Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
A chemical common in food packaging—Bisphenol-A (BPA)—has for years been scrutinized for potential links to reproductive problems, heart disease, cancer, and even anxiety. And now new research suggests BPA, which leeches out from things like aluminum cans, drink straws, plastic packaging, and even cashier's receipts, could increase the risk for obesity in preteen girls.
A Kaiser Permanente study, published this week in PLOS ONE, examined obesity and BPA levels in a group of Chinese school children. While most of the kids were not significantly effected by the chemical, 9-12 year-old girls with high BPA levels in their urine were found to be twice as likely to be obese than other girls their age. In girls with especially high levels (more than 10 micrograms per liter) the risk of obesity was five times as great.
One day in late February, I met up with journalist Jon Mooallem for a stroll up Bernal Hill, a gentle dome bordering the southern end of San Francisco that turns a brilliant lime at that time of year. I was eager to hear about Wild Ones, his new book, which comes out on May 16, but our small talk quickly turned to a coyote rumored to live on the hill. It would have had to weave its way through a sea of houses and busy streets to reach this blip of habitat. And while it had become quite a neighborhood character, "it wasn't until really recently that I heard of someone seeing it," Mooallem told me. "These stories about animals become local legends, almost like the underground noodle place with no sign that people talk about."
A strain of Lactobacillus plantarum (with false color)
A few years ago, after a gnarly bout of giardia earned from a few months studying in India, and the ensuing rounds of antibiotics prescribed to kill the bugs, I began to take a probiotic supplement to recoup. I was hoping for something to help me digest, and for some new microorganisms to repopulate my intestine and fend off bad bacteria. The regimen was easy—right before breakfast, I'd down one or two small capsules with some water. And it seemed to work; within a few months, my digestion was back on track. But it's a little hard to say: Did the probiotics cure my turbulent gut, or was it just the passage of time and a return to normal food and sanitation?
The human GI tract contains more than 500 species of bacteria that help break down food, strengthen immunity, and ward off pathogens. This community of trillions of microbes together weighs up to 2.2 pounds and its cells outnumber human cells 10-to-1. "There's a war going on in your gut," says gastroenterologist Dr. Shekhar Challa, author of Probiotics for Dummies and coproducer of Microwarriors: The Battle Within, a video game about probiotics. When the ratio of good to bad bacteria gets out of whack, he says, adding a probiotic—a beneficial bacteria—can help refuel the good guys. Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in some yogurt, is probably the best-known strain. These microbes bind to the lining of the gut, help you digest, battle toxic intruders, and can stimulate the immune system. They've also been credited—though with varying levels of evidence—with preventing or curing diarrhea, gastrointestinal diseases, yeast infections, and allergies.
One recent study even indicates that probiotics could be used to regulate emotions and mitigate depression via their effect on neurotransmitters. (Radiolab fans might remember this from the episode "Guts.") Researchers in Ireland found that mice treated with Lactobacillus rhamnosus suffered less stress, anxiety, and depression-related behavior, suggesting that certain strains of probiotics could one day be used to treat those symptoms in humans.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell Love Has Come For You Rounder Records
When Steve Martin played singer Edie Brickell a banjo tune he'd been working on, lyrics flooded into her mind as if she were recalling a preexisting song. She recorded the melody and sent it back to Martin, who began emailing her file after file of his banjo compositions, sometimes two a week, over which she'd quickly layer stories. "I'd just hear the tune and there were all these images and pictures," says Brickell of Martin's picking. "All you had to do was pull the lyrics out of the air."
From the alchemy of Martin's inventive five-string banjo strumming and Brickell's breezy and timeless twang emerged Love Has Come For You, out Tuesday, an intimate and stripped down album that centers on family lore, small-town gossip, and scorned love.
"I'd just hear the tune and there were all these images and pictures," Brickell says. "All you had to do was pull the lyrics out of the air."
Actor and comedian Steve Martin likely needs no introduction—he's starred in classic comedies like Roxane, Three Amigos, Parenthood, and Father of the Bride—but his musical accomplishments still might catch you by surprise. He's played banjo since age 17, won Grammys in 2001 and 2009 for his instrumentals, and began touring with the bluegrass band the Steep Canyon Rangers in 2009. Edie Brickell shot to fame in the late 1980s as the frontwoman for the New Bohemians, with hits like the indignant "What I Am" and "Circle of Friends," followed by a marriage to Paul Simon and successful solo career (though she never repeated such a genius album name as Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars).
Brickell, who says she and Martin met at a dinner party in 1992, told me a little more via email about Love Has Come For You:
About two years ago, as we were exiting a restaurant, he asked me if I had ever considered singing in a group without drums. Our conversation was interrupted by the bustle of everyone leaving and saying their goodbyes, but it got me thinking. I saw him at a birthday party months later and felt brave enough to tell him how much I loved his music and if he ever wanted to make up a song together, it was my favorite thing to do.
Excited to work on a country album for the first time, Brickell tapped into her family history:
Maybe you remember Claressa "T-Rex" Shields: At 17, she was the youngest boxer in last summer's Olympics, the first games to ever let women spar. Aggressive, spunky, and intensely focused, she trounced a Russian opponent twice her age in the finals to return home to Flint, Michigan, with a gold medal. "I wrapped it around my hand when I went to sleep," Shields says. "I had this fear that when I woke up the medal was going to be silver."
Yet unlike fellow gold medalist Gabby Douglas, the teen gymnast who is expected to rake in $8-$12 million from sponsorships, Shields has received no national endorsement deals (though a local car lot gave her a custom black and gold Camaro). "I think because women's boxing is new, I guess," she says. "I don't really know."
Shields started boxing after her dad, in and out of jail throughout her childhood, took her to the gym when she was 11. "I was a quiet, angry child who felt I wasn't cared about," she says. "When I worked out, I felt like I was fighting against something. I still haven't figured out what it is."
AUDIO: Click arrows below to listen to Claressa
Since the Olympics, it has been harder to focus. "I had this big old goal I was going towards: the medal." Plus there are the usual distractions, says Jason Crutchfield, with whom Shields trains two to three hours a night: "Her biggest problem right now is boys. That throws everything off."
Still, in her seven-year career, Shields has only lost one match—and in February, she whupped three-time world champ Mary Spencer: "She was bigger than me, she weighed more than me, and it looked like she was stronger, but she just couldn't do anything with me." It was the first time Shields' mom and siblings had seen her fight live.
Outside the ring, she has her sights set on winning the USA Boxing National Championships this week, graduation in May, college in the fall, and the Rio Olympics in 2016. It's a lot to think about for a high school senior, but as Crutchfield often barks: "Never let them know when you're sweating."
"A lot of times growing up, people looked at me different because I was a girl," Shields says. "But I never had my hair done. I would play football in the field with the boys. Once I went out to the gym, I could throw on a T-shirt and I could train, just like the guys. I could sweat just like them; I could run just as hard as them. Nobody saying, 'Oh, a girl's not supposed to do that.' I fit right in."
Before matches, says Shields, "I listen to rap music—Lil Wayne, Drake. And then I listen to gospel to calm me down."
Coach Jason Crutchfield had Shields move in with his family last year after she had a series of arguments with her mother. "She used to call us in the middle of the night to come and get her…So I just let her come stay."
Shields sketches her medal at Northwestern High School. One regret? Spring break tournaments, while "everyone else is hanging out and going to parties and stuff like that."
Sporting red, white, and blue nails six weeks before London. Unlike other boxers, Shields says, she'll never wear makeup to bouts: "What if the makeup gets in my eyes while I'm fighting?"
"When I fight and my hair is messed up, it makes me fight harder. Like a beast or whatever. So when I was getting my hair done, she was getting to the last braid, and I said, 'No, leave that piece right there.'"
"I didn't think it would be that heavy," says Shields of her gold medal. She now keeps it locked in a safe, and has put the $25,000 of award money in savings.
Photographer Zackary Canepari is editing a documentary about Claressa Shields, due out later this year. See the trailer below, and visit the film's homepage here.
This story appears in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine.