Thinking about thinking Ft Mountain 2017 I

Years ago I became slightly obsessed with a 2009 MIT Open Course on teaching (here). At the time it felt (and still feels) like a vein of precious metal in a confusing and dark mine with many tunnels.  One of the nuggets that came out of that I remembered as the phrase “there is data showing that people will learn more if you use a slightly hard to read font on your slides”.  This is called disfluency (as in, not- or less- fluent)  I have no idea if I looked for that data back then – I hope I did, but at the time I was a bit enthralled with the professor’s ideas and its possible I didn’t look it up.  I have always wondered about that data.  Given that many published educational psychology studies aren’t models of the scientific method, its possible my nugget is a bit of fool’s gold.

There is currently on my computer desktop a folder labeled “Thinking about thinking Fort Mt 2017” which I vaguely remember making before a Memorial Day camping trip this year.  It has about 6 papers in it, all containing the author Daniel M Oppenheimer (Princeton University Dept of Psychology), and one of which appears to support my nugget.  Obviously I had some free time and did some literature searching and turned these up and, naturally, wanted to be reading PDFs of them by the campfire after my kids went to bed.  That was not a sarcastic sentence, btw.

In an effort to encode the findings from these papers in my memory better, I want to briefly review them, starting with the disfluency paper.

Disfluency is the previously described phenomenon that people remember information slightly better when learning if it is slightly hard to understand.  As in, using a crazy font  or even omitting letters in words so learners have to supply them (l_ke th_s).  This appears to contradict other researcher’s observations that lowering cognitive load is the way to go (i.e. – make it easier for the learners) (I blathered on about that in this post).  I am not sure there is a contradiction here, because everything I have seen about cognitive load deals with complex diagrams and how to make them more digestible, not just the ability to remember strings of text.  Anyhoo.

Oppenheimer’s group does two experiments, the first involving 28 paid Princeton undergraduates that I am not interested in (small N’s bedevil the educational psychology lit imho) and the second involved 228 high school students.  The protocol was straightforward – teachers from a public school in Chesterfield Ohio who taught at least two sections of the same course were enrolled and sent all supplementary material (power points & handouts) to the researchers who simply made a copy of everything in different harder to read fonts (haettenschweiler, comic sans italicized or monotype corsiva – WordPress doesn’t give me those options, so I guess you won’t remember any of this).  The teachers taught those courses (AP English, Honors English, Honors Physics, Regular Physics, Honors US History, and Honors Chemistry) as they normally would, but using the normal material for one section and the harder to read material for the other.  Teachers each gave their normal assessments.

The results are given in Z scores, which I had to refresh myself on (Wikipedia, I love you).  Basically a Z score of 0 indicates no difference from the mean; a Z score of 1 indicates 1 standard deviation above the mean, -1 indicates 1 standard deviation below the mean.

To cut to the chase, the “disfluent” students on average scored above the mean and the “normal” students scored below.  How above and below looks to me to be on the order of 10%, but I honestly need to stare at it longer to be sure of that.  It looks fairly significant to me.

If it were an option, I would have a snappy wrap-up sentence in a crazy font.  But it’s not.

Reference –  Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer and Vaughan Fortune favors the Bold and italicized: Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes  Cognition 118 (2011) 111–115

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Project 1R21DE026700-01 funded by the National Institutes of Health is titled “MOLECULAR AND ANTIBODY DETECTION OF ZIKA VIRUS IN SALIVA AT THE POINT OF CARE”.  It will cost about $241,000 over 2 years. Trump has spent Apparently WE have already spent 40 times that amount on Trump’s trips to Florida.  In 2 months.

But its the NIH budget he wants to slash.

Look for yourself where NIH grant money goes here.

Contact your Senators and Representatives and show your concern about what Trump’s moronic budget cuts might do to scientific research in the United States

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Why Trump doesn’t have to worry about smallpox virus

225px-Alexander_LangmuirMeet Alexander Langmuir.  He was the Director of the Epidemiology Branch of the CDC.  And then there was no smallpox infections on the planet.  Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of Health & Human Services.  History.

Contact your Senators and Representatives and show your concern about what Trump’s moronic budget cuts might do to scientific research in the United States


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More not-in-the-Constitution garbage from NIH


Who needs to know where their genes are?

In under 2 minutes, I found where the OCA2 gene is on my chromosomes at NIH’s Gene database.  Exact. Position.  This is the gene that, because I have two mutated copies, makes my eyes blue.  Chromosome 15, nucleotide blah blah blah.  Included in this trash heap of information are the exact sequence of the gene, data on which cells in the body express that gene.  Links to diseases that are supposedly linked to this gene.  They are probably trying to scare people with “facts” that, I would like to point out, are not in the constitution.

This over-the-top NIH database is funded with our tax dollars through the Department of Health & Human Services.  It even contains a link that will tell me where this gene is in the chromosomes of a mouse, a chicken, something called a Danio rerio and a god damn Bactrian Camel, whatever that is.

Contact your Senators and Representatives and show your concern about what Trump’s moronic budget cuts might do to scientific research in the United States.


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Look at how the National Institutes of Health wastes your tax dollars.


CT scan from Open-i of a Japanese man with Streptococcal pneumonia, which can’t possibly happen in the United States.  What a waste!

The National Institutes of Health wastes our money by designing and maintaining Open-i,  a highly searchable database of over 3.7 million images from the medical literature for use by scientists and educators and uh, anyone.  The NIH gets its funding from the Department of Health & Human Services.

This is on top of PubMed, which organizes all of the medical literature and makes it searchable.

Contact your Senators and Representatives and show your concern about what Trump’s moronic budget cuts might do to scientific research in the United States.

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Curing HCV – Private companies stand on the shoulders of taxpayer funded research

An estimated 2.7-3.9 million Amuricans are infected with the Hepatitis C Virus [a fact based on testing by the Centers for Disease Control (which receives its funding from the Department of Health & Human Services)].  60-70 % of these people will go on to develop up chronic liver disease (1), many of whom will require blood transfusions to stay alive.  People born between 1945 and 1965 account for 75% of these infections (2).

Gilead Pharmaceuticals, a publicly-traded company, developed Harvoni, which is as close to a cure for Hepatitis C Virus as you can get.  So we should ditch government-funded research and let the private sector come up with new drugs, right?


Long before it came up with its cure, there was a lot of government-funded research that got the field to the point where it was profitable for Gilead to even think of developing a cure.  To pick just three points in time where grant money from the Department of Health & Human Services was required (there are hundreds, maybe thousands more):

(1975) Scientists at the National Institutes of Health had to discover that there were humans hepatitis cases caused by an unknown virus. (here)  [National Institutes of Health is a part of the Dept of Health & Human Services]   At the time Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B viruses were known but HCV was not. HCV itself was actually discovered in ~1979 by Michael Houghton while at Chiron, corporation yes, but he didn’t do it in a vacum.

(1993) The laboratories of Charles Rice at  Washington University in St Louis and Stephen Feinstone at the Food and Drug Administration had to discover how many different genes and proteins the virus has (here) [funded by a grant from the US Public Health Service, which is part of the Dept. of Health & Human Services and presumably FDA (an agency within Dept of Health & Human Services) paid Feinstone’s salary]

(2000) The laboratory of Charles Rice had to discover the role of the NS5a and NS5b proteins in HCV infection (here) – these are the targets of Gilead’s Harvoni [2 grants from US Public Health Service]

Look for yourself – the grants that paid for the research are always listed in scientific publications.

So we have a cure for a virus infecting millions of baby boomers because the federal government funded work that produced discoveries that finally made it profitable for private industry to look for a cure.

Find your US Representative here.

Find your US Senator here.


(1) –

(2) –

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New to me: Annulate Lamellae

When you teach cell biology over and over again you end up looking at a lot of textbook figures showing the inside of the cell, and that has a stupidizing effect.  Everything is so present and accounted for; the endoplasmic reticulum blooms out of the nuclear membrane, the Golgi body between the ER and the plasma membrane, mitochondria, ribosomes and vesicles swim around in the cytoplasm.  Each textbook figure, while slightly different to avoid  the copyright of the last cytoplasmic artist, is just like the last and the next.  Rarely do you learn anything new by looking at these pictures. Enter the annulate lamellae.

I stumbled upoon it in papers describing the neoblast cells of Planarian worms (here) while reading up on why my students would have THREE Planaria in a dish resulting from cutting ONE worm in half three weeks ago.  Some of these cells are described as having no ER (what??) and sometimes the ER that is seen is

“apparently detaching from the nuclear to move out into the cytoplasm”

I’m sorry, what?

I realize how little I actually know about the dynamics of the ER.  Every picture of every cell I have ever seen just had one, but those were pretty much all cartoons, which apparently are not real life.  But this is just the observation of one author from 1969 – back before they invented restriction enzymes, so what the hell could they possibly know?

Annulate lamellae are described in the same breath as the ER that is divorcing the nuclear membrane and I can’t tell if they are a subset of the ER or a completely different thing.   Are these a thing that people still study?  I have come across cool tidbits like this before that end up being the one time mentions, never to be described again, so I search Pubmed for “annulate lamellae” and whoa:

169 papers come up, second to the last one being a 2015 PLOS One paper claiming that AL have nuclear pore complexes in them, despite being little islands in the cytoplasm (I’m sorry, repeat that again?).  A Google search gives a decent “about 22,300” hits showing that they have been found in human oocytes, sperm, tumor cells, yeast cells.  However it does not have an entry in Wikipedia and thus does not officially exist.

All of this only shows how small my brain is, my capacity to forget what I “learned” as an undergrad, or my lazy habit of relying on textbooks, or all three.  It certainly leaves me grateful to Johns Hopkins for access to full text PDFs of articles from ye oldde tymes.  Can’t wait to hit my human-disease-centric grad students with a paper about a flatworm cells this summer 🙂


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