You’ve got male: the wide-ranging effects of testosterone

Muscle Man
Testosterone promotes muscle growth (Photo credit: Marcus Q)

Testosterone — its reputation precedes it. It is the very essence of maleness and evokes images of raw strength and competitiveness, virility and square-jawed male maturity. It’s what makes a man a man, and without it we wouldn’t get from one generation to the next. But testosterone, and other male hormones collectively known as androgens, have effects that reach far beyond simply setting in motion sexual maturity for half of our species.

So what happens when someone lacks this body-morphing hormone? What about when you have too little, or too much? And what role does it play in the female body?

To tease out some of the remarkable effects of this ubiquitous hormone, I interviewed endocrinologist Professor Jeffrey Zajac on the latest episode of Up Close. Professor Zajac is the Director of Endocrinology at the Austin Hospital and Head of the University of Melbourne Department of Medicine.


Setting forth safely: Travel health before, during, and after the journey

In 2012, the world’s airports, seaports and other border checkpoints saw the arrival of over 1 billion international travellers. Compare this to the paltry 25 million international arrivals that took place in 1950, and you can begin to appreciate just how much international travel has grown over the last few decades.

As costs of travel have fallen, the social consequences have been great — tourists are able to visit exotic destinations their parents and grandparents may have only read about; migrants are able to make regular visits back to their homeland; and millions of students travel to foreign countries every year for university and college education.

But what impact does all of this global movement of people have on health and disease control? Does travel present particular health risks for the individual traveller? And what about consequences at the community level?

For this week’s episode of Up Close, I interviewed  infectious disease and public health physician Associate Professor Tilman Ruff from the Disease Prevention & Health Promotion Unit of the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne about travel medicine. And it’s not all about mosquitoes and diarrhoea.


Pregnancy 2.0: The lingering effects of modern reproduction

For most people, the basics of starting a family are very much the same as they have always been — you find someone you like (ideally), have sex, and then nine months later you have a baby. But in many ways, modern-day pregnancy has also vastly changed. Incredible advances in assisted reproductive technologies enable thousands of couples who are unable to fall pregnant naturally to have children. And even for those who do conceive naturally, there are pre-conception health checks, vitamin supplements, and self-imposed bans on soft cheeses, alcohol and spa baths. Pregnancy has become a time of caution, as much as it is a time of excitement.

For Up Close, I recorded an interview with reproductive biologist Dr Mark Green, who studies the precisely choreographed process of embryo development during pregnancy. Garnering information from a range of different species, Mark looks at how hormonal, environmental and dietary factors can all have immediate and sometimes lasting effects on the health of an embryo. Mark is from the Department of Zoology at the University of Melbourne. Listen to the full interview, or read the transcript here.

Vanquishing the vectors: Enlisting bacteria to fight mosquito-borne disease

In the latest episode of Up Close, I spoke with Professor Ary Hoffman, to look at how biological control can be used to prevent dengue fever, a disease that is prone to rapid and pandemic-scale outbreaks in tropical regions around the world. His approach makes use of Wolbachia, a bacterium that infects as many as 70% of the world’s insect species. It forms bizarre endosymbiotic relationships with the insect cells that it infects, altering mating systems and preventing co-infection with dengue and other viruses — a great example of the weird and wonderful that is possible in nature. Ary is an insect geneticist and ecologist from the departments of Genetics and Zoology at the University of Melbourne. You can download or listen online here.


Less than us: Are people hardwired to dehumanize others?

People can be quick to dehumanise others (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe has traditionally been helpful in times of war or conflict. But there is also a very ugly side to rushing to judge others. Prejudice, especially for those who are on the receiving end, is an incredibly dehumanising experience — to be dismissed by another person takes away from us our sense of individual human worth. But what does it mean to be dehumanised, and how or why are people capable of dehumanising others? Also, how aware are we of the snap judgments that we make about other people, and can we control the biases we have?

Social psychologist Prof Nick Haslam and I discuss what it means to be dehumanised, and how people are capable of viewing and treating their fellow human beings as less than themselves on this episode of Up Close.

Where’s your compassion? Generation Y and the new empathy deficit

Do Gen Y lack empathy? (Photo credit: Anders Ljungberg)

Humans are extraordinarily social creatures – our ability to form complex communities where we exchange goods and services, as well as knowledge, has no doubt been essential to our success as a species. Empathy is central to our desire to care for and connect with our fellow human beings – whether they are close friends or family, or others in the community that rely on the generous donations of strangers.

But are all humans empathic by nature, or are there some amongst us who struggle to see any perspective other than their own? Are we as empathic as our parents and grandparents, and what are the implications for society as a whole if empathy is on the wane?

I spoke to social psychologist Sara Konrath, from the University of Michigan, about intergenerational differences in empathy, and how this important social attribute seems to be diminishing in Generation Y in the latest episode of Up Close. Sara is Assistant Professor with the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research and the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Contentedly caged? Researching the behavior of animals in captivity

Meerkat. Taken in Victoria, Australia in Febru...
Meerkats are contented zoo dwellers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings have a long history of living in close proximity to other animals. Domesticated cats and dogs are our companions, horses ease the burden of our work, and numerous other species end up on our dinner table. Beyond domestication, our fascination with animals has seen millions of animals globally placed in zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries – mostly to satisfy our curiosity, but increasingly for captive breeding programs to bolster wild populations in decline.

Keeping animals captive — for whatever purpose — requires that animals feel secure and content. But how do animal keepers ensure the welfare of their charges, whether on the farm or in the zoo? What are we still learning about animals, and how they behave and cope in the captive setting?

Just before the Christmas break last year, we recorded an episode of Up Close where I interviewed two PhD students who are exploring animal behaviour and welfare at the Animal Welfare Science Centre, a joint centre of the University of Melbourne, Ohio State University and the Victorian Department of Primary Industries.

Sally Sherwen’s research is looking at the behaviour of a variety of zoo animals and how they respond to zoo visitors. Megan Verdon is investigating the behaviour of domesticated pigs kept in enclosures.