Author Archives: Taras Guanowsky

How healthy is caffeine?

Ever since I started this semester, I’ve been monitoring my caffeine intake more. I usually start the day with a coffee, as well as the occasional caffeine pill. I’ll drink a 5 hour energy if I really need to get through work or classes. While these help me feel great, I am beginning to feel a little concerned about how much I am taking in. After all, I’ve heard all kinds of talk about how caffeine is one of the most abused drugs in the world. For this reason, I decided to research caffeine and see whether or not it has adverse health effects.

I first decided to examine just exactly what caffeine is and how it works. According to this source, caffeine is a stimulant commonly used to increase focus and to fight off sleepiness. It is, of course, legal; however it shares many of the same properties with illegal drugs like MDMA and cocaine. Stimulants work by increasing the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is associated with wakefulness, alertness, and happiness. This is why caffeine can produce feelings of pleasure when Ingested.

So is caffeine bad for you, and how much is too much? According to research conducted by Johns Hopkins University, caffeine is associated with a few negative side effects. Mild headaches and anxiety are seen in some individuals with caffeine ingestion. It seems that, for the general public, however, caffeine is harmless to a reasonable extent. When taken in excess, however, caffeine begins to look more like a dangerous street drug. Much like alcohol or cocaine, individuals can build up a tolerance to caffeine. This means that caffeine will have a smaller perceived effect unless taken in larger amounts. Larger amounts can begin to affect sleep and health. Furthermore, it is possible to experience withdrawal symptoms after stopping regularly scheduled caffeine intake. These symptoms include drowsiness, headaches, and fatigue. I find the similarities of caffeine with harder, illegal drugs to be somewhat alarming. The fact that withdrawal is associated with stopping caffeine intake alludes to the concept of caffeine addiction being very real and serious.

So is there anything good about caffeine? According to a study published in Nature, caffeine can increase memory. The study conducted was extremely thorough, as it was randomized, double-blind, and placebo controlled. This is the type of study necessary to show a causal relationship. The study showed that caffeine intake improved the consolidation of memories. This means that people who take caffeine are more likely to process new memories better than those who did not. While there was no data to suggest caffeine improved the retrieval of past memories, the fact that caffeine improves memory processing could stand to benefit students like myself greatly. Many classes test simple memory recollection- the same cognitive function that caffeine improves.

In conclusion, caffeine seems to be a valuable tool that should be used sparingly. The benefits of caffeine are clear. Besides being able to assist in a long night of studying, caffeine is shown to actually improve the processing of new memories. This claim is supported by a rigorous, well-conducted study. Unfortunately, caffeine can be very detrimental if taken in excess. A tolerance to the drug will occur if taken in very large quantities on a regular basis. This will reduce the effects of the drug. Withdrawal is also likely if caffeine is taken regularly and in large amounts. This has very unpleasant symptoms, but is unlikely to damage you in the long term. I will continue to take caffeine containing food and drink, but I’ll definitely limit myself. I think that a reasonable person would also take caffeine in moderation to benefit from the concentration and memory gains, but avoid building a tolerance and eventually experiencing withdrawal.

Is Biofuel the Future?

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Via http://csmres.co.uk/cs.public.upd/article-images/biofuel.jpg

Watching the debate last night, I noticed just how controversial the topic of energy can be. I was prompted to do some research, and while alternative energy methods such as solar and wind power are gaining popularity, our nation is still very much dependent on fuel. One solution I learned of, concurrent with our present technology, is biofuel. According to this source, biofuel is a type of fuel that comes from living matter, such as animal waste and plants. Biofuels are so significant because they are sustainable. Whereas fossil fuels are a finite resource, biofuels are derived from renewable sources. Perfecting the production of biofuels could lead to a cleaner, cheaper source of energy when compared to gasoline.

Unfortunately, biofuels are not even close to the level necessary to replace fossil fuels. This study outlines some of the current flaws. One of the most popular types of biofuel is called ethanol and is made from corn. Despite the very low cost of corn production, the process of turning it into fuel is somewhat expensive. This, in combination with the vast demand for gasoline, means that corn-based ethanol will not be replacing fossil fuels anytime soon. Furthermore, ethanol can take more energy to create than it saves. This net energy loss is inefficient.

Another implication of biofuel is the concept that using plants to make fuel means that they won’t be used for food. This has many economic implications. Farmers would have to choose between growing food or fuel. This study found a strong correlation between the production of ethanol and food prices. In 2007-2008, the rise in ethanol production correlated with a 50% increase in corn prices. There are, of course, a number of confounding variables that could also affect this. A mechanism, however, does seem to be apparent. In economics this year, our class learned about different factors affect the demand of a good. As corn becomes necessary for both food and fuel, its demand will increase. With this, the price may go up. Given the other data suggesting a correlation between ethanol production and corn price, along with the apparent mechanism, I believe that ethanol production does lead to higher food prices. Corn, after all, is found in many, many different foods. A rise in the price of food could be seen as irresponsible, as many Americans may be unable to afford food at a higher cost.

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Photo source: http://www.greenguidespain.com/andalucia/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/biofuel.jpg

Biofuel does, on the other hand, carry a number of benefits. Most notably is the reduction in greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. These gasses contribute to global warming and prevent a serious threat to our livelihood. A study conducted by the Argonne National Laboratory found that large-scale ethanol use could lead to a 20% decrease in these greenhouse gasses. It is of course, observational in nature, so it is susceptible to confounding variables and does not imply a causal link. to those who understand the dangers of climate change, however, this reduction is hugely significant. Additionally, Biofuels like ethanol are sustainable. Because they are derived from renewable resources, they are far more stable in price and longevity compared to fossil fuels. A larger focus on the production of biofuels may lead to a more stable future.

Overall, it seems to me like biofuels are not currently a viable option. They require a large amount of energy simply to produce and have possibly severe economic repercussions on the poor. It is, unfortunately, suboptimal with our current technology. I do believe, however, that biofuels should be researched and studied. If the process to produce them is perfected, they may be able to solve many of Earth’s largest issues like global warming and sustainable energy. We aren’t at that point yet, but with research and science, biofuels can be one of our greatest investments.

Do vaccines actually help?

Among the general public, vaccines are a divisive topic. Some feel that all vaccines, from polio to the common flu shot, should be required for every child. Others, conversely, claim that vaccines cause illness and autism and should be avoided at all costs. With stakes as high as they are, I think it is very important to find the scientific suggestions surrounding this controversial topic.

Before I looked to scientific data surrounding vaccine studies, I decided to examine how

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Via vaccineimpact.com

vaccines work. A vaccine contains weak or dead germs that are similar to those that cause disease. These help the body to produce more antibodies, which fight stronger forms of the particular disease. According to the Center for Disease Control, the first vaccine treated smallpox and was discovered in the late 1700’s. As we discussed in class, scientists at the time were unsure of the mechanism behind vaccination. While this mechanism seems like it makes sense, there have been claims that vaccines will make one ill or even give autism. The best way to determine if vaccines help or hurt is, of course, to examine scientific data.

A common concern among those who are sceptical towards vaccines is about “overwhelming” the immune system with the plethora of recommended shots. After all, there are now 14 suggested vaccinations for babies compared to the previous 8, according to the CDC. However, this study and many like it suggest that vaccinations, including the administration of several in a short time period, is perfectly safe. It looked at over 1000 children and their vaccination schedules, and then followed up years later by measuring a number of neuropsychological outcomes. The children who had delayed vaccination schedule or opted for fewer vaccinations were not significantly better on any outcome. In fact, the well-vaccinated children had performed better. This study is observational, so there could be confounding variables affecting the performance on their test. One example of this is the level of education there parents provide. It is possible that parents who choose to vaccinate completely provide a better education for their children than those who do not, and that the actual vaccination has no effect on their neurological functions. Despite this, however, I believe this study provides valuable insight as to how safe vaccinations may be. It observed a large amount of patients and thoroughly measured neuropsychological function with 42 tests.

Other evidence that I have gathered points towards vaccines being overwhelmingly effective, but at some cost. While they do an excellent job of preventing illness (many diseases, such as smallpox and polio, have been eradicated) there are some mild to severe ranging effects. One example of this is what is called the MMRV vaccine. This is a combination of many of the typical vaccines given to newborns. This study shows that fevers and rashes occurred more frequently in patients who received both the MMR and Varicella vaccines at the same time, rather than at separate appointments. While this is observational and therefore cannot indicate a causal link, it does seem to suggest that the weakened or dead virus being administered does have negative effects on the baby. Furthermore, febrile seizures occurred almost twice as often when these vaccines were given together than they would if given on separate occasions. While these instances were still exceedingly rare, I found it very surprising that an excess of vaccines may have adverse effects. Since it seems to contradict other sources I have viewed, I’d like more time and research to be given to this particular area.

One of the largest, and most alarming, areas of concern surrounding vaccinations is the possibility of causing autism. I learned during my research that this concept is the result of a single study headed by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that concluded a possible link between a vaccination, gastrointestinal illness, and autism. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the original study as it seems even its original place of publication (The Lancet) have retracted it. Ample information on how it was conducted, however, is available. According to an analysis on the study, the parents of 8 children experiencing a loss in developmental skills believed there to be a link between the children’s regression and the MMR vaccine. To me, this immediately raises several concerns. The study was based off of a mere 8 out of 12 children. This sample size is extremely low, and I believe that it would be very difficult to draw any real conclusions out of it. Furthermore, the only evidence of the children’s difficulties being linked to vaccines is from the testimony of their parents. Autism is a condition that puts tremendous strain on those affected, and because of the irrational mindset of humans, many may feel the need to put the blame on something extrinsic. I believe that this is the fallacy that many anti-vaccinators fall into. Since the publication of this study in 1998, numerous tests and trials have found evidence that contradicts it. Rather than Wakefield’s misleading conclusion being drawn from chance, however, his study could be the result of fraud. The General Medical Council concluded that not only had the data of Wakefield’s 1998 been misrepresented and faked, but also that his study was conducted unethically. Wakefield, unfortunately, had outside financial incentives to falsify his report. If anything, I think that this study shows how hugely detrimental scientific fraud can be for the world. Because of one single study, many children are being denied life-saving vaccines by well meaning but ill informed parents.

In conclusion, it seems that the benefits of vaccinations far outway any negatives. With the exception of allergies, vaccines lead only to mild side effects such as redness, soreness, and rashes with the faint possibility of something more serious that is still up for debate. Evidence supporting severe implications, such as autism, is widely considered fraudulent by the scientific community. A rational person should most definitely fully vaccinate themselves and their children as the eradication of deadly disease is far more valuable than mild discomfort.

The Wage Gap

Every week, I see information related to feminist protests or similar events on the news. A major topic of debate is the so called gender pay gap, a disparity in income between men and women. Furthermore, gender discrimination and sexism among otherwise powerful and respected people have been headlining newspapers. Could sexism be the cause of this pay gap? Since this seems very alarming and relevant to me, I decided to research the legitimacy and possible solutions to the pay gap. I will try my best to make this blog post as fact based as possible with minimal bias.

This first study shows the median income in full time workers above age 15. The median salary between men and women is calculated by finding the middle value in weekly salaries across all education levels, occupation, and ethnicity. As a starting point, this study is clear- women, on average, are paid 23% less than men. While this figure is a bit alarming, it is impossible to conclude that this is due to gender discrimination. This study fails to account for choice of occupation and hours worked. These variables could have a great impact on the earnings of each gender if, for example, men pursued more lucrative career fields than women.

I decided to examine career choice among men and women more closely. Data found here from NPR shows that the most lucrative career fields include science, technology, engineering, and math- commonly known as STEM fields. Among the lowest paying fields are psychology, communications, and arts. A similar study showed that the engineering and technology fields were significantly dominated by men whereas communication, psychology, and social work had far more women. This is strong evidence that a large portion of the pay gap is due to career choice. Men tend to choose higher paying careers, which is reflected in their median salary.

While it seems very likely career choice is at least partly responsible for the pay gap, there are many other confounding variables that could also affect this discrepancy. Another study I examined from glassdoor found a similar discrepancy in median salary to the previous study, but also conducted research controlling for field of work, employer, position, and personality. This adjusted research shows that while the pay gap shrinks to about 5%, it still exists. This is a very well conducted study- it has examined over half a million salaries among several countries. Despite this, however, it is still hard to say whether or not this gap is due to sexism and discrimination. While the causes that are most likely to contribute to the pay gap have been controlled for, there are many more variables that could contribute such as determination to be promoted and likeliness to pursue positions with flexible hours, as women are traditionally associated with childcare.

While it is hard to conclude whether or not gender discrimination exists within the workplace, I do think that the overall disparity in income is a problem in America. According to the same research conducted by glassdoor, the largest contributor to the wage gap is career field and area of study. Therefore, encouraging women to enter STEM related fields may help to reduce this. Unfortunately, it is possible that sexism deters women from entering these areas of study. Here is an (anecdotal) example that has been circulating the internet recently.

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Picture from here

On a positive note, an effort to encourage women to participate in these fields can be seen here at Penn State. Certain clubs exist specifically for women in engineering and business. If STEM fields can be rebranded, not as men’s work but as an area for hardworking and determined individuals, I believe that a large portion of the gap may disappear. In conclusion, I believe that measuring the actual pay gap and determining how sexist it may be is unproductive. While there is a clear difference in earnings between genders, it is very difficult to attribute this gap due to the countless variables that may affect it. Encouraging students to explore their academic options in a way free of discrimination would be far more equitable and foster a diverse workplace environment.

The Academic Merit of Extracurricular Activities

maxresdefault    This past Thursday, I played my first concert with the Penn State philharmonic orchestra. Playing cello is something that I really enjoy doing, but it is a very large time commitment. Since the main reason to attend college is to learn and succeed academically, should students consider extra curricular activities? Do they distract from the learning environment, or do they create a more desirable applicant and prospect for recruiters?

My first inquisition on my journey to answer this question was to search for a relationship between extracurricular involvement and GPA. This study found that not only were students involved in extracurricular activities more likely to have an A or B average when compared to other students, but were less likely to skip class. This study is observational because it simply examines certain statistics rather than manipulating a variable. Because of this, it can only show a correlation between extra curricular activities and academic success. A correlation makes it impossible for me to conclude that extra activities lead to higher academic performance. It is possible, for example, that students who succeed academically will automatically be drawn to extra curricular activities (reverse causation) or that a third variable, like a student’s level of motivation, leads to both extra-curricular success and academic performance (confounding variable).

Unable to prove a causal relationship between extracurricular activities and academic performance, I decided to examine a different area that could also possibly be benefitted by participation in co-curricular activities- employment. When deciding to audition for the Penn State orchestra, I reasoned that future employers may like to see that I possess the time management skills and work ethic required to participate in such a group. Could it be possible that all different kinds of activities, such as music, sports, and clubs, lead to higher employment rates? I was unable to find an experiment or strong observational study about this topic, however I did come across a case study. Here, the topic of the study discusses her extra-curricular endeavors in college and the skills she built with them that helped her obtain a career. She even goes as far as to say that she wishes she were more heavily involved with these activities and participated in them earlier. As convincing as this sounds, I do not believe that this is strong evidence for a relationship between extra curricular activity participation and post-college employment. Because it is only one woman’s data, it is considered anecdotal evidence. Scientifically, anecdotal evidence is very weak. While it is very possible that extra-curricular activities demonstrate passion, work ethic, and skill to employers, thus making a prospect more desirable, I do not have the evidence to support this idea.

After researching some of the possible benefits to extra-curricular activities, I decided to look into some of the adverse effects they may have on students. One concern of students and parents alike are the time commitments of extra-curricular activities. It is possible, for example, that students will spend less time studying and thus receive lower grades from participating in extracurricular activities. Studies that I have found, including the one mentioned earlier, seem to prove this assertion erroneous. I believe it is safe to conclude that any adverse effects of extra-curricular activities are minimal, if they exist at all due to evidence supporting the idea that these activities increase academic success rather than diminishing it.

Overall, It seems like participating in extra-curricular activities is a very good idea for students. In addition to the strong correlation between these activties and GPA, there are many other benefits that are difficult to quantify like enjoyment of the particular activity and exclusive networking opportunities. While my research does not imply a causal relationship, there are no apparent downsides to these activities unless they are taken to an extreme level of commitment. I will continue my participation in the philharmonic orchestra for both personal and professional reasons, and I encourage others to find a club or organization here at Penn State to get involved in as well.

Why are we attracted to the repulsive?

I was procrastinating late one night when I found myself watching videos of a dermatologist popping pimples. For some inexplicable reason, I was fascinated by these videos- and I am not alone. Thousands of people would watch these videos, repulsed but unable to look away. When you think about it, this phenomenon is incredibly common. Whether it be car accidents or skin infections, morbid concepts invoke humanity’s innate curiosity.

Naturally, I wanted to know why this happens to us and found this video. It proposes the idea that our curiosity towards the morbid may be a survival instinct. If we investigate the misfortunes of others, we may be able to prevent harm to ourselves. In this sense, our inclination towards the gross may be a kind of evolutionary trait, an advantage. After all, an animal that has experienced difficult situations before and knows how to react are more likely to survive unfortunate situations themselves. There is a biological basis for these scenarios as well. When scared, our body releases chemicals like dopamine to increase our alertness. Interestingly enough, dopamine is also the chemical associated with pleasure. Whether we are in real danger or not, the same chemicals are released in our brain creating an alertness and fixation with whatever we are focusing on.

Additionally, the video outlines the idea that the fact that these macabre situations are looked down upon by society may actually increase individual fascination with them. This is known as the boomerang effect. The attraction to societal taboos, like pimple popping, can present a challenge of sorts to the viewer. Not only does experiencing them show strength, but also free will to challenge society.

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It is amazing to consider just how attracted to the grotesque we as humans are. From Halloween to horror stories, we like to be scared. As counter intuitive as it is, the most likely explanation for this is our primal instincts and innate desire to survive.

Works Cited

funjester.com

The pros and cons of vegetarianism

My roommate and I get along well, with one major exception- my diet. I am a vegetarian. My roommate on the other hand, is a powerlifter and consumes animals regularly. I couldn’t care less about what he eats, but we often have heated discussions about the merit of my diet. Whereas I believe my diet is healthier than omnivorous ones, he believes that I lack many essential nutrients. Because of this, I decided to do some research to see who is right.

My goal for this research was to find unbiased sources. This article from Boston University explains that there are many different types of vegetarians. I, personally, fall under the category of Ovo-Lacto vegetarian, or someone who eats dairy and eggs but does not eat meat, fish, or poultry. According to the article, my roommate’s skepticism is not baseless. In the past, many studies have supported the idea that a vegetarian diet is not nutritionally sufficient. More recently, however, the consensus seems to be changing. A large observational study looked at the levels of vitamins and rates of certain diseases between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

Based off the study, vegetarians lacked in 3 different vitamins. These are vitamin B-12, D, and calcium, and zinc. Meat is high in these supplements. The lack of calcium can put vegetarians at a risk for bone related injuries. Overall, however, it seems that a vegetarian diet is sufficient. Supplements are recommended to improve overall health and fill some of the gaps left by the lack of meat, but the diet does cover all nutritional requirements.

There does, however, seem to be a significant advantage to a vegetarian diet. According to the same studies, vegetarians are at a reduced risk of many different diseases. These include cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

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picture courtesy of decidedlynuticious.com

I do not believe, however, that these benefits can be attributed exclusively to diet. There are many different compounding variables that could contribute to this. Vegetarians, for instance, tend to be more active. This could easily contribute to the lower rate of heart disease, among other things. Additionally, many vegetarians’ diets are the way they are because of their religion. It is likely that their religious choices impact many different aspects of their life as well. Because vegetarians are not a random sample of the population, it is difficult to establish a causal relationship between a vegetarian diet and lower rates of disease.

Overall, I treat my vegetarianism as a personal choice and nothing more. I am confident that it is not an unhealthy lifestyle, and any benefits are simply a bonus. If such a lifestyle change were being considered purely for health reasons, I see no reason switch as it is a serious adjustment from most ways of life. If someone truly wanted to reduce their risk of disease, it would be more prudent to adopt a healthier lifestyle than to remove meat from their diet.

Works Cited

http://www.bu.edu/themovement/past-issues/spring2011/being-a-vegetarian/

decidedlynutricious.com

 

 

 

Weeding out painkiller abuse

Earlier this year, I distinctly remember hearing one of my friends joke about selling some painkillers he had received after his wisdom teeth were removed. Apparently, it isn’t very difficult to do so. Painkillers are a dangerous and growing addiction in the United States. I’ve recently discovered that over half of drug-related overdose deaths are the result of painkillers (Center for Disease Control). I believe that this statistic is so alarming because painkillers, and even those that require prescriptions, are so easily given out and acquired. Our country’s medical system can be taken advantage of by those who wish to sell prescription drugs illegally. But could this trade be reduced by the legalization of weed?

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Picture courtesy of theodysseyonline.com

A recent study examined the specific abuse of opioids in states in which marijuana is legal only with a prescription and states that have legal, easily accessible marijuana dispensaries.  This is a very important distinction. Whereas prescriptions only allow for a specific, small amount of marijuana to be sold, the dispensary system allows for a much easier and less regulated process of obtaining the drug. The rates of fatal opioid overdose and opioid treatment center admissions were compared before and after legalization in states with both of these systems. The study found no change in “prescription only” states. States with medical marijuana shops, however, saw a 16% drop in opioid related deaths and a 28% drop in opioid treatment center admissions.

Furthermore, research suggests that this decrease is primarily the result of recreational opioid users modifying their habits to consume marijuana. These results seem to indicate that providing accessible marijuana lowers the rate of more deleterious drug use.

Personally, I think that this study was well conducted and has yielded accurate data. It seems logical to me that those who abuse opioids would instead use marijuana if it were prescribed to them. Even if these people continue to abuse drugs, marijuana is much better both for themselves and society. The article I read, however, does not discuss any negative consequences of the shift from recreational opioid to marijuana use. Before legalization, pot was only acquired through drug dealers, often associated with gangs and other criminal activity. If it were more easily acquired, but only in small amounts, could addiction encourage the growth of illegal marijuana sale? It seems that painkillers and marijuana are not as comparable as one may suspect. According to Psychology Today, marijuana users typically do not experience the severe withdrawal symptoms typically seen in more serious drugs. Even if marijuana is only psychologically addictive and much less so than opioids, I believe that any kind of partial or regulated legalization could lead to a larger illegal drug trade and more criminal gang activity. Despite this possible caveat, however, I believe that this study has merit and that marijuana is a safer alternative to many drugs currently available in the United States.

 

Sources

http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/marijuana-dispensaries-save-lives-new-study-shows

http://www.cdc.gov/datastatistics/index.html

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-teenage-mind/201012/is-marijuana-addictive

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/fda-cracks-down-on-prescription-painkillers

I actually do like science

I am just picky with the parts of it that I like.

My name is Taras Guanowsky and I am a freshman, studying actuarial science. For those who are unfamiliar with this major, the name is quite misleading as it is actually a math and business heavy field rather than scientific. Throughout high school, I struggled with some of the precision involved with science, such as measuring out volumes in chemistry labs and dissecting animals in biology. I find that I would rather study probability and risk than physical experimentation. This class was presented to me as a science gen ed popular among business majors, and seemed interesting to me, so I decided to take it. I also liked the fact that it was a large class in a lecture hall- I am shy.

I would easily consider myself a skeptical person. I like to challenge ideas and question the legitimacy of certain statements. Recently, I found this video about false positives and misinterpreted results in published science. I would highly recommend watching it to anyone interested. In this regard, I truly believe that I will enjoy this class. I look forward to learning and spending the semester with you all.

Also, my favorite animal is the manatee.

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