Laboratory Manual Madness

A month or so ago, my brother told me that his daughter, Ruby, wanted a new science kit for her birthday. I had gotten her one previously and we enjoyed doing the experiments together. However, that experience taught me that pre-made science kits are not great. So, I decided to make one for her myself.

I smartly (or stupidly) posted pictures of a couple of pages on both Facebook and Twitter, and it quickly went low-key viral. I did not expect the overwhelming response, but perhaps I should have. After a great deal of thought and consulting with some wonderfully supportive colleagues, I decided to not officially publish the manual and keep it freely available to all who would like it.

However, to maintain my sanity and and time for my actual job, I have now posted it to my website. You can find the Ruby’s Laboratory Manual here.

COVID-19 Impact on Gym Lifters

This was our recruitment poster

Back in May during one of the many peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay at home orders, I was feeling useless. I felt the need to contribute and help. I also was personally feeling terrible since I wasn’t able to maintain my powerlifting routine. I decided to combine the two.

I got in touch with my friend and colleague, Dr. Katie Rose Hejtmanek, and we put together an online survey looking at gathering information on how the stay at home orders affected exercise routines. Furthermore, we wanted to find out how the changes in routine also affected perceived physical and mental well being.

We quickly got over 500 survey respondents, and it became very clear that folks who almost exclusively used gyms before the pandemic faired the worst during the stay at home orders. We have not published these results yet, but wanted to put something together in hopes of getting results back as quickly as possible to out participants as well as providing some techniques for coping.

Here is the infographic we created based on the preliminary analysis.

Thanks to all who participated!

Organized Adult Play and Stress Reduction: Testing the Absorption Hypothesis in a Comedy Improv Theater

Published in: Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, Published online 18 September 2020

Can the stress relieving aspects of going to church be replaced by joining another type of group activity involving belief, training, and focus? A team led by Notre Dame anthropologist Cara Ocobock tested the “absorption hypothesis” in two comedy improv troupes at a theater in upstate New York.

Improv comedy requires a dedicated group of people who practice multiple times a week for performances and have the focus and fleetness of mind to riff together on themes that amuse and provoke live audiences. The study was inspired by Ocobock’s husband, a member of one of the troupes, and previous work by University of Alabama co-author Christopher Lynn. Lynn had studied Pentecostals congregations in upstate New York and found members with more experience speaking in tongues had generally lower stress.

The improv study is exploratory because they had a limited number of participants, but their goal was to combine Lynn’s previous approach with one taken from another anthropologist, Stanford’s Tanya Luhrmann, who has studied other Christian Charismatics (Charismatic religion refers to manifestations of “gifts” from God, such as speaking in tongues, which involves God speaking through a person). 

Luhrmann coined the “absorption hypothesis” in her work, suggesting that Charismatics who are most successful at talking with God share a belief that they can, practice or train to do so, and have a better than average ability to become psychologically absorbed in the process.

In non-religious behavior, group play behaviors are known to be highly absorptive as well, and have the potential to reduce distress and anxiety. As such, Ocobock and Lynn designed this study in collaboration with the improv players, many of whom believe improv practices help them alleviate anxiety in their daily lives. Study team members Mallika Sarma and Lee Gettler, also from Notre Dame, conducted the analysis of saliva samples collected in a rigorous protocol over performance, rehearsal, and non-improv days.

The amount of improv experience (though the range of experience was limited in this study) was not a factor, suggesting that comedy improv is not quite analogous to active church membership. However, improvisors may experience stress reduction associated with the absorption involved in adult play.

New grant!

I and my colleagues, Drs. Scott Maddux and Libby Cowgill, have just been awarded an NSF collaborative grant for our project “Experimental testing of thermoregulatory principles: Re-evaluating ecogeographic rules in living humans“.

We will be building a climate chamber down at UNTHSC over the next year, and then begin collecting data. Below is the public abstract for our project.

Human anatomy varies widely around the world but claims that certain physical features are beneficial in particular climates have rarely been experimentally tested. This research will evaluate how differences in head, trunk, and limb anatomy influence the ability of human subjects to regulate their internal body temperature when exposed to different climatic conditions in an environmental test chamber. This collaborative project will thus experimentally test long-held assumptions regarding climatic patterning of human body form. The investigators will share the results of this project through academic publications, STEM outreach activities, public talks, and interviews on a nationally recognized podcast. Graduate, undergraduate, and medical students will be trained in data collection and analysis through participation in this research, and field trip demonstrations of the project equipment and methods will be used to expose economically disadvantaged Texas high school students to potential careers in science and medicine. This project will also produce high-quality, whole body CT scans which will be made readily available to other researchers through an online data archive. Finally, this research will shed light on issues important to both the broader scientific community and the general public, including the significance of human biological diversity and the potential implications of global climate change.

This research will experimentally test proposed relationships between thermoregulatory benefits and environmentally-patterned variation in human anatomy. While climatic pressures are widely cited as contributing to global variation in human head shape, torso dimensions, limb proportions, and overall body size, specific links between physical features and body function in different climatic conditions have not been experimentally established. Furthermore, studies of adaptation to climate have historically focused on separate regions of the body (e.g. braincase, nose, torso, upper limb, lower limb), with minimal attention to how these different anatomical structures interact with one another to function as a whole. To remedy this, the research uses state-of-the-art technologies, including computed tomography imaging and an environmental chamber, to measure the physiological responses of physically diverse living participants exposed to controlled environmental conditions simulating three global climate extremes (hot-dry, hot-humid, cold-dry). Validation of proposed thermoregulatory benefits of specific body forms is essential for guiding future research on climatic adaptation. Further, by employing a
whole-body approach, this study will clarify the role of different anatomical regions in overall thermoregulatory function. In sum, this study will explicitly link hard and soft tissue morphology to physiological outcomes, permitting more confident assessment of climatic adaptation in both modern populations and the fossil record.

Science communication in a time of massive misinformation

We are losing ground to misinformation, and the only way to gain it back is to drown out the noise with a flood of clear, concise, accurate, and accessible messaging from scientists.
As such, Christopher Dana Lynn and I wrote a commentary for the AJHB COVID-19 special issue about the importance of effective science communication.
Here is the infographic that sums up what we wrote.
You can also read a previous post of mine about spotting misinformation here.

Resting Metabolic Rates Among Reindeer Herders in Finland

The first of many papers on my work in Finland just hit early view. This is the result of a wonderful collaboration with Dr. Minna Turunen and Dr. Päivi Soppela from the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland as well as Ville Stenbäck and Dr. Karl-Heinz Herzig from the University of Oulu.

I was fortunate enough to spend May 2018, part of October 2018, and all of January 2019 in Rovaniemi, Finland in order to better understand the metabolic cost of inhabiting a cold climate among reindeer herders. You can read more about the whole project here.

Moomin snow sculpture in the center of Rovaniemi.

This paper discusses the fascinating results of the resting metabolic rate measurements we conducted. You can access the abstract of the paper here (contact me for a pdf!) or you can have a look at the infographic I made that sums up the study and results – Herder RMR Infographic.

I must say that I prefer the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter rather than the dead of summer. Yeah, you only get a few hours of dusk and it is so cold that your breath freezes on your eye lashes and you feel your frozen snot crackle with each inhalation. But, it is breathtakingly beautiful and serene.

Frozen fog on trees

My breath frozen on my eye lashes.









This project and collaboration has been an absolute joy, and I am beyond excited that the work is coming out. I also look forward to more papers in the future and the expansion of this project.

Arch and Anth Podcast

Arch and AnthI was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Dr. Michael Rivera on his highly successful and productive Arch and Anth Podcast. Have a listen here.

In this episode you can hear about my recent work with reindeer herders in Finland in collaboration with Dr. Minna Turunen, Dr. Päivi Soppela, Dr. Karl-Heinz Herzig, and Ville Stenbäck.

You can read more about this work here.

You can support and get more amazing Arch and Anth Podcast episodes here.

Human Energy Expenditure in Anthropology and Beyond

Whew! This paper has been a long time coming! Through a series of unfortunate events, it took almost two years for this to go from submitted to published.

This paper covers the current state of human energetics research within anthropology, discusses a couple of new theories in the field, and then provides a bit of a road map for future work.

I wrote this manuscript over the summer of 2018, which was likely one of the best summers I had. I conducted preliminary field work in Finland during May, and then June-August was devoted to writing and weightlifting…though not always in the order. You can read about the weightlifting here.

IT WAS AMAZING! It was one of those times where I felt like I really had the time to think, read, and write without interruption. I was able to truly engage with this manuscript and enjoy the process. It reminded me of writing my dissertation – the last time I was able to focus on just one thing.

However, the smooth sailing ended there. This is a review article, so when I went to submit it, I selected “Review” under article category. What I didn’t know was that meant Book Review and not Review Article, stupid error on my part. I didn’t realize the problem until Adam Van Arsdale asked me how the article was coming…almost six months after I submitted it. We quickly figured out the issue and I resubmitted the article under the proper category. Three months after submission, I still hadn’t heard anything and decided to contact Adam. Turns out there was some glitch and the submission never actually made it to the editor – no idea why. And, so, I submitted it a third time!

At this point, I was convinced this was a cursed article never to be reviewed much less accepted. However, in early April the reviews finally came in, but I had just accepted a new position at Notre Dame and was dealing with selling one house, buying another, and moving from New York to Indiana. I requested and was granted an extension on the reviews, and I resubmitted in September, and the paper was accepted in October. Then from October through to do was the page proofs and waiting.

I must say, though, the reviewer comments were some of the best and most constructive I have ever had. It was how the review process should work, everything the reviewers said was incredibly helpful, insightful, and supportive. Their comments pushed me to think about things in ways I had not before, and I am incredibly grateful to them. I also took this to heart and make sure that I take a similar approach when reviewing articles.

It was a long road to publication, but I am proud of this one.

Yes, we should correct misinformation; we also need to teach others how to spot it

Misinformation is not new. Deception, whether intentional or unintentional is not even unique to humans (see, for example, Nature’s Cheats).

An amazingly camouflaged (a form of deception) leaf tailed gecko.

However, the landscape of how we create, curate, and disseminate information has drastically changed in the past few decades. Highly accessible internet access, engaging social media platforms, and few-to-no checks on information accuracy have not only increased the amount of misinformation, but have also substantially increased the speed and distance with which misinformation can spread.

The vast amount of information at our fingertips is an incredibly powerful tool, but can also be an incredibly powerful weapon. In the age of COVID-19, we have seen how dangerous misinformation can be (for example, the promotion of hydroxychloroquine despite the lack of evidence), which can lead to real harm (see here and the results of a recent study here).

During crises, people are desperate for information, and this frenzied desire to know more leaves us more open to encountering and accepting misinformation as true (see, for example, COVID-19 Brings a Pandemic of Conspiracy Theories)

Because of the amount and real threat of COVID-19 misinformation, there has been a vocal call for scientists to callout and correct pseudoscience and conspiracy theories (see for example, Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – we’ve had enough already).

Yes, we need to address the problematic claims. However, I think this only addresses the proximate and not the ultimate issue, which is that many, if not most, people struggle to reliably spot misinformation. There needs to be a more concerted effort to train people (friends, family, students) to be more discerning consumers of information.

There will always be people who want to intentionally spread false information, however, if we give people the tools to identify misinformation, we can limit that spread. Correcting misinformation is like giving a person a fish…they will correct, hopefully, that one falsehood. However, teaching someone to identify false claims will empower them to spot misinformation for life.

I agree with Ron Swanson – fishing is not that hard, but spotting false information can be.

Throughout my career, I have placed greater and greater emphasis on teaching my students to always be skeptical, recognize bias (their own and that of others), assess the agenda of article authors, and to confirm or refute purported facts with additional research. And, semester after semester, it is these lessons that students point to as being the most important and most remembered.

These are not skills anyone is born with; they need to be practiced over and over. Here are some tips and questions you can use identify misinformation.

      1. Always be skeptical! Question everything…always!
        1. Come into all articles with the mindset that the author has to provide some damn good evidence to convince you of their argument, and even when that evidence is presented…question and research it.
      1. Consider the source of the information
        1. What media outlet is reporting it? Where does it fall on this fantastic media bias chart (or see small image below)?
        2. How might the agenda of the media outlet bias the information in the article?

Media Bias Chart

      1. What is the date of publication?
        1. The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation where new information becomes available almost every hour – often rendering yesterday’s news completely out of date.
        2. If the article is more than a couple weeks old, do a search to see if there is new, updated information.
      1. Who is the author?
        1. Give the author a quick search to find out their background and credentials – especially those that relate to the claims they are making.
        2. Might they have an agenda? If so, what is that agenda? What are they trying to make you think, feel, and do?
      1. How is the information being presented?
        1. How was the evidence gathered? Were links provided to original work?
        2. Does the original work back up the author’s claim?
        3. If only screen shots or simplified summaries of the original work are presented without links, BE EVEN MORE SKEPTICAL. The author is only showing you what the author wants to see and not the whole story, and you will need to research more on your own.
        4. If you do not have access to the original work, email the author! Scientists love sharing their articles to those who don’t have access. I mean it, we really do

Be like this hippo!

      1. Does what you are reading confirm what you already believe?
        1. If yes, BE CAREFUL. This could be confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only seek out information and trust information you already agree with in order to confirm the beliefs you hold.
        2. Here is some more information about confirmation bias.
        3. This doesn’t necessarily mean you are wrong in your thinking, but it does mean you need to do some extra research to determine if this is confirmation bias or not. Read articles (from quality sources, see media bias chart above) that promote opposing views. Once you have heard both sides of a story, try to objectively weigh the evidence and decide where your thoughts fall with this new information.
      1. Does what you are reading elicit an emotional response?
        1. If yes, BE EXTRA SKEPTICAL! The author of the article is likely trying to use emotion (and not well researched information) to sway your opinion.
        2. The same advice applies here as it did above. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to something (especially if it is anger or fear), do additional research from quality sources to determine if the original post is misleading you.

This reaction is a warning sign! It means you need to do more research!

    1. Check out the website “About” and “Contact” pages
      1. Do they have a list of reporters? If not, be VERY skeptical!
      2. Is the “About” page comprehensive and give you a good idea of who they are and what their goals are (see #2,4,&5 above)? If not, be VERY skeptical!
  1. 9. Reach out to others!
    1. 1. Still don’t know if what you are reading is true? Start conversations with friends and family who may have more expertise in a particular subject. Make sure you and they are asking questions.
    2. 2. Seeks expert opinions, and get more than one if you can.
  1. 10.  Be wary of video clip times! If you see a video clip showing someone saying something and that clip is only 5-10 seconds long or less DON’T BELIEVE IT! That clip was taken out of context! Do some searching to find a more complete video.