Monthly Archives: February 2012

What scientists do

I know this meme is getting old, but I just had to post this one.

Funniest thing- the mouse with the ear on its back– that was my post-doctoral advisor’s post-doctoral work.  So, in that regard, society gets it right.

I’m not sure how accurate it is otherwise.  If I were making my own, I’d do it like this…

What my mom thinks I do:  a picture of a scientist getting the Nobel Prize (I think she seriously considers this within the realm of possibility).

What my friends think I do:  The running joke when I was in grad school was that I was working on a life-like Real Doll (don’t Google it at work because it’s definitely NSFW)- since I worked on culturing mammary organoids and prostate cells.  My cousin (a business man) and I were going to go into business and call our creations the Ho-bot and the Gigilo-bot.  As a post-doc I was working on engineering liver, so the joke was I would make everyone a replacement liver for when their years of heavy drinking caught up with them and they needed a transplant.  Now I’m working on intestine and colon, which doesn’t make for as good a story.

What society things I do:  As mentioned earlier, I think this is pretty good and a large part of my work involves tissue engineering.  However, now I’m doing a lot of stuff with (mouse) embryonic stem cells, so I’d probably put a picture like this (even though I’m working with MOUSE stem cells)-


What my boss thinks I do:  I’d probably put a picture of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat since it seems to take very little time away from actual benchwork for advisers/supervisors to completely lose touch with the reality of how long it takes to do experiments.

What I think I do:  Not sure what I’d put here, but it DEFINITELY wouldn’t be quantum physics!

What I really do:  Since a picture of any of the work I mentioned in this post would make too many people puke, I’d probably put a picture of my computer- since I feel like most of my time is spent on the computer making Power Point presentations, finding/reading papers, responding to e-mails and crunching data.

Leave a comment

Filed under Scientist, Wordless Wednesday

A new low

Have you ever watched a nature show on The Discovery Channel or Animal Planet and thought to yourself, “Who in the hell spent their time figuring that out?!”

The one that comes to my mind is an innocuous show I was watching about some lake in Africa and the hippos that lived there.  Seemed like standard nature show fair.  Imagine my utter shock and surprise when the focus switched to one aspect of hippo biology that I could have lived my life without ever knowing.  You could live without it too, so skip the next paragraph if you wish.

Apparently there is a species of leech, Placobdelloides jaegerskioeldi, that breeds in the rectum of a hippo.  Yeah.  The show was replete with close up VIDEOS of the leeches and the hippo hiney hole. It opens a whole can of worms (or leeches?):  Who cares?  How did somebody figure that out?  Why is the name of all that is holy did someone pursue it?  What poor scientist spent his/her field work literally up the butt of hippo?!  Who thought there was something even more gross that leeches mating?  How about leeches mating in a hippo rectum?

I’ve wondered these same things with other research I’ve read about.  Like the impact of sleep deprivation on fruit flies– where some poor grad student had to be similarly sleep deprived to stay awake and shake the container of flies every time they started to nod off before the Sleep Nullifying Apparatus was invented to do it for him/her.


I’ve also wondered these same things with my own research.  As an undergraduate I studied the role of DNA Polymerase Beta in mismatch repair during meiosis in rats. [See here for an irreverent and hilarious take on Pol Beta and its function.]  Now, in case you forgot from high school biology, meiosis is the special version of cell division that creates gametes (ie sperm and eggs).  To study meiosis, we needed cells in which meiosis was taking place.  Where are gametes made?  Well, eggs are mostly made in fetal ovaries of female rats.  Sperm are made 24/7 in the testes of male rats.  So, if we were given the option of trying to track down meiotic cells it’s much easier to get your hands on rat testicles than fetal/embryonic rat ovaries- trust me.

Thusly, I spent a good portion of my undergrad research time dissecting out rat testicles, mincing them up with scissors, putting them in a very (ironically) phallic looking Waring blender, then further crushing the cells in another (ironically) phallic looking dounce– all in the name of making cell lysates so we could look for proteins that interacted with Pol Beta during mismatch repair.

I certainly raised a lot of eye brows and elicited many disgusted reactions from people when I discussed my research- particularly when on a grad school prospective student weekend a prof who studied spermatogenesis shouted to me loudly at a social function, “Ah yes!  So exciting!  You’re the student working with testicles!”

Things didn’t exactly improve from there.  The summer after college I got a job working at the county health department in their West Nile Virus Monitoring Program.  This means trapping mosquitoes, sorting them with a dissecting microscope, and sending them off to the state lab for testing for West Nile.  This part wasn’t that bad- other than the nasty water we used to attract the mosquitoes (we were only interested in the females, since they’re the ones that bite, and they like to lay their eggs in nasty fetid water- see here) and all the mosquito bites.

The grossest part of the job involved the ‘monitoring’ of the bird population.  The community was encouraged to call the health department to report any dead birds they found, then we’d go and get those dead birds, pack them on ice, and ship them off to the state lab for testing.  I responded to calls from helpful citizens who swiftly bagged the bird they found and conveniently refrigerated it until we could pick it up.  I also responded to calls from people who reported a pile of rotting flesh and maggots that was once a bird as a dead bird.  I also responded to calls from people who were so irrationally terrified of West Nile that they left the dead bird to rot and bake in the sun rather than go near it.  There was also the concerned citizen who hit a Canada goose with his car and reported it to us (Note to caller:  you hit it with your car, it didn’t die from West Nile Virus!).  It was pretty gross.  Some were pretty far gone and so decayed and stinky that we just disposed of them because they couldn’t be tested.

I should mention that I was the only woman on this team with four other men.  When I interviewed for the position the man who would be my manager said, “Are you sure you’ll be OK picking up dead birds?” (which I’m guessing was a concern because I am female and thus averse to ‘yucky stuff’) to which I replied, with a totally straight face, “My last job involved grinding up rat testicles.  I don’t think this will be a problem.”  He was appropriately and humorously silenced by my reply and offered me the job.

As a grad student I did pretty well.  My breast cancer research was relatively innocuous.  No in vivo work.  No dissection.  Standard blood and guts-free in vitro benchwork.

As a post-doc I had to help out with the harvesting rat hepatocytes (liver cells) that involved some surgery, but I was just assisting and didn’t have to get my hands dirty.

I mistakenly thought I’d moved on from the realm of research that makes people ask “Why in the hell would you do that?!  Gross!”

The operative word here being mistakenly.

I think my research is going to take me to a new low this year.  How low?

Hmm…. how should I convey the lowliness of this?  I think two words will sum it up.

Mouse enemas.


Part of my research this year will involve engrafting cells into mouse colons.  How does one get cells into the colon of a mouse?  Basically by giving the mouse an enema of cells.


Seriously not looking forward to this new low.

What about you?  Any ‘lowly’ research projects under your belt?  Any bizarre nature shows that made you feel bad for the researchers?


Filed under Scientist

It had to happen eventually.

Well, I knew it had to happen eventually.  I was lucky it took this long.

Mabel is quite independent as a toddler.  I don’t mean she can take care of herself.  I mean she doesn’t ever seem to care if her mom or dad are present.  In new situations, she pretty much runs off to immerse herself without a second glance at Mac and I.

Mabel in one of many photos Mac sends me to let me know what I'm missing while I'm at work.

While it occasionally hurts my feelings that I am forgotten like an old shoe, I’m really happy she is this way.  I’m a pretty outgoing person and while I’m not always at ease in every situation, I toughen up (per my father’s most readily dispensed advice: “Toughen up kid!”) and put on my game face.  I’m not sure how I would handle a timid, shy, or fearful child.

Friends would agree that I’m not always the most sympathetic person.  A friend was crying once, over something that didn’t warrant tears, and I actually said, “Stop crying, that’s stupid.”  I genuinely didn’t mean to make her feel worse, I just really thought it wasn’t worth her tears.

So, back to what had to happen eventually… usually Mabel doesn’t care if I go to work.  She doesn’t care if Mac and I leave her with her grandparents.  She doesn’t care if she’s in a room full of strangers and can’t find us (I don’t think she even bothers to look for us).  Generally, she’s happy to see us, but doesn’t need us around.

That means, most mornings, after we snuggle in bed for a while, I get up and she asks me if I’m getting ready for work, then goes off to her room to read books.  Later, if she isn’t mad about something, like her doll’s legs getting stuck in the doll stroller, she walks me to the door cheerfully.  I get a hug, a kiss, and a bless on my forehead, then a heartfelt, “Goin’ a work?  Bye Mommy!  See you later!”

This particular morning didn’t go as usual.  When it came time for me to get out of bed and get ready for work she didn’t like it.  She straight up said, “Don’t wanna get ready for work.  Wanna snuggle in a big bed!”  She was pretty adamant about it.  There were a few tears and some whining.  I didn’t have a choice.  I explained to her that while I had to go to work today, I had off the next 4 days and wouldn’t have to go to work.

Since she is who she is, she got over it rather quickly and went to play with her toys while I got ready for work.  However, she wouldn’t come downstairs when it was time for me to go.  She didn’t walk me to the door.  Mac and I called up to her, telling her I was leaving and asking for her to say goodbye.  No dice.  It wasn’t until I was out on the front porch that she finally realized I was really going and she came down to give me a kiss, a hug, and bless.  No tears and no fussing.

It was probably one of the hardest mornings- having her ask/tell me point blank that she didn’t want me to go to work.  I’m glad she mostly doesn’t care if I’m there.  I don’t think I could take tears and pleading every morning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Mabel, Mother

Poker Face

Mabel’s birth wasn’t pretty.  There was vomit and poop, amniotic fluid and catheters, lots of needles and blood, then the whole ‘uterus removed from the body to be sutured’ bit.  Did I mention there was a lot of blood?  Like enough for a bloodbath scene from a horror movie?

Yeah, so Mabel’s birth wasn’t pretty.

My husband, Mac, was privy to it ALL.

While I admit that I wasn’t always fully aware of my surroundings, Mac maintained his composure (at least around me) for the entire ordeal.

Well, he was a little shaken up by the bloodbath scene the first time I got out of bed 8 hours post-C-section.  It was clear that what was running through his head as it happened was, “Holy crap my wife is bleeding to death!”  However, that was understandable since I too was perplexed and unprepared for it as well.  Had it not been for the nonplussed reaction of the nurse, I might have worried about my own imminent death as well, instead of just wondering if/how they could clean it all up before my in laws came to meet the baby.  (I’m no neat freak when it comes to my lovely mother in law, but nobody wants their in laws leap-frogging over pools of their blood.  Right?)

So given my husband’s world class poker face despite all he witnessed, I laughed out loud when I come across the Universal Birth Reaction Assessment Tool on How to be a Dad.

Source: How to be a Dad

While Mac passes out quite readily when he gets a shot or IV placed, he appeared unaffected when it happened to me, or my actual spinal column.

Through the whole birth and recovery, I’d say the worst he got on the Expression/Grimace Scale was “Whoa!”  Except for the bloodbath which was something more like a “Aaaahhhh!”

Now, as I said, I’m pretty sure he had a great poker face.  From our talks about the birth since it happened, I’m pretty sure he had moments that scored a 10/ “Ngaaaa!” on the Birth Reaction Scale (like when he caught a glimpse of my disembodied uterus in the operating room).  However, he never let on that he was feeling anything more than a 2 or 3.

He was an excellent birth partner.

As we get closer and closer to welcoming Nemo (baby #2, baby brother) we’ve been talking more about Mabel’s birth.  How it happened, how we felt, how I coped with the labor, what worked, what didn’t, what I most appreciated, what we want to do different.  The talks are enlightening at times.  Mac remembers details and hours of time that are completely absent from my memory.  I know that helping me through the labor was hard for Mac- it’s hard to watch someone you love in pain and not be able to stop it.  I hope that him hearing me say how much of a help and support he was to me, how much I needed him, how safe I felt knowing he was there, and how he came through for me, will be valuable for the second go-around.

I’m also looking forward to him reading this post and telling me what his reactions really were and how little his face revealed.


Filed under pregnancy, Wife

Wordless Wednesday: Gestational Diabetes Screening

Had my gestational diabetes screening on Monday.  I found it very odd to be drinking something from Fisher.  They are major supplier for research labs, so I’m used to seeing/using their stuff, but not drinking it!  Chemicals, ethanol-proof markers, pipet tips, yes.  Something I should drink, no.

I felt like Environmental Health and Safety would cite me for violating lab rules at any second.

1 Comment

Filed under #scimom, pregnancy, Scientist, Wordless Wednesday

Valentine’s Day

I’m not big on Valentine’s Day mainly because I’m cheap.  Mac is actually forbidden from getting me flowers or chocolate on Valentine’s Day because the prices are so outrageous.  He is, however, encouraged to get me flowers and chocolate when they go on clearance the day after Valentine’s Day!  Other than our very first Valentine’s Day, when he sent tulips and chocolates to my old apartment (we were newly dating and I had just moved, so he had the wrong address), we’ve only exchanged things the day after.

My Valentine this year: getting to pick the movie we will watch, while eating Thai food after putting Mabel to bed.  Romance!

by Stephoodle, Source

That said, I stumbled across a couple of V Day appropriate science articles today.

The first one is about the origins of kissing- Valentine’s Day kisses continue odd human tradition and guess what!  It has to do with science!

For most of early human history, smell was more important than any other sense for human relationships, said Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of “The Science of Kissing.” People would use smell to determine a person’s mood, their health and their social status, she said.

“There were a lot of sniff greetings,” said Kirshenbaum, director of the Project on Energy Communication at the University of Texas. “They would brush the nose across the face, because there are scent glands on our faces, and over time the brush of the face became a brush of the lips, and the social greeting was born that way.” Source.

The other article is more the the love lorn on Valentine’s Day, but perhaps also the romantic in all of us, about the way music can elicit physical responses in us.  Anatomy of a tearjerker is complete with audio clips to demonstrate!

Chill-provoking passages, [researchers] found, shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new “voice,” either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played… Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre, and harmonic pattern. Source.

1 Comment

Filed under Scientist, Wife

How this scientist thought (thinks) about pregnancy.

I found out I was pregnant with Mabel on Tax Day 2009.  I’d been keeping track of my cycles and was pretty sure I was about 13 days post-ovulation.
I’m not sure what you pictured going on in your uterus when you found out you were pregnant, but I pictured this:
I thought, “Wow!  Gastrulation!” and remembered back to the Xenopus and zebrafish movies from cell biology.
Yup, I’m a scientist.  I’ve studied developmental biology (with a Nobel Prize winner no less!).  I think this led to a kind of unique perspective on pregnancy and child birth.
Whereas those weekly e-mails I subscribed to were likening my zygote (fertilized egg)/embryo (2-cell stage to 8 weeks)/fetus (the rest of the time) to fruits and veggies, I was more concerned with other milestones.  Each time a weekly update arrived, it prompted me to check out The Visible Embryo Project, a developmental biologist’s take on embryonic development.
There was a sense of apprehension when I knew the neural groove was forming.  I had been taking that folic acid for just this purpose- I even researched how it worked.  When I hit 8 weeks and knew the notocord was formed, I crossed my fingers and prayed it had closed completely (meaning no spina bifida).
When it came time to decide if I wanted to do the “Quad Screen” I hit PubMed for some references.  What does it screen for?  Why do those things matter?  Why do I really need to know?
When it came time to drink the dreaded “Glucola,” I boned-up on my glucose metabolism.  I wondered, why do women without diabetes develop it while pregnant?  Why does it go away after birth?  Why does gestational diabetes cause babies to grow so large?
As my due date approached, I reminded myself, frequently, that 40 weeks was just an estimate.  Biological variation meant a viable, healthy, fully-formed baby could be born anywhere from 37 to 42+ weeks.
As my due date came and went, I read up on late pregnancy.  What actually causes a placenta to get ‘old?’  Why is meconium dangerous?  Are the old wives’ tales about inducing labor legit?  How does nipple stimulation bring on labor?  When my 60-something midwife instructed me to tell my husband to “get that semen in there!” I did, or rather, he did.  I also looked up how/why it can work, even if it didn’t for me.
When my midwife stripped my membranes, I hit Google to find out what membranes?  What was the mechanism was that supposedly precipitated labor?
When I woke up to liquid running down my leg and made the trip to hospital in a snow storm at 3am, only to find out it wasn’t amniotic fluid, I wondered how that litmus test worked.  What was so special about amniotic fluid?
I was thankfully blessed with an uneventful pregnancy.  However, it was also a pregnancy that lasted 42 weeks and 1 day.
I do think pregnancy and birth are over-medicalized.  That’s why I went with a midwifery practice that let nature take its course, and fell back on medicine when it didn’t.
However, I also think pregnancy and birth are under-appreciated, science-wise.  A lot of people joke about the dangers of “Dr. Google,” but what about the wonders of “Google, PhD?”
While a lot of conception, gestation, and birth remain a mystery, and the focus of active research, a lot is known.
Look at all those questions I had- scientists and doctors spent life-times, also known as graduate school, researching each and every question.  There are detailed molecular machinations behind each and every cell division, heart beat, contraction, and breath.
What a great opportunity for all of us to discover how we each came to be.
So be honest- is just me and my scientific perspective or does every mom-to-be wonder about these things?

1 Comment

Filed under #scimom, Mother, pregnancy, Scientist

Wordless Wednesday: Science Student

The Mother Geek shared this on Facebook today and it cracked me up.

Source unknown

I wasn’t able to find who made it or any info on who/where I can link to as an original source.  If you’ve seen it attributed elsewhere, let me know!

1 Comment

Filed under Scientist, Wordless Wednesday

My experience with baby-led weaning

A new study came out and is being reported in the news today about baby-led weaning and prevention of obesity.

Haven’t heard of baby-led weaning (BLW)?  It’s an approach to introducing foods to infants that revolves around letting the infant feed him/herself.  So instead of spoon feeding purees, give your infant finger goods that are either too big or too small to pose a choking hazard and let them have at it.

Proponents say the benefits are that infants will grow to be less picky as kids when they can explore a range of tastes and textures early on, instead of just pureed veggies.  Also, because the baby can control what and how much he/she eats, it may prevent over-feeding, and thus decrease risk of obesity.  While not much scientific research has been done on the topic, the article in the news today does find benefit of BLW over spoon-feeding.

Baby-led weaning in action: Mabel at 6 months old munching on a Granny Smith apple

Here is the link to the actual study:  Baby knows best?  The impact of weaning style on food preferences and body mass index in early childhood in a case-controlled sample by Townsend and Pitchford in British Medical Journal.

Here is some of the news coverage:  From Scientific American and from AFP.

The article’s authors conclude:

Compared to the spoon-fed group, the baby-led group demonstrated (1) significantly increased liking for carbohydrates (no other differences in preference were found) and (2) carbohydrates to be their most preferred foods (compared to sweet foods for the spoon-fed group). Preference and exposure ratings were not influenced by socially desirable responding or socioeconomic status, although an increased liking for vegetables was associated with higher social class. There was an increased incidence of (1) underweight in the baby-led group and (2) obesity in the spoon-fed group. No difference in picky eating was found between the two weaning groups.  Townsend and Pitchford.

I think it’s kind of funny that BLW is considered some kind of ‘movement’ or ‘technique.’  Growing up, my mom fed me the way her mom had fed her- cut up or mush up whatever was being served and give it to the baby.  No particular thought behind it.

When we were introducing solids to Mabel, I did what my mom and grandmother had done before me, only in 2010 is was known as baby-led weaning!  As with most parenting ‘techniques’ we adapted this one to suit our family, I say we took a BLW-ish approach.  I didn’t buy a single jar of baby food.  It seemed expensive and unnecessary when she could just eat/try what we were eating.  The other thing that made me take a relaxed approach to what and how much she ate was that she was still nursing and/or getting a bottle as her main source of nutrition.  Whatever little bit of food she got into her mouth on her own was just for practice and fun, not really for nutritive value.

Her first foods were indeed purees- rice cereal, pureed peas, carrots, etc. and things that were naturally mushy- yogurt, apple sauce, mashed potatoes  However, I let her spoon feed herself.  We then quickly moved on to stuff like Gerber Puffs and Kix cereal or Cheerios, as well as shredded pieces of meat, deli meats, cheeses, etc.

The tools that were most valuable to us in those early days were this baby spoon:

Sassy Less Mess Training Spoon

This spoon was great because of the holes and because of those large things at the base.  The holes meant the purees stuck better to the spoon- so when your infant/toddler up-ends the spoon more of the puree will actually stay on there!  Those large flat parts are good because they keep your little one from shoving the spoon so far into his/her mouth that he/she gags.  It being 2 sided was also useful since kids that age aren’t exactly pros in the use of a spoon and get twice as much success if both ends hold food!

I only had one of these spoons, but my way to use purees for BLW was to have two spoons in play.  I would put a scoop of food on the spoons, put them on Mabel’s tray and when one was ’empty’ I’d ‘refill’ it while she was busy with the second spoon.  So, while she was getting purees, she wasn’t exactly spoon-fed since she was doing it herself.

Unfortunately they don’t seem to make this exact spoon anymore, this is the replacement which doesn’t have the handy-dandy ‘don’t shove this down your through until you gag’ preventing part.  However, Gerber makes this one that’s similar.

This “teething feeder” was also great:

Sassy Teething Feeder

This was great because we could put whatever kind of food in the bag and not worry about Mabel choking since everything stays in the mesh bag.  The handle for it was also useful because we used tethers meant for pacifiers to clip it to her bib or placemat (see below) which meant it wasn’t always falling on the floor.

And this placemat that we used at restaurants, or anyplace we didn’t have a highchair with a tray:

Summer Infant Tiny Diner

This placemat is made of silicon- the sides fold in, you roll it up, and tuck it in the little tray portion so it fits nicely in a diaper bag.  It was great to know that the surface she was smearing all her food on at restaurants was cleaned, by us, at home, and not with a filthy rag by a less than thorough, time-pressed bus boy.  It was also useful because, as mentioned above, we used pacifier clips to clip toys and the teething feeder to the placemate and keep them from falling on the floor.  The tray portion caught a fair amount of food, but by no means minimized the mess.  On that front we opted to just leave a REALLY nice tip.

The only down side to the placemat was that it did stain easily.  Any tomato sauce or anything like that left a mark.  So, even when it was clean, it looked dingy and brownish.

Early on, Mabel was a very adventurous eater.  She’d basically eat, or at least try, anything we gave her- from venison to lemons.  I was so relieved to have an easy to feed kid.  We didn’t have to make sure to bring food with us when we went out, she’d surely eat something from our plates.  However, that didn’t last.  As she got older, she exerted herself and expressed food preferences.  Foods that were once favorites (salmon, quiche, tomatoes) were soon flatly refused.

Now she’s 2 and we pretty much bring food for her whenever we go out.  Firstly, because we’re cheap and it’s really annoying to pay for a kid’s meal that she then refuses to eat.  Secondly, because her tastes change on a whim, there isn’t any sure-fire foods (except maybe french fries) we could order at a restaurant and know she would eat.  So, now we make sure there’s stuff like PB&J, banana, cereal, raisins, cheese, etc. in the diaper bag whenever we know we’ll be eating out.

We keep offering her different things and encouraging her to try things, even if she refuses, in the hopes that one day she’ll come around (since there is sound science that it takes many tries to get kids to like certain foods).  I definitely don’t want to make meals a power struggle, but I don’t want to indulge her every whim.  There’s some healthy middle ground where she can eat what is served (so I’m not a short-order cook) and still feel that she’s got some control over her own food choices.


Filed under #scimom, Mabel, Mother, Scientist

Love ballad of a geek.

My husband, Mac, is a connoisseur of games- video games, role playing games, board games, annoying iPhone games.  This song could have been written by him, for me.  You do not want to know the lengths to which I go to pry him from him games.

That said, his love is worth waiting for the save* point.

Aussie comedy group Tripod performing their song “Make You Happy Tonight” at a Comedy Festival

*In the interest of full disclosure, because it’s funny, and because it shows just how little I know about video games, I originally called it a “safe point” instead of “save point.”  Thankfully my husband corrected me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Wife