Reflecting on February

Who's watching who exactly? (Wikimedia Commons)

In case you missed it, here’s a quick run-down of each of the inaugural blog posts from The Sieve’s writers this past month.

– Why do veterinarians sometimes throw newborn puppies through the air? It makes sense when you know the answer.

– On a long road trip? Why not gawk at some hawks while you pass the time?

– “So there I was, dude. No shit there I was.” River guides know how to tell a good tall tale.

– They may be called blood thinners, but that little term doesn’t reflect what really goes on in your bloodstream.


Catching Puppies

This was it—go time. Standing poised but slightly crouched like a football player about to spring into action, our eyes were on the clock. My hands were beginning to sweat within the latex gloves I was wearing and I nervously adjusted my face mask to bide the time.

“Okay guys, here we go,” I heard the surgeon say as my fellow ‘team mates’ stood in line behind me at the ready, and we counted down the seconds in our heads as he did so aloud in front of us. Hey, this was my first time doing something like this after all—and I couldn’t help but be a little nervous, not to mention I had only just been hired. I would NOT mess this up.

Standing at the door of the surgical suite, I looked at the patient. She had been secured upside-down on her back, and was being remarkably well-behaved—luckily for all of us, as it’s not always the case. Her enlarged abdomen had been shaved and scrubbed with antiseptic, and the orange-yellow sheen of betadine was apparent thanks to the bright overhead lights. The look on her face was curious, and not panicked in the least. The perfect patient.

“5…4…3…2…1… BEGIN!”  The exact time was noted by another technician as the patient was sedated, intubated, and hooked up to an anesthesia machine—the surgical team had moved as if part of a well-choreographed dance, while the familiar beeping of the electrocardiogram machine began to echo eerily in the room like a metronome as it helped monitor her condition. Beep… beep… beep… 

The surgeon’s skill was evident as within just minutes, a newborn baby puppy was tossed gently through the air, and I caught the little blob of flesh in the warm towel I held in my outstretched arms. I dashed with the precious cargo to a station that we had prepared in advance, and started cleaning mine up— followed closely by the other catchers with their own puppies in tow.

We removed each one from their amniotic sac, used a suction bulb to remove fluid from their mouths and noses to clear their upper respiratory tracts, and rubbed each one clean as the mother would, which stimulated them to breathe and cry. Although it’s no glamorous task, hearing that puppy cry is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world. Then, once the puppy was clean, dry, and stable, we each tied off our puppy’s umbilical cord with suture material, cut off the rest of the placenta, and placed the baby in a pre-warmed incubator until mom was recovered enough to take care of them.


Radiograph image of canine fetuses in utero, courtesy of the Animal Hospital of Pasco ( Can you count how many puppies there are?

As you may have guessed, before I was a Science Writing student here at Hopkins, I had worked for a few years as a veterinary technician at an animal hospital back home. As a ‘vet tech,’ I was responsible for assisting the veterinarians in a similar manner to the way that nurses assist doctors in human hospitals. Since I always tell crazy animal stories to my classmates, we all thought my first post on this new blog should have something to do with animals, and perhaps one of the lesser-known procedures that are performed at an animal hospital. If you haven’t guessed by now, this is a canine or feline cesarean section.

Now many of you may scoff, thinking a c-section on animals? Well it’s actually more common than you might think. There are a number of reasons as to why it might have to be performed, such as the animal is way past her due date with no sign of parturition (birth), she is somehow too weak to give birth naturally, she is straining too much or having some kind of trouble (dystocia), the baby is stuck or improperly positioned near the birth canal (breeched), and so forth. In addition, some breeds almost always have to have cesarean sections performed because they have been bred to a point where their heads/hips are too oddly-shaped for natural birth to be possible. This is often the case with dogs that are extremely small, as well as pugs and other brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs. It is almost impossible for bulldogs to be born naturally for this reason, and practically every pregnant female of this breed will have to have this procedure done.

I hope to never see a human doctor toss a newborn human baby to a nurse so she can catch it in a towel, but there actually is some science behind it when done with dogs and cats. After reading my first-person account, you may be slightly horrified and wonder why on earth a veterinarian would toss sweet little newborn puppies or kittens at his assistants rather than just handing them over. I spoke with Dr. Michael Petranto, a veterinarian with a special interest in animal reproduction and who is also the medical director at Twin Rivers Animal Hospital in East Windsor, New Jersey to shed some light on the subject.

He explained that the purpose of the toss/catch procedure, which is done during all veterinary c-sections, is mainly for speed. Plus, the entire surgery itself is carefully timed. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is to resuscitate the pups or kittens as quickly as possible, get them warm and stable, and then get them nursing once mom is strong enough after surgery.” This is important because they must drink the mother’s “first milk” or colostrum, a substance rich in nutrients, proteins, and vital antibodies, which is only produced within 8 hours after birth.

The entire process can be done even faster when other technicians form an assembly-line, as opposed to the same person catching a baby, resuscitating it, and running back for another—that would take too long and some babies take longer than others to stabilize. This way the surgeon can just take each puppy or kitten and quickly toss one after another to a waiting technician who can give all their attention to the one they have.

If the mother is calm enough and behaves well, she will be prepped for surgery while she is awake. Usually for most other procedures, an animal’s surgical site is shaved and cleaned with antiseptic while they are under anesthesia in order to make it easier for the technicians, and to cause less stress for the animal. With c-sections, there is a concern for both the mother and her unborn litter, who can all be affected by the anesthetic drugs if they’re in the mother’s system for too long. The same holds true with people. Speed is the key.

The surgeon also has to remain sterile throughout the procedure. If the catchers get too close, they could run the risk of contaminating the doctor, as well as the surgical table and equipment if they were to accidentally touch anything. This could lead to the mother developing a dangerous infection. The doctor gently tosses the newborns one by one, which is only the distance of a few feet at most, in order to avoid this.

Dr. Petranto explained that in all his years of practice, he couldn’t remember a technician ever dropping a puppy or kitten during one of these procedures—they really have it down to an art. But, he said that even if one was dropped, natural birth would have been more traumatic. “Think about a Great Dane,” he said. “When a female is whelping [giving birth], those puppies are going to fall about the same distance if she happens to be standing. Plus the mothers pick them up, lick them, move them around and so forth. They get shaken up quite a bit and are pretty resilient.”

Interestingly, he also mentioned that many people ask if there is a different bond that forms between a mother and her litter after a cesarean section versus a natural birth, and the answer is that there may just be. As a matter of fact, there is a pheromone that the mother is stimulated to produce during natural birth that she does not during a c-section. Referred to as Appeasing Pheromone, it was only recently discovered within the last few years, and helps to calm the babies and reassure them. It also helps them become more confident and by so doing, encourages them to start exploring their surroundings as they get older. However, more research is needed at this point to determine if the lack of this pheromone in female animals who have had cesarean sections significantly affects their offspring in a negative way.

From what I have seen with my own eyes though, the mothers and their litters tend to turn out just fine.

Bird on a wire — no, a pole, a tree, a sign…

In December my sweetheart and I embarked on a road-trip to visit family. Our route made a triangle whose sides add up to about 1,800 miles — from Baltimore to Traverse City, to Indianapolis, and back to Baltimore. The trip was pretty uneventful…except for the birds.

This winter has been remarkably mild in the Midwest, and Beth (the sweetheart I mentioned) and I saw little snow or rain on our trip, which meant no white-knuckled driving or low visibility. So we just plugged in the iPod, put it on shuffle, looked out the windows and caught up on all the conversations we’ve been too busy to have or too preoccupied to think about. Great conditions for spotting something strange in the landscape.

My parents live on a small lake near Traverse City. If you hold out your left hand, with your palm facing away, you’re looking at a basic map of Michigan’s lower peninsula (they call it “The Mitten” for a reason). Traverse City is in that little nook between your pinky and ring fingers. At my parents’ place, depending on the season, we see hummingbirds, seagulls, a crazy-huge woodpecker once in a while, a bunch of bird-feeder types, and an endless parade of ducks and ducklings. This winter brought a shocker though.

Beth and I had spent a couple days at my parents’ place and were about to drive down to my brother’s place near Indianapolis. But as I was making my final “pitstop” before getting in the car, Beth came and found me, saying there was an owl outside. We went up to the second floor, where my parents were looking out their bedroom window. Down below, standing in the snow on the edge of Lake Leelanau, was a snowy owl.

Weeks later, National Public Radio would run a story about how snowy owls were being sighted all over the place. All I knew was that I’d never seen an owl in the wild. The National Zoo in D.C. has some charming specimens (one locked eyes with me and tracked me as I moved around the room — my black plastic frames look remarkably similar to the owl’s coloring…) and I met a few owls face to face at the Maryland State Fair a couple years ago, but this was different. This was a wild bird, a huge bird with white feathers and yellow eyes. It was difficult to comprehend, or even to see. From the upstairs window, we were only about 70 feet away at most, but there was so much white from the snow and the feathers that it was hard to process just where the bird ended and the snow began.

Exciting, but the drive to Indy would take seven hours. We had to get going. Beth and I hit the road southbound. As we neared the Indiana border, I probably shouted “bird of prey!” Beth was driving at the time and I’m not sure where she finds patience for my behavior. I guess she’s come to expect the outbursts.

The bird I’d spotted became a speck in the rear view mirror, so we went back to chatting about whatever. A few minutes later, we saw another perched on a branch about halfway up a tree right by the highway. Less than five minutes after that, Beth spotted a bird of prey on the guardrail in the median. It was getting weird, I took out my camera and attached the zoom lens. I had a hard time getting a good photo through road-trip filthy windows and moving at highway speed, but the birds kept on coming.

For the next few hours, we saw these same birds every five to 30 minutes. On I-94, the birds perched on street lamps near Michigan City and Gary. On I-65, we saw them perched atop billboards. At least twice, we saw two together on a tree. They were brown, with white breast-feathers. My fascination with birds is a relatively new thing, so I’ve yet to make time to learn about them. Beyond cardinals, blue jays, cowbirds or doves, I can usually only recognize whether it’s bird of prey versus a songbird. This one we’d have to just look up later using the photos, and we had plenty of photo ops.

But why along the highway and why so many? Most, not all, were perched on the highway side of the tree rather than away from the highway where they would have a view of the farm fields. Why? I lived in Indiana for nine years, and Michigan for at least half as long, but I’d never seen predatory birds line the highways like that. By the time we arrived near Indy, I’d forgotten about the snowy owl in Traverse City.

The next morning, after some time with my brother and his family, Beth and I set out for the East Coast. I drove and Beth manned the camera. She’s the better photographer, so she got the best photo:

We saw the birds through Indiana and Ohio, and a few in West Virginia, but by Pennsylvania and Maryland, they dropped off to nil, which was disappointing because Beth and I were then left reflecting on how tired we were of being in a car. Still, I was hung up on the question: what was up with these birds?

Days later, I got in touch with Cheryl Dykstra, editor of the Journal of Raptor Research, and described the birds and where they were perched. Dykstra didn’t seem shocked at the number of sightings or the birds’ location. Most of the birds were “almost certainly” red-tailed hawks, Dykstra said. Maybe a few rough-legged hawks and red-shouldered hawks in the mix, she said. Apparently, hawks are all about hyphens. But what were they doing near the road?

“They perch facing the highway because foraging is probably better in the short mown grass along the highway than elsewhere — likely they can see the small mammals running through the short grass more easily,” Dykstra said. “So the edges of highways may be quite attractive to them.”

That’s it. Nothing abnormal about the hawks perched where they were. But Beth and I will still go on hawk-alert next time we’re on the road. Now that we know they’re out there, it’ll be impossible not to look for them. If we’re not willing to pull over and take a decent photo, then why bother? I don’t know. Nature is my brain candy, and spotting a hawk anywhere or anytime tastes pretty sweet. If Beth enjoys the flavor as well and we’re stuck in a car together, all the better.

My Wunderkammer

The American River Ganges

Image via Wikipedia

Every summer in my hometown of Coloma, Calif., hundreds of river  guides arrive to work on the American River, hauling dusty gear and stories from all over the world. There are stories of crocodile attacks on the White Nile in Uganda; near-fatal swims in Chile’s Futalafu; grizzly bears and glacier-fed rapids in Alaska. These tales are such a important part of river guiding culture that they have their own genre — the No Shit Story. “So there I was, dude,” the stories begin.  “No shit — there I was.”

My family runs a rafting company, so one of my favorite No Shit stories naturally comes from my father. As a young man, he fell out of his raft while guiding on the Merced River. He was swept into a hole: a hydraulic drop in a river which recirculates water upstream, washing machine-style. It was what we call a “keeper hole,” the kind that drowns people. As he spun round and round, he realized that the flotation of his life jacket was trapping him in the cycle. In a last-ditch effort to escape, he took off his life jacket, dived to the bottom of the river, and resurfaced 150 yards downstream.

That story is true. But it is also a time-honored tradition among river guides to exaggerate, brag, lie, and talk nonsense when telling stories — especially when talking to rafting customers. “How deep is the river?,” a curious guest might ask. “At least 1000 feet,” or, “chest high on a duck,” his guide will slyly answer.  Based on the lies of river guides,  I grew up half-believing that the white quartz veins in the river canyon’s granite boulders were actually fossilized pterodactyl poop. It took me years to stop making a fool of myself with wide-eyed questions — “Really?” — and start making up stories too.

You might be thinking that this is not a promising start for a science journalist. But I am writing a journalism master’s thesis — all true — about rivers in California. How did that happen?

Lately — probably because I’m taking a course in the history of science — I’ve been thinking a lot about 16th and 17th-century European Wunderkammer, or “wonder-rooms.” These cabinets of curiosities contained both natural and man-made objects: stuffed polar bears and armadillos; assorted corals; various instruments, religious carvings, and works of art. Next to a carefully labeled collection of tropical beetles, you could see a mythical “basilisk” stitched together from bat wings and a lizard. Next to a shrunken human head, you might see a narwhal horn, mislabeled as a unicorn’s. As the collections became more organized, their curators started weeding out fake things from real things, and trying to figure out the relationships between various specimens. Some argue that this was an important step in the development of modern scientific thinking.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the American River, embroidered with facts and stories, was my Wunderkammer.  Now, as I research the river’s real aquatic organisms, I pay homage to the mythical Prout: a hybrid of piranhas and native trout that can devour flesh down to the bone in seconds, and may also be a distant cousin of the North American freshwater river shark.

What was your cabinet of curiosities?

Blood Thinners Don’t Make Your Blood Thinner

When I was a teenager, I was tentatively diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome. The short explanation: My connective tissue is stretchier than normal, making me tall and somewhat gangly. It also has the potential to cause heart problems. But I’m a marginal case. So years of having a modest income and poor health insurance led me to avoid what should have been annual visits to a cardiologist to make sure my heart and aorta were running smoothly.

When I enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University science writing program I got my first decent health insurance in years. So I jumped on the opportunity to get re-evaluated at the age of 31, a good 15 years after the original diagnosis. Our knowledge of Marfan, as with most things, has grown in the last decade, and more than anything else I wanted to know if I actually needed to worry about my ticker so much that I needed yearly heart sonograms. So I went to the hospital and met with a cardiologist there.

To my relief, it turns out I don’t need yearly sonograms after all. But this story isn’t about that.

As we discussed my history, the cardiologist asked me what I was going to school for. I told him about the science writing program, and doing the tricky work of trying to simplify science for a general audience while not sacrificing our accuracy. His eyes widened, he tilted his head, and he leaned back in his chair a little. Something had just leaped into the doctor’s mind. I realized I was about to hear his opinion on what I do.

These platelets don't care how thin your blood is

He told me he wasn’t fond of the simplified term “blood thinners.” It’s often used to describe drugs that chemically control the microscopic bits and pieces — proteins, other molecules, and cell fragments called platelets — in our bloodstreams responsible for clotting. The doctor told me patients regularly assumed that blood thinners made their blood less gooey and more watery. He called it one of the more frustrating simplifications out there. “We have people around here on blood thinners who think they’ve got thin blood!” he said.

His statement got me thinking. My first impulse was to try to come up with ways the term could be defensible. Maybe if the drug reduced the number of clot-causing proteins, you could say the content of those proteins has become thinner? But I really felt like I was grasping.

The man had a point. Blood thinners just plain don’t make your blood thinner. It’s a convenient metaphor, attaching an every-day idea to a more complex biochemical concept, but it isn’t clear that it is a metaphor, which makes it easy to confuse the chemical changes going on in your bloodstream with a change in the blood’s consistency.

This is an old misconception, too, rooted in a very traditional way of thinking on blood thinness and thickness. If you’re interested in reading about what scientists know happens in blood compared to what the general public often thinks, check out this charming study on folk hematology, in which physicians and patients are interviewed on their familiarity with concepts like “thick blood” and “high blood.” This quote sums up the author’s take on “blood thinners”:

These drugs [“blood thinners”] are given to patients to prevent abnormal blood clotting. These drugs do not, as folk theory has it, “thin” the blood to a less viscous and more “watery” consistency. To avoid a befuddling biomedical explanation and accommodate a patient’s need for explanation, some physicians have opted for the term “blood thinner”, a term perhaps originally borrowed from their patients.

I had a sense of the issues with simplification before I joined the program — it is, after all, one of science writing’s central issues. I’m now seeing first hand how this kind of hazard pops up all the time, and we may not even be aware of it. Simplifications can be wonderful and elegant, or they can completely mislead. A metaphor can be brilliantly effective, but it must be clear that it’s a metaphor.

In the case of blood thinners, it’s probably naive to think the term will disappear from our language any time soon. Just type “blood thinner” into Google News, and hundreds of articles from the past month will pop up. The term is deeply embedded in our primal conceptualization of blood and drugs. Though I wonder what term would even make a good alternative. Clot stoppers?

The Christening Of A New Science Writing Blog

A wealth of stories is buried in the expansive world of science journals, laboratories and field work. Some of these stories are transformative and send ripples through the media and public perception. Others are part of the slow, grueling, invisible process that makes science itself the credible entity on which so much of civilization is based. All of these stories — and the characters in them — have a part to play in the even wider tale of modern life.

This blog is about science and the telling of it through stories big and small. Its authors are graduate students in the Master’s in Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. We’re a plucky bunch, drawn into this hybrid of art and data from wildly different directions, each with a eclectic set of interests. We hope you enjoy reading our stories, musings, explanations and explorations as much as we enjoy sharing them!