Even Scientists Get Bored Sometimes: Pipette Tip Art

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

Image result for pipette tip meme

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.

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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.)

GeekyNerdy Book Club: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The GeekyNerdy Book Club is a new, bimonthly reading group hosted by GeekyNerdyGirl on her blog Geeky Musings from a Nerdy Girl.  (That was a lot of geeking and nerding in one sentence!)  We’re kicking it off with the post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi novel The Water Knife.

waterknife
I literally had no idea what this cover looked like until now, because I read this on my Kindle.

The novel features a trio of interesting characters: enterprising young Texas refugee Maria, hardcore journalist Lucy, and the titular “water knife”/enforcer Angel; their stories intersect in a future, water-starved Phoenix, AZ.  Maria is just trying adapt and survive, while Lucy is trying uncover the real stories behind Phoenix’s slow death, and Angel is there to speed up that death, because there’s only so much water in the Colorado River, and the woman he works for in Las Vegas wants that water up there–as much as she can get, however she can get it.

The mix of genres in this book was very interesting, and I think it would appeal to a wide audience.  It starts off, as I expected, solidly sci-fi, describing the water crisis in the southwestern US caused by climate change.  (I think I tend to avoid this kind of realistic sci-fi because it can verge on preachy, but I didn’t feel like I was beaten over the head with the climate change message here.) Because it’s a near-future, real-world dystopia, much of the technology is familiar, like Tesla cars and solar panels.  But there are also some new inventions, like Clearsacs, which purify urine into drinking water.

Suddenly somewhere in the middle of the book I realized I was actually reading a Western, complete with a mysterious gunslinger, a threatened homesteader who still won’t leave her “ranch,” and lots of doublecrossing.  How cool!  I love sci-fi/Western mixes; the two genres have so much in common.  As I read further, I thought it was a thriller.  Towards the end, I realized it was actually a mystery!  Really, it’s all of this rolled into one.  No matter what genre you would call this, the story was way more pulp-y than I anticipated, and I enjoyed it.

One thing that mildly bothered me was the pacing.  The story starts slow, and doesn’t really pick up until the characters meet each other—that’s nearly halfway through the book!  The ending, too, seems a bit sudden.  I have nothing against open-ended stories, but we don’t get much resolution on the characters’ relationships and future directions.  One character is even unconscious at the end!  (She’s not going to be happy when she wakes up…)

The story does have some intense elements, and two mildly graphic sex scenes.  The future is apparently pretty brutal–at least the sex scenes provide some character development.

Speaking of characters, Angel’s boss, Catherine Case, is an interesting one.  She’s only briefly physically present in the book, but her shadow falls on everything.  They call her the “Queen of the Colorado”—I think you’re supposed to despise and admire her at the same time.  I don’t know if the relationship between her and Angel is broken at the end of the story, because I don’t know if it was ever based on trust to begin with (or at least, how I would define trust).  Like Angel, Case is very unemotional about betrayal.  She trusts patterns, not people.  I could see her taking Angel back, only to have him taken out for something else in the future.  Or just killing him now anyways.  Or never.  Whatever’s most beneficial for her.

This map would have been super helpful for me while reading, because I’ve never been out West. From wikipedia

Overall, I’d give this book 4 out 5 stars.

I’ve already read and enjoyed Bacigalupi’s YA novel Ship Breaker, and now I think I’d like to read his award-winning debut novel The Windup Girl.  But maybe later.  I can only take so much dystopia.

In the meantime, our next GeekNerdy Book Club choice will be:

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

Should be a little lighter in tone.  Hope you’ll join us in a few months!

Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, and informed consent

February in the US is Black History Month.  In my mind, there are kind of two parts to this.  The first is celebrating the many accomplishments of African-Americans, from MLK Jr. and Harriet Tubman to these awesome women in STEM.  I also loved these photos floating around on Facebook:

The second part is remembering the many injustices and struggles that African-Americans have undergone during our country’s history.  In the face of these wrongs, we as a culture can:

  • bring them to light
  • try to right the wrongs as much as possible
  • take steps to make sure they don’t happen again in the future

That brings me to the story of Henrietta Lacks, told so compellingly in the 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (which I wrote about briefly here).

In 1951, Lacks presented at Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer; as a poor, African-American woman and mother of five, in that time and place her medical treatment options were limited, and she soon succumbed to the disease.  During her treatment at Johns Hopkins, samples of her tumor cells were removed without her knowledge or permission, which was a common practice at the time.

These cells were cultured in vitro (basically, grown in dishes in a special nutrient broth) in the lab of Dr. George Gey.  The researchers soon discovered that, unlike previous attempts to culture human cells, Lacks’ cells did not die off after dividing a few times.  They kept growing and dividing; they were the first human immortal cell line and were subsequently named HeLa cells.

HeLa cells grew so well, in fact, that they began contaminating other cell lines.  Researchers began looking into the genome (genetic data) of Lacks’ cells and tracked down her family, who were stunned to learn that a piece of their mother, who passed away soon after giving her tumor sample in 1951, was somehow still alive in scientific labs all over the world.

Can you imagine what that revelation must have been like for the Lacks family?  Especially since their inadequate public science education barely prepared them to understand concepts like “cells” and “culture” and “genome.”

Still, the Lacks family is justly proud of Henrietta’s contribution to science.  HeLa cells have been used in a huge number of important experiments, including Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine.

HeLa cover
The cover features a famous picture of Henrietta Lacks.  Notice the subtle bolding of “He La”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as numerous journalistic articles (and blog posts), have done a great deal to bring the story of Henrietta and HeLa cells to light.  But this fame is a double-edged sword: the privacy of the Lacks family has been irrevocably compromised.  Their family history has been thrust into the national spotlight, and, since the DNA of HeLa cells has now been sequenced, even pieces of their genetic code have been analyzed.

The Lacks family does now have some say in how HeLa cells can be used.  In 2013, the family reached an agreement with the National Institute of Health (NIH) to give family members an advisory role regarding which researchers can access the HeLa genetic data.  (These researchers must also acknowledge the contribution of Henrietta and the Lacks family in their publications.)  

But they have never seen, and likely never will see, any of the money that derives from the multitude of discoveries and nearly 11,000 patents relating to HeLa cells.  Though financial compensation has never been their goal, and from a practical standpoint it would be nigh impossible at this point, it hardly seems fair that others will continue to profit from use of their ancestor’s cells while they do not.  

Clearly the only way to really fix this situation involves a time machine.  (Sadly, all the sci-fi stories I read tell me that time travel causes more problems than it solves.)  

But seriously, if the Lacks family is now satisfied, let’s look forward: how can we prevent a case like Henrietta Lacks’ in the future?

Informed consent has been a standard in medical ethics for decades now.  Researchers must ask permission from their subjects before doing any human research.  (At least, they do if they want federal funding and to be published in reputable journals.)  The federal government is currently revising these regulations, referred to as the Common Rule.  

Rebecca Skloot and others favor the inclusion of a requirement for “broad consent,” so that even anonymous, “non-identifiable” samples require some general consent before experimental use.  (To be fair, samples today are coded so much better than simply using patients’ initials like “HeLa.”  But it is still technically possible to re-identify some samples through genetics, etc.)

Critics argue that this will just result in more paperwork, bogging down science while throwing another paper at patients to be signed without real understanding.  I am a practical person, but I refuse to build science, no matter how great, on the backs of the uneducated and disenfranchised.  While another case like Henrietta Lacks’ is unlikely, public education about tissue research is critical to our ability to continue to do great science while respecting human dignity.

Henrietta Lacks is still changing the face of science today in many ways, whether it’s regarding cancer treatment or medical ethics.  I encourage you to read more at the links throughout this post, and I encourage respectful discussion in the comments.