Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What do one trillion different scents smell like?

I've been really happy with the comments on my upcoming detective thriller CHIMERAS. The book will be released in two weeks, but I've already heard back from some early readers (and yes, I'm still offering free ARC's, see details here), and many have praised Track's sensitivity to smells. Apparently, it's a trait many relate to and yet you don't find so often in fiction.

Most of our memories are stored as images. So, even when we write, we tend to over-emphasize visual descriptions and forget all about our nose. From a scientific point of view, though, how does olfaction compare to other senses? Can we "see" and "hear" more than we can "smell"?
"Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated [1]."
In a study published last week in Science, Bushdid et al. calculated that, contrary to previous estimates, humans can discriminate at least one trillion different olfactory stimuli -- far more than colors and tones.

How did they make such an estimate?

Colors are created from light: changes in wavelength create different hues and saturations. Similarly, sounds are created from air waves and changes in frequencies create different tones. Because we can physically measure both the frequency and wavelength of waves, it is relatively easy to determine the ranges within which human eyes and ears can detect these stimuli:
"Humans can detect light with a wavelength between 390 and 700 nm and tones in the frequency range between 20 and 20,000 Hz [1]."
But while colors and tones are created by waves, olfactory stimuli are created by mixtures of numerous distinct odor molecules. Even the "simple" scent of a rose contains 275 components. The odor molecules bind to the olfactory receptor cells in the nasal cavity, sending a signal up to the olfactory nerve.

One trivia that I discovered while writing CHIMERAS is that olfactory receptors are not restricted to the nasal cavity. They are also found in sperm cells [2] where they are possibly involved in the control of sperm migration and fertilization.

To measure the resolution of the human visual or auditory system, scientists measure how close two signals need to be in frequency in order to become undistinguishable. In other words, if the signals are like hair and our ability to pick them up is a comb, how fine are the comb teeth? How far apart do two light wavelengths need to be in order for our eyes to discern them as distinct colors?

Bushdid et al. used a similar criterion to measure how good we are discerning scents. They used 128 odor molecules to make different scent mixtures of 10, 20, or 30 components. Each mixture yields a different smell, and the more components the mixtures shares the harder they are to distinguish from one another. So, similarly to what's typically done for the visual and auditory system, in order to measure the resolution of the human nose, Bushdid et al. measured how much two mixtures need to overlap in order to become indistinguishable to the human nose. Of the 26 subjects in the study:
"At least half of the tested subjects could discriminate mixture pairs that overlapped by less than 75% of their components. Some could also discriminate mixture pairs that overlapped by 75 and 90%, but none could discriminate mixture pairs with more than 90% overlap [1]."
Bushdid et al. then used mathematical extrapolations to predict that the majority of individuals can distinguish mixtures that overlap less than 51%, which amounts to over one trillion mixtures made with 30 components. This is only a lower limit since for their experiment the researchers used 128 different components while in nature you can find many more, and in mixtures of often more than just 30 components.

I wonder what they would've concluded had Track been part of the study. :-)

[1] Bushdid C, Magnasco MO, Vosshall LB, & Keller A (2014). Humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. Science (New York, N.Y.), 343 (6177), 1370-2 PMID: 24653035

[2] Vanderhaeghen P, Schurmans S, Vassart G, & Parmentier M (1993). Olfactory receptors are displayed on dog mature sperm cells. The Journal of cell biology, 123 (6 Pt 1), 1441-52 PMID: 8253843

Saturday, March 29, 2014

CHIMERAS Sunday Snippet #8

From CHIMERAS, end of Chapter 1:
I held my Glock on target and fired four rounds. The gun recoiled in my hand. Carmelo curled into a question mark and flopped to the sidewalk. One by one, the spent shells dropped to the ground, yet I kept shooting, intoxicated by the smell of blood and the rattling of fire, as if every new bullet sinking into his body had the power to rewind time.
To fix my own failings.
Revenge hardly mends anything. The son of a bitch you want to crush does not exist. The son of a bitch is your own self.

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group also on Facebook, too). Check them out, it's a fun way to find upcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

CHIMERAS is the first in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius. To be sure not to miss the release date, subscribe to the blog posts in the main page. To request an ARC (advanced reserved copy), in exchange for an honest review to be posted on amazon or goodreads, send an email to eegiorgi(at) with the subject line "ARC copy."

Click to download sample chapters (ePub, Kindle and PDF available).

Book Description: Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying, children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.

You can find CHIMERAS on Goodreads.
Details on how to order your free advanced copy here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The best stories come from the heart, not from trends

After pestering you guys all last week with my new book cover, I thought I'd end the week with somebody else's cover. The above is my friend Tim Bowen's memoir from when he was an LAPD officer, which I read while researching my detective thriller CHIMERAS. I needed to learn the LAPD lingo and the added bonus was that Tim's stories are simply hilarious. The following year, Tim and I met up in Los Angeles and he escorted me to both the old and the new Parker Center (the LAPD headquarters), the 911 dispatch center, and the LAPD Air Support Division. Fun times!

Tim's book is not the only book I read while researching CHIMERAS. I also enjoyed Miles Corwin's true crime books: Corwin spent a whole year "embedded" with the Homicide Special Detectives (CHIMERAS' main character is a Homicide Special LAPD detective) and followed "live" some pretty controversial cases. Even on the most gruesome crime scene, all dressed up in black suits and formal attire, these guys will look at one another and crack up a joke. And they always say asshole. I mean, always. As Tim taught me, it's not "Freeze, police!" as they do on TV. It's actually: "Freeze, asshole!"

I wrote CHIMERAS over the course of two years. I queried agents for about three months, got a first offer of representation, and after that the offers kept flocking. With 8 offers of representation I had no doubt my book was going to get published -- maybe not by one of the "Big Six", but certainly by a traditional publisher.

My book is a hard-boiled detective thriller, and my main character is a modern Philip Marlowe with a genetic twist. Yes, talk about mixing genres. I got comments along the lines of: "I get the genetic twist, but could you turn it into paranormal?" And about my writing, which I honed after Chandler's noir tradition: "I found the writing exceptional, but could you remove all the descriptions?" Another one praised the sensitivity to smells as a great novelty but wanted me to turn my detective into a woman because heroines are trendier than heroes.

So, what does a wannabe author do in a situation like this?

It really depends on what your priorities are. If all you want is getting your foot in the door, then you're probably ready to do anything to make it happen. Then by all means, do what they tell you.

For me, the priority was this: TO BE TRUE TO MY STORY. This does not mean to be completely closed to feedback. Like I said before, I had 8 offers of representation AND every single agent requested some changes to the story AND no two changes overlapped.

Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing says, "Don't lie." It's not that writers lie, but they do need to be true to their story and characters. As readers, we've all come across characters that feel stiff and unrealistic. You see, the writer has to fall in love with his/her characters in order to make the readers fall in love with them. If you let others pull and tug at your story, and you start making one change here to accommodate X, and another change there to accommodate Y, and the changes become one too many, you end up losing track of your original story. And that chemistry you had originally built with your character(s) gets lost.

Back to my book: if all editors and agents hit the same nail, I would've known there was something wrong with my story. But some requests were literally at the opposite ends. Some made sense, some didn't. I wasn't going to change my main character just because gals are trendier than guys. I fulfilled the requests that made sense and ignored the others. As an author, you've had some time to get to know your characters. Don't trash them just because somebody told you they're no longer trendy. You might try and write something trendy, but great stories aren't made with the head only. Great stories are made from the heart. And believe me, readers can tell stories that are made from the heart from the ones that aren't.

Trends eventually grow old, but great stories last. I'm publishing my book so I can finally claim that Track Presius -- and most importantly his quirks and uniqueness -- is mine. Maybe my book will never soar. But whatever happens, I remained true to my story. And for the first time in four years I feel liberated.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Surrealism with a touch of humor": how photographer Erik Johansson sees the world

"Cut and Fold" © Erik Johansson

This year I started a new feature on the blog: showcasing the work of new photographers. The thing that amazes me every time I discover a new talent is how young they are. It seems to me that digital photography has given young adults a new means to express themselves, especially when it comes to conceptual photography. If you haven't done so yet, start following Colossal and My Modern Metropolis. Besides discovering lots of new artists you'll be blown away by how many of them are under thirty years of age. Wow!

One of such amazing young talents is Erik Johansson, a Swedish photographer who's now based in Berlin. Erik picked up his first camera at age fifteen and, interestingly, as he says in his bio:
"Being used to drawing it felt quite strange to be done after capturing a photo, it wasn’t the process of creating something in the same way. Having an interest in computers made it a quite natural step to start playing around with the photos and creating something that you couldn’t capture with the camera."
I can totally relate to that! And what Erik creates is not only unique: it's intelligent, mind-blowing and thought-provoking. It's not by chance that Erik's most inspirational artists are Salvdor Dali', René Magritte, and M.C. Escher.

As Erik defines it himself, his style is "surreal with a touch of humor", and it's exactly that "touch of humor" that I find so captivating in his images.

"Cover up" © Erik Johansson

"Fish Island" © Erik Johansson

"Groundbreaking" © Erik Johansson

I asked Erik a few things about his artist statement and his background. Here are his answers.

EJ: I don’t capture moments, I capture ideas. To me photography is just a way to collect material to realize the ideas in my mind. I get inspired by things around me in my daily life and all kinds of things I see. Although one photo can consist of hundreds of layers, I always want it to look like it could have been captured. Every new project is a new challenge and my goal is to realize it as realistic as possible.

EEG: Most photographers emphasize "in camera" work, meaning that the more you manage to accomplish with the camera, the less time you need to spend post-processing. Looking at the many "behind-the-scene" videos on your website, it seems that you "embrace" the post-processing work. How long does it usually take to realize one photo from idea to final piece?

EJ: It can take anything from a few weeks to several months. Some ideas require even longer time as it’s hard to find the perfect spot to shoot, or maybe it’s the wrong season.

I’ve always had a big interest for both drawing and computers. I think that is one if the reasons why it was a natural step for me to modify the photos in the computer. Photography and retouch always felt more like a hobby so I choose the engineering path instead. As I finished my studies in 2010 I already worked part time as a freelance doing work for some advertisement agencies in Sweden. Although I still find interaction design a very interesting subject, photography and retouch is my passion and what I love. That made me become a full-time photographer/retoucher when I graduated.

EEG: I also come from a drawing background and I can relate with the feeling that a single snapshot is not satisfying -- creating an image is where the fun begins, no matter how challenging. What's the most challenging image you've made and did you ever feel like giving up in the middle of the process?

EJ: Every new image is a new challenge. a I always try to create new and more complicated photos. Sure, I feel like giving up sometimes, then it's just good to leave it for a while.

EEG: You shoot a Canon 5D mk2 and a Hasselblad H5D, a 40 mega-pixel camera with a huge sensor! While I can totally relate to shooting with a 5D mk2, I can't even begin to imagine what it is like to shoot a Hasselblad (yes, I'm drooling here). Can you tell me a bit about that, i.e. what projects do you use the canon for and what the Hasselblad?

EJ: Well, it's a heavy and slow camera, but on a tripod it captures amazing details. It hasn't really changed the way I work that much more than I get even more details in the photos. It's a great camera but it's not really that much about the equipment. It's about what you can imagine!

EEG: And one last question: if you could speak to Escher in person, what would you tell him? :-)  (I think he'd be very proud of you!)

EJ: He was a great artist and big inspiration, I think I would like to talk to him about how geometrics and mathematics goes hand in hand with art.

EEG: Yes, that would be fun, for sure.

I leave you with the Behind-the-Scenes video of how Erik made "Cut and Fold", the picture at the top of the post. Amazing, right?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

CHIMERAS SnippetSunday #8

From CHIMERAS, Chapter 1:
“Damned lunch hour,” I muttered.

My partner looked out the window. “Speaking of which. I think I’m smellin’ Tommy’s chili. How ‘bout you, Track?”

I rapped the steering wheel. “I smell car exhaust from traffic. I smell chutney and tamarind from that orange stuff you always have for breakfast. I smell shoe polish even though I’ve no idea why you’d wanna polish your shoes on a day like this. And I still smell the fucking dog piss from the blue hair that flagged us at Hollenbeck Park.”

So now you know what my main character's quirk is: smells.

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group also on Facebook, too). Check them out, it's a fun way to find upcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

CHIMERAS is the first in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius. To be sure not to miss the release date, subscribe to the blog posts in the main page. To request an ARC (advanced reserved copy), in exchange for an honest review to be posted on amazon or goodreads, send an email to eegiorgi(at) with the subject line "ARC copy."

Click to download sample chapters (ePub, Kindle and PDF available).

Book Description: Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying, children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.

You can find CHIMERAS on Goodreads.
Details on how to order your free advanced copy here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

I carry my son's DNA: a look at microchimerism and its effects

To celebrate the upcoming release of my detective thriller CHIMERAS, the next few Research Blogging posts will be dedicated to the different forms of chimerism. I'm sure you are all familiar with dispermic chimeras, which occur when two fertilized eggs fuse together shortly after conception. The result is one individual with two sets of genetically distinct cells.

Have you ever heard of microchimerism, though?
"Microchimerism refers to a small number of cells (or DNA) harbored by one individual that originated in a genetically different individual. While microchimerism can be the result of interventions such as transplantation or transfusion, by far the most common source is naturally acquired microchimerism from maternal-fetal trafficking during pregnancy [1]."
Before the 1960s, it was believed that the placenta was a perfect barrier between mother and fetus, and no blood or cells could trespass it in either direction. Today we know that there's actually a two-way exchange of cells between mother and fetus during pregnancy. What's even more surprising is that these "extraneous" cells outlast the duration of the pregnancy and can in fact be found in the child and/or the mother years after birth. Male DNA has been found in women years after they had given birth to their sons. In fact, fetal cells are released in high quantities during spontaneous abortions, hence can be found even in women who have never delivered, so long as at some point in their lives they became pregnant.

This of course prompts the following question: is microchimerism beneficial to the mother's and/or child's health?

The answer is yes and no.

For example, things can go wrong when the mother develops some kind of malignancy during pregnancy: there have been cases in which metastases from a maternal melanoma were acquired by the baby through transplacental transfer. Conversely, it has been noted that the amount of fetal DNA circulating in the mother is higher in cases where there are anomalies in the fetus's chromosome count and in pregnancies complicated by eclampsia (seizures).

Where is the fetal DNA found? Just about everywhere: liver, thyroid, cervix, gallbladder, intestine, spleen, lymph nodes, heart, and kidneys. Once they enter the maternal system, the fetal cells act effectively as an engrafting, and that's how in some cases they can persist for years.

Some studies indicated that the HLA type of the fetal cells (HLA is the most variable family of genes in our genome because they encode an important part of the immune system; these genes are responsible for our ability to recognize different pathogens) circulating in the mother may affect the mother's risk of later developing auto-immune disorders, systemic sclerosis in particular.

There are beneficial effects, too:
"As previously noted, fetal cells that appear to have differentiated into organ-specific phenotypes have been found in some patients with thyroid or liver damage, suggesting a role for fetal microchimerism in repair (Srivatsa et al. 2001; Stevens et al. 2004) [1]."
In other words, these fetal cells could have been recruited to the damaged tissue in an attempt to repair the lesions.

What about the effects of maternal cells circulating in the fetus?
"Fetal acquisition of maternal cells may have even more dramatic consequences on later fetal health than fetomaternal transfer does on maternal health [1]."
Maternal cells have been found in numerous fetal tissues: fetal liver, lung, heart, thymus, spleen, adrenal, kidney, pancreas, brain, and gonads. Maternal cells are able to migrate to an organ and differentiate into a local phenotype -- something that is truly intriguing, as the mechanism by which this happens could help inform organ regeneration research. Numerous autoimmune disorders like neonatal lupus, for example, have been associated with high levels of maternal microchimerism. However, it's not clear if the higher concentrations have a pathogenic effect and therefore cause the disease or, instead, are an effect of the disease. It could be that, for example, the maternal cells are recruited in higher concentration in an attempt to repair the damaged tissues. For example, one of the studies discussed in [1] found a beneficial role of maternal microchimeric cells in type I diabetic pancreas.

[1] Gammill HS, & Nelson JL (2010). Naturally acquired microchimerism. The International journal of developmental biology, 54 (2-3), 531-43 PMID: 19924635

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New cover release and book giveaway!

© Christopher Germano

First off, I need to brag about my uber-talented friend Christopher Germano who made this kick-ass cover for CHIMERAS. I'm sure you'll all agree that Chris's work is epic !

Second, here's some dates:

* April 9 2014: Kindle Edition release on Amazon
* April 15 2014: Paperback Edition release on Amazon
* July 2014: Release on B&N and other online retailers.

So yes, the paperback edition is coming soon too!

To celebrate I'm giving away 10 (yes, TEN!) paperback copies of CHIMERAS. To enter click here (giveaway will be open until April 20) -- you will be redirected to the giveaway page on Goodreads. When you hop over there please also add the book to your "To be read" shelf.

Don't live in the US or Canada and/or don't want to make a Goodread account? Despair not! There will be another giveaway and it will be open to European residents as well. Stay tuned!

So, what do you think of the sparky new cover? Do tell me! :D

UPDATE:   Click to download sample chapters (ePub, Kindle and PDF available).

Monday, March 17, 2014

Speculative fiction writer Susan Kaye Quinn talks about science, writing, and how she took control of her writing career

I'm really excited about my guest today. Being a scientist myself, I find that (1) there's not enough science out there; (2) the little you do find is rarely accurate. I don't know if you ever noticed, but Dan Brown put a blob of antimatter in a small canister that fit into a helicopter. In real life it would take magnets the size of a building to keep that amount of anti-matter from annihilating (of course, real life is boring while fiction is not).

All this to say that I get very excited when I find a real scientist writer!

Susan Kaye Quinn is a speculative fiction writer and a rocket scientist. Yes, you read that right. Susan has a bunch of engineering degrees (B.S. Aerospace Engineering, M.S. Mechanical Engineering, Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering) and when she was wearing her "rocket scientist" hat, she got to design aircraft engines and study global warming. How cool is that?

I got in touch with Susan after reading her non-fiction book Indie Author Survival Guide, which Autumn recommended after hearing about my own adventures in the publishing world. And Autumn was right: this book was a mind opener for me. I'll write more about this in a future post, but for now all I'll say is that I found my own experience so many times in that book that I almost cried. And when I was done reading the Indie Author Survival Guide, I went back to Susan's website and browsed her incredible body of work, which includes: the young adult science fiction trilogy The Mindjack, the adult future-noir serial Debt Collector, the middle grade fantasy Faery Swap, and her latest work, the first book in an East Indian steampunk fantasy romance, Dharian Affairs.

Wow! The best part is of course that Susan infuses her books with lots of fun, scientific concepts. The Faery Swap, for example, features the most famous equation of all: E=mc^2. I'm half way through reading Faery Swap and I've already recommended it to all my friends with school-aged kids.

Welcome to CHIMERAS, Susan!

EEG: Besides being an aerospace, mechanical, and environmental engineer, you worked for NASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where you "designed aircraft engines and studied global warming" -- were all these concepts and projects already tickling your imagination, giving you ideas for new stories, or was it only later on that you started writing?

SKQ: I started writing about 5 years ago, well after I stopped working in engineering (and stayed home with my three boys). So the stories came later, but my science work gave me a rich background of experiences that definitely inform my stories. Things like getting airsick-worthy glider lessons from a world-class test-pilot. And designing low-emissions aircraft engines for GE, which involved climbing around testing chambers and turning wrenches as well as running high end computer analyses. And living just outside NASA Langley for nine months in a tiny apartment away from home, finishing my Ph.D. research on the effect of aircraft particulates at high altitudes on global warming simulations. All the tech work was great fun, but now I invent with words instead‚ and love every minute of it.

EEG: Your young adult science fiction trilogy Mindjack is a 2012 top 5 "Best Indie Book" finalist -- congratulations!
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can't read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can't be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf's mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she's dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where being forced to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.
It's quite challenging to write about a world based on telepathic powers: what was the idea that originally inspired your story? And what did you find most challenging when writing/outlining the story?

SKQ: The original story spark came from a single image that popped into my head as I was trying to sleep: a girl who couldn't read minds in a classroom filled with mindreaders. She was achingly isolated and the room was deathly silent. That's literally all I started with, but I couldn't get it out of my head! The hard part came in writing a story where spoken language was rarely used. I thought, "How am I going to write an entire book in italics??" Fortunately, the mindjackers came along in my story and insisted on speaking aloud -- because jacking into someone's head just to talk was a bit rude.

EEG: After reading (and loving) your Indie Author Survival Guide I feel compelled to ask you to tell the readers of CHIMERAS a bit of how you turned to indie publishing instead of traditional publishing.

SKQ: I pursued traditional publishing for a while -- I published with a small press, queried/shelved a middle grade novel, and then queried Open Minds, the book that I would eventually pull from agents to self-pub. When I went indie in late 2011, it was just starting to go mainstream. I watched these authors take control of their writing careers, forging their own paths, and I realized, "That is so ME." I've had great success with it, but even more importantly, it liberated what and how I write, and what projects I consider taking on and why. The freedom of indie just can't be overstated. For example, today I'm taking a smidgen of time between projects to write a flash-fiction piece for a friend's charity anthology. Later, I'll publish it myself. I'll likely give it away for free, as an entry into one of my other series. That's just a small example of the kind of things I can easily say "yes!" to because I have the freedom to create and publish whatever I like.

EEG: Let's talk about science and editors. I had a very similar experience to yours: one editor, in fact, read the whole book to the end (I know she did because she had comments on the ending) and then told me that "I can't acquire everything I love" ... Does it mean that to publishers science equals non-salable? Is science forbidden from ever getting into fiction because they believe it throws readers off?

SKQ: I just queried the one middle grade book, while it sounds like your experience is more extensive. Steven Hawking (I think?) famously said he was told by publishers that one equation in a book would halve the sales, so yes, I believe the bias is there and it's stronger in children's books, partly because editors take less chances with those overall. And this is precisely where indie books can fill the gap. As one of my fellow MG SF authors

Dale: "Indie authors create books just as exciting and polished as the big publishers produce, but we don't have the overhead, so we can fill in the gaps."

This is so true, and honestly, I don't think a lot of industry types would even disagree with this now. They know they can't publish everything (for whatever their biased reasons are about what they think can sell and can't). I wish indie had a better way to reach MG readers (it's still a tough slog), but I also think that day is coming. For now, it's great that these books are simply AVAILABLE.

EEGI totally agree. We have the means to make it happen. The Internet is a great tool, if used wisely. I like what you said in your email, "there's more of us [scientist writers] than I ever suspected." Don't you think that, contrary to popular belief, it takes a lot of creativity to be a good scientist?

SKQ: I think it takes creativity to be a good scientist (even more to be a great one) -- but I think the nature of science (and engineering and, really, just the normal machinations of life) tends to quash creativity. I believe everyone is creative by nature, so I don't think people who are drawn to the sciences or engineering are less creative to start out. But I do believe that some of the very detail-oriented work that is required in science tends to make it difficult to step back and take the more creative leaps. And I don't think we teach creativity to science types -- one can argue we don't teach creativity at all, but it does need room and encouragement for expression. There's a fascinating look at this phenomenon with Candle problem -- a cognitive test that shows how the initial setup of the problem is presented has a huge effect on the ability of people to perceive the solution to the problem. The highly creative top 10% will see the creative solution no matter how it's presented; but the other 90% can be induced to think more creatively just by rearranging the setup, i.e. pulling them out of the details of a solution to see the broader picture. The nature of technical work is to live in the details, so I think tech types have to stretch differently to really bring creativity into their work. But those are exactly the kind of knowledge workers we need going forward in this fast-evolving world! Which is one reason I'm so passionate about encouraging children (my own, and through my writing) to be creative in all things.

EEG: This brings me to my next question. Being myself a mathematician by training, I love what you did with your book "Faery Swap": folding math into fiction (and getting kids excited about math) is another very challenging task, and again, you pull it off beautifully. You are not only teaching math and how useful it is, but you are also spreading out a very important message: that a lot of creativity goes into math and science. What inspired you to write this book? Did you plan to have the math folded into the story, or did it just happen as you were writing it?

SKQ: I planned for Faery Swap to be entirely fantasy and magick! Somehow Einstein's theory of relativity and dimensional travel showed up. I just shrugged my shoulders and gave in to the idea that everything I write will have some kind of science elements in it! But once the book was written, I realized the deeper message that it was communicating (Knowledge is Power when Math is Magick), and I thought it would be a great message to bring into the classroom. So I worked with a teacher-friend to create some Common Core aligned teaching materials plus a virtual author visit video talking about the power of equations (in the story and in real life), as well as a jazzy book trailer to get kids excited about the adventure in the story. Stories are an ancient and sneaky way to deliver important information about life -- to kids and grownups alike. I hope that some of my love for math and creativity will rub off on the kids who read Faery Swap.

Thanks so much for being with us today, Susan. Susan has just released her last novel, Third Daughter, the first in the Dharian Affairs series, and is already hard at work on the second book. Find out more about her incredible body of work by visiting her at

Sunday, March 16, 2014

CHIMERAS Sunday Snippet #8

From the CHIMERA prologue:
"It was one of those hot summer afternoons, with air made of cobwebs and a glare as sharp as pencils.

A few hours later Johnny Carmelo was dead, his brains skewered by the whistling path of one of my bullets. He collapsed on the pavement, a red trickle of blood weeping down his face.

I left the next day. I drove up to the Sierras, camped in my truck, and hunted at night.

There are days I long to disappear in the wild, go back to the predator life I was meant to have.
A chimera, that's what I am. And this is my story."

The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group also on Facebook, too). Check them out, it's a fun way to find upcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

CHIMERAS is the first in a detective thriller series featuring LAPD Detective Track Presius. To be sure not to miss the release date, subscribe to the blog posts in the main page. To request an ARC (advanced reserved copy), in exchange for an honest review to be posted on amazon or goodreads, send an email to eegiorgi(at) with the subject line "ARC copy."

Book Description: Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying, children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.

You can find CHIMERAS on Goodreads.
Details on how to order your free advanced copy here.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Spring Lost

Spring Lost © EEG

I had the dress. I had the roses. I had to use them.
And of course it couldn't be a "straight out of a fairy tail shot" because what would be the fun in that case? I still think that, even with the surreal element, the above would make a great cover for some fantasy/historical fiction. Any takers?

Full image just uploaded on my portfolio.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week-end.

Friday, March 14, 2014

"Connecting to your muse": interview with Autumn Kalquist, author of the Legacy Code Saga

I've been blogging for two and a half years now and the best part has been the people I met through the blog. You guys are awesome! :-)

One of such awesome people is Autumn Kalquist -- a singer, songwriter, and the author of the Legacy Code Saga. Autumn contacted me some time ago, when she was researching genetics for her novels. And look how far she's come now: the first book in her saga Legacy Code came out this week and is already a hit on Amazon, ranking among the top 10 Kindle bestsellers and hot new releases. Way to go, Autumn !

I'm so impressed by this young woman! Not only she just launched her first book. Together with producer Freya Wolfe, she is currently working on a soundtrack to her books. The first song, titled "Artificial Gravity", reflects the themes and mood of the first book-- feeling "held down" in a place steeped in fear and too many lies. You can listen to "Artificial Gravity" by visiting Autumn's website and download it for free if you sign up for her newsletter. I'm so thrilled that Autumn came to answer a few questions on the blog today.

EEG: Hi Autumn, thanks for being with us today! There's a lot of genetics in your book, Legacy Code:
The last humans fled a dying Earth 300 years ago, but there was something they couldn’t leave behind: the Legacy Code. Every colonist in the fleet carries mangled genes that damage the unborn, and half of all pregnancies must be terminated. The day seventeen-year-old Era Corinth is supposed to find out if her baby has the Defect, her ship suffers a hull breach. And it may not have been an accident. As the investigation unfolds, Era begins to question everything she’s been taught about the fleet, their search for a new Earth, and the Defect. But the answers she seeks were never meant to be found...
When did you start working on the Legacy Code and what was the image/melody/concept that inspired it?

AK: I was actually working on a novel that takes place hundreds of years after the events in Legacy Code. A character in that story opens ancient files titled “Songs and Stories from the Fleet”. In that scene, my character listens to a song that reflects her own life—and the lyrics I wrote became “Artificial Gravity”. Once I wrote the song, I started asking questions. What was life like on the fleet for the colonists--for the original songwriter? I knew I had to write their story before I released the novel I was working on. One of my main characters in Legacy Code, Zephyr, is that ancient unknown songwriter.

EEG: Whenever the topic of outlining comes up among writers, we seem to split in two: the ones who do and the ones who don’t. What about you, Autumn? Do you outline the whole book before delving into the story?

AK: The stories I outline seem to be more cohesive, and the pacing seems better. I spent a few days outlining Episode 2. I also know all the major plot twists for every book in the Legacy Code Saga (and I’ve plotted out ten books). I noticed I’m beginning to internalize plot structure and I just feel it when a story is going right. It’s actually a lot like the structure of a song. There’s an emotional journey from first beat to last, a climax close to the end, and a satisfying outro. I analyze it, but a lot of it boils down to intuition. But I can’t say I was born with storytelling instincts. I wrote the equivalent of three novels before writing Legacy Code, and I wasn’t able to see right away where my stories were going to run into problems (useless scenes, plot holes, thin sub-plots, low tension, etc.) That’s just something that comes with practice and hours spent doing revisions.

EEG: Wow, ten novels in the making! Do writing words and creating new tunes intertwine in your creative process, as in, for example, you start humming a new tune while writing a scene and vice versa a new scene pops in your head as you are creating music?

AK: Well, “Artificial Gravity” was inspired by the mood and circumstances in the scene I was writing, for sure. The song for book two is called “Better World”, and I had to sink into my characters and try to feel what they feel after the events of Legacy Code. I’m currently working on a song that was inspired by another author’s books. I knew right away that I wanted to write a song, but the night I finished the second book in the series, I dreamt the song. It was really crazy, because that’s never happened to me before. I woke up with a melody line, a few lyrics, and the parts for several instruments. I’m posting about the process over on my site.

EEG: Tell us about your inspiration, your muse.

AK: I like to view the muse like it's outside of me. When I'm creating, I feel like I'm dipping into a sort of collective pool of creation. I pick up the ideas and apply my skills and techniques to bring them to life. I feel like these stories are meant to be shared. I think it's a shame that any well-told story should go unread. You don't need anyone's approval to share it with the world.

EEG: There's another aspect of your life that has me incredibly impressed: you were diagnosed with Hodgkins disease at age 15. How did this affect you? Do you think that fighting and winning this battle has made your muse even stronger?

AK: I'm 100% sure my cancer changed me. I was always stubborn and individualistic, but there's a clear line between who I was before it and who I was after it. I have more fear now, because I've already had to face my own mortality, but I now also see how a lot of things don't matter... I see how essential it is that I follow my dreams. I can't say I'm glad I had it, because I worry I'll get it again, but I know it changed how I live life. Connecting with “the muse” is almost a spiritual thing for me, if I’m trying to describe it. I think I’ve always had a connection to that creative part of me. I was a pretty weird, creative kid. ;)

EEG: I just started reading your book and I'm already engaged in the story. One thing I love about your writing is the fact that you thoroughly research everything. Is that what draws you to science?

AK: I think I have that "truth seeker" personality. I'm sure you do too. I started researching religion and spirituality at 12, since I was raised Catholic and decided it didn't feel quite right for me. And I enjoy researching the science behind how things work, or how we think things work. It seems science is the best way to find the closest thing to truth, but we're also held back by the tech and knowledge we don't have yet. There are things we can't test or look for because we don't have the tools, or because we don't even know we should be testing for those things. But that makes finding connections and seeing patterns in the existing data even more exciting. I’m actually attracted to those lines where truth blurs. My stories tend to be rather morally gray. You’ll never see an “evil villain” in my books. Even villains have a reason for what they do. Empathizing with villains can cause some delicious cognitive dissonance and make you question what you would do under the circumstances all the characters find themselves in. Those kinds of stories are my favorite.

EEG: That's something I totally relate to. Thanks so much, Autumn, for stopping by! Your energy is contagious, and I partly owe it to you if I finally found the inspiration to push forward with my own book. Thank you!

The other part I owe to another wonderful woman, whom you guys will meet next week -- stay tuned! And don't forget to check out Autumn's book on Amazon.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

CHIMERAS, detective thriller meets science

We all have it and yet we no longer use it: ancestral DNA, the genetic footprints left by our ancestors. Base after base of pseudogenes, genes that once made us predators and hunters, that controlled our sense of smell, our instincts, our impulses. Genes that today are completely silenced.

What if ... one day ... in one person ... those genes suddenly awakened ?

"Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying, children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature."

So here's the deal: CHIMERAS is coming out soon. It's a matter of weeks now. No, I'm not looking to get famous or hit the New York Times bestselling list. To be honest with you I love my comfort zone, which is exactly where I'm at right now. But. I had an idea. Four years ago. And the idea was, and still is, unique. Vampires have been done. Ghosts have been done. Spaceships, apocalypses, dystopian, genetically modified humans, genetically enhanced humans, genetic monsters, super-viruses, drugs, smuggling, prostitutions, serial killers -- I read them all and loved them all. But they all have been done before.

Epigenetics has not been done. Not in fiction.
That's all I want, really. I want my idea out.

I had quite a roller coster, between agents' offers (8!), publishers' rejections, publishers' requests for changes, etc, etc, etc. One day I'll tell the whole story. Maybe I'll write a book on that -- haha, that would be quite ironic. But all I want for now is my book out.

And here's where you come into play: do you love science and scientific mysteries? Do you enjoy books and thrillers in particular? Then be the first one to review CHIMERAS! For a limited time only, I'm offering free Kindle copies of CHIMERAS. Send me an email at eegiorgi(at) with the subject line "ARC copy" to get a free Kindle copy of my book. This copy will be for your personal use only. By signing up you agree to write an honest (yes, honest: I'm not looking for 5-star reviews, I'm looking for what you honestly thought of the book) and post it either on Amazon or Goodreads (preferably both).

Please, support me in my new adventure: tell your friends and share this post! You can read the prologue here and share that post, too. Please don't share the book copies themselves, as I'd like to keep track of exactly how many copies I'm sending out to the world. So, if you know anybody who might be interested, tell them to write directly to me. Again: eegiorgi(at), subject line "ARC copy".

Follow the blog and subscribe to the post to make sure you don't miss the release date! And cheer me on because I'm terrified so excited I think I'm going to pass out. :-)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Outline or not? Planned photo shooting or not?

Time Forward, © EEG

Outgrown Dreams, © EEG

As a scientist, I love rigor. Experiments need to be planned, analyses need to be outlined, all statements in the paper need to be justified with evidence. Yet when it comes to writing or shooting I do zero planning. I don't outline, I don't sketch images.

My stories start with a voice. Characters come first, then settings. I get to know my characters as they form in my head. I don't know what they want, I don't know what they'll do. I put them in some awkward situation and go from there. I can't plan, because I don't know what's going to happen next. If you've read my stories, you know that I always have some scientific concept revolving behind the scenes. That's where I get my inspiration. I read about some new concept that's just been discovered and I think, "What if ... ?" And that becomes the conflict in my story.

Shooting's pretty much the same. Many photographers out there are not too fond of post-processing. They plan their shootings carefully so that they can spend the least amount of time post-processing. I LOVE post-processing. If I shoot an image that's ready I have no fun. I want to create the image, not just shoot it. So I'll take ten different images and combine them together. Sometimes I only have one piece of an object I want to use and I'll fiddle with it until I can reconstruct the rest. My images aren't perfect because of that. And yet I love them because of that, because of the hours I spend on the computer watching them grow, one layer at the time. I also use Photoshop Elements instead of the more sophisticated (and way more expensive!) CC6 because again, I don't want software that does stuff for me. I want to do it myself.

What about you? What kind of writer/shooter are you?

Waiting for the Rain, © EEG

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pregnancy and breast cancer risk: why age counts

That an early pregnancy is protective against breast cancer is something I've known for ten years now. I remember one of my professors, back when I started studying genetics, saying: "Having a baby at 16 may ruin your life but it sure protects you from breast cancer." Today we know a lot more about the cellular and genetic mechanisms that a first pregnancy triggers in the body. And yet how these mechanisms turn out to be protective against breast cancer is still a mystery.
"The ovarian hormones, estrogen and progesterone, play a pivotal role in normal and neoplastic development of the mammary gland. These hormones have a paradoxical role as long duration of estrogen and progesterone are associated with increased breast cancer risk, while short duration of pregnancy level doses are associated with a reduced breast cancer risk [1]."
Pregnancy levels of these two hormones induce permanent changes in gene expression that result in the life-long protective effect against breast cancer. This has been achieved in mouse models, too, by mimicking pregnancy through hormonal administration, followed by carcenogenesis challenges (the poor little mice are exposed to stuff that normally raises breast cancer risk). What I found surprising, and that I didn't know ten years ago, is that there is a slight increase in breast cancer risk after pregnancy, and this risk increases with age, as shown in the graph below (from [2]):

The graph above, published in [2], is a qualitative summary from various epidemiological studies. The "base-level" risk for breast cancer is by definition the risk of a nulliparous woman (a woman who's never been pregnant). I originally thought that a full term pregnancy had a protective effect on breast cancer, no matter at what age, and that the protection diminished with age. However, there is a temporary increase in risk following the pregnancy, and this temporary increase grows with age. During pregnancy, both estrogen and progesterone levels rise drastically and temporarily increase the risk of breast cancer. The earlier in life the pregnancy, the lower this increase in risk, and, in the long term, the risk gets reversed drastically. However, for first pregnancies at an older age the temporary increase in risk is much higher and it takes much longer to reverse to the protective effect. As a consequence, having a first child after 35 years of age puts a woman at a higher risk compared to a woman who has never been pregnant. Furthermore, the protective effect is negligible in the presence of the BRCA1 and/or BRCA2 mutations, or with breast cancers that are estrogen/progesterone negative (the cancer cells do not have estrogen/progesterone receptors).

Finding the epidemiological mechanisms that establish the life-long protection inferred by an early pregnancy could pave the way to better prevention and treatments. Meier-Abt and Bentires-Alj's review [2] is available for free from Cell and I highly recommend it as it has a nice overview of breast cancer risk as well as the current knowledge on the mechanisms that link early pregnancy to protection:
"Most probably, the individual mechanisms are not mutually exclusive and the full protective effect results from a combination of several processes [2]."
Besides estrogen and progesterone, the growth hormone (GH) and prolactin (PRL) also control the development of the mammary gland. And while estrogen and progesterone levels do not change after a woman has had her first child, PRL levels do. Mouse models have found that decreased PRL and GH levels favor cancer regression in animals with mammary tumors, whereas other studies have associated increased levels of PRL and GH with a higher incidence of breast cancer.

Another theory is that mammary cells become less responsive to estrogen and progesterone after pregnancy, and this could be another factor lowering the risk of cancer. It is consistent with the fact that longer exposure to these hormones, on the other hand, increases the risk. In [2], the authors also list some interesting pathway signaling changes observed after early pregnancy that could be associated with breast cancer protection. One pathway in particular, called wingless related protein (Wnt) signaling, is downregulated after early pregnancy. The pathway is involved in binding ligands from the outside surface of the cell and passing the signal to the inside.
"In women, pregnancy leads to a reduction in the number of hormone-responsive cells and preferential downregulation of protumorigenic genes and pathways in a subset of progenitor cells isolated from normal human breast tissue. The studies point towards the use of Wnt inhibitors to mimic the protective effect against breast cancer of early pregnancy, a finding consistent with the known potent antiproliferation and anticancer activity of Wnt inhibition [2]."
The authors conclude with some outstanding questions that still need to be answered before we can use the information to develop a successful preventive strategy. In particular:
"Does pregnancy at a late age (late pregnancy) fail to induce similar cellular and molecular changes as pregnancy at an early age? And if so, does this explain the absence of parity-induced protection against breast cancer after late pregnancy?"

[1] Medina D (2005). Mammary developmental fate and breast cancer risk. Endocrine-related cancer, 12 (3), 483-95 PMID: 16172188

[2] Meier-Abt F, & Bentires-Alj M (2014). How pregnancy at early age protects against breast cancer. Trends in molecular medicine, 20 (3), 143-153 PMID: 24355762

Monday, March 3, 2014

Time Series

No, not the mathematical ones :-)

I've been working on a new series, themed around the concept of "Time."

I just uploaded it to My Gallery, hope you'll enjoy it.

Time V © Elena E. Giorgi

Time I © Elena E. Giorgi

Time II © Elena E. Giorgi

Time III © Elena E. Giorgi

Saturday, March 1, 2014

East meets West in Reylia Slaby's ethereal images

"They called her Ame Onna" - © Reylia Slaby
Today I'm excited to introduce a new feature on CHIMERAS: along with writer interviews, I'm starting a new series of interviews with photographers. And it is my great honor to have as my very first guest, the beautiful and extremely talented photographer Reylia Slaby. This is how Reylia introduces herself in her own words:
"I'm Reylia, and I'm a conceptual photographer, but that isn't all I think I am. I am also a graphite artist, a poet, a dancer, a model, a writer and a reader. Not because I do all of those equally as much, or that I'm spectacular at any of them, but because I love them all equally, and have all had their place in my life."
I think I can relate to those words. :-)

I came across Reylia's photography page on Facebook and I was instantly blown away. There are many conceptual photographers out there, yet Reylia's work stands out for its freshness and uniqueness. Blending together both western and eastern elements, her images are magical and evocative. How does she achieve that? By "filling them with emotion," as Reylia herself explains in her artist statement:
"In my photos I must have emotion, and I must have feeling. That is all I strive for. I get my inspiration from what I believe to be truths in life. If I can bring to people images they only see in their dreams, and images filled with whimsical hope, beauty, or tragedy, then that is a wonderful gift. And I hope that in that way I can be a friend."

EEG: Thanks so much, Reylia, for answering my questions today! Your work is amazing, and so is your story: you started as a graphite pencil artist before transitioning to photography (you can see some of Reylia's drawings here). And you've been modeling since you were two, which is not surprising, actually, given how beautiful you are! How did this affect you growing up? When did you transition to the other side of the camera and what motivated you to do so?

RS: Thank you! Yes I have! When I was a kid it was a ton of fun, but since I'm a bit short there aren't too many opportunities in modeling for me at present.

Though since I was home-schooled, growing up modeling actually helped me connect with hundreds of people I wouldn't have otherwiseーplus it exposed me to the photography world quite early on. It might sound unusual, but the most valuable lesson it taught be was how to properly deal with rejection. It has been an invaluable skill, because it helps me keep moving forward instead of dwelling on the negative.

EEG: Though your family is originally from America, you were born and raised in Japan. Indeed, one of the things I love the most in your work is the mix of Asian and Western elements -- I had been playing with cheongsams and sun umbrellas for a little bit before stumbling into your work and when I did, I was blown away. "They Called Her Ame Onna" (the picture above, Reylia explains the story behind it in this post) and "It Can't Protect you" are two of my favorite from your Conceptual gallery. How do you achieve such perfect blend of Asian and Western? What do you love best of each world?

RS: Growing up as a "third culture child" helped me understand that there is more than one way of thinking. These days, I'm actually leaning more towards Japanese styled art because I understand it and it takes up so much of my identity.

I started out with a more "Westernised" style. People have even told me that it looks Victorian, which is funny, because I grew up loving and studying that era. But what I love the most about Japan is the depth and emotion in the culture. I'm extremely grateful to have been born into such a beautiful world.

EEG: I loved your blog post Preparation, on how you learned how to plan ahead for your shoots. But do you ever start off with a certain idea and end up with a completely different one? How often do you surprise yourself?

RS: Yes! It actually happens quite frequently. Instead of going for a particular look, I try to aim for a certain feeling, so my pictures often turn out quite different that I see it in my mind's eye. There are many times where I would have a photo-shoot and I'd end up forgetting the first idea and shoot something completely different. I think the biggest surprised with my piece called "The Captain's Daughter". After that shoot, I couldn't see a story in the pictures, so the original files for that had been sitting on my computer for at least 4 months. Then one day I reviewed them again and saw something different.

EEG: Given that you were (still are?) a model yourself, does it make it harder or easier to work with models?

That's a tough one! I actually don't think it has much to do with your ability to model, but the attitude and imagination of the model. Of course it's always wonderful to have someone who has modeled for a long time or someone who dances (I love to photograph dancers) but it isn't a necessary qualification. A person who can move, who is flexible, who doesn't mind going into cold or dirty waters is the best kind of model! Someone brave enough and believes in the idea enough to continue through.

Thank you so much for the interview!!

EEG: Thank you, Reylia, for kindly answering my questions. It's been a great honor to have you here on the blog and to learn a bit more about you and your work.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know Reylia and her work as much as I did. You can see all of her beautiful images on her website, and learn more about her work process on her blog.