in kids, however good trials have not been conducted to assume total causation.  My reason for writing this particular blog is that I wanted to know more about the health effects if there were any.  From biting so often, I really did not think that this small annoyance could actually cause more harm than it does.  Also here are some interesting statistics on the population according to Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S.: 30 percent of young kids bite their nails, 45 percent of teens do, and it continues to DECREASE from there also hinting at large causality to stress.

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The Gross Part

If you aren’t grossed out enough by this, this sure will make you cringe.  These are all directly correlated with persistent nail biting.  Getting sick is the most obvious, being that our hands are extremely dirty, and washing them does not always mean under the nails. Germs can also enter through the breakage of skin that it causes. Dental problems have been linked as well as finger warts (HPV), and the emotional issues that I mentioned earlier.

So it seems this might be a habit worth trying to break after all.  After researching this, I became way more disgusted by this overlooked habit than I already was.  There is pretty good reason to believe these correlations and to at least try to quit even though it will not be easy by any means.

Stop Biting

Sources:

Mercola.com

Huffington Post

WEB MD

 

 

 

 

 

Your Grandparents did not Eat the Same Bananas…

We all know and love that oddly shaped yellow fruit.  The banana has a special place in the fruit department, definitely distinguishing itself as one of the more unique choices in taste and in look.  Bananas have always been a highly valued product to societies all over the world, and a popular trade item.  According to Megan Ware, they are highly consumed (more than apples and oranges combined by Americans), produced in over 100 countries, and are extremely rich in nutrients to fight off sickness and to make you healthier.  The potassium, fiber, and vitamins in these yellow guys are shown to help asthma, heart health, and diabetes.

Banana imports to the U.S and Europe are very dependent on two specific parts of the world: Central/South America and the Caribbean.  India and parts of Africa are also a very large producers but keeps most of their crops for themselves.  According to Jacopo Prisco, the Gros Michel Banana was the main crop up until 1965; it was THE banana.  For some reason, the banana exporters choose to only use a single type of banana probably for ease and price of production.  They still do today.  The fruit is a monoculture.  This means the mass producers use one type to farm and export, the same genetic makeup.  There are other different variants of bananas however they are much less common and harder to come by.  The Gros Michel was an apparently more tasty, wider, and had less shelf life.  This fruit was on the shelves in Europe and America for almost 60 years, after banana sales boomed.  Since every banana was in term a clone of the same type, if a disease or fungus affected the crops, it would take out all of them.  This is exactly what happened. The Panama Disease destroyed banana plantations around the globe.  Monoculture in the production of the fruits is definitely the causation that led to a dingle strand of fungus taking out the entire banana population.

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The Gros Michel Banana

Since the disease nearly took out the banana trade in the mid 1900s, farmers began to use a new type resistant to the fungus.  This is what we all enjoy today known as the Cavendish banana.  Even though this type is resistant to the Panama disease, the mass produced and exported fruit are all still based on the same genes meaning a situation like this could definitely happen again.  A new plague similar to the Panama disease arose in Malaysia in 1990.(Panamadisease.org)  So far it has not completely decimated banana crop, only in certain areas of the world.  Who knows… if this new disease spreads we could be eating a whole new type of banana in the near future.

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 Tropical Race 4 (similar to the Panama Disease) damage to banana crop

Gros Michel Taste Test

Sources:

CNN

Smithsonian.com

Medical News Today

Panamadisease.org

cwh.ucsc.edu

 

What am I Putting Under my Armpit?… Is Antiperspirant Safe?

Its something we do everyday, just a normal part of our morning routine.  But have you ever stopped to think about whats in the sweet smelling Old Spice that all the ladies love and what keeps your pits from looking like a pool?  Since the ancient Egyptians, humans have been placing scents under their arms, but like many other products most of those ingredients are concocted in a lab rather than being all natural.  Deodorants and brands have definitely evolved from the first commercial product (Mum brand in 1888), to now a wide variety at any given store.  Seeing strange Axe commercials and Terry Crews on a horse has just become an accepted part of the lifestyle and trend of this product.

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The Scare…

Why do we use products like these in the first place?  There is actually two types that perform different tasks. Deodorant is just a scent while antiperspirant blocks sweat as well.  This blocking of the sweat is where the rumors, issues, and fears arise.  We try so hard to block a natural body process that it doesn’t seem healthy.  According to a Huffington Post article, Americans spend a whopping 18 billion dollars a year on deodorant. Yep, thats a billion with a “B”.  Another fear surfaces due to the fact that many antiperspirants (not all) contain some form of aluminum.  This aluminum has be hypothesized to have correlations to breast cancer and even Alzheimer’s.  The correlation does not equal causation in these cases so no need to worry.  It had been guessed that as you put on the deodorant, the aluminum chemical gets through your skin to cause shifts in your body that put the individual at risk for cancer.  Instead what actually happens is that the aluminum mixes with your sweat to create a stoppage outside of your pores instead of penetrating the skin, meaning the aluminum does not poison you by entering the body.  This is straying from popular rumor that all the chemicals actually enter you from under your arm possibly doing harm. Another instance where the correlation did not equal causation was with the Alzheimer’s claim.  In the 1960’s, tests on Alzheimer’s brains showed aluminum however there was no evidence to show this was because of antiperspirants.  This was yet another speculation.

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Wheres the Evidence?

Of course there have been other suggestions of other terrible life threatening illnesses due to applying this everyday, another being kidney failure.  The common theme reoccurs with all of these theories.  There is no way enough aluminum could enter the body to cause these ailments.  Tons and tons of exposure could perhaps be a culprit but not the little exposure from a hygienic product. How does something like this with seemingly no strong support gain momentum?  When something is speculated, it is so easy nowadays to spread false or even misleading info or “studies” that can definitely appear to be true.  Lucky enough for this topic it seems as if we are all safe from the deadly Axe.

A Rumor?

These speculations have no substantial evidence or testing to back them up.  In turn, it probably would be nicer to know you are putting better ingredients under your arm everyday, but with correlation not equaling causation you can continue applying that old spice without worrying about drastic effects under your armpit.

Best Old Spice Commercials

Sources:

Web MD

Huffington Post

 

I have always had some kind of interest in science.  I definitely do not hate all of it.  What I did hate about it was that lack of interest I had during my high school bio, chem, and physics classes.  I can vividly remember sitting in my physics class staring at the clock almost the entire time, just praying that it would end soon.  I honestly believe this torture in my earlier years of school has led me to the path where I am not continuing as a full-blown science major because again, I definitely don’t hate all of it.  I could care less about how many moles of this substance it takes to react with this other thing to make this, or how many meters per second the ball has to travel.  Memorizing facts, and how to do these kind of problems makes me cringe.

What does capture my interest is an article on how cell phones could possibly be dangerous to our health.  A good sports science segment on ESPN will always intrigue me every time it comes on TV.  Even just the little articles on the top of the snapchat stories talking about a new study in health, or a new species being discovered will make me realize that I do indeed like this aspect of science.  I also am not a big fan of some the math aspects that science and engineering majors have to suffer through, but thats a different story.  Here’s a science article that I did think was interesting about cell phone risks to our health.

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After explaining all that I’ll introduce myself.  My name is Alex Felton from Wallingford, Pennsylvania about 15 minutes from Philadelphia.  I am currently undecided, but taking business classes this semester.  I can’t wait to start this class.  Looking at all the scheduled topics made me really excited about going to class and having a different kind of course, one that will keep my interest.  I took this class because I was reeled in by the title initially, Science: Certainty and Controversy.