Hello, I’m an #ActualLivingScientist (AMA)

I’ve seen a lot of calls recently for scientists to do some outreach and explain to the general public what they do for a living, how science works, etc.

A major effort came in February after David Steen, PhD (@AlongsideWild), tweeted that “most Americans can’t name a living scientist.” With some help from Mary Roblyer (@darthmom7), the hashtag #actuallivingscientist took off on Twitter, with scientists introducing themselves and their work.

So…hi!  I want to do something similar here, as well as open the floor up for questions.

My Science Career

I have a Bachelor’s in Zoology from a small, four-year liberal arts university, with emphasis on genetics and animal behavior.  I received an honors diploma for my independent study research on developmental genetics of C. elegans, a tiny hermaphroditic roundworm.  (I also had to sit an exam, but that’s less exciting.)  I also did internships at zoos, doing animal care work as well as observational research on various animal behavior.

After graduation I worked as a zookeeper and then at an animal shelter for a few years.

I currently work at a medical school in the research department.  I am a research assistant in a lab that investigates how to grow new blood vessels in hearts with heart disease, using stem cells created in the lab.  I have been listed as an author on several papers we have published in research journals.

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I also make cool designs with my pipette tips when I bored at work.

Ask Me Anything

As part of my outreach, I’d like to invite my readers to ask me anything they are curious about regarding science.  Some topics might include:

  • Daily tasks of my job
  • Current experiments in the field of stem cell therapy for heart disease
  • Where my funding comes from
  • Clarification of any terminology I’ve used in this post
  • How scientific papers get published
  • Science in science fiction
  • How science intersects with my religion
  • My opinions of current science topics in the news
  • What kind of music I listen to in the lab

For personal and professional reasons, I can’t give too many details about my current work.  But I will do my best to answer all your questions as fully as possibly.

Basically, if you ask a sincere, polite question, you will get a sincere, polite answer.  Leave your question in the comments below, and I’ll respond to you there.  If your question is really good, I might even make a whole post about it. 🙂

The questions don’t even have to be about biology; I have plenty of scientist friends in other disciplines I can appeal to.  Though, if you have a very specific question like How much Force power can Yoda output?, I’d encourage you to try submitting it to What If?  because I don’t have time to watch The Empire Strikes Back repeatedly to check the X-wing’s rate of ascent.

Some previous posts I’ve written about science:

Hidden Figures

I am unavailable to march today, but one of my sorority sisters is attending the Women’s March in DC and offered to make a sign listing the names of those of us there in spirit, and I asked her to include my own.  In the meanwhile, I’m going to give a shout out to a movie featuring some other awesome women: Hidden Figures.

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This biopic follows three African-American women at NASA during the space race of the 60s. Though some of it is a bit dramatized, it is all based on real life. I saw it opening weekend and loved it…and apparently so did a lot of other people.  In its opening weekend it actually beat Rogue One (which had already been out a few weeks, but was playing in nearly twice as many theaters) at the box office, and held on to the #1 spot over MLK Jr. weekend, too.  It’s a great movie for anyone to enjoy, but I would really encourage all young women especially to see it.

On to the science!

Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) is a brilliant mathematician working as a “computer” at Langley Research Center and is assigned to the Space Task Group to help with the calculations for the launch and landing of Alan Shepard and John Glenn.  In Glenn’s case, putting a man into orbit around the Earth has never been done, so there isn’t a mathematical model for the situation.  Rather than looking at it as an “applied math” situation from a physics perspective, Goble finds a purely mathematical model that simply fits the numbers.

My favorite quote from her: “So, yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts.  It’s because we wear glasses.”  I think I related to her most of all the women.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an aspiring engineer, attempting to take night classes at a white high school. She is supported in this by her Polish-Jewish boss, but her husband (Aldis Hodge) is more hesitant.  I liked how the movie showed the struggle for civil rights not as one united movement pushing forward to a single goal, but going in fits and starts, with many different foci, sometimes at odds within the movement (white women especially don’t appear as allies here).  When Mary doesn’t want their young kids to see the news about a firebombing of a bus, her husband replies, “Everybody needs to see this.”  It was a powerful moment for me, thinking about present day events: videos captured on phones and uploaded, violence against innocent people that can no longer be hidden.  If we want to change the world, we have to face it first.

Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) watches as men install the IBM that may put her whole staff of computers out of a job.  So she learns FORTRAN from a library book and starts working with the machine.  But she doesn’t stop there…she teaches her entire staff of African-American women how to program as well, ensuring that the whole group is kept on to work with the IBM.  Now that’s “leaning in.”

So the science part is great.  But the movie also shows these women as not just scientists, but leaders in their community as well.  They are moral women; we see them going to church, raising children, and participating in positive relationships with good men.  They support each other in their struggles and ambitions.

I was so impressed with the marketing for this movie.  It did a great job focusing on the three leading women in advertisements, so much so that I was surprised by the appearance of several white or male actors during the movie because I hadn’t even realized they were going to be in it.  I think this shows that a movie featuring black women can perform well, and hopefully Hollywood will taken this lesson from Hidden Figures and give us more.

One last note: the movie also shows astronaut John Glenn in a very good light, a point of pride for us in Ohio.  He unfortunately didn’t get to see it before he passed away last year, but it was a wonderful tribute to him.  (They also just renamed the Columbus airport for him recently.)

So if you are looking for sometime to do this weekend that will both entertain you and make you think about how far we have come–and how far we have to go–I highly recommend checking out a showing of Hidden Figures.  And I think I may go learn FORTRAN now. ~_^

Cinder and the Lunar Chronicles (Review)

Being such a huge fan of fairy tale re-tellings, how could I have waited so long to read Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter?  I really don’t know!  The only advantage is that now I got to read them all straight through!  Rating: 5/5 stars

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Each book works really well as an individual fairy tale while building on the previous books for an overarching plotline.  (In case it wasn’t obvious: Cinder→ Cinderella, Scarlet→ Little Red Riding Hood, Cress→ Rapunzel, Winter→ Snow White)

Cinder is a very strong start to the series.  I knew Cinder was a sci-fi take on Cinderella, even a little future-tech with cyborgs, etc.  But I didn’t know that it also draws heavily from Sailor Moon!

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More on the Sailor Moon aspects in a later post, but let’s just say I was excited like Usagi here when I noticed the connection.

Cinder hit a lot of the same beats as my WIP Ash and Team, which is also a Cinderella-type story, but I wasn’t disheartened by that fact.  I was completely inspired, my mind opened to what my story could be.  I actually dreamed up a new scene for my story the day after reading Cinder.  (Even more inspiring: Cinder, Scarlet and Cress all began their lives as NaNoWriMo projects!  I’ll try to keep that in mind as I’m writing this month.)

I really liked that the ending of Cinder wasn’t saccharine; it actually ends on kind of a down note as it leads into the rest of the series.  Scarlet picks up right where Cinder leaves off; it can be tricky to switch to new main characters in the middle of a series, but each successive book does a great job splitting the focus between new and old characters (although Winter in particular gets a little bloated as a result).  And being a redhead myself, I was glad to see Scarlet as such a great embodiment of the “fiery redhead” trope (even though I am nothing like this!).

This wouldn’t be a true Jedi by Knight review unless I critique the biological concepts in these books–but don’t worry, these get pretty good marks for YA sci-fi.  For some reason, plagues are all the rage in YA dystopias right now (Matched, Maze Runner, Legend, etc.), and the Lunar Chronicles follows suit with the virulent disease letumosis (and a lot of unethical scientists to boot).  This plague has some interesting symptoms (rashes, blue fingertips) and does mutate over the course of the books.

Overall I didn’t have much issue with the biology except for a bit of confusion in Winter on the difference between vaccines (a preventative measure, typically for viruses) and antidotes (a cure for either symptoms or the underlying pathogen of a disease).  The vials of antidote that Cinder finds are incorrectly labeled as “vaccines,” and additionally they are stored at room temperature while vaccines are typically refrigerated or frozen.

One particular concept from Cress that I really liked was the isolation of hematopoietic stem cells from bone marrow for use in regenerative therapy.  This is actually something we do regularly in my lab!  (We’re focused on cardiac disease, though.)  Though it might not really be the first choice for treatment in this case, I thought it was a really creative way to make some actual science work with the fairy tale story line.  It’s not every day YA sci-fi correctly drops words like “hematopoietic!”

In short, these books really succeed at all aspects of sci-fi, fairy tales, and light YA romance.  Even the ending was a nice surprise for me because it didn’t quite end like I expected.  I’m currently working through Stars Above, a collection of short stories from this universe, and Fairest, the story of the Evil Queen Levana which is kind of Book 3.5 in the series.

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Even Scientists Get Bored Sometimes: Pipette Tip Art

Most lab scientists know that we can be divided into two groups, shown in this meme:

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Now, normally, I’m the person on the right.  I tried to take my own images of the above, and it was actively difficult to use the tips randomly instead of in straight rows.

But then there are the days when I’m running two large rounds of PCR or something, which involves so much pipetting my shoulder starts to hurt and I go through several boxes of tips.  Doing nothing but pipetting for hours will slowly drive you insane, so I have to do something to keep myself entertained.

I start making designs with the pipette tips.

Sometimes they’re basic, like diagonal lines.  As I keep using tips, the patterns change.  Wide diagonals get thinner.

The designs get more intricate.

And sometimes I just make pretty pictures.

wp_20160810_10_35_35_proI’ve tried doing words occasionally, but they never turn out right.  I’ll stick with geometric patterns instead of leaving messages for my coworkers.

Some of my coworkers actively do the same, or try to keep my patterns going if they borrow tips.  I think the rest of them either don’t notice, or think I’m crazy.  Considering they already put up with my K-pop music in the lab, I think we can safely say it’s the latter.

Introvert Challenge: Work Conference

There was a certain research technique I’d been wanting to learn.  Our lab had been paying someone else thousands of dollars to do it for us, but the technique seemed simple enough to learn, and my boss thought it would be useful to have someone in our lab able to do it…and potentially charge other labs thousands of dollars to do it for them, too!

Some Googling revealed a 4-day workshop in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I could get hands-on experience with not only that technique but a whole range of useful procedures.  I proposed it to my boss, who approved it as a good use of our precious grant dollars, and with the help of our wonderful secretary I was soon registered and booked on flights.

In the days leading up to my trip, the only thing in my head was: What the Hell Was I Thinking?

I was faced with the prospect of four days in close quarters with complete strangers, including at least one social event of the type that I like to call “mandatory fun.”  And I got to kick it off by sitting for hours on a plane next another stranger, who would probably want to tell me about her grandchildren or something (best case scenario).

QuietIn the years since I’ve read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with the side of my personality I now know as “introvert.”  I am happy to report that having a haircut is no longer a crisis for me, as now have a regular stylist that I can chat with easily (or not! silence is good, too).

Acknowledging and working with my introversion has reduced my anxiety (another side of my personality) in social situations.  During my work trip, I worked actively to get the most out of the conference while not getting overwhelmed.  I want to share some techniques I used and some revelations I had.

Introvert Survival Tips for Business Travel

  • Get a Kindle

Or some kind of e-reader.  Introverts tend to be readers, and I always take books when I travel, but it has never been more convenient to bring lots of reading material with you than with the current capability and ubiquity of e-readers.  I read four books during this week-long trip!

You can use e-readers on your flights as long as they’re in “airplane mode,” and nothing politely says “don’t talk to me” better than your nose in a Kindle.  We had all of our evenings free during the workshop, so heading to bed early and reading for several hours was a wonderful way to recharge after a busy day.

  • Make a good first impression

First impressions are important.  I know your flight was delayed two hours, and you fell asleep in the cab to the conference center, but pull it together!  Being polite and friendly at the outset will buy you goodwill later.  People will still think of you as nice instead of standoffish when you skip the nightly social events.

Keep a reserve of conversation topics for mingling; remember you are there for work, after all, so you can always talk shop.  At our welcome reception, I discovered another participant was actually from the same Ohio town as I am!  We got to be friends over the week and even shared a ride back to the airport.

  • Find the other introverts

You are not alone!  According to Cain, around one third to one half of people are introverts, and there are bound to be some at your event.  The best lunchtime I had at the workshop was actually not eating alone, but at a small table with 3 other researchers where we got have an hour-long, in-depth discussion of our various research projects, and how we hoped the techniques we were learning would benefit us.

Later in the week, I took a spontaneous trip into the downtown of Bar Harbor with this small group; we wandered together for a while, then apart for a bit, then reconvened for a stop at the ice cream shop before heading back to the conference center for dinner.  Bar Harbor is an adorable town and I might have missed seeing it if I hadn’t gone with a group.

Bar Harbor
  • You can always try again

So you don’t feel like going to the bar with your colleagues one night.  That’s fine!  They are (probably) not judging you.  Tomorrow they might go somewhere different, and you will join them.  Skipping one (or a few) social events to read in your room does not mean you are barred from socializing for the rest of the conference.  Networking is important, so do some schmoozing when you can, and don’t feel guilty when you need a break.


I’d love to hear more from readers about other ideas for dealing with business travel as an introvert. Leave a comment and we’ll have a nice, in-depth introvert discussion.

I am happy to say I had a wonderful trip.  I learned what I went to learn, and had a great time doing it.  Of course I did.  I don’t know why I was so worried.

(You can check out some pretty pictures from the trip here.)