About this blog

I am the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology and currently working on a book about lice. Yep,  I said “lice.” Promise–they’re fascinating.  The College Biology book, which does not mention lice that I can recall, closely follows the first-year biology curriculum and is, I hope, a useful and accessible guide not so much for idiots but for people who simply need another perspective or presentation for learning biology.

This blog includes new pieces based on what grabs my interest that day and a series of articles I wrote for Biology Digest from 2003 until 2010, covering the “hot science” of the first decade of the 21st century (marked with “Timeline” and the year). My goal is to share with readers some of the weird and wonderful discoveries that have emerged in this decade and show the links among the sciences, history, and the human condition. Each piece not only discusses the findings but also provides context with explanations of the basic scientific tenets underlying them. My hope is that teachers and their students, especially, might find these articles useful in expanding on the essentials of teaching and learning biology.

I do have a personal life

And I blog about it here, at A Life Less Ordinary. Everything you wanted to know…or couldn’t care less about autism, parenting, special needs, general grousiness, and the occasional sciency breakdown.

About Me: The Official(-ish) Idiot’s Guide Author Bio

Emily Willingham was born in Texas during the terrible year of 1968, but that has proved the nadir of her existence to date. Despite blowing the chemistry curve in Chem II in high school and placing out of freshman biology in college, Emily ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin because (a) she was in a hurry and (b) English is her native language. Realizing that in her rush, she had failed to gain a degree that would make her marketable to prospective employers, Emily dropped her budding career in public relations to return to school, this time in her true calling: biology.

Emily had felt the call to study life from early on, dissecting her first preserved frog from a chemistry set at age 8 and spending far too much time in the 1970s watching “Wild Kingdom,” back when there really wasn’t anything on television. Diverted from her true course by the wild idea that she could be a writer, Emily did not enter graduate school in biological sciences until age 26, emerging five years later, again from The University of Texas at Austin, with a PhD, a lot of not-very-useful knowledge about turtles, and a growing list of scientific publications. In the meantime, because the grass is truly always greener, Emily’s thoughts returned again to writing. She thought about writing even as she finished up a postdoctoral appointment at the University of California, San Francisco, that involved investigating the development of the mammalian penis, always a fascinating subject.

Luckily, she realized that writing and science are a pair of reagents that combine into the perfect lifetime pursuit. Since that chemistry-inspired epiphany, Emily has written about science, nature, and medicine for national, regional, and local publications, including Backpacker and Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. In addition, she has taught dozens of college-level biology classes in California and Texas, blowing the minds of nonmajors who never knew that about the platypus and engaging graduate students in dissecting the finer points of the preservatives found in that mystery of mysteries, the Twinkie.

Living the life of a writer, teacher, and editor up to her ears in science, Emily cannot believe her good fortune. She shares that good fortune in Austin, Texas, with a direct descendent of the Vikings and their three sons, all of whom show similar tendencies to a love of all things biology.

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6 Responses to About this blog

  1. Beth says:

    I was linked to the article Why My Child With Autism is Fully Vaccinated” and read your comments and just wanted to say wow. All of your responses were amazingly civil and well thought out. Thank you so much for giving me a little bit of hope on the critical thinking abilities of society.

  2. Rachel says:

    I have been reading your comments on the “Why My Child With Autism is Fully Vaccinated” post and really appreciated what you had to say and how clear (and civil!) your comments were. Would you be willing to answer a question for me? Are the rates of autism just as high throughout the world as they are in countries with high vaccination rates? I am not “anti-vaccine” by any means (and do vaccinate my kids). Just trying to understand it all. Thanks in advance.

    • ejwillingham says:

      There are a few problems with trying to make this comparison. First, countries that do not have vaccination programs locked in or relatively high vaccination rates also have little in the way of tracking developmental differences of any kind, including autism. Resource-poor areas are not applying what resources they do have to monitoring differences and disability; the focus is far more on clinical morbidity and mortality, often from vaccine-preventable diseases. Also, while we apply the current criteria of the DSM-IV-TR in making an autism diagnosis, diagnostic criteria elsewhere, if they even exist, may differ or include individuals on different parts of the autism spectrum. According to the Autism Society of America, global incidence of autism and other developmental differences and disorders is likely to be grossly underestimated. http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=community_world_incidence

      Autism rates vary even from state to state here in the US. Awareness of autism is one driving factor in diagnosis, so even that simple variable can drive differences in rates.

      What it comes down to is that this comparison between high- and low-vaccine coverage regions and autism rates cannot currently be made because of huge differences in record keeping, diagnosis, inclusion criteria, and emphasis from region to region. Even if we somehow managed to normalize all of this information, other confounders such as environmental exposures, family history, genetic components, etc., would still also have to be accounted for. All I can say is that autism exists where vaccines are not used, and millions of children receive vaccines without developing autism.

  3. Rachel says:

    That makes perfect sense. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the lack of medical care that leads to few vaccinations would also keep people from identifying autism. So, if you don’t mind my asking, what do you think is the cause of autism? Have the numbers truly risen or did we just not know how to diagnose it before now?

    • ejwillingham says:

      Studies indicate that the rise noted in the US is primarily related to changes in diagnostic criteria and better awareness and targeting of diagnosis. I doubt seriously my mother ever wondered once during my childhood if I had autism, but I bet there’s a rare parent today who doesn’t have that fleeting concern with their child. Indeed, there are also indications that socioeconomic status plays a role, possibly also because of better parental awareness among those with more years of education.

      I’ve posted over at my personal blog about what I think underlies autism, based on what science is telling us now. Copy number variations are a prime suspect: http://daisymayfattypants.blogspot.com/2009/12/real-science-copy-number-variation-and.html and I’d bet at least half the square footage of my house that we’ll find epigenetics as a player here, as well, which indicates environmental influences. No gene operates in a vacuum, so yes, I know there are environmental influences, but what those are are probably as multifactorial as the etiology of autism itself. There are often many many pathways leading to the manifestation of a given behavior, and a disruption in any one of those could be exhibited as what we think of as autism. Thus, I predict many genes interacting with a variety of environmental factors will be identified as causative here. What doesn’t seem to be a link is vaccines or thimerosal. We need to be looking at other, more viable environmental candidates. It may be that their contribution is minimal compared to the genetic component, but at least we could study candidates with real possibility.

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