Wiping sweaty palms onto my jeans and taking a big breath to quiet the thunderous heart in my chest, I opened the door to meet him. It was an arranged marriage of sorts, like all relationships between Ph.D. advisors and graduate students. I even came with a dowry – a fellowship that would cover my stipend. Unbeknownst to either of us, it was perhaps the world’s worst pairing. In one corner, a highly conservative, right-leaning Christian with born-again tendencies. In the other corner, a liberal, left-leaning Jewish-born atheist – daughter of a Planned Parenthood board member.
So, there I am the very first graduate student in an empty lab. I don’t think either of us knew what to make of this new relationship at first. My new home was a hallway converted into a laboratory. It was like a galley kitchen with equipment spread out and not nearly enough counter space. Blinding fluorescent lights decorated the ceiling, and there was a faint smell of bleach. But, it was my new home, and I was going to learn to love it. This was the perfect beginning to an underdog story, and I always root for the underdog.
I bought a laptop, lab notebook, a few pens and sharpies, and pack of post-its. I put up an overly-pixelated print out of a Beastie Boys album cover to make it feel like home. I was settling in. I had already spent over two years in a lab doing research, so I knew my way around a pipette. Things were going well.
Tucked up at the bottom of my emotional backpack is a bizarre juxtaposition of the intense need for and complete immunity to male approval. My fingers writhe on the keyboard as I type those words, but it’s the reality of having your father abandon the family when you’re an eleven-year-old girl. If not him, then who? I was entering into my first meaningful hierarchical relationship with a man, and the pressure was palpable.
Then I made a very, very poor decision. I brought in a beloved set of magnets that I hid along the back-facing side of the incubator in our cell culture room. I had a feeling that the neural stem cells bathing in a hot pink bath of nutrients wouldn’t mind the culturally insensitive magnets on the other side of their wall, and the magnets were out of sight for any university staff that might have been offended. Since failure is a constant in scientific research, I would need that visual comedic relief.
Within the first week of this arranged half-decade marriage, I didn’t just cross the line; I rocketed through it. My new Ph.D. advisor, a highly conservative, religious man I was about to find out, did not care for the dress-up Jesus magnets adorning the brand new incubator. Even the fluffy pink slippers magnet couldn’t sway his wrath. There was a heated email exchange that resulted in my removing the magnets (the obvious right thing to do in retrospect). The sweaty palms returned, and my head felt like a puffed-up blowfish wondering if I was going to have to find a new lab.
To our credit, we managed to navigate a solid 4.5 years together, weaving through our perilous differences. I introduced him to my favorite pizza place in town, and we shared many lab lunches together, talking science and life over greasy pizza slices and Cokes. He tried out different facial hairstyles, and I mocked him relentlessly over miserable goatees or mustaches. I cut and dyed my hair every non-natural color in the rainbow, and he would tell me that I was unique…just like everyone else.
He reluctantly but willingly allowed me to explore a few “hobbies” along the way, like pursuing a Master’s in Science and Health Communication during the Ph.D. program and enrolling in gross anatomy because, well, cadavers. We found islands of agreement and cultural overlap. Despite my hatred of running, I woke up early in Ames, Iowa before a conference to do calisthenics and running drills on the university track with him. Relationships are about compromise after all. As long as we followed a wise adage about avoiding topics like sex, religion, and politics, we were just fine.
Then one day, four and a half years later, it was time to graduate and move on. I sought post-doc opportunities in labs that would make both of us proud. I moved 2000 miles away, and the long-distance relationship took its toll. No more pizza dates, no more jokes and jabs, only occasional photos to update each other on facial hairstyles or pink mohawks. We were just two people living a half-county apart, posting quips about all things meaningful and mundane on social media.
One day, after a hilarious failed attempt at distance running reminded me of him, I went to post on his Facebook page. Much to my surprise, instead of finding the button to post on his page, I was faced with the button to add him as a friend. Well, that’s strange, I thought. We’ve been Facebook friends for years. This must be a glitch. I refreshed the page. Add Eric as a friend. Closed the tab. Reopened Facebook. Add Eric as a friend. Shut down the whole damn browser. Add Eric as a friend. Restarted computer. Add Eric as a friend.
Unbelievable, he unfriended me! The ultimate middle finger of digital relationships.
So, I did what any irrational person who wants answers would do. I wrote Eric a private message. It turned out that my political and cultural leanings were a source of great sadness for him. In his final message of the exchange, he apologized for his lack of tact and suggested that we could still be friends if we came up with a modus vivendi. I never wrote back.
There are three predominant camps when it comes to vaccination. Parents who believe that their children are best served by (1) the science of vaccination, (2) the so-called “natural immunity” of enduring the process of infection and subsequent immunity, or (3) an alternative option to vaccination that does not rely on chemicals, microorganisms, preservatives, adjuvants or growth mediums. Let me be clear in saying that I only support one of those options – vaccination. After spending a Saturday afternoon at a homeoprophylaxis workshop, I can say that I find the third camp, the alternative option, to be the most disturbing.
A parent who chooses not to vaccinate because (s)he believes that the process of infection and immunity are superior to vaccination seems to hold at least a base level of understanding of the immune system. Don’t get me wrong, I find it wildly disturbing that a parent would choose the consequences of a disease over the consequences of vaccination, but a parent in this camp is making a clear choice. This parent understands that his/her child is not protected.
A parent who chooses an alternative option like homeoprophylaxis (HP) is making the admirable decision to protect his/her child against disease. It just happens to be under the veil of some seriously woo-woo “science.” This is scarier because these parents are exploring the world with their kids under the false sense of security that these children are actually protected against diseases.
So, what is homeoprophylaxis?
To be clear homeoprophylaxis is not a substitute for vaccines like aspartame is for sugar, nor is it called “homeopathic vaccines.” Homeoprophylaxis uses homeopathic remedies called nosodes (prepared from disease germs) to educate the immune system towards the disease process. They are not intended to force antibody production, nor are they polluted with every other ingredient vaccines have. Nosodes are pure disease energy aimed to stimulate appropriate immunological response to natural disease so that the immune system knows how to get sick and how to get better. (Kate Birch, author of The Solution)
The bottom line is that you take a disease product from a sick person (scraping a measles pustule, collecting sputum (phlegm, snot)) and dilute it with distilled water or alcohol and then shake vigorously (succussion) to activate the “vital energy” of the diluted substance. One of the most common potency scales (based on dilution) is the centesimal or “C-scale.” This scale is based on a factor of 100 at each dilution. In opposition to how most other things work, homeopathic solutions are considered to increase potency with higher dilutions (the more dilute, the stronger it is). So, if you pick up a homeopathic bottle in the store and see something like “30C,” that is a dilution factor of 10^60 or a 1 with sixty zeros after it. It is estimated that 12C is the greatest dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance if starting from 1 mole of original substance.
How does it actually work? Homeopathy is based on an assumption with an unknown methodology. In other words, working models have changed over time. A current model proposes that radio frequency signals translate information from homeopathic preparation to the cells in our body. There are also discussions about whether nanoparticles of the original material are actually present in those high dilutions. Of course, that would be highly disturbing considering the starting material for HP is diseased material from a sick person. Yuck.
There was a handout with the history of HP including the few highlighted studies presented in most arguments for the efficacy of HP. These studies are based on trials in Brazil, Cuba & Japan. I am not going to dissect each study, but this is a great blog post that breaks down all the problems with the Cuba study. It is also worth pointing out that the author of this handout, Fran Sheffield, has been banned from selling vaccine alternative products for five years and her business was fined $138,000 for misleading consumers about the untrue claim that conventional whooping cough vaccines were ineffective, and that HP vaccines were a safe alternative.
Personally, the concept of disease energies and remedies that get stronger with dilution raises flags for me. Think about squeezing out a few drops of blue food coloring into a glass of water. Now line up a series of glasses of water. Take a few drops from the first glass and transfer them into the second. Repeat until you get to your last glass. Can you honestly look at the last glass and say that it looks more blue? Now this is somewhat unfair since the basis of homeopathy is not about molecules remaining in the final dilution, it’s about the energy situation. So, take a sip of the final glass. Does it taste more energetically blue than the first glass?
Let’s say you’re still interested in HP. What will this option cost? A payment of $395.50 covers the nosodes, shipping & a 44-month consultation with the practitioner for a family of four people. A $100 per person for disease protection does not seem so bad. Then again, the main childhood vaccines are covered under most insurance plans, the affordable healthcare act and Medicaid. So, HP is not necessarily any cheaper than vaccinations. In fact, since insurance does not cover HP, it’s likely going to be more expensive. People opposed to vaccination love to hate “Big Pharma” for profiting on vaccinations, but trust me when I tell you that someone’s wallet is definitely getting bigger when you purchase your HP program. It’s also worth mentioning that the costs associated with producing vaccines far outweigh those of dilution and succussion.
Amazingly, I quietly sat in the back row and endured insults to my beloved vaccination as well as some choice quotes like, “developing antibodies is not the same as disease resistance” and “contracting the disease is not the same as getting a vaccine.” Neither of these statements are outright false, they were just delivered under the assumption that swallowing a series of sugar pills with “disease energy” provides a stronger boost to the immune system than vaccination.
The presenter also highlighted that HP does not need to be as precise (as vaccinations) because it is designed to educate the body about disease rather than producing antibodies. The problem is that our best model for how immunity to disease works is based on the principle of building antibodies. The presenter summarized the success of HP by stating that “children in a long-term study on HP tend to be pretty healthy, they tend to stay well in general, and we have had zero reported adverse effects…like 105 fevers, swelling brains, things you see in adverse vaccine reaction.” No offense, HP, but those qualifiers do not inspire confidence. I want those disease energies to do better than “pretty healthy” and “well in general.”
The 44-month standard program includes nosodes for Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Pneumonia, Polio, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), Meningitis, Tetanus, Mumps and Measles. There are additional remedies available for Diphtheria, Hepatitis A & B, Varicella, Influenza and Tetanus wounds. Upon inquiry as to why Varicella (Chicken Pox) was not included in the standard program, the presenter said, “as with most alternative medicine professionals, we believe the benefits of chicken pox outweigh the risks.” Ok, let’s be honest, many of us (my age and older) made it through chicken pox with a sick week at home and a few scars. We are very lucky. Chicken Pox can be very serious, and I am extremely happy that my child had the option of a vaccination. I am also heavily biased from my years of scientific training and love of logic.
I believe a selling point of HP is that the language is casual and colloquial. It feels approachable with careful seasoning of medical terminology to add legitimacy. Most of the presentation consisted of a friendly conversation guided by a series of handouts, passing around bottles of nosodes, talking about vaccine injury stories and ample time for Q&A. The presenter even provided self-deprecating humor when she cautiously read aloud the names of the nosodes, which happen to be derived from Latin (Pertussin, Lathyrus sativus). The only deep dive into science was a five-minute spiel on how HP favors a balance between T helper 1 (Th1) and T helper 2 (Th2) cells whereas vaccines promote only Th2 cells. This imbalance leads to “constipated” cells and HP can help the vaccinated body “finish the job” by helping to clear the diseased tissue out of the cells. However, not a single citation was provided to support this claim, and I have yet to find unum.
So, for ~$400 you get a kit of sugar pills with “disease energy” that are not designed to create antibodies. We’re still not sure how they work, and there aren’t many (if any) peer-reviewed, tiered scientific journals reporting any efficacy beyond the placebo effect. If people choose to spend money on homeopathic remedies for sleep, beauty or pain, so be it. It’s nearly a $3 billion dollar industry. However, the idea that HP is a genuine alternative to vaccination is disturbing and it affects other people.
The immune system is one of the most fascinating systems in the human body. Its role in our general function both in healthy and diseased states continue to grow (e.g., cancer). It is complex, sophisticated and beautiful. Perhaps practitioners of homeoprophylaxis would agree. However, vaccinations are not scary and they provide a fantastic opportunity to do something great for yourself, your children & your community. I discussed that in a recent talk. While the idea of disease energies in water or alcohol seems easier to swallow than a syringe containing a cocktail of microorganisms, adjuvants, and other critical ingredients, simple is not always better. In fact, it may not be anything at all.
Admittedly, not the exact view we had after passing through four layers of security checkpoints to attend the Science Fair.
If you ever want to experience the feeling of being completely humbled and optimistic about the future, the White House Science Fair is the place to be. I was truly honored to have the privilege of walking around, talking to the students about their projects and breathing in all of the excitement and enthusiasm swirling around in the air. Of course, it didn’t hurt having the energy of science heroes like Bill Nye and Leland Melvin in the crowd. Here is a quick highlight video of the event.
Sneaking in a few pictures with heroes.
As part of the event, the President released the statement of commitments from institutions of all kinds, including his pledge of $240M for STEM education. Our invitation to the event was tied to our sponsorship of a program with the United Negro College Fund, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to engage students in maker activities. The program will include the first-ever Making for Change Showcase, which will highlight innovative solutions to community-based challenges.
At the heart of every project is the desire to solve a problem or improve upon a current solution. For students like Kenneth Shinozuka and Harry Paul, the challenge at hand was close to home with inventions solving issues these students faced in their own lives or the lives of family and friends. For others, the projects ranged from rockets and robotics to clean water, saving the bees, encouraging exercise and mitigating hiccups. Read more about each of the participants or watch the video (55min) of President Obama speaking with all of the amazing students.
SuperGirls! Junior FIRST Lego League Team from Daisy Girl Scouts’ troop 411 and their battery-powered page turner that could turn pages for people who are paralyzed or have arthritis.
Emily Bergenroth, Alicia Cutter, Karissa Cheng, Addy Oneal, and Emery Dodson, 6 (Tulsa, OK)
While there was certainly some mention of intellectual property and patents, I was elated to see an open source project from Mohammed Sayed and Kaitlin Reed (both 16 years-old) who used a 3D printer to transform Mohammed’s wheelchair into a cutting-edge piece of technology. I was able to catch Kaitlin for a few minutes and she was quick to highlight the fact that making the project open source allows for it to be accessible and affordable. Big high-five to these students and we look forward to visiting the NuVu program the next time we’re in the area!
Lilianna Zyszkowski exhibits her PillMinder prototypes
The familiar sight of open source hardware led me to Lilianna Zyszkowski, 14, of Norfolk, CT. Lily and I spoke for quite awhile about her various projects and how she used SparkFun hardware in her prototypes. Lili’s main project, the PillMinder, was created with a grandparent in mind. It uses capacitive touch sensors, LED lights and a networked microcontroller to remind people to take their medications on schedule. The device also alerts caregivers via Twitter and SMS whether the proper pills have been taken on time. As a Next Step Inventor with the Connecticut Invention Convention, Lili is also working with a Silicon Valley firm to bring the PillMinder technology to market.*
President Obama addresses the guests and exhibitors at the White House Science Fair
It was an honor to be in the ballroom for President Obama’s address. He was genuinely enthusiastic, charming and even tossed out a jab at Congress to support his budget for research funding. President Obama highlighted these students’ contributions to science and engineering while also emphasizing the importance of ensuring that there are laboratories and jobs for these students to pursue in the future. Admittedly, while I am biased in this regard, I dream of a day when science is a fully-supported bipartisan issue!
I even showed up on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Twitter feed!
The city of Longmont has opened its data collected around things like schools, crime maps and bike routes. I’ve had an idea for awhile now that I’d like to turn a Madsen cargo bicycle into a mobile version of a little free library. Like an ice cream truck, I would ride the bike through neighborhoods exciting children to borrow interesting books from the mini-library. Longmont is not a particularly large town, but I would put some thought into where I would ride the bike.
Goldieblox should be a total win for someone like me. I am a 32 year-old female with a doctorate in a scientific field. I grew up with a single mother who mercilessly coached me on growing up to be an independent and successful woman. I’ve been in plenty of those situations where you don’t see a lot of other females, like being the only little girl on a Little League tee ball team.