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Busting Myths about Tobacco Use

The causal relationship between tobacco use and lung disease is well-known but how tobacco products affect other organ systems is less well understood by the general public.  With that in mind, graduate student Sarah Shires set out to educate the public about the harmful effects of tobacco products on the heart. 

As a trainee in the lab of Dr. Åsa Gustafsson at UC San Diego, Ms. Shires studies how heart muscle cells remove damaged mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell. Mitochondria are responsible for providing the heart’s muscle cells with energy to contract and pump blood throughout the body. When mitochondria age or are damaged, they no longer generate energy and can cause the cell to die if they are not promptly removed.  Cigarette smoke can harm mitochondria and so improper clearance of mitochondria, leading to muscle cell death, may be one way that smoking leads to heart disease.  

Ms. Shires was part of a special event at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center connected to the exhibit “Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition.” While three of the TV show’s “Mythbusters” were in town for Comic Con, the museum hosted an “Evening with Myth Busters.” Guests were invited to explore the exhibit, meet and take pictures with the Mythbusters, and interact with real scientists.

The Mythbusters TV show is about testing myths and experimenting with hands-on science, so both the exhibit and the displays set up by scientists were extremely interactive. Ms. Shires displayed thin sections of heart tissue that visitors could observe under two different light microscopes to better understand the cellular structures that she studies. Ms. Shires also created a poster with facts about how tobacco products cause increased risk of cardiovascular disease and played echocardiogram videos on her laptop so that visitors could see how hearts pump blood in real time. 

“I also 3-D printed a heart model for the event that visitors could handle and take apart. This made it easier to understand the different views that the echocardiograms and heart sections show, and easier for me to explain cardiac contractions and disease states.

“I answered questions about how we study heart diseases, the specific research that the lab does, and what my thesis project is about.  I also answered general questions about smoking and other risk factors for heart disease.” At the end of the event, Ms. Shires was able to meet the Mythbusters and have her picture taken with them.

TRDRP is committed to communicating research findings to a diverse array of stakeholders and believes that it is critical to engage the community in understanding research into tobacco disease prevention, tobacco use prevention, and cessation.  TRDRP encourages investigators to think creatively about how they could include community members in their research process and requires a community engagement plan from every applicant.

picture of 4 presenters