We perceive light and color because of photoreceptor cells in our retina called rods and cones. Rods help us see low contrast images, motion, and during nighttime. Cones help us see high contrast sharp images and colors. Humans with normal color vision have three types of cones: s, m, and l cones. These cones help us see colors of different wavelengths, i.e., from lower wavelength color like blue to a higher wavelength color like red. Hence, a person with normal color vision is a trichromat, tri meaning three, chroma meaning colors. Trichromats can differentiate between about 1- 2 million colors. However, about 12% of women have a special 4th cone that enables them to see in more detail and can differentiate between 100 million colors. This condition is called tetrachromacy, tetra meaning four, chroma meaning colors. Women with tetrachromacy are called tetrachromats.
Tetrachromacy is usually caused by a genetic mutation in the X-linked chromosome and is predominantly found in women. If you recollect middle school biology, you will remember that we have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of the pairs among the 23 is called an allosome or a sex chromosome which determines the sex of an individual, i.e., XX (female) and XY(male). While a female mammal receives 1 X chromosome from each parent, a male mammal receives 1 X chromosome from his mother and 1 Y chromosome from his father. Color vision anomalies arise on the X-chromosome. Since women have 2 X chromosomes, they carry the genes (also known as carriers) for color vision anomalies from their fathers and pass them on to their sons. Carrier women do not have any color vision problems as they have another intact X chromosome inherited from their mothers. This is also why more men have some form of color vision anomaly, as they only have 1 X chromosome. For a female to be color blind, the gene must appear on both her X chromosomes.
Similarly, a female becomes tetrachromatic when she receives a normal X chromosome from her mother and an X chromosome with a color vision anomaly from her father. She develops a 4th set of cone cells in her retina, making her a tetrachromat. Since a male receives only the Y chromosome from their father, they usually cannot be tetrachromatic.
Where else can we find tetrachromacy?
While tetrachromacy is rare among humans and mammals, it can be seen commonly among certain species of plants, fish, insects, reptiles, and birds. This feature helps find food and mates. Since plants and insects mutually benefit from being symbiotic, they have evolved complex colors to attract each other.
What extra colors do tetrachromats see?
As mentioned, tetrachromats can differentiate between 100 million colors. Some sources claim that tetrachromats can see ten colors in a rainbow. As the 4th cone sits between the m and l cones, tetrachromats can differentiate between more colors in the red, yellow, and green parts of the spectrum.
How can we test for tetrachromacy?
There is a lot of research ongoing to understand tetrachromacy and how to test it. Genetic testing is one of the best ways to profile your genes for this trait. The color matching test is also being used for confirming tetrachromacy in research labs. Researchers presented participants with a set of 2 mixtures of colors over a few sessions. Trichromats reported that they saw differences between the color mixtures. On the other hand, tetrachromats reported that the color mixture was the same in all the sessions.
An online test called the Derval color test claims to detect tetrachromacy:
If you see 20 or fewer colors in the above spectrum, you have dichromacy with only two functional cones. If you see between 20-32 colors, you are a trichromat with three functional cones, and if you can see between 33-39 colors, you are a tetrachromat. However, research shows that this test is inaccurate. According to researchers at Newcastle University in the UK, computers cannot generate the spectrum of colors detectable by tetrachromats. Dr. Gabriele Jordon, a neurobiologist researching tetrachromacy, says that while 12% of women may be tetrachromatic with four functional cones, only 2-3 % of them are actually functional. In fact, in her 20-years of research, she has come across only one tetrachromat who passed the match test with flying colors (pun intended). Known as subject cDa29, her story was a news flash in the media. Concetta Antico, an artist and tetrachromat, also shared her experiences about how tetrachromacy influences her art.
Research hopes to introduce new ways to test for tetrachromacy, especially by introducing new colors to observe if the fourth cone becomes functional in the other 10% of women. Maybe science can introduce a new set of colors beyond our imagination.
When we think of the term "mental health," what do we really mean? A broad definition would be the state of the psychological and emotional well-being of an individual. However, it has come to mean and involve so much more. Mental health also involves the conceptualization of self-reflection, self-awareness, and the development of a sense of self. This description of mental well-being may seem an abstract concept, but when we experience a decline in our mental health, it often shows up in physical manifestations of stress/anxiety and bleeds into multiple parts of our lives. Graduate students are not excluded from this. In fact, the expectations and environment of academia make grad students more susceptible to mental health decline. And people are talking about it.
A 2018 research article by Evans and colleagues highlighted how mental illness is an increasing concern within academia and that intervention-based policies can help curb the growing problem. Researchers found that "graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population." And of the 2,279 individuals who participated in the study (90% PhD candidates, 10% Master's students), 41% of graduate students scored as having moderate to severe anxiety, and 39% had moderate to severe depression. Even more alarming, the study found that the rate of anxiety and depression in transgender graduate students was significantly higher than their cis-gendered counterparts. Studies like this bring focus to the importance of mental health. Furthermore, mental health decline in response to the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes the significance of understanding what mental well-being entails, supporting each other by telling our stories, and sharing our cognitive stress-processing strategies/resources. With that, here are some strategies on how graduate students can take steps to prioritize their mental well-being.
Be open to acknowledging the headspace you are in
Making a conscious effort to improve and maintain your mental health starts with an awareness of your mental health status. In my experience, it was my significant other and close friends who noted my mental health decline as I was no longer participating in social activities and began to speak negatively about myself. However, not everyone has a strong support system. As individuals, we need to be aware of our mental health regularly. Acknowledge how you feel and make a quick note about it on a daily/or weekly basis. Note apps, written journal entries, e-journal entries, and online spreadsheets are all tools to help you track your state of mind. The note can be as little or big of a description as you want but should include your overall feelings. Over time you can find patterns and identify what events/conditions activate specific emotions. Mental health management is a personal journey, and there is no right or wrong way to go about it when it comes to identifying your emotions and their validity.
Identify what conditions/environment may act as stressors on your mental health
If you know that a particular place or event will make you nervous or stressed, you need to prepare for that. In academia, you may not have the choice to avoid stress-linked locations or tasks. For example, if you identify a specific school building as an environmental trigger where exams are taken, avoiding that building may not be possible. But you can prepare for the emotions you might have by taking a note of feelings that arise when you are there and strategize how you can tamper down your nervousness. Take a look at the table below for some examples of stress and anxiety symptoms:
Be prepared to set boundaries
In the name of personal well-being, we have to become comfortable with setting up boundaries. For graduate students, a typical example that comes to mind is setting work/life boundaries about the time allocated to work and being comfortable saying no. Setting boundaries can trigger other stressors graduate students face, like imposter syndrome and a sense of self-worth tied to productivity. It is okay to prioritize your primary responsibilities and not take on extra work that may be asked of you. Also, setting boundaries between your professional and work-life helps ameliorate stressors associated with mental health decline.
Outlets for processing stress and anxiety
Many outlets can help ease anxiety, process your mental status in high-stress situations, or be utilized in real-time moments of high anxiety. Check out the table below for some methods:
Find a supportive community
When I was suffering a mental health decline, I heavily depended on my friends and family. But seeing and interacting with others within the academic community helped tremendously. Talking with others who knew the stress and anxiety associated with graduate school gave me a sense of belonging. Online communities are abundant on social media platforms. There is a strong online support network of mental health advocates that want to help students with their mental health, and a few are listed at the end of this post. Also, if there are university faculty, staff, or previous mentors you feel comfortable confiding in about your mental health struggles, reach out!
The T-word: Therapy
Therapy is a personal choice. If forced, it can backfire. For graduate students, two significant barriers to seeking therapy are finances and time. So, budgeting for therapy sessions and finding the time to do it can be overwhelming. Students should check if their programs offer therapy or if the school's insurance will reimburse them for therapy sessions. Online therapies are also a great resource, as many offer financial assistance and the convenience of multiple therapy approaches (phone calls, texting, and video chat). Furthermore, the convenience of online therapy allows students to realistically implement therapy in their daily lifestyle and have more emotionally comfortable options than the standard face-to-face methodology. For those on the fence about therapy, check out the podcast Science Vs by Gimlet media to hear more on whether therapy can be an option for you. They recently had a great segment on therapy and if it really helps people.
There are a lot of ways graduate students can take steps to prioritize and better their mental well-being. And, of course, this isn't going to happen all in one day. Our society for so long has stigmatized mental healthcare initiatives, and it intertwines with racial and socioeconomic barriers, making open conversations about mental health a societal taboo. But there is an ongoing active shift of change within the academic community and general population. I hope these tips serve our community well and help fellow graduate students on their path to maintaining their mental health! At the end of this post, readers can also find a list of resources for online and affordable therapy options, mental health group organizations, and online social media graduate student mental health support communities.
Resources for therapy:
Resources for mental health crisis:
Resources for faith based mental health resources:
Mental health support communities in Academia on Twitter:
Possibly the human body's most infamous protein, P53 is mutated in 50% of all cancers. That's right, TP53 (the gene that encodes P53 protein) is cancer's most mutated gene!
P53 is a tumor suppressor, meaning it protects cells from becoming cancerous. In times of genotoxic and cellular stress, P53 activates cellular pathways that promote DNA repair, cell-cycle arrest, and cell death (killing off dangerous and damaged cells). If P53 is defective, the opposite occurs. Cells don't repair DNA appropriately, causing genetic mutations. Cells don't undergo cell death, allowing malfunctioning cells to survive and propagate. And cells don't stop dividing, enabling uncontrolled cellular growth that contributes to tumor formation.
In a nutshell, P53 is a good guy; he's the guardian of the genome. But if he becomes mutated, P53's hero status gets demoted. Mutant P53 presents quite the challenge for cancer biologists. Can P53's hero status be medicinally reinstated? Well — yes! We can reactivate P53 to guard the genome again. Two strategies to bolster P53's hero status have been quite successful in recent years and are setting the stage for a new class of chemotherapies:
1. Inhibiting MDM2, P53's sworn enemy
The P53 protein can be tagged with a small protein called ubiquitin, signaling P53 for degradation. P53 ubiquitination is a healthy, normal event in our cells to sustain P53 at an appropriate level (too much of a good thing can be a bad thing). However, if P53 is deficient, we don't need P53 to be ubiquitinated as frequently. So, scientists have developed inhibitors for MDM2, the protein responsible for P53 ubiquitination and destruction. By blocking MDM2, P53 is not ubiquitinated, and P53 levels in the cell rise, allowing deficient P53 the extra help to do its job.
Seven MDM2 inhibitors are currently in clinical trials for various cancers, and a few have even progressed to phase III trials!
Note: MDM2 isn't the only protein that regulates P53 levels in the cell. Other proteins for this pathway are also chemotherapeutic targets.
2. A direct approach: P53 activators
Most P53 mutants are deficient in the DNA binding domain. If the DNA binding domain is unstable, the protein can't bind DNA and jumpstart the cellular pathways needed for cell death, DNA repair, and cell division arrest.
Scientists have designed small molecule activators that bind P53 and restore the structure of the DNA binding domain, allowing P53 to bind DNA and initiate gene expression. Two small-molecule activators are now in clinical trials and seem promising thus far. COTI-2 is undergoing stage II clinical trials for various cancers, while APR-246 has made it to stage three for blood cancers!
P53 activators aren't approved yet, nor is their approval for clinical use guaranteed. But the fact that P53 activators are in clinical trials, especially stage three, is a remarkable accomplishment by the scientific community! P53 is the holy grail of chemotherapeutic targets. With so many cancers harboring P53 mutations the therapeutic reach of these activators is substantial. There was a time when P53 was considered undruggable, an impossible chemotheraputic target.
P53 activation is no longer a fantasy. Unlike Marvel movies and comic books, P53 reactivation is a reality.