Monthly Archives: July 2012

Excitement, Making Posters and Getting Hung up on Words

…Yeah, my mind is all over the place today.

It‘s amazing how quickly stress-less time can turn into busy time. That‘s what happened to me last week. I suddenly found myself scrambling to make a poster presentation for a conference and, having received new baking dishes, baking new cake (if you don‘t understand what I‘m talking about, look here). The cake seems to be turning out better this time, so that‘s exciting.

However, most of my thoughts were occupied by the poster, since it‘s my first poster and all. I had made oral presentations in students’ science conferences before, but this is the first grown-up conference my work is going to be presented at. It‘s not a peer-reviewed paper, but I‘m still excited. Hm… there seem to quite a lot of excitement happening in my life right now.

Making the poster was a very enjoyable experience. I‘m the sort of person who likes making to-do lists and planning my time in a way that‘s most efficient; and I love jigsaw puzzles. So, I loved telling the story of my work in (mostly) pictures, trying to fit it all nicely and neatly into the allotted stretch of space.

The most interesting poster-making-related experience quite surprisingly was getting critique comments from folks at my home lab. Before this I had made slide presentations and got feedback from my supervisors but more people were involved in this, and this being more serious than a students’ conference, people looked rather closely at every detail. Also, since I‘m away, I got most of the comments in writing. It was rather amazing how two comments saying pretty much the same thing can be put in such ways that one makes you think “Oh, OK, these are good points, I should change this and that” and the other makes you feel as though your whole work is being called rubbish, which, I know, wasn‘t the commenter‘s intention and that‘s not what they said, but that‘s how the particular words that jumped right at me left me feeling for a short while until I got past the words and just took in the meaning. I‘m probably oversensitive (I‘m trying to work on that), I get invested in, well, (almost) everything I do. But I do think that words matter, especially if they‘re in writing, because they just stand there alone in front of you and you can‘t always tell what tone those words would have if spoken. Maybe I get hung up on words too much, but, really, I think, most people do that some times – have you noticed, for instance, how often a discussion/argument ends up trying to determine a meaning of a key word and it turns out that the sides fundamentally disagree on it? I guess, what I‘m trying to say is, first, that I should try to pay less attention to wording of people‘s e-mails, because obviously they have more important things to do than think about the words they choose, and second, that I suddenly realised how much I appreciate when people take that extra minute to read through before submitting any sort of written bit of communication.

Having read through and rewritten that last paragraph like 7 times, I’m still not sure if it carries my point across the way I want it to,

Noodle.

P.S. Oh, and one more exciting thing in my life right now: people read my blog, OMG! Comments are so exciting! 😀

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Cells and Cakes, Or What I’ve Learnt During This Internship So Far

Nothing particularly interesting happened last week, and I realised that I haven‘t talked much about what I‘m doing at this lab yet. I was a bit apprehensive about writing about it at first, actually, because thanks to the scientific blogosphere I was recently made aware of the horrors of something called prior publication and the debate whether it‘s ethical to blog about one‘s own work. But I figure as I‘m only doing something that just about everyone* working with cell cultures is doing, it‘s OK.

This post was somewhat prompted by a conversation I had with a new curious friend (I love new curious friends). It went somewhere a long this line:

– So, what do you do during this internship?

– Right now I‘m just growing cells. Trying not to kill them.

– And how do you do that?

– Well, I keep them in a sort of flask and the cells attach to the bottom. We put some liquid that has all sorts of good things that the cells eat in it. When the cells eat up all the good things, the liquid changes colour (from raspberry pink to yellowish), and I need to suck it out and put in new liquid. And also cells divide and multiply and eventually they cover the whole bottom, then I need to pry them off and take only a little part of them and put them in a new flask.

– And how do you pry them off? With some very small tools?

(Here I paused for a moment because I had a very vivid image of myself trying to pry cells from a bottom of a flask using tweezers whose ends are so thin that one can‘t see them.)

– No, we use certain chemical materials. Cells hold onto the flask using proteins, and we use an enzyme trypsin** that sort of melts those proteins. We put some of it into the flask and after a short while the cells come off. I suck them out with the liquid and only take a little part of them to put into a new flask.

I‘m actually not sure if I managed to explain it that well during the actual conversation. In any case, this is basically what I (mostly) do. However, while it sounds fairly straightforward in theory, it is rather more complicated in reality. For one, all the work has to be done with your hands inside a box that looks something like this:

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The glass only comes up a little. Like, probably less than 30 cm. It‘s like working through a cat flap. I‘m still not used to it and get annoyed with it at times. Also, you have to be careful not to contaminate your materials and your cells. So, you have to be careful not only about what you touch but also about holding your hands above certain things. I’ve only done the cell detaching procedure by myself a couple of times now and every time I work I get so tense that afterwards I‘m actually shaking. Hopefully, by the end of the internship, I‘ll be confident enough and skilled enough not to get so stressed.

The second lesson I‘ve learnt so far: if you don‘t know what you‘re doing, find and ask a person who actually knows the stuff you‘re doing. If such person is not available, look at some articles on the topic or something, before you actuallly do something.

And finally, I‘m going to explain the last lesson I‘ve noted so far using a baking analogy, because baking makes everything better. So, let‘s say you have 3 new fancy baking dishes that you have never used before and cake batter that you never made before. So, you don‘t know how it will turn out (based on previous experience with other cakes, you have, however, a couple of ideas about it). These baking dishes are very fancy – they are all flippy-flappy and you can turn them inside and out. During preparation process you suddenly notice that you can‘t tell which is the right side out or in anymore. So what do you do? You turn them inside/out at random and fill them with your batter and bake all three cakes at once. Then they all don’t look how you expected, and you don‘t know if that‘s because they‘re the wrong side in or just because that‘s how cakes turn out in these baking dishes. So, you don’t actually find out how the cake is supposed to turn out. What you should have done is just try one dish and after noticing that you lost the in- and out- sides, make sure not to do that with the other dishes and not bake them all at once. At least not until you can handle it all***.

Wondering if that might be the most complicated cake analogy ever,

Noodle.

*I wonder how many people there are who work with cell cultures, in the world… 100 000? 10 000? More? Less? I wonder how one goes about finding that out. Thoughts?

**Incidentally, trypsin is the same stuff that breaks down proteins in our stomachs into the tiny aminoacids so they can be absorbed by our organisms. That’s what it does to the proteins that cells use to attach to the flask. Are you wondering now, how come the stuff doesn’t break down the proteins of the cells of your stomach?

***Sometimes you also need to know that each dish produces the same result. So, next time you might want to bake a few cakes together in order to avoid the result being different just because you use different brand of flour or something.

Noodle’s Journey: In Search of the Elusive Lake

This week was pretty uneventful for the most part. I had few close encounters with specimens of local fauna. Taking a walk in a park, I ran into a squirrel I had a bit of a staring match with. Then there was this rabbit which didn‘t know traffic rules and even though it was turning left and I was riding my bike straight, I had to let it pass. I also took a couple walks and rides along the river which seems to run into two opposite directions – I‘m still trying to figure out how that works, and along those trips there were multiple sightings of ducks, once in an absent-minded state I walked so close past one that half a meter to the right and I would‘ve stepped on it. But it didn‘t even make a sound or move. I did, however, step on some duck poop, which is like the only problem this beautiful town seems to have. Oh well, can‘t have anything too perfect, and it‘s all part of the beautiful life cycles, and stuff.

And then the Epic Journey of Saturday afternoon happened. I had finally procured a bike in the beginning of the week, so I was able to go further away than on foot. A new friend and I decided to ride our bikes and see a lake a little out of town. It looked pretty straightforward on the map – after we left town, we just had to ride straight until we bumped into the lake. Only, when we got to the place from which we only had to ride straight, there was no road going straight. There were a few small forest paths leading in different directions, though, so we chose one and off we went. Only it ended in a dead-end, so we had to make a turn. Then we made more turns trying to get back on track. We stumbled upon the local crematorium. That was interesting. I had never seen a crematorium before. That was a good point to get our bearings, since it was marked on the map and everything. However, yet again, the map and the physical reality of roads didn‘t agree. We rode into the forest again. Took some turns here and there. And… suddenly found ourselves facing the crematorium again. It threatened to start raining. That would be a cool premise for a horror movie – two girls riding their bikes in the rain past an abandoned crematorium (the real creamatorium clearly wasn‘t abandoned, but that wouldn‘t make a good horror film premise).

We decided to backtrack our journey a bit further back to try and find the right road. We successfully back-tracked and chose another forest path. Only, after some time of battling rocky muddy narrow paths, we ended up on the same field where we started. Then we laughed about it for a couple of minutes and decided to try for the last time. We rode through the forest again, then through a sort of clump of perfect little houses in the forest (if I could pick anywhere on Earth to live, I‘d pick a house there… or a little town Gmunden in Austria, it has a lake surrounded by mountains). And then as it looked as though we bumped into another deadend, we actually bumped into the elusive lake. And then it started to rain in earnest.

We rode around looking for the lake for 2 hours. It took probably a good half hour to get back.

But seriously, this place has most beautiful forests. They’re like the Forbidden Forest and the forest of Lothlorien with a hint of Fangorn all in one.

I can’t believe I was able to move at all on Sunday,

Noodle.

Thoughts On Science As a Girl Thing, Also a Trip Down Memory Lane

Three weeks ago, the European Commission launched “Science: It’s a girl thing!”, a campaign trying to get more girls interested in Science careers. The site looks good enough, but originally it included a teaser video which was taken down due to outrage explosion on the interwebs (it can still, however be found, for instance, here). I was in a middle of a lot of things then and apart from following it on Twitter for a while and bookmarking some excellent blog posts, didn’t spend much time on it.

But now I’ve got a bit of time for introspection and I’ve been reading those blog posts (for instance, here and here) and clicking various links in them has taken me to some unexpected and fascinating places (more on that hopefully in future posts). All these people talking about how science obviously doesn’t need prettying-up to appeal to girls. That made me think / try to remember what made me interested in science.

I don’t actually have one distinct memory of how I got interested in science. But as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved knowing stuff and understanding things. I loved studying and learning. And science is the ultimate studying, because you try to learn things that no one has learnt before.

I remember my first scientific “ambition” as a 12-year-old was to become an archaeologist, go to Australia, find fossils no one found before and determine why dinosaurs went extinct. You’ll have to forgive my 12-year-old self for not knowing the difference between an archaeologist and a palaeontologist.

Then I started Physics, Biology and Chemistry classes. I was mostly unlucky with Physics teachers (I think my class had like 3 or 4 of them), but my Dad, who is a MSc in Astrophysics, would always help me with my homework. I was completely in awe with explanations he would give to stuff that happens around us. He would often stray a bit too far into background information or reminiscing about how they taught him things at University and, while that meant taking much longer with my homework than was necessary, I loved those stories and thought that studying in Physics department had to be the most fun thing to do.

There was also Biology. We got a teacher my whole class was very afraid of, I still remember how part of the class delegated me to ask her how meiosis works because we couldn’t get it and it took me half a recess to work up the courage. To be clear, she wasn’t a Snape-, but rather a McGonagall-type teacher, and as I got older we got on very friendly terms (I like to go talk to her whenever I visit my school). She was also probably the first mentor-type person I had. Her strict requirements, I think, was what made me look into everything deeper asking why, how does that work, why is this just the way it is? For example, even such seeming trivialities as why we need toothpaste that’s alkaline as opposed to acidic. I discovered secrets and connections all around and in my own body. I was mostly fascinated with the latter (though moss and lichen came in close second), so I worked for 3 of my high-school years towards Med school (in my country, one can apply for Med school right after high-school, it takes 6 years, then intern-ship and residency).

But before my senior year, I was made to reconsider. I came to realise I didn’t really want to practice Medicine. I mostly just wanted to do research, I didn’t even question it much, that was just something I wanted to do and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else (well, apart from, you know, piloting a jet or directing the next best film of all time). There was also the stress of Med school and practising Medicine in general. I decided I didn’t need an MD to do research. Biology was my passion and Physics was my fascination. So, natural conclusion was Biophysics. I didn’t know much about it, but despite a bumpy start it turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted, and when it wasn’t, I would just put some effort to turn it my way.

So, circling back to the infamous video campaign, I guess even the 12-year-old me wouldn’t have been a target audience for it, because I was already interested in science because it is interesting, because it’s fun trying to solve puzzles and figure out things. Also, part of the appeal was the fact that all that mattered was your brain, your thoughts. One can wear whatever and like whatever they want, and it’s only one’s thinking that matters. Some bloggers (including Skepchick article I linked to above) actually expressed the idea (backed up by some studies, of course) that the overtly feminine girls in the video might actually have a negative effect and make girls like the 12-year-old me think that they can’t achieve science because you suddenly have to be both smart and pretty. I’m not sure if I summarised this well, just go and read the Skepchick article or this piece at NewScientist. It’s difficult to dig up the 12-year-old me, but I can definitely see that she wouldn’t be thrilled about such images of a “female scientist”. I think there’s no need to present science in any pretty way. I mean, in my opinion, children of either sex who could potentially get interested in science would be smart enough to see the fun themselves; someone should just help awaken their curiosity (I realise now that is what both my Dad and my Biology teacher did in their different ways).

Also, maybe this is a bit of a cultural thing, this thinking that there are too few females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), and something must be done to encourage them. I mean, sure in the graduating Physics class at my University this year there was 1 girl for every 10 or so guys, but in my class of the Faculty of Natural Sciences (which includes Biology, Molecular Biology, Biophysics, Ecology, Geology, Hydrology, Geography, Genetics) the situation was reversed with probably 1 guy for every 10 girls, and the faculty is probably about equally distributed between genders (I’ll have to go through the directory to count, I’m really curious now). And my Biophysics class was actually equally distributed. Admittedly, that’s just a one year sample, but looking around the University corridors it seems like a representative sample.

I could’ve got into Physics, but I didn’t want to, I liked studying the part of Nature that replicates and I was better at understanding Biological processes than Physical ones (I mean, come on: both wave and particle at the same time?!). My point is that everyone should be allowed to choose whatever they like. Sure, it seems that there are more boys than girls choosing Physics, but there are more girls choosing Biology and nobody is starting campaigns to get more boys into Biology. I do, however, agree that encouragement should be provided if a situation comes up when a young girl is very good at, say, Physics but she has fears of getting into it just because she’s afraid of having to work with or compete against all the boys or something else that has nothing to do with her disliking the actual subject or liking anything else better.

And yes, I understand that there’s also the problem of girls sticking with Science after graduation, but this particular campaign clearly wasn’t marketed at college students or recent college graduates and this post is getting too long, and I need to go get Daddy to help me with my Physics homework,

12-year-old Noodle.

P.S. I have now went and counted male and female members of the faculty of Natural Sciences. I counted 149 females and 133 males. There are obviously different distributions within different departments, say, Hydrogeology has more male faculty, Biochemistry & Biophysics more female, Zoology is about equally distributed. However, out of 10 departments, only 2 currently have female department heads. I guess that says something, as well. Physics faculty is overwhelmingly male, with only a few females at most in the biggest departments.

Hello Sweden

I arrived in Sweden a week ago, to spend the next 3 months training and working at this kick-ass lab. I got my first glimpses and impressions of the country on the train from Stockholm to the University town. I was instantly comforted by the fact that the flora here is very similar to my home country. I also loved the crazy amount of lakes and all the random rocks and, were those mountains at the horizon?

I was tired but the person who met me at the train station in the University town had to go back to the lab, so it was the first thing I really saw after landing in Stockholm airport. Although I was tired I thought that was pretty cool, you know, a sign of the true kick-ass-ery of the lab. They showed me around a bit – a long hallway lined with rooms cluttered with a lot of cool things and machines of mysterious scientific purposes – I‘m sure I‘ll find them out in due course.

My dorm room is pretty unremarkable apart from the fact that there wasn‘t an internet connection at the ready. I mean, what?! But after a week living like this I find that it‘s actually kind of fun spending my evenings reading or listening to music or audio books and going to bed early because there‘s no internet or TV to absorb me: no emerging from a sort of stupor past midnight wondering where the evening went. I‘m only missing my kitchen back home.

I‘ve started my training now – basic cell culture stuff, some of it I’ve done before during my very first epic-fail of a project as a Biophysics undergrad when I was trying to get cells eat… stuff. I might as well have been trying to shove those things into my cultured cells with my bare hands. I blame a bad batch of stuff. Unless the cells just didn’t like me or something.

That failed project was more than 3 years ago now. I have stayed away from cells, not entirely purposefully – I just happened to fall into a project that was something entirely different, but also I think, I (un)consciously tried to block those memories (or you can alternatively read: move on). But now it‘s coming back to me, and not in such a bad way as one could have expected. Although, being a rather low-maintenance gal (I flatter myself to be), I’m sometimes annoyed at what high-maintenance little divas those cells are. But then again, we‘ve ripped them from their nice soft homes where they were surrounded by just the right extracellular stuff and all other different cell neighbours and we‘re asking them to grow in hard plastic flasks all by themselves. It‘s natural that we need to put some extra work to keep them happy.

Missing my kitchen worse than I realised,

Noodle.

P.S. I seem to always be promising myself to try and always failing to keep this blog a regular thing, but here I am promising again and I really really really mean it this time.