Monthly Archives: April 2013

Grad Student’s Worst Nightmare

Grad student’s worst nightmare:

Apparently this happened to a Rutgers student.  You can read the full story here.

When I read it, my stomach got a knot in it.  I remember as a grad student and post-doc having nightmares about losing data.  I backed stuff up often- on Zip discs, later CDs or DVDs, external hard drives, servers, lab computers, email attachments, etc.  It’s kind of odd how academic labs vary dramatically in their data back-up approaches.  Some are totally DIY and up to the student.  Others are standardized- with university back up servers and such.

Now that I’m in industry and data is literally the work-product I’m responsible for producing, there are rigid and advanced protocols for backing EVERYTHING up.  From computer files to actual lab notebooks.  My entire hard drive is backed up in almost real time.  On days I’ve forgotten my laptop at home, I get a loaner from IT, log in, and I have access to my exact hard drive on a server- I don’t even miss a beat.  Old-school lab notebooks (for which there is no replacement and are still used despite existence of computers) are routinely collected and scanned so there are digital backups.  The company has onsite servers and backup servers.  They also have two different offsite servers for backing up the back ups.

When I posted the above image and story on Facebook, I was regaled with stories of lost/destroyed/damaged computers.  Unzipped backpacks seem to be common.  As are spills (root beer and nail polish remover amongst them).  I also got comments like, “I’m backing up right now…”

I feel horribly for that student.  However, I’m really hoping his raw data is backed up elsewhere and he’s just hoping to not have to reanalyze it or remake/rewrite figures/chapters of his thesis.  I know when I was working on my thesis I saved it on my hard drive and on a flash drive every single day- so I had every change each day.  There were also less frequent back ups to an external hard drive and the various chapters I emailed to myself or my advisor.

Another grad student (or any researcher) nightmare:

Imagine going to your animal facility and finding this?  Source.

Imagine going to your animal facility and finding this? Source.

NYU Langone Medical Center was heavily damaged by SuperStorm Sandy- you can read about it here, here, and here.  While the news was filled with images and stories of medical staff evacuating patients, researchers everywhere were also wondering about the research labs.  Precious samples, genetically engineered mouse colonies, years of work, all in peril.

NYU’s entire animal facility, located in the basement, was flooded by the storm.  Almost all of their colonies were destroyed.  Years and years of work were destroyed along with them.  In addition to the lost colonies, without power, everything else in the labs that were not flooded was also in jeopardy- since the back up generators were swamped.

A friend and researcher on the Upper East side made room in the lab freezers for trash bags full of materials from colleagues at NYU.  Students, techs, and post-docs had basically run into the damaged buildings to dump armloads of samples (cell lines, cloning vectors, strains of bacteria and yeast, etc) from thawing freezers, clearing their bench tops with a sweep of the arm into garbage bags in the hopes of salvaging years of their lives spent constructing all of them.

Another friend who is a sales rep reported that a client (an industrial lab) busted out the walls of their building to load -80 freezers onto flat beds and move them out of lower Manhattan when it became clear how bad the flooding would be.  Holes in the building would do less damage than losing those samples.

I cannot imagine the sense of loss these researchers must have felt (or still be feeling), having years of their life’s work destroyed.  I cannot image being a 4th year grad student and being instantly back to square one- 4 years of work undone.

These are the things my nightmares are made of.  My heart breaks for colleagues living those nightmares.

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Cool science fair idea/ DIY experiment: Dancing Oobleck

Saw this on IFLS, shared from Housing a Forest.  I totally want to try it!

An oobleck is a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning that in some cases it acts like a liquid and in others a solid.  You can make it at home with water and cornstarch!  See instructions and great pictures on Housing a Forest.

See it dance!

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How to calm a baby and/or a baby mouse

Saw this article in The New York Times: “In Parents’ Embrace, Infants’ Heart Rate Drops

As I mom, I can attest to the fact that there have been numerous occasions where my children were crying- either in their bed, on the floor, or in the arms of another person- and the moment I took them into my arms, the crying ceased.  It’s often insulting to the person who has been holding them, but that is what they’ve done.

I’ve written before about research showing just how calming a mom can be for children of all ages- even just that mom’s voice, here.

It’s always oddly fascinating to me when research proves what we’ve always known/felt/believed to be true.

Turns out that human babies, and lots of other mammalian babies, respond similarly to being carried by their mother (or perhaps caregiver in the case of humans), by calming down.

Mother Mouse rescuing her pup from a cup.

Image from Esposito et al of the ‘behavioral task of maternal rescue’ wherein Mother Mouse rescues her pups from a cup.  This is similar to humans rescuing an infant from under the coffee table or a toddler from the monkey bars at the park.

A recent paper by Esposito et al entitled “Infant Calming Responses during Maternal Carrying in Humans and Mice” published in Current Biology looked at the responses of babies (of the human and murine variety) as well as dissecting what signals actually contribute to those responses (in the murine babies).

By monitoring babies movements, crying, and heart rates (electrocardiograms) the researchers found that within seconds of being carried (not just held, but picked up and moved around) by their moms, infants’ heart rates declined, their movements slowed, and their crying diminished.  Compared to an infant laying alone in a crib, just holding the infant while the mother was seated did elicit some calming effects, but not as strongly as carrying the infant.  (I’m pretty certain that further study would show this is primarily responsible for many a parent pacing up and down the aisles of an airplane to placate a cranky baby)

The same happens to mice, and since we can do experiments on mice that we can’t on babies, researchers looked further into the murine response to see how it worked.

Turns out, mice babies cry too (Ultrasonic Vocalizations, USVs).  Just like humans, when a mouse mom carries her pup, it calms down.  In a mouse, that means the pup stops crying/making USVs, adopts a compact posture (drawing up its hind legs and being still), and its heart rate drops.  The researchers used several different techniques to figure out what cues were causing these behaviors and figured out that it was a combination of actually feeling the mother grasping its skin and proprioception (basically sensing that it is being carried).

It’s fascinating to me how behaviors and responses are shared between species. It also reminds me how primal newborns are.

However, the paper had one CRITICAL flaw.  MAJOR.  As in I don’t know how the reviewers and editor missed it.

See here:

A scientific understanding of this physiological infant response could prevent parents from overreacting to infant crying. Such understanding would be beneficial to parents by reducing frustration, because unsoothable crying is a major risk factor for child abuse [26]. Source.

To this I say, “HAHAHAHA!  Are any of you even parents?!  At 3 am when you haven’t gotten any sleep and your kid just WILL NOT SHUT UP- does the knowledge that “the identified effects of carrying on parasympathetic activation and cry reduction were significant and robust” make one damn bit of difference?!*  I think not.

If I had been the reviewer, I might have responded, “If you want those two sentences in the paper, you gotta include a figure on whether that knowledge actually mattered to any parent in the dead of night with a colicky infant.”



*I’m only partly joking.  When my kids were infants and being difficult/impossible to soothe, I did remind myself that they weren’t intentionally trying to piss me off.  I suppose this understanding of what soothes them might similarly serve as a reminder that babies aren’t out to get you on a personal level at 3am by refusing to sleep and/or let you stop pacing around and/or nursing them.

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Wordless Wednesday: Imagine the possibilities

Can you imagine what the world could/would be like if this was reversed?

Source:  IFLS

Source: IFLS

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Creativity is intelligence

Saw this on IFLS and loved it.


Source:  IFLS

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Not too long ago, there was some hubbub about LEGO coming out with “girl” LEGOs.  I wrote a bit about it here.


A LEGO ad from before all toys were gendered.

Mabel has been enjoying the hand me down Mega Blocks we have for a while now.  However, she’s also recently gotten more excited about regular LEGOs.


Mabel’s first tower.

Over Christmas, we went to visit my in-laws and brought back with us all of Macs LEGOs from when he was a kid.  That renewed Macs interest in them, and since then, he’s been picking up kits when he can and works with Mabel on them.  She’s still a little young, but she enjoys building with them.

It was timely when a rep from FIRST contacted me and asked if I’d help them spread the word about their newest competition, Jr FIRST LEGO League, this one for little kids involving LEGOs.  I wrote about FIRST last year– and how crucial it is to expose kids to science.

More than 300,000 students around the globe participate in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology)-  an educational nonprofit that uses fast-paced robotics tournaments (and other events geared towards younger kids) to get kids pumped about engineering and science! FIRST offers four programs for kids grades K through 12; each one gets more complex as students work together to design and build custom robots and solve challenges.

Before FIRST reached out to me last year, I had never heard of the program.  In the past year, I haven’t been able to get away from the program!  I’ve seen stuff on Twitter, read about local teams in the news, a recent event at the Javitz Center.

I recently participated in the Lower Hudson Valley Engineering Expo and was thrilled to get to meet some of the kids from the Ossining FIRST team.  They were all excited to talk about the program and their success.

Mac brought Mabel and Nemo to visit me while I was there (so I could nurse Nemo) and Mabel got the chance to watch the robotics teams show off their handiwork.  I was busy talking about bioengineering with middle and high school students, but Mac reported that she enjoyed watching the robots.


Local FIRST teams at the Lower Hudson Valley Engineering Expo.

FIRST sent me a little starter kit to get an idea of what the program is like and how it engages kids and their creativity.  It looks like a lot of fun- however, Mabel is still too young for it (it’s geared for K-3, ages 6-9).  So, I’ve been in touch with my local library’s LEGO League (which isn’t associated with FIRST) and plan to donate the kit.  Hopefully some of those kids will enjoy it and join a team!

The ‘instructions’ that came with the kit are really just creative jumping off points- and I can imagine it is a lot of fun.  (I want to stop imagining and actually try some of them with Mac- since, as you’ll see below, they are meant to demonstrate how creativity and problem solving differ even when two people are faced with the same challenge).

The “Built To Express” Kit was developed by LEGO Education exclusively for the Junior FIRST® LEGO® League (Jr.FLL) program and encourages Jr.FLL participants to express their thoughts and ideas on any topic by building symbolic models with LEGO bricks.

So, for instance, one challenge was:

  • Build: Imagine that you and your team are a team of scientists working on a top secret project.  Now, choose 10-15 of your bricks and build something you think you and your top secret scientist team would need in your top secret work.
  • Building time: 3 minutes.
  • Share: Share the story of your model with your team.

The other kit had more concrete challenges- where you work in pairs, both tasked with building the same thing, but working separately so you can’t see what the other is doing- you then reveal what you’ve built.  I would guess this would wind up being fun to see the differences and similarities in how each approached the challenge.

I think the various challenges would be a lot of fun to get kids building at our library’s LEGO League, or even at birthday party.

Even though Mabel is too young for JrFLL, it didn’t stop her from getting creative with the LEGOs in the kit.

lego 041513 mcphd

Can’t wait until she’s old enough to join a JrFLL team!

I’m really looking forward to Mabel getting involved in FIRST programs once she’s old enough.  They basically have competitions/programs for kids from kindergarten through high school with events and teams all over the country.  The JrFLL, for the youngest kids looks like a lot of fun (and is noncompetitive).

If you want to learn more about FIRST, check out this video or click on the embedded links above:

If you want to learn more about Jr. FIRST LEGO League in particular, check out this video or click on the links above:

And for those nerd parents reading, perhaps you’ve even come across the FIRST themed xkcd comic?

Source: xkcd

I’m guessing this type of thing is frowned upon in actual FIRST competitions! Source: xkcd

You can keep up with FIRST teams on Twitter!  FRC Teams, FIRST Comm Team, FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, or with the handy hashtag #omgrobots!





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Wordless Wednesday

041613 trike mcphd

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April 17, 2013 · 3:11 pm

4 years ago today…

Four years ago today, I found out I was pregnant with Mabel.

Thus, every Tax Day since, I cannot help but remember that day in 2009.

It is so amazing that 4 years ago today, Mabel was this:

visible embryo

Source: The Visible Embryo

And today, she’s this:


Life is amazing.

Four years ago I was living in Arlington, MA and working in Cambridge, MA, just across the Charles from Boston.  To bring Mabel into this world, I labored looking out the window, across the river, at the Boston skyline.  On this April 15th, this Patriot’s Day, I’m in New York, but my heart is grieving for Boston, its people, and all those impacted by the bombing today.

Life is precious.

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Girls, Reading Book Club Ideas

A few weeks ago it was my turn to host a meeting of the Book Club of which I am a member.

The book I chose was Girls, Reading by Katie Ward.  The book is a novel that reads like a collection of short stories, each inspired by a different work of art depicting a girl or woman reading.  The first story is set in Medieval Italy, the last in the not so distant future.  Some of the stories have minor connections to previous chapters, and the final chapter helps to tie it all together.  There are issues you might think of in a book about women- independence, sexuality, love, motherhood- as well some larger themes having to do with the experience and definition of art.

I know some people were put off by the short story aspect of this book, but I knew in advance what to expect, and enjoyed the different chapters- trying to find the connections to previous chapters.  The final chapter, with its examination of the intersection of art and technology, as well as the emotional aspects of being a working mother, was possibly my favorite story.

There was a lot in there, and it was a good pick for a group of mothers- not everyone could finish the book, but because of the structure, they could participate in discussion of the stories they had read (and some skipped to the end and read the last chapter when they were running out of time and knew they couldn’t finish the entire book).

The menu I chose was inspired by the settings and foods mentioned in the book- Italy, England, Japan, The Netherlands.


I served ‘sushi’- veggie rolls and California rolls, inspired by the last story in which a Japanese family goes out to a sushi restaurant, with the mother attending ‘virtually’ because she’s traveling for work.  There were mini-quiche, inspired by the omelets made by the Gwen character in another story.  Some Dutch Gouda from The Netherlands, where a chapter about a deaf maidservant is set.  Some dates and olives as well as tomatoes and mozzarella cheese with balsamic vinegar, for Medieval Italy- the olives, in particular, featured prominently in the first story.  Also, some merengue cookies just because they looked yummy.  I also put out some typical pub food (popcorn, nuts, wasabi peas) inspired by the British pub in the second to last story.  There was also wine (imbibed in several of the stories), and hot tea (because, hello, England) as beverages.

On Katie Ward’s webpage, there are links to images of the works of art that inspired her stories.  I put together a little slideshow of the works, and played it on a loop on the television, so we could all see them (not everyone had looked them up as they were reading) and discuss.  It was very helpful to see the artwork as we talked.

At the end of the night, before everyone departed, we gathered with our books, and I had my husband take a few photos of us girls, reading.

As usual, it was a lovely evening with lots of chatting, both about the book and about other things.

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You might be a #scimom if…

You might be a sci-mom if…know what a Honey Nut Cheerio looks like at the microscopic level.

little scientist mcphd

Mabel and the microscope.

Last Sunday I participated in the Lower Hudson Valley Engineering Expo 2013 (check out for more info) as a rep from my company.  It was a lot of fun, and I got to talk to a lot of kids about bioengineering.

To engage the kids, I brought one of our light microscopes as well as some sections of mouse intestines and some of the engineered mini-guts that we grow in the lab (hence, bioengineering).

It was fun watching as the kids looked through the scope, asking them what they saw, helping them describe what they were seeing, and then telling them a bit about my research and what bioengineering is.

One of the perks of spending my entire Sunday at this fair, was that I got to bring home a microscope from the lab so I’d have it for the fair.


This is how I transported it- safety first!

Since I had it home with me, I thought I’d let Mabel have a go at it.  So, Saturday afternoon, we set it up on the kitchen table.

We started out looking at my slides of mouse guts, but quickly moved on to other stuff.

We looked at:  cheek cells (from my cheek), ear wax (from Nemo’s ear), table salt, pepper, flower petals, pollen grains for different flowers, a Honey Nut Cheerio, and strands of hair (one of mine, one of Mabel’s).

Mabel kept calling it a ‘telescope’ and we went over that a telescope is for seeing things that are really far away and a microscope is for seeing things that are really small.

We also went over lab safety as she repeatedly tried to eat the Cheerio.

It kept her occupied for at least half an hour!  I’m definitely going to keep this in mind if I have the chance to do outreach stuff with little kids in the future.  With some unused slides, you can pretty much plop anything under the scope and take a look.

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