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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mycrobiomics, a new Ad-Venture

Recently launched a new venture: Mycrobiomics, Inc. So glad I am better at launching and running companies than blogging frequently.

Mycrobiomics is well outside of my comfort zone of education technology, where I've founded and run successful ventures for over 20 years. Where I know thousands of educators, leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors.  

It's not a goodbye to education technology -- I'll always have at least a foot and half my brain in that room -- as a Trustee at Columbia University Teachers College, as an advisor to early stage edtech companies, and as someone who thinks and speaks about education policy and how to improve our education system. We can do much better and I hope to continue being part of the push for education reform.

It is a hello to the world of life sciences and biotech. Little bits of information, admittedly not sharing many details yet, at www.mycrobiomics.com.  

I've also written a couple posts about my interest in beneficial gut bacteria and the human microbiome that you can see here: Jan 2014 and May 2011.

If you're curious and want to learn more, here's a sampling of some of my favorites from mainstream press on the topic:
When I dive in to a new venture, I dive in deep.  Here are some related activities:
-- Johns Hopkins Medicine, IBBS Advisory Council member.  Fascinating couple days at my first meetings last week in Baltimore.
-- American Microbiome Institute, Advisor to help this early stage organization grow. 
-- Columbia University Technology Ventures, Executive in Residence, to help their faculty inventors think through commercialization and startup options.
-- WILD Center, joining Board of Directors of this unique natural history center in the Adirondacks.
-- mHealth Israel, speaking at conference in Israel next month about Mycrobiomics and my path from education technology.

So, if you or your cousin are doing amazing microbiome research or investing in/partnering with life sciences ventures, please get in touch with me.  Let's talk. 

More as this evolves (and as my gut microbes influence my thinking...),

George Cigale
CEO, Mycrobiomics

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Helping Entrepreneurs in EdTech, and Exploration from EdTech to Human Microbiome

A couple days ago, I counted up how many introductory meetings/calls I've had with leaders of education and Internet companies in this past year since I sold Tutor.com to IAC. About 50. Why am I bothering to count these up?

Each request came from a CEO, founder, or major investor of an early stage or growing company. I made a habit, when I was CEO of Tutor.com, of taking calls and spending 30 minutes with entrepreneurs trying to build something new if they thought my advice could help them (and if they asked politely).

How they handle themselves on the first call, the questions they ask, whether they welcome and graciously accept feedback and criticism, and why they sought my advice out, are some of the factors that determine whether there's a follow up call or meeting, or a promised review of some slides or a business plan.

And I continue to do this now primarily because a couple dozen smart experienced people listened to my ideas and gave me valuable feedback in the early days as I was figuring out how to launch Tutor.com.  Some of the best conversation were with blunt naysayers -- "get a day job before you ruin your finances and your family, or at least set a deadline by which you'll get a day job if you can't raise money."  Stuff like that.

They weren't wrong -- they just forced me to work harder and be smarter and get more focused, so that I could develop a great response for each of their doubts and concerns.  And that's the result I try to achieve when entrepreneurs come to me for advice. Some may not appreciate the tough questions and my tough assessment of their chances of success.  That's OK, and hopefully it will get them to work harder to prove me wrong.

After I transitioned out of my CEO role at Tutor.com and came back from the summer break, the requests picked up, maybe doubled. If the business model was promising, the fit was a good one between the entrepreneur and the advice and help I could provide, and the time they wanted was more than a call or two, I would dive in further. Typically with some type of advisory agreement that includes a monthly retainer and/or an equity stake.

Companies I am working with in an advisory role include Grasp Learning (Miami, FL), Credly (NYC), CareBooker (Stamford, CT), and OfficeHours (Atlanta, GA).  A few months ago, I was also asked to join the Board of Trustees of Columbia University Teachers College, the top graduate school of education with a 125 year rich history. I am working on the TC Board, the finance committee, the technology committee, and with the EdLab group.

I like the advisory work and Board roles, with the growing companies and with the established higher ed institution -- it's challenging because the situations these leaders are facing are difficult. I can help them avoid some of the mistakes I made and find new ways to grow their businesses and evolve their organizations. I will likely take on a few more companies as advisory clients, as time allows, and I'll continue to take requests to spend a little time with budding and experienced entrepreneurs.

But... what I love most is creating something new and growing it into a real company.  A product or service that solves a real world problem, and in at least a small way, makes the world a better place for lots of people. 

Being exposed to so many great ideas and entrepreneurs through the conversations and work I describe above (mostly in the intersection of learning and technology) sparks my own creativity.  I have been working in the field of education for 30 years, since my first job with The Princeton Review as a 15 year old office assistant and test proctor. So my next venture may very well be in education technology again, since it's the path of least resistance, but...

...my interests are diverse and I have been bitten by another bug of curiosity (excuse the pun that will become clearer later in this paragraph).  I wrote about research on the human microbiome a couple years ago in a short blog post.  Over the past three years I've been reading deeply into this topic -- the trillions of bacteria and viruses in our bodies, mostly in our guts, and how a healthy balance of those thousands of species of microscopic bugs inside of us (the human microbiome) is necessary to maintain our own health.  In the past year, I've had more time to devote to understanding the research, to talking with scientists in the field, and to thinking about possible business ventures. For a good overview, see this recent piece by NPR.

As a next step in my exploration into microbiome research and the scientific and biotech world, I am wading in a little deeper by accepting an Advisory Council post with Johns Hopkins Medicine's Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.  Just received my formal invitation from the Dean/CEO, and am excited to start. 

Hopkins has an amazing history of world-changing scientific discoveries, but who knows where the critical microbiome discoveries will come from, changing our understanding of health and disease.  For example, the folks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN actually created a dedicated Microbiome Program in their Center for Individualized Medicine. 

OK, that's a long enough post.  I'll write again soon with some mainstream reading recommendations for anyone interested in learning more about microbiome research and what it might mean for your health. If you can't wait (since my blogging frequency is inconsistent), email me.  And I'll post results my own microbiome analysis (from ubiome and the American Gut Project, two efforts to analyze individual's microbiomes from samples).  I'll also share more about the education companies I am working with, as much as I can share, and if you have a venture that could use my help, feel free to reach out.

CEO, Abenaki Ventures

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Life Beyond Tutor.com

OK, I'm back. It's been a while since I've blogged or tweeted, but I think I deserved the break. Let's cut to the chase, as I tend to do in all aspects of life:

I spent over 10 years building Tutor.com, from an idea to raising over $30 million in venture and strategic funding, to serving over 10 millions students with immediate online tutoring, and finally to selling the company in January 2013 to Barry Diller's IAC/InteractiveCorp (NASD: IACI).  While I still hold the "Founder and Chairman" title at Tutor.com, my operating responsibilities wrapped up a couple months ago.

So after a much less stressful summer, it's naturally time to ask, "what's next"?  For friends and colleagues who have been asking, and for anyone else stumbling upon this blog, I am going to try to lay out some cards on the table as I think through the what's next question, in more blog posts to come.

I just joined an advisory board of an early stage education company (Grasp Learning), considering joining another for-profit ed tech company Board of Directors (to be named soon if we agree to move forward), and going to my first Board of Trustees meeting next week as a newly appointed Trustee of Columbia University Teachers College.

My natural process at this point of thinking/researching/deciding is to talk to as many smart people as I can, to go through old notes and ideas I did not have time to explore, and to think crazy and divergently for a while.  For as long as the good ideas keep coming, before starting to narrow down the ideas and start crossing stuff off the list.

So, that's where I am now.  Might take a few weeks or a few months to get from this stage to the narrowing down and getting serious about planning stage.  In the meantime, I'm open to new conversations about your growing venture and possibly working with you to help you avoid the many mistakes I made as an entrepreneur.  Maybe I'll see you next week -- speaking on a panel of "Ed Tech Titans" at this NYEd Tech Event on Tuesday night.

George Cigale
CEO, Abenaki Ventures

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Leadership for Tutor.com

In January, I shared that Tutor.com had been acquired by IAC, a leading media and Internet company.  Since then we’ve been thinking about how to grow our business and ensure that more students of every age will have access to the on-demand, personalized tutoring services they need.

To help us achieve this goal, I’m excited to welcome two new senior leaders to Tutor.com.  We are announcing today that Mandy Ginsberg is joining Tutor.com as our new CEO and Sharmistha Dubey will lead our product and technology strategy.   Mandy and Shar are both coming to Tutor.com from Match.com, a successful IAC company.  I will remain as Founder and Chairman and work with Mandy and Shar to help deliver on our long-term vision for creating the highest quality and most personalized learning solutions for our clients.

Mandy was most recently the CEO of Match.com, which she and Shar built into the preeminent online dating company over the past five years by understanding what their customers needed and delivering innovative services across multiple technology platforms.  Both Mandy and Shar are parents and they understand the frustrations and emotions that come with supporting our children through every level of school, from Kindergarten through college graduation.  We’re excited to have them listen to our customers and bring their insights  as parents and technology leaders to the education challenges that today’s students are facing every day – tougher coursework,  intense standardized exams and more challenging college admissions.

I’ve fielded many questions over the last few months about how Tutor.com will remain the leading online tutoring company for institutions such as colleges, schools, libraries, and the Department of Defense, while also growing our consumer subscription business. The answer is, by bringing on and nurturing great people who are dedicated to solving our clients’ problems.   Along with our new leadership, I’m  excited to share that
  • Sandi White, who has been with Tutor.com for more than a decade, is now the General Manager, Institutions
  • Susan DelRosario, who has also been with us for a decade is now Director, Libraries
  • Jim Barnes, who has been with us more than a year, is now Vice President, Higher Ed and K-12 Sales
These veteran leaders will be focused on solving our institutional clients’ challenges, whether it’s helping our college clients retain and graduate more of their students, or building stronger community programming for our public library clients.

Exciting days ahead for Tutor.com.  I hope you’ll follow our progress through  Twitter or Facebook, and you can always email me at gcigale@tutor.com with ideas and suggestions.
George Cigale
Founder and Chairman, Tutor.com

Monday, January 07, 2013

IAC Acquires Tutor.com

I am excited to share that IAC/InterActiveCorp has acquired Tutor.com.  IAC owns more than 50 successful Internet businesses, including Newsweek, Ask.com, About.com, Match.com and Dictionary.com.  As an IAC company, Tutor.com will have the opportunity to innovate and meet our customers’ needs like never before, while maintaining our devotion to the highest quality learning for the students who have come to rely on us every day.  Our team and I are looking forward to this next stage in Tutor.com’s growth and evolution. More on the acquisition in this press release and in a New York Times article today

Back in 1998, I founded Tutor.com because I thought the Internet would revolutionize the way we learn.  While other companies were putting courses and content online and adapting their software products, I thought we should focus on the best way to learn -- from another expert human being in a one-to-one setting, at the moment you need help.  The Internet could help connect experienced tutors and teachers to all types of learners, in a way that was never possible before.    By 2000, my small team had created what would be one of the first interactive, online classrooms.  With a few dozen experienced tutors, we were open for business.
Twelve years later, millions of students credit Tutor.com for their academic success.  We now work with over 2,500 experienced tutors, professional teaching coaches, and credentialed librarians who work from all over North America.  Our tutoring, homework help, reference, career and professional development services are offered through colleges and universities, public libraries, public school districts, virtual and charter schools, corporations and the U.S. Department of Defense.
2012 was a great year for Tutor.com.   We completed over 1.3 million one-to-one learning sessions.  Our tutors served about half a million hours of personalized learning.  As my data-driven team noted, there are 8,760 hours in a year, so we served over 57 years of help in 2012  And we received our best ever ratings from students – an average of 4.6 out of 5 for excellent tutoring, and a 96% average recommend rate in post-session surveys.

Among our many success stories in 2012 -- students who failed seventh grade algebra took it for the second time with Tutor.com and earned the highest grade in the class; students in the Red Clay School District earned almost a full point higher on their AP exams when using Tutor.com.   Older students returning to college passed their challenging writing courses and had the confidence to stay in school; and thousands of middle school and high school students with military parents deployed overseas had one less thing to worry about by connecting to our tutors for help 24/7.  These are just a few examples of how having access to an experienced expert when you need help is changing lives for the better.

We have so much more to accomplish in the coming years.  I still believe, more than ever, that personalized learning through a one-to-one immediate connection to a tutor, is the best way to overcome a learning challenge.  Tutor.com is for everyone, and should be available to everyone, because every learner experiences an obstacle at some point and gets stuck.  Help should be easy to get, before it leads to frustration, loss of confidence, and bad grades.
Unfortunately, most of our schools, universities and home lives are not set up to provide help when you need it.  Too many students find themselves frustrated, failing and giving up.  And the stakes are only getting bigger. As a professional educator and father of three, I know that obtaining a great education and the right skills for the workforce at an affordable price has become more difficult.   We can change that -- one student, one question, one learning session at a time.

Our team is full of new ideas for the coming years, to drive the personalized learning revolution that we helped start over 10 years ago.  As an IAC company, we will have access to more resources that can help us make these dreams into realities -- work that will help millions more students achieve their academic and career goals on their terms. 
Want to keep up with what we’re doing?  Follow us on Twitter or Like us on Facebook.  And you can always email me at gcigale@tutor.com with ideas and suggestions.

Happy New Year,
George Cigale, Founder and CEO, Tutor.com

Monday, September 17, 2012

Our Money is on the Humans, But We Need the Computers Too

Last week I had the privilege to give a talk to educational leaders in Denver as part of a series sponsored by A+Denver and Summit 54.  I was invited to discuss the role tutoring should have in today’s schools and classrooms.  Whenever I give a talk about tutoring, it’s inevitable that I’ll mention the watershed study on the topic – Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 paper.  Bloom was a professor at the University of Chicago and his research proved that one-to-on tutoring was by far the best way for students to learn.  Bloom’s work was referenced prominently just this past weekend in “How Computerized Tutors areLearning to Teach Humans” in The New York Times.

Bloom’s vision was that classroom teaching would become more like one-to-one tutoring – highly personal and based on students’ individual needs.   While schools are striving to create provide more differentiated instruction as part of the classroom experience, it’s an uphill battle with multiple obstacles, including classroom size, range of ability levels, and hours in the day.   Chris Heffernan, the subject of the NYT article, experienced these challenges first-hand as a new, Teach for America teacher in an inner-city school.  His response was to attempt to create a computer program to tutor children.
The article asserts that having a human tutor available for every child would be prohibitively expensive, while learning with the help of intelligent computer tutorials is a more viable solution.  I disagree – there is no software that is anywhere close to as good as a real human tutor, and at Tutor.com we’ve figured out how to make real human tutors available at a fraction of what it used to cost in the pre-Internet Bloom days of the 1980’s.

As I shared in Denver, it’s not only possible and affordable, but it’s critical that we bring more tutoring from real people into our schools.  It takes smart technology to do this efficiently and affordably.

Tutoring in the 21st Century Classroom

Tutoring was first introduced into the public school system en masse when No Child Left Behind was passed and districts were required to offer Supplemental Education Services.  This proved quickly to be the wrong way to offer tutoring. Service providers were not well monitored and there was little to no accountability.   Very few SES programs offered the one-to-one tutoring from expert tutors that Bloom proved was so effective.
So what makes a tutoring program effective for school districts?   These five key steps:

1. Tutor Selection – Hire experienced tutors who are experts in the subject and content they tutor. Offering online tutoring gives a district access to more talent especially in hard-to-find higher level math and science. Great tutors are excellent communicators, know how to diagnose a student’s specific issue, understand the variety of ways that students learn, and help students build confidence and take responsibility for their own learning.
2. Student Access - Tutoring no longer has to take place for an hour after-school. Online tutoring offers far more flexibility and access points. Students can connect for one-to-one instruction during the school day, in the afternoon or later in the evening from any device that is connected to the Internet. Schools need to decide if the tutoring should be offered on-demand to be available whenever a student wants help or offer scheduled sessions. On-demand access allows students to get help them minute they need it, and more fully participate in their learning.
3. Clear and Thoughtful Expectations – Set clear goals for any tutoring program and identify which students will receive the tutoring and for what purpose. Every student can benefit from tutoring, from remedial needs to advanced and challenging coursework, and all situations in between. Requiring tutoring for just remedial students creates a stigma and feels like a demotivating punishment.
4. Measurement and Feedback – Schools should use student and teacher feedback to understand how a program is working. Are students coming to school better prepared and with assignments completed as a result of the tutoring? Do tutoring analysis reports show trends in what students are missing in class? Student feedback at the end of a tutoring session provides additional insights into how they are doing and why they may be struggling. Tutors’ performance should also be measured by having tutor supervisors review the recorded sessions and students’ ratings and feedback. This keeps the quality of the tutoring consistently high over the school year.
5. Teacher Support - The information collected from tutoring sessions can help teachers understand where to spend the most classroom time and have additional insights into their students’challenges. And this information can be used to recommend additional coaching and professional development for teachers (see www.mylivepd.com).

We are happy to share examples of schools that are offering tutoring programs the right way.  One innovative program, School of One in New York City (now expanding as New Classrooms in 3 additional districts) uses Tutor.com as their tutoring partner to offer highly personalized, one-to-one learning to students throughout the school year. 
While self-paced tutorial software and artificial intelligence has a place in the classroom, it can’t come close to replacing an experienced real human tutor.  Motivation is a key piece of the achievement puzzle and we find that students are most motivated by positive, confidence building experiences with other people (face to face or through online interactions).  Online on-demand tutoring brings the best of technology  and the best of live human instruction together into students’ classrooms and homes in a way that is sustainable, affordable and measurable. 

Maybe in 100 years, computer power and software coding will evolve to create an artificial tutor as good as a great human tutor, but until then, human tutors will dominate and students will benefit.
George Cigale

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Revolution in Higher Education

Good summary article in The New York Times today, about Coursera's expansion.  Free online courses from some of the best minds at our elite universities, open to anyone.

Joining the initial group (Michigan, Princeton, Stanford, and UPenn), are  California Institute of Technology, Duke University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Washington, University of Virginia, University of Edinburgh in Scotland, University of Toronto and EPF Lausanne.  Some are even starting to offer credits for completion.

Really exciting stuff, even though there's lots to figure out before this goes mainstream and success can be declared for this new model of higher education:

-- Who is going to pay for professor's time, building and maintaining of the technology... overall, what's the business model that will generate sufficient revenues (or any revenues right now) to pay for the costs of these courses.

-- If credits are going to be offered, how to prevent cheating on exams, papers.

-- What needs to be improved in the student and instructor online experiences.

-- How to get the completion rate for students to a decent level.  Will students need more support, like peer to peer study groups and tutoring?

-- What effect this will have on our great research universities, including established systems like tenure.

At Tutor.com, we're thinking hard about how our software platform and know-how in providing academic support and coaching can contribute to these efforts.  On a personal level, I'm looking forward to starting and completing the Introduction to Genome Science course offered on Coursera by University of Pennsylvania faculty.  No doubt I'll be learning a great deal,

George Cigale

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bear Citing or Sighting, by Middle School Educators

Got an automated call this morning from the Principal of our middle school, informing parents that a bear was spotted outside the school, so they're cancelling after-school activities.  I guess a prudent action, given we're in the suburbs of NYC and not in Montana.

But then I got this follow-up email  (pasted below in full), making a weird bear announcement situation a little weirder and sadly funny.  Maybe I'm too much of a stickler for using language properly, but I guess I expect our educators to use language more carefully. 

Unless, of course, this baby bear has just been quoted for saying something special, or the bear was issued a summons to appear in court?


Sent: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 12:50 PM
To: George Cigale
Subject: bear citing

A message from Wampus School
Good Afternoon,

A baby bear has been cited on the grounds of both Wampus and HCC. We were advised by the North Castle Police Department to have everyone remain indoors. Parents of walkers have been notified to arrange for their children to be picked up and there are no after school activities for either campus this afternoon.

Thank you.

To listen to the above message, you will need audio software and speakers on your computer.
This e-mail has been sent to you by Wampus School. To maximize their communication with you, you may be receiving this e-mail in addition to a phone call with the same message. If you wish to discontinue this service, please inform Wampus School IN PERSON, by US MAIL, or by TELEPHONE at (914) 273-4190.

George Cigale

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

“Evil Vegetables?” (and other harmful headlines like “Tutoring Doesn’t Work”)

If you’ve read the screaming headlines lately such as “Duncan to Florida: Tutoring Doesn’t Work” in Education Week, and similar articles in local papers across the country, you might believe that the Secretary of Education thinks that tutoring doesn’t work.  I don’t think that’s true.  Secretary Duncan is actually questioning if tutoring done under the convoluted regulations of the Supplemental Educational Services (SES) provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is working.  And he’s absolutely right, it isn’t working.

I’m a fan of Arne Duncan and this administration’s efforts to reform our education system.  Programs like Race to the Top are forcing everyone involved, including public schools, teachers, charter school operators and ed tech innovators —to re-think how we should work together to create the right solutions for achieving better results.  Students need us adults to figure out some tough issues right now, or we will continue down our current path of unacceptable numbers of students who are unprepared for college or careers in this economy.

Focused and personalized attention from a thoughtful educator (a.k.a. Tutoring) is an important part of those solutions. Giving students the opportunity to work one-to-one with a high-quality tutor is one of the few strategies that a significant body of research has proven that it works.   Search for and read the often-cited work by Benjamin Bloom in 1984 at University of Chicago and Northwestern University.  And read the more recent work in 2011 by Harvard Professor and Economist Roland Fryer in the Houston schools. The most thorough studies conclude that tutoring is highly effective, when done right.  (Happy to email the full papers to you if you ask, gcigale@tutor.com).

More affluent parents don’t need research studies to know that tutoring works. These families spend an estimated $5 Billion annually on tutoring and test prep, often paying over $100 per hour for the highest quality.  Unfortunately, that’s not the quality and results that less affluent students are getting when they receive SES tutoring in local school districts, even though the cost is very high.

Having students sit in a school room for a group tutoring session doesn’t mean they are learning.  There are many more ways to do tutoring poorly than well, and SES created a structure and set of incentives for finding lots of ways to do it poorly while allowing the companies (and some districts) that provide it to reap financial rewards.  I can write at length about those details, but common sense says tutors need to be able to focus on student needs; tutors need to have timely information about student weaknesses; tutors need to be held accountable for student improvement; students need to want to be there…

Duncan and his team have seen enough and read enough evaluations of SES tutoring to conclude that there are better ways to achieve results.  The headlines, and stories are wrong – we need to invest more in the types of tutoring that do work, and Duncan’s team knows it.   I’m trying not to be defensive or self-serving, but having education publications screaming that “Tutoring Doesn’t Work” is like writing “College Isn’t Worth It” when some higher ed models are implemented poorly, or health magazines writing “Evil Vegetables?” when over-use of pesticides is causing health problems.  Such headlines and stories are intellectually lazy and do a great deal of harm, especially when they are reprinted and quoted widely in local papers.
I founded a 24/7 online tutoring service over a decade ago.  I know from firsthand experience that providing students with access to one-to-one help from experienced, expert tutors does indeed work. 

While I write this, several thousand students from across the country are working with a Tutor.com tutor, in real-time in our online classroom.  I can see in the queue of requests from students that there’s algebra (lots of them), chemistry, physics, calculus and writing questions directly tied to the work students are doing in school.  A key part of our formula for great tutoring is that no reservations or appointments are ever needed – students get help the minute they need it, just as they are experiencing a need and are motivated to overcome the challenge.

On average, our students spend about 20-30 minutes with the tutor, getting the tutor’s complete undivided attention.  At the end students complete an evaluation of their experience.  We record and save every session, and the content is compiled into in-depth reports for the schools and other institutions that pay for the tutoring. Complete transparency and accountability. 

We know, after completing more than 8 million one-to-one on-demand sessions, that more than 90% of the students report they are more confident in school, completing more assignments and improving their grades.  In 2009 we asked more than 1,000 students their attitudes toward tutoring and achievement.  Here’s what they said:

Ø 86% of student respondents say they would be more likely to take an AP Course if they knew that an expert subject tutor was available to help them online, 24/7, one-to-one, and on-demand, any time they get stuck.

Ø 96% of student respondents say they believe that having an online tutor available   whenever they need help would result in them being more ready for college.
But don’t just trust our statistics – read Bloom’s and Fryer’s thoughtful studies about tutoring.  Any self-respecting educator and researcher knows that tutoring works well when it’s done right.  Interestingly, both Bloom and Fryer (almost 30 years apart in their research), conclude that we need to find more cost-effective ways to deliver tutoring.  Well, at Tutor.com, we think we’ve done that by using technology in a smart way, and I’m sure we are not alone.
U.S. students need more access to high quality tutoring, not less, and we need to learn from recent innovations and replicate these success models.  Maybe not as simple and easy to write, but I’ll be working towards that headline.

George Cigale

Monday, May 21, 2012

Gut Feelings -- Science, Yogurt, and Stress

Got genuinely excited last week when this month's Scientific American magazine showed up in my mailbox, and the cover was a picture of a human body full of microbes. The cover article is, "Your Inner Ecosystem: In your body bacteria outnumber your own cells 10 to 1. Who's in control?"

 Why the excitement? To the dismay of my kids (ages 10-15) on long car rides and over several dinner talks over the past few months, I've been sharing stories from recently published research about beneficial bacteria inside of us and other creatures. Mostly research on mice and fruit flies, but all with fascinating possible implications on human digestion, obesity, cancers, stress management, mate selection, and overall behavior and evolution.

A sampling below of my recent readings and podcasts on this topic, that brought on these lectures that brought on my interest in learning more about gut bacteria, and talking about :

-- My favorite one: lab mice with rich yogurt diets (live yogurt bacteria) manage stressful situations (being dropped in a bowl of water) much better than mice with normal diets, by continuing to persevere, looking for an answer to their bad situation far longer and with less panic than their yogurt-less peers.  But if the nerve that communicates between stomach and brain is cut, then both groups of mice are equally panicky.  Likely conclusion: helpful bacteria introduced into mice guts from yogurt diets help mice brains by telling the endocrine system to release calming chemicals into the blood stream.  Link her to the RadioLab Podcast.

-- A fruit fly likes to select a mate who has a similar diet, more often than not.  If you dose the fruit flies with antibiotics, fruit flies start mating randomly, no longer expressing a preference for mates with similar diets.  Likely conclusion: Gut bacteria in fruit flies help to process food, and that processing releases pheromones that attract mates.  Different pheromones from different foods.  When the bacteria are killed by antibiotics, that whole process is changed.  Link to a brief article, without the antibiotic stuff – I read that somewhere else.

-- And mice with yogurt diets in a lab have shinier fur, mate more often, and produce more and healthier offspring. 

The Scientific American cover article, written by Jennifer Ackerman, does a great job of introducing the concept of how we’ve evolved to work with the bacteria inside of us on a cellular level.  In many cases, the bacteria perform vital tasks for us, and scientists are just now discovering that even bacteria previously thought to be only harmful (e.g. H Pylori causing ulcers) are actually needed (H. Pylori helps us regulate how much we eat).

Snippet from the article:  “Bacterial cells in the body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 to 1. Yet only recently have researchers begun to elucidate the beneficial roles these microbes play in fostering health. Some of these bacteria possess genes that encode for beneficial compounds that the body cannot make on its own. Other bacteria seem to train the body not to overreact to outside threats. Advances in computing and gene sequencing are allowing investigators to create a detailed catalogue of all the bacterial genes that make up this so-called microbiome. Unfortunately, the inadvertent destruction of beneficial microbes by the use of antibiotics, among other things, may be leading to an increase in autoimmune disorders and obesity.“  Really worth picking up the magazine or subscribing to the digital edition to read the whole article.

To this reader and student of science and learning, seems clear that we are just starting to understand what we don’t know about how we work with the bacteria we host.  Lots of study and research needed to learn what our decades-long battle against harmful bacteria (from a long list of life-saving antibiotics) has caused to our relationship with beneficial bacteria that we need to regulate our bodies and minds.
Either way, I’m going to finish this bowl of yogurt this morning (containing at least 5 live bacteria cultures, L. Bulgaricus, S. Thermophilus, BB-12, L. Adicophilus, and L. Casei)) and plan to ingest some nearly every day, with fruit and granola.

George Cigale