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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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.


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.

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!

MN State Science & Engineering Fair

Last week I had the pleasure of volunteering as a judge for the Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair. The top projects from Junior High and Senior High schools all over Minnesota were displayed. “Junior High” or “Middle School” projects encompassed grades 6-8 (which means the students were approximately 11-13 years old) and “High School” projects encompassed grades 9-12 (~14-17 years old).

There were literally hundreds of judges in attendance. It seemed like most of the judges were recruited from the Minnesota Academy of Science membership and from local companies that employ scientists, but anyone with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree or at least two years of experience in the relevant project fields can volunteer to judge those areas. The areas were:

  • Animal Sciences
  • Behavioral & Social Sciences
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular & Molecular Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Earth Science
  • Engineering: Materials & Bioengineering
  • Engineering: Electrical & Mechanical
  • Energy & Transportation
  • Environmental Analysis
  • Environmental Management
  • Mathematical Sciences
  • Medicine & Health Sciences
  • Microbiology
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Plant Sciences

There were two types of judges: Grand/General Judge and Special Awards Judge. The Special Awards judges are usually supplied from organizations and businesses that are giving awards to students. Awards criteria for Special Awards can be anything that the organization chooses, and are usually certificates of recognition or cash prizes.  My company sent about a dozen people to judge awards in the fields in which we tend to specialize: Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and Health Sciences and Microbiology. We were giving out cash prizes and we split the job of reviewing relevant projects up among ourselves.

However, organizations can send in an award without sending in a person to judge for that award. They leave judging up to the discretion of the science fair organizers. If there are judges who finish their assigned categories early, or more judges than are needed, they can get recruited to assign these awards.

Because we sent so many people from our company, a few of us were recruited to be Grand Judges. I was one of those and was to be judging the Plant Sciences, but I arrived (a teensy, miniscule, just a little bit) late and the organizers had assigned that job to someone else by the time I arrived. So I was asked to be a special awards judge for two certificates of recognition, specifically recognizing excellence in science by women presenters.

And I was all like:

animated yay photo: Crusher YAY! crusher.gif

The first award was recognition for Women in GeoScience. There was to be one certificate for a Junior project and one for a Senior project. The second award was recognition for Women In Science, for which there were to be 10 certificates, with three spots to be dedicated to Junior projects.

IMAG0444There were SO. MANY. poster presentations, so this turned out to be a hell of a lot more work than I understood when I first agreed to judge for these awards. To put things in perspective, the goal for my company was to have each person judge no more than 5-7 posters. Grand Judges (those who determine who will advance to the International Science and Engineering Fair) each judge about the same. Depending on the complexity of the project, it can take quite a while to read the poster, grasp the author’s intention, evaluate the quality of the methodology and interview the author.

These special awards, by their definition, required viewing much more than 5-7 posters.

The Geoscience Award thankfully limited the categories to Earth and Planetary Science, Environmental Science and Analysis, Physics and Astronomy, and Plant Sciences. But because they wanted to give one award to a Junior and one to Senior, that doubled the number of posters to view. They had, however, given some criteria for what they wanted to see in a project: Special consideration was to be given to projects that increase public awareness of the geosciences, illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of the geosciences, or promote the sensitivity to the earth as a global system.

The ten Women In Science awards gave ZERO criteria for judging and essentially required that the poor sap who took on the judging consider EVERY FREAKING POSTER that was being presented by a woman. This was rather poor planning on the organization’s part, and I wrote them a letter explaining the difficulties of leaving things this vague. At half time I asked the organizers if there were any other volunteers who could give me a hand, but the stores were tapped. I was advised to do the best I could and was thanked profusely for not throwing in the towel! Since the criteria were vague and the awards were certificates of recognition – not money and not advancement – the consequence of potentially “screwing up” on my part was relatively minor.

I knocked the Women in Geoscience awards out in the morning. The ten Women in Science awards took the rest of the day. To review more efficiently I scanned the abstracts that were printed in the fair catalog, picked out the top 10 (IMHO) exciting or novel Junior projects and top 20 Senior projects and went a-knocking. I had already seen a number of the geoscience categories, so those plus the thirty extra projects made up the sum of my evaluations. Some projects took less time to review, some took more. I read projects and spoke with students up until the last possible minute and then went and made some very hard decisions.


Judges reviewing poster sessions before the stampede of students was allowed in.

At the Junior level, the most common project format was “How does variable x affect a particular outcome?” For example, the dreaded “What kind of music do plants like most?” One of the gems of participating as a Junior-level judge is being challenged with some of leaps (and misses) of logical and scientific thinking. For example, many of the students had a very lax understanding of how to set up their hypotheses; I saw many abuses of the null hypothesis last week. And while most of the students claimed to have controls, many of them got it wrong (e.g. one participant who wanted to know if yoga relieved stress said that her control was that all of the study participants took the same yoga class). To be fair, study controls are a tricky thing and I’ve met a number of graduate-degreed associates who are unclear on the concept.

At the Senior level (and for several Junior posters), some of the projects were so advanced that I had to bring out my smartphone and/or ask presenters to explain things more than once. These kids were mindblowingly AMAZING. I met one girl who had published her study (which she had conducted as an intern at an Ivy-League school) as the first author in a peer-reviewed journal, two who were submitting their projects for publication, one who had discovered three new species of bacteria, and one who was doing a study involving electromagnetic fields who wanted to more precisely measure one of her inputs, so she learned the basics of the programming language, C, and built her own computer to make sure she was accurate…before returning to the larger question.

There were many projects on the topic of climate change and global warming. That was heartening to see as I believe climate change is one of our top scientific challenges. We’re going to need some smart, passionate scientists working on how to keep this rock running for us in the years to come.

At the end of the day I hobbled down to the judge’s lounge for a much-desired cocktail, met up with and shared war stories with my coworkers, and then drove straight home. I was drained for the rest of the night and most of the next day – and that’s not an exaggeration. I was delighted to be exposed to the youthful enthusiasm of the presenters. I was introduced to so many new concepts as well as to truly unique questions and novel research that attempted to fill gaps in our understanding of how the world and technology around us works. It was beyond inspiring – it was exhausting!

I can’t wait for next year’s fair.

What are your favorite science resources?


I’m going to do an interview with James Zimmerman from Minnesota Atheists next week. He wants to talk science, which I’m super excited about, and he’s asked me to come prepared with some resources that I can list for adults who want to learn more about science.

Not like that’s a HUGE areas or anything.


Image via

I’ve got my personal favorites, but they’re mostly centered around medicine and biology. I’m definitely going to mention the Science Museum of Minnesota and their Social Science program, and I’m going to get a plug in for the upcoming SkepTech conference in April. And I thought I’d ask for some help from you all. If you’d be so kind – what are your go-to places – physical locations, special events, open-source learning/classes, websites, TV shows, social media outlets, etc – for your various interests? General science resources are good, but if you’ve got any resources for specific fields that you think really shine, I’d love to hear about those too!

Ficoll Fun

Here’s a cool science photo from the lab:

RBCs in Ficoll

What we’re looking at is whole blood that is separating into its various components.

Blood is made up of red blood cells (RBCs), white blood cells (WBCs) and plasma. If fresh, whole blood is left sitting in a tube, the denser RBCs will slowly fall to the bottom, leaving the less dense, pale, yellowish plasma on the top. The WBCs cannot usually be seen unless separated from the red cells by centrifugation.

This particular tube was filled with Ficoll Paque, a chemical that looks and moves like water. It is used to help separate blood into its different components. Ficoll is less dense than RBCs, but more dense than plasma and some of the WBCs. Blood was very slowly and carefully pipetted on top of the Ficoll. You can see where the whole blood was layered and the Ficoll starts – it’s the place where the RBCs begin to “shower down” through the clear layer, making it look speckled. This tube was left sitting on the bench for about 15 minutes and the RBCs are collecting on the bottom of the tube:

RBCs in Ficoll with labels

Neat stuff, huh? Here’s what it looks like after centrifugation:

Separated Cells

The bottom layer is RBCs, followed by a thin layer of granulocytes (the name for  WBCs that have granules in their cytoplasm. The granules make them denser than the Ficoll). Above that is a wide band of the Ficoll, then a thin, translucent layer of white blood cells called mononuclear cells (the name for WBCs that have a single-lobed nucleus. MNCs don’t have granules in their cytoplasm). And at the top of the tube is plasma.

And all we have to do at this point is carefully pipet the different layers that we want separated:

Separate Components

From left to right: the first tube contains plasma, the second tube is comprised of three layers: Ficoll, granulocytes and RBCs, and the third tube holds our prize: the mononuclear cells.

And because I think it’s pretty, here’s one more photo of RBCs drifting down through Ficoll. These three tubes were layered one after the other. The one that was layered first has had the most time to separate, the one that was layered last has had the least:

Ficoll Time Course

Ada Lovelace Day: Mary B.

This article is written for Ada Lovelace Day:

Ada Lovelace Day is about sharing stories of women — whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today. The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of other women in STEM.

You can learn more about Ada Lovelace, the Enchantress of Numbers, at 

Today, October 16th, 2012 is a day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and math, and bloggers, vloggers and other content producers from all over the world are writing and talking about the accomplishments of their female STEM heros and and inspirations. At the website you can add your own story about a woman in STEM who has had a positive impact on your life.

I wanted to write about a contemporary female scientist, so I asked around to my circle of friends and found Mary B. Mary agreed to let me share her story here, but because she wants to maintain a modicum of privacy, I will refer to her just as Mary.

Mary is a senior scientist for a Twin Cities biotechnology company. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology with a minor in Chemistry, as well as an AAS in Marine Science. She’s been fascinated with science since she was a little girl. She recently turned 57 years young, and has been employed in various scientific fields for most of her life.

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CONvergence 2012: Doomsday Scenarios

Final CONvergence: Doomsday Scenarios

The second panel that I attended this weekend was made up of five people with backgrounds in physics, biology, technology, nuclear proliferation and mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.

The physicist discussed asteroids. He explained how small meteorites are entering our atmosphere all the time, mentioned NASA’s Near Earth Object program, and spoke briefly about the Torino Scale. Later he pondered the effect that a large solar flare ejected in the direction of Earth might have on our population.

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