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  • Writer's picturerichelletanner

2018 was a year of extremes

For those of you attending my talk at SICB this year, spoiler alert I plan on using this "joke" (that's not actually funny) to kick off 15 minutes of discussion on transcriptomics and proteomics. Where do we even start...I think about extremes a lot. In my research, I am fundamentally interested in variation. Environmental, spatial, performance, all types of variation. When we think about variation, we inevitably think about the bounds of variation, which are generally defined as extremes. So you can imagine, I've noticed a lot of societal parallels to my research this year.

America has become more polarized, or at least the media has tried to portray the extreme views as being commonplace. We have a government that is increasingly only dealing in those extreme viewpoints, unwilling to approach the mean (moderate) solution, or bipartisanship. Our climate is becoming increasingly extreme, with unexpected weather patterns and even more very hot/cold events. Overall, we've been exposed to more extreme events in all avenues of our lives than ever before. Ironically, increased extremes have somewhat dampened the extreme nature of our responses.

Don't get me wrong, there are social movements gaining significant momentum to address the craziness of the last few years. We are doing great work and I hope we can continue promoting change. But have you noticed that increased extremes can decrease sensitivity to extremes? This is something I study in physiological responses to climate change - if you expose an animal to multiple sub-lethal extremely hot temperatures, it can undergo heat hardening and be better prepared to approach the next sub-lethal event with a "meh I'll be prepared" cellular stress response instead of a "THE WORLD IS ON FIRE ALERT THE PRESSES" cellular stress response. Maybe I'm projecting a little bit here.

We as a society have been "hardened" over the last year of extremes. We disengage from Trump's crazy tweets and "fake news", sigh in resignation when we read the snowpack is lower than ever thanks to the unexpected El Nino year, and say "well at least the whole government isn't shut down?". I get why this is happening. We are exhausted from the roller coaster of emotions and our physiological response is to avoid rising stress levels, because we know another surprise is right around the corner. Nuclear war? Massive wildfires? Oh well, nothing we can do now. Best not to raise blood pressure unnecessarily. But unlike an animal's heat hardening approach, this desensitization is not advantageous. Now, more than ever, we need to increase our response because we actually have a hand in controlling the frequency of extremes we experience.

So I implore you to make the effort to engage more, even though your first instinct is to stick your head in the sand and pray this will be over soon. Support our social movements aiming to change the way our government addresses climate change, immigration, human rights, and everything else you find personally important. 2019 is shaping up to be even more extreme, and we can't afford to continue down this path.

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