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Shelly Fan

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog NeuroFantastic.com. Her first book, "Will AI Replace Us?" (Thames & Hudson) will be out April 2019.

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From This Author


How Scientists Grew Human Muscles in Pig Embryos, and Why It Matters for Organ Transplants

The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own...

How Scientists Used Ultrasound to Read Monkeys’ Minds

Thanks to neural implants, mind reading is no longer science fiction. As I’m writing this sentence, a tiny chip with arrays of electrodes could sit on my brain, listening in on the crackling of my...

Scientists Created an Artificial Early Embryo From Human Skin Cells

We all know how human reproduction works: sperm meets egg, fertilized egg kicks off its journey, transforms into a human embryo, then becomes a fetus and ultimately a baby. But what if boy meets girl...

Quantum Computing and Reinforcement Learning Are Joining Forces to Make Faster AI

Deep reinforcement learning is having a superstar moment. Powering smarter robots. Simulating human neural networks. Trouncing physicians at medical diagnoses and crushing humanity’s best gamers at Go and Atari. While far from achieving the flexible,...

This Soft Robot Stingray Just Explored the Deepest Point in the Ocean

While all eyes were on the dramatic descent of NASA’s Perseverance rover last month, a team sent a robot into another alien world, one closer to home: the deep sea. With its towering undersea mountains,...

This AI Thrashes the Hardest Atari Games by Memorizing Its Best Moves

Learning from rewards seems like the simplest thing. I make coffee, I sip coffee, I’m happy. My brain registers “brewing coffee” as an action that leads to a reward. That’s the guiding insight behind deep...

Scientists Communicated With People While They Were Lucid Dreaming

We’ve probed the depths of Earth’s deepest trench, sent rovers to Mars, and observed other worlds billions of light years away. Yet we’ve never been able to decipher the mysterious, bizarre, and disjointed world...

Massive National Health Study Looks to Tailor Your Diet to Your Genetic Makeup

Like taxes and death, nutrition is something we can’t escape. Eating should be easy. Yet it’s also massively confusing, prone to misinformation, and utterly personal. Take competitive eaters who regularly chow down on thousands of...

This ‘Quantum Brain’ Would Mimic Our Own to Speed Up AI

Unless you’re in the lithium battery or paint business, you’re probably not familiar with cobalt. Yet according to a new paper, it may be the secret sauce for an entirely new kind of computer—one...

This Is Where Empathy Lives in the Brain, and How It Works

Mind reading comes easily to most of us. For all our divisions, humans are uncannily efficient at simulating another person’s thoughts and beliefs. It’s how you can “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” know...

Scientists Made a Biohybrid Nose Using Cells From Mosquitoes

Thanks to biological parts of a mosquito’s “nose,” we’re finally closer to Smell-O-Vision for computers. And a way to diagnose early cancer. With the recent explosion in computing hardware prowess and AI, we’ve been able...

A Language AI Is Accurately Predicting Covid-19 ‘Escape’ Mutations

For all their simplicity, viruses are sneaky little life forces. Take SARS-Cov-2, the virus behind Covid-19. Challenged with the human immune system, the virus has gradually reshuffled parts of its genetic material, making it easier...

Meet Assembloids, Mini Human Brains With Muscles Attached

It’s not often that a twitching, snowman-shaped blob of 3D human tissue makes someone’s day. But when Dr. Sergiu Pasca at Stanford University witnessed the tiny movement, he knew his lab had achieved something special....

2021 Could Be a Banner Year for AI—If We Solve These 4 Problems

If AI has anything to say to 2020, it’s “you can’t touch this.” Last year may have severed our connections with the physical world, but in the digital realm, AI thrived. Take NeurIps, the crown...

Fighting Covid-19 Brought These Lasting Breakthroughs to Science and Medicine

2020 was the year of the pandemic. But the arrival of Covid-19 in January not only threw an Earth-sized wrench into our lives, it also dictated the course of scientific discovery. Never before have...

2020 in Neuroscience, Longevity, and AI—and What’s to Come

Covid-19 sucked most of the oxygen out of science this year. But we still had brilliant wins. The pandemic couldn’t bring rockets or humans down: multiple missions blasted off to the red planet in the...

DeepMind’s AlphaFold Is Close to Solving One of Biology’s Greatest Challenges

DeepMind may just have cracked one of the grandest challenges in biology. One that rivals the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It could change biomedicine, drug discovery, and vaccine development forever. The actual achievement sounds...

How Does Social Interaction Change Our Brains? Hyperscans Can Show Us

Brain scans, like social distancing, are inherently very lonely. Regardless of the equipment, brain scans often rely on a single person performing a single task, often completely still, outside of their normal environment. It’s powerful,...

Breakthrough NASA Study Discovers Surprising Key to Astronauts’ Health in Space

Thanks to SpaceX, traveling beyond Earth now seems pretty tangible for us commoners. True, a ticket to the International Space Station currently runs $55 million (ouch). Technologically, however, the triumphant splashdown of SpaceX’s astronaut-carrying Dragon...

Another Win for Senolytics: Fighting Aging at the Cellular Level Just Got Easier

Longevity research always reminds me of the parable of blind men and an elephant. A group of blind men, who’ve never seen an elephant before, each touches a different part of the elephant’s body...

This Is How We’ll Engineer Artificial Touch

Take a Jeopardy! guess: this body part was once referred to as the “consummation of all perfection as an instrument.” Answer: “What is the human hand?” Our hands are insanely complex feats of evolutionary engineering. Densely-packed...

How Do We Remember Places? This Study Used Lasers and VR to Point the Way

The curious contraption at University College London bordered between scientific wizardry and a terrifying Black Mirror episode. It might have just proved a decades-long theory of how the brain’s GPS system works. Let me paint...

Media Multitasking Is Ruining Our Memory. Can We Fix It?

I picked up a bad habit during lockdown: binge Netflix at double speed, while scrolling through the Twitter cesspool on my phone. I think I feel mentally stimulated, and trick myself into believing that...

Can We Wipe Out All Coronaviruses for Good? Here’s What a Group of 200 Scientists Think

One vaccine to rule them all. That was the blue sky goal for a new global collaboration with hopes to beat coronaviruses. I’m not just talking about SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for our current...

Can We Trust AI Doctors? Google Health and Academics Battle It Out

Machine learning is taking medical diagnosis by storm. From eye disease, breast and other cancers, to more amorphous neurological disorders, AI is routinely matching physician performance, if not beating them outright. Yet how much can...

Scientists Found a New Way to Control the Brain With Light—No Surgery Required

If I had to place money on a neurotech that will win the Nobel Prize, it’s optogenetics. The technology uses light of different frequencies to control the brain. It’s a brilliant mind-meld of basic neurobiology...

How Machine Learning Made Hops-Free Hoppy Beer (and Other SynBio Wonders) Possible

Synthetic biology is like a reality-altering version of Minecraft. Rather than digital blocks, synthetic biology rejiggers the basic building blocks of life—DNA, proteins, biochemical circuits—to rewire living organisms or even build entirely new ones....

How a Memory Quirk of the Human Brain Can Galvanize AI

Even as toddlers we’re good at inferences. Take a two-year-old that first learns to recognize a dog and a cat at home, then a horse and a sheep in a petting zoo. The kid...

Want to Decode the Human Brain? There’s a New System for That, and It’s Pretty Wild

Even for high-tech California, the man strolling around UCLA was a curious sight. His motion capture suit, sensor-embedded gloves, and virtual reality eyewear were already enough to turn heads. But what stopped people in their...

A CRISPR Baby Future? New Report Outlines Path to Human Germline Editing

What will it take for CRISPR babies to become medically acceptable? Earlier this month, an international commission of scientists released a highly anticipated report detailing the steps needed to turn a gene-editing fiasco into...

An Army of Microscopic Robots Is Ready to Patrol Your Body

If I were to picture futuristic bots that could revolutionize both microrobotics and medicine, a Pop-Tart with four squiggly legs would not be on top of my list. I was so wrong. Last week, Drs. Marc...

Neuralink’s Wildly Anticipated New Brain Implant: the Hype vs. the Science

Neuralink’s wildly anticipated demo last Friday left me with more questions than answers. With a presentation teeming with promises and vision but scant on data, the event nevertheless lived up to its main goal...

This Is How Your Brain Responds to Social Influence

I’m a doormat when it comes to peer pressure. Jump off a 32-foot (10 meter) diving board without any experience? Sure! Propel off a cliff my first time outdoor climbing? I’ll try! Those were obviously...

We Need New, Safer Ways to Treat Pain. Could Electroacupuncture Be One?

In college, I volunteered to have a needle jabbed into the fleshy part between my thumb and forefinger in the name of acupuncture. I had bruised the area earlier in a lab experiment. I...

The Secret to a Long, Healthy Life Is in the Genes of the Oldest Humans Alive

The first time I heard nematode worms can teach us something about human longevity, I balked at the idea. How the hell can a worm with an average lifespan of only 15 days have...

These Scientists Just Completed a 3D ‘Google Earth’ for the Brain

Human brain maps are a dime a dozen these days. Maps that detail neurons in a certain region. Maps that draw out functional connections between those cells. Maps that dive deeper into gene expression....

Towards ‘Eternal Sunshine’? New Links Found Between Memory and Emotion

Nearly a decade ago, I almost drowned. As an amateur scuba diver, I recklessly joined a group of experts for a deep—much deeper than I was qualified for—dive at night. Already exhausted from swimming my...

A Newly-Discovered Tiny CRISPR Protein Packs a Giant Punch For Human Gene Editing

The CRISPR family just grew bigger. The newcomer? A tiny DNA-chomping Cas protein, tucked away inside giant viruses. That’s the recent finding from Dr. Jennifer Doudna’s lab, one of the original discoverers of CRISPR, at...

Couch Potato No More: How the Benefits of Exercise Transfer to the Brain

Brain aging is reversible. How? Why? And how much can we rejuvenate an already aged brain? Those were the one conviction and three questions that guided me throughout my post-doctoral work at the University of...

How Fake Viruses Can Help Us Make the Best Possible Vaccines

Roughly 15 years ago, in a seeming prank, a pair of smiley faces graced the cover of Nature, one of the world’s preeminent science journals. Flash forward to today, and those smiley faces may...

A Highway to Smell: How Scientists Used Light to Incept Smell in Mice

I was on a panel a few weeks ago and realized I forgot to turn off the oven. Utterly mortified, I told my Zoom attendees that I had to save my lasagna that was...

Scientists Used Dopamine to Seamlessly Merge Artificial and Biological Neurons

In just half a decade, neuromorphic devices—or brain-inspired computing—already seem quaint. The current darling? Artificial-biological hybrid computing, uniting both man-made computer chips and biological neurons seamlessly into semi-living circuits. It sounds crazy, but a new...

Amazingly Detailed Map Reveals How the Brain Changes With Aging

If a brain is our Earth, then we, as inhabitants, are individual brain cells. Just as our human relationships and connections can nudge, push, or dramatically shift societal values and consequences, the connections between neurons...

Scientists 3D Printed Ears Inside Living Mice Using Light

Tissue engineering just got wilder and weirder. Using nothing but light and bioink, scientists were able to directly print a human ear-like structure under the skin of mice. The team used a healthy ear as...

How a Crowdsourcing Challenge Turbocharged Brain Research During Lockdown

“I had a dream my paintbrush split while I was picking up brain slices. Nightmare scenario, right? Then I woke up and thought: I really miss the lab,” a neuroscientist friend of mine recently...

How Scientists Influenced Monkeys’ Decisions Using Ultrasound in Their Brains

A few years ago, in a pitch black room at Stanford University, a monkey sat silently in his custom-made chair, utterly bewildered. It wasn’t because of the head brace, which held his head completely still....

Scientists Are Cloning the Coronavirus Like Crazy. Here’s Why—and the Risks

Most biomedical researchers are busy finding ways to squash the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, synthetic biologists are busy cloning it in droves. In late February a team from the University of Bern, led by Dr. Volker...

To Find a Coronavirus Vaccine Faster, Should We Deliberately Infect Thousands of People?

“First, do no harm” is a core principle for all physicians. Yet with the new coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe, the medical community is now asking: What if “first, do harm” is the...

Biological to Artificial and Back: How a Core AI Algorithm May Work in the Brain

Blame is the main game when it comes to learning. I know that sounds bizarre, but hear me out. Neural circuits of thousands, if not more, neurons control every single one of your thoughts, reasonings,...

How Will Coronavirus End? It Depends on Our Immunity. Three Possible Outcomes

We’re all so ready for this to be over. With the curve finally flattening in the US, the ramping up of anti-viral and vaccine trials against SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—and the launch of antibody...

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