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. ~_^

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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.)

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.

Bio Grad Student Humor

Some inspirational advice for the new year:

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Nobody can go back and start a new beginning,* but anyone can start today and make a new ENDING 🙂                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       *except with iPS cells

The motivational part was written by a grad student, and the addendum added a week or so later by another student.

To explain the joke: iPS stands for induced pluripotent stem cells.

Meaning stem cells that have been created through engineering, by taking “regular” adult cells and moving them back to a more elastic state (aka a stem cell) where they can become any other kind of cell.

So iPS cells would indeed be the exception to the maxim that you can’t go back to the beginning 🙂