How the gut “tastes” parasites, blood vessels “see,” and kidneys “smell” fatty acids and regulate blood pressure in response

Tuft Cells in the gut "taste" parasites

Tuft Cells in the gut “taste” parasites

In my latest feature for The Scientist Magazine, I wrote about how sensory receptors — the light, taste, and odor receptors that are primarily present in our eyes, tongues, and nose — are present all over the body, and have all kinds of functions. 

It turns out taste receptors in the gut and airway influence some of the earliest immune responses to bacteria and parasites, and your ability to taste bitter substances could influence how prone you are to respiratory infections. 

Also, blood vessels relax in response to light, and odor receptors in the kidney regulate blood pressure in response to fatty acids produced by gut bacteria, providing a means by which diet could directly affect blood pressure. Other odor receptors could affect how prone muscles are to injuries, how quickly skin wounds heal, and how sperm find their way to the egg.

Check out the full article here, and here are some illustrations for it.

An online feature about deep life for Smithsonian

Nematodes (blue) wiggle inside a stalactite from a South African gold mine in this image taken with an electron microscope. (Credit: Gaetan Borgonie)

Nematodes (blue) wiggle inside a stalactite from a South African gold mine in this image taken with an electron microscope. (Credit: Gaetan Borgonie)

I just got done with a Smithsonian feature on microbes that live in extremely inhospitable environments deep beneath the Earth’s surface, and the researchers who venture 2 kms or more underground in South African gold mines to study them.

It’s hard work, but they’ve found a surprising diversity of life living in these deep environments, and it turns out studying these microbes can give us clues about life on other planets. Check out the story here.

Really enjoyed reporting and writing this one, especially since it’s about microbiology, something that I spent so many years studying both as an undergrad and during my PhD…

How scientists can get credit for peer review: Science Careers article

Thanks to all the time I spent getting my PhD, I’ve maintained an interest in writing about careers in science, especially articles that might be helpful for graduate students and postdocs.

I wrote this article for Science Careers about different platforms (such as Publons, Elsevier’s Reviewer Recognition Platform) that allow scientists to get credit for peer review. It was very interesting to learn about these services, and I hope the article is helpful for early career researchers. You can check it out here.

Keeping busy, writing about molecular biology for BioTechniques

Developing Drosophila Embryo (Credit: Credit: Raghav Chhetri, Fernando Amat, Yinan Wan, Burkhard Höckendorf, William Lemon & Philipp Keller, Janelia Research Campus.)

Developing Drosophila Embryo (Credit: Credit: Raghav Chhetri, Fernando Amat, Yinan Wan, Burkhard Höckendorf, William Lemon & Philipp Keller, Janelia Research Campus.)


I’ve been meaning to update this website for a while, unfortunately I’ve been too busy writing articles to do so.

Among other things, I’ve been writing regular articles for the journal BioTechniques. It’s been a nice way for me to keep in touch with the latest in molecular biology, a field that I haven’t extensively written about for a few years.

I’ve written a bunch of articles for them so far, including short articles on a new way to study membrane receptors and a drug that helps worms stay young longer.

I also wrote some longer articles on the hottest topic in molecular biology right now, CRISPR-Cas9, as well as advances in how researchers photograph developing embryos and in synthetic biology, where researchers engineer cells to perform basic computational tasks.

I have several more articles on a wide variety of topics coming up. It’s just amazing to see the rate at which research techniques in the life sciences are advancing!

You can check out any future BioTechniques articles here

When it rains, it pours: my article about the monsoons and floods in India

Indian floods

Indian floods

This article on flooding in India and Pakistan has been a long time coming. I did the bulk of the reporting last year right after the devastating September 2014 floods in Kashmir, only for the article to get delayed until now.

Floods occur every year in South Asia, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Unfortunately it turns out that floods in both India and Pakistan are likely to get more frequent and more devastating, due to a combination of climate change and poorly-planned development. More will have to be done on both fronts to try to prevent flood disasters in the future. Check out my article for more details.

This was an interesting one to write and report, on what I think is an important topic, I hope to do more such stories. Obviously the long delay necessitated some revisions and compromises, and also resulted in a broader focus, mostly I’m just happy to see the article published at last.

This Software Makes You Forget You’re Wearing Headphones — My article about 3D audio

View story at Medium.com

I got a chance to write another longer piece, this one about 3D audio and how it can make headphones sound more like real life, particularly important for virtual reality and augmented reality. It’s been a while since I last wrote a tech-focused article, and this was also my first piece for Medium’s Backchannel publication.

It was a fun one to report–I got to visit a local startup called VisiSonics based out of the University of Maryland and try out their 3D audio tech demos. This included my first experience of the new Oculus virtual reality headsets, which was exciting.

The last time I tried any VR was back in the early 90s, when I played some Virtuality arcade games (What I like to call the “Lawnmower Man” era of VR…). Needless to say, VR has definitely come a long way since then.

One of the nice parts of writing this piece was getting to know DC’s virtual reality startup scene. There are a lot of interesting startups and developers working on some exciting ideas (of course, there are far more in Silicon Valley and other large tech hubs). It’s one of the reasons I think it’s an exciting time for VR, there’s so much innovation happening around both hardware and software and so many smart people excited about it that I figure it will make some sort of an impact, even if no one’s quite sure what the consumer market will actually look like. But with the first consumer VR headsets expected within the next year, I guess we’ll find out soon.

A foggy feature

Coastal fog along California's Pacific Coast Highway. Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

Coastal fog along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Credit: Sandeep Ravindran

Here’s a longer feature article that I wrote for The Verge, a science and technology site that I read fairly regularly.

The article is about researchers who are developing more efficient methods to harvest water from fog. In particular I focused on a new fog collector based on the beaks of shorebirds, but I also provided a broad overview of existing techniques to collect fog water, where they can be useful, and whether such techniques could help supplement our water supply. Check it out here, I like how it’s laid out with nice images and videos.

When it comes to echolocation, some bats just wing it

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

Although fruit bats such as this one were thought not to be able to echolocate, new research finds that some fruit bats can use sonar clicks from their wings to navigate in the dark. Credit: Current Biology, Boonman et al.

My latest piece for NationalGeographic.com is about scientists discovering that some bats can echolocate using sonar clicks from their wings.

In every previously known example of echolocation, animals such as bats, dolphins, some birds and even some shrews use some sort of vocal organ (larynx, tongue, ‘sonar lips’ etc) to produce high-frequency sounds that they then detect bouncing off of surrounding objects.

Even more surprising, the researchers discovered this ability in bat species that were thought not to be able to echolocate at all (they have large eyes and seem to mostly rely on vision). Scientists now think that this kind of echolocation might be more widespread than they had suspected.

You can read all the details here. Interestingly, although they figured out that the clicks were coming from the wings, they still don’t know exactly how the wings are creating this sound.

There was a lot about the work that was really interesting, including details that I couldn’t include in the piece due to space constraints. For example, of the 3 species they tested, the one that lived in dark caves seemed to generate the most wing clicks, while the one that lived in trees and flew slowly had the least. So maybe how much different fruit bats rely on this ability depends on where and how they live, which makes sense.

And the experiments sounded quite challenging…it turns out bats aren’t the easiest to work with, and to test their ability to echolocate the experiments had to be done in complete darkness. In addition, the researchers were from Tel Aviv University in Israel, but did their experiments in Thailand because that’s where these bats were, and they had a limited amount of time to design and run all their experiments.

That meant very little sleep, and no time to do anything other than bat experiments (One of the researchers told me after multiple trips there they still haven’t seen the sea, or Bangkok!) And most of the work involved standing all night in a pitch-dark room, in temperatures of around 38 degrees celsius (100 degrees fahrenheit), occasionally getting pissed on by bats…

But despite the challenges, they stuck with it, and discovered something really cool and interesting. Although they must have been quite relieved when the experiments worked 🙂

P.S.
I realize I haven’t posted much recently. That’s partly because I traveled a bunch, and partly because all the articles I’ve worked on during this time have yet to be published, but I’ll update with links to them whenever they’re up.