Bugs in the City

NOTE: The Smithsonian is crowdsourcing! Read all the way (or skip) to the bottom to learn how to become an online volunteer for the Smithsonian Museum’s bumblebee records project!

One thing that is extremely noticeable about our new location is the increase in the number of bugs inside the house. In South Minneapolis we had the occasional ant attack, and once some demon flies infested the apartment after I downloaded a desktop wallpaper, but here it seems that there are more and greater varieties of insect home invaders than we experienced in the city. It makes sense; our new house is in a more wooded area, and we now have a direct entry to the house rather than an apartment lobby entry. But what can you do? Once we got over our initial revulsion it just became a fact of life. Bought a fly swatter and it’s all good now. The cat is ecstatic to be able to put her long-dormant hunting skills back into play.

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Why I work late

Oy. Tonight was a long one. Deadlines aren’t always as flexible as one might hope, and science sometimes does not play by human clocks. But it’s all worth it for a chance to piss off the anti-science, pro-God set. One of my secret atheist coworker friends (we have a secret handshake okay no we do not but I’d totally learn one because who doesn’t want to be part of a club that has secret handshakes), gave this to me today:

2014-07-29 13.15.51

Text on a small scrap of paper says: “SCIENCE: The study and investigation of phenomena based on rigorous study and experiment, conducted solely for the purpose of pissing off those who think God did it all.”

Yup. As Fox News has known for years, science-ing is actually part of the Atheist Agenda. I do what I can. You’re welcome.

Wasp Threesome

Today at work we found some wasps enjoying the lovely sunshiny afternoon.

Three mud daubers stacked one on top of the other.

I think these are mud daubers. I can’t find much on why three mud daubers might be stacked together like this, but whenever there’s odd behavior and animals involved, there’s a good chance that it has something to do with sex.

Muscle guy having his arm groped by an impressed-looking lady.

Freeze-Dried Plasma

My nerdy interest du jour is battlefield medicine, tactical combat casualty care and field medicine (the non-military side of emergency medicine, used in disaster relief). The concept of triage and how to tackle logistical hurdles such as how to carry or transport sensitive equipment and items that need special storage (like refrigeration or freezing) in sparse or hostile environments is fascinating! I just ordered Battlefield Angels: Saving Lives Under Enemy Fire From Valley Forge to Afghanistan on my Kindle and can’t wait to dive into it (just have to finish A Feast for Crows first…)

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Bits and Pieces

I am exhausted!

Today at lunch I did a 2.5 mile outdoor jog/walk. The weather was nice and the run went quickly. After that I came back to the office and packed up for my first move in eight years. We’re implementing a new program that requires co-location of team members, so I moved from a modest desk on the first floor to a much larger cube area on the second floor. It’s pretty sweet. But there was a lot of cleaning up to do – eight years of accumulated business plans, training documentation, hundreds of file folders filled with things that might someday be useful or necessary – but not so necessary that they require formal logging and storage – little gadgets and anniversary doo-dads, and five – count ‘em five – separate containers of floss. Five floss barely beat out the four chapstick that  I found squirreled away in different drawers. Many, many trips up and down the stairs.

But now I’m moved in and I have my computer and the internet back up, so life can continue. Gads, my knees are complaining, though.

Tomorrow we’re supposed to get 8-12 inches of snow. Frickin’ Minnesota spring.

Here’s A Thing Going Around the Internet. It looks like it originated on Santa Cruz Biotechnology Facebook page. I apologize for not providing a transcript. This is a very wordy image, a list of 54 “Ways To Tell That You’ve Been in a Lab Too Long” and there’s way too much to type up. But I will type my top six favorites:

1. You use the word “aliquot” in regular sentences. (Oh…this isn’t normal. But…aliquot is such a useful word!)

6. You flinch when you hear the word “significant”. (And “hypothesis” and “theory.”

23. You always seem to use the microscope after the person with the impossible close together eyes.

33. Warning labels invoke curiosity rather than caution

43. You’ve left the lab wearing a piece of PPE because you forgot that you had it on. (It’s always my safety glasses.)

46. You’ve bent down to pick something up off the floor only to scatter the contents of your top pocket under the largest machine in the lab (EVERY. DAMN. TIME).

48. When you start making patterns in your pipette tip box as you take the tips out. (I once made an X-Wing.)

There are a few on here that make me think NOPE.NOPE.NOPE (#25 – I’ve never wanted to drink distilled water from the lab). Also a few that make me think that the person who put this list together has jerkish tendencies (#28 – Who rolls their eyes and talks down to non-scientists who inquire about your work? Not cool.) But overall, I recognize waaaay too many of these.

LabTooLong And here are a few of my own:

*You’ve argued about whether it’s spelled “pipet” or “pipette”.

*You’ve had to explain the difference between a 1:10, 1/10, 1 in 10 and a 10-fold dilution.

*You’ve gotten annoyed because someone left an empty glove box in the holder.

*It sometimes feels like you have to defend your equipment against your coworkers with a sword and shield.

*Who spilled some unknown white crystalline chemical on the weigh scale and didn’t clean it up? Was it you? It was you, wasn’t it?

*The prospect of of having to explain your mixed study results to a cross-functional team fills you with dread.

Any of you lab people have any to add?

Wood Lake Nature Center: A Song of Slush and Mud

Today the Hubby and I ventured out to enjoy the springish weather at Wood Lake Nature Center. The temperature was in the mid-40s and we were able to get away with light jackets. In the past Wood Lake has been amazing for wildlife. They get an amazing variety of migratory birds in the spring and fall, and they have a “no dogs” policy so the wildlife doesn’t get spooked. The very first thing we saw when we started down the trail was a coyote crossing the iced-over marsh. It was quite a ways away, but I managed to snag a bigfoot-style shot:

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Goodbye, Dear Samples.

When in the Course of sample shelf life stability, it becomes necessary for one person to dissolve the emotional bands which have connected her with these samples, and to assume among the powers of industry science, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Finance and of Peer-Reviewed Literature entitle her, a decent respect to the opinions of Her Project Manager requires that she should declare the causes which impel her to the separation.

They were old and the integrity of the proteins could no longer be trusted. That’s pretty much it.

*sniff*

I was hired in 2006 to conduct a month-long blood draw that produced thousands of aliquots. I participated as a phlebotomist, a sample processor, and I helped test them and analyze the data that they provided. My successful participation in this project has developed into a happy and fruitful career. Across eight years, numerous projects and the periodic mandated freezer cleanup (the bane of many a laboratory scientist) I have managed to save these characterized samples in the hope that someone, someday would be able to use them. But the end has come: All of the analytes within the serum that might be of use to us have likely degraded. So it was with a heavy heart that this afternoon – on the 26th day of March in the 2014th year of our calendar – I discarded them all.

Goodbye, dear samples. I will remember you fondly.

Eleven freezer canes, filled with sample freezer boxes

Most of these eleven freezer canes contain twelve freezer boxes, each of which contain somewhere between 40 and 80 1mL sample aliquots. That’s about 8,000 vials that were discarded.

Printing A Human Heart

We’re not to the point of printing working organs yet, (although we are getting closer), but 3D printing technology recently played a very cool part in the care of an infant who underwent surgery for a double outlet right ventricle.

From 3D Printing Industry.com:

The infant’s heart was riddled with defects before the surgery at the Hospital and his surgeon, Dr. Erle Austin, said that he had anticipated that the surgery would be tricky and thus sought a model that offered more detail than traditional 2D scans.

I found a video from courier-journal.com describing the collaboration between University of Louisville J.B. Speed School of Engineering and the physicians at the University of Louisville. Click on the image below to go to see it (you will be redirected to a new site).

Printer printing a slice of heart. Link to video embedded in this image.

From the video I learned that radiologists sent images of the infant’s heart, and those were translated into a program that the printer could handle. The heart was printed 50% larger than than life-size, with a flexible rubber-like substance, and in three segments so physicians could see “inside” the heart prior to starting the surgery! This allowed the docs to estimate how long the surgery would take, and foresee potential outcomes and complications.

3D surgical planning models, custom-printed for the patient. Personalized medicine, indeed!

Photo of Professor Farnsworth and text "Okay, I want to live on this planet for a little while longer."

Doing Science

“Doing science” for me often involves running controlled experiments with an eye on what the study should tell us. We have a hypothesis, we set out to answer specific questions, and we have an idea of what the answers will be and how we’ll proceed if we get one answer or another. But even the most rigorously controlled study doesn’t always answer the question that we originally asked. Or it gives us more than we asked for – or wanted.

“Doing science” means looking at the data closely, observing the numbers and comparing them against the different variables in the experiment. It involves looking for patterns and unexpected results. It means not automatically dismissing data points that don’t fit the pattern as outliers; sometimes the most interesting phenomena are contained in those points. When you do science it is important to understand – and be willing to accept – that the path you set out on might deliver you to a completely unexpected destination.

Expect the unexpected. Be flexible. Be willing to admit that initial impressions were wrong. Take a deep breath when plans have to be redeveloped (plans that took forever to draft and underwent the Sisyphean task of review-rewrite-review and finally – approval!). Steady yourself when you have to deliver the news that important deadlines might have to be pushed back. It’s all part of doing science.

When people express a distrust of science or the scientific method, it’s because they have put science on a pedestal – they expected or demanded that it be unwavering, infallible. And when it fails to live up to their expectations, they cast it aside as useless or faulty. But these perceived faults are the strengths of science. The ability to recover from the setbacks, adapt to new circumstances, and then continue forward with more correct information – this is at the heart of what makes science such a perfect tool to understand our ever-changing world. When science sits still or becomes predictable, it’s because we have stopped doing science correctly.

Eureka Moments

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” —Isaac Asimov (1920–1992).

I had a “Eureka!” moment today. An honest-to-goodness real-all-growed-up-scientist Eureka moment. In my case the particular exclamation wasn’t “that’s funny”, but “NOOOOOOO! What the @%$&*# is that!?” which is a slightly less literary turn of phrase than Asimov gave us, but I think probably more common in the real world.

I saw the weirdness, got my swearing out of the way and then spent about twenty minutes organizing and re-organizing data, then turning my computer upside down to get yet another view. Next I had to go over my methods and try to figure out where I might have screwed something up. And in a moment of absolutely stunning clarity, I found the pattern. And it was a pattern. Everything fit! I actually pulled a passing coworker over to my desk saying “Do you see this?”

I won’t describe it here because it’s boringly specialized and to try to explain it would dull the awesomeness of the moment. But there is a good chance that the finding may help my group further our understanding of the science that’s driving our project.

The thing that I learned today ain’t gonna get me a paper or a patent – some scientist somewhere would undoubtedly look at my announcement and go “Ummm…yeah? We knew that.” But no one in OUR group knew it. This is a special interaction that is (might be) affecting one tiny part of the greater whole of what we’re working on. It wouldn’t be new science, but it would be a new understanding of why we’re seeing the weird things we’ve occasionally been seeing. And hey, it may help us build in controls that will make the final product just a bit better.

Not every Eureka moment leads to the Theory of Special Relativity or Post-It glue, but I think a lot of people – including scientists – feel like if they’re not Einstein or Dr. Gregory House they’re never going to have that moment when a bus drives by and an advert for polka dot bikinis catches your eye and makes you think of the spots that the patient reported seeing, and all sound fades out and you get a stupid blank look on your face and then you shout “SARCCOIDOSIS!”

Nah…For most of us, Eureka moments usually have to be earned with laborious, dull effort. But that means they can be earned with hard work – not just be had by those with innate genius or mad observational and deductive skills.

Annoyingly, Eureka moments also have to be verified. So wish me luck – the results that will support (not prove, mind you) my hypothesis should come off the instrument any moment now!