About Food Allergies…

When my elder daughter, A, was a toddler, I often thought she was a “difficult” child. Her face would regularly flare up with angry rashes and her mucus would flow like a free-flowing tap in the mornings. Moisturizing her sensitive skin with hypoallergenic moisturizer was a daily affair. We also thought that she was a fussy eater because she would vomit whenever she ate something “not right”. Soon, I began to suspect that A might have some kind of food allergy. A food allergy  (Source: NHS, UK) occurs when our immune system mistakenly treats harmless proteins in certain foods as “enemies” and it releases “soldiers” to combat the influx of the “enemies”. Typically, a type of antibody, immunoglobulin E (Ig E) mistakes a certain protein in food as a foreign body. It releases histamine to counteract the foreign body. 

One day, while at work, I received a call from my mother. My kind parents have been my daughter’s caregivers while I work during the day. She mentioned that A’s face had become swollen and she had been coughing violently after eating something. When I rushed back, I saw a poor little girl with face, eyes and lips swollen beyond recognition. She was mysteriously wheezing profusely. From the pediatrician’s clinic where she was given steroid inhaler to dilate her respiratory tract (Source: Wexner Medical Center) rapidly, we were advised to rush her to the hospital where she was monitored closely. That’s when we realised the severity of her allergy. Yet, we still couldn’t pin point what food could have caused her allergy.

In another episode, she took a tiny bite from my peanut waffles and 10 minutes later, she vomited quite violently. That’s when I began to suspect that she had peanut allergy. After reading up more about peanut allergy, a condition most of us would associate as an “ang mo” affliction, I decided to send A for a skin prick test (Source: Medline Plus) for confirmation. A small amount of purified allergen was pricked on the skin surface to check for an immuno-response.We were ever so thankful to Dr Liew Woei Kang who took care of A and helped confirm that she had peanut allergy and the worrisome allergic attacks were called anaphylaxsis (Source: PubMed Health). We were extremely thankful that we got medical help in time. I read with interest a recent discovery on a test to improve peanut allergy diagnosis. (Source: ScienceDaily). This involves a 2-step screening process which helps to reduce the need of the oral food challenge (Source: Medline Plus) which requires intensive close monitoring in the hospitals. This improvement in technology will go a long way in  relieving the resource constraints faced by hospitals.

We had to be extremely careful of what A put into her mouth. We taught her how to read food labels. Learning along with her, we found out that peanut oil is also known as arachis oil (source: Merriam-Webster). Having an allergic child has taught us to be more considerate to the needs of others, not just during meal times. My colleagues and I once planned a science experiment which involved an investigation to determine the energy content of different types of food/oil for our students. Peanut oil was one of them. Immediately, I opposed to the idea of using peanut oil. We just got to be very careful with possible food allergies. An example of such a science activity “How much energy is there?” can be found from Nuffield Foundation and I notice the amount of care taken by Nuffield Foundation in protecting allergic children.

As a mother of an allergic child, I feel that the level of awareness towards food allergies in Singapore is still low, despite the concerted effort put in by health agencies to create such an awareness. Read more about media coverage “Food that can kill a child” on food allergies in Mind Your Body, the Straits Times. Be thankful that we get to eat whatever we enjoy because there are others who are not blessed to do likewise.

While I enjoy my meal at my favorite coffee shop, I wonder when will it be possible for my 13-year-old A to savor our local fare without fear of another allergic attack?

MacRitchie Reservoir to my rescue!

Dr David Bickford (Source: NUS) has assigned us to plan a field trip as one of the final assignments for our MW5201 module.This is a tough one.. I am hoping to plan a field trip that involves the interdisciplinary study of science. An interdisciplinary approach to the learning of science would make the learning more fun and real-world, isn’t it? My interdisciplinary study involves the use of interdisciplinary approach (historical background, industrial techniques, economics consideration, ethics) to the study of organic chemistry. I hope to include different disciplines in this assignment as well.

Science education has to involve the use of mutli-disciplinary lens from the sciences and the humanities in order for our future generation to understand the complexity of today’s problems. Watch this clip from Professor Brian Green and appreciate how he advocates the importance of science education (Source: youtube video) to bring about continued improvement to life and culture and global dialogue in the face of today’s opportunities.
While strolling along Prunus Trail (Source: NParks) at MacRitchie Reservoir Park (Source: NParks) with my family one day, it suddenly dawned on me that MacRitchie Reservoir Park would be a suitable place to incorporate multidisciplinary elements of learning! It’s a perfect outdoor learning lab for our students. Not only can they test the water quality at different parts of the reservoir, they can also learn to relate their findings to the environment. After that, a stroll along Prunus Trail will give our students a chance to appreciate the biodiversity that still exists today and more importantly, the ecosystem services (Source: Wikipedia) that nature provides. They get to learn about chemistry, geography, biology and civics education in this field trip! They get to learn about their world! Isn’t this more meaningful than memorizing facts in the classroom? 

Starting from the reservoir deck, we walked to the dam before proceeding to the kayak platform. These may be suitable stations for our students to conduct some simple water testing. Water testing parameters (Source: PUB) must be introduced to them prior to the field trip and I will have to teach them how to use the testing kits and how to interpret the data. There are very different types of human activities at these 3 chosen areas, so I would expect the results of water quality testing to be different. 
At the reservoir deck
At the dam area
At the kayak platform
After testing the water quality, perhaps I can plan an easy stroll along Prunus Trail. Hopefully, students get an opportunity to appreciate how different species of flora and fauna coexist in our tropical rainforest and how we have benefited from the ecosystem services they provide.

A dragonfly, an important pollinator, is commonly seen along Prunus Trail

A water monitor lizard uses its tongue to sense its environment

My younger daughter, M, caught sight of a water monitor lizard relaxing in the safe water environment and captured it on video. 

A macaque tries to crack a nut.

Some of us find these primates ferocious and also find their “invasion” a problem. However, Dr Jane Goodhall, a world renowned primatologist, continues her tireless effort in advocating a concerted and compassionate coexistance of humans, animals and the environment. (Source: Jane Goodhall Institute (Singapore)).

As we stroll along Prunus Trail, M, captured a hardworking spider spinning a web. With no trained eyes, we were not able to identify the species of spider. 
We came across the Tembusu tree (Fagraea fragrans) (Source: Wild Singapore), the tree which forms the background of our $5 note and whose bark has anti-bacterial proeperties and the “Cheng Tng” tree (Scaphium macrophodum), whose ripe seeds form the brown jelly in our favourite dessert when soaked in water. 

It was an eye-opening experience for me and I am sure I will get a lot of fun planning the field trip. Let’s hope that this field trip will create a platform for my students to have fun learning about their environment and science!

Nature Versus Nurture: Excellence in sports

Watching my younger daughter, M, train in gymnastics makes me think really hard about the important role of science in deciding the right sport for children. Children naturally love all kinds of sports that allow them to use up the excess energy in them. Besides, they get to meet and train/play with their teammates. I see the joy in these young girls when they train, despite the pain they get when they stretch their already “stretched” muscles and strengthen their little “six packs’. However, the built of their body plays a part in their pursuit of excellence in certain sports.

M is tall for her age and I notice she needs to put in more effort than her peers in maintaining her balance. Her center of gravity (Source: Britannica Online) is higher than her peers and she has to maintain a good balance to prevent herself from toppling over whenever she straddles, flips or does her handstand. The center of gravity is a point where the total weight of the body is thought to be concentrated. Take a look at the following image. It is clear that adults have higher centers of gravity than children because they are taller. That explains why children are more stable than adults and are able to tumble and flip easily while maintaining their balance, as compared to us.
Let me try to illustrate this point with the following diagram.
The stability of the same rectangle is dependent on how it is placed on a slope. When the center of gravity is higher, the rectangle topples down the slope more easily.
M straddling across the beam. She needs a lot of practice in order not to topple over.

M doing a handstand on a beam. Her higher center of gravity causes her to overturn frequently.

Nastia Liukin, won a Gold medal in the individual all-around in the summer Olympics in Beijing. She was the tallest among the top six AA female qualifiers. This achievement could not have been possible without much hardwork, resilience and self-belief, perhaps needed more than the other gymnasts?

The group of top six AA female qualifiers face the judges before the competition.

 M may not have continued with gymnastics now. We are, however, grateful that M’s journey in learning gymnastics has taught her self-discipline and resilience – values that will serve her well in the future.
On this note, I wish Lim Heem Wei, also affectionately known as Wei Wei Jie Jie to M and her friends, all the best in the coming Summer Olympics in London!
(Source: The Straits Times, 18/4/2012)

Lim Heem Wei training hard on the beam

Coffee Shop Science!

Coffee shops in Singapore are very much a part of my life. I grew up in a neighbourhood surrounded by several coffee shops. Till today, the life abuzz coffee shops still adds colour to my otherwise quiet neighbourhood.

Coffee shops are melting pots for people from all walks of life in Singapore. Nowadays, coffee shops that are opened 24/7 have become a common sight. In the mornings, grandmas and grandpas can be seen sipping their kopi while enjoying their kaya toasts and half-boiled eggs that are every ready to tempt the local taste buds. Occasionally, there will be executives who are dressed to the nines with long sleeves and ties. Ever busy and fighting for time, they seem to swallow their fried bee hoon in large chunks while keeping their eyes glued to their ipads. Sometimes, they swallow so fast that I wonder if they can hear their stomachs calling out for the red light! Soon, hunger pangs bring in the lunch time and dinner time crowd. Everyone makes a beeline for their favourite stalls, be it the cha kway tiao stall or the zi cha stall. Believe it or not, there is almost always a long queue at a chicken rice stall in a coffee shop in Bishan! Don’t forget the supper crowd! Uncles chill out with their pals over their favourite beer and rojak and oyster omelette. Their conversations are peppered with stories ranging from the world economy to local politics. What a sight within a day!

As for me, I love to let my thoughts about school, teaching, parenting wonder while sipping my kopi si and munching my nonya kueh at coffee shops. They are places for exchange of ideas, from our daily struggles to our latest read from science blogs.

Coffee and half-boiled eggs - Singapore Favorite Breakfast