Teachable Moments

Public tax dollars fund a great deal of scientific research, but the public doesn't always hear about the results. Two scientists with a connection to Quinnipiac strive to give us more bang for our bucks.

Professors Norbert K. Herzog and David W. Niesel '75 are the voices behind "Medical Discovery News," a two-minute, syndicated radio broadcast and corresponding newspaper column that make breaking scientific news relevant to ordinary people and in language they understand.

Before coming to Quinnipiac, Herzog was a faculty member at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Niesel, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, is a professor and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UTMB.

Their show is heard on 115 radio stations in the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, Zambia and the United Kingdom, including Quinnipiac's AM 1220 WQUN. Episodes delve into biomedical questions, such as whether airport full-body scanners pose radiation risks, why people yawn, why sunburns hurt so much, the health benefits of beer, and the link between sleep scarcity and early death. The website, www.medicaldiscoverynews.com, carries transcripts of the shows as well as links to additional information and other features.

Herzog met Niesel at the University of Texas at Austin in 1980, where they were pursuing research on infectious microbes. Each later joined the faculty at UTMB and decided to channel their passion for promoting public understanding of science by creating "Medical Discovery News" in 2006.

"Part of our responsibility is to educate people about discoveries if we want them to continue to fund science. Not enough researchers are doing this," Herzog said. In his classes, Herzog will emphasize the importance of doctors being good communicators with their patients. Herzog is a fan of Ira Flatow's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday" show on NPR, which focuses on science topics in the news. "But we are the only show devoted to biomedical discoveries," he said.

"David and I choose timely topics, such as the contaminated spinach or peanut butter scares of a few years ago. Or we talk about new vaccines, whatever strikes our fancy," he said.

Another example is the piece they did on coffee, prompted by a study showing caffeine may heighten brain function by affecting an area deep in the brain responsible for memory. The professors reported that caffeine is able to alter brain chemistry because its molecule interrupts a process behind sleepiness. "We get sleepy as the day wears on because adenosine builds up," Herzog said. But caffeine interrupts this cycle by binding to nerve cells, blocking adenosine and stopping the sleep signal. Rather than slow down, the neurons keep going. "We don't just tell you that coffee is good for you, but why," he said.

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