This Scientist Explains Complex Concepts With Sushi - Gastro Obscura
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This Scientist Explains Complex Concepts With Sushi

Sashimi meets science.

Using sushi to explain a new National Institutes of Health policy on sex as a biological variable in research.
Using sushi to explain a new National Institutes of Health policy on sex as a biological variable in research. All photos courtesy of Janelle Letzen

By day, Janelle Letzen is a postdoctoral research fellow in clinical psychology at Johns Hopkins University. There, she researches the sobering subject of chronic pain. But in January of this year, Letzen decided to combine science with her hobby: sushi art. Using brightly colored tuna, avocado, and “krab” meat, her Instagram account the_sushi_scientist visually explains topics ranging from neuroscience to geology.

The sections of the brain that control language, depicted in fish and rice.
The sections of the brain that control language, depicted in fish and rice.

Her sushi-making habit began in 2017 as a New Year’s resolution to learn a new skill. She settled on sushi, but as an edible medium for art. It wasn’t long before she fell in love with it. She recalls thinking that her two passions, science and sushi, could be combined. On Instagram, she began explaining neuroscience topics with fish and rice. Cucumber rolls stand in as synaptic terminals, and short videos of sushi rolls darting around a plate explain subjects such as how neurons chemically communicate.

In this collaboration with science_exercises.eu, artificial metalloenzymes have never looked so good
In this collaboration with science_exercises.eu, artificial metalloenzymes have never looked so good

Her work is part of a larger movement, Letzen explains. Researchers and teachers are using what she calls “scienstagrams” to inform audiences visually. Letzen and other “science communicators” make science approachable and understandable. In this day and age, Letzen says, that’s especially important in a world of abundant information and misinformation. She believes that her followers are mostly medical professionals and students interested in biopsychology and neuroscience, her own fields of study. “But I’m also trying to target more informal learners as well, by making science more tangible,” she says. Professors have been using her work to explain concepts to their students, “which has been great.”

The connection between neural mechanisms and chronic pain is Letzen's field of study.
The connection between neural mechanisms and chronic pain is Letzen’s field of study.

Recently, Letzen began inviting other scientific contributors to express their work through sushi. For “Brain Awareness Week” in March, neuropsychology post-doctoral fellow Aliyah Snyder shared her knowledge on concussions on the_sushi_scientist, and Letzen constructed a video of a sashimi brain getting a concussion. Last week, cave scientist and PhD student Gabi Serrato Marks captioned a post about cave stones (made of sushi, of course). The study of cave rocks formed by dripping water, Marks explained, can provide clues about ancient climate change.

My name is Aliyah Snyder (@clarissa_cheddarbiscuits), and I’m a neuropsychology post-doctoral fellow where I see patients and do research as part of the UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program. My research focuses on how to improve concussion recovery through exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy. https://www.uclahealth.org/brainsport/ * A concussion is a type of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that occurs when the brain is jostled in the skull as a result of a biomechanical force (e.g., hit from another person/object). There are 2 stages of injury, the primary impact and a secondary injury from the stretching and shearing of neural tissue. Energy is needed to repair the stressed brain cells, which diverts resources away from supporting normal brain function. This results in the signs and symptoms of a concussion, including cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical changes.. * Contrary to what many people think, a concussion is not a “brain bruise” because the brain is not bleeding. If clinical scans do detect blood, then the injury is generally considered to be a moderate or severe TBI. Like a bruise though, a concussion will normally get better on its own without lasting damage. * Finding a balance between physical/cognitive rest and returning to normal life after a concussion is tricky. Research shows that playing sports through a concussion may prolong your recovery. But remaining inactive and avoiding cognitive/physical activities after a brief period of rest can also contribute to persistent symptoms. * One of the biggest concussion myths is that you shouldn’t sleep after the injury. While it is important to be immediately evaluated by a medical professional, avoiding sleep will only worsen concussion symptoms. * There is very little agreement in the scientific community about the role of concussions in disorders like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While some studies show increased risk of CTE in football players, others demonstrate that rates of dementia in players are not significantly higher than the general population. * Learn more about concussions and mTBI from an excellent explanation on the @cdcgov website!

A post shared by The Sushi Scientist (@the_sushi_scientist) on

Questions and even debate flourish in the comments section. On a post about hallucinogenics, accompanied by brightly-colored sushi rolls on a holographic plate, a commenter asked Letzen to acknowledge the efficacy of psychedelics such as MDMA for therapeutic reasons. So Letzen reached out to an expert on the topic, and then updated the text “to improve that post.”

There is one question, however, that Letzen receives over and over: What happens to the sushi after it’s photographed? The answer is simple. “I’ll eat it,” Letzen says.

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