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Saturday night, 6:45 PM.
I’ve spent the last three days working long shifts to run the most finicky and superstition-causing of all experiments: the dreaded Western blot. I’m tired, and alone.
On the plus side, I’ve been spending my days in a gorgeous, well-appointed 13th floor laboratory on Portland’s South Waterfront, with a stunning view and friendly, knowledgeable scientists who have been delightful. My friend and fellow grad student Cat met me for brunch this morning while my blot incubated for round one, and then came to cowork with me in between experimental timepoints. She left around 5:30, and then…it was just me. Alone. In a giant open bay lab with automatic lights.
If you’ve never been in a megalab space, imagine one long room, running all the way down the side of an office building. Put about a dozen long tables with cabinets in, and share them out amongst 6-10 labs. It’s visually broken up, but it’s one room. The lights are only on in the parts of the lab that have active movement in them, and when you’re working on a paper in between long time points, the lights have a tendency to go off frequently.
About 6:30, the lights flicked off. I got up to do the hokey-pokey and turn them back on, when a high pitched beeping startled me in the dark. I tried to find out where it was coming from. Not my bay. Not the one next to us, either. It was coming from all the way down…where it was really dark. No one had been down there all day.
I decided to ignore it.
It got louder. Insistent. Started to drum hot spiky notes into my brain.
I knew that if it were one of the deep freezers, and no one checked on it and things got ruined, I would feel awful, but was it worth running the risk that something dangerous was down there? What if I wasn’t alone and I got murdered or I fell down and died and I’d never make it home and then WHO WOULD TALK ABOUT PLACENTAS? WHO?
So I picked up a 5mL pipette. They’re long, plastic, pointed things, and I’d just used it on blocking buffer so I was like, “YEAH, get some MILK in your EYE if you try to jump me,” and with it firmly in my first, I stalked down to the other end of the room, checking my 6 every 5 steps as though this were Call of Duty and not “Late Night Science Imagination Theater.” The beeping seemed to be coming from pretty far down…just past the last set of light sensors.
Like a terrified Muppet, I ran at the source of the sound, waving my hands and my improvised stake in the air, trying to trigger any light source available. One finally clicked on, right in front of the source of the beeping: a -80 degree C freezer, with a note taped to the front.
“Ignore the beeping. We’re aware of the problem.”
I have saved us all from great danger.
Sometimes, something happens that proves to you that you are doing EXACTLY what you were born to do with science: do great work, be excited about it, and share it in weird ways.
I posted this picture on Friday of a new shirt I bought after the story below. It is currently my favorite piece of clothing ever.
My nerdy band, The PDX Broadsides, performed at Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) 2017 in Seattle this past weekend. We sang new songs from our upcoming fourth studio album plus some old favorites as the only band performing on ECCC’s storied programming this year! (We announced our 1st Kickstarter is happening in April to make this album. It’s true. We’re terrified. It’s going to be great.)
I was also very honored to moderate a panel called “Nerds Who Rock: Music for the Masses” with some of my favorite nerd musicians: Sunnie Larsen from Vixy & Tony and Bone Poets Orchestra (and The PDX Broadsides’ “Astronaut’s Hymn”), Chris Waffle of Megathruster, Kielen King of Star Pilot Music and Preytorians, Quinn Allan AKA Kid Apocalypse/2Spock, and, of course, my bandmate Christian Lipski. We talked about our inspirations, styles, and favorite other nerd bands.
At the end, we came offstage to talk to the audience, and a familiar woman came up to me. “Hi. I don’t know if you remember me, but you were at GeekGirlCon a couple years ago and introduced me to other scientists.” I did! It’d been a while, but I remembered she was science-interested, but not sure exactly where to fit in. At the time, I was new to science communication but very excited about its potential applications, and we had a long excited conversation about it, and followed each other on Twitter.
“I wanted to tell you,” she said, “that I looked into science communication because you encouraged me, and I’m finishing a Masters program in communication now. I have a fellowship lined up with an aerospace propulsion company. We help restock the orbiting Space Station. I wouldn’t have known I could do that if you hadn’t encouraged me, so…I just wanted to give you an update and say thank you.”
I was absolutely floored and hugged her. I managed to stammer out a thank you and tell her how incredibly honored I was to have helped her on her journey. As she told me more about her fellowship, I laughed and said, “Sounds like ‘Astronaut’s Hymn’ is right up your alley.”
“We love that song,” she said. “Thank you for making great music.”
I owe an offering of thanks to the Patron Saints of Scientists, St. Albertus Magnus, the Patron Saint of Musicians, St. Cecilia, and the Patron Saint of Nerds…I think St. Expeditus is the closest we’ve got…for a compliment I’ll carry with me the rest of my life: I’m inspiring other people to find their own amazing connections to science.
Science communicator for hire as of Fall 2017. You know where to find me: making science the new rock ‘n’ roll.
Here is the tentative list of where I’ll be doing some sort of science communication this year, so far, already. Whew. This is partially for me to keep track, and also to invite you to public presentations where applicable. I’ll update as things change.
(For simplicity’s sake, this currently doesn’t include my travel schedule for PDX Broadsides or any other reason, but there’ll probably be another post about that soon.)
26-27: Science Talk NW; OMSI, Portland, OR. (Conference.)
27: Science Talk NW Trainee Competition; OMSI, Portland. (Unknown if public or not currently.)
10: Darwin Day; Portland State University, Portland, OR. (Open to the public. More details soon.)
14-19: Society for Reproductive Investigation; Orlando, FL. (Conference.)
24-25: ComSciCon PacNW; Seattle, WA. (Committee member, regional workshop. Potentially performing with PDX Broadsides the night between; that show would be open to the public.)
26-Apr. 1: Curating @IAmSciArt account on Twitter. (Open to the public. Because Twitter.)
13-16: NorWesCon; Seattle, WA. (Convention, badge required but can be purchased by anyone. Also performing with PDX Broadsides.)
9-11: ComSciCon National; Boston, MA. (Conference, pending acceptance.)
19-23: American Association for Advancement of Science – Pacific Division; Waimea, HI. (Conference. Pending acceptance, but as a Sigma Xi regional winner, it’s just a matter of fundraising for this one…)
6: Science Pub; Mission Theater, Portland, OR. Open to the public, please come have a beer, play a little placenta trivia and hear about my work in about as layman’s terms as I can make it!
30-Sept 3: International Federation for Placental Associations meeting; Manchester, UK. (Conference. Pending acceptance and copious fundraising.)
To be scheduled:
Better Know A Lab; Portland State University. Open to the public. 25 minute talk, on a Tuesday at noon, sometime between now and end of May.
PhD dissertation defense: Fall 2017, TBD. DEFINITELY open to the public. Attendance borderline mandatory, if you have ever wanted to hear about my science.
Meet a Scientist at OMSI. Open to the public (with museum admission). Part of the OMSI Science Communication Fellows cohort, appearances TBD.
At PSU Biology’s Alumni Night, I had the good fortune of chatting a while with Dr. Scott Gilbert, who aside from writing the primary textbook many developmental biology classrooms have used for years, is an incredibly engaging speaker and proponent of outreach. While talking about how to get the public excited about science, he told me a story that’s going to stick with me a while.
He was flying somewhere with Peter Galton, a very well known paleontologist who revised a large part of what we know about stegosaurus. They were sitting next to each other on the plane, excitedly discussing dinosaurs, when the woman next to them says, “Wow, dinosaurs! You study them? That’s so cool! How did you get interested in them?” Galton said to her, “Well, you were a kid and loved dinosaurs.” “Yes.” “What STOPPED you?” he replied.
“What STOPPED you?” is absolutely ringing in my head today. It’s a key question in trying to educate, to inspire people to want to know more.
If you walk into a room of kindergarteners and ask them if they’re scientists or artists or dancers, most of them will enthusiastically raise their hands. If you ask teenagers, very few hands go up. Where do we lose their interest in STEM? Why?
It might be peer pressure, early on. In some circles, science isn’t cool: it’s for nerds. Geek may be chic right now, but it’s too late for the now-adults who have maybe long given up that astronomy or engineering dream. When I went to school, being a super smart kid was kind of its own social clique, and perhaps that discouraged kids who weren’t in the super-powered classes from trying. The way our peers view us definitely has an influence on our learning trajectories.
As we get older, time gets shorter. We’re encouraged to specialize in an area. We have to work in order to make ends meet. We have families. New areas can seem daunting, like there would be too much to learn. Even though learning about chemistry was fascinating in college, now it feels overwhelming.
We’re losing our science literacy and excitement at a time when we need critical thinking and inquisition more than ever. Science impacts every aspect of life in key and crucial ways. We need our policy makers, educators, retailers, farmers, everyone from every walk of life engaged in the ideas of the world around them and how to both benefit from it and help maintain what we have.
What’s stopping YOU?
It’s pretty much just this, on repeat, forever.
I’m still working on my last final. I’ve spent every spare minute on Virtually Everything Else. I’d say I’m looking forward to Winter Break, but in grad school, Winter Break is not actually a thing. Oh, no. It’s the magical time when you’re not teaching, so therefore you can buckle down and write that paper/do those lengthy experiments/revise your proposal/prepare for exams/whatever you put off all term. In my case, it’s all of those, plus a road trip with my boss next Tuesday to Seattle to deliver samples. My boss is an amazing scientist, a funny guy…and a very speedy driver. I haven’t checked the status of the OhCrap ceiling handles in his car yet, so this could be exciting.
On a non-science front, you can also find me competing in the Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition at Pioneer Courthouse Square tomorrow with a bunch of rowdy singing pirates, performing at Mississippi Pizza the 14th and 20th as well as Bunsenbrewer (the fermentation laboratory!!!) on the 19th with my nerdband, The PDX Broadsides, and my husband and I are trying to complete a major project. I may even get to sleep a little, which is pretty much the part I’m looking forward to the most.
Happy Winter Break to all of you who are done. And for those that aren’t (including me): get back to work, minions.
Background, briefly: this term, I’ve been the lead lecture teaching assistant (TA) for Principles of Biology (BIO 251) at Portland State. The Principles series goes all year and is required for many majors, like Biology, Environmental Sciences, and Pre-Med. 251 is mostly intro to molecular, which is my wheelhouse. When the opportunity came up to be the first lecture lead in a pilot system for the course using a pedagogy known as Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), I jumped at it. I’ve got a lot to say about the experience, which was overwhelmingly positive, but I wanted to address that much before I tell you how funny I am.
I am hilarious.
Today was the last day of Fall Term. Our 251 students had their last midterm Wednesday, and today we held a review session for them. That review session, because Dr. B (the head prof) is very, very generous, is going over the entirety of last year’s final examination and letting students ask questions if they don’t understand. Since I’ve been in lecture every week and helped design the POGIL small group sessions, he asked me if I wanted to tag team the questions and present half. “Sure,” I said, having been in the lab until midnight the night before. “That sounds great. Let me continue chugging coffee.”
I wrap up a question on the electron transport chain, addressing high energy molecules that drive it. I said, “If this is confusing, please see [X Diagram] on the ETC.”
“ETC?” asks Dr. B.
“Electron Transport Chain,” I clarified. “I’m sorry, it’s what all the hip young biologists are saying. ‘You down with ETC? Yeah, you know me.'”
The class explodes as I move on to the next question, but we get through the end of my first question set as Dr. B is in the corner still trying to recover. He tags in. “I think that joke is past its expiration date,” he quips. A few “boos” surprised him. He tags me back in for the last part. “I promise to try to fit at least one more 90’s era rap joke in this set,” I promise.
As the students are clicking in for the first question, Dr. B comes over and motions for me to turn off my mic. He leans in and says, “How about ‘Can’t Touch This’ or ‘Ice Ice Baby’?” I laughed. “WHAT?” As he’s going back to the corner, he says, “90’s music references. I’m just giving you ideas.” Class titters.
“I’m sorry, class,” I address them, “Dr. B has to help me with my 90’s rap references because I don’t remember the 90’s very well.”
Then they made me sing part of the PCR song.
And it’s all on video for them to see over and over again, or at least until the class is over next week.
I’m totally funny. Whatever. You guys don’t even know.
I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend home, writing questions for exams, working on a fellowship, answering student emails, and trying to write a couple more songs for upcoming Christmas events. That means a lot of time at a computer, which can get pretty lonely working, if it weren’t for my constant writing companion. Meet Lucy, my favorite study and work buddy.
We adopted Lucy about a year and a half ago from a family leaving the US, and they’d adopted her from a local shelter, so we don’t know a lot about her background. We think she’s about 3.5 years old, and probably Wheaton Terrier and Bouvier. She’s an absolute sweetie, a snuggler and herder of her favorite people, and has a habit of perching near whoever happens to be working and watching them intently. She’s like our little fuzzy supervisor. Her favorite things are scritches under her chin, dog friends, broccoli, snuggles, people friends who know how to play terrier games, and romping outside.
She’s also good at letting me know when she feels it’s time we go to bed. “That’s enough papers, Mama, it’s 2 AM.” I showed my students this picture after a late night of grading to explain why I wouldn’t finish until partway through the period. I got dogblocked. They understood. These things happen.
(If you’d like to learn more about Lucy, by the way, or see more pictures and updates, she has a little doggie blog over here. It’s sporadically updated, but I try. The family from which we adopted her keeps up with her that way, and it’s a nice way to see the adventures we’ve gotten into with our fluffy pal.)
As we’re entering the holiday season, if you or someone in your family needs a little study buddy and a lifelong friend, consider visiting your local shelters. Open your heart and your home, and they’ll give you ten times the love back you give them.
Portland local places of awesome doggie adoption:
A lot of my experiments are run using mice. They’re small, not too expensive to keep, mammalian, and they can express the gene I study through a transgenic manipulation. Since I study pregnancy and need that particular gene and a matching placental model, they’re a great model system.
They can also be little sacks of crap and frustration.
Most of my pregnancy experiments over the last year can be summed up like this:
Me: “Hey, I bred you, and you seemed to be gettin’ it on pretty well with that boy mouse.”
Lady Mouse (LM): “Yeah! It was like Animal Planet up in this kizz-age!”
Me: “I know the Bloodhound Gang would approve. Anyway, so you’re pregnant now, right?”
LM: “YUP! I made a plug!* And I’m gonna gain some weight!”
Me: “That’s great! I’ll keep checking you because I need you to be (at given gestational stage), okay?”
LM: “Sure thing! Look at me go! I’m puttin’ on weight! I’m super hella preggers for days!”
Me: “Okay, I’m ready for you now!”
LM: “HAHAHA LOL JUST KIDDING I JUST ATE SOME EXTRA FOOD YOU ARE STUPID LOOK AT YOUR STUPID FACE”
Real science, guys.
* – plug: a gooey sort of secretion that indicates a mating has taken place. If you’d like to be grossed out or are too curious for your own good, take a look at this picture.
Hi! Welcome to my science blog! I’ve spent the term updating Principles of Biology 251 on various things of interest in science and I’ve long been a proponent of Twitter, though it’s sometimes hard to put everything into 140 characters. 🙂 Through the encouragement of my committee and a project I’ve begun with my 251 students, it was time to relaunch a scientific blog!
Check out the About Page and prepare for science! Skol!