Indiana University student’s suicide due to hydrogen sulfide (H2S)

Down on the left sidebar you’ll see a little gizmo for SiteMeter, a service that measures one’s blog traffic and gives all sorts of tidbits about how readers got to the blog and a very general idea of where they are coming from. Most bloggers pay attention to the numbers of visitors but I have always been more interested in how readers get here and what posts they are reading.
Willoughby IU H2S suicide.jpgOne value of SiteMeter is to keep tabs on search terms that bring people here to learn of breaking stories. So, when I saw a bunch of hits starting yesterday with search terms like “hydrogen sulfide,” I feared the worst: that another young person had committed suicide by mixing household chemicals to release the toxic and potentially fatal gas and search engines were driving traffic to one of my earlier hydrogen sulfide posts.
Indeed, this story is more heartbreaking than usual (not that any suicide isn’t) because it was a highly-promising young man who was an academic standout in the sciences and a musician:

Gregory Willoughby was an academic standout at Warren Central before he began his study at IU. This community as well as the Bloomington campus is shocked to hear of his death as police continue to search for answers.
A junior at Indiana University, Gregory Willoughby was an accomplished academic and musician. A biochemistry major with minors in mathematics and psychology, Willoughby was a chemistry tutor who played the cello. [According to the IU student newspaper, Willoughby was co-principal chair in the All-Campus Orchestra in spring 2008.]
In 2007 he was named a Wells Scholar, one of the most competitive and prestigious awards offered at an American university.

The young man was found in his closet with a bucket of liquid, a sign on the door reading, “Warning H2S,” a common feature of recent cases of suicide by this method. As in this other case we wrote about, the victims seem to care more about the safety and welfare of others than that of themselves.
The account from the Indiana Daily Student leads me to believe that Mr. Willoughby lacked a support network. The medical examiner estimates that young man was dead for seven to ten days. Caitlin Johnston writes that few people in the Willkie dormitory actually know one another and it is described as “a closed off community for independent people.” So even if Willoughby had been experiencing suicidal thoughts that might have been evident in his behavior or language, it doesn’t seem that anyone would have known.
However, he is reported to have been a research assistant in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Beyond no one there recognizing any warning signs, I’m surprised that his absence was not noted by anyone in the laboratory. Or by any of his professors in class.
But then again, suicidal signs are not always evident. Early in my career, a top student in my pharmacology class committed suicide with sedatives over a weekend. She had sat in the front row, right in front of the lectern, and her best friend said she had been to the opera with her the very night she overdosed without any indication that she was distraught.
I have yet to find any comments in any news stories to date that come from any friends or family. [Since writing this, a great many friends, family, lab co-workers, and fellow students have come forward to comment below and in subsequent coverage by the Indiana Daily Student. According to commenters below, reporters (with the exception of Caitlin Johnston at the student paper) were less than sensitive in seeking background information.]
This case makes me very, very sad.
Addendum April 15th: You will see in the comments below the outpouring of love for Gregory from people who knew him. One noted specifically that they chose not to respond to interview requests. I am grateful to those of you who have taken the time to express your sentiments and share your stories. You have my personal condolences on the tragic loss of this fine young man who you know and love.

Irving Epstein on why we need to cultivate nonwhite students in the sciences

In today’s Los Angeles Times Dr. Irving Epstein, Brandeis University chemistry prof and HHMI investigator, writes in “The science of science education”:

In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.

Let me repeat: By 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the [U.S] population.
There are many science educators around the world who are trying to cultivate into the STEMM disciplines young people who are not of the default demographic.
However, wanting to do so and actually doing it is far more challenging than one might think. Even a scientist as accomplished and educator as experienced as Epstein was challenged. Brandeis already had a program for select minority students, “that utilized team-building and peer support as mechanisms to help students survive and thrive academically”:

The program, run by The Posse Foundation, works with universities to select and coach “posses” of 10 inner-city students who then attend, in a group, some of the country’s top universities. The program is remarkably successful, producing a graduation rate over 90%. But even the Posse Foundation fell short in the sciences. Fewer than 10% of its students graduated in science, even though nearly half started off intending to do so.

Continue reading

Chris Mooney with a New Year’s resolution for practicing scientists: engage more with the public and the media

Steve Silberman and Rebecca Skloot just pointed out to me an editorial from science writer Chris Mooney that has appeared online and will be in the Sunday, January 3rd edition of The Washington Post.
In the essay, “On issues like global warming and evolution, scientists need to speak up,” Mooney continues his longstanding call to scientists to take ownership in combating scientific misinformation, invoking the very weak response of the scientific community to the aftermath of e-mails and documents hacked from the Climatic Research Institute at the University of East Anglia.

The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes, RealClimate.org, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. “I haven’t had all that many other scientists helping in that effort,” Mann told me recently.

Could we have done anything differently?
I agree to some extent but, in this particular case, I don’t think that any concerted effort by scientific communicators could have overcome the bleating by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck that took one or two statements out of context from among 1,073 e-mails and a million words, claiming proof of a massive global scientific conspiracy to manufacture climate change warnings.
The problem is that when one’s statements are not bound by facts, you can pretty much say whatever you want; that will be the first thing uncritical sycophants hear and remember.
It took several weeks for the AP to release its own investigative findings of the stolen documents to show that while there were petty and heated disagreements about specific data, nothing was faked. But by that time, science had lost a lot of ground to climate skeptics as detailed in an article Mooney cites:

Scientists themselves also come in for more negative assessments in the poll, with four in 10 Americans now saying that they place little or no trust in what scientists have to say about the environment. That’s up significantly in recent years. About 58 percent of Republicans now put little or no faith in scientists on the subject, double the number saying so in April 2007. Over this time frame, distrust among independents bumped up from 24 to 40 percent, while Democrats changed only marginally. Among seniors, the number of skeptics more than doubled, to 51 percent.

When a large segment of the public puts their faith in right wing miscreants that somehow have huge audiences, I have trouble seeing how scientists can respond no matter how many facts they have in their pockets or how effectively they communicate. I don’t mean to sound defeatist but I think that responding to so-called Climategate was incredibly difficult no matter how well-prepared the scientific community could have been. This single crystallizing event was far more understandable to people than decades of climate research, starting primarily with the fact that the average person seems to associate the daily weather with climatological trends. Add to this mix a media empire with people who manufacture apparent facts by repeating untruths (i.e., Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11) and feeding the American love for a good conspiracy theory.
I’m just not sure how good Climategate is as an example of a failure by scientists to communicate with the public.
“Many refuse to try; others go to the opposite extreme of advocating vociferous and confrontational atheism.”
After discussing his expert area of devastating hurricanes, Mooney then raises some excellent points about countering the denial of evolution by acknowledging that for many, evolution is an issue not of science but of faith.

“Many Christians, including fundamentalists, can accept evolution as long as it is not attached to the view that life has no purpose,” Karl Giberson, a Christian physicist and the author of “Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution,” told me recently. “Human life has value, and any scientific theory that even appears to deny this central religious affirmation will alienate people of faith and create opportunity for those who would rally believers against evolution.”

This quarter of the essay will likely be the part that will create froth and lather in the blogosphere so I will mostly leave it for other commentators. Most of my day-to-day colleagues are moderately to strongly religious and many use their faith as motivators for their careers in the biomedical sciences. Many religious people in my community are huge fans of science. I contend that some degree of spirituality can co-exist with science. We’re not going to talk people out of their faith; there is far more common ground here for us in science with a large swath of the US population who are religious and open to and often embrace scientific discourse.

Continue reading

Improving K-12 math & science education with better teacher education

Shuttle icon FlaScience.jpgBrandon Haught is Director of Florida Citizens for Science Communications and has been a tireless advocate for science education across this large and educationally diverse state. His blog, an activity of the larger Florida Citizens for Science organization, carries this mission:

This blog is used to keep track of the good, bad and ugly science news in our state and beyond. We tend to focus on educational issues. When a science class makes the news for doing something interesting or positive, I try to make sure a post goes up here about it. When a Florida scientist gets out into the community to promote education, I try to highlight it. Yes, we will certainly post all about the antics of those trying to promote an anti-science viewpoint, but we are just as much about praising the good things that happen in our state.

As I’ve said before, the only way to get scientists to value getting out of the lab and into the community is for us to value those who do.

Continue reading

Extreme brewing

the flip.jpgI just learned of this great post from Southern Fried Science via a tweet from Southern Fried Scientist that was retweeted from Rick MacPherson (Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets). I mention this because my RSS reader is so full of unread posts that Twitter is serving me far better these days by quickly pointing me in the direction of blog posts and articles that would most likely interest me.
The blog is written by Andrew and David – both Southern, both fried, and both smelling of a combination of smoked pork and spiced Low Country shrimp. The blog is characterized as, “The new look of badass marine science on the web” by Deep Sea News and by Rick MacPherson as, “If Sylvia Earle and Andrew Dice Clay produced a love child, it would be Southern Fried Scientist.”
Today, or last night actually, SFS posted on “How to brew beer in a coffee maker, using only materials commonly found on a modestly sized oceanographic research vessel.” (modestly sized oceanographic research vessel optional).

We’re six days into a 2 month expedition, and if we were lucky enough to not be on a dry ship, it’s de facto dry by now anyway. You’re eying the ethanol stores, the crew is eying each other, and all hell will break loose if we don’t get some sweet water soon. This is no time for artistry.
This is not, as a rule, a terribly good beer (though, with a good brewmaster on board, it can be). This is a beer to pass the time. I can guarantee that if you are careful, it will be at least as good as the cheapest commercial alternative.

It’s a very clever post and demonstrates how creative a scientist can be when deprived of ethanol.
When they’re back on land, I’m driving out to the coast and buying them a beer. Safe travels, mate!

Yes, we’re doing DonorsChoose, too!

I am completely crushed, hammered, and otherwise incapacitated at work right now – apologies to readers who are looking for some natural products and pharmacology wisdom. It is in my brain but just not making it into pixels right now.
In the meantime, I did want to let readers know that we are participating for our 3rd year in the DonorsChoose.org Blogger Challenge here at ScienceBlogs. More later on the program and my interests, past experiences, etc.
In the meantime, you can check out some of the projects about which I am passionate at:
Terra Sigillata’s “More Abel To Do Science” Blogger Challenge

Looking for a good biotechnology video targeting HS students

Any of you working in academic programs that offer forensic sciences training are well aware that CSI has been a boon this multidisciplinary area of biology, chemistry, engineering and materials sciences.
However, we don’t yet have any television programs glorifying a career in pharmacology or biotechnology.
I’ve just spent a few hours on YouTube, BSCS, Bio-Rad, and a bunch of other science education sites but I can’t find what I am looking for.
What I need: A 10-12 minute video for high school students that demonstrates career opportunities in biotechnology and/or the biologicals side of drug development. Free links are great but I’m very happy to pay a price for something that is good. Please leave suggestions in the comments below.
By the way, while looking at the BSCS site I came across a fantastic five-minute preview for their video, “Drug Abuse, Addiction, and the Adolescent Brain.” This program (details here) was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the DVD and 120-page instruction manual are available later this month for only the price of shipping and handling.
(For those who do not know of the 50-year-old, non-profit Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) organization in Colorado Springs, CO, I have sung their praises previously and encourage that anyone interested in science education visit their site at http://www.bscs.org.)

Check out Chad Orzel’s talk on “Weblogs and Science Outreach”

Despite having to employ biophysical methods in my day job, I must admit my woeful understanding of physics as a discipline. I wasn’t like my high school grease monkey friends using torque wrenches on their cars with Springsteenonian dedication and my lowest grade in undergrad came in physics. For that reason, I rarely have the opportunity to link to fellow ScienceBlogger, Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles. Prof Orzel was one of the earliest science bloggers, coming online in June, 2002.
Chad posted about being on the programme of a meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, entitled, “Science in the 21st Century: Science, Society, and Information Technology.” The description of his talk is here but what I really encourage you to do is look at his slideshow at SlideShare. I would’ve liked to have seen the talk to put the slides in context but they are effective enough on their own to give me a couple of good take-home messages:
I put this post under the Humanities & Social Science channel rather than the Physical Science channel because the talk has much more to do with communications and social interactions relative to physics per se:

Continue reading

Bora runs out of internet; starts new carnival – CORRECTION: Martin (The Lay Scientist) is the actual founder

CORRECTION: The following was to be a part-sincere/part-serious sendup of my buddy Bora’s penchant for monitoring the entire Internet. Bora did indeed host the first edition of Praxis, the new blog carnival of academic life.
However.
The Praxis experimental carnival of “the experience of living the scientific” was established, founded, and otherwise continues to be led by Martin, author of The Lay Scientist blog.

Martin.gifMini Bio:
Well I’m Martin, I live in Cambridge, England, and this is me on the Amazon in 2007. I did a frankly weird Ph.D. looking at the relationship between models from ecology, immunology and socioeconomics, and currently I’m a soon-to-be-unemployed post-doc working on ecological and biological modeling.

Bora did indeed suggest the idea in his comment to his own post on blog carnivals. But it was Martin who on that very same day conceived and compiled the listing, call for a name, called for hosts and posts, and all else associated with establishing a new blog carnival: guidelines, schedule, etc.
And you’ve got to love a gent who leads off Sunday morning with a post entitled, “What Does Human Flesh Taste Like?” that refers to science itself and not that crackergate fiasco.


PraxisI’ve gotta say that I sometimes feel sorry for my bud, Bora Zivkovic. It seems as though Teh Internetz aren’t big enough to exhaust his attention so he feels that he must start a new blog carnival. He mused about it a couple of weeks ago, and now here it is:
Bora is hosting the first edition of Praxis, whose mission statement is as follows:

The carnival is intended to cover all aspects of life as an academic, whether it’s the lifestyle, career progress, doing a Ph.D., getting funding, climbing the slippery pole, academic life as a minority, working with colleagues and students, dealing with the peer-review process, publishing, grants, science 2.0, amusing anecdotes, conference experiences, philosophical musings, public engagement, or even historical articles about what life was like in the good (or bad) old days.

Praxis is derived from the term by Aristotle as the activity or process of practicing or enacting knowledge.
I used to write a lot more about academic mentoring and such but have really dropped off as of late. Still, the Amazing Zivkovic was generous enough to find and grab two of our recent posts to put in Praxis, one on the NEJM article on medical curriculum revision and the other a brief blurb on the latest act of terrorism against researchers who employ animal subjects.

Continue reading

Scientists running for political office

Effective science communication and science advocacy in the public arena has been much discussed in the science blogosphere. But is ranting on science and medical blogs the most effective way to promote science, especially in the United States?
I’ve had some discussions with other scientists, including blog colleague PhysioProf, who submit that the best way for scientists to advocate for science policy is to become politicians themselves. To this end, I read with great interest this morning of an AP story written last night by Seth Borenstein, “A Crash Course in True Political Science”:

Continue reading