I'm a teacher and a writer. I enjoy writing about how molecules exert their effects--both positive and negative--on the body. I am mostly retired from teaching biochemistry and chemistry to college nursing, pharmacy, premed, and med students but still occasionally teach for fun. I find that continuing to teach the odd class here and there is one of the best ways for me to at least try to keep from getting more stupid over time.
Just the mechanisms, please... I've also written a book, Herbs Demystified, where my primary goal was to focus on the mechanisms--what pharacologists would call the pharmacodynamics--of how chemicals in popular herbal supplements might work. My goal was not to tell people what they should take, but rather to focus on how they may or may not work. I hope this information is useful to both people contemplating taking an herb, and to researchers and health professionals as well. I always endeavor to be completely objective, to report the disappointing studies alongside the promising ones, even though the disappointing ones depress me!
"Natural vs. Synthetic" is not a helpful argument. You have to look at what a molecule does, regardless of its origin. Despite continual requests for me to take sides, I don't distinguish at all between so-called "natural" molecules and man-made ones, because these categories are more theological than scientific, and have confusing emotional overtones. Humans are truly natural, too--we are animals and ideally ought to consider ourselves as an integral and frighteningly influential part of the natural world. If we see ourselves as separate from nature, we are more likely to harm ourselves and nature. And besides, it just isn't true that we are separate from nature.
I was trained to design drugs for a living, but I prefer to look to plants to do that for us. However, I am especially interested in so-called "natural" plant-made molecules, because plants are excellent manufacturers of an exciting variety of biologically active compounds. Plants make them not for our benefit, but because plants can't run away from pests or toward pollinators, and have to suffice by synthesizing their own chemical weapons and attractants, of course. Yet we still can and do benefit from these plant-made chemicals. You can benefit most easily by eating more plants! For good research strongly supports that your health will improve if you do---though you have to steer clear of things like poison ivy and hemlock, of course.
I am not comfortable being a public health guru. I just attempt to provide good data. I also get a lot of requests for people asking me what products they should take. This makes me frankly uncomfortable since I don't like to tell people what to do, although I understand that you can make a lot of money doing just that. Rather than telling people what products they ought to consume or how they ought to live, I prefer to lay out evidence of what is known by the most rigorous (placebo-controlled double-blind) studies that I can find, and let people make up their minds for themselves, keeping in mind that what we think we know is continually evolving. I do believe that although science technically can never prove something ultimately, we paradoxically DO approach the truth, closer and closer, as we examine our world with the objective eyes of science.
My origins: from musically challenged teen geek to scientist. I grew up in Los Angeles and later finished high school in western Pennsylvania. I'd always adored science, but was intimidated by it, since my brother, a premed at the time, warned me that girls have trouble with science, and I believed him. (He's since apologized and I forgive him!) I was the complete teenage geek, hanging out with the original editors of the pagan Crystal Well magazine in Los Angeles, reading science fiction novels, and participating heavily in medieval reenactment groups. I had no idea that I would go into science, although I loved to read the science articles from my brother's magazines. I assumed I'd end up doing something with music, instead. I have a moderate ability for playing songs by ear, which I now know I used as a musical crutch, and is possibly related to a neurological condition I have called synesthesia. (Only now, after much old-fashioned practice, is reading music feeling automatic for the first time!) I played harp, piano, and sang. An aborted and ill-thought-out attempt to record my harp music in Salt Lake City resulted in my cultural astonishment at being stuck living there with no money in my 20's. There, I had nothing better to do than to never become a Mormon and to attend the University of Utah. I quickly realized a music scholarship I'd depended on was more a result of my playing by ear than actual talent earned by hard work, and switched to science. At least with science, I was scared enough and fascinated enough to finally work hard, since I was terrible at practicing music. Fourteen years of being a professional student earned me BS degrees in both chemistry and biology, and then a PhD in medicinal chemistry--the science of designing drugs, finding them in nature, testing them, and improving them. In science I feel I have found my true path.
My current life is filled with joy and too many projects. Although most doctors of medicinal chemistry get employed designing drugs for a living, I couldn't resist the joy of simply teaching, instead, and taught at many universities and community colleges over the years. I finally--and with many tears--left my full time teaching job at the Salt Lake Community College after getting tenure there in the chemistry department. Why did I leave my beloved job? It was very difficult, and I miss it still, but I did not want to live the rest of my life in Utah, and wanted to try living in another area of the country with my more adventurous and darling husband, artist, inventor, software developer, and musician Tim Erskine.
This move has rewarded us with a wonderful community of friends and the opportunity to try our hands at all sorts of new hobbies and to revive old ones. It is about all I have time for these days to keep working on several new writing projects, and to manage our various artistic and scientific projects. We practice amateur astronomy together, an old hobby of mine, and rescue feral cats with ASPCA's wonderful trap, neuter, return and maintain program. Our current household cats are Alberio, Neutron, and (Interference) Fringes, and we have shared the loss of our beloved Quark, Comet, and Stumper.
Recently we helped create a new art gallery, and are working on a series of short film comedies. One of my mottoes is to not let any lack of experience or skill on my part prevent me from trying anything new. Although I enjoy writing science articles, and obsessively read medical and science news every day, I share with my husband a secret love for fiction that has no socially redeeming value whatsoever, preferably in the science fiction and fantasy genre, and read a lot of books for teens, too. I'm in awe of anyone who can write fiction and keep trying it but I think it is terribly hard. So that is a new goal.
For a wedding present three years ago, Tim completely surprised me by giving me a new, extra large Celtic harp with sharping levers, decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl phases of the moon, the geek! So, I am now busy practicing that with a fantastic harp teacher, and for the first time am really practicing and learning to read music. I had to think up something to top Tim's present as a wedding present for him, and the only thing I possessed that could come close to his gift was to try to name him after an asteroid that I accidentally found a few several earlier, before meeting Tim. I had, according to astronomical rules of the Minor Planet Center that names such things, earned the right to name it, and was holding it in reserve for a special occasion.
Yes, I really did find an asteroid. The particular asteroid that I spotted first (as mentioned in this news story) was instead named without my permission by my ex husband for the town of his birth, Elko Nevada. I would never have named it Elko, myself, for although I am sure there are many fine residents living in Elko that have to live somewhere, Elko is a town that does not resonate with any deep sentiment for me personally. I'm just not into gambling or strip malls.
Since my ex husband was the owner of the equipment that I saw the asteroid on, he is listed, as he should be, as a co-discoverer. However, he thoughtfully realized that he did not have the right to name the asteroid that I found first, and graciously let me name another one that he found on his own, which I did, years later, Timerskine.
More detailed bio and book evolution: My fascination with herbs began early in life, and I recall ambitiously thinking as a very little girl that I might use them to acquire magical powers. I would be able to fly, become invisible, and save the world in three easy steps! My dollhouse contained a secret lab where the occupant could develop magical herbal potions.
My goals have grown more realistic over time, having spent years working in actual labs. I am now content to quell gas pains with chamomile.
Growing up, I read as much as I could on herbs from whatever resources I could get my hands on. I was disappointed, however, that the books vaguely stated that a given herb was good for a particular problem, with no mention of what “good” meant, or of what was really happening.
As the late physicist Richard Feynman said, knowing the name of something does not give you any knowledge about the thing. You can know the common and Latin names of an herb, and you can even give it the name "antiinflammatory", but what is it actually DOING? A PROCESS must be described, in order to explain the action of the herb. (The whole concept of naming an entity in order to gain power over it is an ancient and intriguing concept--I believe it pops up in the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin. Naming helps, but in order to really understand a thing, we need to know what it does, step by step, along its journey.) I find the adventures of molecules inside our body fascinating, and I hope that others will, too.
The omission of these processes in popular literature gives the reader the misleading impression that herbs produce an effect by some mysterious or magical means. But herbs contain smorgassboards of chemicals which go to different places in the body and do very interesting things. These chemicals are mysterious only because they are so small, we can not see them with our eyes. But they are real, physical entities, and it is my intention to help portray a vivid (and hopefully entertaining) picture of what scientists know about their activities.