Lemur Week is here, join our tour.

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Originally posted by the author at PLOS Sci-Ed.

No time for coats: Jupiter is outside

I only noticed the cold after my fingers had stopped responding.

I wasn’t able to press the camera shutter button any longer. In that 20 degrees F night, I was standing in the sidewalk with Science Online friends, and I had only a party dress on.

We had attended a few days of SciO14 lectures, when the conference attendees gathered for a party. One of the party guests, astrophysicist Katie Mack, bursts through the double doors and approached us with the biggest eyes I’ve ever seen. She had an ominous look in her face. It was urgent. Through background chatter and music, I overheard:

“Jupiter’s four Galilean moons are visible tonight. We got big binoculars and we are going outside.”

Everyone in an audible radius of Katie immediately followed. No questions asked. No time for coats.


A small crowd of Science Online partiers scrambled outside in the sidewalk. One of the attendees set up the giant binoculars on a tripod. The term “binoculars” does not give it justice: the instrument looked more like a small telescope on stilts. (It’s peculiar how Science Online attendees arrive prepared. In their suitcases I found vials of freshly-collected caterpillars, and supersized mascot costumes. Which gives me an idea for my next photographic project. But I digress).


People took turns shivering and looking through the binocular lenses. Every time someone re-joined the crowd, a “just-seen-a-ghost” expression took over their face. An expression I knew very well.


I had felt it growing up, every time I peered through my telescope lenses. My first time feeling part of the global community when I could, like them, see the same comet. Or, years later, about to witness a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, stood in a Florida sidewalk with NASA fans watching the International Space Station flyby.

You finally understand that something is truly, literally, out of this world.


Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io (my favorite) were all brightly visible surrounding Jupiter. I had never seen the moons before. The scene reached its poetic peak when Katie, trembling (cold, giddy, or both?), narrated the story of Galileo’s discovery.


I was not sure I would be able to describe that moment, which is why I had pulled out my camera earlier that night. I had to flash-freeze the “human behind the scientist” scenes I’ve been observing throughout the Science Online conference. Before, I was secretly shown a squirming caterpillar, heard a first-hand speech on lemur costumed gloves, and got pulled out of a party to watch Jupiter.

Those warm and fuzzy Science Online moments can easily make one forget any turmoil.

This community made me feel welcome.

Later I noticed someone had draped a fleece coat over my shoulders.


[originally posted by the author at PLOS Sci-Ed]

A medical drama in the classroom

Charlie Metcalf arrives at the emergency room suffering symptoms of cirrhosis. His prognosis quickly deteriorates and in less than one hour, Metcalf faces a procedure with very low chance of success. His best prospects, if surviving the procedure, would be to hope for a liver transplant. His doctor, however, warns: it is very unlikely for an alcoholic patient to receive a liver transplant.

The patient above is fictional, and is the focus of episode “Time of Death” of the medical drama ER. The story is emotional and powerful, and casts a strong impression on viewers. This is one of the reasons why Dr. Cynthia Wichelman, professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, shows this episode to the 1st year med students on her Emergency Medicine class.

ER episode "Time of Death" stars Ray Liotta as Charlie Metcalf. NBC Universal / USA Today.

ER episode “Time of Death” stars Ray Liotta as Charlie Metcalf. NBC Universal / USA Today.

Dr. Cynthia Wichelman has been teaching medicine for 17 years. Recently, she took on a new approach supported by multimedia components such as TV and online short films. I asked her on the phone what motivated her to pursue that approach: are students different now? “I do see a difference, I really do”, she says, “and it’s because back in the early 2000’s, students were not on the internet. Now, I would say that we compete for their time.” Unsurprisingly, taped lectures and powerpoint presentations won’t do it anymore. To capture the attention of a demographic with dwindling attention span, Dr. Wichelman uses storytelling, fiction and drama.

Engage and Capture Attention

TV shows such as ER, Grey’s Anatomy, or House are clearly-labeled fictional shows created to entertain. Still, they have the power to influence many. One study found that over 80% of med and nursing students watch (and are influenced by) medical dramas; other study inferred that most patients are educated about CPR via medical shows; while another believed ER helped the public become more informed about teen obesity.

The TV shows, although relevant, are far from being a precise depiction of medicine. The storylines carry inaccuracies (for example, most patients treated with CPR are young and suffered an acute trauma, as opposed to elderly patients with chronic cardiac conditions), exaggeration (in fiction, 75% of those patients survive, in contrast to 40% in the medical literature), and even absurdities (such as lungs in a box –oh wait, that one was real).

So, shows are inaccurate and both the public and early med students are buying it. Should we be concerned?

Not really, says anesthesiologist and former professor Dr. Silvana Russo (disclaimer: sister of the author). Older students, she tells, are able to pinpoint inaccuracies once they have completed a certain amount of clinical hours. Dr. Russo believes that the TV shows are invaluable tools to reach younger, inexperienced (and perhaps more easily distracted) medical students.

When she taught 1st year medical students, Dr. Russo showed movie clips where characters suffered heart attack (and later were revived by CPR). She then paused the film mid-action, while asking the class to evaluate: what’s wrong with this scene? “Find the error” was the hook used to get students engaged with the material.

Depict memorable scenarios

Back to the Emergency Medicine class, Dr. Wichelman’s aim went beyond capturing the student’s attention. She believes using a patient story (real or fictional) is a memorable way to start a lecture. In that particular ER episode, Ray Liotta’s character Charlie Metcalf explains how he resorted to “pruno”, or prison wine (a concoction that involves fruit peels, a sock, and toilet water). By watching Metcalf’s drama unfold, the young medical students learn about addict’s desperate behaviors, which is an important part of treating such patients.

The point of showing TV clips is to capitalize on the drama. For Professor Deana Midmer, “many commercial videos have highly dramatic and graphic content and are often very powerful in their depiction of the behaviors and thought processes of the movie’s characters.”

Also, Dr. Wichelman’s goal was to expose students to the pacing of an emergency room, difficult patients, emotional complications, and ethical scenarios. It helps set the stage for the clinical realities the med students are about to face.

Finally, it exposes the students to other life circumstances that they never (and perhaps never will) face. For Kevin Goodman, “[medical] dramas allow medical students to engage at an intellectual and emotional level with other people’s experiences of socially significant health issues such as poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, and chronic and critical illness, to name a few. They mine social attitudes regarding race, class, sex, gender and ethnicity, as rich sources of dramatic conflict, and in doing so broaden the definition of health and illness to include its many social determinants.”

Tony soprano sees a psychiatrist HBO

Tony soprano sees a psychiatrist. HBO / ABC news

Bringing clips to your med class

Start by choosing your clips. The literature is packed with examples. In one psychiatry class, instructors used clips from ER that portray patients symptomatic of histrionic, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders. They also used ER clips to illustrate how to breaking out bad news to patients (in this case the instructors used portrayals of a terminal geriatric patients, young patients with cancer, or HIV-positive young adult male). Prof. Timothy Hall (pdf), in his mental health law seminar, uses clips from TV shows such as The Sopranos (where mob boss Tony Soprano seeks psychiatry treatment for panic attacks) and a long list of films. Prof. Midmer has another list of films, as well as a few guidelines: make that clip short, and follow up with a group discussion. In the non-fiction realm, Dr. Wichelman also uses procedure videos and patient testimonials that she finds on Youtube or other sources (one example of a source is Medtube).

Above all, the use of film and TV clips in class creates a memorable, lasting impression on the future of doctors. “It is a classic teaching method in medicine”, Dr. Russo says, “the student doesn’t forget a case they see actually portrayed, as opposed to just reading about the case in a textbook.”


  • Matthew J. Czarny, Ruth R. Faden, Marie T. Nolan, Edwin Bodensiek, and Jeremy Sugarman. Medical and Nursing Students’ Television Viewing Habits: Potential Implications for Bioethics. Am J Bioeth. 2008 December; 8(12): 1–8. doi:  10.1080/15265160802559153
  • Diem SJ, Lantos JD, Tulsky JA. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television. Miracles and misinformation. N Engl J Med.1996;334:1578-1582.

  • Goodman, Kevin. Imagining doctors: medical students and the TV medical drama. Virtual Mentor – American Medical Association Journal of Ethics. March 2007, Volume 9, Number 3:182-187.

  • McNeilly DP, Wengel SP. The “ER” seminar: teaching psychotherapeutic techniques to medical students. Acad Psychiatry. 2001;25:193-200.

Simultaneously posted on PLOS Sci-Ed – January 13th 2014.

A bug story

I wrote a two-parter for PLOS Sci-Ed to tackle hatred of bugs. A bee is cute but a spider is a horrible monster. Why?

I started with Monstrous Verminous Bug, the part I listing 7 reasons why people fear bugs. I borrowed some thoughts and art from Kafka, District 9, and Cronenberg’s The Fly:

(originally published Oct 21st on Sci-Ed)

Kafka metamorphosis James Legros

Metamorphosis. Art by James Legros

I was in the shower (…) when, out of nowhere, a three inch water bug dropped from the bathroom ceiling and landed at my feet. I admit it: I screamed. Wouldn’t you? (…) And then there we were, the water bug and I, trapped and defenseless and covered in soapsuds (…) One of us was very calm. One of us… began to carefully groom her antennae.” Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia

Even before that day when Gregor Samsa woke up as a monstrous, verminous bug, people have disliked bugs.

The bug hatred can be deleterious for science and for the way the public perceives science. Studies have quantified how people (adults and children) are repulsed by arthropods and do not grasp the invertebrate’s impact in agriculture and our economy. (…) So let’s consider “bugs” arthropods and break down the hatred in a Buzzfeed-type list…

(Continue reading after the jump)

Today, I finished the series with a more positive outlook on bugs:

Vinegaroon at University of Florida. Photo by the author.

Vinegaroon at University of Florida. Photo by the author.

Perched on a cantaloupe slice, the palm-sized animal – with its glossy chitinous surface and half dozen legs – sat motionless. The black-green bug looked more like a statuesque chess piece and less like a creepy insect. It was probably the reason why Dan Babbit chose the Atlas Beetle as his companion and ice breaker. Babbit is the manager of Smithsonian’s Insect zoo, and that day he was addressing a new group of museum volunteers and he started with the blunt question: “Is anyone afraid of bugs?”

Never before had I’d seen a science discussion start with a disclaimer.

Dan was being careful before bringing the live specimen for the volunteer’s closer inspection. Who can blame him – in the US alone there are 19 million entomophobes. How can we teach entomology to such a crowd? Can we break the bug phobia stereotype?

(Continue reading after the jump)

When football and science converge

I never thought I’d ever write about football. Need to bite tongue. For PLOS Sci-Ed I wrote about the Washington Redskins and their star, Robert Griffin III. I focused, however, on all the knee anatomy lessons we got from NFL.

The Redskins might not be doing so well anymore, but my team (FSU Seminoles) is #1. I’m hooked and may not stop so soon.

Here’s the post (originally published Sep 23rd for PLOS Sci-Ed):

robert griffin III redskins knee injury

Here goes his ACL. What can we learn about injury and human anatomy by watching sports. Source: Simon Bruty/SI

The star that night was not a quarterback, but his knee.

It was Monday Night Football and season opener for the Washington NFL team when I joined friends to watch the game at a sports bar. Between bites of chicken wings I saw one particular scene that amazed me. I’m not talking about a touchdown, but of a 3D animation with a Toy Story-like human in a hospital gown undergoing knee surgery. And I was not the only one surprised:

twitter robert griffin iii surgery animation

The game biggest star, quarterback Robert Griffin III (RGIII for the fans), suffered an injury earlier this year. Fans anxiously awaited his return and kept busy speculating about the athlete’s medical treatment and recovery. So it was during the new season’s opener, on the player’s return to the field, that the surgery was explained in detail. With it, TV viewers also learned about the structure and anatomy of the knee. Apparently, NFL is in the business of teaching human anatomy lessons.

Most of what I write for this Sci-Ed column is about science outreach. How to bring science to the general public? I’ve covered museums and zoos, but I’ve also mentioned before that a lot of people (including children) don’t have access or don’t get exposed to these resources. I even talked about an initiative to place museum collections in shopping malls, but I haven’t mentioned teaching science in a sports arena.

The graph above shows how Americans spend their free time. They spend around 6% of their time playing sports, but 56% of their free time watching TV. Can we take advantage of that TV-watching time and populate it with science tidbits? Or even capture that “computer leisure” time segment (8.6%) and instill it with some sports articles filled with anatomy information?

I’m not necessarily a sports fan (unless Brazil is playing the World Cup of soccer), so I’m late the game. The media (and Internet) sports coverage has been doing a good job in teaching human anatomy. It seems every football fan has now learned the intricate anatomy of the knee, elbow and shoulder. Anatomy teacher (and Sci-Ed contributing guest) John Romano told me that “It is amazing how I have conversations about this stuff with non-science friends and they have a good knowledge of anatomy due to sports.”

With increased need to offer novelty (new commentators, experts, or visual aid) ESPN and online articles are turning to science. An article about another famous knee (Maurkice Pouncey’s, who tore his ACL and MCL) is illustrated with knee anatomy diagrams; other expert articles replace diagrams with the real deal; and ESPN recruits doctors to speak live. Dr. Greg Wells created instructional videos based on sports. I even saw a field reporter hold a plastic skeleton foot to demonstrate where the metatarsus is (and it’s relation to injury). In most cases, language is clear and straightforward. For example, consider this excerpt from author Dr. Dave Siebert: “Over the next months and years, a fascinating process called ligamentization takes place. During ligamentization, the body transforms the tendon into tissue more closely resembling the native ligament.”

Let’s get back to our initial star, Robert Griffin III’s knee. In this clip (very similar to the one I saw during the game), Dr. Rahul uses a plastic model knee to explain the quarterback’s injury, with great accessible language: “you have three straps holding your knee together, ok, there’s the lateral strap, there’s the inside strap which we call the MCL, and there’s one down in the middle called the ACL”. Robert Griffin’s knee injury, surgery, and recovery have been under so much scrutiny that every football fan has become an expert. (In fact, this article comments that “the road to recovery has been […] over-covered [e]very story, half-story and morning Starbucks order was covered.” Such is the irony of covering the over-coverage.) John Romano also observed this phenomenon in baseball fans, who “are becoming super involved in the shoulders of their favorite team’s pitchers.”

Is sports TV educating their viewers? Our resident medical expert Dr. Silvana Russo firmly believes “it is always fun to see science knowledge popularized.” ESPN is perhaps making human anatomy as popular as other well-known scientific theories (e.g., the big bang theory, or evolution).

I asked my husband (a football fanatic) to spell out ACL. “Arterial something ligament”, he said. It actually means “anterior cruciate ligament”, but a non-scientist is not expected to know that. The abbreviation works just fine. I’m a scientist with some formal knowledge of anatomy 101 (which I described here), but I did not know what a Lisfranc injury was, unlike my husband who did. It seems a football enthusiast knows the geography and function of a knee or a foot better than I do.

The use of celebrities (or like Atif Kukaswadia said, “science heroes”) won’t hurt. There was a competition for attention on Robert Griffin’s knee, and science education benefited from it. After that, I’m ready to name the Griffin (or his knee) the anatomy spokesperson of the year.

DC science writing tweet up with George Johnson

George Johnson surveys the landscape at the Bandolier National Monument

George Johnson surveys the landscape at the Bandolier National Monument

It’s hard to find a science book that makes me laugh and cry.

George Johnson’s Cancer Chronicles is one of those.

I first met George two years ago at his Science Writing workshop. Only a few months before I had left a lab where I was doing postdoctoral work to start a new career writing. I had no idea what I was doing. (I still don’t, except now I have a few venues to practice.)

Back then, George shared with me his newest manuscript format, still a bunch of chapters in a Google Docs folder. He had asked me to review the science bits and make sure all technicalities looked ok. I was not prepared for that task though: I didn’t expect to have to move through tears as I absorbed the personal story permeating the book.

George was the first to guide me and someone I can truly call a mentor. He will be visiting DC Friday Oct 11th and I’m thrilled to see him again and also hang out with some great DC scientists and science writers.

We’ll meet at Saint Arnold’s Mussels, Cleveland Park location at 6pm.

The restaurant/bar is on the sidewalk, on the corner between Connecticut Ave & Ordway St, across the street from the Cleveland Park metro station. (Please ignore your GPS instructions and go straight to this intersection: you will see the covered sidewalk right away.) Whoever gets there before 7pm gets the special price of $10 per (huge) bucket of mussels. Please RSVP via twitter (@russo_cristina) so I can update the headcount at the restaurant. Some of you already did 🙂

Bring your appetite. And your science stories.

Sharks, spiders, and games

In the past few weeks I’ve been busy making spiders fight sharks in a videogame. I wish. But here are my latest contributions to PLOS Sci-ed:

cristina megalodon

The author faces a Megalodon

Shark Week and Megalodon: In the good old days we could joke about the Loch Ness monster or the Sasquatch. Now we have to pick our channels carefully so we don’t get a “science” lesson about a mermaid or Bigfoot… Discovery Channel gave us a “marine biology” lesson and told us paleontologists are wrong: the Megalodon, a 50-foot long extinct prehistoric shark, is still alive and eating people. Read More.

Minecrafting the Classroom: Minecraft, a Lego-style, pixelated block-building game gives players unlimited freedom to create, and its being used in environmental science classes. Perhaps this is the closest way kids can live science: by experiencing environmental destruction, safely, inside a game scenario. Read more.


Nefertiti on her space habitat. Photo by NASA.

Spidernauts: Dan Babbit keeps a frozen spider on his fridge. The spider in question is celebrity arachnid Nefertiti, who went to space and back. Read more.

Anatomy lesson at PLOS

You can’t learn anatomy from a book.

For a while I’ve been wanting to write about anatomy lessons and the use of human cadavers. Throughout that same period, I’ve been struggling with this story. How to approach it?

Meanwhile, my sister and I visited the Mutter Museum and its medical oddities. The early drawings of human anatomy from the 18th and 19th century strike me more as art than science.

Like this:


An absurd rendition of a human skeleton next to a rhino, because why not. Via Drawing Seeing.

So I wrote the story about cadavers, and and based it on personal experience. I had extra encouragement by mentor George Johnson, and finally published it on Sci-Ed PLOS blog:

It was a typical muggy day on a tropical summer afternoon. I walk down the stairs, straight to the basement. The building’s architecture follows the Portuguese Colonial style. There is no air conditioning, despite the 90 degree heat. The strong smell of formaldehyde is the first thing to notice. It is everywhere, even in the hallway and stairs. I’m used to it by now and it doesn’t bother me, not nearly as much as the humid heat. The smell changes with the weather though, and becomes much more aggressive in that AC-deprived Brazilian basement. I walk the hallway until I get to the last door on the right. Waiting inside are a few classmates, and our subject of study, which lies atop aluminum tables covered with white sheets.

Continue reading after the jump…

What do you say when you meet a NASA astronaut?

I was a rare kid who never wished to become an astronaut. Instead, I dreamed about becoming the people who respond when astronauts say “Houston we have a problem”.

I had to tell that to astronaut Mike Fossum.

It was in the bar after a day full of NASAsocial activities that I summoned the courage. At moment I morphed in the embarrassing fan, a techie equivalent of crazed Justin Bieber teenagers. It was then that I poured my heart in adoration. I had to tell him. “I live vicariously through you”, I said.



With Mike Fossum and NASAsocial fans in front of a space station replica.Photo by NASAsocial.

I received an invitation from NASAsocial headquarters to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. My heart almost stopped with the chance to see mission control with my own eyes. Owen Software made it possible by sponsoring the trip, so I spent a day marveling at the Soyuz capsule, Saturn V rocket, and space station replicas. I even drove a Mars rover simulator. But I was not prepared to have such a heartfelt conversation with one of the icons of the space program: an astronaut.



Mike gave us a private tour of the space station. Photo by the author.

When I said “I live vicariously through you”, I meant “you” as in an astronaut collective. I wanted to tell Mike, as a proxy for the body of astronauts and cosmonauts, that I’ve followed their journeys from the ground.

Mike Fossum has three space flights and seven spacewalks under his belt. It was after a few engineering degrees, air force experience, and seven tryouts that he was accepted into the astronaut program in 1998.

I was honest. “I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut,” I paused in embarrassment, “I don’t have that personality.” At this point Mike looks at me more attentively (perhaps trying to appease the crazed fan expression?) I explained I always wished to be the observer and the supporter. “I wished to be the one who answers when you call Houston with a problem, which is why I became a scientist”.

I said my piece. I was relieved; it was out of my chest. I could go home now. Step out of the bar and into a plane back to DC. My job was done, and my 5-year old self rejoiced. But Mike kept the conversation going, he told me something I’ll never forget.



On our private tour, Mike listens to a question about his sleeping quarters at the station (a padded wall directly behind him). Photo by the author.

At a neuroscience lab that day in Houston, one of the researchers explained that astronauts have to re-adapt to gravity when they return to Earth. They even have balance and coordination issues, and therefore are not allowed to drive for a while. “They have to be chauffeured around for three weeks, which astronauts hate because they are very driven people”, the neuroscientist told us. My first instinct was incredulity: who wouldn’t love to be chauffeured around? I would, which is probably why I’m not an astronaut. Later that same day, astronaut Mike Fossum proudly told me he started sneaking out to drive only four days after he was back on Earth.



Mike Fossum. Photo by the author.

Mike asked me what kind of scientist I am. “Biophysicist”, I said, “I work with DNA, proteins, molecules.”

That’s when he tells me “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”. An astronaut told me HE COULD NOT DO WHAT I DO. The man floats in space in a glorified diving suit tethered to a rope between him and oblivion so he can build us a flying research lab. He proceeded to shake my hand, enveloping it with both his hands, and paused. His casual tone was briefly replaced by an ominous one. “You are an explorer too – of microscopic worlds – you are a scientist.”


Astronaut Mike Fossum and author at the end of a NASAsocial day. Photo by NASAsocial.

Can a museum object be more like a dog? New post at PLOS Sci-Ed

Dog owners out there may sympathize whit this: say you are outside walking your dog and are approached by friendly strangers who ask to pet him. Your dog just mediated a conversation with a stranger that would have not happen otherwise.

Like a dog, a museum object offers an excuse for strangers to have a conversation.


Giant drill at the Perot Museum of Science and Nature. Photo by Lara Solt at Dallas News.

This giant drill illustrates hydro frakking at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science’s energy hall.  If this seems controversial it’s because it is: is the museum celebrating such technique, or opening up for debate among visitors?

For more examples and ideas, read the entire post at PLOS Sci-Ed.