Episode 19: Carolyn P. Hutchinson on rodenticides and Their Effect on Rodents, Large Mammals, Waste Water, the Environment… and You
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- For more on Dr. Hutchinson’s work and research, their website: Carolyn P. Hutchinson, PhD
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Hello, this is assigned scientist at bachelors, the only science podcast I know about with no cis people allowed. I’m Charles and I’m an entomologist.
And I’m Tessa and I’m an astrobiologist.
And today we have as our guest, Dr. Carolyn P. Hutchison. Dr. Hutchison earned their PhD in analytical chemistry from Iowa State University in 2017, where they studied high resolution mass spectrometry and biofuels. They completed a postdoctoral appointment at Willamette University where they investigated estrogen quantities and fates in waste water and surface water. There are currently an assistant professor of chemistry at St. Bonaventure University where they are researching anticoagulant rodenticide quantities and fates in wastewater and surface water systems as well as developing non invasive monitoring techniques for non target species. Carolyn, welcome to the show.
Thank you all for having me.
Thank you so much for coming on. So as always, we like to start out by asking our guests how they got interested in science and how they got started in science.
So I was always the kid bugging my mom all the time asking, why? I grew up in a really rural area in Virginia and so I was constantly asking, why did tadpoles change into frogs? Why is the dirt red? Why do our horses do this? Why, why, why? And my mom very quickly started pointing me towards science to find my answers. And that really kind of fostered a love of science for me. So I kept pushing, I kept asking why, and that’s still kind of what I’m doing. So it’s led me this far.
Quick side note, what part of Virginia did you grow up in?
Fauquier County, in a really small town.
Oh my god, I’m from there.
Yeah, where in Fauquier?
Southern Fauquier, I went to Liberty.
Okay, I went to FHS. Whoa, that’s wild.
Yeah, I was there before the cattle run days. That’s wild.
What a reunion of missed neighbors.
Yeah, I’m from Gold Vein, so like, almost Stafford.
Okay, okay. Yeah, I’ve been through there. I’m from… I tell people I’m from Warrington, but really, I’m from Orlean, but no one even knows where Orlean is, so.
It’s actually… yeah, I’ve driven through there too. It’s one of those small hamlets.
Yeah, yeah, it’s like a post office and a general store, and there’s nothing else.
Yes, we had the post office slash general store, the volunteer fire department and the gold mining museum.
You know, I was meant to make it down to the gold mining museum, but it never happened.
It’s terrible. It’s one room with like, nothing in it. It’s not worth it.
Gotcha. Good to know, I guess I didn’t miss anything, then. Anyway…
[laughing] I’m gonna, I’m gonna leave this in the show, just in case there’s somebody else out there who’s listening who’s from the exact same place. They’re gonna lose their minds. Okay, so we know how you broadly got interested in science. But how did you get specifically interested in chemistry?
I ended up a chemistry major by accident. First generation college student and so going in, I really had no clue how like, declaring a major or advising worked. So I went in undeclared. In my university, when you went in undeclared, they assigned you a general advisor. And that advisor told me that I did not need the first year of biology classes to major in biology, which was my original intention. And so it came time to declare, and I’m a year behind in biology, so I kind of looked and I was like, Well, I’m not behind in chemistry. So this works. And then serendipitously that semester, I took analytical chemistry, which absolutely changed my life, I found the area that I really loved. And that connected with me. And I really also appreciated the teacher I had. And so I kept going forward with analytical chemistry. And it led me back to being able to answer environmental questions, which I’m really thankful for.
I was a bad chemistry student, and I only took the exact number of chemistry classes that I was required to take, so I don’t actually know what analytical chemistry is?
So analytical chemistry is essentially, at its core, combining the “how much” question of chemistry, combining the way to answer that with statistics. And so a lot of what I do is look at what is there and how much is there and is it statistically relevant?
So it sounds like analytical chemistry is sort of the point where, as a student of chemistry, maybe you go from just learning concepts to learning applicability of those concepts?
I wonder … if that were integrated into chemistry teaching, if more people would be more interested in chemistry? Because just from my perspective, being a biologist, sort of the applicability and real life meaning of biology is apparent immediately. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. I hated taking general chemistry. I love teaching it now, but I really hated taking it because it does feel like here’s all these things that are vaguely connected and we promise if you stick with it, it’ll matter one day.
Yeah, well, it didn’t for me because I’m in taxonomy. So your research, can you talk more about what you’re doing in specifics?
So my research has kind of two branches that are tied together by these anticoagulant rodenticides. Those are things like warfarin and the rat poison you can buy at Home Depot. So that’s what ties the two branches together, the two branches are water, and the environment, and then animals that aren’t supposed to be getting into these things.
So in the sense of water in the environment, it’s a lot of going to wastewater treatment plants and sampling at different points in the treatment process to find out where there are these rodenticides, how much of them there are, what they are doing in the wastewater, and then tying that together with where the wastewater discharges. So any wastewater treatment plant is going to have to discharge at some point, and most of them are into rivers and streams. And so by sampling the river or the stream, you can get a good sense of the impact of a certain pollutant on the environment from essentially how it gets in to the river. And the river also lets us answer the question of, if there’s other sources of these that aren’t taken into account. Just in terms of wastewater, wastewater is going to be anything that goes down a drain, but there’s a lot more ways that water gets into rivers.
On the other side is looking into non invasive monitoring techniques for species that aren’t supposed to be getting into rodenticides. So those are mostly predators, it’s going to be things like owls, snakes, even mountain lions and black bears have actually died from rodenticide poisoning, because there are certain assumptions that have been made about these compounds. But it’s really big disconnect between the chemistry and the biology right now, as we don’t know how much and how often these animals are actually ingesting them until they die. And so in building non invasive monitoring methods, like scat and owl pellets, we can hopefully actually get a sense of the prevalence of these problems. Before we find a healthy young male cougar dead in a park
Out of curiosity, when you talk about ingesting those are they like being exposed to directly or is this in the form of bio concentration, you know, where the animals they eat have ingested it, and then it’s kind of a situation like you had with DDT.
So according to the chemistry, rodenticide shouldn’t bio accumulate. But what we see is a lot of evidence from biologists that they do bio accumulate. So this is one question to answer, the way they’re getting it is… most anticoagulant rodenticides work by preventing the body from clotting. And so these prey animals, mostly rodents, they ingest them, and they essentially turn into perfect prey to predators. They’re very slow to respond, they don’t have that flight instinct, because they’re bleeding from the inside out. And so they’re really attractive prey to these predators. And that’s how they’re ingesting it is they’re eating these animals, usually, while they’re actively dying from our dental sites, or they’re scavenging from corpses where they have died of rodenticides.
You said chemically it shouldn’t bio accumulate – can you describe why that would be… like, why would one thing bio accumulate and another thing not?
So there’s one big constant that governs bioaccumulation, and it’s used to predict how well it’ll bio accumulate and it’s this constant called the KOW, the constant between water and oxygen, that’s the O. It’s really, how does a chemical partition between fat and water, and the more something partitions into fat, the more it’s going to bioaccumulate, because our fats don’t turn over that much in animals, fats don’t turn over chemicals that much. So DDT is an excellent example. It has a KOW that really lends itself to building up in fats, but most rodenticides don’t have kW values that suggest that they would do that most of them say that they should be fairly similar to things like steroids that need to leave the fat. And so it’s really a question there of, if they’re bio accumulating, where are they bio accumulating and how? Because it’s not chemically lining up to this key value range that we would expect for rodenticides for chemicals to build up.
And so when the rodenticides are killing these higher level predators that have eaten the rodents, are they also dying from bleeding out or is it a general toxicity issue?
It’s a similar process where they’re unable to form blood clots. And so I know there was just a paper that came out a couple months ago that had anticoagulant rodenticides as the number two killer of mountain lions behind vehicle strikes, and those are big animals. So it’s it is killing them by the same mechanism. There’s also some evidence that at sub lethal doses, so doses that are too small to kill them, that In blackberries, they’ve seen a lot of things like main show up that seem to be directly linked to the sub lethal levels of rodenticides. And it’s not clear if that’s part of this anticoagulant factor or if it’s another side effect that we’re not sure [of].
Well, that’s, that’s a real bummer.
Yeah, it’s not the most fun research to talk about.
[laughs] No… ’cause I also saw on your website, you did mention terrestrial invertebrates. And as somebody who only cares about insects, I would love to hear about that as well.
This is one area that I really hope to dig into in the future. The way that most rodenticides are laid out in the environment is in bait box, so if you’ve ever looked on a building, and you see what looks like a little black, almost lunch box on the side with an opening, that’s a bait box. And so inside, there are rodenticides. Putting it there in that way protects them from say it brain, and then it gets into the soil and gets into the environment that way. But what we’ve observed, what’s been anecdotally observed is roaches and other invertebrates going into these bait boxes and coming out with the rodenticide to go presumably eat it. And we don’t know the effects on them, because it’s been assumed that they’re not a big consumer. But if they’re eating it, and other things are eating them, there’s very much the possibility that they are another way that these rodenticides are getting into other animals.
Well, I’m interested… could you tell us what kind of a day in the life looks like? Like, what kind of methodologies do you use? What does it look like to be your kind of scientist?
So what it looks like day to day is, it varies a little bit, and you can kind of split it into fieldwork, sample extraction, and then data collection analysis. And so when we’re in the field, typically, if we’re at a wastewater treatment plant, we are sampling from several known points. Wastewater chemistry, and the process of treating wastewater, is really well characterized. So we have a good sense of what’s happened, at which point, and especially with things like pharmaceuticals, we can get a little bit of a prediction of what we can expect the rodenticides to do. And so we would be sampling at points there right now, that’s not possible. A lot of public utilities are obviously closed to visitors. If we’re sampling on the river, we’re going out in boat, we’re getting fairly large quantities, because we expect things to be very dilute. We’re using a pump to extract it, it’s my favorite time of day is going to the wastewater treatment plant and then going to the river. It’s fantastic, even if the weather’s terrible.
And then once we have the samples, what we do is we need some way to know how much they’ve changed, especially the wastewater, because as you might expect, it is chock full of bacteria that do all kinds of chemistry out of control. So we take the samples back to the lab, and we add something called an internal standard, which is going to be something with similar chemistry, usually isotopically labeled so the mass is slightly different. Then we look at it with a mass spectrometer…
Could you describe what isotopically labeled means?
Yeah, so an isotopically labeled compound is where some number of either the hydrogens or carbons typically have been replaced from their natural isotope with one of a higher mass. And so if you’re looking at something that is labeled with deuterium, what’s happened there is some number of your hydrogens have been replaced with deuterium. So hydrogens have a mass of one, they’re just a proton. When you replace one deuterium, you have one proton and one neutron. And so everywhere you’ve replaced a hydrogen with the deuterium, you’ve increased the mass by one, since you’ve added a neutron in each one of those places. The process is similar with carbon, usually you have carbon 12, at about 90% abundance, if you replace one of those carbon 12 with carbon 13, which doesn’t naturally occur in a large amount, you also shift the mass that way and isotopically labeling compounds is really helpful, because you preserve the chemistry, but the mass is different now. So when you separate them on the basis of mass, you can tell what you added versus what’s naturally. Okay, so you’ve isotopically labeled these things, and then what happens, and then we add a known amount, because we’re dealing with very small quantities.
And so we can’t just make your traditional calibration curve, where you have just water with different amounts of your compound in it. We’re at such low amounts, we need a different way to tell how much is in there. And so quantification is one thing we really want to know, just saying are these things there isn’t as important as saying, Is there an amount that could be potentially dangerous. And so to do that, we add a different amount of standard to the compound. And so the standard is actually the same natural compounds that are in there. So if we’re looking at warfarin, for example, we would add increasing amounts of warfarin and this is really where the analytical chemistry comes into play, is building that sort of, quote unquote, matrix match calibration curve.
In other words, what we can do is we essentially increase the signal a little bit for each sample. And if we extrapolate backwards, we can find out how much was originally in that sample with really, really good precision, it gives us an ability to detect much lower amounts than we typically would with other methods of quantification. So once we’ve done that, then what we have to do is isolate the rodenticides, what we want from everything else in the mixture, because thinking about wastewater, there is all kinds of stuff in there, there’s pharmaceuticals, there’s personal care products, there’s just whatever came out of people. So we really want to zero in. And we do that by using a system that preferentially extracts things with chemistry, similar to the rodenticides. And that gets rid of pretty much everything else.
So when we analyze these, we can just look at the rodenticides without having to look at everything else, once we’ve extracted it, it’s fairly straightforward. This is where it becomes less fun. For most people, it’s really fun for me, we take them to an instrument facility, and we run them on a high performance liquid chromatography, triple quadrupole mass spectrometer. So what this does, is there’s three parts to it, the high performance or high pressure liquid chromatography, that part separates on the basis of some chemistry, we can choose what chemistry that is. But essentially what that does is it takes our whole bunch of different rodenticides. Typically, we’re looking at seven or so, and it separates them out. So they each come out of that chromatograph individually. So we don’t have a question of are we looking at warfarin, or are we looking at an endo, in other words, we can separate them based on chemistry. From there, they enter the ionization chamber of the mass spectrometer. And this is something that we have to have for a mass spectrometer, it turns those neutral compounds into ions.
And that’s when we can actually manipulate them with electricity to get them to travel through the instant, once they’re ions, we’re typically using a very soft ionization source, so we get just the compound as an ion, it’s not broken apart or anything, it’s still intact, then we send it through the mass spectrometer, and that gives us a mass to charge ratio. Since our charges are always one, we’re able to get the mass directly from that. And that gives us a peek, it gives us some amount of signal that’s now been separated both on the basis of chemistry, and then on the basis of mass, letting us zero in on that mass, we can get a signal that goes back and we get a peak area with from our chromatogram, combining the two data sets. And that is what we actually use to quantify.
Unknown Speaker 17:56
Beautifully explained. Okay, so then once you’ve analyzed once you know what you have, then I assume you do math to it?
Yeah, we do some statistics to find out what is our limit of detection? In other words, how much can we say yes, there is this. And are we above that, because if we’re below that, then it says that we are below the amount that the instrument can actually detect. That’s a problem.
We also look at this limit of quantification, which is higher than the limit of detection. And that’s the amount of signal that says that we can statistically say, with almost 100% certainty that the signal only comes from this compound. And if we’re above that, then we can report the amount that we count. And from there, we can further manipulate that if we wanted to see how much it dilutes in the river between when it comes out of the wastewater treatment plant and maybe 100 feet down the river, we could do that sort of calculation. And we can do other calculations.
So the one thing that we haven’t really touched on yet is where these rodenticides are coming from.
So the biggest place they come from is a lot of businesses and industries, putting them down to prevent rodents. If you think about like a grocery store, you absolutely do not want to see a rat chewing on the peaches. Not generally No, no, you most people don’t. And so one of the easiest ways and most effective ways is to put down these rodenticides It prevents them from essentially establishing a colony in an area. There’s also a lot of them used in cities that have extensive sewer systems. They put down a fairly significant amount of rodenticide in order to try to prevent rats from taking hold in the sewers, and most of it – the vast majority of it – is just pest control.
Is the use of rodenticides something animal rights and welfare groups focus on a lot?
I don’t know I haven’t heard of any… I, like, nothing comes to mind.
Yeah, because it’s an interesting, it’s an interesting situation. I would imagine people who are more involved in conservation might be more directly concerned with it, given the environmental implications.
Yeah, absolutely. California just banned, I believe, three rodenticides, as in a couple months ago, because of the impact on especially the cougars.
Hmm. Well, there was a joke here about…
Yeah. I didn’t want to say anything, but…
I don’t know how to make that joke, but I, I welcome the audience to imagine the dual meaning of cougars and California and the demographics of California and let your imagination take you wherever it will.
Yeah, something I was wondering about, as someone who has a background in microbial ecology is, so what’s sort of the lifetime of these compounds in the environment? Are they normally… I mean, obviously, they’re around long enough to buy accumulate, but do they otherwise normally brick down relatively quickly by microbial action, or just, you know, good old fashioned environmental exposure? Or are they more persistent and can get into things, even if it’s not through directly consuming, you know, a sick animal?
That’s a fantastic direction here. All the literature because these are toxic, there is a fair amount of literature on essentially the bait blocks, the way they’re delivered, the rodenticide plus the peanut butter, or whatever else is mixed with it, and when it’s sold, and most of those say that they degrade fairly readily. But there’s no studies on how they behave in soil or how they behave in natural water systems. And the evidence that we have based on animals, and based on the conservation side of it, is that they are persisting in some way, we’re not sure yet. They’re clearly not breaking down as quickly as we thought in these large animals. And so we’re left with a lot of questions. And this is one area my research really hopes to tackle is do these break down, what timescale do they break down on? And what happens, what kind of products do they make when they break down?
For the chemistry dunces in the audience – by which I mean, myself – could you talk more about the idea of what products they make when they break down?
So there’s two big ways in the environment, things break down, there’s essentially four big removal ways, you can just essentially absorb yourself onto something like soil. And if you don’t ever come off that piece of soil, essentially, that’s removed from the environment, you can dilute something. And so that’s really the water cycle, eventually everything is theoretically diluted, then you can actually break it down and remove it. So dilution and adsorption, or sedimentation, they don’t change the chemical, the chemical still there, it’s just either and it’s such a small amount, that it’s essentially gone, or it’s in a stage where it can’t come off, it really likes where it is, and it doesn’t want to leave, you can chemically change it either with microbes or with sunlight. Those are the two big other removal ways that actually change it. And both of those take the compound and they break and rearrange the bonds to make new compounds.
So photolysis, breakdown by sunlight, it tends to be higher energy. And we see products that have some of the same characteristics as the parent, the original molecule we started with. But Microsoft, because they’re mostly using these things, they come across for energy, they tend to break it down to much smaller products that don’t retain as much chemistry. But there are some things with similar chemistry to rodenticides that we know that microbes don’t break down all the way. So estrogens have fairly similar chemistry to rodenticides in some ways, and we know that some microbes don’t get rid of estrogens, they change it into other sorts of steroids, which still have some activity. So it’s a big question of what the eventual fate of this is, but it’s not what you started with. It’s always something different.
Well, we here at Assigned Scientis at Bachelor’s certainly know what estrogen is.
I have a lot of thoughts about estrogen. Yes, but we’ll leave that for another time.
All I can think now is… it’s Alex Jones. All I can think about now is his tirade about “making the freakin frogs gay.” Which, like, what a more magical world that would be, if that is what was actually happening.
I know… if the wastewater really was making us all gay.
Well, given available evidence I you know, I can’t say that it isn’t. By available evidence I mean, myself. I am gay. And so as Tessa.
Carolyn, do you have anything else that you would like to say about your research or about chemistry, or about science, or about being non binary or about being non binary in science, that you haven’t gotten to say it?
I don’t think so nothing like springs to mind like, ah, damn, you didn’t ask this.
I mean, that’s always good. This is always the problem when we have chemists on, because I genuinely… I feel like I don’t have enough background knowledge to like really get my, you know, my raccoon claws in that garbage pile.
Unlike Charles, I do have some background in chemistry, but it’s pretty much restricted to either stuff that involves microbes, or like atmospheric chemical reaction networks. And I don’t actually understand most of the chemistry behind that I just look for interesting to statistical patterns in them.
Yeah, I kind of run away from atmospheric chemistry.
I don’t blame you.
It’s the area everyone wants me to be in, and I’m like, no.
The thing about atmospheric chemistry they don’t tell you is also that, I don’t know if this is much of a an issue in terrestrial atmospheric chemistry, but I sure know, for exoplanets, we have a whole parameter called “vertical mixing coefficient,” which is basically pay subtle eye, because it’s an approximation of how atmospheres like diffuse gases vertically, and we’re assuming they’re doing it in like, over a very small scale. And actually, that’s based on the modeling they’ve done. That’s not true. It’s they’re actually like these huge polar equator, Hadley cells, and it’s just on a massive planetary scale. But we do it anyways, because it’s standard now.
Yeah, you run into that with aqueous chemistry, also with water, environmental chemistry. So that’s why I avoid like the ocean or the Great Lakes. Rivers are small enough, we can still mostly assume that they mix really nice. But once you get really big bodies of water, we assume they do, but they really don’t. And it’s…
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, you get stuff like stratification and overturn and all that fun stuff.
Hm. [clearly sarcastic] Well, unlike you two nerds, my disciplines have absolutely no modeling simplifications or potential lies or anything wrong at all. It’s just that we’re trying to reconstruct evolutionary history from hundreds of millions of years ago. And we’re always right 100% of the time.
I was about to say, what could go wrong?
[interstitial noise] So assuming that you are in a post apocalyptic landscape, the apocalypse that we’ve generally been going with is catastrophic climate change, because that one seems the most realistic to the point of inevitability to me. So what do you imagine you would be doing in this new post, like climate catastrophe world?
So I think what I would be doing post climate catastrophe is probably being the person to make the clothes, I do a lot of the fiber arts, a lot of sewing and embroidery and things like that. And so I would absolutely immediately be like, we need clothes. So we don’t die from the sun.
I mean, you’re not, you’re not wrong. That’s actually… that’s an interesting answer. And which leads me now into a second question, which is, do you have any strong opinions on sort of the standard image of post apocalyptic fashion?
it always strikes me as, like, I recognize that people are trying to survive and it’s a survivor mode, but it also seems to really be lacking in the balance between not overheating and protecting yourself from the sun. Because most of these posts apocalyptic worlds have a lot of UV radiation. It seems like always, the sun is some sort of almost pseudo villain in these situations. And I feel like just wearing nothing but skimpy rags is going to lead to sunburn and cancer real fast.
I also feel like all that black leather is gonna get pretty hot, too.
Yeah, either it’s skimpy rags or all full body black leather, and neither seems very practical to me.
No, but they both are pretty gay. So you know. Um, I think especially in the Mad Max like the earlier Mad Max movies, I think there’s a lot of like, like gay leather looks. And you know, listen, I get it. If the world has gone to hell… wear a harness, you know what I mean? Actually, because in our episode with Elizabeth, I think we finally figured out that my go to would be cricket farming so that I could make myself useful to the community by providing food, but I don’t think we nailed down what you would be doing, Tessa.
Comp… that’s a good one. You could get involved with like a community garden.
Composting and like soil microbial husbandry. Also anything having to do with fermentation, although I don’t have as much experience with that. I just know about the theoretical aspects of it.
Unknown Speaker 29:56
Well, you could like, help. I guess it also a lot of this dpeends on how large we’re imagining the communities that wwe are aart of to be. Because like my idea was really in ,like ,a widespread desertification due to catastrophic global warming. I could end up actually living out my dream of cosplaying as one of the Desert Fathers. are either of you familiar with the Desert Fathers?
Okay. So in early Christianity is in Egypt. I think they’re an early branch of Christian monasticism was the Desert Fathers, that were basically these guys who just like went out and lived alone in the desert. And were monks. That doesn’t hear you. Right? I love the desert. And I have had a long this is not a lie. I’ve had a long term, like, lifelong dream of like a fantasy of being a monk. And I think so I changed from I either if I’m in a community cricket farming, if I am by myself, I go out and I get a long linen robe and I just think about God until I die.
That’s actually I there’s tons of things about St. Bonaventure is we have a friary attached. So we just have like fryers everywhere. Apparently, they’re super cool.
Well, I think it’s because like historically, monasticism and being a nun, in the Christian tradition, like, at the point of more establish Well, I mean, we’re still living under Christian hegemony. But it you know, for a long time in history, that was just like a lifestyle choice, like you can go to I don’t want to pretend that I know anything about medieval history. But, you know, it’s just like, you can become a lot of gay people, or people that we would now understand as gay probably went and did these things so that they wouldn’t have to get married to somebody. And that’s valid. But in like contemporary times, if you want to be a monk, you have to like, really want to be a monk. Do you know what I mean?
Like a word for it. It’s not something I’ve particularly considered.
Well, it’s like, you don’t just like fall backwards into big.
Gotcha, gotcha. Oh, yeah. This to be much more of a deliberate choice. Yeah.
God, I know that, like, in reality, I shouldn’t be a monk, which is why I’m not a monk now, and I’m making this podcast instead. But one of my favorite post apocalyptic novels is a canticle for Leibowitz. Now,
I was thinking about mentioning that
you should because I do. I haven’t read it in a long time. But I was like, Yes, when I did.
it was one of my favorite books in high school.
It’s, well… I can’t say if it’s still good. It was good when I read it in university. Carolyn, if people want to find you online or find out more about your research, where should they look?
They should look at cphutchinson.com.
Fantastic. I am on Twitter @cockroacharles, and Tessa?
And I am on Twitter @spacermase.
The show is on Twitter @ASABpod and at our website, where we post show notes and transcripts for every episode, at asabpodcast.com.
And until next time, keep on science-ing.