Rad Scientist Podcast: The Fever Effect
Speaker 1: 00:00 Rooting out racism includes so much more than reforming police practices, those subtle and not so subtle barriers exist everywhere from the streets to the schools, to the ivory towers of academia, a new season of personal stories launches today from the KPBS podcast, rad scientist stories from black scientists. Who've made some cool scientific discoveries and overcome racial barriers to follow their passion. The host and producer of the red scientist podcast is Margo wall and she has a cohost this season. It grant Abraham is a rising biochemistry senior at UC San Diego and assistant producer of red scientists podcast. They both join us now to give us a glimpse into their stories they've discovered and Margo, thanks for joining us. Speaker 2: 00:44 Yeah, thanks for having me Speaker 1: 00:46 It grant. Thanks. Also, welcome to the show. Thank you. So Margo, let's start off. Why did you choose to focus this season of red scientist on, on black scientists? Speaker 2: 00:56 So when I, uh, started production, I just come off of finishing my PhD and I had this pinholed focus on my project really for the past seven years. And after my defense, I could kind of lift my blinders and start thinking about the world at large and what was happening at the time was the outcry over the police murders of multiple black people. And it felt like a time to take a hard look at the systems and attitudes in place that perpetuate racism in all spheres of life. And I come from the scientific community. So I wanted to kind of dive into what that means for scientists and especially black scientists. And just to give you an idea of kind of some of the voices and some of the stories that you'll hear in this podcast, I think, um, we have a clip from the trailer that we're gonna play that kind of weaves a lot of their voices in together. Speaker 3: 01:54 Academia is not necessarily a safe space for black people Speaker 2: 01:58 To academia is extremely different, Speaker 3: 02:01 Difficult for people that look like me. And I am hyper aware of that there's hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. And you're not even just getting, you're not even getting to the science part yet. How did you get in here? Why is my voice to voice it's keeps being disregarded here, you know, Speaker 1: 02:20 And those were clips from the new season of KPBS has rad scientist podcast. So it Cron as a black woman yourself, have you experienced some of these hurdles to your progress through the academic world? Speaker 2: 02:34 Absolutely. I've gotten a decent amount of doubt for my own capabilities and understandings as well as disability of trying to have to prove myself, uh, whether it comes to research, whether it becomes a knowledge science, whether it comes into my own classes of especially like lab based classes here at UCFD. So this is something that I'm pretty accustomed to, even from elementary school till now. So you would have able to relate Speaker 1: 03:00 Very well to the stories that you heard to talk a bit about some of the hurdles that the scientists you spoke to described that that made it much harder for them to achieve their goals. Speaker 2: 03:11 When that kind of comes to mind a lot, is this ability of fitting in and feeling like you belong. So in Daryl story talks about how he is working in this area, and this lab has wallet. There's a photo of him on the wall, and he's still being questioned on whether he fits there or belongs there. So that's something that I can very much relate to Speaker 1: 03:31 It crying. Would you say that any of the scientists that you spoke with had to in some way, you know, suppress their identity or their culture in order to succeed? Speaker 2: 03:41 Oh, absolutely. There's the whole topic of code switching. The idea that African American vernacular isn't necessarily considered professional and individuals have to be able to speak in this eloquent and professional manner that is much more white. So there's that idea of suppressing your culture. There, there is the negative tropes and stereotypes that often get associated with black men and women, black men and women being considered much more aggressive, so directness and efficient communication, which is usually celebrated in fields, such as this might be looked at from a different perspective. If it were to come from a black man or a woman, it might be more aggressive, might be a little bit more intimidating and might be something that they especially I have been known to do in the past of trying to be a little bit more sugar Cody and a little bit more fluffy niceness, even though that's not my natural personality, I like being direct. I like being in the moment and trying to be as with others as possible. But I do know that because of how others can perceive me, I need to be aware of that and trim some aspects of myself so that I don't get shut out or misunderstood. Speaker 1: 04:54 No, the black scientists that you spoke with have made some pretty significant contributions to our understanding of, you know, how things work. Give us, give us some examples. Speaker 2: 05:04 Sure. So, um, I mean, we spoke to someone who studies, how proteins get sent to basically the molecular trash can. So some proteins in your body, they exist on the order of seconds, which is crazy. Your body makes them and immediately is like, okay, you're going to the compactor. You're going to be scrapped for parts. Um, some of the other scientists they're they're earlier in their careers, so they're just kind of getting started, but the things that they're studying are really important. So, um, there's someone who studies the microbiome of kissing bugs, which it's a friendly sounding bug, but it carries a not so friendly parasite that causes, um, Chagas disease, which primarily affects people in, in Latin America. Um, another scientist who studies drought affects, um, how they, how they affect the growth of native versus exotic plant species in Southern California and what that might mean for forest fires. Um, and someone who studies neuro prosthesis Speaker 3: 05:58 Specifically for speech. So, so much cool science in this season. Speaker 2: 06:04 Well, I'm sure there's going to be some great stories on the next podcast series, and we're going to hear an extort coming up next, but first I would just like to thank both of you very much for joining us. We've been with Margo wall Margo. Thank you. Thank you so much. And Margot's cohost econ, Abraham. Thank you. Thank you for having me. So econ, go ahead and introduce the expert that we're just about to hear. Okay. Um, what y'all are going to hear is an excerpt from our first episode, focusing on rad scientists, Melanie Vaughn, she is an Afro Panamanian who is currently a rising second year here at UCFD getting her PhD in the neuroscience department. Uh, she's hopes to better understand psychiatric illnesses and developmental disorders, but I think she can explain it better than I can. Speaker 3: 06:56 Melanie Vaughn's journey as a scientist begins, as many of ours does with the question why I just always really wanted to understand why do some people struggle with certain aspects of their behavior, whether it's like compulsive behaviors or intrusive thoughts and obsessions, or just depressive behaviors. Those were behaviors that she observed in her family. I think growing up, it was a lot of just, you know, Oh, my mom is like tired all the time and doesn't want to leave her room and doesn't want to eat. Or, you know, my dad like has these bursts of, you know, like aggression or anxiety. And I don't really understand, like, what is triggering him or what's wrong with him? Her dad was diagnosed with PTSD from his time in the military. Her mom was experiencing bouts of depression, which Melanie would later experience firsthand. And her brother was having trouble as well. Speaker 3: 07:50 I always knew my brother was sensitive to certain things like loud sounds, my brother didn't like going places. He didn't really like change. And she had some difficulties in school that I just didn't really understand, but my parents always told me that I had to look out for my brother because there were just certain things that I was better at. Like I just kind of grasp things easier. He was diagnosed with autism in elementary school. It only added to Melanie's curiosity about the brain and behavior. Like why things are so much more difficult for him or why we were so different, even though we were siblings and I experienced the world one way and he experiences the world in a very different way, but she didn't really know what to do with her curiosity until she got to college at Harvard, I didn't even really know that doing research was possible for someone like me. She landed in internship sophomore year to go to Spain and do research on anxiety disorders. And it was a watershed moment for her. It was unlike any work she Speaker 2: 08:56 Had done before. Speaker 3: 08:57 I've worked a couple of different kinds of jobs in my life. I've been a bartender. I've worked in retail. I even worked as a janitor for the school for a bit, but I never was excited to get out of bed and go to work the way that I was when I was living in Spain and knew that when I got to my job, I would be doing actual scientific research that might one day help somebody. Speaker 2: 09:20 When she returned from her magical summer abroad, she immediately joined a lab at Harvard that was studying the very thing her brother was diagnosed with. And she was studying a strange phenomenon that had been reported in autistic people, the fever effect. Speaker 3: 09:36 So it's been self reported by parents and by people with autism for many, many years, people on the autism spectrum when they developed a fever about 20% of the time, they saw a reduction in their autism related symptoms. So no matter how high the fever was, or whether the children were sick with bacteria or viral infections, you saw this same kind of symptom reduction, which is crazy and not very well understood. Speaker 2: 10:07 Melanie wanted to understand why this might be happening. And a lot of times when you want to get to the nitty gritty of a disease and look inside the brain, you can't really use human brains. You have to use animal models like mice, but how do you even go about studying something like autism in a mouse? Speaker 3: 10:26 Obviously you can't really give a mouse autism in the way that a human eye has autism per se. But what we try to do is imitate autism, linked genes in these minds. And then we look for behaviors that are similar to, or may impart, replicate what we observe and the human population. Speaker 2: 10:46 So Melanie worked with three different kinds of mutated mice, and so similar things between them, things that are reminiscent of autism symptoms, Speaker 3: 10:55 They just did not prefer to be around other mice, even if in terms of fighting or just like interacting at all, they just didn't touch each other. Whereas in normal wild type mice, you usually see that when you put two of them in the cage, especially two males, the first thing they want to do is sniff each other, check, check the other mouse out, and then sometimes they do attack, obviously. So Speaker 2: 11:17 Yes, the mice seem to display some autism like behaviors and that's a good first step. The next question was would the autism like behaviors go away with a fever just like had been observed in some humans. And to answer that Melanie would induce fevers in the mice by injecting a non-lethal foreign agent. Speaker 3: 11:37 What you get is a robust immune response fever, lethargic G Speaker 2: 11:43 So you have these mice before fever hanging out on opposite sides of the cages, avoiding other mice, give them an injection, wait till a fever and Speaker 3: 11:54 See what happens. Speaker 4: 12:00 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 12:00 And what Melanie saw was a dramatic shift in behavior increase like sniffing chasing each other around. And some cases they would actually cuddle together and like sleep next to each other. And this was while they had a fever. So they were also sick. We were pretty excited about the social behavior changes, because this is obviously, this is one of the main components of autism, especially disorder. So we then turned to try and see what's really going on in the brain during these fevers. And what we found was really cool. It has to do with a part of the brain called the hypothalamus that is known to be important for regulating all sorts of bodily functions, including immunity. The weird part was that some of the brain cells located in the hypothalamus responsible for kicking off the immune response. We're also releasing a special chemical substance that is sometimes reductively referred to as the love molecule oxytocin. Speaker 3: 13:01 It kinda doesn't make sense. So we decided to look into that. Yeah, it turned out that this oxytocin released in the hypothalamus could explain the increase in sociability. They saw in those autism mouse models when they gave them fevers. Obviously we can't just go around giving children with autism fevers all the time, but potentially as you're able to activate these oxytocin cells without actually needing a robust immune response, that could be one way that some of these findings might be able to be used and humans, because as of right now, there is no FDA approved medication to treat autism apart from being a super interesting research finding that has translational potential and for a disease. So close to Melanie's heart, it really solidified Melanie's identity. As a scientist, I realized that I really could do this and I could be a scientist. And I was a good, That was an expert from the new series on the KPBS podcast, rad scientist, the new series begins today and you can find it on the KPBS website or in your podcast app.