You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2010.

I have two articles for you today. From the science fiction corner, the first step toward electronic DNA sequencing. I don’t know that I really understand what these scientists are doing, but I find the prospect of cheaper, faster gene sequencing both really cool and a bit chilling. Anyone remember the movie Gattaca?

And on the fluffier end of science, having your heart broken is a bit like going through drug withdrawal. Again we see the theme of neurological processes explaining psychological phenomenon; in this case, how normal rational people turn into crazy folks over love.

(As a side note: I don’t have a very rigorous screening process for the articles I choose to post; if it catches my fancy and isn’t coming from a source I know to publish incorrect information, I’ll link to it. Enjoy these articles with the same prejudice you might anything you find on the internet, and if you do stumble across contrary information feel share that as well.)


This week was one of the categories terrible, horrible, no good and very bad.* Catastrophes ranged from freak rainstorms, to bad grades, to electronic malfunctions. I’m pretty sure there were other thing that could have gone wrong (apartment burning down, psychotic break, invasion by gigantic mutant insects), but as weeks go, this one was pretty high on the Not Good list.

Yesterday was Thursday, and Thursdays tend to be the big barrier between the week and the weekend. Thursdays are always the days with the most homework due, the hardest labs to prepare for, and often some extra activity that cuts down on the time available to accomplish all of these tasks. Every Thursday I trudge home feeling as though I’ve been at war; accomplished and weary.

This particular Thursday I decided to enjoy my nightly “you’re done with homework” glass on wine on the porch while calling a friend. And since I little else to talk about these days, I related that my week had been…less than uplifting.

“Still thinking this is something you want to do?” he asked, just as a matter of course.

I answered the question automatically. “I still want to be a doctor,” I said. “Probably not a chemist though.”

After the conversation, however, I realized that though my answer was thoughtless, the sentiment behind it was absolute truth.

Before starting this program I second guessed myself at least twice a day. Did I really think I could handle a post bac? Medical school? Could I truly become a decent physician? I wanted the answer to be yes, but what if I was just fooling myself?

There was something comforting about not having to think about the answer to that question anymore. Amid the mad scramble to learn kinetics and equilibrium, I haven’t had time to second guess myself. But even now, when I stop and think about everything this week has put me through, there is no part of me that even kind of wants to stop. (Well, maybe pause for a minute, but I don’t think I get a choice in the matter.)

But all in all I think this is a good note on which to end a long and hard week. Here’s to the next one!

*Ten points to anyone who gets the reference.

Exam tomorrow. In lieu of an actual update, chew on this while I study.

As background information (at least as much as I know) astrocytes are the cells that create the blood/brain barrier. They look like little stars (hence the name) and latch one suction cup arm onto a capillary with all the oxygen and nutrients that the brain needs, and another on the neurons of the brain. This means that anything in the blood has to pass through these gatekeepers before it can reach the actual brain cells. Small things, like alcohol, can slip through easily, but larger things cannot.

Mostly that’s a good thing; I mean you wouldn’t want just any old molecule to have access to the cells that basically control every function of your body. Of course if you’re trying to create a medicine that treats brain problems, the blood/brain barrier becomes a bit of a challenge. But it does make sense that these cells might also be monitoring the blood for oxygen and waste levels, and relating that information to the neurons. The article talks about a few ways knowing this could be useful medically.

I’ll try for a real entry tomorrow after the test. For now, all my neurons are focused on kinetics and colligative properties.

I’m wiped and not optimistic of my chances of finding time to hunt down a medical or science article this week, so instead you get a story. (I would like to dedicate this story to my Chemistry professor, who is fond of telling such anecdotes in the middle of lecture when our eyes start to glaze over.)

I have my first bona-fide doctorly white coat. It’s a short coat; I’m not sure what the official rules are about wearing the long white coats, but I’m pretty sure it would be bad form for me to even attempt to purchase one.

If you were wondering, though, there is someone enforcing white coat etiquette. As my friend and I approached the area of the bookstore that sold such coats, we ran across an older man sitting at a desk who leaped to his feet as we approached.

“Looking for a coat?” he said. He waved a finger at me and declared, “You look like a small, and you,” pointing at my friend, “a large!”

He grabbed the small first and commanded me to put my backpack on the ground so I could try it on. It was roomy, but not overlarge. I would have bought it without a thought.

“No you’re going to need an extra small,” he said, and was already off looking for it before I could say anything in response.

Meanwhile, the friend who had come with me was trying on his coat. It mostly fit fine, but was maybe just slightly too small. He started to discuss his options with the coat-salesman.

“Oh don’t worry about! You won’t be the ugliest guy there!”

I started to crack up. Really? That was how he was going to convince a customer to make a purchase? My friend looked nervous, “Yeah, but…does it look okay? Should I get a larger one?”

“Oh they’re upstairs! And are only a tiny bit longer and twice as much money. What are you worried about. There’ll be lots of guys uglier than you!”

Neither of us knew what to say. I was still laughing as we started to walk away.

“You,” he said, pointing at me. “I could have sworn you’d have worn a larger size.”

So now we are now the proud owners of official doctor-to-be white coat, and of the firm conviction that we’re probably not the ugliest people wearing it.

Saturday I turned twenty-five and took my first final exam of the year. Which sounds like it would be pretty miserable, but it worked out remarkably well. By 10:30 AM I was done with everything chemistry related for at least the next 24 hours.

Of course you can take the girl out of the chem. class, but it’s much harder to take the chem. class out of the girl.* Eight hours later found us attempting to organize picnic tables out front of a local restaurant and talking about…chemistry? And physics, and bio, and the exam, and the upcoming semester and…well, you get the idea. After doing almost nothing but eat sleep and live science for the past four weeks, it was hard to think of much else to talk about.

Today is my reset day; a day when I can clean and shop and wind myself back up for another four weeks of immersion. It feels a little like the slow ride to the top of a roller coaster you just got off of; the gut anticipation isn’t quite as intense as the first time around but your brain knows that the ride will be just as crazy.

*I’m twenty-five, can I still refer to myself as a girl? I keep expecting to wake up some morning and feel like and adult, but so far no dice.

Today was our last exam before the final! My brain is utterly mush right now and if anyone even thinks about delocalized pi bonds in my direction I may explode.

So instead let’s have a look at an article about a study (I couldn’t link to the actual study because it’s one of those subscription things) on cerebral malaria and a possible link to PTSD-like symptoms . Back in my undergraduate days studying psychology, PTSD (aka Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was a particular interest of mine, which is why this caught my attention. This piece is looking at a possible correlation between Vietnam vets who were infected by malaria during their service and those who have suffered from psychological and neurological symptoms since that time. It may turn out that some cases previously thought to be PTSD are actually long-term symptoms related to swelling of the brain (encephalitis) from the malaria pathogen.

It doesn’t seem like anything conclusive yet, but it might bring hope of new treatments for some of these veterans.

Alternate Title: Things TV Didn’t Warn Me About Conducting Experiments (In honor of getting our final grades for the first semester of Chemistry Lab.)

  1. Safety goggles fog up. All. The. Time. I think I’ve done half of my experiments with impaired vision.
  2. Once heated up, test tubes, crucibles, and Bunsen burners take forever to cool down. And because the universe is cruel, they take longer to cool down when you’re running behind schedule and having nothing to do but watch the rest of the class leave you behind.
  3. Test tubes are really fragile. So far I’ve broken three of them; none of which were actually being used in experiments at the time.
  4. Most of a chemistry experiment is the math you do afterward.
  5. A drop of liquid makes a difference on your experimental outcome. So does the oil on your fingers and whatever residue is left behind by tap water.
  6. And yet “cleaning”  lab equipment involves rinsing it with tap water and distilled water; no soap, sponges or scrubbers to be seen.
  7. Every so often, after all of the waiting and the math and the possibility for human error, you get it right and watch your solution transform from deep indigo to completely clear in what looks like a reverse puff of smoke. Way cool.

I’ve never been the work hard, play hard type. I’ve got the first part of the equation down, but when all that hard work is over I pretty much shut down. I am a certified expert at wasting large blocks of time. Give me the internet and a comfy chair and I can be effectively dead to the world for five hours out of the day. Granted this isn’t my preferred state of being (actually I really hate it), it just seems to be my default. Inertia: if I keep moving I’m fine, but once I have down time, I stay down.

That’s actually a large part of how I decided I could handle the workload necessary to become a doctor. Sure I would be working day in and day out, but that would just keep me moving and as far away from my room and my computer as possible. School and work could fill all the empty hours of the day, and the leftover time would be enough to continue to meet my small social quota.

Which is why I’m really confused right now as to how much fun I’ve been having since I started the postbac program. Maybe it’s just that the concept of “weekends” is something that hasn’t existed me since my junior year of college, or that my momentum from studying all week is carrying over into my free time. More likely it’s the people I’m surrounded by, who all seem to fit that work hard, play hard stereotype to a T.

Regardless of the reason, I am having a lot of fun. Sake bombs Friday night, tubing yesterday. Exhaustion and sunburns have forced me to decline invitations to a party last night and polo match today. It’s ridiculous! I didn’t have weekends this full when I had twice as much free time!

I’m pretty sure this won’t last. School is going to get harder; volunteer work and shadowing are going to steal weekends, and when winter hits my energy will inevitably crash. But for now, I feel awake and engaged in my life in a way that I haven’t for some time.