Tag Archives: work

Which Hat Today?

I originally planned to rant on the insane cost of school supplies. However, instead of getting on this:

I decided to share a bit of this as it relates to my day job:

An ancient Greek bit of wisdom still passed on today: “Know thyself.”  Well, I’ve know for a very long time that any job in which I did the same thing every day, day in and day out would drive me bonkers. I don’t mind some routine and repetition, but mixing things up keeps life and work interesting.

Life in a research lab demands no shortage of “hats” one must don. On any given day I might have to be any or all of these:

  1. Dishwasher- A lot of people seem to think those dishes will magically wash themselves.
  2. Shelf stocker- If the boss wants things reorganized, guess who gets to do it.
  3. IT Helpdesk- I’ve done everything from virus scans and software updates, to setting up new PCs and  PC troubleshooting. I know just enough to be dangerous.
  4. Mechanical Engineer- The first time something in the lab broke and my boss turned to me and said, “So, fix it.” I think I about panicked. I’ve replaced thermocouples and assembled new equipment, jury rigged old equipment (DUCT TAPE!), but the best lesson to learn is find out who to call to get it working again.
  5. Janitor- For some odd reason the actual janitors don’t like cleaning in labs full of chemicals.
  6. Secretary- Least fun job= yearly inventory
  7. Teacher- Whether undergrad student or experienced PhD, the new person always needs someone to show them the ropes. I get tossed into that role on a regular basis.
  8. Delivery Person- Usually actual delivery person does this, but sometimes things go to the wrong place and I get elected to cart them to where they belong.
  9. Writer- Unlike stories, nothing tops the tedious scale like writing scientific papers.
  10. Chemist- Well, it had to appear eventually, seeing as how I AM a medicinal chemist.
  11. Biologist- Not all medicinal chemists work in the biology side, but I do. I can grow cells and work with DNA, RNA, and protein just as well as I mix chemicals together. There are days I think I make a better biologist.
  12. Mover- I’ve changed lab space twice and there’s a possible move in the future. When space needed to be made for a new employee, who did the heavy lifting? Yep. Me.
  13. Purchasing Agent- I just fill out P.O.s now, but there was a time when I had to not only purchase stuff for the whole lab, but also keep track of budgets.
  14. Safety Inspector- No, thionyl chloride should NOT be evaporated outside of the hood. Acid/Base waste should NOT go down the sink. Chlorinated and Non-chlorinated solvent waste should be separated if possible. Please, please, please, do not leave needles lying around.
  15. Book keeper- See #13

Now, add in the hats I wear as a mom. I  do believe that the odds of me suffering from boredom are below the detectable limits.


Can We Build it?

Yes We CAN!!!



But it must involve a great deal of crappy planning and inconvenience.

The university where I work is putting up a new building. Never mind that the top floor of the building I’m in is still an empty shell, as are the top two floors of the new  pharmacy building. Who needs walls and whatnot anyhow?

The building I’m in at the moment is fairly new, no more than six years old or so.  The new building is going up right next to this one. All of the new buildings have been planned for the better part of a decade as part of the effort to build a small biomedical research center hub.

Here’s a list of building practices I’m pretty sure Bob the Builder would not employ:

  1. Block off all the convenient exits to the building where people are working.
  2. Fill a third of the street and parking lot spaces with vehicles belonging to the construction workers, because parking on campus is so convenient…. for them.
  3. For good measure, block off a nice chunk of parking spaces with orange caution tape and barrels. It’s pretty and festive!
  4. Tear down the perfectly nice and functional steps and awning on the already constructed building because someone thinks we need a sky bridge to the as-yet-unconstructed building that will be no more than 100 ft away, maybe 200 at most.
  5. While constructing all buildings, do not take into consideration future projects. The more concrete that can be torn up and relaid, the more we can bill.
  6. Dig a giant hole.
  7. Park construction equipment inside the giant hole.
  8. When a drenching downpour fills the hole, call the campus administration and ask if they want a pool instead. No? Spend an entire day pumping water out of temporary pool.
  9. Cart off dead equipment.
  10. 50 % of construction personnel must be sitting and observing at all times, you know, just in case someone accidentally does something intelligent.

Jedi Mind Tricks

Jedi mind tricks can only fix so much.

“This is not the beaker you were looking for.”

Sure, I have blinded my minion to the dark powers I possess to lull him into compliance– is that laughter I hear? I do too have dark powers! I can develop a western blot on old school film in the dark. See? Dark powers.

Back to the matter at hand. My minion is defective. It is so hard to get good minions these days. I blame it on the public school system. Why? Well, they are the ones that have forced colleges to dumb down their curriculum,  resulting in graduates who don’t know the difference between solvent and buffer.

Instead of getting Luke Skywalker as my minion, I get C3PO without all parts in working order.

What is so bad about my current minion?

1.  Glassware has a precariously short half life around him. At least 1 item a day finds its way into the glass recycle box…in pieces.

2. He does not follow instructions well, even when I demonstrate what I want.

“Pour the solvent in these tubes into the waste drum. Then, put the tubes in the recycle box so we can set up for the next column.”  I demonstrated with two of the tubes. An hour later, it wasn’t done and he seemed perplexed that he had no rack for tubes to collect the next column fractions.

“Don’t let the solvent level reach the silica. The column will crack and ruin your separation.”What does he promptly do? Yep, let the solvent run out.

I put your media in the water bath to warm. Remove the old media in the flask and replace with new.”  By the time he got to the cell culture lab he no longer recalled I had put the media in the water bath. So, he used mine, cold, and killed his cells by shocking the heck out of them.

3. Maybe it’s me, but he seems a wee bit dense.

    Minion refers to solvent as buffer. I correct: “Solvent. We are using a three to two hexane: acetone solvent system. Buffer is water and salts to balance pH.” A minute later Minion asks: “So the stuff in the flask is the hexane buffer?” Me: “SOLVENT.”

   We evaporate solvent, leaving behind our desired product. He asks how he knows when it’s done. (Keep in mind he has a chemistry degree  and we are repeating the same damn thing we did the other day.) Answer: When the solvent is all gone. The sarcastic replies in my head were many and varied.

Life would be so much easier if I could employ my dark powers without HR getting involved:



Minion training

Step one:

Greet your new minion with a smiling face. This puts them at ease and makes them less likely to balk when you give them endless tasks of tedious work.

Step two:

Speak slowly and repeat yourself often. Minions lack the skills for world domination. This is why they are minions.

Step three:

Do not leave new minions to carry out your orders unsupervised. This results in cataclysmic errors which put their life in peril as anger fuels our dark powers. Instead, hover  within watching distance and reiterate commands as needed. If perchance you make the mistake of leaving them to carry out a task, have the minion rectify the mistake.  Imagine throttling them. Actual throttling results in the risk of starting back at step one. I find this to be too much work.

Reward yourself with cookies or a nice adult beverage at the end of the day. Minion training is hard work.

Step four:

Give new minions copious amounts of reading material so that you can steal a few minutes to sit and play Facebook games. NEVER admit to minion that you did not read even half of the material given to you during your brief sojourn as a minion.

Step five:

Bake a big batch of cookies in celebration when your minion reliably carries out your orders. Do not share the cookies with the minion. The dark side has cookies, but we never promised to share them.

I can haz day off?

This weekend I spent most of Saturday out weeding my vegetable garden. Spring is often insanely wet and several sources have suggested tilling during the winter. The benefits of this are twofold. One, the soil is drier and breaks up instead of sticking together in massive mud cakes. Two, by turning the soil over, the next good freeze will kill at least some of the dormant critters that feasted upon my garden last year. So, I took advantage of the sunny day and not too cold temperature to remove offending weeds in preparation. I also took two long walks with the dogs. My asthma objected to so much activity in cool air. By nightfall I began wheezing. So, I figured I’d use my regular inhaler and the steroid one for good measure. Bad idea. I really should have skipped the steroid inhaler. Steroid depress the immune system. What happened? The first little cold virus that came along pounced on me. The next day I was a dead ringer for the actors in Nyquil commercials.

Today I felt no better. Doped up on cold meds I daydreamed about how lovely it would be to be one of my cats right now. They sit around the house and have a grueling day of naps. Then I thought about what would happen if one of them took my place at work.

5 Reasons not to send a cat to work in place of me:

  1. When giving or watching a presentation, the cat would attack the laser pointer dot on the screen.
  2. Some very expensive genetically engineered mice would become snacks.
  3. The workplace frowns on frequent napping.
  4. When lab supplies get delivered the cat would spend all day playing with the box.
  5. Pouncing on people in the workplace results in HR complaints.

If not for the laser pointer thing, I don’t think they’d notice the difference in seminar.


Haunted by food

In my grown-up day job life I play with cells, chemicals, and little pretty pictures of chemicals on computers. It requires lots of reading, a steady infusion of caffeine (because let’s be honest, even those of us who like this stuff find it boring to read), and patience. Results can take years to materialize. Much like Thomas Edison, I may find hundreds of ways not to do a reaction before I find the one way that works. Fate or synchronicity, in either case I find myself continually intrigued by the connections between my life and health and the research field I stumbled into. In 2009 I re-applied to graduate school after a six-year hiatus. The lab I worked in back in 2003 focused on cancer, most specifically prostate cancer. I didn’t really care what I researched as long as I got back into school, so when I talked to the professors, only one had the funds to take me on. Tada, my current lab. I had no idea what nucleoside transporters were or what they did, and as most people would, I deduced that well, “They transport nucleosides.” Needless to say, after two years I’ve learned a great deal more than that.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with food? In previous posts I mentioned that I have Celiacs. Celiacs is an extreme intestinal disease state which results from a sensitivity to gluten, a type of protein found in grains, most specifically wheat, rye and barley. The sensitivity is hereditary. They have pinpointed the genes and confirmed the link. The confusion, whether it is a doctor or average every day person, lies in understanding that the genes are similar to the genes that say, give you brown hair. They simply are, and like brown hair, are very common. At the same time, there are many many shades of brown hair. Even educated doctors tend to misunderstand, believing that this auto-immune disorder (Celiacs) is a rare phenomenon. I can’t really blame them. I thought the same thing. I never even heard about it until eight years or so ago, and even after reading the article, following a brief “OMG what if THAT’S my problem?”, I went, “Nah!” There was no family history. Surely, if I had what these people described I would be sicker. Fast-forward eight years and oh yeah I was sicker and a family history did exist. We simply didn’t know it at the time. The disease state doesn’t happen over night. Dr. Osborne, a doctor who seems to be the premiere spokes-person for gluten sensitivity and research has compiled research and medical evidence showing that the prevalence of gluten sensitivity is more pervasive than people think and is likely effecting us in ways most people would never even dream. Given the severity of my condition, combined with the fact I seem to have a plethora of the recessive genes in the family, I got two copies of the “I hate gluten” gene. I had problems even as an infant. I groan thinking of the number of times I was told about how colicky I was, how much gas I had, etc. My pediatrician was an excellent doctor. He suspected there was something going on inside of me, but he didn’t know what and the tests for Celiacs were not well known back then. Even so, the blood test would have told him nothing, as I do not make IgA antibodies (what is tested), but some other type. Even at my sickest, I tested negative, as did my sister, and my grandmother. My grandmother is seventy plus years and for the last twenty at least has had stomach problems and ulcers. Her biopsy showed extreme damage. At four or five, I probably wouldn’t have shown any.

Wheat, the highest gluten containing grain, came into the farming scene late in the game. A mere two-hundred or so years ago.  Consider, the human race is roughly ten thousand years old. In comparison, we have been steadily consuming grains for only a fraction of that time period. Factor in the genetic modifications in the last thirty and mysterious ailments such as IBS are on the rise. Oddly enough, doctors seem oblivious to the possibility that diet could be the root cause. I was told that perhaps I had GERD or IBS, or maybe I just needed more fiber. They didn’t see how the stomach issues could possibly be related to increasingly annoying hormonal problems I was experiencing. No blood panel for vitamin deficiencies was taken. I was confounded until my grandmother was diagnosed. Then I realized, not only my problem, but why my son complained regularly of headaches and stomach aches, why my daughter experienced random bouts of vomiting without any other signs of illness.

So while Dr. Osborne spreads the word and awareness, by sheer fortune I seem to have landed into the ideal area of research to figure out how we might one day modulate a person’s immune response. I have always been driven to ask “WHY?” I seek answers even when it drove teachers nuts. As a result of my refusal to take pills without knowing the why, I found the root cause of my illness and diet change, while far from easy, has improved my health drastically. The last year and half I had to take so many sick days that my professor got worried I might by a poor investment. I’ve yet to take a single sick day this semester. I’ve had a couple of sniffly colds, but they never got very bad and went away within days. Setbacks still happen as my tolerance for any contamination is exceedingly low, however healing 32 yrs of damage takes more than a few months.

The common link between auto-immune disorders, chronic allergies, and even cancer, is understanding how the body regulates the signal it gets when it sees a particle (food, pollen, virus, bacteria, etc). Certain people, by chance of crappy genetic dice, over-respond. Couple that with pre-existing sensitivities and you have the perfect storm for auto-immune disorders. Toss in the sea of hormones women have in their bloodstream and you get the gender gap between males and females for autoimmune disorders.

It is eerie that as I read journal articles discussing nucleoside transporter expression levels and their connections to various diseases, I can draw correlations to my own health and the health patterns in previous generations. Further frustrating is the fact that so many grant reviewers out there have such little understanding of chemistry and the biology we are exploring that they dismiss it as unimportant. They don’t see the next block-buster drug. Is it going to lower cholesterol? Make people skinny? Give eighty-year old men erections? No? Eh,no, you don’t get funding.

The news blares the trumpet against rising obesity. Inactivity and poor lifestyle choices are to blame for much, but all of the additives, wheat and gluten being high on the list, could be doing far more harm than we realize.

Hopefully I can assist my professor in slogging through the disbelief and dismissal so that we may understand and thus reverse the disease states resulting in over-amplification of immune responses.