The Long And Winding Road….

I came across this on another site and wanted to post it here because I figured we needed another graphic emphasizing our poor life decision…. Le sigh.

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Nobel Prize Winner For Cancer Research, Dr. Renato Dulbecco, Dies at 97

As I was setting up a plaque assay yesterday, a fellow lab member informed me that Dr. Renato Dulbecco, the man who first modified the procedure for use with animal viruses, died on Sunday at the age of 97. Plaque assays are still used today to measure the amount of many viruses present in cell culture, and allowed for major advances in virology including the development of the live polio vaccine. Dr. Dulbecco also invented the recipe for DMEM culture media that many of us still grow our cells in today.

Dulbecco’s greatest contribution to science and virology was his Nobel Prize winning discovery that viruses can cause cancer. The most popularized example of an oncogenic virus is the link between cervical cancer and human papillomaviruses, an observation that has led to the production of the sometimes controversial  Gardasil vaccine. Upon infection, these viruses promote immortality and unchecked replication of the host cell leading to tumor formation in a process called “transformation”.

For more on Dulbecco’s life and discoveries, check out this NY Times piece.

Posted in Science, Science History, viruses | 1 Comment

Working Late….

As the door to the building closes behind me with a resounding click, I look back to see the poor souls still trapped inside illuminated by the ultraviolet light. A specter looks down at me, dreams ablaze in his Bunsen burner, with a single gloved hand against the window as though both encouraging and envying my escape. But his vacant eyes tell me he no longer remembers what he is seeing out there. The gesture is a vaguely remembered movement, a mere mimicry of a former life.

I pull my jacket tight to me against the howling winds.

Ignoring the rumbling of my belly I persevere against the memory of my day’s forced labor with no sustenance. I can no longer remember the path that brought me here. Establishments, normally serving nourishment to weary knowledge seekers and travelers alike, now with doors boarded against the worsening storm.

It is just us shadows here now.

The light of the approaching train spurs my weary feet onward; it is my only hope of rescue from sure death of starvation in this place. Keeping my face low, I steal guarded glances at my fellow passengers. Are they escaping too? A whooping, hacking, wheezing cough echoes down the train car and reaches my ears and I am alerted to the presence of a fellow postdoc. For who but those sallow-eyed, lost souls chained to their benches day in and day out, would have attended work in such poor health?

As the city lights begin to dot the horizon, my pulse quickens. This is the moment I have imagined! I disembark the locomotive and I dare say there is a spring in my step. But then. The Hill before me looms. For I must climb all the way to the top to reach the solace of my home. Home. Is it still there? Will my room mates remember me?

As I begin my ascent I know I will soon perish without water. This single thought so consums me that I fail to notice the rain that has begun to fall around me, an irony in which I would normally delight. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. And so mine is the plight of the Ancient Mariner. I put my hand to my neck, sagging under the weight of my albatross. But lo! It is just my neck scarf grown wet and heavy with rain.

I begin to think I am imagining the sound of distant laughter drifting to my ears. Another game of my enfeebled brain grown weak from the abuses of a day in the hood. But soon I come upon the source; a restaurant full of smiling, happy faces exuding vitality and vigor. Who are these cherubs delighting? How did they get to a feast at this hour? They must work in those fabled 9-5 offices of lore. Sometimes there are whispers of such places among us postdocs when we think we are alone. “Each office has a window!” “I hear they get a break at midday during which they eat their lunch”. Could the stories be true?

I rest, just for a moment, and come to again some time later. In the quiet of the night there is no way to tell how long I have lingered. Visions of my youth dance before my eyes; merriment with friends, the embrace of a lover. These fantasies seek to mock my current ghosted self but I have come too far to be defeated now!!!! With renewed resolve I crawl the last few paces to my homestead. With a sense of purpose that pales all previous experience I reach my bed chamber. I collapse with exhaustion, my legs no longer able to stand.

As I use my last ounce of strength to close mine weary eyes, a final thought closes the day:

Did I remember to split my cells???

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Happy New Year!!! does up a nice little summary for each of its bloggers at the end of the year.   Here’s mine;

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.

In 2011, there were 23 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 40 posts. There were 25 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was May 24th with66 views. The most popular post that day wasI Heart Ebola..

Most visitors came from The United States. Canada & The United Kingdom were not far behind.

Your most commented on post in 2011 was Say ‘No’ To More School….

These are the posts that got the most views in 2011. You can see all of the year’s most-viewed posts in your Site Stats.

Some of your most popular posts were written before 2011. Your writing has staying power! Consider writing about those topics again.

I’m surprised, and pleased, to discover that I have readers outside of Canada! Happy New Year to all and here’s to another year of blogging – hopefully inspiration finds me and I can pick up the pace a little! Cheers!

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Patient Zero.

I just listened to a fantastic RadioLab episode from a couple weeks ago about “Patient Zero“. Perhaps I am truly the last person on earth who doesn’t listen to RadioLab regularly and everyone has already heard this one, but I thought I’d post this anyway just in case. The first story they share is one that was more familiar to me, that of Typhoid Mary, but they added some interesting personal elements to it that I didn’t know about. The second story though, the second one was absolutely captivating. They trace the origins of HIV, not just from its arrival in the US, but from its very first leap to humans and even how it may have come to be in chimps. Then the third story was about the history of the “Hi-5” (as in the hand gesture, not the slang for HIV) and that was kinda boring and I stopped listening. But the virus stuff was so cool! A regular RadioLab listener in my lab tells me that this wasn’t even one of their good ones. How can epidemiology be, in itself, so boring and yet produce such fascinating stories? I think about science journalism as a career sometimes, but when I see it done so well by others, what would I have to add??? Maybe I should stick to making the science…

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Let’s Make Cookies For the Boys!

Wow. I know I’ve harped on Nature a few times in this blog. I swear I don’t have a specific grudge against them, they just seem to be doing things that don’t sit well with me lately. Take for instance, this recent entry in their online “Futures” section for science fiction short stories.

Womanspace was published two months ago, but I only recently became aware of it through the blogosphere at Science Sushi and FemaleScienceProfessor. And I gotta say, this “story” got under my skin too – not just because it’s a self-important, wordy, piece of crap, but because it is actually sexist. Furthermore, I find it offensive that Nature would see fit to publish this under their name.

In Womanspace, Ed Rybicki outlines his ridiculous theory as to why women are apparently inherently better at shopping than men. It seems that this ability is deeply ingrained and stems from the days when men hunted and women gathered (though according to Ed, these are still the days that men hunt and women gather). But more than that, Ed theorizes that women have the capacity for trans-dimensional travel in these gathering excursions allowing them to enter alternate universes to locate sought after items. Yeah. I know. Gripping fiction right?

But it is not just the sheer idiocy of the story that bothers me. It offends me in three specific ways;
1) It perpetuates the “Doofy Husbands” stereotype that excuses men for their supposed ineptitude for household tasks
2) It perpetuates gender stereotypes (science is for men, shopping is for women)
3) That Nature published it at all

1. Doofy Husbands.
The overall tone of Womanspace reminds me of a Target: Women video that a friend showed me a while back. (Note to Ed and the editors at Nature: this is what tongue-in-cheek actually looks like)

As Sarah Haskins shows in the Target: Women video, the idea that there are certain mundane household tasks to which women are more suited than men, permeates pop culture. This type of thing drives me CRAZY!!!! It basically excuses men from participating in traditionally female responsibilities like household chores because hey, they’re just no good at it. The women in these commercials always look at their Doofy Husband with a sigh and give him a little smile as she completes his task for him. As someone who was raised by a father who prepared my meals, braided my hair, and yes, found “knickers” in the store, I simply can’t accept that men are just bad at household chores and truly resent how widespread this attitude is in media. Basically, this type of thinking tells women that we should hold men to a lower standard and accept less in our partners.

2. Gender Stereotypes.
It would seem that Ed lives in a parallel universe of his own, one that never moved forward from the 1950s. He paints an “idyllic” picture of his wife cooking dinner while the men talk about manly concerns. Like science. To get her grown man-children out from underfoot she sends them on a chore so they can go talk their nonsense (how could a woman ever make sense of  all that science they were talking?) elsewhere. It is, afterall, up to the men to be concerned with these higher matters while it is up to the women to nag men and bother them with boring tasks to distract them from these higher matters.

In reading the article I thought that some of the comments were extremely on point and summed up some feelings that I was having trouble putting into words. For instance, Pieter van Dokkum wrote:

What this story highlights is the issue of unintentional, subconscious bias, which is something that our community has to come to grips with. As is clear from his comment the author sees himself as supportive of women scientists, and merely intended to illustrate his own helplessness in the face of everyday obstacles. However, the story places women and men in fundamentally different categories: women are well-organized and domestically-oriented whereas men are useless in everyday life but come up with theories about the universe. It is this subconscious categorization which hurts women when they are climbing the academic ladder.

Well said! Ed tries to laugh off the story claiming that it was tongue-in-cheek and that it couldn’t possibly be offensive because his wife and daughter thought it was funny. Well then, I guess every other person who commented on the story must be confused. He even went so far as to point out that his wife is the colleague of a Nobel laureate! Because women can do that now. Be the colleagues of Nobel laureates. And we can use these relationships to help validate our professional lives.

Adding to the concept of subconscious bias and alienation, Christie Wilcox made an excellent point about its potential harm in her blog post about Womanspace when she wrote:

When it comes to women, studies have shown that stereotype threat is very real. Women are stereotyped to be worse at math than men due to lower test scores. But it turns out that women only score lower when they are reminded of their gender or take the test in the presence of men. In fact, the greater the number of men in the room with a female test taker, the worse she will do. The gender profile of the environment has no effect, however, on women’s verbal test scores, where no such inferiority stereotype exists.

The intent of the author is irrelevant. I also believe him when he states in the comments that he truly was not expecting any backlash from the article and intended it to be a joke. Unfortunately, intent is not what determines whether something is sexist or not. It is the resulting feeling of marginalization that makes it sexist. As commenter Tam Frager stated, “It doesn’t matter whether I’m particularly domestic or good at shopping, what matters is that this takes half the population and puts them into an “other” category”

3. Nature should have known better.
Which brings me to my final point. Why the hell did Nature see fit to publish this in the first place?

Nature describes the mission statement of the Futures section as “a forum for the best new science-fiction writing, exploring some of the themes that might challenge us as the future unfolds. Prepare to be amused, stimulated, even outraged, but know this: the future is sooner than you think.” I shudder to think of a future that is as backwards as this. But before I touch upon that, I would like to point out that regardless of outrage, this story fails to comply with the first statement – “a forum for the best new science-fiction writing”. It is simply a story about a man who can’t find things in big department stores and has the silly idea that women can enter a parallel universe. The man doesn’t enter the parallel universe, this other dimension is never described. This is an anecdote, not a work of science fiction.

Which leads me to believe that this story was accepted to fulfill the latter half of the mission statement – “Prepare to be amused, stimulated, even outraged…“.

One of the elements that makes this story seem offensive rather than silly is the audience that the author is addressing. Rybicki writes;

Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other as you wend your way through the complexity of a supermarket — only to suddenly find her 20 metres away with her back to you? And then she comes back with something you’ve never seen before, and tosses it in the trolley as if nothing has happened?

Well, Ed. No, I’ve never had that experience. Because, despite your apparent assumption that all Nature readers are men, I am a woman. The tone with which this is written picks up on the “Old Boys Club” attitude that still rears its ugly head now and then, and the editors of Nature should have picked up on that.

Oh, but wait. They did. See, the editor that accepted this story writes in the comments section in perhaps a goading manner, “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story” (this was, of course, written before the onslaught of outraged comments). This tells us that the editor picked up on the undertones of the story and knew exactly what he was accepting: a story that would drum up lots of comments and drive traffic through the Futures section of Nature online.

Tsk, tsk. Shame on Nature for accepting an overtly sexist piece of “science fiction” in a cheap attempt to drum up some controversy. While I normally have a sense of humour about most things and often see the humour in non-PC jokes my friends make (eg. “Nice rack” as I’m holding a rack of test tubes is a favourite of my friends’), the problem here is that this isn’t a joke my friends are making. This is a story published in a leading international scientific journal that marginalizes and trivializes women in a way that is simply unacceptable.

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It’s Official, I’m a Bitter Old Hag

Ooops! This blog post got lost in my draft box so it’s a little out of date now but I thought I’d post it anyway.

There are lots of titles I could have come up with for this post; “Enough About That Google Science Fair Kid Who Totally Didn’t Deserve to Win”, or “What’s Wrong With Kids Today (A Statement, Not a Question)”. But I figured the title I went with sums them all up pretty well.

The thing is though, while I fully admit and accept that I am a bitter old hag, I still maintain that it’s not my fault! It’s from years of dealing with bullshit annoying save-the-world Type A titwads (mostly of the med student variety – HAHA buuuuurrrrrrrn!). And for whatever reason, this Google science fair kid has totally set me off….enough that I’m going to devote a blog post to bashing some 17 year old kid (not really).

My first problem with this is that the girl obviously didn’t come up with her own project. I mean, what high schooler sits there and thinks “You know, I bet that AMP-activated protein kinase has something to do with resistance to chemotherapy treatments.”? The answer is none of them. Grad students, postdocs and PIs think things like that. Basically, this kid has a lot of drive and found an academic lab that would take her on, was given a project and had a grad student or postdoc who supervised her, who advised her on what to do next, taught her how to do Western blots, etc. But, while I’m sure the girl did the actual hands-on work herself, there’s just no way that the concept of the project was her own and it pisses me off that she won with that. Especially when there were other totally awesome projects that a high school kid totally could have thought of, like the winner of the age 13-14 category who asked what effect marinades have on the production of carcinogens in grilled chicken.

In this case the girl sent her samples off to a lab to be analyzed but the concept of the project could easily have been her own. And I think the concept is the important part that deserves rewarding because anyone can be trained to thoughtlessly carry out a bunch of experiments, but only a good scientist will think of the interesting question in the first place.

But I think what really pisses me off about this winner is in an interview about what she’d like to do in the future, she says she’d like to be an MD/PhD and cure cancer. Yes, well wouldn’t we all? But here’s the thing about that. With all this emphasis on translational research these days and many microbiology, immunology, infectious disease, etc departments preferentially hiring MD/PhDs for faculty positions, who is left to make the new discoveries??? There is this attitude that unless you are obviously curing some disease or other then your research isn’t worth doing. But if all we research is things that are obviously linked to a disease, then how will we ever discover new links to pursue? How will we ever have turnover in dogma?

I’m realizing as I write this that the thought pattern of this post is a little all over the place, but it’s a general rant against this achievement-based motivation that “kids today” seem have when they get into science. While a go-getter attitude never hurts, to be a truly successful scientist I believe that you need to be driven by an underlying curiosity about how things work. Bah! What do I know? I’m a bitter old hag….

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