Scientists Simplifying Science

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August 2017

Be it man or machine — a powerful memory impairs decisions

in ClubSciWri/That Makes Sense by

Are you the kind that remembers the core of a past event, but forgets the details? Well, research indicates that you might just be better at decision-making and adapting to the ever-changing, noisy environment. Most of us now acknowledge that it is as important to forget as it is to remember. And by forgetting, I do not mean wiping out unpleasant events (negative experiences propel better decision-making, we know that). It is storing the exquisite details or obsolete information that is a bother.  Why? Picture this. Erin and Matsya are being taught to identify cubes. Each of them has a Rubik’s cube in hand and makes a mental note of the object. The Rubik’s cube is replaced with 3 objects — a dice, a sugar cube, and a multicolored ball, each of a different size. While Erin had kept in mind the Rubik’s cube color, pattern, shape, and size, Matsya only managed to recollect its shape. Simply by storing and applying the gist of the learning, Matsya could quickly predict the dice and sugar block as cubes (i.e generalize), whereas storing too many details impeded Erin’s ability to swiftly choose the cubes. In a different scenario, Matsya’s favorite ice cream shop in her neighborhood shifts to an adjacent locality. Ability of her brain to delete the old location and update the new one can avoid conflict between the old and new and ease her in finding the place. These two scenarios reflect the importance of having a right mix of memory retention and loss for optimal decision-making. Thus, the potential of memory doesn’t lie in accurate, long-term retention of information but rather in guiding sensible decisions and promoting a flexible/adaptable behavior.

The importance of memory transience has also been highlighted in machine learning (ML), an artificial intelligence approach, wherein machines are trained to learn from provided data and expected to self-improve their performance using the “learning”. Regularization, an ML process that is brain’s equivalent to ‘storing and applying the gist of the learning’, shows that the lesser the parameters used for modeling, higher is the model’s ability to correctly predict the outcomes of new data. On the other hand, overly accurate model systems that have too many fed-in parameters are lower in applicability as they cannot generalize over different data sets.  Apart from regularization, computational models can also employ deletion of outdated data for more robust functioning. So, it looks like be it man or machine, remembering and forgetting are important.

But, what about the brain? What exactly is happening inside it when we are holding on to or letting go of memories? Can we influence what we retain or lose? Let’s take a quick look. The human brain is home to around 80-90 billion neurons — the smallest structural and functional electrically excitable units — that talk to each other using electrical and/or chemical signals. This “talking to each other” results in the formation of connections called “synapses”. Longer the talk between two neurons, stronger is their synapse (so much like human bonding, nay?). The birth, change, or death of these synapses is the basis for a lot of functions, one among them being storage and deletion of memories. Studies show that a memory persists principally because of excessive bonding between specific neurons that joined hands together to create the memory in the first place. Breaking or weakening of these bonds would aid in forgetting and/or learning. In reality, our brains are subject to regular remodeling from continuous neural activity and integration of new neurons. Moreover, environmental factors heavily influence our mnemonic abilities. For example, psychological stress affects an individual’s ability to store or retrieve memories, while activities like exercise are known to improve memory.

So, with memory’s neurobiological and computational perspectives in place, here’s the take home message: in a noisy, constantly changing world of today, optimal memory impermanence could be an investment in the choicest memory-guided planning for the future.


Richards, B. A., & Frankland, P. W. (2017). The Persistence and Transience of Memory. Neuron, 94(6), 1071–1084.

About Saikata:

Saikata Sengupta is currently pursuing her Ph.D. from Department of Neurology at Friedrich Schiller University, Germany. You can follow her on Linkedin or Twitter.




Illustrator: Vinita Bharat, PhD of Fuzzy Synapse

Editors: Manoja Eswara, PhD and Paurvi Shinde, PhD

Manoja Eswara obtained her PhD from the University of Guelph, Canada and is currently pursuing her postdoctoral fellowship in Cancer Epigenetics at Lunenfeld Tanenbaum Research Institute, Toronto, Canada.

Paurvi Shinde did her PhD in Biomedical Sciences (Immunology) from the University of Connecticut Health and is currently a postDoc at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. Apart from science, she’s a trained classical dancer and loves outdoor and hikes.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

 This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Story of Science: Dr. Ramray Bhat

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

Ian Leslie said, “Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.” And Ramray’s journey exemplifies the curiosity led transitions in his subjects of research interests at all phases of his career. He claims that he gets bored easily and cannot continue on the same thing for a long time.

As a nerd growing up in Calcutta, his inquisitiveness drove him to look up encyclopedias and science books. Being the text book ‘good’ student with good grades made him choose the option, biology and medicine.

I was inquisitive about things around us.’

Being questioning, he was more interested in interactions of physical world with the biological world. He remembers being intrigued by the shape of fishes towards the end of high school. He found it interesting that shape of most fishes is like a spindle in all cross sections. He wondered if hydrodynamic environment affects shaping of fishes. He bugged several physics students and found it annoying that the answers were not revealed in the many textbooks and encyclopedias he owned. He realized that there are a lot of biology-related questions that are still unanswered and that was the bait for him to lean towards basic research. He wanted to seek answers, a pursuit that continues to this day.

The fish is spindle shaped along all axes.

‘Does water movement shape the fish body?’ Ramray wondered.

However, he studied in a medical college, and he realized that most curriculum in India tend to dumb down curiosity.  He was driven into self education – reading biology, physics and mathematics books outside the strict curriculum. He believes that this reading developed an unorthodox and unconventional curriculum for himself that allowed him to ask different questions. He viewed his training in medicine as an alternate route to ultimately being a researcher. He claims that his training in physiological and pathological aspects on human biology were useful in gaining perspective on some of his research later.

I would read (science books) whatever I could get my hands on.’

He visited labs in Calcutta and Bangalore during his vacations and worked there. His interactions with scientists like Vidyanand Nanjundiah and Amitabh Joshi deepened his inclination towards basic sciences research.

After finishing his training in medicine, he started his doctoral studies at SA Newman’s lab in upstate New York. He worked on pattern formation in limb development. He elucidated novel information on the effect of physical forces on pattern formation and on how molecules come together to form a network leading to the same. These answers are reminiscent of his interest in shapes of fish. His love for pattern exists in physical and biological worlds. He also has a keen interest in architecture and pattern occurrence in man made structures as well.

He sought newer science for his postdoctoral studies. He worked with Dr. Mina J. Bissell on breast morphogenesis. There he dissected the importance of glycol saccharides in mammary tree branching. This time his research on morphogenesis had a relation with human pathogenesis. After four and half years, he sought a change and got recruited at the MRDG, IISc. There, he is now working on understanding the differences between metastatic routes of two different cancers, breast and ovarian.

Transitions allowed me to keep my love for science fresh, as well as, vigorous as it always was.’

While this is his first step as an independent principal investigator, it may not be the full stop for his transitions. We are on the lookout for all the things he will do with his love for curiosity and science.

About the author and illustrator:

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.




Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Why do we follow norms?

in That Makes Sense by

Editor’s Note: “Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.” ― Stanley Milgram

We are currently living in a world which is dynamic and runs like a multi-tiered puppetry. Our every action is governed by a set of rules and regulations. We being a part of this society, view ourselves as just instruments full filling another person’s command. But aren’t we people with awareness and perception? Why don’t we question authority? What is enslaving million of people around the globe? Are the free thinking scientist and creatives falling victims of such norms?

P Surat Saravanan’s article will help you to take a moment to think about rules, how they originated, what is so compelling about these norms? She believes studying and analyzing several models can contribute to predicting human behavior and decision-making process. – Rituparna Chakrabarti


It is 2nd of July 2014. Yoshuki Sasai, a Japanese stem-cell researcher at RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology has just published a letter expressing his remorse. He had published two breakthrough articles in Nature, a top scientific journal, showing a simple method of converting any somatic cell into a stem cell. However, several allegations soon emerged; RIKEN initiated an investigation and found Sasai guilty of scientific misconduct and fabrication.

Moving on…. 17th January 2016, the day Rohith Vemula, a Dalit committed suicide. His letter states, “My birth is a fatal accident…The value of man was reduced to his immediate identity…”. The country is raging with physical and intellectual caste battles on the roads and in coffee shops.

Now it’s 22nd May 2017, Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old suicide bomber has just detonated a shrapnel-loaded homemade bomb at the exit of Manchester Arena, Manchester. As the smoke, debris, and shrapnel spread, traumatised parents and kids watch in shock, each rushing to reach the exit.

We are still in 2017. Maybe, even yesterday or today for that matter. “Argh! He burped again! Why do you have to do that? Could you please accept that it’s rude to do that?” Rose exclaimed, tired of her brother’s annoying habit she had been trying to curb for years now.

What’s the common thread between these cases? Connecting them might appear like solving a graphic jigsaw puzzle session in dark, but there is a common link – the baggage of norms. Our social behavior emerges because of several intertwined factors: what are the efforts required for a task (cost) and what are the involved material benefits, instincts, socio-cultural and religious norms set per the society. Norms are agreed upon rules and set of expectations that we are supposed to follow and presume others to reciprocate within a situation.

We might behave in a restricted manner, cherry picking those we interact with and letting them transcend our inner circles; often biased by their caste, race and gender identity. Sometimes these norms push towards extremism, where one is even ready to give up their lives for the religion/ideals. Other times, towards not-so-extreme like controlling our burps in public. Some of the ideas of how people respond to social conformity were tested in the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch. The experiments showed how an individual opinion or behavior could be completely molded by the opinion of people around. Milgram’s studies can now be enjoyed in the movie Experimenter. Scientists are also confronted with norms referred to as the ‘Mertonian Norms’. One of the four Mertonian norms is ‘disinterestedness’, which specifies that scientists should act only for the progress of science and not personal gain. This norm is often violated when a scientist misinforms or fabricates evidence to publish their work, like in our first example.



Norms – society’s ‘invisible hand’

“Ravi regretted his decision as soon as he put the spoon in his mouth. It tasted like heaven, but the guilt weighed heavy on his heart and mind. He had always watched his friends from the sidelines eating seekh kebabs every Wednesday at the corner shop. He berated himself for his fickle mind and went back to his aloo-gobi. His family had been vegetarians since time immemorial. His parents, his grandparents, his great-grandparents…we could go on for a while. That night before sleep, he forced the thoughts of a roasted golden chicken out of his mind and instead tried to think about potatoes!”

One of the features of internalising a norm is that it becomes an end in itself rather than a tool to achieve your goals. Violating them can be psychologically painful. Although Ravi has no particular empathy towards plants or animals, he still avoids eating non-vegetarian food as it is emotionally painful for him to indulge in it after years of abstinence.

Following norms is associated with two main protagonists: (i) the norm abiders, those who may go to any lengths to abide by the norm, even at a personal expense (an extreme example is suicide bombers). They resort to punishing (ii) the norm violators (as seen during caste based honor killings). So, with its exacting personal cost, how did norms evolve in a society that primarily believes in ‘rational egoism’ (an action is rational only if it maximises self-interest)?

Two researchers from the University of Tennessee and University of California, Davis set out to answer this question1.


The experiment

Sergey Gavrilets and Peter J. Richerson simulated groups with a constant population size. The individuals in the group could participate in collective activities that require efforts and thus, a cost. However, the benefits of cooperative activities were also shared equally among the members. Both cost and punishment were incorporated as numeric variables which could equal 0 or 1. They looked at two kinds of collective activities: ‘us vs. nature’, where groups had to defend, hunt and breed cooperatively. Second, ‘us vs. them’, which includes inter-group conflicts over territory, mating partners and trade routes. The individuals in the simulation can also punish the free-riders – members who reap the benefits without contributing to efforts. However, punishing the free-riders also involves a cost for the other members as it requires constant monitoring. At the end of each simulation, the survival of the groups is proportional to their success in collective actions. Also, the survival and reproduction of the individuals in the groups are proportional to the accumulated material payoffs.

They extended this model to understand norm internalisation. They assumed that individuals live in a pro-social environment where they learn from their parents, friends and peers to contribute to collective actions and punish the free-riders. However, these decisions can be modified by how much they have internalised the norm and what are the material benefits. They treated norm internalisation (Ƞ) as a continuous trait ranging from 0 to 1 (Ƞ=1 represented under-socialized individuals who did not care about the norm, while Ƞ=1 represented over-socialized individuals who do not care about the material payoffs but the norms). The authors found that promoting costly punishment led to more efficient norm internalisation, than the allure of benefits of participation. Thus, they speculate that society and groups which impose disapproval or punishment on the norm violators rather than promote the benefits of cooperative participation will have stronger norm internalisation. They also found that stronger norm internalisation led to increased cooperation and monitoring or punishing the free-riders in both ‘us vs. nature’ and ‘us vs. them’ activities.

Although increasing norm internalisation promoted collective activities, the material benefits and biological fitness may vary. In case of the ‘us vs them’ paradigm, increased norm internalisation may decrease biological fitness. This may be due to ‘rent dissipation’ (resources pooled by individuals are much more than the benefits of cooperation). For example, ‘rent dissipation’ can become very large in cases of inter-group conflicts, such as wars or feuds which have a high death rate.


Evolutionary origins

Next, we try to understand how did such a behavior evolve.

When human beings evolved to perform several kinds of intra- and inter-group activities, including hunting, mating, territory acquisition and/or trade route conflicts, an individual in a group could either make a decision after processing the costs and benefits associated with each behavior, or it could “copy the most successful” in the group2,3. Choosing the second option reduced the mental calculation for cost-benefit evaluation for each task, costs to acquire information and processing errors. Thus, in a variable environment following previously set rules might help in making a faster decision. Kids, who have error-prone information processing and lack the information to make the cost-benefit analysis, start following norms as early as 2–3 years. For them, this may provide a way to adapt to their niche and provide protection from the social hazards. Kids initially follow norms as a form of imitating their parent’s reactions to different situations. Studies have found that 3-year-olds not only imitate their parents in following the norms but also start enforcing it on others4.

Following norms may yet have another advantage. Till around 7000 AD, human beings lived in isolated colonies and then they started agriculture. This led to bigger societies of non-kin (individuals not related to each other) living together. These populations had to ensure that people live, cooperate and share in a society unrelated to each other. This was probably when following norms stepped in. Norms helped in synchronizing the behavior of a larger society living together, allowing mutually beneficial cooperative behavior. Indeed, mimicry has been shown to increase cooperative behavior. However, synchronising the behavior of small vs. a large population can be a different game altogether. The authors also found that smaller groups have higher norm internalisation, whereas the larger groups, biological fitness is higher if they do not evolve internalisation. This could be due to the fact that larger groups require more cost for the individuals to monitor and punish the free-riders, which is an integral part of norm internalisation.


Where do we stand?

Every day, we make decisions on how to respond to different social situations and norms are one such factor which influences our decision. These models can help predict human behavior and decision making. Additionally, also provide ways to optimise them. For e.g., going back to our initial example of a violation of the Mertonian norm. Could enforcing stronger backlash for scientific misconduct prove to more effective in enforcing this norm, rather than promoting the idea of altruism and benefit of scientific enterprise?

Studies like these will navigate us one step closer towards answering such questions.


  1. Gavrilets, S. & Richerson, P. J. Collective action and the evolution of social norm internalization. 1–6 (2017). doi:10.1073/pnas.1703857114
  2. Chudek, M. & Henrich, J. psychology and the emergence of human prosociality. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 218–226 (2011).
  3. Henrich-and-Ensminger-Ch.2-2014.pdf.
  4. Hardecker, S. & Tomasello, M. From imitation to implementation : How two- and three-year-old children learn to enforce social norms. 1–12 (2016). doi:10.1111/bjdp.12159


About the Author

P Surat Saravanan completed her Ph.D. from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. She spent her graduate school years looking down through microscopes in dark rooms, staring at confocal images for hours, and praying to Drosophila Gods to make them lay more eggs – in the hope of trying to understand what makes a cell behave the way it does. Currently, she is a freelance science editor and writer. Apart from science writing, she is also passionate about cubist art.



Editor: Rituparna Chakrabarti, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

Cover Image: Pixabay

Featured Video: YouTube

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


The Patent Chronicle

in Sci-IP by

August 1, 2017: Your weekly dose from the world of patents. The Patent Chronicle is led by Syam Anand, who has been at the core of CSG’s development and an entrepreneur himself. This section is your go to destination every week for a capsule dose on the hottest happenings in the patent world. Syam has clinically dissected out every news on the decision, the background and the impact. He is also in the process of building his scicomm team for this section. If you would like to come aboard, mail him at

Let’s roll the dice for the latest happenings…


Patent-free life saving drugs from Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative (DNDI)

The 1990 Nobel Prize for Doctors without Borders provided the seed money for DNDI. But that was not sufficient for DNDI to realize its goal of manufacturing and distributing drugs for diseases of the poor. Bernard Pécoul, a physician associated with Doctors without Borders embarked on a journey to realize this dream. Delinking the usual norms and practices of drugs and profitability, Pécoul lead DNDI to a pharma company for the poor. DNDI now delivers patent-free drugs to neglected diseases that would not have been possible with complete reliance on traditional pharmaceutical industry.

Read more



A life-saving patent that Volvo never licensed

US Patent 3043625 to Nils Bohlin reduced the fatalities from car collisions by almost 50%. Volvo, with whom Bohlin was employed was also a leader in many safety features that we use in cars even today. But little known is the fact that Volvo allowed all car manufacturers to use their patented three-point harness system without requiring a license. Thank Bohlin and Volvo for the “click it”.

Read more


Exon-skipping patent settlement by Sarepta

Decision: Biomarin Pharmaceutical Inc. and Sarepta Therapeutics signed a license providing Sarepta with exclusive rights to Biomarin’s exon-skipping products.

Reason: Worldwide patent battles had pitched the two companies against one another on the use of exon-skipping products for DMD.

Impact: Both Biomarin and Sarepta come out as winners with agreements on royalties, licensing fees and profit sharing. They are also a sign of mutual cooperation that will benefit the end-users. As a result of these agreements, both companies get credit for their innovation, which will allow them to focus on R&D rather than litigation. It also consolidates their position as a global leader in exon-skipping products for diseases like DMD.

Read more


Stryker strikes triple damages

Decision: US district judge ruled that Zimmer Biomet infringed Stryker’s patent for a pulsed lavage system used in surgeries. Further, the court tripled the damages for infringement for egregious behavior.

Reason: The infringement suit was filed in 2010 in Kalamazoo and related to three patents covering Stryker’s Pulsavac. The litigation also took place in the federal circuit with mixed results for Stryker. The judge in Michigan however felt that Zimmer did nothing to stop the infringing activity or mitigate damages at any point during the litigation. Further, the judge also felt that the Zimmer refused to turn over the evidence in a “willful and egregious” manner.

Impact: As a result of the judgment Zimmer owes Stryker 248.7 million dollars. It is a good time to be associated with Stryker.

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Amphastar gets breather in blood thinner war

Decision: The US District court jury in Boston ruled that a Momenta patent used to test an ingredient in generic Lovenox is invalid. The jury also sided with Amphastar on whether Momenta had waived its rights to enforce the patent.

Reason:  Momenta and Novartis had sued Amphastar close to a billion dollars in lost sales for using their patented test without permission in the manufacture of their generic version.

Impact: Lovenox has a long history of litigation. The legal war will continue on multiple fronts with Amphastar filing an antitrust motion against Momenta and Momenta planning for appeals.

Read more

Infographically speaking….

Seat Belts Save Lives

From Visually.

Proprietary Humor

Source: Mimi and Eunice

About the author:


Authored by Dr Syam Anand, PhD (Indian Institute of Science, IISc; Post-Doctoral research, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Faculty, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Founder and US Patent Agent, Mainline Intellectual Property LLC, Ardmore, Philadelphia USA). Syam has over 20 years experience in diverse areas of Science with domain knowledge in Life Sciences and Intellectual Property. Dr. Anand is also an inventor and budding entrepreneur. A rationalist, Dr. Anand enjoys science at all levels and advocates the use of scientific methods for answering all questions and solving all problems and make common people curious and interested in understanding their worlds.

Feature image source: Pixabay

Blog design: Abhinav Dey

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This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


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