Thursday, July 17, 2014

radio silence

I listen to the news in the morning, while I'm making breakfast and lunches and getting ready for the day. My house is small, the sound from my kitchen radio reaches the entire house. This morning was sad. Israel and Gaza and I can't turn it off, because this my connection to the world. The tagline of my local NPR station especially caught my ear today: Bringing the world home to you.

I listen in the morning, in the car on the way to work, and I listen when I get home. It's on when I'm cooking dinner, it's on but lower when Lena and I eat together, and it's on when I do the dishes. (Why oh why are there always dishes to do?) I always learn something, I'm always connected.

But tonight, I can't hear any more of this. Bodies on beaches. Aircrafts shot down. I'm leaving the dishes in the sink. I will treat L and myself to dinner. We'll walk, because it is gorgeous outside.

It's confusing to think about having the luxury to turn off the radio. Because things are so far away, that that's all it takes. This feels like it's getting closer though, and I'm not sure how to deal with it. Turn off the news, and go outside? But how lucky I am to be able to do that. Ugh. I'm just so confused. So much beauty, so much ugliness.

Friday, July 11, 2014


I’d forgotten how much I appreciate Max, until he walks (saunters? flounces? bounds? leaps?) back into my life. He talks about our kids’ summer camp as if it were a prison. 

“I keep telling David to look for Lena,” he says. “But I’m not sure if they’re let out into the yard at the same time.”

A new good friend is turning 40, and I’m going out with her to celebrate. Our kids are a month apart, and good friends. I am immeasurably lucky in that I love Jenny as a person. Despite over a decade in age difference, we are some of the same. Figuring out how to be parents, how to deal with daughters. We recommend each other books, meet at the pool.

But Max. Max flops down on my bed without asking. Opens drawers and cabinets and my fridge. Stops by my house with pie and comic books. Max calls, keeps calling, and forgives. Max is twenty-something. He doesn't know what he wants to do, really. He’s still a dreamer. He's lost, but he doesn't care. He's in limbo. He doesn't have a mortgage. He’s just Max. 

Max and I have never been in love with each other at the same time. Sometimes I wish this wasn't the case. But most of the time I don’t. I don’t want to have to give up another best friend. 

High school, when pops taught max and me to ride motorcycles.

Friday, June 27, 2014

generous, but a little dirty

"Jacques wanted to be logical, even purely logical, while he considered me as being mainly intuitive. Which would not have disturbed me if he had not injected into his remarks a bit of irony, even scorn. But it was not enough for him to be logical. Nature also had to be logical, to function according to strict rules. Having once found a 'solution' to some 'problem,' it had to stick to it from then on, to use it to the end. In every case. In every situation. In every living thing. In the last analysis, for Jacques, natural selection had sculpted each organism, each cell, each molecule down to the tiniest detail. To the point of attaining a perfection ultimately indistinguishable from what others recognized as the sign of divine will. Jacques ascribed Cartesianism and elegance to nature. Hence his taste for unique solutions. For my part, I did not find the world so strict and rational. What amazed me was neither its elegance nor its perfection, but rather its condition: that it was as it was and not otherwise. I saw nature as a rather good girl. Generous, but a little dirty. A bit muddle-headed. Working in a hit-or-miss fashion. Doing what she could with what was at hand. Hence, my tendency to foresee the most varied situations..." 
-from A Statue Within, by Francois Jacob

My dad sent this quote to me over three years ago. I liked science then, I was doing science. I recall vaguely liking the idea of there not being a right answer, about there being room for error. About the importance of a feeling. Now I am a graduate student in microbiology. I can see the discoveries of Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob as brilliant, and I see and use their techniques every day.

I also imagine myself working with nature, not against her. I'm thinking about what the engineers are doing, the synthetic biologists. They are using her tools to trick her into giving up her secrets. My project is starting off just trying to ask her a question that she has never been asked before, and seeing if she will share with me.

Three years ago I found myself wanting to identify with Francois's nature. A rather good girl. Doing what she can with the best of intentions, no matter the outcome. A bit muddle-headed. I still do. Maybe this is what I want out of science. I don't want to prove anything to anyone. I don't want the glory of an I told you so. I'm not sure it even means anything to be right. I just want to go along my way. To do what I can with what is at hand. To be generous, but a little dirty.▪

I started writing this a few days ago, and since then have experienced the predictable ups and downs of the summer. Between my hormones and the heat, science is the strangest bedfellow. I am in love, I am enchanted, I am frustrated, intimidated, scared. Little life update: I have been anxious and stressed, despite loving what I am doing. I am snapping at Lena and not returning phone calls. Despite that, despite all of that, my daughter comes willingly into my arms, snuggles against me in her sleep. Despite all of that, upon arriving home late last night, tired, sweaty, I found four new comic books and a peach cobbler on my back porch. I am lucky the luckiest to be loved.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


I've started collaborating with an engineering post doc, and it has been a really interesting learning experience. Our collaboration got off to a slow start. After the first couple meetings of sketching out experiments and work flows, they* had to go back to China, and then got stuck there with visa issues for two months. But even in that short time, I learned a lot. For one, they came to every meeting with a powerpoint presentation. First was of their work, so we could understand what they were bringing to the table. After the second meeting, they made a powerpoint presentation of what I had wanted to do, in order to make sure that they fully understood what I wanted to do. (When word arrived that they had returned from China, my PI said to me, 'Please prepare a Shuqiang-like presentation for Shuqiang.' As if I needed them to tell me that.) Note to self, even if powerpoint is the most ridiculous medium ever, being overprepared for a meeting is never a bad idea.

Over the past week we've spent more time together. We have vastly different schedules and skill sets. Where I rely on biology and the random processes of nature, this post doc is an engineer by training. The biology doesn't come naturally to hir**, instead, polymers, flow rates, the properties of oil and water, this is their language.

The fun part is the learning. The post doc came from China, and they told me that the reason they make their presentations going into meeting is because they are self-conscious about their communication skills. They want to learn more biology to be able apply their engineering skills. We have biology coming out of our ears, (my PI cautioned me to not "vomit ideas all over [them]." Again, as if I need them to tell me that!), but the analytical, engineering parts of this project are way over my head.

I'm learning to balance, to listen, to be humble. When we work together sometimes I don't talk much, because I'm trying to absorb as much as I can. When I do talk, I'm learning to communicate. I'm kind of vague, sometimes (heh.) You know when that doesn't fly? When you're talking to an engineer. When I'm talking to peers in my lab, or my PI, sometimes I'll start off an idea without any intent on finishing that thought, relying instead on them immediately understanding what I'm saying, and filling in the blanks. You know when that doesn't fly? When the person you're talking to can't read your mind. So much to learn!

Also, I don't read enough. Which I think is always going to be the case.

*I've read some other science blogs that use gender neutral pronouns when talking about PIs and students, and though I used to find it kind of annoying, I'm starting to understand the reasons why and the importance for doing so. Maybe a conversation for another day? At any rate, no gendered pronouns!

**hir = him/her. omg it looks so weird, but I will stick with it!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

the kind of science

I have had a whirlwind of a week, scientifically. I just got to a point in my project where I am learning things and finding directions I want to go in an exponential way. I feel wrapped up so completely in this project, so overwhelmed and so, so excited.

Then I saw this exchange on twitter. 

I feel too early in my career to say what kind of science I want to do, or what kind of scientist I want to be, but after this whirlwind of a day, I do know that I want to take firm and steady steps, wherever this may lead.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

bless this blog

My whole lab eats lunch together, which is absolutely wonderful. Lately conversations have been around twitter, blogs, public vs private, etc. We talked about the narcissism of our generation. Lawrence thought it was lack of a confessional outlet that did it. And others were quick to point out that only Catholics confess, so there goes that hypothesis.

But I was starting thinking about why I blog. And part of me wonders whether it's because I don't have a partner in this whole life thing, and I need to share the love and wonder with someone. Which sounds nice and convenient, but I had a livejournal back in high school, and I don't know, I've just always loved this outlet. I think I like it for the same reason I like(d?) reading poetry, you put a little piece of your life out there for someone else to see. It's selfish, having someone listen with no promise of reciprocation, but not entirely. Because what poets, writers, musicians, artists, bloggers, what anyone who creates art gives us, is a part of themselves, a vulnerable, tangible part of the world that the listener, the reader, the observer get to experience.

Anyway, so tonight I went to see Plume Giant and Rich Poor Boy with Aspen (lab aspen, not aspen aspen WHOA THIS IS GOING TO GET COMPLICATED) and Firas, and it was fun. Rich Poor Boy is a Pakistani band that sounded like they could have been from California. They were like, magical realism California surf rock.

Lawrence encouraged us to keep a diary, or a journal, or keep some record of this all. So this is it. This is my fun thing. Hey blog, it's nice to see you again.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

the hill

L and I went to the mountains for memorial day weekend. We rented a house with friends, and on Saturday morning we (let's not even front here--I) packed up the car and we drove to Boone. We met at a park for lunch, then caravaned the rest of the way to our rental cabin. To get there, we drove up a big. ass. hill.

I love my car. It's amazing in the snow, it's been with me through everything. Longer than any boyfriend, longer than Lena. I love my car, I will defend my car to anyone. However, there are a few things that my car cannot do. It doesn't accelerate that great. It kind of shakes a little on the highway, if you go above 70. The stereo sucks. The air conditioning just stopped working. It..doesn't do hills that well.

The hill came up out of nowhere, and before I knew it, I was flooring the poor subaru, listening to the engine growl in protest, watching the speedometer slowly fall from 25 to 23 to 20...

L is in the back--happily pointing out trees and flowers-or asking me questions-or talking to herself, continuing our game of twenty questions started on the highway--I don't know, the only thing I could concentrate on was driving up this hill, wondering whether I was going to make it. My car is an automatic, but under the little notch of "D" for "Drive" are "3","2","1". Between wondering whether I was going to make it up this hill, the vague thought crossed my mind that maybe something about these numbers might be relevant, and that I should perhaps investigate what they do.

We finally make it up the hill, and for the rest of the weekend's activities, we pile into one car. I'm in the back sitting next to the 4 year old, and I never have to worry about driving up the hill again. Only one thing haunts me: driving down.

There's a really big change that happens when you become a parent. It hits a lot of people in different ways, it's probably contingent on where you are in life, how sensitive you are to the rotation of the earth, the changing of the winds. My change into parenthood was gradual, because I don't think I ever understood the weight, the gravity, of what it means to have a child. The best analogy that I've heard and that I love is that having a child is having a piece of your heart outside your body. As a twenty year old, I didn't know what my heart was. As a twenty-six year old, I know a little more of love and of loss, and my daughter, who is my heart, who walks on her own, thinks on her own. Lives and experiences things on her own.

So my change was this. I am fucking anxious now. It might be grad school stress induced, but driving on the highway stresses me out. Turbulence on planes freaks me out. Lena near roads, Lena on walls, Lena in trees, Lena careening down the hill on on her bike. Be careful with my heart! I want to shout. So selfish, I know. Forgive me. I'm only twenty-six.

I used to drive up to Asheville all the time. My best friend from high school  and a handful of other friends moved up there during my senior year, and I went up to visit them plenty of times throughout the year. Speeding on I-40 on a Friday after school let out. Driving from Hot Springs back to Asheville at 2 in the morning, singing Tracy Chapmen's Fast Car, into the yellow lights of a neighbor's party. Climbing up cliffs, looking for shortcuts, getting baked, setting up a tent on a hill in the dark, waking up a pile of tangled bodies at the bottom. One of those boys is dead now, the obligatory statistic of a high school class of 400. But nothing scared me then. Nothing at all.

(In retrospect, a little fear, one moment of not feeling invincible, would have served me well. But then I wouldn't have been young.)

After many hikes, meals, wonderful conversations, watching our children play, it's time to go home. Which means, time to drive down the big ass hill.

We drove up and down the hill plenty of times over the course of the weekend, so I had a plan. I was going to use these other gears that my car has. Because you're not supposed to ride your brakes, you're supposed to let the engine do the work. So at the right turn into the downhill, I shift down from drive into 3, then 2.

Then I rode my brakes the entire way down that hill.

When I made it to level ground I let out a whoop of joy, one of my arms going out the open window (because my air conditioning doesn't work, remember?) I did it. I conquered this hill. And after that, I had the most perverse thought of all: I wanted to go back up and do it all again. And do it all again, better. Because I did it. I made it up and down that hill.

For some reason I thought there was some great extended metaphor here, but I think I lost it somewhere. Anyway, I was really proud of myself for making it up and down this big ass hill. I felt really grown up and independent woman about it. The end.