What is Radon? and how does it impact health?

Biomedical Sciences, cancer

By Ross Keller, PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences

You have probably heard vague notions about the health impacts of radon, but what is it exactly? And how does it impact health?

Currently, radon is believed to be the second leading cause of environmentally caused lung cancer, following smoking. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 15,000-22,000 lung cancer related deaths per year are attributable to radon exposure, with the majority of them occurring in smokers who are also exposed to radon (1).


Radon is radioactive, making it a risk for lung cancer (Pixabay)

Evidence for an increased risk of cancer from radon exposure comes from epidemiological studies as well as animal studies. It was found that occupational exposure to high levels of radon in miners was strongly linked to an increased risk for lung cancer (2). Lower levels of residential radon exposure was also linked to an increased risk in combined analysis of case-control studies in North America (3) and Europe (4). Furthermore, animal studies conducted in the mid-to-late 20th century clearly demonstrated the ability of radon and its decay elements to cause lung carcinomas (5).

The Three Parent Child: Mitochondrial Transfer to Fight Leigh Syndrome

Biomedical Sciences, Ethics, Genetics

By Emily Schleicher, 1st year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program



The mitochondria is colloquially called the powerhouse of the cell (Wikimedia)

What is the Mitochondrial Genome? 

When referring to the genome, most people think of 46 chromosomes, 23 from mom and 23 from dad.  The chromosomes are made of DNA,specifically DNA within the nucleus of our cells, and they encode for nearly 25,000 genes that make us who we are. However, what is often neglected is a second genome that is passed directly from mother to child, the mitochondrial genome. The mitochondrial genome resides outside the nucleus in mitochondria, which are found in all eukaryotes and are essential for generating ATP— the energy the cell needs to survive. The mitochondrial genome consists of just 37 genes that encode 13 proteins1. The proteins are mostly enzymes that facilitate the production of ATP, which means they are essential. Just as mutated genes in the nucleus can lead to illness, diseases can arise from mutations in mitochondrial DNA2. These mutations can lead to problems involving muscles, the endocrine system, nerves, brain, heart, and liver, and many can be fatal in the first few years of life. At this point in time, there is no treatment for mitochondrial diseases, but it has become a growing area of biological research in recent years1.

How is the Mitochondrial Genome Inherited?

When sperm and egg meet, both the sperm and egg carry nuclear chromosomes, which is why people inherit genes from both mother and father, but the sperm does not carry inheritable mitochondria. Mitochondria that powers the sperm is located in a portion of sperm that is lost at fertilization. This means that the egg’s mitochondria are all the child will inherit; the effect is that the mitochondrial genome is passed exclusively from mother to child.

Immunotherapy: awakening the immune system to fight cancer

Biomedical Sciences, cancer, Immunology

By Ross Keller, PhD candidate in Biomedical Science.

What is the immune system?

The human body is continuously under assault from a wide array of things that would do it harm. Many of these come in the form of pathogens—or microbes that infect the body and are not part of the body’s flora. These microbes range from common cold viruses to pneumococcal bacteria to deadly viruses like Ebola.


Immune cells attack a tumor cell (spiky cell in center). (Wikipedia)

However, the body can also come under attack from itself in a number of ways. One manner this occurs is when normal cells transform and begin dividing uncontrollably. Over time the rogue cells begin invading organs and destroying their normal function—this is known as cancer.

But, the human body has been evolving for millions of years, and over that time it has developed an extensive and complex defense system to ward off outside invaders like pneumonia as well as home-grown usurpers like cancer. It is termed the immune system.

The immune system is a complex network of non-specialized and specialized cells that each have a role in keeping the body safe. It can be divided into two broad categories: innate and adaptive. The innate immune system is the body’s way of attacking pathogens in a generic way, meaning many types of invaders will be treated equally—it acts fast. On the other hand, the adaptive immune system is composed of specialized cells that remember the specific type of invader and mount a specific attack when the invader is encountered a second time—it acts slowly the first time and quickly the second.

The Bacteria that Mold Your Brain

Microbiology, Neuroscience

By Daniel Hass, 4th year Neuroscience PhD student

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”

This phrase, coined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in the Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste) was over a century ahead of its time.

Food Cheese

Some foods are better by virtue of their microbes. Cheese is one such food, matured by several types of bacteria (Wikimedia)

The commonly held aphorism is true in more ways than one. In one respect, it means that ‘the food you eat becomes a part of your person’,and this has long been known—amino acids from digested proteins are incorporated into our own proteins, and the energetic sources from our diet, such as sugars or fatty acids, are added to our own stores of energy. In another respect, the quote can mean that the food you eat influences ‘who’, or ‘what kind of person’ you are. This interpretation is also true– the substances you consume can alter your brain chemistry, and thus behavior (‘who’ you are), in manners too complex for a single blog post.

I will discuss the ways in which food affects our brains in a four-part series. Each part will examine a critical substance in food (microorganisms, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and the ways in which it alters or is central to behavior.

This first of these parts concerns a fascinating route by which diet can change the brain, and that is through our microbiome, the ecosystem of microorganisms such as bacteria, archaea, protozoa, fungi, and viruses that live on and interact with our bodies. Each adult has about 1 kg of these microbes, which are highly diverse, cumulatively containing approximately 100 times as many genes as the human genome.

The diversity and composition of these microbes in the gut is strongly influenced by diet.

Meet a Scientist: Our New Editor-in-Chief, Ross Keller

Biomedical Sciences

A note from our Editor-in-Chief: 

I will be defending my dissertation in just a few weeks, and therefore it’s time to hand over the reins. I would like to introduce Ross Keller, our new Editor-in-Chief! Ross is a 5th-year Biomedical Sciences graduate student, and he’s written and edited many blog posts that have been submitted to Lions Talk Science over the last three years. I have no doubt that the blog is in great hands! It has been amazing to watch this blog thrive since its launch in May 2013, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Thanks for supporting our graduate student blog!

-Jordan Gaines Lewis

Now let’s get to know Ross!

Let’s get to know you a bit! Where are you from, where did you go to school, and what is your role at Penn State College of Medicine?ross

I grew up in Fargo, ND and attended West Fargo High School. I graduated in 2007 and went on to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. I graduated from there in 2011 and made my way to Penn State College of Medicine. I am now a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences focusing on cancer research, specifically novel mechanisms of initiation and modes to relapse using breast cancer models. In addition to research, I have served as the Social Chair, Community Service Chair and President of the Graduate Student Association. I have also been an editor at Lions Talk Science for three years and written several articles about cancer, genetics, and animal research. I’m thrilled to be the new Editor-in-Chief.

Going Viral: How Social Media Mirrors Science

Biomedical Sciences

By: Jillian Carmichael, 4th year student in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program



“Did you see that post? It’s going viral!”

Social media can be a strange beast. Within hours, funny videos about pandas going down slides or kids saying the most ridiculous things are all over the Internet. These viral posts saturate social media and it’s almost impossible to avoid seeing them (or at least hearing about them).

It’s curious how someone can go from complete Internet obscurity to “famous” within hours of posting content on social media. Considering the billions of social media posts made each day, how do certain posts rocket to viral status while most remain unremarkable? It takes the perfect combination of good timing, interesting content, the right audience, and plain old luck for a post to go viral.

Implicit in the terminology “going viral” is the concept of infectivity. In order for a social media post to reach viral status, it must spread quickly and extensively. In fact, a social media post going viral is very similar to how an actual virus can cause an epidemic.

Pregnancy Brain: A Neuroscientific Guide for the Expectant Mom (Part 2 of 2)


By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program


Pickles and ice cream, anyone? (Shutterstock)

My forgetful friend – the subject of my original article – gave birth to a baby girl on Thanksgiving Day. She’s a beauty, and I know Mom agrees that the morning sickness, crazy sense of smell, and forgetfulness were worth it in the end.

In the meantime, while she’s experiencing a whole new set of biochemical processes that happens when a woman becomes a mother, let’s re-explore even more crazy changes that affect – or originate in – the brain during pregnancy. What causes clumsiness, food cravings, and moodiness?

Pregnancy Brain: A Neuroscientific Guide for the Expectant Mom (Part 1 of 2)


By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 5th year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program



A few months ago, my friend asked me, “Why have I become so forgetful since I became pregnant?” I told her I didn’t know, but that I’d look into it and write an article for her.

She then followed with, “I was going to ask you to explain something else to me, but I totally forgot what it was.”

Does “pregnancy brain” actually exist? There’s no doubt that many changes are happening to a woman’s body during pregnancy, but how do these changes affect (or originate in) the brain? To answer my friend’s question – and in an effort to address whatever else she was forgetting at the time – here is Part 1 of my expectant mom’s guide to the crazy neuroscience of pregnancy.

Zika Virus: The New Kid on the Block

Biomedical Sciences

By: Jillian Carmichael, 4th year student in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program


Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species currently responsible for transmission of Zika virus. (Source: Rafaelgilo/Wikimedia Commons)

Move over Ebola. There’s a new virus in town.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few weeks, you may have heard about the Zika virus outbreak that’s currently sweeping through the Americas. As with any emerging outbreak, fear is a common reaction in many people — remember how many Americans were terrified they were going to catch Ebola, even though they had never been to West Africa?

One of the best antidotes to fear is information — the better we understand a virus, the more equipped we are to deal with the outbreak and react in an appropriate manner.

In order to dispel any panic due to the fear-mongering media, I’ve compiled a list to answer some of the frequently asked questions concerning the Zika virus outbreak.

Meet a Scientist: Jessica Parascando

Graduate School

This is the eighth post in our “Meet a Scientist” series. Next up is Jessica Parascando, a 1st-year student in the Public Health program.

Meet Jessica:


Meet Jessica!

Let’s get to know you a bit! Where are you from, what did you study in college, and what is your role at Penn State College of Medicine?

I was born and raised in Edison, New Jersey, and lived there until I moved to Hershey in August. I received my BA in Psychology at Ramapo College of NJ, and then took post-baccalaureate courses in Biology and Statistics at Rutgers University, where I also worked in an Infant Neuroscience Laboratory.

I am currently a first year graduate student in the Master of Public Health program studying Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

Why did you decide to become a scientist?

My initial interest in science and sleep research began after watching an episode of the television show, Boy Meets World. In the episode, a character volunteered to participate in a study that was analyzing brain activity during sleep.

After seeing the research coordinator become perplexed at the character’s lack of neural activity during the session, I immediately became interested in how and why the brain works the way it does. There is still so much unknown about the exact function of sleep, so my goal is to combine my passions of neuropsychology and public health to help make the public more aware of positive sleep practices, and emphasize the importance of sleep at all ages.

What do you research at Penn State, and why is it important?

BabyLab 2I am currently working with a great team in a neuropsychology/biofeedback performance laboratory in the Psychiatry department. We use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR), electromyography (EMG) and ecological momentary assessments (EMA) to study patients with opiate addiction in hopes of identifying factors that may be associated with an increased risk of relapse during various stages of recovery.

This research is important because there is a worldwide epidemic of addiction, and relapse rates are extremely high for those who do seek recovery. We also collect sleep data using actigraphy, further emphasizing the relevance of sleep in all aspects of health.

What are some of your hobbies outside the lab?

Outside of the lab I am on the e-board for Public Health Association for Service and Education (PHASE). In PHASE, we promote public health awareness through various events on campus and in the central PA community. I also enjoy Pilates, random hikes, watching New Girl and other shows on Netflix, reading random science articles from Twitter, daydreaming, and spending time with friends.

Tell us three random facts about yourself!

  1. I’m obsessed with tea and drink it everyday. My favorites are Moroccan mint, oolong and toasted walnut.
  2. I have a Cockapoo named Kapoosta.
  3. I share Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope’s love of breakfast foods.

Stay tuned for future interviews! And if you’re a Penn State College of Medicine scientist interested in participating, e-mail Lions-Talk-Science@psu.edu for details!