The Latest in Physiological Education: A Report from ITL

Physiology educators gathered last month in Madison, Wis., for the third APS Institute on Teaching and Learning (ITL) conference. Attendees discussed the latest trends in science education through a series of talks, interactive workshops and poster sessions. Read on to learn more about what’s new and what’s next in the classroom.

A performance form with excellent checked off

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As recently as a couple of decades ago, the idea of online learning was in its infancy. The physical classroom was the center of the action when it came to delivering and receiving course content. As a result, the students who attended lectures were likely to outperform those who skipped class. However, researchers from the University of Central Florida College of Medicine found that the grades of medical students who skipped non-mandatory class sessions in favor of reviewing digital content didn’t suffer.

Researchers from the University of Iowa also found online learning to be beneficial to students. Their study showed that students performed better and were less anxious when they attended a “blended” course, which presented online content together with some face-to-face teaching.


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Don’t beat yourself up the next time you’ve forgotten something you’ve studied. Your memory is making room for new information, which actually plays a positive role in learning. Robert A. Bjork, PhD, from UCLA, explained to ITL attendees how forgetting can enrich and enhance learning and shouldn’t necessarily be thought of as a bad thing.


Researchers at ITL also discussed:

Read more highlights from this year’s conference.

Erica Roth 

Here Comes the Sun (and the Heat)

A thermometer shows high temperatures against the sun, a blue sky and a few white clouds.

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Summer is in full swing, and with a near-peak number of daylight hours, chances are good that there is still plenty of light left to enjoy once your workday is done. Before you get outside and bask in the sun and heat, check out these I Spy posts that explain how your body responds to hot weather and provide tips to help you stay safe this summer:

Have a safe, sunny and fun summer!

Erica Roth

A Scientist’s Quest to Understand the Box Jellyfish that Almost Killed Her

About 50 different species of box jellyfish live in the Pacific Ocean and on the coasts of Florida and New Jersey. When the box jellyfish stings, it shoots venom from its tentacles into a person’s flesh with as much pressure as a bullet fired from a gun. The unique venom contains many different types of poisonous substances called toxins, including some of the same found in dangerous bacteria and in cobra’s venom. The venom quickly pokes holes in the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body, causing a spike in heart rate and bleeding in the brain. If you are stung with a large amount of venom, it only takes minutes for the venom to stop your heart. If that’s not scary enough, box jellyfish are clear, making them almost invisible to the human eye when swimming in the ocean.

Angel Yanagihara 1

Angel Yanagihara, PhD, studies box jellyfish on Waikiki. Credit: A. Yanagihara

Angel Yanagihara, PhD, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has made it her life’s mission to learn everything she can about the box jellyfish and its deadly venom. When I first met Yanagihara, I was intrigued by her passion for studying the creatures. It was only after a few conversations with her that I found out she nearly died after being stung by a box jellyfish while she was swimming off the coast of Waikiki. Surprisingly, in 1997—when Yanagihara was stung—very little was known about box jellyfish venom. Since that time, she has discovered what is in the venom and how to purify it to understand its toxic effects in the human body. She has also developed a topical cream that deactivates the venom before it causes harm to the body. This novel first-aid approach to treating a box jellyfish sting can help prevent the venom from killing.

Angel Yanagihara 2

An early morning dive. Credit: A. Yanagihara

Yanagihara is currently studying the body’s response to the venom in the hopes of increasing a person’s chances of surviving a box jellyfish sting. I am lucky enough to be part of her study team that is looking at the physiological responses that occur after a sting. For her studies, Yanagihara goes diving very early in the morning, before sunrise. This time, she is sure to protect herself from the deadly box jellyfish by wearing a full-body wet suit.


Dao Ho, PhD

Dao H. Ho, PhD, is a biomedical research physiologist at Tripler Army Medical Center. The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

March to the Beat of Your Own Drum

Audrey's kids drumming

Audrey’s kids enjoying a drum circle. Credit: Audrey Vasauskas

My two young children absolutely love to beat on drums (or tables, chairs, any flat surface really). I recently took them to a family-oriented drum circle. They had a blast, and I was surprised at how good I felt too, both during and after the event. It turns out all that drumming—especially with others—is beneficial in a variety of ways.

Music has a positive effect on overall mood and mental health. Drumming has recently been studied for its stress- and anxiety-reducing effects. With the rise in popularity of drum circles, group drumming especially seems to be good for mental and physical health. Drumming improved mental health scores, with participants reporting less depression and lower anxiety levels.

Studies suggest that mental health and inflammation may be linked. Inflammation is how the body responds both to outside invaders, such as viruses or bacteria, and to factors that may harm the body, such as stress. White blood cells and special chemical messengers in the immune system help protect the body in a process that can be likened to “calling up the troops.” The increased protection leads to inflammation. Once additional protection is no longer needed, the anti-inflammatory chemical messengers switch off their response. The whole process is usually short-lived. However, when inflammation sticks around for too long, it can affect body and mood in a number of negative ways, which sometimes leads to depression and anxiety.

The link between physical and mental health and drumming is complex, but it seems the benefits are partially due to this effect on the immune system. Chemical messengers that increase inflammation are reduced after taking part in a group drumming activity, while anti-inflammatory messengers are increased. The creative nature and shared experience of drumming may explain these chemical changes—music has been shown to reduce nervous system activity that is associated with stress. So grab some friends, get on those drums—and be loud!

Audrey Vasauskas

How Do Frogs Survive the Cold? By Freezing


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They aren’t moving. They’re not responding to touch or light. Their hearts aren’t beating. They’re no longer breathing. Their skin is ice-cold and hard to the touch. By that description, you probably don’t think I’m describing living things. However, there are some animals that survive like this because of a process called freeze tolerance.

Unlike mammals, whose bodies are always working to maintain a constant temperature, cold-blooded animals (ectotherms) are at the mercy of their environment. As a result, when the temperature plummets, they have to come up with a physiological means to survive the bitter cold winters.

Bugs and amphibians are the freeze-tolerant animals researchers study most often. Among amphibians, a few select frogs show a clear freeze-tolerance response. Large amounts of their bodily fluid freeze into ice particles to help them make it through the winter.

The physiological changes that prepare freeze-tolerant animals for cold weather begin as the temperature drops, but they don’t happen overnight. These animals distribute substances called cryoprotectants, which allow them to get colder than freezing while shielding them against dehydration and other cell changes that can occur when ice forms. Once frozen, the animals can withstand temperatures ranging from 32 to -22 degrees F, depending on the species. Freeze tolerance can last from weeks to months. Cycling through this process is a must for any frog that wants to see the next summer.

However, thawing may be just as important as freezing. Freeze-tolerant animals likely go through several freeze-thaw cycles, during which the distribution of cryoprotectants and tolerance to the cold increases. This suggests that the cryoprotective process isn’t finished after the first freeze and is a cumulative process as the winter grows colder. When spring arrives and the weather returns to consistently above-freezing temperatures, the animals thaw, their hearts start beating again and they continue on without negative effects.

Scientists want to learn more about freeze tolerance from the animals that do it so well. In case you missed it, humans can’t freeze and thaw themselves. By studying the physiological changes in freeze-tolerant species, researchers can apply this work to mammals, such as by storing organs for later use and keeping cell lines healthy while in storage. Studying an “ideal” organism that has overcome a functional problem allows scientists to better understand those problems in mammals. Therefore, comparative physiologists continue to research the unique traits of various organisms to understand how evolution has already handled these challenges.

Brian StogsdillBrian Stogsdill is a graduate student at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, currently finishing his doctorate in biomedical science. Stogsdill researches freeze tolerance and aquaglyceroporins (a family of proteins that conduct water). 

The Fat-blocking Powers of Fiber

Leafy green vegetables

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An estimated 610,000 people in the U.S. die from heart disease each year. One common cause of heart disease is the narrowing of blood vessels due to the buildup of fatty deposits (plaque). Many factors—including eating a lot of fatty foods—can lead to plaque buildup in blood vessels.

Your liver processes excess fat by packaging it into cholesterol droplets known as low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). LDLs travel throughout the body in the blood. Often, the droplets get stuck to the blood vessel walls, where they accumulate. The buildup of plaque eventually blocks blood flow, most often in the blood vessels that supply blood to your heart. However, eating fiber can help prevent the early stages of heart disease and plaque buildup.

Fiber is a plant’s supply of stored energy, but your gut can’t digest it. During a meal, your small intestine breaks down the food you eat and absorbs nutrients. Fiber resembles a mesh-like structure. Indigestible fiber acts like a large net—think of a butterfly net—to block places where fat can be absorbed. A meal high in dietary fiber blocks some of the absorption of fats, stopping fats from moving outside the gut into the bloodstream.

When there is less fat absorbed from your gut, your liver does not have to package it into LDL droplets, which lowers LDL levels in the blood. In addition, when your liver needs fat to make hormones and bile, it can produce another kind of cholesterol called high-density lipoproteins (HDL). HDL can remove some of the plaque in blood vessels and send it back to the liver. HDL is known as “good cholesterol” for this reason. Consuming meals high in fiber can help HDL with this process.

Recent studies have shown that eating fiber-rich brown rice or taking more than 5 grams of fiber supplements daily can improve some measures of cardiovascular function in adults. Leafy or green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and broccoli are also good sources of fiber. So make a salad or try adding greens to an entree or a smoothie—I promise you can’t even taste blended spinach in a fiber-packed smoothie. There are plenty of options to fiber up your diet and keep your heart healthy.

Gabrielle RoweGabrielle Rowe is a PhD candidate in the physiology program at the University of Louisville. She is interested in studying small heart vessel function, stem cells and aging.

Spotlight On: Preeclampsia

Pregnant woman holding hands over belly on black background

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Lady Sybil Crawley—the feisty youngest sister of a wealthy British family on the PBS television series “Downton Abbey”—made her way into viewers’ hearts. Devotees of the show were shocked when, in a surprise twist, she died soon after giving birth. Lady Sybil died from high blood pressure during pregnancy (preeclampsia) that developed into a more serious condition called eclampsia in which high blood pressure causes potentially fatal seizures.

Unfortunately, this type of tragedy is not a distant memory from the early 1900s when “Downton Abbey” was set. Preeclampsia still causes too many deaths—or near deaths—in the U.S. each year. However, when diagnosed properly, preeclampsia is manageable.

Preeclampsia develops in about 5–8 percent of all pregnancies. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, and excessive swelling of the feet, hands and face.

There are also invisible symptoms, such as damage to internal organs like the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia occurs when a woman’s blood pressure rises too high (140/90 mmHg or above) during mid- to late-pregnancy (more than 20 weeks of gestation). The increased blood pressure limits the amount of blood that the baby receives and can slow down fetal growth. Babies born to women with preeclampsia are frequently smaller and weigh less than those born to women with normal blood pressure. Preeclampsia is often connected with other health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and a history of high blood pressure.

A woman’s age, race and where she lives can also increase the likelihood of developing preeclampsia. Women over age 40, black women and women from the southern U.S. also have an increased risk of developing high blood pressure during pregnancy. The reasons why Southern women have greater risk are not clear, but it may be linked to the prevalence of obesity and diabetes, especially in the Deep South.

It is important for expectant women and their families to know the symptoms of preeclampsia, talk openly with their doctors about their potential risks and speak up when something doesn’t feel right. May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month. Talk to the pregnant women in your life and learn about preeclampsia together.

Jessica Taylor, PhDJessica C. Taylor, PhD, is the Senior Manager of Higher Education Programs at the American Physiological Society. She is a cardiovascular physiologist, the mother of one and hails from Mississippi.

Photoblog: Experimental Biology 2018

Ever wonder what happens at a scientific meeting? They’re a great place for scientists to get new ideas and collaborate with their colleagues on important advancements in scientific research and discovery. But it’s not all work. These meetings also give researchers the chance to catch up with friends and former co-workers and to socialize with new colleagues.

 I Spy Physiology volunteer blog editor Audrey Vasauskas was among the more than 11,000 attendees at the APS annual meeting at Experimental Biology (EB) in April. She photoblogged her experience during her time in San Diego. Check out what the meeting looked like to her.

The Research

“I submitted two abstracts to the meeting this year, one on my bench research in pulmonary arterial hypertension and one on an outreach educational program for high school students that I co-directed.  I was very excited that the EB organizers added a separate section for science outreach so that I could share what we are doing within our community. It took place during the opening reception, which brought in many people to view the posters and chat.  It was nice to have so many people come by to share ideas and suggestions on my research, for both the pulmonary hypertension and the outreach projects.  I’ve gotten some of the best suggestions for future work through speaking with poster attendees!  I have also been able to set up some great collaborations.”


The Collaboration

“The EB meeting is an excellent opportunity to meet people interested in the same field of research and make important connections for collaborations and idea sharing. For example, I was able to connect with a faculty member also studying pulmonary hypertension for insight and a possible collaboration. It is also a great time to catch up with colleagues who I don’t normally get the luxury to speak with in-person! I spent time with my former postdoctoral mentor. It was great to see her and hear about her graduate students’ research during the Respiration Section Trainee Highlights Breakfast.”


The Fun

“EB is so much fun! I love learning about areas outside of my research as well as getting up-to-date in my field. However, my favorite part is connecting with old friends who come together for this special event. Whether at formal section dinners or impromptu meetings, it’s the people who make EB great! I loved the APS Connect Zone, where we could relax, play games and talk. Lunches on-site and nearby were also fantastic. Of course, going to a meeting far from home also calls for exploration. Getting out in San Diego was a blast! My friends and I rode the water taxi to Coronado Island to see the Pacific Ocean and walk around. It was a great afternoon.”


The Food

“Yummmmmm … so much food, so little time.”


Wrapping Up and Looking Forward

“I look forward to attending the EB meeting every year, and it never disappoints! I am able to present my research, meet new people and see old friends. The meeting stimulates new scientific ideas and collaborations in a fun, collegial way. Every year after the EB meeting, I feel renewed in my love for science and exploration and grateful to have had an opportunity to travel, explore and contribute to the scientific community through my participation!”

-Audrey Vasauskas

Did You Know?: A Muscle May Increase Pneumonia in Older People

Old man in white is coughing. Symptoms and disease.

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By the year 2030, an estimated 70 million people in the U.S.—about 20 percent of the total population—will be older than 65. Going forward, this number is only expected to rise due to a combination of declining birth rates and increased life expectancy.

A well-known witticism is “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” But as we get older, we face an increase in a variety of life-threatening diseases and illnesses, so we should mind the matter of aging.

One of the leading causes of death in older adults is pneumonia, an infection of the lungs. A major risk factor for pneumonia in older people is not being able to effectively clear their airways due to muscle weakness. Common causes of weakened respiratory muscles are age, spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophies and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

The diaphragm is a thin muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen. It is the primary muscle for breathing and is very important in airway clearance (i.e., coughing and sneezing). Specialized nerve cells called phrenic motor neurons control the diaphragm muscle. There are different types of phrenic motor neurons. Smaller ones activate smaller muscle fibers and are responsible for low-force, repetitive tasks such as breathing. Larger motor neurons activate larger muscle fibers and control higher force jobs such as clearing the airway. Our lab has found that just like other muscles, the diaphragm gets weaker and smaller with age (sarcopenia). We have also shown that we lose some phrenic motor neurons, especially the large ones, as we get older. This loss of nerve cells causes the diaphragm muscle to have trouble generating the force needed to clear the airways.

For the most part, older people can breathe fine, but they may have trouble coughing and sneezing effectively. Not being able to clear mucus and bacteria from their airways may increase their risk for respiratory infections. Understanding the causes of age-related degeneration of the diaphragm muscle will lay the groundwork for effective therapies and improve the healthy lifespan of our aging population.

Obaid Khurram 2Obaid Khurram, PhD, recently graduated from the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Obaid studied motor control of the diaphragm muscle, particularly in cases of motor neuron loss. He will continue studying motor control of skeletal muscles during his postdoctoral training at Northwestern University.


The Heart Adapts to the Sex of Heart Transplant Recipients


Peter Kerkhof, PhD, presents his poster, “Sex-Specific Aspects in Cardiac Transplantation Evaluated by Left Ventricular Size in Male and Female Recipients” at Experimental Biology 2018. Credit: Nathalie Fuentes

Whether you are male or female can play a role in your health when it comes to how well you recover and thrive after an organ transplant. Because donated organs are in high demand, the sex of the donor is not taken into consideration when assessing compatibility. However, men and women who receive donated organs can respond differently after transplantation, including in cases when the immune system rejects the transplanted organ. For some people, organ rejection may be influenced by the sex of the donor.

The influence of biological sex on transplant outcome has not been thoroughly studied—even as more than 3,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a heart transplant on any given day. Peter Kerkhof, PhD, and colleagues at VU University Medical Center in the Netherlands evaluated current knowledge about the impact of biological sex differences in heart transplantation and explored why there is a discrepancy between rejection rates for male and female recipients. Kerkhof presented his team’s research at Experimental Biology 2018.

The researchers analyzed computer tomography scans of 94 patients who had a heart transplant. Forty percent of the transplanted hearts were from male donors, and 60 percent were from females. The research team discovered that the left ventricle—which supplies most of the heart’s pumping power and is essential for normal function—in transplanted hearts is able to adapt to the new body in size and pumping power, even if the recipient was of the opposite sex.

The researchers saw evidence of this adaptation in the ejection fraction of the heart recipients. Ejection fraction compares the amount of blood in the heart to the amount of blood pumped out and was found to be smaller in all female recipients, even those with male donor organs. The smaller ejection fraction in women is similar to what occurs in healthy women when compared to men. Now more research is needed to learn about the mechanisms responsible for sex-specific adaptation in heart transplant recipients.


Nathalie Fuentes OrtizNathalie Fuentes is a PhD candidate in the biomedical sciences program at Penn State College of Medicine. Her studies in Dr. Patricia Silveyra’s lab include the development of sex-specific therapies to treat lung diseases, sex differences in asthma-related lung inflammation triggered by ground-level ozone and the role of male and female sex hormones in lung disease. Nathalie is originally from Caguas, Puerto Rico.

Nathalie served as a meeting blogger for Experimental Biology 2018.