Monday, March 24, 2014

Do Fetuses Experience Pain?

Controversy over abortion laws has led to many other discussions surrounding the development of the fetus. When does a fetus begin to feel pain? When does it gain consciousness? What are its cognitive abilities in the womb? This essay will attempt to answer these questions.
It is still unclear when human babies/fetuses begin to feel pain. The first step to feeling pain is to develop the necessary neuroanatomy. Evidence suggests that the necessary anatomical developments are in place at as early as 26 weeks gestation. When a fetus of approximately 26 weeks is exposed to noxious stimuli, it will respond to them, although minimally (Derbyshire, 2006). There are studies which claim to record evidence of fetal expressions of pain and/or distress. In one particular study, 8 female and 7 male fetuses were scanned with a 4-D ultrasound four times during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, or 24 to 36 weeks gestation. The study specifically focused on expressions of pain or distress. Researchers concluded that as the fetus matured, so too did its visible responses to stimuli. However, the fetuses were not provoked in any way, and these responses did not reflect the fetuses' emotional or cognitive state (Reissland, 2013).
Although fetuses technically have the anatomy to experience pain around 26 weeks gestation, it is unclear whether or not they actually experience pain as we know it, because of their minimal level of consciousness. Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage” by the International Association for the Study of Pain. In spite of its anatomy, it is thought that fetuses do not experience true pain, because they are not conscious of it, and have no experience or memory to base their pain on. The fetus is actually provided natural sedatives from the placenta just as it receives nutrients from it. The fetus is asleep for the duration of gestation. It is suspended in a warm, cushioned environment and it does not know anything but this. It is unlikely that it would be able to experience true pain, as it is unconscious and has no basis for comparison. Essentially, the fetus has not yet learned how to experience pain, or identify itself as an individual (Koch, 2009). 
In conclusion, it is unclear exactly when the fetus reaches a conscious perception of pain. Though the fetus develops the anatomy to respond to pain during the latter part of pregnancy, and can even make facial expressions of pain and/or distress, there is no correlation with the fetus’s actual comfort level. The placental sedation of the fetus means that it has no memory or “experiences” and therefore is unable to experience pain in the conscious way that adults and children understand. Further research may someday uncover more information on this complex and controversial question.

3-D/4-D Ultrasound of Fetus from Fetal Expression Photo Gallery
See more 4-D Ultrasounds at

Pain/Distress Fetal Expression from Facial Expression Study
Read the study of fetal expression of pain and distress at

For more information on birthing babies, attend the Marin Science Seminar on Wednesday, March 26 at Terra Linda High School with Sheri Matteo, RN, CNM of Prima Medical Foundation, Marin General Hospital. Find out more at  


Christof Koch. (2009, August 1). When Does Consciousness Arise in Human Babies?. Retrieved March 16 from

Fetal Expressions. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2014 from

Hugo Lagercrantz and Jean-Pierre Changeux.(2009). The Emergence of Human Consciousness: From Fetal to Neonatal Life. Retrieved March 16, 2014 from

Nadja Reissland, Brian Francis, James Mason. (2013, June 5). Can Healthy Fetuses Show Facial Expressions of “Pain” or “Distress”?. Retrieved March 16, 2014 from

Stuart W G Derbyshire. (2006, April 15). Can Fetuses Feel Pain?. Retrieved March 16, 2014 from

The Adorable, Rewarding, and Sometimes Difficult Task of Birthing Babies

A common misconception is that the only job of a midwife is to deliver babies. In reality, the duties of a 
midwife begin long before the baby is born. A midwife can screen for diseases, prescribe certain 
medications, help the mother stay healthy during pregnancy, monitor the baby's growth before and after 
birth, provide emotional support, discuss care options and breastfeeding, support the mother and
her child after birth, and provide many more services in addition to the delivering the baby. As a 
midwife, upcoming MSS speaker Sheri Matteo is responsible for the health and wellbeing of a woman
and her baby for the entire length of the pregnancy and beyond. The video below shows the benefits of 
midwifery for women. 

 Matteo explained that midwifery in the U.S. has undergone many changes throughout history.
"Before the early 20th century, most babies in the US were delivered by midwives at home. Then 
medicine, mostly male doctors, brought birth into hospitals and birth became a medical condition. 
Women were put to sleep and babies were delivered with forceps. Moms were encouraged to bottle 
feed. Midwifery pretty much vanished. In the 1970’s, with the rise of feminism and the “natural birth” 
movement, midwifery as a profession started to grow again. Unlike many other industrialized countries
with better childbirth statistics where midwifery care is the norm, midwifery in the US has stayed on 
the fringe and been seen as an “alternative” birth option. In the 15 years that I have been practicing, 
I have seen many midwifery services grow and disband based on whatever economic issue was driving
healthcare at that time. Healthcare in the US is still largely driven by economics and legislation, but 
midwives and other “mid levels” or “allied health professionals” are rising in use and stature. We 
have rigorous education and certification maintenance programs and are fully integrated into healthcare
teams with nursing, case managers and social workers, as well as doctors. The profession is growing in
numbers and strength and our good outcomes are more commonly recognized by clients and medicine
professionals." According to Time magazine, approximately 8% of babies born in the U.S. - a record 
high - and about 24% of babies in New Mexico were delivered by midwives in 2009. While delivery in 
the U.S. usually takes place in a hospital in the presence of obstetricians, more and more women are 
turning to midwives. 

Read the rest of the interview with Sheri Matteo for a sneak peek preview of her upcoming MSS 
presentation "Birthing BabiesWhat it Takes to be a Nurse Midwife". 

How did you decide to become a midwife?  
I was premed in college and always thought I wanted to be an obstetrician. I was also a singer and performed in HS and college plays. I spent my junior year abroad studying acting in London and when I returned I realized I no longer wanted to go to med school. I received my BA in Theatre Arts at Brown University. I worked as an actress in NYC, off-Broadway and as a member of a theatre company. Working on a play with an older actress, I discovered her daughter was a midwife. I didn’t even know midwifery was a profession at that time! Shortly after, I met a woman who was an obstetrician. I was really inspired hearing about her work. She invited me to “take call” with her one night at the hospital. I saw a birth and I was hooked! Midwifery appealed to me more than medicine because of its emphasis on childbirth as a natural part of life, not a medical condition that needs to be “treated”.

How does one become a midwife? What sort of training or education is necessary?  
There are many different kinds of midwives in the US and several different ways to become one. There are “lay” midwives who receive traditional training as an apprentice of another lay midwife. These midwives are sometimes state licensed and sometimes not. They are not eligible to work in hospitals so they only do home birth.  To be a Certified Nurse Midwife, I had to enroll in nursing school with the plan to continue onto graduate school. I went to Columbia University School of Nursing in NYC. They have a special nursing program for people who already have a baccalaureate. Instead of four years, I earned my BSN (Bachelors of Science in Nursing) in one and a half years. I continued on to complete my Masters in Nursing (MSN) in another one and a half years, for a total of three straight years and two degrees.

What are the responsibilities of a midwife? What is a typical day?  
Certified Nurse Midwives can perform nearly all aspects of women’s health primary care. We screen for diseases, including cervical cancer, breast cancer and STDs. We can prescribe medicine including birth control and antibiotics. We perform prenatal care, making sure moms stay healthy in pregnancy and their babies are growing well.  We can deliver babies in the hospital, in birth centers, or at home. We support women with breastfeeding and take care of them postpartum. We do a lot of client teaching about their health, bodies, and care and treatment options. Though we do not perform surgery like c/sections, we are hands-on surgical assistants. A typical day involves either working at the clinic seeing prenatal patients (between 12-20 in 8 hours) or working in the hospital supporting moms in labor and delivering babies. Because I am the Director of my group of 12 midwives, I also have office work and a lot of meetings to attend. I work on marketing my group’s services, hospital quality and safety and employee satisfaction and performance.

What is the most exciting, rewarding, or difficult aspect of being a midwife?  
Watching new families grow! Helping women be and stay healthy. Meeting all kinds of people from all different cultures. Working with women and empowering them to believe in their natural ability to birth and mother.

What advice do you have for young people aspiring to be in a healthcare profession?  
It is very hard work but also very rewarding. Never forget to treat all people with dignity and respect.


To learn all about midwifery and birthing babies, attend the Marin Science Seminar presentation "Birthing Babies: What it Takes to be a Nurse Midwife" with Sheri Matteo, RN, CNM of Prima Medical Foundation, Marin General Hospital on Wednesday, March 26, 2014, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207. See the flyer here

For more information go to:
Our Bodies Ourselves Health Resource Center
Dimensions Healthcare System
Student Medics
Time Magazine

Image credits:

~Claire Watry

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Renewed Sense of Porpoise

Harbor porpoises have returned to the San Francisco Bay after a 65-year absence. What does their return mean for the other animals of the bay? Why did they leave? Why might they have returned? This week's Marin Science Seminar speaker Jonathan Stern will address these questions and provide insight into the world of local harbor porpoises. The video below is a tribute to the harbor porpoise's return to the bay by the National Wildlife Federation California.

Fast Fasts about the Harbor Porpoise from the National Geographic Society:

Terra Linda High School graduate Jonathan Stern is a lecturer and adjunct professor in the Biology Department at San Francisco State University. He has studied minke whales since 1980 and currently serves as a Co-Principal Investigator at Golden Gate Cetacean Research, where he studies harbor porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, and minke whales locally in the San Francisco Bay. He has also studied an assortment of whales including gray whales, killerwhales, fin whales, humpback whales, and pilot whales. He was the first volunteer at the Marine Mammal Center when it opened in 1975.

How did you decide to study marine life?

My father was a ship captain, who traveled all over the world. When he would come home, he would bring me seashells from the places he traveled. I also watched Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau when I was a child and was fascinated by the sea.
From left: Lloyd Bridges stars in Sea Hunt, Seashell collection, Explorer Jacque Cousteau
How do you conduct your research?
This varies depending on what specifically I am studying. I do my observations from the shore and a boat. I also spend a considerable amount of time doing data analysis. I sit with my computer and books about statistical analysis and modeling.

Harbor Porpoise sighting near the Golden Gate Bridge

What is the most difficult aspect of your work?
My works is not difficult; it is challenging physically (being out on the water in a small boat on the open ocean takes its toll over the years) and the data analysis and the writing of papers take time to get things right. The challenge is fun!

What is one of the most surprising or exciting thing you have discovered about porpoises?
We have seen porpoises mating. This sounds like it is not a big deal, but given that these porpoises are among the most commonly seen marine mammal, we are the first to see them mating. The real surprise though is that we can do most of our observations from the Golden Gate Bridge.

What advice do you have for aspiring young scientists?
Prepare yourself! Prepare yourself by taking as many math and science classes as possible. Prepare yourself by learning to keep your focus, but keep your eye on other branches of science. Prepare yourself by learning to ask questions. that is the most important part of science, asking questions. Do not be afraid of the challenge. Prepare to study, work, and have fun. Science is a process.

Report your porpoise sightings! Golden Gate Cetacean Research's page for Porpoise, Dolphins & Whale sightings in SF Bay & the NorCal coast.

To learn more about the return of the harbor porpoise and its ecological implications, attend the Marin Science Seminar presentation San Francisco Bay Has a Renewed Sense of Porpoise" with Jonathan Stern Ph.D. of San Francisco State University, January 29, 2014, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207. See the flyer here

Want more information? Check out the websites below.
National Wildlife Federation California 
Golden Gate Cetacean Research
National Geographic
SF Gate Article

~Claire Watry

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Fascination Behind Ants

Did you know that ants are capable of carrying 50 times their body weight in their mouth? Or that ants are the original farmers? Or even that the total biomass of all of the ants on the planet is roughly equivalent to the biomass of all of the people on Earth? These are three of the many reasons why ants are so fascinating. The small insect that most of us view a pest is actually a intriguing specimen and worth the time and effort to research. 

Marin Science Seminar returns in 2014 with a presentation titled "Ants: The Invisible Majority" with Dr. Brian Fisher. Dr. Fisher is a modern day explorer who journeys through remote tropic areas in search of ants. His research utilizes ants as a tool to discover and preserve plant and animal diversity in these places. Dr. Fisher has discovered over 1000 new species of ants including the jumping ants and Dracula ants. He has appeared in a number of BBC, Discover Channel, and National Geographic films and has been profiled in Newsweek and Discover magazine. When he is not working in the field with ants, Dr. Fisher lives in a tree house with the banana slugs. He is currently Chairman of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences and adjunct professor of biology at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. In the video below, Dr. Fisher details why he believes ants are so cool.


The following interview shows his experiences with ants and his passion for his research.

How did you decide to become entomologist? 

I actually thought I was going to be a botanist, but after a trip to Panama as a sophomore at the University of Iowa, I was struck by the ants’ diversity, abundance, and ecological role. Its not just their diversity that is fascinating. After all beetles are diverse - there are 40,000 leaf beetles - but they all just eat leaves. Ants, on the other hand, have evolved  the most diverse and surprising ways of making a living from growing fungus to tending to aphids. Also, because ants are social, there is a whole other dimension that is fascinating that is not even possible with solitary insects. After working on plants a bit that year in Panama and I dropped the "pl" and just worked on "ants".

Why did you choose to study ants specifically?

I remember I changed the day I discovered an orchid in the canopy in Panama.  This orchid had a specialized home for ants to live and produced nectar for the ants to eat. This was the first orchid to have such a relationship with ants. After researching the ants on this orchid, and learning how their trash pile in the orchid bulb helped feed the orchid, I was hooked on ants.  

Where has your research taken you?

I have worked mostly in the tropics, especially South America, Africa, and Madagascar.  Ants are much more diverse in the tropics. Antarctica, the only continent named after ants, actually doesn't have any ants.  

Dr. Fisher collecting ants in Madagascar. 

What is the most difficult aspect of your work? 

To be a field-based explorer and a scientist requires you to juggle a lot - from fund raising and government permits to extreme field conditions to sitting endlessly looking through a microscope.  

What is one of the most surprising or exciting thing you have discovered about ants? 

In Madagascar, I have discovered over 800 new species of ants, including Dracula ants. These "primitive" ants feed off the blood of their own larvae. Why are we so interested in discovering life on Mars when right here on Earth, we know so little. We are also probably the last generation that will have a chance to explore much of this diversity before it goes extinct.  

Dracula Ant
Dr. Fisher's Ant Collection

What information can people learn from ants?

Ants are social and, like humans, face many of the same problems such as communication, group problem solving, food transfer etc. By studying ants, we are learning how ants, after 150 million years of evolution, have solved these shared problems.  Some of these studies on group intelligence and neural networks are already making an impact in the field of artificial intelligence.  

How do people react when you tell them about your work?

After I give a lecture, where I detail the wonder of the secret lives of ants, the first question I get is always, "How can I kill the ants in my kitchen?" My response?  I tell them to leave some cookie crumbs on the counter and watch the ants. It is a rare treat to watch these wonders right in your own home.     

Be sure to check out the rest of the 10 Fascinating Facts About Ants here

Still not convinced that ants are fascinating? For countless reasons why, come to the Marin Science Seminar presentation Ants: The Invisible Majority" with Dr. Brian Fisher Ph.D. of the California Academy of Sciences, January 22, 2014, 7:30 – 8:30 pm, Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, Room 207

See the flyer here

For more information, videos, and pictures about Dr. Fisher check out his page on the California Academy of Sciences website or his ant web site. 

~Claire Watry

Image credits:

Video credits: