Friday, June 10, 2011

Science Science Science Yay!

Today's first science camp presentation was epidemiology.

Michael Kneeland gave a lively overview of the various types of studies that inform epidemiological research, from randomized controlled trials on through case studies, and stressed the need to read and think carefully, which I'm sure we can all applaud.

Then Joel Ticknor talked about some studies in his area, environmental health, making the point that in this field you're not going to get randomized controlled trials on specific chemical exposures in humans or whatever, so you have to look at narrow slices of the whole like how something is metabolized, genetic mechanisms, etc. However, we can (and sometimes must) act based on evidence that is less than the gold standard RCT--as he pointed out, we don't do randomized trials on parachutes vs. no parachutes to protect against falling damage, either.

We heard a lot about Bisphenol A a few years ago (a compound in hard plastic bottles that is thought to possibly leach into water, with unknown effect), and while the official jury is still out on how dangerous it is, the outcry prompted industry to remove it from a lot of products. This shows that we don't always have to wait for some sort of verdict; companies don't want to lose business, so if there's enough concern, they may just act.

On the other hand, this chemical was replaced with one that we don't know any more about than we initially knew about BPA, so we have no way of knowing if it's actually any safer. A major takeaway from this presentation was that a lot of chemicals have basically not been studied, so as far as anyone knows they're safe, in the sense that they haven't caused any obvious problems to date, but we don't actually know much of anything about them so it's impossible to say if they're actually harmless, or if one is better or worse than another.

Just part of life in the exciting modern world!

My latest theory: when the robots rise up against us, they won't bother to crush us, they'll just poison us with chemicals. As you can imagine, my positive outlook and cheerful attitude is a boon to any gathering. Invite me to your party!

After lunch, Nathan Wilson and Holly Miller talked to us about exciting scientist/librarian projects at the Marine Biological Laboratory/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The Encyclopedia of Life, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and NetiNeti (a program that picks scientific names out of text) are all cool projects that librarians have worked on, to the benefit of scientists as scientific data is organized and made accessible.

Again, I could say so much more about these presentations, which I have no justice whatsoever, but I am weary. Just be filled with pure, sweet happiness at the thought that I got to enjoy them, and let your glee at my good fortune also be salted with your own bitter tears of remorse at not being there yourself.

Sweet happiness plus bitter tears makes a great seasoning for Friday night.


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