Puppy Love: The Science of the Dog – Human Bond

IMG_2170They love us, they help us, they often entertain us – any way you look at it, dogs are an important part of human life.   Whether they are bringing us joy as members of the family, using their keen sense of smell in forensic efforts, or helping people with disabilities navigate their lives with more ease, dogs enrich our lives daily (just check out the face on Science is Sexy’s resident pooch, Bagels the beagle, if you need to be convinced).  Dogs and humans have been companions for an estimated 30,000 years, but science is only beginning to reveal why dogs bond with us so deeply, and why we bond with our dogs.   Science is Sexy is pleased to partner with our friends at the Brain Research Foundation, Canine Therapy Corps and the Anti-Cruelty Society to bring you a fascinating spring program about the neuroscience of the bond between humans and dogs.

jacobsonThere is growing evidence that the human-animal bond positively influences human emotional and behavioral healt_73119909_68588h, but not much is known about the biological mechanisms that underlie those benefits.  At the University of Chicago, Kristen Jacobson, Ph.D. is at the forefront of this research to understand why dogs have such positive impacts on our health and happiness.   Dr. Jacobsen studies human-animal interaction (HAI), which is helping us better understand science behind the human bond to dogs and how it supports our f207ccb96bd089b4e3f5bf5f32bf1cbfneurobiological and psychological well-being.   Through  behavioral, genetic, and neurobiological studies, including functional MRI, Dr. Jacobsen is learning about how down time with man’s best friend affects our stress hormones, what parts of the brain cause us to bond to our pooches, and even why people and their dogs behave similarly over time.

10176922_1436904953215261_1346939534_o(1)Not only will you have the opportunity to spend an evening  with one of Chicago’s leading scientists, you’ll also be able to enjoy  the company of several therapy dogs in attendance from Canine Therapy Corps.  These gentle, brilliant dogs motivate individuals recovering from physical and emotional trauma to overcome difficult circumstances including disabilities, injuries, or other challenges, by providing goal-directed, interactive therapy as part of the treatment or rehabilitation process.  There’s just no way that you won’t head home happier and more relaxed after petting their sweet faces!

The event is free, but we’ll be accepting donations to support the great work of Canine Therapy Corps and the Anti-Cruelty Society.   Don’t miss this special opportunity to see what happens when science goes to the dogs!

DATE: May 29, 2014

TIME: 6:30-7:30 PM – talk and Q&A

7:30-8:00 PM (chat with the scientist and get to know the dogs)

LOCATION:  Anti-Cruelty Society (169 W. Grand Ave.)

Free Parking on Wells St.

Brown Line to Merchandise Mart or Red Line to Grand

21+, no Pre-Registration Required


BRFLogoScience is Sexy is proud to partner with The Brain Research Foundation and the Canine Therapy Corps.  The Brain Research Foundation supports neuroscience research that leads to advanced understanding of brain function in children and adults. The Foundation is committed to advancing discoveries that will lead to novel treatments and prevention of all neurological diseases. The BRF delivers this commitment through both research grant programs, which provide initial funding for innovative research projects, as well as educational programs for researchers and the general public.  Visit the Brain Research Foundation on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

logo-brandThe Canine Therapy Corps empowers and motivates individuals to improve their physical and psychological health and well-being by harnessing the human-animal bond.  Additionally, they provide goal-directed, interactive, animal-assisted therapy services, free of charge, using volunteers and certified therapy dogs, while working to advance animal assisted interventions through research and collaboration.   To learn more about the work of the Canine Therapy Corps, please visit them on Twitter and Facebook.

About Science is Sexy and Night Lab

Molecular Geneticist and Cell Biologist Stephanie Levi, Ph.D. has a passion for making science enjoyable and accessible for the general public, and created Night Lab to bring educational and entertaining science programming to adults in Chicago in November 2008. Night Lab is designed to give non-scientists a short and sweet taste of science in their everyday lives, highlighting the people and organizations that make Chicago a rockstar city for science.  While offering adults in the city innovative opportunities to engage in the excitement and beauty of science, our programs give members of Chicago’s science community a fantastic way to connect to the rest of the city outside of the lab.  Our programs are perfect for people who flunked chemistry, think genes come from The Gap, or think “that’s hard!” when they hear the word molecular.  Whether you are just curious about science or a professional scientist, Night Lab is for you.

Visit the Science is Sexy website for a blog, our press, information about workshops, career development opportunities for scientists, and more science fun!

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May 1: The Big Bang Explained – An evening with Argonne’s Clarence Chang, Ph.D.

The mysteries of our universe have been capturing humans’ interest for millennia.  How did our universe come to be?  Was the Big Bang how the universe got its start?  What’s going on beyond our dazzling view of a clear night sky?  Given that the universe is just under 14 billion years old and filled with billions of galaxies not unlike ours, these questions are as challenging to answer as they are common to ask.

Last month, an exciting announcement dominated the news, giving us clues to allow us to begin to better understand the answers to those questions.  Physicists discovered evidence of gravitational waves in our universe’s background radiation, which are the signature of cosmic inflation, a period where the universe underwent an almost unimaginably fast expansion shortly after its beginning in a really short amount of time.  And we mean REALLY short – we’re talking a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second.  Scientists predicted that these gravitational waves would be found if a Big Bang event occurred, and if these measurements hold up to scientific scrutiny, they would provide the first evidence that the universe swelled from microscopic to cosmic size in an instant.  They also shine light on new physics in the earliest instants of our cosmic history.  Heavy stuff, but so far, so good.

As awesome as this announcement was, it was also confusing to many of us who may not spend our days jetting to the South Pole to find out how the universe got its start.  Terms like, “time-space fabric” were thrown around in the popular media, and the jargon didn’t go far in helping the general public understand this incredible result.

Fortunately, Argonne National Lab is right in our backyard, and is home to some of the world’s best scientists working on this background radiation, seeking to understand what happened when the universe was born.  Clarence Chang, Ph.D. is one these researchers.  Dr. Chang is a member of Argonne’s  High Energy Physics Department, where he and his team work to learn about how the universe was born, and what happened after that, using one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, no less.  He’ll be with us to tell the story of last month’s Big Bang announcement in terms non-physicists can understand, and discuss his exciting work at Argonne, including what it’s like to create and hand-carry parts of a telescope to one of the most remote parts of the world, and what his research is telling us about the birth and evolution of our universe.  Don’t miss this opportunity to hang out and talk science with one of Chicago’s leading cosmic physicists for an evening.

The details:

Date: Thursday, May 1, 2014

Time: 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM

Location: Schubas Tavern (3159 N. Southport Ave.)

21+, Free, No Pre-Registration Required, Brown or Red Line to Belmont

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Off the Bench: Reflecting Back After Stepping Away

by Stephanie Levi, Ph.D.

Science has always been my first and greatest love. I was encouraged to try out research at the age of 19 after a professor (then at Kenyon College) noticed that I had an apparent inability to leave the lab once the formal lab session of my molecular biology course was over. While other students would stream out on their way to dinner after the lab ended, I would remain, where I would practice embedding insect brains in paraffin and try my hand sectioning them to see if a genetic mutation indeed caused the nerves leading from the brain to the eye to become jumbled, as my professor suspected.

I couldn’t let it go. I loved this stuff. One day after weeks of this, he finally said, “Stephanie, why don’t you give research a try?” An invitation to the lab was exciting, but intimidating – science was for “smart” people, for guys, you had to be a genius, and I was none of those things. But, with my mentor’s encouragement, I joined the lab and I’ve been a scientist (under the formal definition – I mean, everyone is a scientist) ever since.

The journey was filled with encouragement, support, exciting challenges. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago  in molecular genetics and cell biology. I published peer-reviewed journal articles, presented work at conferences all over the world and rubbed shoulders with the field’s best and brightest. But I’m not a scientific researcher anymore. What happened? Could I cut it? Yes. Did I love it? Yes. Was it hard? Sure. But that’s not the reason why I stepped away. And I know it’s not the reason many of my colleagues (male and female) do as well.

So, what is at the heart of the female-centric “brain drain” in STEM? I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, there were a few factors at play that I recognize in peers, some of which were cited in an article on theHuffington Post that caught my eye last year.  Work-life balance is certainly a factor, and I think this is true whether the individual in question has children or not. I remember seeing my advisor leaving the lab at 6:00 to have dinner with his family, and returning at 10:00 PM to continue working until 4:00 AM. He didn’t seem to mind, but I knew that I would, and I know that many of my friends in the program (male and female) would too. Our love of science wasn’t our entire lives, it was an important (and admittedly huge) part of our lives, but there was more to life – we hoped to have families, hobbies, to celebrate special occasions and holidays with our loved ones, and do the things that regular, non-researcher people do. It didn’t seem fully tenable with a research career, and we wondered how our next decades would be consumed by our research lives. Stepping away from the lab was not a choice made lightly, but it offered the chance to engage our scientific interests and also have the rest of it all. It was a gamble, but one we felt was worth taking. I suspect we weren’t alone. I would argue that “women’s issues” are just plain “human issues,” belonging to men as well. Many of us sought better work-life balance as we came of age scientifically, and left the world of research as we were convinced that it was incompatible with an equally healthy personal life.

I mentioned my graduate advisor above. What I did not mention is that he wasn’t working in the lab (the “fun part,” if you will), he was feverishly writing grants to fund the work that the rest of us were so fortunate to do. With ongoing federal cuts to science in the early 2000s (cuts that eased somewhat since 2008, but seem to loom constantly), that job became even harder. There was less money to go around for science (and many other areas), but increased need for the solutions that the sciences offer, such as cures, medications, solutions to issues such as global warming, water shortages, energy issues and more. This has left scientists scrambling for funds, writing grants aggressively to fund the groups of people doing the research itself. It’s a hard cycle to break into for a young investigator, and it’s compounded by the publish-or-perish culture espoused in the sciences: You don’t get grants unless you publish consistently, and that’s a tough thing to do without money in the first place. After a Ph.D., you do a post-doctoral fellowship, and another, and another, until you get a position. It’s sadly not a cycle that inspires hope in most, and when faced with this uncertain situation that demands every waking moment or the option to leverage our skills and abilities with more certainty, many go for door number two.

A second reason has to do with pure passion. While many of us adore science, we love other fields as well. I saw in myself a proficiency for communicating science with the public, sharing its real-world applications to get the public to care about science more in the hopes that they would nurture an interest in science and math fields in their children, educate themselves, and vote for politicians who supported funding for the sciences, and that’s how I’ve chosen to direct my career. Some of my scientist friends love to write – they became science journalists. Some love politics – they work for think tanks and ran for office. Some really loved business – they became patent officers and went to work for financial firms armed with their sharp analytical skills. We aren’t one dimensional, and our interests can take us in other directions and often do so. This means that we aren’t in the research pipeline anymore. Do women do this more often than men? Maybe, but I would offer that we’re all complex individuals with a variety of interests. When I knew that I could enjoy a satisfying career that offered the opportunity to engage with science, support others, improve diversity and representation in the sciences, and engage the public in science, I knew I had found my calling. I also know that I am in good company.

There is also bias, pure and simple, and I do think this influences the number of women who choose to pursue research careers. I could definitely feel that there was a boys’ club vibe in academic departments, and it’s not easy to be an “other,” no matter where you are. Community, support, and mentorship all matter, and not feeling like you have those pieces when you’re engaged in such demanding work can be the difference between success and failure. Interestingly, I would argue that it’s often unconscious – it did not occur to anyone that by not inviting the two women in the department to join the other faculty for lunch that those women felt isolated, but that’s what winds up happening even though all are (usually) well-intentioned. Important conversations happen at those casual lunches – collaborations are conceived, support is doled out, jokes are exchanged, and grant ideas are born. When these kinds of things happen in graduate school, they seed the idea that things will only get worse as we move farther into our research careers – and we bail out on them.

What’s the solution? I wish I had answers, but unfortunately, I only have ideas. Encouraging the inclusion of underrepresented individuals and women to assume leadership roles in the research community would be a great start. I also think that stronger policies that support work-life balance for men and women would help. Finally, making sure that our scientists are supported, and that the younger generation of up and coming scientists get the message that there are lots of ways to be a scientist would really make a difference. The change has to start with us, but the the way forward is more opaque than that affirmation suggests.


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Applied Words: Unseen Worlds – An Art + Science Party

Once upon a time, Science lived in a tower all by itself.  It never really got to talk with its friends, Art or Literature.  Then one day, a magical organization came along (The Guild Literary Complex) that called out to Science’s big, bright tower, “Science, come out to play!”  Science flew down the tower stairs, reunited with its old friends and lived happily ever after.

Okay, so maybe we’re not exactly experts at writing fairy tales (we’re much better at non-fiction – really), but there’s some truth to our (ridiculous) attempt – recent years have seen science hopping out of silos and mingling with other fields in a bevy of interdisciplinary adventures, as it should, since science really does intersect everything.  In March, we’re incredibly proud to partner with our good friends at the Guild Literary Complex, which has been working for over 25 years to showcase Chicago’s incredible literary talent, for a shared installment of their monthly series, “Applied Words,” which I am thrilled to be guest curating this month.  Applied Words features a series of incredible local writers reading on a theme, and this month’s theme is “Unseen Worlds,” inspired by the secret worlds scientists encounter in our work.

The event pulls together an all-star cast of scientists and writers (some do both), highlighting the incredible cross-disciplinary talents that Chicago boasts.  “Unseen Worlds” stemmed from the experiences that we scientists often have while doing exciting research that relies on the incredible microscopes at area institutions (but few in the public get the chance to experience – although we’re out to change that!).  It’s easy to be captivated by the images that microscopes capture, and the idea that there are worlds that are visible far beyond what our naked eye is capable of visualizing is exciting to scientists and non-scientists alike (just check out the images interspersed in this newsletter!).

Beyond that inspiration, there are communities of people who can’t necessarily access science easily or are underrepresented in STEM, and we see the theme as an opportunity to highlight these communities and populations, understand the connection between science and social justice, and support their engagement and interest in science and math.  The theme also crosses disciplines, exploring how science and the arts and humanities intersect, and what happens when they do.

The evening will also give you the opportunity to be the scientist and try your own hand at microscopy at one of our five microscope stations, and win some fun scientific swag by guessing the real identity of a series of everyday objects as seen under electron microscopes.  Join us to engage both sides of your brain through science and the arts!

The Details:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

7:30 PM

Schubas (3159 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657)

Free, 21+, No Pre-Registration Necessary, Red and Brown Lines to Belmont

Our Speakers:

Jotham (Joe) Austin, II received his BS in Biology from Penn State University-Behrend, but when not in the lab he was busy writing short stories and poems. He attended graduate school at Arizona State University, where he received his PhD in Botany. One could say his love of writing continued to blossom: Joe started reading his poems at coffeehouses and small venues around Tempe, AZ, and eventually formed a poetry/music combo with Robbie Roberson, director of Electron Microscopy. After taking a Postdoctoral position in Microscopy in Boulder, CO, he made his way to Chicago where he currently is Director of the University of Chicago’s Electron Microscopy Core Facility. Joe returned to creative writing after tearing his Achilles tendon, finishing his first novel, Pretty Small Things. He now knows the true meaning of rejection as he chases publication, but everyone loves his homebrew.

Paul Gorski   majored in biology and chemistry before taking a job as a technical copywriter. After coordinating his marketing department’s move to digital publishing in the early ‘90s, he moved on to develop and support digital publishing systems used by ad agencies, newspapers and publishers. Paul currently supports publishing workflows at the American Dental Association in Chicago. He also writes two weekly columns for The Rock River Times newspaper in Rockford, where he lives with his wife and children. Somewhere between Chicago and Rockford he pauses long enough to manage www.nwuchicago.org, the National Writers Union–Chicago website.

Vojislav Pejović (“voice-love peyovich”) is a neurobiologist by training and earns his living as a medical writer. In 2008, he published a critically acclaimed novel in his native Montenegro, and in 2010, translations of Charles Simic’s poetry in Serbo-Croatian. He also wrote a couple of movie scripts. His current project is a collection of stories in English and Serbo-Croatian. He lives in Evanston with his wife and their two sons.

Anne K. Yoder is a staff writer for the online literary magazine The Millions and is the co-editrix of Projecttile, a journal of nontraditional writing with a feminist bent. When she’s not dealing in words, she’s dealing in pharmaceuticals, legally. She’s a registered pharmacist in three states and she’s moonlighted as a hospital pharmacist for over ten years to support her writing habit. Her fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications.

About the Guild Literary Complex

For over 25 years, the Guild Literary Complex has been a community-based literary organization presenting and supporting diverse, divergent, and emerging voices through innovative programs including performances and readings.

The Guild Literary Complex believes that vibrant literature contributes to society and community, and that people should have access to quality literary experiences that engage them with dynamic juxtapositions of voices and ideas.

Past programs have included The International Writers Exchange, Muslim Women Writers, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry National Tour, Andrés Montoya as well as Cave Canem Literary Prizes (and other cohort residencies), and other author events/special programs.  Past presenters have included Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavio Paz, Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie, and many others.  Learn more about the Guild Literary Complex and signup for their mailing list and events at their website.

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Science for the Masses: Join Me for My Workshop to Train Scientists and Students at the University of Chicago!

The lovely folks at the University of Chicago’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) Chicago Careers in Science and Technology (CCIST), will be hosting me for a special workshop this Thursday, February 27 at my Ph.D. alma mater!  This is a great opportunity for grad students, post-docs, PIs and administrators to learn the nitty-gritty about doing great outreach, primarily to adult audiences, in-person and online – from a scientist who has been in your shoes through her own academic and outreach journey.  Read on for details, I hope to see you there!

Science for the Masses: Communicating Science to the Public, Making Science Sexy, and Taking it to the Streets (or: The Art of Science Outreach and Public Engagement)

A workshop with Stephanie Levi, Ph.D., Molecular Geneticist, Outreach and Education Specialist, and Founder of Science is Sexy and Night Lab

Science is captivating, game-changing, and constantly innovating our world while helping us learn about our universe, and ourselves. As scientists, we know the thrill of getting that elusive positive result that makes our story come together, the excitement of discovery, and the beauty of the natural world, but the public doesn’t always have the opportunity to share in the scientific ride. More than ever, the need for scientists to reach out to the public to engage them in the wonder and impact of science is critical. Granting agencies are requiring that funded individuals perform broader-impacts work to disseminate their work to the public, and the voting public needs to know what’s going on at your bench to vote wisely in support of funding for science and keep the funds flowing in, for starters! While numerous programs exist to engage youth in science and mathematics, there are surprisingly few that engage the adult public – but the interest and curiosity of adults for scientific information is immense.

Fortunately, a world of science outreach and communication has exploded in the last few years. As a scientist, you are in a unique position to give the masses what they want, but some skills and techniques are needed to get you started. Join Stephanie Levi, Ph.D. ’09, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, for a workshop about science outreach and engagement. She’ll talk about how she started her fun and successful outreach program, Science is Sexy, while a graduate student at the U of C studying the secret life of the Golgi, and she’ll share with you a vast toolkit of outreach strategies to help you get started on an outreach career, regardless of how much or little time you can invest at this point. She’ll also talk about her path from the bench to running an outreach program for undergraduates at the Midwest’s only four-year Hispanic Serving Institution, to adventures in the non-profit sector, as well as her forays into journalism. You’ll leave the workshop with an outreach starter packet, and lots of great ideas. Whether you plan to stay in academia for life, or want to make the leap into an outreach career, this workshop is for you.

Date:  Thursday, February 27, 2014

Time:  4:00 – 5:30 pm CT

Location:  Ida Noyes Hall, East Lounge on the second floor (1212 E. 59th St. Chicago, Illinois 60637 )

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We are back! The Science of Sex and Attraction Returns to Kick off Our Year

Well, friends, it’s been a while.  Sometimes life gets in the way – a wedding, a diagnosis, a new job, all in the same few months.  Although major life events diverted our attention for a little while, our plan to return to doing what we love and bring science to the masses never wavered (hey, it really can’t when you actually are a scientist).  It is great to be back, offering science programming to support the public’s understanding and enjoyment of science.  Look for great new stuff this year – blog posts, workshops, programs that bridge science and other fields.  We love doing this, and hope you’ll join us.

Who do you love?  Northwestern University’s Michael Bailey, Ph.D. has been asking the question of how people become attracted to partners of one gender or another (or both!) for over a decade as a scientist and the author of The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transexualism, and he’ll tell us about his research on sexual arousal, sexual orientation, and how genetics may play a role in who we are sexually.  Why some people are attracted to men, others to women, and others to both men and women is a fascinating and as yet unanswered question.  Understanding the origins and development of sexuality and sexual orientation can help us understand the origins and development of sex differences, and adds a scientific perspective to questions that are deeply rooted in our identity as human beings.  Michael will discuss his fascinating quest to better understand the biological aspects of sexual orientation, how our biology intersects with our behavior, and his brain research on sexual arousal and response in people of various sexual orientations.  Join us for a thought-provoking evening of scientific discovery with one of Chicago’s leading researchers.

Try your hand as a scientist with interactive scientific data analysis, come ready to add your favorite songs to Night Lab’s Make-Out Playlist, and play our scientific trivia to win scientific swag.  Scientific valentines will be on hand to exchange as we unravel the molecular mysteries behind love, lust, and who we are.

The Details:

When: Thursday, February 13, 2014, 8:00 PM – 9:30 PM

Where: Schubas (3159 North Southport Avenue)

Cost:  FREE

Brown or Red Line to Belmont, 21+, No Pre-Registration Required

Science is Sexy is proud to partner with The Brain Research Foundation for this program.  The Brain Research Foundation supports neuroscience research that leads to advanced understanding of brain function in children and adults. The Foundation is committed to advancing discoveries that will lead to novel treatments and prevention of all neurological diseases. The BRF delivers this commitment through both research grant programs, which provide initial funding for innovative research projects, as well as educational programs for researchers and the general public.  Visit the Brain Research Foundation on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

This event is being held in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which will be hosting its annual meeting in Chicago this year.  AAAS is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world by serving as an educator, leader, spokesperson, and professional association. In addition to organizing membership activities, AAAS publishes the journal Science, as well as many scientific newsletters, books, and reports, and spearheads programs that raise the bar of understanding for science worldwide.  The annual meeting brings together thousands of leading scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers, and journalists gather to discuss recent developments in their fields.


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Today is National HIV Testing Day

By Courtney Griffin, Guest Blogger

We’ve all heard the importance of being tested for HIV every so often.  Depending on your individual risk factors it is ideal to be tested for HIV as frequently as every 3 to 6 months to as infrequently as once a year.

This is the time of year where being tested is heavily promoted and equally as convenient. Many facilities across the country are dedicating a day (June 27th) to making sure people are aware of the importance of being tested and actually do it.

I know you all may have heard this a million times in high school but I feel the need to tell you again. Below are the risk factors of contracting HIV

  • sharing needles/syringes or other equipment  for injecting drugs,
  • having a history of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs),
  • having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, or oral) with multiple or anonymous partners or,
  • having unprotected sex with a partner who did not know their own HIV status.


HIV can hide for long periods of time in the cells of your body and attack key parts of your immune system including your T-cells or CD4 cells and as a result may not be found at an initial test. This is why it is important to be tested often or a few weeks after every new partner.  Over time, HIV can destroy your CD4 cells and your body won’t be able to fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV infection can lead to AIDS. I want you to know your status before this happens!

Getting tested is easy and painless and usually FREE. Most testing centers just need a swab of saliva from your mouth or urine to test.

It is so easy to say HIV will never happen to me, that doesn’t concern me. AIDS.gov has made it even easier to be tested, find a testing center and go on  June 27th to make sure!

For more information visit: http://www.aids.gov/awarenessdays/nationalhivtestingday/


Courtney Griffin is a Michigan State University Alumna with a Bachelor or Arts in Professional Writing and a Bachelor of Arts in Media, Arts and Technology. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Writing, Rhetoric and Discourse from DePaul University with hopes to continue on to a Technical Writing Doctoral Program by 2014. Outside of writing and social media, Courtney enjoys shopping (thrifting included), reading and gatherings with family and friends.

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