Thursday, September 14, 2017

Awkward To Awesome: Dr. Ty Tashiro on Communicating the Science of Being Awkward

Ty Tashiro knows awkward. As he charmingly admits in his second book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, he was no stranger to deviating from the norm. But he soon realized that the same characteristics that make awkward people stick out like a sore thumb also make them stand out in the most amazing ways. Ty’s awkward ways earned him a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Minnesota, and then he became an award-winning professor at the University of Maryland and University of Colorado.

Ty Tashiro (photo by Brandi Nicole)

Ty is also passionate about science communication, eager to tell the world about fascinating new work in psychology. His first book was The Science of Happily Ever After, which is a scientific guide to finding everlasting love. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post,,, and on NPR and Sirius XM Stars radio. Ty kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions about his latest research into awkwardness and why he decided to write popular science.
Awkward Can Be Awesome!
Sullivan:  In your book, you comically describe several instances where you yourself have felt awkward. Tell us more about the ways that awkward can be awesome.
Tashiro:  I think a sense of levity with one’s awkwardness is helpful for everyone because who hasn’t had a blush-worthy awkward moment that turned into a great story? There’s nothing wrong with being awkward, but it’s helpful for awkward people to understand their unique attributes that can be leveraged to accomplish extraordinary outcomes.
I like to explain what social scientists have discovered about social awkwardness with a spotlight analogy. Imagine that you see life unfold on a stage and that stage is broadly illuminated. You could easily shift your attention as people enter or exit the stage, watch the key interactions at center stage, and pick up on the context around center stage. That’s how most people see the social world.
Awkward people see their stage spotlighted and their sharply focused beam of attention tends to fall a little left of center stage. So, they’re more likely to miss some of the key social information at center stage, but whatever falls under their spotlighted attention is seen with great focus and potentially a brilliant clarity. This spotlighted perspective manifests in behaviors such as intense focus, persistence, and even an unusual level of enthusiasm for the things they love.
There are interesting behavioral genetic and developmental psychology studies that show a moderate, but robust association between social awkwardness and striking talent, which is a way to describe people who show exceptional ability or achievement in a specific area. Although some of this correlation is accounted for by I.Q., the stronger mediator is their obsessive drive to learn everything they can and master their area of interest.

Are Science Nerds Real?
Sullivan:  This certainly doesn’t apply to all scientists, but I know many who would describe themselves as socially awkward. Do you have a sense as to why scientists might be disproportionately awkward?
Tashiro:  Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have been at the forefront of understanding people with social skill deficits, communication difficulties, and the kind of obsessive interest that characterize socially awkward people. In a series of studies, they compared the degree of awkward characteristics among Oxford students majoring in the humanities, sciences, computer science, and a group of high school students involved with their school’s math competitions. What they found was that compared to humanities majors, those students majoring in sciences, computer science, and the matheletes reported significantly more awkward characteristics.
Follow-up studies suggest that people with awkward characteristics tend to think in a more systematic or methodical manner, which is a style of problem-solving that is well-suited to fields like science, computers, or math that employ things like the scientific method or orders of operation.
Awkward people love to take things apart, intensively study how the pieces function, then put those pieces together in a way that makes more sense. In this way, the awkward mind can be advantageous for someone who is passionate about describing, organizing, and predicting phenomena.

Ty Tashiro’s second book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, examines what it means to be awkward and how those traits also often lead to success.

Antidote for the Esoteric.
Sullivan:  Being socially awkward might hinder one’s ability to communicate research effectively. Do you have any advice for people who fall into that category?
Tashiro:  The risk for any awkward person is to fall too far down the rabbit hole. Researchers are rewarded for being meticulous about details, learning how to effectively use the specific terminology in their subfield, and being hyper-aware of methodological nuances. None of these qualities should be compromised because they are necessary for great science, but it’s also easy to see how the best of us could get so deep into their field of research that they forget what the non-specialist wants to know or needs to know.
Part of the problem is that a great lab usually means that the Principal Investigator manages an army of graduate students, post-docs, and undergraduate research assistants. With the time pressures and publication pressures, the P.I. gets data or results, but begins to lose an opportunity to be hands on.
I remember hearing a story in graduate school about Harry Harlow, who is famous for his early primate studies that showed infant primates preferred a cloth surrogate mother that provided tactile comfort to a surrogate mother that provided food. My professor was an emeritus faculty at Minnesota who told us that the spark for Harlow’s idea occurred while he was cleaning the cages of the primates, a task usually reserved for research assistants. Harlow noticed that the primates resisted when he tried to remove the towels from the bottom of their cages. Harlow’s willingness to immerse himself with his subjects allowed him to see a pragmatic, but revolutionary insight.

Why SciComm? 
Sullivan:  What motivated you to write about science for a broader audience?
Tashiro:  When I was an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, I loved teaching an undergraduate course about the psychology of interpersonal relationships because the students asked incisive, practical questions that often left me speechless or inarticulate. I could walk them through a compelling, programmatic area of research and they would politely ask me, “So what?”
These students wanted to know how evolutionary research applied to their mate preferences on Friday night or how they could apply social psychology studies of persuasion to help a friend out of an unhealthy relationship. My answers were not always satisfactory, so maybe out of stubbornness I decided to tackle the problem of translating great social science into practical advice. While we usually think of translational research as the gap between basic and applied science, my translational task has generally been to bridge the gap between applied research and the general public.

Ty’s Tips for Science Writers.
Sullivan:  What tips can you give aspiring science communicators?
Tashiro:  I’ll start with the bad news, then give you the good news. As I began investigating how to write in a compelling manner for broad audiences, I realized that the cornerstones of great storytelling are rich scenes, complex characters, and brisk plot. Then, I realized that science writing for journals has no scene, character, or plot. Some people might protest that the materials, subjects, and procedures count, but that’s a stretch.
I should be clear that I don’t think science writers should change how they write for journals or their colleagues. There’s a precision and factual nature to good science writing that is valuable and necessary, but it’s a style that does not appeal to broad audiences. So, the starting point for aspiring science communicators is to think about how to infuse scene, character, and plot into the scientific narrative.
My strategy has been to open every chapter with a story that is humorous or mysterious and this story sets up a research problem. In AWKWARD, I set up the descriptive statistics chapter with a middle school mishap involving awkward all-star wrestling re-enactments that ended with me concussed. I set up the social neuroscience chapter with a story about my first middle school slow dance that left readers wondering whether the boy should kiss the girl.
Both stories are absurd, mildly embarrassing for me, but they allow me to get readers invested in a character who needs to solve a conundrum. The middle parts of my chapters give readers research findings that help them piece together clues about why I ended up concussed or whether I should go in for the kiss. I end each chapter by giving the reader the outcome from the opening story, which allows me to summarize the data through the lens of a character trying to take appropriate action on a scene.
For researchers in physics, biology, or other fields that do not always involve human subjects, you sometimes end up anthropomorphizing molecules or species, but this can provide a wonderful opportunity for fanciful, unexpected storylines.
As science comes under siege these days, it’s more important than ever for the science community to cooperate and find a way to captivate the broader public with science and to share the wonderful discoveries you’ve observed under your brilliant spotlight.

This article originally appeared on PLOS SciComm Blogs.

Bill Sullivan

Bill Sullivan is Showalter Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, where he studies infectious disease. Bill has published over 70 papers in scientific journals and written for Scientific American, Scientific American MIND,,, What Is Epigenetics, and more. He also maintains his own popular science blog called THE ‘SCOPE. Bill received his Ph.D. in Molecular & Cell Biology from the University of Pennsylvania.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A reboot for #SciCommPLOS

Attention 'SCOPE readers...

We are excited to announce that THE 'SCOPE's own Bill Sullivan and Jason Organ have teamed with Krista Hoffmann-Longtin of Indiana University Purdue University - Indianapolis (IUPUI) to take over editorship of the Science Communication blog at the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

You can continue to expect high quality #scicomm blogging from Bill and Jason here at THE 'SCOPE as well as in their new roles as editors of #SciCommPLOS.

Thank you for reading! Without your support, this new adventure would not be possible.

-The "Management"

Friday, May 12, 2017

Could Parasites Be Causing Prostate Cancer?

Long ago in the mid-1600s, a fellow named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek started making lenses…as a hobby (remember, Facebook and Netflix were not invented yet). He was so adept at grinding glass that his lenses were able to magnify objects about 270 times their normal size. Leeuwenhoek soon discovered a whole new universe right here on earth, a universe of creatures so tiny that only his microscope could reveal them. He called them "animalcules."

With his powerful microscope, Leeuwenhoek became the first person to see amoebae, bacteria, and blood cells. For these revolutionary discoveries, he is considered “the father of microbiology.”

But after looking at endless water samples, the ever-curious Leeuwenhoek wondered what bodily fluids looked like under his microscope. While Leeuwenhoek examined blood, sweat, and tears (and a lot of dental plaque), a medical student in 1677 named Johan Ham told Leeuwenhoek that he spotted animalcules swimming in the semen he collected from a gonorrhea patient.

Believing these animalcules might be a result of disease, Leeuwenhoek procured a clean semen sample from his own stock - obtained fresh after proper lovemaking with his wife, he insisted. Leeuwenhoek confirmed Ham's finding and went on to discover the same tiny eel-like critters teeming in the semen from many other species. This is how we came to make the “seminal” discovery of sperm cells.

Other people in Leeuwenhoek’s day mistook these microscopic beasties squiggling around in the semen to be "merely" parasites, referring to them as “seminal Worms.” In fact, we didn’t realize that these “semen parasites” played a key role in fertilization until the 1870s when Oscar Hertwig spotted the fusing of nuclei from sperm and egg after contact…in sea urchins of all places.

We didn’t figure out where babies come from until fairly recently – 1870. White studying sea urchins, Oscar Hertwig noticed that the nucleus in the sperm fuses with the nucleus in the egg (the nucleus is the cellular organelle housing DNA).

While the mystery of sperm has been solved, we have indeed discovered a variety of pathogens that can inhabit our nether regions. Trichomoniasis, scrotal filariasis, and Chlamydia are just some of the unpleasant conditions caused by these most intimate of uninvited guestsAn unsettling new study led by graduate student Darrelle Colinot at the Indiana University School of Medicine may have found yet another.

In experiments performed in mice, researchers found that the common single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii disseminates to the prostate within two weeks after infection. And there it remains in the form of latent tissue cysts for at least sixty days, but probably for the rest of the host’s life. The presence of these parasitic cysts led to chronic inflammation in the prostate, which is a precursor to benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), the reason why older men have to get up multiple times to pee at night. Chronic inflammation in the prostate is also connected to prostate cancer, which afflicts more than 200,000 men in the US each year.

Parasites in prostates. The control panel shows cells from an uninfected mouse prostate (the nuclei are stained blue). The other panel shows the presence of a Toxoplasma tissue cyst (green) in the prostate 14 days post-infection (14 D.P.I.).

If Toxoplasma is also found to trigger chronic inflammation in human prostate, the finding takes on added significance given the prevalence of the parasite in the human population. According to the CDC, up to 22% of Americans are infected with the parasite, which is transmitted through oocysts that are excreted into the environment by infected cats or through tissue cysts present in game and livestock. 

Women are commonly advised to avoid gardening, changing the litterbox, and consuming undercooked meat while pregnant so the parasite doesn’t transmit to the fetus. Men may need to heed these warnings as well to avoid a prostate full of parasites, but a lot of critical work still needs to be done before we can ascertain whether this discovery has relevance to prostate issues in humans. Regardless, our study introduces Toxoplasma-infected mice as a powerful new model for the study of prostatic inflammation.

Prostate cancer is believed to arise from a constellation of events that can involve a person’s genes and environmental exposures. Infectious agents and carcinogens have previously been proposed as agents that can injure the prostate and lead to the development of chronic inflammation. Numerous types of bacteria and viruses have been shown to infect the prostate and cause an inflammatory response; this new study in mice suggests that the parasite Toxoplasma might be added to this list.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan

Note:  Bill Sullivan is a co-author on the study highlighted in this article.


Colinot, D., Garbuz, T., Bosland, M., Wang, L., Rice, S., Sullivan, W., Arrizabalaga, G., & Jerde, T. (2017). The common parasite induces prostatic inflammation and microglandular hyperplasia in a mouse model The Prostate DOI: 10.1002/pros.23362

Saturday, April 22, 2017

We Support The March For Science

In person or in spirit, scientists and science enthusiasts MARCH FOR SCIENCE today. Why? Science is the most reliable method that humanity has devised that teaches us how things work - it is the beacon that leads us to the truth. Truths that are often well-disguised, beyond our intuition, and shielded behind our preconceived notions. The truth can upset worldviews and bottom lines, but those who resist it cannot be allowed to jeopardize the reality reasonable people have come to accept. When we forego the evidence to maintain a faulty reality, we fail to progress. A world that doesn’t invest in science will pay for it with another Dark Age.

Support science, education, and evidence-based policy.

Friday, April 21, 2017

You've Gotta Learn to Walk Before You March

March For Science Logo
Saturday, April 22, 2017, is Earth Day. So it is appropriate that organizers have scheduled a large-scale march on Washington, DC (and over 500 other satellite marches planned), in support of evidence-based policy decisions. It is interesting that in the year 2017 we require marches to get across the point (hopefully) that scientific evidence should be a critical aspect of policy development. But alas, here we are.

So, in the spirit of marching along with our fellow scientists and science enthusiasts who understand the importance of scientific inquiry, and who want to advocate for sustained and predictable federal funding for science, we at THE 'SCOPE thought it would be fun to take a closer look at the funny (dare I say, silly?) way that humans, march: on two legs, or bipedally as it is called.

We briefly covered the evolution of bipedal walking in an earlier post, so we will not rehash the anatomical adaptations that allow for this type of locomotion. Suffice it to say that our skeleton has undergone several changes to the spine, pelvis, and lower limbs, that allow us to keep our knees under our center of mass while standing and walking. Instead, we will focus on HOW we accomplish walking along on two legs.

The phases of the gait cycle. From Anatomy Reference Center.
When walking, our lower limbs alternate between being planted on the ground and swinging through the air in order to be planted as the next step. We refer to these two different positions as the two phases of the "gait cycle": stance phase, or when the foot is planted; and swing phase, or when the foot is.... wait for it.... swinging.

Transfer of the weight across the foot during stance phase.
Let's now put the gait cycle "under the scope" for a moment. The gait cycle is defined as the period from stance phase of one limb to the next stance phase of the same limb - never mind for now that the other limb is in its own gait cycle! The stance phase begins when the heel strikes the ground, at which point the body weight is transferred from the heel to the lateral side of the foot, across the ball of the foot, and toward the base and ultimately distal end of the big toe (referred to as "push off" or "toe off"). At push off, the limb enters the swing phase, which itself ends when the heel strikes the ground again.

So as you can see, the stance phase accounts for a higher proportion of the gait cycle (about 60%) than does the swing phase. But remember this is for one limb only... the other limb is also in one of the two phases of the gait cycle. Over the combined gait cycles of both limbs, the two limbs together contact the ground (double support) only about 25% of the time. So roughly 75% of the combined gait cycles involves support over a single limb. As walking speed increases, the percentage of the gait cycle spent in single support also increases. During running, for example, there is no period of double support!

Even with the silly type of locomotion that humans employ, it is highly energetically efficient because bipedal walking is essentially a series of controlled falls over the supported limb (the limb in stance phase). In other words, the lower limb acts like an inverted pendulum which uses the force of gravity and the principles of angular momentum to propel the body forward. Combine the low input energy required to sustain level walking with the fact that 60-70% of the input energy is recovered through anatomical function of the lower limb that reduces the vertical and lateral displacement of the center of mass during the gait cycle, and what you have is a recipe for efficient locomotion on two legs.

So, to those who are marching on behalf of the scientific enterprise, remember this: you can stride a great deal before you tire out simply because you are the product of 6-7 million years of evolution for bipedal locomotion.

Jason Organ is Assistant Professor of Anatomy & Cell Biology at Indiana University School of Medicine. Follow Jason on Twitter.

Mochon S, & McMahon TA (1980). Ballistic walking. Journal of biomechanics, 13 (1), 49-57 PMID: 7354094

Lovejoy, C. (1988). Evolution of Human Walking Scientific American, 259 (5), 118-125 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1188-118

Gait cycle illustrations from: Organ JM. 2017. Gait. Amirsys Anatomy Reference Center, Elsevier: Salt Lake City, UT.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Unsung Heroes In Our Battle Against Infectious Disease

Humanity has always been at war with infectious agents, but it wasn’t until 1860 when Louis Pasteur famously theorized that microbes (first observed by Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the 1600s) cause disease. It took another 70 years before Alexander Fleming noticed that Penicillium mold produced a substance that killed bacteria. While most people are familiar with these luminaries in the field, have you heard of Francesco Redi, Ignaz Semmelweis, Theobald Smith, Mary Hunt, and a cow named Blossom? In this presentation, we celebrate some of the “unsung heroes” whose victories are often neglected from the infectious disease saga.

In the talk below, Dr. Bill Sullivan, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, takes us on a fascinating tour through medical history, answering these questions and more:

How did we figure out that microscopic creatures can make us sick?
Why were milkmaids considered to be so beautiful and what does that have to do with vaccination?
How were starfish important to the discovery of the immune system?
What do you mean penicillin wasn't the first antibiotic?