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Social media, health and drug marketing

13 May

I recently wrote about social media and prescription drug marketing for Nature Biotechnology. The policy issues balance precariously on a number of fulcrum points: free speech, public health and safety, and the sense of online community that can grow out of social media interactions. How do you regulate how companies can talk about prescription drugs in these settings? Space is often limited, so companies can’t include the fine print that discusses the risks and benefits of particular products. At the same time, if a company can’t participate, it also isn’t in a position to correct misinformation that might be circulating among consumers. The FDA held hearings in November to discuss the issues and will be advising pharmaceutical companies about how they can interact with the public in the world of Web 2.0.

If you’re interested in following this topic, check out the following links

Both Science and Family– but not all at once

30 Oct


My latest story for Science Careers is up– about women who took extended family breaks from their careers and came back to the laboratory. I was impressed with these women’s creativity in crafting career and family life in ways that worked for them.

What surprised me a little when I was doing the interviews for this article was that no one had really planned her break. Circumstances came up– new parenthood, illness, trailing spouse issues– and they figured out that staying home was best for them and their families. When circumstances changed, and they felt ready, they made moves back toward the workforce.

After I thought about it, the apparent lack of planning makes sense– how do you really know in advance how long you’d want to stay home with your children? Or if you’re dealing with a health issue, how do you plan a timeline for treatment? In many ways, you simply can’t.

But at the same time, if you have an idea that you might want to return at some future date, wouldn’t it be nice to have guidelines, to know that you have options? I hope the article shows women and men that they have choices, even though the road might not be easy.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Freeland, she mentioned a resource from the Institute of Physics— a best-practice guide for career breaks, and even some ideas for planning them. In a way, some of that information is common sense: stay in touch with mentors and employers and remain plugged into the science community by reading the literature and even attending conferences.

I think stories are more important than guidelines. If you know that others share the same struggles, made similar decisions, and have had successful careers, you know that all your hard work is not in vain. Universally, these women at some point in their journeys wondered if they were completely alone. Over time, they slowly met others who had made similar choices and had similar career aspirations. I’m grateful that they took the time to share their experiences and struggles with me and with the broader scientific community.

The overall message I hope scientists get from the story– yes, you have options when it comes to career and family. And most of all– however you decide to manage family balance– you’re not alone in the journey.

Molecule of the Week: Carbon dioxide (part 1 of many)

28 Jun
Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

Carbon dioxide (via Wikipedia by JacekFH) carbon atom in the middle flanked by two oxygen atoms

This small molecule is too big for a single post, so I’ll probably revisit it at different points in this blog. It’s the most oxidized form of carbon, often thought of as waste product: both of fossil fuel burning and of the energy reactions that fuel life. But it’s also an essential component of photosynthesis to generate food and natural fuel sources.

But today I’m thinking about one of the many environmental impacts of rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide: the acidification of the oceans.

Changing the acidity of the oceans alters a delicate balance. Science suggests that this growing acidity may be dissolving carbonate in corals and releasing metal ions that would normally be wrapped up in carbonate minerals. (See this article in Chemical & Engineering News about the disrupted chemical balance).

The ocean has always been a giant sink for carbon dioxide, water absorbs it forming carbonic acid. Cooler water absorbs more carbon dioxide, but higher concentrations in the atmosphere are the primary force in pushing more of the gas to dissolve into the water, turning the ocean more seltzer-like (in terms of pH, not fizz).

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

coral reef in Red Sea, copyright iStockphoto/wierdeau

The effects, however, are not always what one might expect. In looking at fish earbones, called otoliths, researchers reported in Science that higher carbon dioxide levels actually made these structures larger rather than smaller. (Cornelia Dean of the New York Times wrote about it on Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog).

Otoliths are the tree rings of fish life-cycles. What does this mean for the fish? Not necessarily good– changes in ear bones could mangle their navigations skills.

Of course all of this science sits around the edge of the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) by the House of Representatives this week. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk more about carbon dioxide. . . . stay tuned.

The global cancer challenge

22 Jun


The policy side of my reporting head has also turned to health issues over the last year or so, particularly global health. From a Western perspective, it’s easy to take for granted the scope of care and treatments that are available. But the developing world is light-years away from even hoping to have access to so many of the (not even cutting edge) medical innovations that we often take for granted.

My growing interest in global health policy and a talk by Franco Cavalli at a symposium on translational cancer research at Hunter College in January, led me to take on the issue of global cancer control planning in my article that was just published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (subscription required). Here are some of the stats that impressed me as I was working on the article:

  1. More than half of the expected 27 million cancer cases in 2030 are likely to occur in low and middle income countries.
  2. At least 80% of the world’s population lives in areas not covered by cancer control registries, that keep track of basic data about cancer, who gets it, what types and the outcomes. It’s incredibly difficult to figure out any sort of policy solution when policymakers don’t have a real handle on the problem.
  3. Most countries in Subsaharan Africa have no radiotherapy machines available to treat cancer.

Providing better cancer care in these countries is first and foremost about developing a plan, and then figuring out how to bring in the resources to support their needs. Without a clear plan, any resources provided don’t get used in the most effective way.

I learned a lot about Tanzania’s cancer control planning. Although an extremely poor country with a number of problems to solve, it’s humbling to realize that even with their challenges– not enough facilities to meet demand and a shortage of trained medical professionals– the situation there is probably better than in most neighboring countries. As another example, India seems to have more overall resources, but planning is regionalized and care is more available in urban areas than in rural ones.

It’s these moments that make me stop and realize how fortunate I am– I was born to educated, middle-class parents in a country with a functioning (albeit sometimes dysfunctional) health care system. The tricky challenge in the developing world is finding the solutions that fit the needs of individual countries– physically and culturally– and bringing in the right combination of government, NGOs and others to put those solutions into practice.

A related note: over the last few weeks, Denise Grady of the New York Times has published articles about women’s reproductive health in Tanzania (here and here) with detailed first-hand reporting.