Life by chocolate

When I was a little girl, chocolate bars were always a special treat I got when I behaved myself. So anytime I got good grades or helped with the chores, my mom would break two little squares out of the chocolate bar in the fridge and hand them to me. Sometimes, for lesser achievements, one square, but never more than two.

The chocolate commercials on television alwaysChocolate had people running carefree through the fields, biting into the chocolate bars as if there were no squares marking out how much you could eat! Having been raised on the ‘two squares a day’ rule, that always shocked me a little.. and made me jealous. Oh, how I longed for the day when I had the freedom to buy my own bar of chocolate and bite into it at will!

However, as I grew up, I was being told repeatedly by my dentist, dermatologist and others that chocolate wasn’t good for me, and every time I had a bite, I’d feel guilty. Turns out, while my doctors were a little right (chocolate does contain a lot of sugar and milk, which aren’t necessarily good for adults), they weren’t wholly right either. Chocolate – especially dark chocolate – does have a lot of benefits, including:

1) Preventing heart disease: The cocoa matter in chocolates doesn’t get easily digested by the stomach and small intestine and some of the cocoa makes it all the way to the colon. Here, bacteria breaks the cocoa into smaller particles and it gets absorbed by the blood stream. These particles help reduce cardiac inflammation.

2) Reducing anxiety: Remember in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of eat-chocolate-and-keep-calm-4Azkaban when Lupin gives Harry a chocolate bar when he passes out in the train, and Harry feels much better after he eats it? The magic there was the science of chocolate. Chocolate stimulates the brain to release a chemical called endorphin, which make you feel better. The reason for this is not completely understood, but it is suspected to be the presence of an enzyme called phenylethylamine (PEA) found in cocoa beans. So, if you ever need a pick-me-up, grab a dark chocolate bar – it will have a high PEA content. Incidentally, the same endorphins (a.k.a “happy hormones”) are released when you go for a run or fall in love.

3) Preventing cancer (maybe): It is suspected that chocolate may prevent cancer better than “power fruits” such as berries and pomegranates. Although we have not yet performed dedicated studies to check if chocolate indeed prevents cancer, we do know that there are things called free radicals. They interact with components in the cells of your body and cause damage which leads to cancer. Chocolate contains a substance known as ‘antioxidants,’ which are known to get into your body and interact with free radicals present there and neutralize them.

4) Lowering cholesterol: Chocolate also contains a substance called polyphenol which has been shown to produce “good” cholesterol and decrease the total good cholesterol to bad cholesterol ratio. However, this is true only for dark chocolate.

5) Reducing risk of stroke: When scientists fed dark chocolate to mice and then induced a stroke, the scientists found that damage to their nerve cells was reduced. This is because dark chocolate contains epicatechin – a compound known to increase certain cellular signals which shield our nerve cells from getting damaged during a stroke.

This is by no means a complete list. However, most of these benefits are only associated with dark chocolate. Milk and white chocolate contain a lot of milk, sugar, butter, cream, etc., which can be detrimental in large quantities, and less cocoa — the healthy part.

My childhood doctor was right in discouraging me from eating chocolate, because at that age I would’ve only indulged in milk and white chocolate. As a child, your body is programmed to like sugary food because the presence of sugar indicates a lot of calories and nutrition. Children also tend to dislike bitter food because poisons are usually bitter so this is a way to ensure we avoid them. When you become an adult, you do not crave as much sugar – partly because you aren’t growing at such a rapid pace anymore, and partly because of social conditioning. We’re conditioned – by our parents, health blogs, etc.. to start eating bitter, spicier food and we learn to appreciate them and even develop a preference for them.

So as I grew up, I stopped liking milk and white chocolate (the ones you can bite into) and started migrating to darker chocolates (the kind you let melt on your tongue). However, since the best way to eat dark chocolate is by letting it melt on your tongue and not bite into it, this, sadly, means that my childhood dream of biting into a bar of chocolate will go unrealized.

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Eden Hall: An Immersion in Sustainability

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

An Eden Hall student garden (for a wide range of experiments) sits next to a rolling meadow.

Dr. Peter Walker pointed to a grassy hillside, where he plans to keep the goats with a protective llama. “It acts as kind of a guard dog against the coyotes,” he explains. The backdrop of the grassy hillside is woodlands, where oyster mushrooms are cultivated. A neat garden sits alongside, with crops such as perennials, hops, even rye for Wigle Whiskey.

“We’ve had many students interested in the Wigle project,” comments Dr. Walker.

In addition to the goats and llama, the property will one day be capable of hosting 1,500 students, with 64 residents in the first dorm. The campus is Eden Hall, home to the Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability, of which Dr. Walker is Dean. Located just 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, Eden Hall is a fully sustainable, almost off-the-grid campus, where students spend more time experimenting in the nearby woodlands and meadows than in the classroom. “I really don’t want people in classrooms too much,” says Dr. Walker. “You learn by doing. You learn by experiments.”

For future students that dream to learn about sustainability by “doing,” Eden Hall is a rare campus that is built from the bottom up with sustainability in mind. A simple walk through the campus demonstrates that full sustainability takes more than the occasional solar panel and heat-efficient windows. Eden Hall incorporates a remarkable array of technologies that unite to make a self-sufficient campus. What went into consideration when designing a campus completely around sustainability?
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Of Maps and Models

The sun was shining and the birds were chirping in the blossoming trees as we walked along the path, trying to find the BBQ. I pushed the stroller around the bend, eyeing the large park map ahead, and glanced at my wife. Her face was set in an expression that told me she was hungry and losing patience. So was I.

We’d been trying to find this BBQ for the past 30 minutes. And now our 4-month old daughter was screaming because she kept inadvertently pulling the pacifier out of her mouth. We approached the map and I helped my daughter find the pacifier while my wife tried to figure out where we were going. Suddenly, despite the tense situation, my inner neuroscientist perked up. I couldn’t help but notice the uncanny similarity between my daughter flailing for her pacifier and our attempts to navigate with the park map.

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The Institutional Road to Maternity Leave for Carnegie Mellon University

CMU's "Walking to the Sky"

CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”

In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.

“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
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The experiment that taught us what “left” really means

Left and right street arrows

Do the laws of physics know their left from their right? (Image adapted from Dean Hochman)

Can you tell your left from your right?

When I was three years old, I took significant pride in the fact that I could – particularly the day I discovered that many of my fellow preschoolers had not yet achieved this feat. Of course, as the years wore on and my classmates got the hang of it, I came to take the distinction for granted. It was so…pedestrian. Trivial, even.

And then a college professor showed up and left me so confused about left and right that I couldn’t fathom how anyone could rightly know which was which. Continue reading

The Mysterious Death of the Dinosaurs

Image from the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia.

Image from the 1940 Disney animated film, Fantasia.

Remember when you first learned about the land of the dinosaurs? For me, it was the Disney movie Fantasia that first introduced this wondrous prehistoric world. Huge beasts roamed the earth, squashing ferns the size of full-grown trees. These kings of the earth ruled millions of years ago. Suddenly, there’s a terrible flash of light as an asteroid crashes on to the surface, wiping dinosaurs off the face of the Earth. How wondrous. How terrifying.

To this day, most children are taught about the asteroid that killed these magnificent creatures called dinosaurs. This single asteroid event is still studied by top scientists, and we can now hypothesize specifics of this event, such as the date (66.24 Million years ago), temperature of the earth after the collision (20,000 degrees Celsius!) and what the dinosaurs would see right before the collision (literally a black gaping hole in the sky).1 It’s pretty much understood that this asteroid was what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, right?
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Trash to Gas: A Solution to Half Our Problems?

In Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future," Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

In Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” Doc can toss garbage straight into the engine to power his car.

“New innovation from scientists,” read the subject line from my Mom’s email. Attached was a link to a Youtube clip of a male scientist balling plastic bags, sealing them in a steel vessel, and pushing a button. After a couple of hours, the eager scientist cracked open the vessel, and poured out a dark, ominous looking fluid. “People don’t know that garbage can be made into gasoline” the scientist beamed. Apparently after some refining, this scientist had converted plastic bags into gasoline.

My response was immediate: “Don’t go investing your money just yet. Plastic bags are a by-product of gasoline production. It would take a lot of energy to turn plastic bags back into gasoline, probably more energy than you would make.” I had put the thought out of my head, until one day when I was breezing through a fashion magazine (yes, some scientists read those too) and there was a short article about another woman who was also claiming she could turn plastic bags into gasoline. The idea was obviously gaining momentum. Could my opinion on trash-to-gas be jaded?
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