Friday, March 26, 2010


This should cheer you up on a damp Friday morning with snow in the forecast


Wednesday, March 17, 2010


A bit of introspection this morning. Today is my anniversary arriving in North America. I touched down at Dulles at about four in the afternoon, just me, a J1 visa, a couple of suitcases and a bike in a box.

My new boss picked me up from the airport and my crash-course into all things North American began at once. I remember feeling decidedly uncomfortable as we drove onto the highway on what felt to be on the wrong side of the road, and sitting in the right hand seat with no steering wheel.

I started a post-doc at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Gloucester Point, Virginia, the next day.

I think I learned just as much, if not more, at VIMS than I did during my PhD. Strangely, the specific sub-discipline I was working on there didn't have a name in '98, it was just doing such-and-such a technique on such-and-such a species. It did have a name when I left, because by then every biological discipline had jumped on the genomics bandwagon and suffixed itself with "-omics" to get more grant-funding (and there have been some pretty pathetic -omics!. "Diseasome" tops many lists, but museome; the 'omics of museums, tops mine. How can a museum have an -ome?). Yup, the genomics era really was that fast. Indeed as we tell students (and in fact anyone who'll listen) the genomics era was so fast that despite what you might read on the BBC, you've actually missed it. We've been firmly in the post-genomics era for a decade now; you really felt the difference, right?

Anyway, back at VIMS I stayed at a house on campus the College owned and almost immediately started to "acquire". An nth-hand 10 year old Nissan Sentra with a dodgy fuel-gauge that towards the end was burning more oil than gas. A sofa. Plates. A couple of pans. A TV. A rented townhouse in nearby Newport News to put it all in. Funny that, my boss didn't think I would ride the 40 km round-trip to work and back every day for two years. I did.

Seeing as there were 300 million of them and only one of me, in the interests of easy communication I realised that I had to relinquish some innate part of me and alter the way I speak; gas not petrol, intersection not junction, grocery store not supermarket as I learned to navigate around Food Lion not Asda and what do do in lieu of Jaffa Cakes. I managed to keep my accent though. It seems to have been the one thing that has defined me for thirteen years now, and it seems churlish to lose it now.

As with all expats before me (insert gratuitous references to Quintin Crisp and Englishman in New York here) I found that the UK and the states really are divided by a common language. I learned to order coffee in Dunkin Donuts and get what I want. How to pronounce NeHi. Pavement means two very different things over here and over there. As do pants. It took a decade to get over the word fanny pack. A mundane and functional item for you guys here to be sure, over in Blighty, it's something unmentionable.

I'm not triskaidekaphobic; I'd fly today, run with scissors, talk back at the Department Head. I once did a PB with dossard 13 when by all rights if the doomsayers were correct I should have ended up in a hedge with my top-tube wrapped around a tree instead. So I'm not too concerned that today marks the start of Year 13. Life has had it's share of ups and downs since '98; personal and professional. It would be unfair to ascribe year 13 as being "the one" when other years have had their decidedly shitty moments and they weren't defined as anni horribilis (horribili? I'm dreadful with tenses) just because they were numbered with an integer between 0 and 12.

I think I'm going to enjoy Year 13, dammit, even if it kills me!


Monday, March 15, 2010

99% perspiration

Science, as so many things, is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. Or so they tell us, and we tell our students and so on. There is a kernel of truth in this saying, as with all the similar sayings we tell ourselves, you know the ones, the ones we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better when all the evidence is to the contrary; "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", "no pain no gain" and my personal anti- favourite "it's all downhill to the finish".

Science took a decidedly literal turn of truth the other day, as you can see from the picture above. Since we worked out the experimental conditions we decided to do a little study, so I've been doing a series of ten hour experiments to get the data. This is another trusim in science, that one will spend a majority of the project getting the assay to work and then spend the final few percent of the project in a orgy of activity getting the data. To make the day seem quicker, or so at least I could sneak out for a run during the final 2hr step while the sun was still up, I took to heading into the lab after the morning spin, still in my cycling gear, to get the first three-hour step started.

Hence the sight of yours truely in a below-the-knee "mad scientist" style labcoat, bare shins (still with a hint of tan; I mean who needs a week on the beach in Florida/Mexico/Cuba/Dominican? I'm still rocking last years!) and silver MTB shoes. I'm not sure what this image conjurers up. Metrosexual? Perhaps, but the word is not always understood in cyclists' circles; Andy Schleck called Fillipo Pozzatto "metrosexual" last week and Pippo had a complete melt-down. Well it's not as if Pippo shaves his legs, has long blonde curly locks and is generally really well turned out, even after a long wet rainy stage in the Tour of the Mining Valleys, oh wait a minute.... I'm not even sure if it meets health-and-safety code. We (blokes) have always been banned from wearing shorts in the lab "on safety grounds" yet our XX homozygous colleagues have always been allowed to wear skirts, presumably on the basis that their bare legs showing under the lab-coat were somehow immune to spills whereas male ones were not. At least my shoes were 1) not open toed and 2) kOS legal with recessed cleats. I may be a few molecules short of Avagadros number but teetering across the lab doing anything in Look cleats seems ridiculously foolhardy!

In the midst this orgy of data collecting I've also been helping out a few different groups with techniques and perhaps it is because I spent the best part of the oughties locked in a windowless basement research aquaria with nothing but fish to talk to (and believe me, salmon are not the worlds best conversationalists) but I've been very surprised with the range of attitudes towards practical bench-science in some of those I've been working with recently.

There are some who take what you do with absolute aplomb, after all, you're the expert so if you do it it must be right. Like setting the stack of paper towels at the back of the bench on fire is a required step in aseptic technique! Gratifying indeed to be thought of in such high terms, but it always makes me feel more of a muppet when I do things wrong.

Then there are the people who expect you to have the answer to absolutely everything, at once, right from the get-go; even when you're parachuting in as an advisor and have literally just hit the ground. These people are subtly different from the first ones. They are also the ones likely to get stunned into inactivity by the cycle of "we need to optimize pH before we optimize concentration, need to optimize concentration before we optimize time, need to optimize time before we optimize temperature, need to optimize temperature before we optimize pH".

Finally, there are those who don't mind getting dirty, don't mind that sometimes bucket-chemistry is OK, those who realise that yes, we are making this up as we go along and no, we don't quite know if it will work the way we expect but we have an appropriate number of controls so why not put on our safety glasses, get behind the blast-proof screen and close the switch and see what happens!

I suppose in the classical world, the requisite metaphor would be Frankenstein, but really it's more like Mythbusters with peer-review!

Regardless whether it's Shelley or Savage, I like working with the latter group. There's a time for being nit-picky and weighing things out to insane decimal places and there's a time for just jumping in, trying for a result, any result, and then just spiral in from there. To me it gets to the heart of what research is, it's suck-it-and-see empiricism, it's the unabashed curiosity of trying something that's never quite been done before. Sure, we can use the microbalance and the tiny spatula later, but right now we need to make ten litres of the stuff; I think the shovel should do nicely for starters!

I flatter myself to think I've been around the scene for a while and seen commonalities between successful scientists. Travel, preferentially international travel is the big one, the Department Head will never be a person who arrived at Dodgy U as an 18 year-old undergrad and somehow managed to do their MSc, PhD and post-doc there as well. Admittedly I don't follow this one out, but every data set has an outlier. Luck is a big part too. Napoleon supposedly said he didn't care if his generals were any good, but were they lucky? We all know great people who sank without trace on doomed projects, and equally talented colleagues who were in the right place at the right time with the right molecule and are now on first-name terms with the editor at Nature.

For a final part, after travel and luck? The ability and willingness to take risks. No, it mightn't not work, but we won't know unless we try. Research doesn't come with a cast-iron guarantee that it will actually work. Considering scientists are on the whole, a bunch of obsessed type-A, goal oriented, structured individuals, this is actually a shocking admission of uncertainty into our lives! No wonder we're all nuts (a touch of Keat's negative capability perhaps) . So perhaps the final commonality between successful scientist is having that quote by Einstein photocopied and stuck up on the fridge or the fume-hood, you know the one "if we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research would it"

Needless to say, whereas that particular quote might be in the lab (on the side of the fume-hood no less) I didn't put it there; it belongs to the former lab occupant who now has a corner office in the admin building. 'nuff said!


Friday, March 5, 2010


Fricking snow again. I knew it was just too good to be true. As I think I may have said in an earlier post, the northern European in me still expects winter to be done in March and despite twelve years here, I still haven't recalibrated that part of my brain. Seeing the snow melt last week and running in a peaked hat, not a toque, well I still tried to convince myself it wasn't happening and the worst would be back. Yet deep down I think I had allowed myself to imagine it wouldn't. It's only the second Sunday in Lent, plenty of time for another late season snowpocalypse (apologies to meterologists). Remember the white Easter we had a few years back? The epic 2004 Moose? Who would care to bet it can't happen again? So even though it didn't snow nearly as much as they thought, it's still snow and windy and dreary and generally weather even the most confirmed cynophobe wouldn't put a dog out in.

I never thought I'd say this, but -20 is preferable to this. At least -20 is "honest", there's no mucking about at that temperature. Just wear everything. Sure, you may have a crack a zip open after ten miles or so but -20 at least demands sartorial respect. We perhaps get a touch
blasé and think "-1? M'eh". You flirt with caps, not touques, vest not jacket, liner-gloves instead of full-on Shackleton specials, only to be disappointed that it's really not that warm after all.

So dreaming of summer, or spring, or autumn for that matter (anything but winter) could conceivably make one think of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and I mention this because the British broadsheet The Gruaniad recently put up links for three Youtube clips of Summer in honour of Vivaldi's 332nd birthday, and I put a couple here where they awaken the 16 year old lad still buried deep inside of me somewhere;

Has your inner teenager come out yet? These two guys below go by the possibly unlikely name of "Children of Bodom", by which we have to assume they were spawned by a French Press. I know I'm not much of a coffeophile (I'll still drink a Timmies if offered/if available/if desperate) but I'm not sure that this is what you usually get when you use a cafetiere. Well, OK, I don't get classical-music playing axe-heroes when I hit the plunger but that's not to say I'm not using it right.

Once more, rock on...


Thursday, March 4, 2010

What a load of pollocks!!

I was obliged to take a first-aid course the other week, because I'm a "supervisor" and, I'm guessing here, but someone upstairs thinks I need to be able to respond to emergency situations to those under my supervision. Thinking back at some of the supervisors I've had in the past, they range from the micromanager to those who'd pop in between rounds of golf, have a quick squint at a couple of gels or a graph and consider me adequately supervised for another month. I'd like to think I combine the hands-off approach of the golfing guy with the ever-presence of the micromanager. So perhaps I should take the course; after all I'm likely to be there when they do something.

When it comes to first-aid and my skills-set, I've felt a great empathy with Gary Larson's "Lucky Night For Goldy" cartoon. Unless it's ram-ventilation of an overdosed teleost (the icthyological equivalent of bagging someone) my skill-set breaks down to covering someone with my official's vest (or running jacket) and holding their hand until someone more qualified; EMTs, an MD or a veterinarian turn up.

Still, it gives me something to do before the EMTs, MD or DVM turn up and sometimes I think that's what first aid is all about; keeping at least a subset of the bystanders to an event calm and collected.

Speaking of bystanders, the course was probably more beneficial to me from a triathlon perspective. In the past two racing seasons I've somehow been first on the scene a number of times, to the undoubted chagrin of whoever was being the "scene" and who was expecting someone qualified, we're sure. So a brush-up on the recovery position, CPR and why I won't be trying to extricate a crabon fribee seat-post from your leg wasn't such a bad idea. Besides, if anyone decks it in the lab, it's two metres to the phone, three if you're by the fume-hood, and a nine-minute response time whereas you will be holding down the fort for significantly longer at the turnaround. So, once again, unbeknownst to them (once again) the College supports triathlon in Nova Scotia. Thanks guys!

As anyone who has been through these, and other associated courses like OSHA, CCHOS or WHMIS, knows, the videos are excruciating. They exist on a plane somewhere between mid-budget horror-flick (good prostheses but no CGI) and the Darwin awards. Never mind screaming at the flimsily-dressed teenage heroine "don't go into the darkened house during a power-cut" this is more "Dude, why would you try to use a band-saw while standing on a revolving office chair with casters?". I mean, seriously. I know these scenarios are supposed to represent accidents but there are accidents and then accidents. Some of these First Aid videos are on a par with my favourite Ig Nobel award, the one about the guy bitten by a rattlesnake and who's friend tried to revive him by electrocution; this one made it into the literature so it's more likely to be true than the ever popular but probably ever apocryphal JATO/1967 Chevy Impala rocket-car guy.

When it comes to the improbability of the First Aid videos my favourite last week was a cycling one, perhaps understandably. The scenario was this; a bunch of guys on mountain bikes in the woods, one guy tries to show off (OK, that's bit is true to life) does a skid stop and decks it (who hasn't done that?). He landed (as we all do) leading with his shoulder followed in sequence by his arm, hip and knee and the bike goes off at a tangent somewhere else and to be honest it probably represented the biggest hazard of all; getting a Cat5 tattoo from someone elses bike on your head! And what did he break? His ankle! C'mon! How many cyclists do you know have ever broken their ankle in a bike-crash? Between us all I'm sure we can total up an impressive number of bike injuries and bones broken. Just in my immediate circle I can count lower jaws, clavicles, cheek-bones, noses, wrists, teeth, concussions and sutures galore not to mention acres of road-rash but an ankle?

Speaking of ankles, we should probably have a sock. Given that it is winter and cold and dank I've been living in the Balega Trails while running and truly, I haven't yet found them wanting. On those days I have a fit of enthusiasm and hop on the bike-trainer it's no socks at all.

But as we all know, the bike-trainer soon sucks all the enthusiasm out of any activity.

Seeing as this entry started with a fish-theme, perhaps it should end with one too and I present a pair of fish socks.

Yes, true, they are very, very blue without even a hint of white. But then again, so is the ocean on a calm day. And just below the surface, a shoal of fish. I can't quite make out what they are supposed to be. I know they are supposed to be a generic pelagic fish, but they confuse me; the fin arrangement is that of a flatfish but the overall body conformation makes me think of a pollack (Pollachius pollachius). And no I don't do that to show off as much as to avoid confusion. Fish have different common names on either side of the Atlantic and for all I know what I call a pollack might be known here as the Pointed Headed Wharf Devil Fish, but P. pollachius is just as valid in Halifax Nova Scotia as Halifax, West Yorkshire.

Taxonomic confusion aside, they are also short and ankle-length which is a big plus. It's quite easy to match them with blue jerseys and black shorts while the absence of a geometric pattern means they're just as good with stripes or checks. The blue hides all manner of dirt too, so you can look good on a rainy day without losing too many style-points unless you're wearing shoe-covers with shorts.

'til later