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Growing into activism

I started trying to write a post about how I reluctantly became a feminist. But as I tried to form a story, it occurred to me that I don’t consider myself a feminist. I consider myself a person who wants to be taken seriously. I am a tall, chubby, brown girl. If during a debate, you pick any one of those attributes as a basis for dismissing my thoughts, you have chosen poorly. I will demolish your argument and then think less of you as a person.

There’s a quote by Liz Feldman about equal rights for gay couples that has been going around, “It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or as I like to call it: “Marriage.” You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not gay lunch. I parked my car; I didn’t gay park it.” That’s exactly how I feel about sexism at work. I don’t really care where the discrimination comes from. I don’t want to deal with it. But it exists and so I deal with it.

The reason I became vocal recently is because I went through a really stupid ordeal. My field happens to be filled with people who are much more awkward both outwardly and inwardly than I am and the attribute they decided to focus on to ridicule me for is my gender. It has never been in my nature to be quiet. I have a brother with special needs and immigrant parents, I learned how to recognize discrimination and so I started fighting.

In the end, I think leading by example does much more than getting angry. Whether I like it or not, I’m a role model. I believe in setting a good example and I don’t think sitting back and letting people disrespect you on any level falls under that category. Recognizing the existence of any type of “ism” is important in battling it, but sitting around becoming bitter about it doesn’t further my career or benefit the world. In the end, my desire is to excel at what I do. I want to be remembered as a great scientist and friend. The tall, chubby, brown girl parts of me are all secondary to that.

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Redefining Saturday Morn Cartoons

Drawing out the pathway downstream of the TNF-alpha receptor to show how the loop is perpetuated. Pink and blue are outcomes that are important to me.

Writing Mission Revised

I started this blog about a year ago for my social media class. It’s supposed to be used to practice communicating science to the public, but truthfully I’ve never had trouble communicating what I do with others. The people who want to know, I work very hard to explain it to. Otherwise I don’t want to bore you. I talk A LOT, but when I write, I tend to only answer a given question with the information needed. So blogging has been difficult for me. I think I’m finally starting to shape up what I want this blog to be though. I want to use it to convey what I find beautiful and what I find distressing in the world.

My world is infinitesimally small and is mostly confined to science and my loved ones so almost all that I share centers around them. I tend to share images of the things that I find beautiful and I will try to share those here, but otherwise you can find them on my pinterest site at: http://pinterest.com/wahidahoneybuns/ (mostly not science related).

What I find distressing in science is continued gender biased, hierarchy, and general bullying. I believe that everyone’s thoughts should be heard with an open mind. Heard and given the weight that it deserves which goes both ways. A young, female scientist may have a fabulous idea or a terrible one. So may an old, white male. I believe good ideas should be rewarded and bad ideas should be worked over. If we pinpoint problem areas, bad ideas can be turned around and can be used as teaching/learning opportunities. These are the general beliefs that I hold that will resonate throughout my writing. Happy reading!

All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.~Albert Einstein

Who am I reaching?

My fb feed yesterday was filled with wishes of happy pi day. I love pi day, I love pie and I like math. I then realized, everyone else on my feed does too. So who am I reaching when I post? Most of my friends think the same way that I do. Am I changing anyone’s mind? Not really, at least not using my social media. But I make friends pretty much every day and I’d like to think that I give them a good impression of scientists as a species.

As it’s now over and done with, it is safe to say that 2012 was just not my year. Between my advisor, my car, and my Jets, I’ve had enough unintentional heart break to last me through 2013. BUT, because there’s always a silver lining, I do think 2012 was a year of personal growth for me and I have hope that 2013 will be a good year.

The secretary debacle as I now refer to it in my head, is a long story. I’m trying to only include the relevant details, but it’s not an uncommon story so I’m only leaving in the bits that were particularly unique to me. The common part of the story was that I needed a class paid for, it didn’t get done on time, the secretaries (yes we have multiple secretaries that were useless in this case) were telling me they weren’t going to pay the late fee. Blah, blah, blah, not an unusual story of administrative BS. And if I could have just let it go, that would be the end of it. I would have paid my $270 dollars and taken the class. I, however, was not having any of it. Possibly it was because my car kept breaking down and the idea of having to come up with extra money for a class I didn’t want to take was just too much monetary stress on me, but I just had had it with people making me do their jobs. So when the secretary refused to pay the late fee claiming that it was my fault if I got a late fee, I looked at her and I said “I do not appreciate the way you handled this.” And I walked out the door.

Actually not that dramatic right? I didn’t think so either. Up to this point, I see both sides of this. Perhaps I should not have told the secretary that I did not appreciate her efforts, because no one likes being told that they are not appreciated, but she was really rude and unhelpful and I still do not appreciate her “efforts.” After that thought, there are no clichés strong enough for the events that transpired after that.

About a week later, I had to meet with my advisor followed immediately by a meeting with the head secretary. I knew they weren’t pleased with me telling the new secretary that I didn’t appreciate her efforts, but I was not at all prepared for the shit storm that they had prepared. For 2 consecutive hrs, my advisor and our head administrator told me line by line how I was wrong. How I didn’t do enough to make sure this went through on time. How it wasn’t their job to figure out how to use a travel award to pay for a class. They then suggested that perhaps I didn’t know what I said meant. I was told that I’m from a passionate culture and that I’m female and perhaps that’s why I over-react. It was suggested that I have anger management issues and that perhaps my parents didn’t raise me properly. There was also an insinuation that I did not deserve the award. They ended by threatening me that if I didn’t behave myself, everyone could and would make things worse for me. All in the context that they were trying to help me. That I’m a good kid and they didn’t want to see this ruin my career.

Abandoned and bullied were the words my advisor said I didn’t understand. Merriam-Webster defines to bully as: to treat abusively or to affect by means of force or coercion. Abandon is defined as: to withdraw protection, help, or support from. That is exactly how I felt. As a student, you expect your advisor to protect you. Like family, you can fight internally, but to others, you show solidarity. It’s hard to explain the feeling of abandonment that came from each successive failed attempt to resolve this issue followed by the sense of injustice and the indignation as I sat there while they rustled the emails they had printed out like you do with a troubled child sent to the principal’s office. All I could do was stare at them while they spewed off ridiculous things that I could have done once they exhausted all the normal things I could have done (since I did them) because it wasn’t their fault. They then being forced to write apologies for the sake of them going on file (which even then I realized was probably not a bad idea since I wasn’t actually upset with the people they made me apologize to). They repeatedly told me that they would make my life harder.

And they did. At least my advisor did (I have not spoken to a secretary since July and honestly, my life isn’t any the worse for it). The next 2 months were probably the worst of my life. I can be dramatic, but even now, months after all of this has been resolved, I still can say that I have never been so anxious in my entire life. Again, I don’t want to bore you with the mundane details of my advisor’s quest to dominate. I assume it was no worse than any other egotist’s drive to be the smartest in all the land, that is to say graduate school as usual for most. I just was so unprepared for it. I’ve been a scientist my whole life. I can take honest constructive criticism even when it hurts. But to find out that my advisor, this person that I chose to be my mentor, not only took the side of administration without even talking me, but went so far as to make racist, sexist insinuations was heart breaking. I expected better from a scientist.

I don’t know how anyone feels good about belittling a GRADUATE STUDENT. But it turns out that this is not uncommon. I do not think my advisor is a bad man. I think that he is so far removed from being a graduate student that he forgets how badly people treat you. We eventually worked things out. That is to say that after 2 months of near daily clashes, he finally caved and with effort from both us, he’s gone back to being politely uninterested in me. This is not unusual for older PIs. I do not think that generation had to try to understand other people. It was enough for them to be smart. But, it is not acceptable to talk to anyone in that manner and ultimately, it breeds more PIs who speak like this to their graduate students and perpetuates the schism between scientists and the rest of the world.

I expect better from my generation. We’re scientists, we should rule the world, but no one is going to listen to a bunch of squabbling bullies. I understand that not everyone has the personality to interact with others well, but my generation, we were raised on social media; we have available to us a multitude of ways to contact another person. We are intelligent people, we can use this to our advantage. As long as you try, the other person knows that you tried and everyone appreciates the effort even if the outcome is not what they hoped. Do not ignore emails. Remember that everyone has worth. Behave honorably. This is what I expect from my generation.

arranging words

my awake mind is comprised of compartments

everything has a place

but sometimes there are these leftover words

phrases that skip through on repeat

I hear them in my dreams

tinkling ahead as I try to catch up to them

to capture them on paper

to put them in order and make them beautiful

 

sometimes I try to contain them

these merry, unruly words

that won’t let me sleep

they tumble and tease

so perfect in dreams, but blurry at the edge

of my orderly, conscious mind

and traitorous memory

 

I scribble imprecise phrases

hoping to catch just one

I read them outloud

intone them to my heartbeat

find their weaknesses and subtly refine them

until they bubble with emotion, hopefully balanced with fact

it is only when I’m sure they’re ready

prepared to be misconstrued

once they are outside the protection of my mind

only then do I relinquish control

release them into the world

 

after all, what good are words just for me?

these carefully constructed soliloquies

their purpose is to persuade and ignite

I believe anything they tell me

I want you to believe in them too

this guy who sat down next to me on the train about a month ago found out I’m doing my phd in pharmacology and started talking to me about his mother dying of cancer and why he thinks marijuana should be legalized because it “cures cancer.”  personally, I agree with him that marijuana should be legalized for pain management, but it does not cure cancer. it does ease her pain, it improves her quality of life, it does not cure cancer. what does treat – not cure – cancer are the drugs that he thinks are poison. they are in fact poison, they are supposed to kill rapidly dividing cells which is what cancer is. unfortunately so are the cells in your stomach and your hair follicles which is why people lose their hair and can’t eat.

every scientist, whatever your field, knows this. and none of that is hard to explain to someone who wants to know. and therein lies the flaw of the communicating science approach. having scientists as communicators doesn’t make the public any more interested in  science. by the same token, convincing the public they need to understand science doesn’t make scientists better communicators. there is in fact a wealth of well-written science for a general audience out there for those who are interested. no one is reading it because a) they’re not interested if it doesn’t affect them and b) they are scared of science.

while these sound like daunting hindrances, they are surmountable. we can make science engaging to the next generation and we can make them less scared of scientists. but we need to stop rolling our eyes at the general public, stop isolating ourselves, and start making science approachable. how many of us graduate students have advisors that are too busy for us? how neglected and small do we feel when they look at us like we’re stupid and they suggested a super complicated experiment like its the easiest thing in the world? how do you think the general population feels when when we look at them like they’re morons for not knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell? no one likes feeling dumb or rushed. it takes patience to explain all the nuances of your work. but if someone asks you a really basic question, remember how your advisor/committee member/other arrogant scientist looks at you and just try not to cycle that down.years of teaching have taught me that if you show someone that you’re interested in them learning what you have to say, they will try to learn it.

and we need to encourage great scientists to be teachers. not professors, teachers. elementary, middle, and high school science teachers. teaching the lower levels is looked at like a failure, but how can we engage the younger generations if we give them our “failures”? kids can tell when someone hates their job. my 5th grade teacher was an alcoholic (she eventually got fired when they caught her many years after I graduated) and even at 10, I knew that woman hated children. but if you’re excited about science, they will be excited! and then they will learn.

I think this is a HUGE step in getting people to stop being afraid of science. it would require training scientists in a different way. my advisor (who is actually a really kind man and does take time out to be appreciative) says that most scientists were those kids who got picked on in grade school. and they grow up to be bullies with egos. I was not picked on as a child even though I’m the child of immigrant Muslim parents (rare in my small town), wear glasses, dressed funny, and graduated top of my class. Shockingly, in my town it was expected that children (smart, dumb, pretty, ugly, whatever) be well-behaved so I was horrified at how flat-out rude any scientists (great or just faking) can be. James Watson of Watson and Crick is racist. that is a shameful waste of power and intelligence.

I’m not saying that the general public is great, but I feel that as people with more education, it is our duty to inform them. I know its frustrating to argue with someone closed-minded, its ok to walk away, but be polite. let them make whatever decision they want, at least you tried. make science engaging to the next generation so that they want to learn about what we do. otherwise, we’re perpetuating a vicious cycle that will not end well.

I haven’t written a poem in a long time. I tried to sit down and write something today, but had a lot of trouble because I’ve been working so hard at making my meanings crystal clear. A couple of my journalism instructors have said to keep a record of lines that you particularly like and think about why. So this is a collection of some of my favorite song lyrics. disclaimer: do not judge me. some of these song are terrible.

the first set are ones that I use for encouragement:

all that I’m after is a life full of laughter

we could be the stars falling from the sky

shining how we want

brighter than the sun

life throws you curves

but you learn to swerve

might as well share, might as well smile

life goes on for a little bitty while

don’t you worry your pretty little mind

people throw rocks at things that shine

you say you bite? well I bite back

I put my hands up they’re playing my song, you know I’m going to be ok

the next set are ones that I like because of the way they capture raw emotions so clearly:

when I kiss your salty lips, you will feel a little crazy, but for me?

I know my heart will never be the same

but I’m telling myself I’ll be ok

you are the best thing that’s ever been mine

this life this love that you and I have been dreaming of

I lie awake and I drive myself crazy

nothing is forever, there’s got to be something better than in the middle

feels like I should be getting somewhere

but somehow I’m neither here nor there

while I’m wide awake, you have no trouble sleeping

I let it fall, my heart

it’s the last time, the last time I’ll wait up for you

I’m not ready to make nice

to write this down it means to reconcile

let it burn

don’t build your world around, volcanoes melt you down

you give me miles and miles of ocean and I asked for the sea

from here there are whole stanzas that I like, but they’re the same concept. I like how well they express my feelings that I have such problems putting into words. I’m only sharing two, one that is particularly haunting me right now and the other just because I love it.

I’ll spread my wings, and I’ll learn how to fly
Though it’s not easy to tell you goodbye
I gotta take a risk, take a chance, make a change
And breakaway
Out of the darkness and into the sun
But I won’t forget the place I come from
I gotta take a risk, take a chance, make a change
And breakaway

sweet like candy to my soul

sweet you rock and sweet you roll

lost for you, I’m so lost for you

I saved the rest of them as a doc for just myself. I hope you liked these as much as I do.

Metabolism and weight are a terrifically complicated combination of nature and nurture. Overweight parents are a strong indicator for an overweight child, but is it because they’re unhealthy or is it because of their DNA? We often assume that people are overweight because they eat too much of the wrong kinds of food.  But genetics can play a big part in metabolism, some people are just “calorically efficient” and store energy for times of need, which evolutionarily was a good thing.  Regardless of whether weight is put on by nature or nurture, a new study by a group in Sweden shows that exercise may help change the course of genetic destiny by allowing the expression of healthy genes.  This means that while DNA may predispose some individuals to gaining weight rapidly, there is something they can do something about it.  In this study, exercise was shown to remove a modification on metabolic DNA that blocks gene expression.  They also show that the more exercise a person does, the more healthy genes are expressed.  Researchers also said that caffeine can have the same effect, however requires about 50 cups of coffee/day.  In this case, exercise is probably easier.

link to article: http://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/abstract/S1550-4131%2812%2900005-8#Introduction

nature news and comments: http://www.nature.com/news/a-trip-to-the-gym-alters-dna-1.10176

In the name of science

I didn’t have a pet growing up. I have an older brother and a male best friend, both of whom remind me of having a big, dumb dog, but never an actual dog or a goldfish or anything. While I remind both my brother and my best friend frequently to use their words and sometimes they still communicate poorly, they have the ability to tell me what’s wrong and I can respond with something reassuring.  But mice don’t understand words.  When animal rights activists protest, this is probably their singular selling point to me.  I’m a scientist, I know the value of animal research and there are a million protocols and rules to reduce the animal’s suffering, but I can still see their pain and can do so little to ease it.

I study inflammation and obesity in the absence of phospholipase D (my gene of interest).  To do so, I use a mouse obesity model.  This is my first time working with live mice over time; prior to this study, all of my mouse work was done after the mouse was deceased.  Over the past twelve weeks I have been the primary care giver for 24 mice, 14 of which are on a high fat diet. I have weighed them every week, injected them twice a month, tested their blood sugar over time, put them through a CT scanner, and stuck them in a metabolic chamber.  I’ve seen their personalities, observed them under stress, and done my best to soothe them when I had to do something particularly uncomfortable or scary.  You’re not supposed to name them. Part of the reason I am not an MD (other than being squemish) is that I get very invested in people and apparently this also translates to any living creature. They have these personalities and so in my head, I sort of started referring to them as stumpy, fiesty, fatty, yippie… kind of like the seven dwarves.  These mice have become my pets.  And today I have to sacrifice them.

I am literally sick to my stomach.  The only thing that has unraveled the knots has been extreme physical exertion.  But they have to die. They’ve been bred for this; this is their purpose.  I cannot take their blood, which I need, without taking their lives. It would be cruel to keep them alive after bleeding them, it is my own selfishness that doesn’t want to take their lives, to hurt them.  They won’t know. I’ll put them to sleep and then snap their necks, which sounds brutal, but its much worse to watch them suffocate.  The first time I did it, I cried.  Today, I have to man up and be brave for my little friends.

Moment of truth… nerves of steel.