Monday, November 29, 2010

Random updates


Thursday, felt great.  Friday, felt great till about midnight, when I had a headache.  Saturday, woke up feeling OMG HORRIBLE.  I could barely get out of bed all day, took three naps, kept having to reheat my tea.  I only had one can of soup, which I ate.  Ended up with a fever, in addition to headache and congestion and OMGKILLME feeling.  I figured I'd be out of commission for a few days.

Sunday, woke up feeling a bit gross.  I was able to hack up a huge glob of gross, and then felt better.  Managed to go to work and then the grocery store for more soup and juice.  By about 5/6pm, I felt all right.  By the time I went to bed, I felt almost fine.  Woke up this morning on very little sleep feeling great!

Importance: I NEVER recover from illnesses, especially colds, so quickly.  It seems that at age 24, my body has finally started to take advantage of all of the lessons it's learned from the colds of winters past!  Yay!


On Wednesday, I arrived home and discovered that my transcript had FINALLY arrived.  But that I had forgotten the cover page and my CV I had printed at work.  I dug my printer out of the pile of books I'd left on it, and I easily downloaded the software, but then I realized that after not printing anything for a year and a half, I had mysteriously lost all my printer paper.  Ran to Walgreens, bought some paper, ran home.*  Printed everything, called the post office to confirm that they were on normal hours.  Dashed up to Beacon Street, struggled mightily to fill out a mailing label (three carbon copies!  I wrote as hard as I could, and you could barely read anything!).  Then I went up to the counter and, kid you not, asked, "How much do I have to pay to make sure this gets to Chicago by Friday?"  Delivery guaranteed.

Today is Monday.  My UChicago app tells me that they're still waiting on my CV and transcript, and they're due Wednesday.  WTF.  Am calling in an hour and a half.

Meanwhile, BU says it doesn't have any recommendations, but they replied to my email confirming that they have my transcript and GRE scores.  Johns Hopkins and I had some emails over the weekend because I DID send GRE scores, so I'm supposed to check again tomorrow, and call if my app still claims they're missing.

The lesson learned here is ... nothing.  I did everything right.  So the lesson learned is just not to apply to graduate school.

* I guess it's misleading to imply that Walgreens is even a little bit of a trip.  I live directly next to Walgreens.  I almost live IN Walgreens.  We are surrounded on two sides by the building, and on a third by the parking lot.  A trip to Walgreens is the easiest thing on the planet.  I have to stagger my trips so the employees don't notice how much junk food I buy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Grad apps

Applying to graduate school should involve receiving a degree all on its own.

I vaguely remember applying to college several years ago.  I know that many of my applications were online, and most of them took the common app.  It was helpful; I applied to seven schools and five of them took the common app.  So I had to fill out my information about 3 times total, and the supplemental applications for individual schools involved a few extra essay questions.  I did have to mail in some things, specifically my flute CD,* but I know my mom took care of that, as well as my SAT scores.  My guidance counselor took care of sending off my high school transcript.

It wasn't easy or pleasant, by any means, but the college admissions process is at least somewhat streamlined.

The easiest part of graduate applications has been sending my GRE scores.  ETS lets you select all your schools and departments, and then you just enter your billing info, hit send, and weep openly as you look at the bill afterwards ($345!).

Transcripts?  No guidance counselor this time.  I have to send them, one at a time, using the Tufts system.  I have to enter my billing info for each one and pay one at a time.  There's a character limit in the address boxes, so I've been sending lots of applications to "The Office of Grad. Aff."  Awkwards.  I just had to call Tufts because the system didn't register my billing info for a couple transcripts.  I would have just canceled and re-entered my info, but one of the transcripts needs to be sent TODAY, so I was panicking a little.

My CV?  It's sort of important, especially for schools that either don't give me space to write much about my jobs, or for ones that assume that I'm applying right out of undergrad.  In some cases, I have to mail my CV because the online app won't let me upload it, just copy/paste.  But what about my gorgeous formatting?!

So I've got transcripts I have to send, and not only is it hard, but some of the schools haven't told me where to sent the damn things.  Half of the schools don't seem to want my CV.  What else?

Oh, there's no common app.  I've got some apps on Embark, and some on ApplyYourself, but neither system saves your information for auto-fill.  And the rest use school-specific application sites.  So I end up having to write out my address six hundred times, and my recommendation letter writers are probably so confused, I'll have to send them emails letting them know when to send letters to which schools.

Finally, certain schools want information mailed, in addition to completion of an online application.  The biggest culprit is the University of Iowa, which has just been killing me in terms of all of these problems.  I had to fill out an application on the biology department's site, THEN the general application.  I now have to mail them my personal statement (yes, they require it mailed), my CV, a waiver request, and an application for graduate funds.  I also had to mail two transcripts, and they have a form for letter writers to fill out instead of writing a letter.  They're also the school that assumes I'm just graduating from college; everything they ask either implicitly or explicitly assumes I'm in college.  The recommendation form refers to my letter writers as if they've had me in a class, etc.

So, where's my special degree for sorting through this mess?  Yikes.

First application is going out very soon (University of Chicago).  I'm waiting on one last once-through from my mom on the personal statement so I can send the electronic application, and as soon as I get my transcript in the mail, I'm sending it with my CV straight to the biology department.  I'm cutting through the chaos, and I'm finally embarking on the next stage of my life: PhD.

* I spent years playing flute and piccolo, and at one point, I was considering going to conservatory and going professional.  Not because I was that good; I would have been if I had practiced more often.  That was actually a factor in my decision not to become a musician.  Not only would my profession not be immediately helpful to anyone, but I'd have to actually practice.  Not gonna happen!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Oh, FDA ...

The FDA.  I don't know quite what to think of them sometimes.  I mean, I'm sure they do some good work.  But at the same time, it's hard to look away from the fact that a lot of their decisions come down to politics, not science.

For a Community Health class I took a few years ago, I read a book by Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.  She discussed the controversy surrounding silicone breast implants, and the FDA ban on.  While Dr. Angell is not the most feminist woman on the planet (her book suggests that she buys into some stereotypes about feminism), her book does raise a lot of questions about whether or not the FDA ban is actually based on anything real.
The FDA banned silicone gel breast implants in 1992.  The reasons why are suspect.  No scientific study supported the claim that silicone gel breast implants caused a variety of unnamed connective tissue diseases.  After years of more studies debunking the myth, silicone is finally back on the market.  But there were countless women (cis and trans) who were unable to get silicone implants during those years, and had to get saline instead.

Why is this even important?  As a feminist, I don't see a need for breast implants beyond helping transwomen and women who have lost breasts to disease or injury (and specifically, only those women in those catagories who want implants).  But as long as we live in a patriarchy, I can't judge women for feeling pressured to have larger breasts, and since that's the case, I support a woman's right to decide what kind of implant to get.  Saline implants have downsides, especially in terms of the look and feel of an augmented breast, so there are reasons to prefer silicone gel.  And again, there was no scientific evidence to suggest that silicone gel was more dangerous than saline ...

Another example of the FDA going by politics and not science are the current age restrictions on emergency contraception.  In 2006, emergency contraception known as "Plan B" was made available over the counter for women ages 18 and older.  That was a great improvement; previously, it was prescription only.  And when you really think about it for a moment, that's really stupid.  If I have sex on Friday night and the condom tears, I would have to wait until Monday morning to call my doctor and get a prescription.  Plan B is effective when you take it up to 72 hours after failed contraception, and the earlier it's taken, the more effective it is.  Having to wait because you need your doctor to give you the go ahead can mean the difference between Plan B and Planned Parenthood.

However, 18 or older doesn't cut it.  Women under the age of 18 who are sexually active have the same issues facing them as the older women, but they also have to deal with parental disapproval; they may be less informed about sex, and they may have even more trouble getting in touch with a doctor to get a prescription.  So the FDA said, "Fine, we'll make it 17."  But the issue here is that any age restriction means that there's a population of young women who need Plan B and can't get it.

A judge has determined that the age restrictions are unnecessary, and based solely on politics and not science.  The FDA has been ordered to drop the age restrictions.

They haven't.

And now, for something slightly different: Four Loko.

Four Loko is an alcoholic beverage that apparently doesn't taste very good, but has a ton of caffeine in it.  It's been dubbed "blackout in a can" by college students, and it's landed several of them in the hospital.  Drinking it seems like a pretty bad idea.  Thanks to a ton of outcry from concerned parents and citizens, the FDA has delcared caffeine an unsafe additive to alcohol, and Four Loko will be banned.

I think the ban is politically motivated.  I don't think it's a terrible idea, but that's in the vein of me not thinking it's a terrible idea to ban cigarettes or Christianity.  That is, sure, it wouldn't affect me and I don't think it's good for people anyway, but I can't control other people's decisions, even if I think they're making the wrong one.

What's more, banning Four Loko is not going to stop people from mixing caffeine and alcohol.  From something as basic as a rum and Coke to something like Red Bull and vodka, people mix caffeine and alcohol.  Banning Four Loko will not change that.

What would have been a smarter decision?  Maybe regulating how much caffeine and alcohol can be mixed without people blacking out ridiculously quickly.  But just declaring caffeine an unsafe additive and using that to ban one class of drinks is sort of ... stupid.

Besides, have you met college students?  Do you know how many of them can black out and land in the hospital without the help of this particular drink?  They'll find a way!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More precious than gold

This is a post about science.

I am a scientist.  It's really cool for me to say this, because I suffered from imposter syndrome* until about a month ago.  Part of being a scientist at an academic research institute is getting grant money, money from the government that we use to do our jobs.  Only some of this money pays for salaries; some of my salary is from one grant, but most is from the institute where I work.  Most of the money goes towards equipment, reagents, and other supplies necessary to do the research.

I am a scientist, and I am not rich.

My boss got a huge grant last year in September, and it's enabled us to work on this supercool project.  We hired a graduate student, K., who is working on the project with us.  We tend to work on different aspects of the project; I do most of the cell culture and optimizing of the conditions, as well as collections, and he's learning how to work with RNA and protein.  Recently, he began to prepare for some Western blots, which are used to determine what proteins are present (you pick a target protein, stain for it, and see if it's there and how much there is).  You use antibodies to perform Western blots, so K. put a bunch of antibodies into the ordering book, and I put in a requisition for them.  The grant for the project is huge, so it can accomodate expensive items like antibodies.

That's right, antibodies.  The little Y-shaped molecules your body produces to take care of foreign particles, cells, or tissue that invade your body.  You make them for free.  Biotech/pharma companies make them for lots of money.**

Today, K. was aliquoting his nice new antibodies, from abcam,*** when he realized that he was getting a tiny volume of antibody (as low as 50µl) with a tiny amount of antibody (like 100µg).****  So we wondered: how much does an entire gram of antibody cost, based on abcam's pricing?  And how much is it compared to the cost of one gram of gold?

We set out to find the answer.

Micrograms (µg) are teensy.  100µg is 0.0001g.  Small.  And these vials of antibody with 100µg cost $319 each.

Gold, according to the internet, costs $42.90 for 1 gram.

To compare the costs, we first calculated how much 1 gram of antibody costs, and then divided by the cost of gold to figure out how much more expensive it was.

Well, that's not too hard.  To get from 0.0001g to 1g, you multiply by 10,000.  And you multiply the price by 10,000: $319 * 10,000 = $3,190,000

$3.2 million for 1 gram of antibody.  Divided by $42.90?  3,190,000/42.90 = approx. 74,359.

Antibody costs 74,359 times gold.  And that's why you get tiny amounts and are told, "For Western blot, dilute 1 to 10,000 in blocking buffer."

* Imposter syndrome, more common among but not limited to professional women, is the term for the overwhelming feeling that you are not qualified for your position, and that you have somehow managed to fool everyone around you into thinking you don't suck.  Yes, that means I used to stand at the bench, doing science--and doing it pretty well--thinking that I was so bad at science, I shouldn't be allowed in the building.  I no longer feel that way, and it's a relief.

** I have friends who have left industry (what we call biotech/pharma companies) for academia or vice versa, and the general idea is that you're still not making millions in industry.  A lot of money that companies make goes towards making up for all the money they've spent trying to develop their drugs and reagents.  When you see the final product, you don't see all of the failed experiments and failed trials that came before it.

*** I'm picking on abcam here, but their antibodies are not excessively expensive compared to other companies' antibodies.  They actually have some of the best antibodies out there; I always get great staining with them on immunohistochemistry, and my boss prefers them for Western blotting.  I'm picking on them because they're the ones we were aliquoting today.  We usually pick on Santa Cruz because their antibodies frequently don't work, especially if they're the only company that manufactures antibody for a particular site of interest.

**** For a lot of people who don't work in scientific fields (and some who do), µg or µl, or µanything might be meaningless.  The Greek letter mu (µ) is the symbol for "micro," which is one 1000 times smaller than milli (milligram, millimeter, milliliter), which is 1000 times smaller than your every day measurements (gram, meter, liter).  So if you're not very sciency, go find a ruler.  Take a look at the length of one millimeter (mm).  That's 1000 times shorter than one meter.  Small compared to a meter, right?  Now, imagine a length that's 1000 times shorter than one millimeter.  There's your micron (we don't say "micrometer.").  Same for liters.  Grab one liter o' cola and try to take 1000th of it: that's 1 milliliter (ml, also known as a cc, squared centimeter).  It's small.  1000th of that is one microliter, a measure of volume we use in the lab constantly.  Just the other day, I put 1 µl (microliter) of RNA solution into a machine called a NanoDrop, which measured the RNA concentration (0.2µg/µl!).  So when a company sends us 100µg of antibody, that's tiny.  Really tiny.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Street harassment: I'm not stupid, you know!

Today, I was on the receiving end of some street harassment.  It's happened before, and even though this time was pretty unusual, it was no less upsetting.

I was walking to get my hair cut.  It's warm out today, so I didn't wear a winter coat.  As I was walking up the street, there was a line of cars driving slowly down the street in the opposite direction.  Some guy had his window down, and he very clearly, and quite creepily called out.  "Argyle's good, nice choice."  I happened to be wearing a cardigan that has an argyle print on the front.

This harassment was unprovoked and completely creepy.  My sweater is from Old Navy, and while I think it's cute, it's certainly not revealing, nor is it very unique.  The comment was unusually creepy.  Add that to the fact that some guy in a car had made the comment from across the street, and I was upset enough that I actually worried that maybe this guy was going to eventually hunt me down or something, since I was wearing something apparently so distinctive.

Street harassment is unsettling and upsetting.  And most importantly, something that so many people do not understand, it is not at all a compliment.

A compliment is something nice.  It's when someone thinks something nice about you and tells you so.  "Wow, I like your shoes!" said to a friend is a compliment.  "Your performance was really, really moving," said to an actor after a performance is also a compliment.  "Hey, sexy baby!" shouted by a stranger from a car is NOT a compliment.

So, don't assume I'm stupid.  Don't decide that I, along with countless other women, are so stupid that we can't tell the difference between a compliment and harassment.  What happened to me today was harassment.  The man who commented on my appearance was not doing so to make me feel good, and if he thought that's what he was doing, he's an idiot.  The only thing to be gained by harassing someone is the feeling of power that comes with it, while the victim, the woman who's just trying to get to an appointment, who put on that sweater because her room is a mess and she couldn't find the black sweater she wanted, feels helpless, confused, angry, and afraid.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why the new TSA security measures will maybe impact me for the rest of my life

Trigger warning: I talk about sexual assault.
In many airports across the country, the TSA has implemented new security measures to prevent those darn terrorists from trying to kill us using planes.  Instead of having us take off our shoes, throw all of our belongings into an X-ray, and walk through a metal detector/have a standard pat down, the TSA now wants us to take off our shoes, throw our belongings into an X-ray, and walk through a machine that will show them our genitalia/have a pat down that will involve TSA folk touching our genitalia.

And I'm beginning to realize that this might actually change my future.

I hate traveling.  I don't hate driving, but I always prefer to be in the passenger's seat because I can nap and I won't Masshole-roadrage at other drivers (as much).  But I hate when the T is crowded, I worry if the bus will be late, I hate having to book tickets, and more than anything in the world, I hate the airport and flying.

Weirdly enough, I like the flying part.  Taking off, landing, and turbulence are my favorite things because it feels like flying instead of just sitting in a room with a lot of other people and lots of noise.  But everything else is stressful.  I worry about getting to the airport in time, remembering all of my stuff, whether or not my luggage will be lost or stolen, what if TSA confiscates something that I want/need, what if my flight is late and it screws up my plans, what if they detain me for some weird reason, etc. etc.  On the plane, I'm claustrophobic, cramped, and bored.  I debate whether or not to get an in flight beverage because over the past few years, the flight attendants never seem to notice when I want to throw away the empty cup afterwards.  And when I get off the plane, I worry about finding my ride/public transit/my destination/my luggage/the exit.

In general, I'm not a fun travel companion, especially during the act of traveling.  My last boyfriend can tell you whether or not I was any fun starting from a few hours before leaving for a trip to the Cape until a few hours after we arrived.

Add that to the cost of flying, and you can see why I only fly when it's absolutely necessary.

I am not okay with the backscatter X-ray scanners.  I do not believe that adding them will improve security or prevent terrorist attacks.  And as a fat woman living in a culture where I'm treated like I'm stupid, sick, unhygienic, asexual, unacceptable, unhealthy animal, I don't feel comfortable going through a machine that will give strangers access to images of my body.  That's the privilege of a very small number of people: my doctors and my sexual partners.  I don't feel comfortable or safe going through those imaging machines.

And I'm not okay with the enhanced pat down procedures.  When I was 14, I was sexually assaulted; my assault very specifically involved my perpetrator (a friend of mine) shoving his fingers into my crotch through my pants, and groping my breasts.  And while I certainly have felt safe and secure with boyfriends and certain doctors having access to these areas of my body, I am absolutely not comfortable giving TSA access.  I believe it is too similar to my assault, and too unnecessary, for me to go through it.

I'm applying to PhD programs across the country.  While many of the schools are within driving, or even walking distance, several are not.  When I submit my applications, the programs that are interested in accepting me will ask me to come to the campus for an interview.  If this happens at Harvard or BU, or even UVM, I can walk or drive.  But if I hear from the University of Iowa?  Or any of the schools I've applied to in Chicago?  How will I get there without subjecting myself to a harrowing experience?  It doesn't matter where I fly to; Logan Airport in Boston is one of the airports with the new security measures.

There is a chance that I will have to decide between going to an interview or feeling safe.  Additionally, I have to keep in mind whether or not I'd be flying home for holidays and events, depending on the program.  So there is a chance that I might have to pick a program based on how close to home it is.  And if that's the case, then TSA will have had a significant impact on my PhD, and therefore the course of my career and life.

Finally, while I was reading up on the new security measures, it was unclear whether or not individuals who already have had to have pat downs will have to go through the enhanced version now.  My sister, for example, has a pacemaker; she has always had to have a pat down since she is medically unable to go through metal detectors.  Do the backscatter machines impact medical devices in the same way?  If yes, do people like my sister have to have the enhanced pat down (which, it has been suggested by many angry people, is almost a punishment for people who are able to go through the imaging machines, but choose not to)?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You know what sucks?

Last night's election results?  BP?  Cold weather?  Unpaid overtime?

Sure.  But I'm talking about something so much worse ...

Writing personal statements.

Writing the essay was always the worst part of college applications.  I remember, not so fondly, staring at my screen and hating that colleges gave us such vague prompts.  Sometimes, they'd give you specific ones, and you'd scroll down and see which one was the best.  But there was always the obnoxious, "Another topic" option at the bottom that would frustrate you with false promises.  Won't it be soooo eaaaasy to write about whatever you want?  HELL NO, I don't know what to write about!  When I wrote my college essays, I wrote two of them, both answering specific questions:

1) Discuss something that was really disappointing.  How did you handle it?
2) Discuss how the place you grew up (family, town, area, state, country) affected your growth as a person.

Or something like that.  The first one was a prompt from MIT, and I wrote about how I was disappointed with the diagnosis of "idiopathic urticaria" I'd gotten from my allergist.  I wrote about how the illness made my life much more difficult, and that I was never going to find out the exact cause of it, nor would I ever have a cure.  The second one was an "optional" essay from Tufts.  I wrote about how growing up in Red Sox Nation had challenged me to believe that anything was possible, even if I had to just wait one more year (I wrote the essay a few months after the 2004 World Series win).  Awesome essays, got me into some great schools.  I wrote the second one in a day.

So, personal statements?  SO NOT COOL.  First of all, they're incredible vague.  You are essentially trying to sell yourself to the school, but it's difficult to know exactly what to write about.  Graduate schools seem less amused by creative essays than colleges did.  "But they're not vague prompts!" you say?  "They ask you about your research interests, your experience, and your career goals!  That's not vague at all!"

Yes, it is!  What about my research interests?  Do I just describe them?  Do I talk about how I thought immunology was a cool class?  Or do I discuss my trip to the hospital when my throat swelled shut because of an autoimmune disease?  And career goals?  My goal is to get my PhD and see what happens; I don't know what I want to do after that, and anyone who is absolutely sure of what they want to do with their PhD is a lying liar.  You don't know!!

So I have to write 1000 words of unorganized drivel while praying to not-god that the admissions office will not discriminate against me because of my history of autoimmunity flaring up.  And because this personal statement's contents are much more like a cover letter than an actual essay, it's very difficult to have an introduction and conclusion, so the whole thing sort of starts and ends abruptly.

That is what sucks!