Large Study Identifies 65 New Indicators of Breast Cancer Risk

Your risk of developing breast cancer and many other conditions is determined in part by your unique genetic code. Maybe you have heard of the infamous “BRCA1” (BReast CAncer 1) gene, discovered in the early 90s which has strong associations with a woman’s risk to develop cancer. Among other risk factors, the BRCA1 gene can account for why breast cancer can “run in the family”.

In a new study published by Nature, Michailidou et al. have identified 65 new genetic signatures which influence your risk for breast cancer. The study, which involved almost 300,000 patients and healthy people (studies have to look at women with breast cancer and women without breast cancer to be able to compare the two groups), authors have found 65 new loci in the genome which are associated with breast cancer.

In genetics, a locus (plural: loci), is a location in our DNA. All humans, to a remarkably high extent, have very similar DNA sequences. Therefore, our genomes, an overall map to our DNA, by-and-large look the same. The differences between people’s DNA can account for many of the differences in humans, like the color of our eyes, how much alcohol we can handle, and in this case, how likely we are to develop certain diseases.

In this paper, what the authors have done is compare the genomes (the sum total of their DNA) of patients with breast cancer to women who don’t have breast cancer in order to identify where those people’s DNA differs. By comparing these two groups, the scientists were able to find 65 different loci, or locations in the human genome, which were associated with risk for breast cancer. At these loci, most people have one specific nucleotide (the building blocks of our DNA), but if you have a different one, you may be at an increased (or even a decreased) risk for developing breast cancer. In most of these locations, the risk factor is what’s called a “Single-Nucleotide Polymorphism” or SNP (Single=1, Nucleotide=building block of DNA, Polymorphism= occurs in different forms). So for that particular location, some people have a different nucleotide than others.

But what does that mean for people who have these specific mutations? Are you doomed to get breast cancer later in life? How much has your risk increased?

A few years ago BRCA1 found itself in the news again when prominent actress Angelina Jolie found out she had a risky mutation (a change in her DNA code) in BRCA1. Jolie took preemptive measures and opted for a double mastectomy, to largely eliminate the risk. To many people (including scientists!) this may seem like a drastic move considering the fact that she didn’t actually have breast cancer.

In preparing to write this short summary, I spoke to a colleague and genetic counselor about how to discuss genetic “risk” for diseases. In a new era of medicine, where a person’s genetic code might be used (or abused) to tailor their treatment, there is a lot of discussion about what information people should have access too. On one hand, it is argued that your genetic code is your personal data which you should have access to. On the other, most genetic counselors would argue that people need to be educated about what their genetic code could mean. Imagine, for example, if you found out you have an increased risk for breast cancer, a disease which claims tens of thousands of lives a year, you might decide that a double mastectomy is worth not having to worry. But what if you found out, after the mastectomy, that you actually only had a 0.02% increased risk for breast cancer? Suddenly the mastectomy seems like a bit of a rash decision.

The point that is important to drive home is that, while these 65 new loci are associated with increased breast cancer risk, they wouldn’t necessarily indicate that someone with mutations at those locations will get breast cancer.

The key points of this paper include the size of the study, which strengthens the claims they make, and the novelty of these loci. With the identification of more risk loci and a deeper understanding of the genetics of cancer, it will become easier to catch cancers early, and to personalize their treatment, both of which contribute to less deaths from the disease.

Some weaker points of the paper might be that they used almost exclusively european and asian women’s genetic material. Although most of these risk loci are probably universal to women of all races and genetic backgrounds, there is a great deal of nuance which can be attributed to other factors including race, environment, and socioeconomic status. Further, the authors have provided a huge amount of data in this study, but it will take much more research before all of that data can be made useful to clinicians trying to treat cancer patients. That’s why it is important that we continue to fund science research!


North Poor-Me-A

A week or two ago, Chelsea Handler, a popular television host of Chelsea Lately, political commentator, comedian, and one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2012, posted this tweet on her twitter.

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In the tweet Handler suggests that we trade POTUS Donald Trump for the leader of North Korea. At first I read the tweet and though, okay well she is a comedian so they sometimes push boundaries. I figured this was totally not representative of public opinion. She was attacked for this tweet by mostly conservative media (who would likely attack her whatever she does!), but even received some flak from her democratic allies.

Then I remembered that HuffPo ran an article about Otto Warmbier, the American college student who spent 17 months in a North Korean labor camp for trying to steal a propaganda poster. When Otto was returned home he was in a coma resulting from his treatment at the hands of North Korean guards and he later died of his condition. HuffPo’s hot take on this situation was an article titled “North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal”.

The overall tone of the article is initially sympathetic to the fact that Otto was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor (oh, darn, that sucks dude), but comes off as a “well you got what was coming to you” kind of piece.

If I didn’t know any better I would say HuffPo was victim blaming the victim of cruel, degrading, and unusual punishment because of his race and sex. As someone who leans left, it was disconcerting to say the least, to see both these examples of what appears to be the left wing excusing the human rights violations of the North Korean regime. In my experience, people of liberal dispositions are in favor of individual liberties, fair treatment under the law, and generally not in favor of egregious denial of basic human dignity. Can you imagine a left-leaning commentator during WWII suggesting we trade one of our politicians for Hitler? Can you imagine if a newspaper had written a piece suggesting that a student who was arrested and taken to Auschwitz.

Of course, it isn’t quite fair to blame HuffPo for this article, as it was published on the sight via the contributor platform for opinion pieces. HuffPo indicated with regard to that article that they realized some articles would be more controversial than others, but were not interested in taking down articles they simply disagreed with. To this end, I wholeheartedly agree with HuffPo. When opinion pieces generate a lot of negative buzz, that’s when we must be the most careful that we do not suppress minority opinions.

A good example of HuffPo’s sterling record for providing a platform for dissenting opinions was when they deleted a contributor opinion piece wherein author Rene Zografos wrote “The truth is, that several European cities have huge immigration problems where even the police force is afraid to interfere in some locations in these cities. UK, France and several other European countries are changing rapidly with extreme quantity of immigration. I’m not saying immigration is only bad, but a lot of problems come with poor immigration policy, as consequences we get violence, terror and gangs.” [/sarcasm]

Then, two days ago, I stumbled upon this video by left-leaning media outlet ATTN:

I thought: Wow what a brave and harrowing story of an escape from an oppressive regime. Then I scrolled down to the comments (never read the comments).

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Here we were, comments with hundreds of reactions, with dozens of top comments in agreement. This is clearly propaganda against a largely misunderstood megalomaniacal dictator! Why should I believe him when he doesn’t even have a CATTLE BRAND?!!111

Thank God there were comments in nearly equal measure calling out this kind of behavior. Nonetheless, the popularity of sentiments like those expressed above were eye-opening for me. Are we so divided that we are willing to jump to the aid of Kim Jong Un just because our tangerine god king doesn’t like him? Left-leaning people must defend the ethical and moral foundations of their movement. Where tyranny exists, it must be opposed.

Isolated Cheeks

In the recent months, I’ve noticed an increase in violent, divisive attitudes on social media and in political news. Don’t get me wrong, the bitter tribalism of our modern political discourse is by no means only a few months old. Maybe I’m just reading more into it, and obviously all anecdotal evidence is rife with selection bias, but I don’t think I’m totally off in noticing an increase in support for political violence, the eradication of nuance, and overall just stronger and more hard-headed reactions from both major sides of the aisle. It feels as though we are at an historically important point, as though the fever pitch of partisanship in this current period is something we haven’t seen before for a long time.

One phenomenon resulting from the 2016 election and Trump’s presidency, which is immediately evident, is that people are paying much closer attention to politics. This is clear in scrolling through your news feed, watching the nightly news, overhearing conversations at work and in public. Lately it seems like everyone is talking about politics. Not only that, but they are talking past each other, over each other. Nobody is hearing what anyone else is saying. Now when I scroll down my news feed a solid 70% of the posts I see are “hot takes” on how long Trump shook someone’s hand or making inane comparisons between groups and standards. You might hear the argument that you need to be spending more and more time “resisting” Trump instead of just focusing on your life and enriching it in a way that government will never be able to do. These arguments are from people who are wholly dedicated to hating our president, who have allowed their activism to become helplessly intertwined with their identity. People also make the argument that we should just approach Trump’s tweeting or increasingly unstable staffing and policy changes with a nihilistic bent, as though somehow they don’t matter and…MAGA MAGA MAGA! These are people who are wholly dedicated to supporting the president, despite the fact that conservatives even at higher levels are beginning to become disenchanted with Trump’s ineffectiveness.

I’ve heard this argued from both sides (that this increasing involvement in politics is a good thing, or a bad thing). Part of the arguments for it being negative: Our situations are more polarized, people are more strung out, ready to go off on a hairpin trigger, and in a more philosophical sense, this much of our lives isn’t supposed to be dominated by politics. Politics is a part of life insofar as government is a part of the social contract. However, in the same way that the government shouldn’t be in charge of every aspect of our life, politics should not infuse every interaction or experience we have on the daily.

On the positive side, people are more informed and fired up about what is going on in their country. Or, are they? To hear it entirely from Fox news or Breitbart: “Trump! Trannies! Triggered!” To hear it entirely from MSNBC (or my newsfeed): “How the forecasted colder winter this year is entirely Trump’s fault and PROVES he is the genetic mutant (+5 hate genes) baby of Hitler and people who put pineapple on pizza”.

It seems that we’ve substituted volume of information for quality of information. The whole reason people listen to a specific set of mainstream outlets is so that they don’t have to deal with the cognitive load of processing an opposing idea. We have set up land mines to go off as soon as our comfort levels are remotely pushed. Instead of dealing with ideas, we immediately switch to character attacks, to accusations of hating vets, hating trans people, hating black people, wanting to burn the constitution, etc.

All of these intense reactions to everything from minor wording choices to literal white supremacists walking through American streets does two deleterious things. First, a cry-wolf situation is set up which diminishes credibility of whoever is raising outrage. Why should someone, especially on the “other side” listen to you when you’ve been calling them personally racist, sexist, bigoted, etc. for years? When you call out the entire NFL leadership and coaches as “white supremacists” (just an example), but then turn around and point at people chanting “Jews will not replace us” and flying Nazi flags and also call them white supremacists, you are hurting your cause because people on the fence don’t see your assessment of who is and isn’t a white supremacist to be credible.

The second issue is an offshoot of crying wolf and deals with not just being turned up to 11 at all times, but with broadening definitions and being careless with accusations of otherwise incredibly serious flaws. You see articles or infographics flying around online like “ways that all white people are actually white supremacists”, with incredibly broad bullet points or characteristics which encompass pretty much everyone except the most venerated high-priests of the religion of leftism. This is harmful. White supremacy is a very specific thing. It is a horrible, morally reprehensible thing that everyone needs to condemn. By broadening the definition, you allow white supremacists and white nationalists to co-opt huge groups of people. You can have some issues (and I think there is an interesting discussion to be had) regarding someone saying “we should all just ignore race” or the “colorblind” argument. However if you now go the next step and say “Well saying you are colorblind is a form of white supremacy”, you’ve now turned millions of people into white supremacists. Not actual white supremacists, mind you, but you are lending huge credibility to the movement. Now everyone who doesn’t “study race” in an ivory tower is somehow awful.

There are a couple factors at play here and I think it is important for us to understand when we are acting (sometimes unwittingly) as agents of a broad political agenda. By making white supremacists seem like a larger group than they are, and by defining mundane things as white supremacy, those making the argument for suppression of speech or who excuse political violence have a stronger case. It seems like a huge problem, and huge problems need to be addressed. Politicians who come out against the scourge of white nationalism gain tons of political capital and media coverage, and the importance of their re-election becomes divorced from how solid their policy suggestions are.

We see the consequences of broadening definitions like this play out on the other side of the conflict as well. While leftists are happy to drastically inflate the influence of white supremacist groups, the white supremacist groups are also ecstatic that their importance is being elevated from a couple thousand hateful dudes to a matter of absolutely obsessive media coverage. People who with a certain amount of internet savvy understand that there are essentially two groups called the “alt-right”. The first is a very specific movement which espouses the belief that western culture and values are inseparable from actual white ethnic groups, which is clearly a racist viewpoint. The second group is way larger and includes people who like to shitpost frog memes and “trigger” SJWs. They make racist jokes online and overall just act like immature boys with stunted social skills. Most of these people aren’t even necessarily right leaning in terms of politics and many are just “trolling”. So why are both of these groups “alt-right?” Because if the actual alt-right, white nationalist groups absorb other aspects of culture (dank memes, offensive jokes, irreverent humor, disenfranchised or isolated young men), then all of the people who are in these groups, but don’t have actual racist views, get co-opted too. Now when someone says “Fuck the alt-right”, both Nazis and online trolls are clearly alienated from their cause, and let me tell you, the online troll community is way the fuck larger than the Nazi community. For further evidence of this we need not look any further than the fact that Hillary Clinton took time out of a campaign speech to address pepe the frog. Absolutely clueless as to the distinction between people who just find pepe funny and Nazis (somehow), she played directly into the hand of the white nationalists. She drove the masses of online trolls and dank memeologists into the arms of an actual hateful and dangerous ideology. She gave the alt-right a huge boost!

Not to keep kicking Hillary while she’s down (and hopefully for democrats, out) but this phenomenon seemed so clear to me when she made her “basket of deplorables” comment. Is there a subset of Trump voters who are deplorable? Duh, probably the same subset who are actually alt-right. However, now anyone who was leaning toward Trump is clearly against Hillary. She thinks they are deplorable, and now instead of realizing that Trump has basically zero tenable policy plans, they cheered on Trump because he was “triggering SJWs” or “bashing Hillary”. They had a common enemy. Indeed, even now, there is a huge portion of Trump’s base who really don’t care how many utter policy failures he has presided over, they just want to see him lash out against leftists. In this way, staunch partisanship lacking nuance is a self-perpetuating phenomenon.

So how can we avoid this? How can we turn it around? How can the cycle of othering and attacking be broken?

I think part of it is to understand the forces at play, to understand that there are people who stand to benefit a lot from your blind hatred of others based on simple aspects of their personality. Sure, you know how dire it is to stop trans people from using the bathroom they want, but did you know we’re at war in Yemen? Could you point to Yemen on a map? Because whether you can or can’t, bombs paid for with your money are being dropped on innocent people. Sure, you feel good about yourself because you knocked over a statue, but how do you feel about the fact that our country is facing an opioid epidemic? Did you know that vehicle fatalities due to drug overdose are skyrocketing? I don’t say this to belittle the trans bathroom or confederate statue issues. All I’m saying is, maybe you’re angry about trans bathrooms because that type of anger is easy and utilitarian. Maybe you aren’t angry about Yemen because there’s less to be gained from your anger there.

The second part of working against this partisan noise and the widening chasm in American political discourse is to turn the other cheek. As someone who has been accused of many character flaws for espousing certain political beliefs, I understand how easy it is to direct hate and vitriol at those who are making what you believe to be unfair character arguments against you. I’m not going to get all “Jesus is love” over here, but by allowing hatred directed at you to become hatred which is multiplied outward, you continue the cycle of name calling and insubstantial argumentation.

It can be hard and honestly, sometimes it feels totally wrong to just say. “Alright, that dude just called me racist, but I’m not going to fling any character arguments back.” It can feel like “backing down” or “letting hate win”. And maybe hate wins that battle, but by taking that hate and lack of nuance and then projecting it back, we will ensure that hate wins the war.

Heisenberg Abroad

Over the last week I have been in Germany for a scientific conference. 10,000 doctors, professors, students, technicians, clinicians and researchers who study blood came together to share their research and to connect with our international colleagues. For those who are unfamiliar, these types of conferences generally mean talks and presentations from pretty early in the morning (7am for this conference) to dinner or later. After that the networking (and by networking I mean drinking) begins. So, in one sense I was excited to be going to a totally new place to meet up with the leading voices in my field. On the other hand I knew I would unfortunately not get a lot of time to explore the city of Berlin. Nevertheless, it is impossible to be in a foreign country without getting some taste of new things. By taste, of course, I am literally talking about gustatory tourism. Gustatourism?

It’s been said that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the same is true of a country. Indeed, in my short stay here I have fallen in love with an omnipresent street food mainstay in metropolitan Berlin: Currywurst. It’s a wurst covered in curry and paprika spiced ketchup, usually served with fries. Discovering a new dish, especially one which is so linked to a city’s identity (in some areas there are three currywurst places in a four-way intersection), is one of the great joys of life. When you see great art, or appreciate a memorial, when you experience a moving theater production or learn a new game, you are permanently changed. Brushes with cultures other than our own leave impressions which last the rest of our lives. In the same way, discovering new foods enriches your life forever. Without having discovered currywurst, or schnitzels, or bratwurst, I deprive myself of all future chances to enjoy eating those dishes, and when I eat those dishes, I will think of Berlin!

90 years before my personal discovery of these German foods, a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg discovered something of almost equal importance and gravitas. He proposed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a set of inequalities which describe the relationships between certain physical properties of a particle. Put simply, it holds that it is impossible to precisely measure something’s speed and position at the same time. The faster something is moving, the less we know about the location.

One of my favorite things about currywurst (I promise this post is going to come together at some point) was the stands it’s sold at. Many of them are about 100 sq ft, a typical street food spot, but with lots of counter space around it and usually some standalone metal tables. This is key, since they usually serve it in flimsy paper containers not nearly big enough to hold all the fries (not complaining!). Sometimes I would be on my way back from a day of talks to the hotel, just trying to get back to shower and maybe catch some winks before going out to some bars and I would grab some currywurst. At first I was irritated that it was a bit harder to walk and eat (although the smaller sizes are more manageable), but as I took the 5-10 minutes to wolf it down, I looked around. I saw people buying strawberries at a dedicated strawberry stand, watched kids post up outside the S-Bahn station and smoke, break dance, skateboard. I watched diverse faces walk by, saw what other people were eating, what they were drinking. Old European men stood around outside a mini-mart drinking beer in public. I saw the predominantly non-white workers in sanitation, city maintenance. I watched beggars beg, homelessness. I learned how the bus system worked because my favorite stand (Yes I had a favorite stand after just one week. I ate…a lot of currywurst) was near the bus terminal. I picked up a couple German words listening to people order their food, or converse. In other words, when I wasn’t measuring my speed, I learned more about my location.

Whenever I had free time I was so exhausted from the conference and jetlag. At the same time I felt so pressured to see stuff. (Did you really visit a foreign country without the instagram pics to prove it?) I didn’t understand that just slowing down would provide way better resolution, and would give me a more enriching experience.

Today was the last day of the ISTH conference. We checked out of our hotel room around 8am Thursday, but my flight wasn’t until 6am Friday morning! Somehow the aggregate loss of sleep and stress of having to figure out what to do with myself in a foreign country for 16 hours with nowhere to call home base was really overwhelming me. The last day of the conference was much shorter, and sitting through each of the talks I could feel myself worrying more and more about…well I’m not sure what. I could have stayed for all the wrap-up stuff, but most of the people at the conference were leaving already, or had already departed! I could see everyone draining out of the conference center, and I saw my friends and colleagues quickly making their ways out of Germany itself! I felt like I was behind them, why did I get a Friday morning flight? I didn’t know everyone was going to leave now! My position became blurry. Speed was highly important again! Yet, what could I do? My flight was when my flight was. I had a ton of time, and so what if I didn’t have a home base?

I took my bags, containing everything I needed for two weeks in Europe, and I hopped on the train system I was only juuuust starting to understand. Instead of getting off at the stop near the hotel and just meandering through shops for hours on end, I just stayed on the train. One, two, three, four, five stops past where I would normally get off. I climbed off the train, clambered down the stairs awkwardly with my heavy computer bag weighing on my shoulder already. It was only 2pm. I had downloaded the map of Berlin on my phone already (I’m not about those roaming data fees), so I saw what was in the area. It turned out that about a 10 minute walk away was the Reichstag building, so I walked there. 10 minutes doesn’t seem too bad but with the bags it wasn’t the easiest trek. Especially because I had only my limited navigational skills to rely on, and all the signs are in German…I found the river on the map, walked along it. I walked past beautiful modern-looking governmental offices. It was, again, a slow way to see the city. Instead of finding the quickest route to a checklist of sights, I wandered toward the famous glass-domed edifice. Snapped some pics. Instagram, sated. My shoulders hurt. My phone was dying. The Brandenburg Gate was closeby. I walked through the touristy parts around the gate, then remembered that the Soviet War Memorial was pretty close to the gate too, so I wandered in that direction. Germans are much less aggressive jaywalkers.

There is a big park called the Tiergarten and lots of ponds and paths and green space along the Straße des 17. Juni, the big road that links the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column, with the Soviet War Memorial along the way. I took my time getting to the War Memorial, winding and weaving through Tiergarten. From the memorial I walked to the victory column, and from the victory column, I could see the tops of some buildings that looked familiar. So THAT’s where I was? (Remember I just hopped off the train). I was a lot closer to the small sector of Berlin I had become familiar with from our hotel being there than I thought. It was going to take a good 30 mins to get there I estimated, and my shoulders were hurting even more after spending a few hours wandering between landmarks, but I had all the time in the world to kill, and I started walking. As I did I started to recognize more and more streets or buildings in the distance. Looking at my map, I figured out where everything was in relation to each other. I mapped out my path ex post facto. Having arrived back in an area I was more comfortable in, I perused some shops and just hung around. After a while though, I was getting kind of tired of that area. I’d been hanging around it for a few days already, and if I didn’t leave I was going to continue to eat my weight in sausages.

Still having plenty of time to get to the airport (I was planning on staying up through the night, since I didn’t want to get an AirBnB or anything), I hopped back on the train, in the opposite direction this time, and I got off at each stop for a bit, seeing what the neighborhoods were like, the shops and people and restaurants, churches and theaters. I even wandered back through where each of the train stops were, but on foot. I just spent some time being in the city. When breathing a city in, breathing deep helped! Okay but my shoulders were seriously killing me at this point. I trekked back to the hotel we had checked out of, since that’s the area I knew. I considered just taking a cab to the airport, even though I had several hours still to kill, but decided that, since I had the time, I might as well explore another aspect of the city. I asked the concierge to explain how the busses worked, to make sure what I’d observed was correct, and rode the bus to the airport. I didn’t realize it had dropped me off one stop away from the actual airport stop. More walking. I came to relish it.

A cab would have been faster, and I could get my lab to pay for it, but I took the slower route. I wasn’t worrying about time. I considered hopping off the bus at a few points to just explore other parts of the city, but my feet and shoulders were on strike. This was the ideal way to explore a new city. So danke Heisenberg (for your equation, not so much the Nazi shit), danke to my PI for not booking a hotel on Friday (he dipped midday thursday anyway…), and danke Berlin.


Deep (Space) Cuts for Cosmic Sluts

An astral playlist of songs devoted to the stars, or with outer-space-like motifs. Perfect for evoking the particular flavor existential dread that comes with recognizing your utter insignificance, spacing out to late lone lullabies, or if you’re a stoner who thinks space is like, totally cool man.

Cygnus X-1|Rush

To Rush fans, the inclusion of the Cygnus duology is an obvious choice for this playlist. Rush, and especially their primary lyricist, Neil Peart, tell an allusion-dense and artistic epic about a hero aboard his trusty spaceship. The ship, the Rocinante, is named after the horse companion in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This allusion to the literary madman Alonso Quixano conjures a vision which casts man exploring the vastness of space as the fool stumbling through the world he poorly perceives, in search of justice, to undo wrongs. The first minute or so of the song blends muted notes a la “deep sea documentary” with percussion that delays like an echo. Of course, nothing would actually echo in space because it is a vacuum, but the “echo” of the percussion serves to elicit the sensation of being in a large, open space such as…well, space! This intro period, paired with the fantastically syncopated bass riff that follows (Geddy Lee’s bass tone here reminds me of the tone that Flea from RHCP uses on their cover of “Higher Ground”) is the reason I have chosen to feature this, the first half of the saga, which originally spanned two albums! As for the name of the song itself, we had to expect there would be some reference there. Indeed, Cygnus X-1 refers to an X-ray emitting black hole 6,000 light years from our sun. The chaotic layering of instruments which occurs after the inital intro to “space” therefore may be taken to be our hero, aboard the Rocinante, encountering the chaos and majesty of a black hole.

Walking on the Moon|The Police

Sting, the lead singer and bassist of The Police, reportedly wrote this song drunk after a gig, while pacing around his hotel room. “Walking on the moon” was originally “Walkin round the room”, which doesn’t sound nearly as cool. Despite the obviously space-oriented title of the song, the lyrics actually use a moonwalk as a loose metaphor for being in a potentially doomed relationship

Some may say
I’m wishing my days away
No way
And if it’s the price I pay
Some say
Tomorrow’s another day
You stay
I may as well play

but being happy or illusioned by it…

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon
We could walk forever
Walking on the moon
We could live together
Walking on, walking on the moon

One of the main reasons I added this to the playlist is for the interesting take on “space”. Despite all being related to space, the songs on the playlist are supposed to represent different styles and different feelings that artists portray through space and the unknown. In the case of Walking on the Moon, Sting and The Police bring in a jazzy, eccentric vibe to the playlist. The guitar hits at the beginning, adorned with a bit of chorus but later played rather staccato, are a unique addition which meshes well with the uniqueness of using a reggae-style song to engage with outer space!

Life on Mars|David Bowie

Emerging from Bowie’s escapade through various sweeping fusions of pop styles known as Hunky Dory, one of the best-known songs from the illustrious artist brings us yet another unique take on space. Bowie himself has described the song as written from the perspective of an unhappy young person, but also as a love song.

“A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media…she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it” – Bowie circa ’97

“You fall in love, you write a love song. This is a love song.” -Bowie circa 1990

Perhaps the answer to this lies in some fusion of the two. Bowie fell in love with a girl who was disillusioned with the messages she was seeing in the media. Perhaps it was love of what he saw in her, rather than love of her, which lead to the end of their short affair. In any case, Bowie uses the question “Is their life on mars?” in juxtaposition to many other questions or issues raised by the song

Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

In the minutiae of life and the saccharine flavor of promises of a better life, it seems that the almost absurd question “Is there life on mars?” serves to put everything in perspective. On one hand, the girl is almost desensitized to the movies, music and other media of her time, at the same time, she is unable to access that which she is most sensitive to. Bowie sings the question in an almost pleading, deliberately poorly controlled wail at the end of many of the choruses. The question of life in the universe is at once the most meaningful question and the most insignificant or absurd pursuit.

Onward to the Edge|Symphony of Science

In the midst of tracks artfully using space as a metaphor or writing epic tales with celestial backdrops, “Onward to the Edge” sticks out like a planet in the night sky. Doing one better than just writing about space, Symphony of Science takes an evocative piano melody and overlays auto-tuned clips of famous scientists, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, talking about space. If you’ll allow me to wax a bit poetic about the song: rather than cheapening the feel of the song by using literal quotes about space from actual lectures or interviews, “Onward to the Edge” strikes us more as space using art than art using space. In other words, deliberately using less artistic license sheds light on the idea that space, inherently, is beautiful or evocative. Instead of co-opting space to engage human emotion, this track engages human emotion to enhance the experience of space.

There is a powerful recognition that stirs within us, when we see our own little blue ocean planet in the skies of other worlds.

Contact|Daft Punk

Although not as heavy-handed and literal as “Onward to the Edge”, “Contact” is another track off this playlist which relies on sampling real recordings, and seems to really be about space, rather than space as a metaphor for X. For me, the analog-sounding synthesizer riff makes me think about how space travel or ships used to be portrayed when I was growing up in the mid nineties. Beeps and boops, flashing lights, big tacky buttons, etc.. The prominent recorded drums add a rock feel to the song, which fits really well because, I don’t know, takeoff, fire, rock n’ roll? This song is unique among the tracks on the playlist because here the artists focus very much on the actual takeoff of Apollo 17 as the central locus of the song. The last minute and a half of the song are essentially just a stylized recording of the engines powering up and actually lifting off.

When Daft Punk were putting the song together, it became clear that it needed some real recordings, and a “liftoff” type vibe. My guess is that these recordings fit better into the song than expected, because rather than augmenting the song, these seem to play a highly centric role. In addition to audio footage from the launching of Apollo 17, NASA also granted Daft Punk access to all of their mission recordings to sample from. Given this wealth of options, the artists chose to include a recording from the Apollo 17 mission, wherein astronaut Eugene Cernan is describing an object seen out the window of their spacecraft.

“Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby. It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion because the flashes come around almost on time. As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock, about maybe ten or twelve diameters. I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.”

The quote gives an exciting or mysterious vibe to the whole song. What is that object in the distance? As fixated as human stories are with exploring the unknown, a lone and unidentified celestial object is about as unknown, distant, and mysterious as it gets. In the end it turned out that the object was some debris from their ship, which is highly anti-climactic, but somehow seems even more fitting. One of the producers on the track, Thomas Bangalter, described the choice of Cernan’s quote to end the album as important because, he was the last man to walk on the moon, some forty years ago.

Yoshimi Battles Existential Terror in Her Quest for Meaning

15 years ago, in 2002, The Flaming Lips released the seminal album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Despite first emerging onto the music scene some 20 years earlier, The Flaming Lips create a unique, intriguing, and complex body of work in this album. Subsequent listen-throughs reveal that there are really two albums in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

The first is an idiosyncratic romp through battles with space baddies, and intergalactic adventure. The scenes are set with a pleasant blend of acoustic instruments and synthesizer notes. Symphonic swells and bright tones fill the backdrop, but the most exciting parts of the production are the sci-fi melodies and echoes of lyrics which are laced throughout and leave delightful discoveries to make each listening experience unique. The second album is a deeply melancholy, existential crisis in song. Songs about the plain regrets or sadnesses of humans alternate with questions of what these woes even mean in the scope of the vast universe around us.

The marriage of these two albums gives us songs like “Fight Test”, an almost “coming-of-age” story with a tinny guitar melody about a man looking back on a past relationship and regretting that he didn’t fight for the girl he loved when he had the chance. On the other hand, it also gives us “The Morning of the Magicians”, where the singer asks us what is love and what is hate, and why does it matter?. He is waking up, perhaps after a long night, reflecting on how the universe seems to exist around him in ways so wonderful that they seem to be magical. He’s questioning his place in it. Is to love just a waste, how can it matter?

In the penultimate song, we meet a version of our main character from the future, in keeping with the sci-fi vibe of the whole album. His future self tells him that they (or is it just he?) won’t make it. All we have is now. All we’ve ever had is now. The lyricist ends the album (the last song doesn’t really have any words) with the at once hopeful and crushing realization that his only promised moment is the current one. The pairing of phrases creates a paradoxical loop: If all he has is the current moment, then he has no moments from the past to reference. If he has no moments from the past, then how does he know that all he’s ever had is the moment at hand? Unless, of course, he means that this current moment is all he’s ever had, and that is life has been leading to the moment when he meets his future self (is his future self revisiting his past selves in the moments before death as his life flashes before his eyes?), perhaps a metaphor for death itself. If indeed my half-baked theory is correct, that’s quite a grim last message with which to leave the listeners!

This brilliant space odyssey through the delightfully twisted crises of our hero has quickly earned its place in my vinyl bin. (I know, don’t you just hate me a little more for that last sentence?)

Data and Distrust: American Indians in Genetic Research

Sometimes one of the hardest things for scientists like myself to do is to step back and realize that, in addition to engaging in an empirical and systematic way of answering questions about the world, I am part of a community of scientists. This community might not always represent what I believe, and it can be insular. To those of us who immerse ourselves entirely in the sciences, it simply takes a little extra thought to step back and be self-critical or at least self-conscious. When people disagree with a scientific consensus we are more likely to call them names than to try to engage with them. I agree, many anti-vaxers, many flat-earthers, many climate change deniers, are totally beyond where you can reach them. They are 100% ideologue and 0% data. However, there is a significant portion of that population which we can absolutely reach out to, understand their point of view, and present our data in an accessible way. For example, although it is easy to just brazenly declare that all climate change deniers don’t think the earth is warming, we might be surprised to find that many of them agree that the earth is warming, agree that a portion of it is man-made, and simply disagree on what percent of climate change is due to human activities. That’s way closer to scientific consensus than I would have previously believed. It got me to thinking that this useless put-down game of insulting the intelligence of people who disagree with us is another iteration of “If you didn’t vote like me you support racism and hate”, and we all know where that got us in November. Unless we can bridge this gap and understand the underlying distrust of science that comes from many communities, we are destined to struggle not only against our western blots, our mouse experiments, our chemical reactions or microscopy, but we must also struggle against our fellow man. For many of us, the whole reason we entered science was to help other people, to make a difference. That difference begins with understanding. Today I am sharing with you a small microcosm of this complex societal relationship between science, scientists, and the public. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN peoples) are some of the most marginalized and perhaps mistreated groups in American history. Readers will know I’m not one to just willy nilly say anyone who isn’t in gender/sexual orientation/skin color group A is oppressed or in danger, that’s ridiculous, and almost deliberately oversimplified. Still, let’s be real: when it comes to native populations, we done fucked up a few times. 

American Indians and Alaska Natives number 5.4 million in the United States, representing almost 2% of the overall population [1] and growing at a rate which positions them to be an even larger percentage of the population by the next Census in 2020 [2]. In order to better care for this growing demographic, it is important to understand important genetic and medical histories of the population. In order to do this, members of the community must first be enrolled in studies. For many people, contributing their time or samples to genetic research feels like their chance to help out in some small way. Perhaps they feel as though donating to research is their “good deed” for the week, perhaps they know someone with a specific disorder, or else this is a disorder they might be predisposed to and they want to know more about their risk. In their 2011 paper, Michie et al. identify the potential for donated samples to help countless individuals in the future, the not-insignificant emotional rewards of donating time or tissue, and the possibility of learning about something which will affect them directly as major motivations for participating in genetic studies [3]. While all of these motivators likely apply to members of the American Indian community, their history with medical research is complex and often colored by injustices or mistreatment. As a result, native people are often highly suspicious or distrustful of scientific researchers and medical research as a whole. In order to better serve the healthcare needs of American Indian communities and in order for researchers to find a more respectful and collaborative approach to accessing these communities, it is necessary to first understand the numerous cultural and historical barriers, and ethical points which contribute to the issue at hand.

One of the hurdles to involving American Indians in genetic research studies is that two of the aforementioned primary motivators: possibility of research helping you and possibility of research helping others, are tainted by distrust and a perception that there is very little benefit to the donation of genetic information [4]. The concern on behalf of American Indians that interactions between the native population and the general American population (such as genetic research), will be inherently exploitative is not entirely unjustified. In one case which took place between 2003 and 2010, members of a small American Indian tribe, the Havasupai, donated DNA samples to researchers at Arizona State University with the expressed goal of understanding the debilitating rate of diabetes in their population. However, after donating their samples it came to light that their samples had also been used to study a vast array of conditions, including some highly culturally sensitive topics, such as mental illness, consanguinity, and other hereditary traits [5]. This presents the cultural/ethical issue. In explaining that they would use the samples to study a real health issue in the community (a perceived benefit), they failed to also indicate that the samples would be used to study other things which might not be perceived as beneficial to the Havasupai, or might even be perceived as exploitative or negative. On the other end, the geneticist who had performed the studies, Therese Markow, defends her studies saying that the broad consent form and verbal consent indicated the research was going to “study the causes of behavioral/medical disorders”. In her view and perhaps outright, the American Indians had indeed consented to have their blood studied for these purposes.

This case raises the question of where the ethical limit is for how extensively researchers need to assure that their subjects understand what it is they are consenting to. In genetic research, especially research which focuses on sensitive subpopulations, the informed part of informed consent is of vital importance. According to Nanibaa’ Garrison, a member of the Navajo Nation and professor of bioethics at Seattle Children’s Hospital “What really went wrong was a lack of communication and transparency.” [6]. The official settlement which followed this case reinforces this point. Arizona State University agreed to pay out a total of $700,000 divided amongst several affected members of the tribe, which some legal experts say established a precedent that the rights of subjects are violated if they are not fully informed of the uses of their DNA.

The poor relationship of American Indians with genetic research is not just limited to the fallout of unethically conducted science, either. The complicated and sometimes exploitative nature of American Indian relations with the general US population is steeped in a long and bloody history of biological warfare, genocide, westward expansion, and unfair legal treatment [7]. For a people with a long and rich cultural legacy, Indian removal policies, the trail of tears, and smallpox blankets are fresh memories with real modern-day impact. In an interview with Genome, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta Kim Tallbear says “Native people always serve as the same kind of object…genomic research, building a pipeline, doing resource development like timber, minerals, oil, and natural gas, we are always an object of curiosity and a place to extract resources.” [6]. This continued perception of exploitation by the US contributes to a sense of “othering” which may be at the root of another issue with genomic research in American Indians. It was previously mentioned that the chance for your samples to help others in the future was a major reason for people to participate in genetic studies. If American Indian populations feel as though they are separate, othered, or just don’t have much in common with the US population, then the possibility to help other people in the country starts to look more like the possibility to be used for another group’s gain and not your own. It is clear that Tallbear, along with many other representatives of native people, think of their genetic information in terms of a resource. In the same interview, Tallbear goes on to say “The last biological resource they want is our DNA. We are the resources upon which the US state is built. Nothing has really changed for us, while our cultures and sovereignty are not considered.” In this statement, she underscores an “us and them” mentality and reveals a clear correlation between genetic information and the more tangible natural resources which helped to build the United States. The question, then, is how researchers can underscore the potential benefits of genetic research not only to the “general population” but specifically to American Indians and to their tribe specifically. While it may be necessary to go to greater lengths in order to convince American Indians of the benefit of their genetic donation, ethically, it can be unclear where convincing ends and overselling begins. Part of informed consent and the ethical conduct of genetic research is being realistic about the benefits which might come to the participant or their community. If researchers oversell or make promises about data or information they can’t necessarily deliver on, it will only sew more seeds of distrust. That being said, there is a great deal of room for American Indians to benefit from genetic and overall medical research. Amongst these communities, the death rate is nearly 50% higher than that of white Americans, and epidemiologically they tend to have higher rates of diabetes [8], obesity [9], liver disease [10], and other conditions with potential genetic roots. Perhaps better communication of these issues and the potential for benefit to native populations can help to improve American Indian – research relations. The benefits of research can also be extended past a possibly esoteric or ambiguous benefit of future knowledge gained. Norton and Manson suggest that studies may employ local community members to help run studies, translate or communicate, and meet with tribal representatives to see how best the study results can be implemented or used to help the American Indian community directly [4]. Researchers may also present results to tribal leaders or a representative group following the study, in order to explain the benefits in a clear and understandable way, as well as to increase transparency, which we recall was identified by Garrison as an important point of contention in the Havasupai case.

American Indians are a people whose culture has been historically systematically suppressed through forcing American Indian children into boarding schools [11], appropriation of cultural knowledge [12], and theft of significant cultural artifacts [13]. As a result, releasing their genetic data, a biochemical stand in for their cultural and ethnic history, may represent a much more significant sacrifice than it does to other study participants. It is already evident that some American Indians consider their DNA and the information encoded within to be a biological resource. For insular communities like many American Indian tribes, genetic information isn’t just their story but also, in part, the story of their tribe. In a 2002 paper, Sharp and Foster argue that, in the case of genetic studies, the results not only affect the consenting participant, but everyone in that community who likely share similar genetic predispositions [14]. They highlight the higher frequency of specific mutations in the now-infamous “breast cancer genes” BRCA1 and BRCA2 in Ashkenazi Jews [15] as having implications for insurance and broader societal impressions. If it is known that Ashkenazi Jews have significantly higher rates of breast cancer, can Ashkenazi women be asked to pay higher insurance premiums? What about the broader stigma associated if a study should find that many American Indians are predisposed to alcoholism [16]? Clearly, this particular issue is not unique to American Indians, but fear of what might be discovered in genetic histories is a common concern. For example, what if a study discovers that you are going to develop Huntington’s, a fatal condition with no known cure when you are 40? What if you had passed it to your children? For American Indians, the concern of stigmatization is accompanied by a secondary threat, something which researchers from outside the community might not think is very important or unethical. In the case of the Havasupai tribe, in addition to the use of blood for studies of genetic disorders, one of the big concerns was that genetic research into the tribe’s geographical origins may contradict their traditional stories of how their tribe came to be, or from whom they descended [5]. Research into the peopling of the Americas thousands of years ago can often be at odds with tribal stories and lineages, and current genetic research may reveal information about family histories which individuals or tribes may not wish to know. In a recent letter to Nature, Reich et al. perform extensive genetic studies on 52 American Indian tribes, revealing potentially sensitive information about migration patterns. Their data reveal significant admixing between three waves of migration from Asia through the Bering Strait (Beringia) [17]. These data and information like it may threaten the identities and cultural beliefs of American Indians. Herein lies another potential ethical conundrum for researchers. In this case, a few volunteers from a large number of tribes have agreed to something which in the end affects aspects of a much larger community of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Some experts suggest that de-identifying the tribes which are used in research studies may be a workable solution [18]. However, the identity of the tribes, their geographic locations, and previous genetic studies on a given group may be important to the study at hand, especially one of a genetic nature. Furthermore, even attempts to de-identify tribes may not be successful. Many American Indian tribes number under 1000 members, with the notable exclusions of the Navajo and Cherokee, and are confined to very specific geographical regions. These two facts alone may make it difficult to anonymize study data. This is a potential issue which researchers must be cognizant of when working with American Indian populations.

American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from elevated rates of many health conditions with genetic underpinnings such as obesity, diabetes, and liver disease. Simultaneously, there exists a long history of exploitation and abuse of native peoples, reflected in distrust and suspicion of genetic research by these populations. Several cultural and ethical barriers such as low perceived benefits of genetic studies, othering from the greater US population, and worries about genetic challenges to traditional stories and identities exist, separating researchers from valuable data, and native populations from the benefits of genetic research. In order to bridge this gap, proper communication, transparency, and a more sensitive cultural understanding on the part of the researchers are necessary such that genetic studies may ethically incorporate this and other vulnerable populations.



  1. Norris, T., P. Vines, and E. Hoeffel, The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs, 2012.
  2. Colby, S. and J. Ortman, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. Current Population Reports, 2015.
  3. Michie, M., et al., “If I could in a small way help”: motivations for and beliefs about sample donation for genetic research. J Empir Res Hum Res Ethics, 2011. 6(2): p. 57-70.
  4. Norton, I.M. and S.M. Manson, Research in American Indian and Alaska Native communities: navigating the cultural universe of values and process. J Consult Clin Psychol, 1996. 64(5): p. 856-60.
  5. Harmon, A., Indian Tribe Wins Fight to Limit Research of Its DNA, in The New York Times. 2010: New York.
  6. Salamon, M., Turning the Tide: A legacy of abuse has caused many American Indians to distrust genomic studies, leading scientists to forge a new, more collaborative path forward. Genome, 2017. 4(1): p. 30-34.
  7. Henderson, D.A., et al., Smallpox as a biological weapon: medical and public health management. Working Group on Civilian Biodefense. JAMA, 1999. 281(22): p. 2127-37.
  8. Cho, P., et al., Diabetes-related mortality among American Indians and Alaska Natives, 1990-2009. Am J Public Health, 2014. 104 Suppl 3: p. S496-503.
  9. Schell, L.M. and M.V. Gallo, Overweight and obesity among North American Indian infants, children, and youth. Am J Hum Biol, 2012. 24(3): p. 302-13.
  10. Suryaprasad, A., et al., Mortality caused by chronic liver disease among American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States, 1999-2009. Am J Public Health, 2014. 104 Suppl 3: p. S350-8.
  11. Archuleta, M., B. Child, and K. Lomawaima, Away from Home: The Indian Boarding School Experience, T.H. Museum, Editor. 2000: Phoenix, AZ.
  12. Brush, S. and D. Stabinsky, Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous Peoples and Intellectual Property Rights. 1996, Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
  13. Thomas, D.H., Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. 2000, New York: Basic Books.
  14. Sharp, R.R. and M.W. Foster, Community involvement in the ethical review of genetic research: lessons from American Indian and Alaska Native populations. Environ Health Perspect, 2002. 110 Suppl 2: p. 145-8.
  15. Struewing, J.P., et al., The risk of cancer associated with specific mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2 among Ashkenazi Jews. N Engl J Med, 1997. 336(20): p. 1401-8.
  16. Long, J.C., et al., Evidence for genetic linkage to alcohol dependence on chromosomes 4 and 11 from an autosome-wide scan in an American Indian population. Am J Med Genet, 1998. 81(3): p. 216-21.
  17. Reich, D., et al., Reconstructing Native American population history. Nature, 2012. 488(7411): p. 370-4.
  18. Bowekaty, M.B. and D.S. Davis, Cultural issues in genetic research with American Indian and Alaskan Native people. IRB, 2003. 25(4): p. 12-5.