Immunology Series – Part 1: What Actually is Immunology?

Immunology. Say it with me: Imm-yuh-nah-lah-gee. Excellent! Now, let’s discuss what this weird-looking word means, and why it is important to us.

Immunology literally means the study (‘-ology’) of the immune system (‘immuno-‘). Wherever you see that ‘-ology’ suffix, understand that you’re dealing with the study of something.

When it comes to immunology, there are many different branches within the field of study, including how our bodies respond to:

1. Bacteria
2. Viruses
3. Fungi
4. Parasites
5. Allergens (i.e. pollen)
6. Ourselves (i.e. autoimmunity/cancer)

When our bodies mount an immunological (meaning: related to immunology; ‘-ical’ = ‘related to’) response, that event is called ‘inflammation’. This occurs when our immune system encounters any of the entities listed above, and it also occurs when we experience an injury such as scraping our knee, tearing a ligament or breaking a bone. We also have to consider that how our human bodies respond during inflammation differs from other living organisms.

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For instance, there are some strains of virus (influenza comes to mind) that predominately impact birds but not humans, and vice-versa; refer to the figure below. In a minority of cases, a bird-specific virus can undergo a change (aka a mutation) and be able to transmit from bird to human.

Slightly different strains of the same virus can produce completely different symptoms in their respective hosts. Here, Strain A of this virus makes humans sick, but not birds. Conversely, Strain B of that virus exhibits the opposite effect.

In certain contexts, some organisms and animals can display very similar immune system responses as humans (i.e. pigs, fruit flies, mice, non-human primates), and this explains why they may be used in research studies relevant to humans. However, the subtle differences in those responses can sometimes lead to very different outcomes when the results of those studies are applied to human circumstances, in the form of treatments and therapies.

The most ideal outcome of these treatments and therapies is a ‘cure’, which helps bring the body back to its normal state (we scientists call this state, ‘homeostasis’) and we feel good again, because we have gotten rid of the problem!

So no, science is not always straight forward, and yes, it can get complicated.

Sorry.

Now that we have a better understanding of what immunology is, let’s talk about what our immune system is composed of.

Think of the immune system as a unique, internal military of our bodies, with different divisions and subgroups represented by different types of immune cells. All of which, are conducting different lines of work to protect us and keep us healthy.

There are two over-arching branches of the immune system, which include:
1. The innate immune system
2. The adaptive immune system

Our hair and skin are the greatest protection against the forces outside of our bodies, but when those layers are compromised and something gets in, the innate immune system serves as our first line of defense. This is generally comprised of the following cell types:

1. Neutrophils
2. Monocytes
3. Macrophages
4. Dendritic Cells
5. Eosinophils
6. Natural Killer Cells
7. Epithelial Cells
8. Mast Cells
9. Basophils

The primary role of this innate immunity group is to recognize and neutralize whatever is causing the inflammation, as quickly as possible, while minimizing any possible collateral damage to the immediate environment. Some cells seek-out the actual agent that stimulated the immune response in order to engulf and digest it, while other cells aim to remove or destroy host cells (any cell that originates from our body) that are infected or compromised in any way.

The other branch of the immune system is the adaptive immune system, which behaves as the special armed forces of the immune system. The innate immune system functions to attempt to clear whatever is causing inflammation the best it can, but when clearance can’t be achieved it aims to contain the inflammatory agent until the adaptive immune system kicks in.

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How long does this process of sending in the cavalry take? Oh, maybe 4-7 days. That’s why when you get a cold or a flu, you typically feel the scratchy throat and stuffy head symptoms for about a week – sometimes longer.

Hold up. I know what you want to ask. “Why so long, though?”
Well, to keep it simple I’ll provide you with the following analogy:

Imagine you walk into a store to find a formal suit or dress for an event. You have suits/dresses that are pre-made and ready to buy off the rack. The fit may not be exact, but it’s close enough to get the job done, and the task can be completed in a day or so. This would be your innate immune system.

However, if you want to fully customize your suit/dress, you have to pick out the material you want and have measurements taken so that it hugs your contours and fits you like a glove. This process takes time and between picking materials, taking measurements, and having the tailor work his/her magic in putting the garment together, this can take months!

But, the end result is a high quality garment, made to precisely fit you in that moment in time. This would be your adaptive immune system.

So, with that story in mind, you may now better understand why there are some pathogens that require a little extra time for our defenses to develop a precision attack plan, specifically for that entity. Unfortunately, there are some complex pathogens that our bodies are unable to clear on their own, and we require the assistance of supplementary treatments to clear them, or to at least stop them from causing further harm.

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As you can see, a lot goes on in our bodies when it comes to the function of our immune system, and it is always on watch 24/7. Our bodies are so good at what they do, you never even notice they’re working, most of the time. This only scratches the surface of immunology but as you will see in future parts of this series, there are countless details considered to protect our health. Most of the time you never know it’s happening, except, for example, when an infection takes hold in the form of a bad cold and you experience symptoms.

I hope you walked away with a better understanding of immunology (imm-yuh-nah-lah-gee 😉 ) after reading this, and check back for the next part of our immunology series. There is so much more to learn!

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Science Lion Featured Guest: Raven Hardy and Sickle Cell

Science Lion recently had the pleasure of having a PhD candidate, Raven Hardy, drop by to speak with us about her upcoming event for sickle cell advocacy. To preface awareness of this event and the cause behind it, she also shed some light on her journey through graduate school, in addition to how she became interested in sickle cell research.

Raven is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University, working in the lab of Dr. Hyacinth, which is part of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. In particular, she looks at the profile of inflammation in sickle cell patients, and the impact that it may have on brain structure, and subsequently on cognitive deficiencies (dysfunction of the brain) and cell proliferation (cell division and growth).

Upon making these assessments, she observes how these effects track with age, from childhood to adulthood; these alterations of the brain appear to be culprits of the resulting strokes and neurological disorders that may manifest in sickle cell patients.

All of which are done in a mouse model that is humanized or genetically altered to mimic the expression of relevant human proteins in the brain. The purpose of humanizing in this case is to resemble as closely as possible what happens in a human brain, without having to use one.

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But how did Raven get here, in the first place, to do this kind of research? Many times, people draw inspiration and direction in life from tragedy, and this case stands true for Raven, as well. During her senior year of undergraduate studies, Raven’s sister, who herself lived with sickle cell, passed away at the age of 26 from brain death, extending from complications due to a preceding sickle cell crisis.  After managing to overcome that great loss and obtaining her degree, she began her unconventional path through graduate school.

Although she had a passion to learn more about sickle cell and its effects from a research standpoint, she initially entered a PhD program at Scripps Research Institute studying brain-related microorganisms called prions. She later transferred to Emory University, switching gears in her research, and focusing on brain imaging as it related to nutrition in predominately African American communities. However, her journey did not stop there.

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“Unfortunately, I had to leave that lab”, Raven reflected with a chuckle. “And as it would so have, I was able to join a lab that did sickle cell research, so I actually think that my path took a complete circle to get me right where I wanted to be.”

That lab would be her current research home with Dr. Hyacinth. “But I’m happy to be where I am”, she remarked with a smile on her face. “I feel as though when you’re meant to be somewhere you’ll end up there, and I think this is where I’m meant to be.”

So what is sickle cell disease? Sickle cell is a genetic blood disorder that can manifest itself if two parents carry the sickle cell trait. Within the context of the disease, red blood cells possess a “sickle-like” shape, inducing pain and inflammation – a response of immune cells – which can result in a “crisis event.” Unfortunately, these crisis events can lead to adverse outcomes such as stroke, or even death.

Sickle Cell Punnett Square
Punnett Square: This type of diagram outlines the possible combinations of alleles passed down from parents (alleles are variable forms of a given gene). Here we show what allele combinations correspond with which resulting phenotype (phenotype is the outward expression of genes – in other words, what we see!).

Bridging the conventional knowledge of the disease with what she is researching now in the neuroscience realm, Raven informs us that individuals with sickle cell can have high levels of behavioral and cognitive deficits. “So as far as blood is concerned, morbidities may stem from high levels of inflammation that induce the crisis (event) , and this inflammatory crisis may occur in the brain leading to different forms of brain damage.”

In addition to the amazing and intriguing research that she conducts in the lab, Raven really has a passion to advocate for closing the racial disparity gaps within health care, and of course in raising awareness of sickle cell disease, especially as it disproportionately impacts people of African descent.

“There is a lot of research and support for children with sickle cell, but when you reach adulthood and require a continuum of care, unfortunately it is not to the level where it should be”, Raven contends. “So, definitely there should be more physicians that are able to treat and manage individuals with sickle cell in crisis, and in general health.”

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Speaking of her endeavors in public health advocacy, this leads us to her current task of raising awareness of sickle cell in her local community by holding a “sickle cell gala” on her birthday, in honor of her late sister. The Dec. 6 art gala event includes a classy dinner at the Miller-Ward Alumni House in Atlanta, GA, and offers a social opportunity to network in a nurturing environment with other participating individuals. All proceeds toward the event will go to sickle cell causes.

If you would like to follow in Science Lion Media’s footsteps and donate to the cause of furthering sickle cell research and bettering the relevant public health policy, please visit her GoFundMe page. This way, she can allocate the funds to the most reputable organizations for maximum community impact. If you are interested in attending her art gala event, please reach out to Raven at blackbyrd1206@gmail.com for any remaining seats.

black-mom-and-baby

Be sure to check back soon for the uploaded, full podcast interview with Raven as the Science Lion Media team chopped it up with this outstanding young lady, who has personified perseverance in the face of an unconventional road to her PhD.

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To Teach is To Do

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There is a quote that states, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” I have heard this quote during my time as an educator in public schools in this form, “ Those who can’t do, teach.” It’s interesting to see how “telephone” has been played over the years with this phrase. Originally, this saying can be traced back to the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw. Of course, Shaw meant it in an entirely different context. His reference was intended for revolutionaries, not educators.

As a teacher hearing this statement for the first time evoked many negative emotions out of my being. First, I was upset. I was capable of doing many things well and I was always one of those students that found it hard to figure out what I wanted to “do” because I was great at doing a lot. How could this statement apply to me since I was not teaching due to lack of aptitude or ability? I was also disappointed with our society in general for this statement.

Teaching is an honorable profession; no other professions would exist without someone else educating another individual in that area. Period. Even if it is an apprenticeship, or technical skill, we all need educators in some form or fashion. I also could identify examples of teachers that may have fueled this statement. Those individuals that were in the field to have summers off while still getting paid, do the bare minimum for their students during the academic year and were minimally invested in these students as growing human beings that will contribute to our society one day.

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I reconciled all of these negative emotions into pushing to be a better teacher. Taking it one step further than those around me that may have settled for average. I wanted to bring enthusiasm and also inspire my students to not only be interested in science but also enjoy learning it. I remember the great teachers I had along the way that were passionate about their subject matter and it bled into their very craft. They inspired me to want to be a better student and even a better person. I think we all can identify a teacher that served this purpose in our lives. Those teachers that filled us with hope and wonder and taught us how to think critically about the world around us. These individuals were not only great teachers, but also intelligent, thought-provoking people. To think they were in the profession because they are unable to “do” is simply ludicrous.

Now being a research scientist and also educator I realize that if I cannot teach it, I do not know my subject manner well. By engaging in teaching you become a constant learner of knowledge and lifelong student yourself – learning from the students you teach and also the knowledge you seek in them and outside of the classroom walls to hone your craft. So, next time someone tells you this statement maybe if you can’t teach you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Has this ever been told to you?

Red Pen Stigma

Remember when you were a kid, and it was time to get your exam back? This was a much anticipated event in my life as a younger student. I always wanted to see less red ink on my paper, meaning I did well on my assignment, quiz, or test. I hated the negative emotions I felt when my paper was slashed with red writing. I felt like a failure, but it also pushed me to do better the next time. The red ink-induced feeling that arose in me was confirmed by a study showing teachers that grade with red pen versus blue pen can not only upset students, but disrupt student learning and investment in the course. 

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Another study in 2008 published in the European Journal of Social Psychology  suggested that teachers grading in red pen tend to identify even more issues on student assignments, marking them negatively compared to grading in blue ink. Thus, even picking up a red pen compared to another color can lead to more negative marks. Before teaching my first classroom of students in 2011, I had already learned about the implications of pen color when grading. My favorite pens to grade with became the assorted Paper Mate Flair pens. I rarely ever used red pen and honestly only did so when I lost the other ones, which occurred once or twice. 

So what are your thoughts? Ban red pens or keep them? Tell me your views on it. 

Check out these other articles regarding the effects of colors on performance:

Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances

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Colors May Affect Performance, Study Suggests

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Effect of Colors: Blue Boosts Creativity, While Red Enhances Attention to Detail

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Low Cost Options, Priceless Teaching Tools

In my previous blog post I discussed setting up different labs using a dollar store budget. I worked at a school in the Atlanta area where a majority of students qualified for free/reduced lunch, and I couldn’t always order the kits or other lab materials that I wanted to use. If you are at a school similar to mine in which resources are sparse and want your students to have engaging, hands-on learning in your classroom, I have listed some resources below that I used for my own lessons I planned. Happy planning!

  1. Atlanta Community Food Bank Kids in Need Program – This program serves preK-12 teachers in schools that have 80% or more of their students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program, or high school teachers at schools with an average SAT score of 900 or less. Of those eligible teachers, districts participating in this program are Dekalb County (including Atlanta Public Schools and Decatur City), as well as the surrounding counties such as Clayton, Cobb, Fulton, and Spalding. This program was a great resource for me to grab some cool, free stuff for my students! You can sign up to reserve a time if your principal has signed teachers up to participate in this program. Reserve as soon as you are able to do so, spots fill up fast. Once you reserve an appointment time, you arrive and fill-up a cart with teacher goodies. It’s like a supermarket sweep for teachers! The donated supplies are brand new and free for teachers.
  1. Dollar Stores – Do not underestimate the power of the dollar store! I used numerous materials from plates, to plastic forks and spoons, to yarn in the local dollar store. It is a lifesaver for lessons, especially science ones.
  1. Parents – If you compile your classroom supply list in advance, parents can be a great resource for students to bring in materials for experiments. Just make sure you give them enough notice and don’t make your request super expensive for parents.
  1. Hobby LobbyIf you are an educator, you more than likely already know about this resource. This store has a variety of items to use as a resource for decorating your classroom, lesson plan resources, and everything in between without breaking the bank.

This is not an exhaustive list! If you have any other recommendations for shopping on a budget to deliver excellent, engaging science lessons for your students or you know of someone who has done so, feel free to comment below!

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Making Physical Science in the Classroom Suck Less

As a teacher for four years, I became acquainted with hearing, “Ms. Hunter, I don’t like science,” or “This is too hard.” It seemed the 8th-grade students I taught were not interested in engaging with science at all. Little kids have a natural curiosity about the world around them, yet it seemed by the time these students arrived to my 8th-grade classroom this same curiosity was stifled.

What made things even more complicated for me was the curriculum I was responsible for teaching students — physical science. This, of course, came a year after students were in life science. Life science relates to their bodies, and as teenagers, this was definitely more appealing to them compared to chemistry and physics. I always heard students ask why they couldn’t dissect something, an option they didn’t receive in the life science course. It is always more entertaining for teenagers to learn about why hair is growing and bodies are changing than the chemical bonds of water. 

To get the students invested, I used my foodie background and appealed to their stomachs! We had an ice cream lab that explored the conversion of a liquid to a solid. We even ate popcorn with butter we generated by converting heavy cream into whipped butter by shaking a canister. I taught them about physical and chemical changes by cutting potatoes, adding hydrogen peroxide to a grape, and mixing baking soda and vinegar. The simplest, easiest activities were the most exciting for them to do. 

For the physics portion of the class, we did Bungee Barbie, created balloon balls, engaged in Newton’s Laws of Motion kickball, and ran outside on the track to evaluate speed and velocity. The best part about it was we did all of these activities on a dollar-store budget.

Whether it is the food they ate, or Barbie being dropped from various heights, I hope they remember some of the cool science they learned. Either way, I loved teaching physical science in creative, engaging ways and ultimately I feel my students left with learning more about science, hating it a little less, and realizing how science ties into their everyday lives. 

For the lesson plans of the activities mentioned in this post, feel free to contact me.


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