Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cross-cultural Exchanges

I got my hair done at this henna tatto/threading/hair place around the corner from the train station. There are four or five Indian women working there, but the woman who cut my hair was from Columbia. The first fifteen minutes or so I was there, the strains of Bollywood rang out around me. Then my hairdresser excused herself to get a comb and when she came back, the background music had switched to Hispanic radio. I made small talk. I told her I loved Latino music...salsa, bachata, meringue, reggaeton. Every few weeks I go to this restaurant/bar downtown and dance my heart out at a place called Gonzalez y Gonzalez. "But do you speak Spanish? Do you understand the words?" asked my hairdresser in broken English. --"No, I can't speak Spanish," I told her, "I just go there to dance." The woman laughed. "When I was a young girl in Columbia I listened to American music. We danced to American music and we knew all the songs. I didn't understand the words either."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Low Point

When I first moved here I was so happy and the possibilities of the city around me filled me with hope and energy. But now the flush of a new start is long over and I am struggling and stumbling more than ever. I am having growing pains with my new responsibilities at work and when I struggle at work the despair comes back, stronger and blacker each time. I feel like I keep discovering new limitations inside of myself, and keep adding more and more examples to the tally of life-skills that I simply cannot seem to master. Over and over again. I don't know what to do and I am losing my will to move forward.

I miss things that everyone else sees, both in the lab and out on the street, among my friends and my roommates. I don't notice that car X belongs to person Y. I don't take that extra time to think through what the inconclusive gel is telling me or if I do, my thinking becomes muddled in tangents and I overlook the obvious. I don't know what to do. It's affecting my work, my boss' view of my work, and what little confidence I have in myself. I feel like I am adrift, without a map. Lost.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


It's hard learning the ways of a brand new lab and I've felt that I am dragging along while frantically trying to process all the new information, remember the small details of how things are done differently here, and keep the different projects straight. Ever since I made the personally momentous decision to major in biology, I've spent a lot of time worrying about my ability to do science. It's always been a deep-seated fear of mine that I am not good enough for the trade. I am a slow (if careful) learner and I absorb things deeply, but it takes me time. I don't do well in harried atmospheres where I feel like I don't count and I get little constructive feedback about my performance. For the past two years I've worried and literally wept in despair about my ability to do the work of science. But today...well today I was told something that I haven't heard in years. I was told that I am doing just fine. I was told that I am a good addition to the lab. I heard the words, directed at me: "You can be a scientist."

Something deep inside of me just took a breath. The relief. It's palpable. And oh, how I love my new lab. The people are good and the science is great. It makes such a difference when the science is great.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New Beginnings

I am back after a long hiatus! Since my last post, I ended my internship/temp job at the DOE lab and relocated to where I want to live: New York City. Sometime in mid-winter, a few weeks before I was supposed to sign up for the dreaded GRE, I woke up early on a Saturday morning and decided that I should move to New York and find a job instead of obsessing over graduate school and continuing my DOE work. It was a tough decision to make, with friends and mentors questioning my logic ("You want to move to NEW YORK?! NEW YORK?!! Why?! You can do your master's here and not pay anything. What are you going to DO? When are you going back to school? You are too nice to live in New York City. Everyone up there is rude. How are you going to find a plant biology job?") However, I stuck to my plan with a conviction that I rarely muster. Even though I was fearfully embarrassed about relocating without any job prospects, inside I proudly told myself that I was off to seek my fortune. Somehow, I found it.

I found a great little house in Queens to share with my sister and three roommates (and my dog and their four cats). After living off savings and babysitting gigs for a month, I landed a wonderful job as a laboratory technician in a really incredible lab in exactly the field I want. Of course, I am terrified because I am underqualified for the job and I still need to make a decision about grad school. Of course there are ups and downs no matter where I live. But for right now I feel that there isn't much I can't do.

My new job is to maintain flow and organization in the laboratory, order supplies, conduct small experiments and produce data from protocols, and grow hundreds and hundreds of plants. It will be a big step up from my limping progress of the past. Historic scientific discoveries took place and famous scientists have walked and worked there. The lab is so beautiful and looks out on the harbor. I think I will do good work. It may be impossible not to.

New York City is enormous and dirty and full of millions of people and cars and acres of concrete. I love everything about it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I lived the first five years of my life in Manhattan and calling this city Home feels as natural now as it did when I was barely old enough to recite the address of the cramped old apartment in mid-town where I was born. The street smells of honey-roasted peanuts, the steam from the vents, garbage, rain, and the dankness of old buildings, the taste of the water, induce incredible nostalgia that makes me feel primordially real and especially alive and particularly ArabidopsisGirl. I belong here in a way that I never belonged in Chicago, Georgia, D.C., Tennessee, or even in the house far upstate where I grew up and my parents still live. For once, I made a life decision that is right.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Slump Time

It's one of those times when I'm not feeling very motivated to do anything. This extends to my personal life as well as my work life and it's frustrating and demoralizing. I'm not sure why I so often seem to hit a lag spell in late spring, after more busy and productive winters (though a trend of unfortunate spring/summer romances could correlate). You'd think with all the busy photosynthesizing going on outside I'd be inspired.

The past couple of weeks I've simply been hauling myself to work and going through the motions. The high point of my day today is going to be a waltz lesson at 7 pm, because dancing always brightens my mood. But before that I have Apollo to walk and primers to design for a gene that we're going to be cloning. I also have to do mesocosm work, which isn't exactly inspiring or fun and RNA extractions for a very particular technician. Sundry and various miscellaneous tasks are also beginning to pile up. Let's have a resounding headdesk for my miserable lack of enthusiasm. I hate it when my life turns into shades of gray.

On the bright side, I do have a Brugmansia suaveolens seedling that finally germinated after almost a month. I planted about fifteen seeds and only had one pop up, but one plant is really quite enough anyway--the plants can get quite big. All the other seeds molded or were consumed by little larvae, perhaps partly because I kept the soil too moist. In any case, the germination was a victory for me and something small to be happy about. Maybe inspiration will hit tomorrow.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Other Side of Eureka

I often wonder if blithe (sometimes blind) supporters of the rigid scientific method have any clue what they are talking about. Do they really have a conception of just how messy and heuristic real life research is? Would your average intellectual be half as supportive of our myriad colonies of labs if they grasped the number of dead ends and trivialities being patiently investigated? I do wonder.

I can't speak for physics and chemistry, but I know for a fact how much stumbling in the dark goes on in the biological sciences. I do a good bit of it myself. Months can go into simply figuring out how to keep the organism of study alive, not to mention developing or optimizing techniques that make studying the question possible. One of the technicians has a cartoon taped to her desk with a picture of a scientist surrounded by what looks like a failed chemistry experiment and the caption, "What's the opposite of 'Eureka?'" Indeed. What is the opposite of Eureka?

The most abundant opposite of Eureka I hear around the lab is something along the lines of (&*^$^##@$%^%&%$*((*(&^))*^%$%^#!!!!!!!!!! My current research mentor always gets mildly colorful when we inform him of a setback or failure. I had my most recent anti-Eureka moment this Friday, when I looked at my first Western blot and saw a whole lot of nothing. My phytochrome protein didn't transfer. It was not total shock and dismay because the incredibly kind and patient post-doc training me had not had any luck getting that protein to transfer either. I'd have loved to succeed at it. I literally woke up on Friday morning dreaming about washing my Western blot. It was very much on my mind, I felt responsible for it, and it ended up not working.

The opposite of Eureka:
"I have not found it!"
--"Keep searching."

That is the best opposite of Eureka I can come up with.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


How to appreciate the growing, blooming, alive, respiring plant and probe its innermost workings at the very same time? How do you describe the real world in such a way that you construct an accurate model? How do you understand both the whole and the parts? Ever since I brought my African violet, Murphy, to work and rediscovered my love of cultivating plants I've been pondering these questions with little success.

I bought Murphy at Kroger's the second night I moved to my current job at the labs. Murphy was the prettiest of the group on display, with delicate, purple and white flowers and nice, firm leaves. At the checkout counter the clerk accidentally sliced off several of the largest leaves, leaving the plant with a lop-sided appearance. Oh well. I put it on my windowsill and promptly forgot to water it for a week or so. After discovering that my violet was looking a bit limp, somehow, during the 10-foot trip from my windowsill to the sink, I managed to drop my violet plant-first on the ground. Somehow, I managed to do this several times over the next few weeks. Needless to say, it lost soil and I didn't get around to replacing it. But it struggled on. I switched apartments after a month and dropped my plant again. Then I moved again, to cheaper accommodations and relegated the plant a low table, where my newly adopted dog blithely knocked it over with his magnificent tail. I watered it occasionally and shifted it around the apartment, musing that its lighting requirements weren't being met. At some point, I realized that my plant had had a most unfortunate life ever since I'd bought it. Still, though admittedly ragged and unhealthy looking, it was alive, and I named it Murphy, after Murphy's law. Last summer I finally decided to bring it to work with me, thinking that perhaps it would do well under the fluorescent light at my desk.

To say that Murphy did well would be an understatement. Murphy flourished. Having the plant in front of me all the time was encouragement enough to give it some much-needed TLC. I added some soil to the pot and gave it a bit of 10-10-10. Most importantly, I kept it stationary on my desk instead of traipsing around with it. I recently re-potted Murphy in a larger pot and Fafard mix and have been enjoying almost uninterrupted blooms ever since. I am not modest about Murphy. I love talking about my plant and showing it off to people and telling the story behind the name.

For me, plants are far more than simply the taxonomic group I've chosen to do research on. I love them and always have. When I'm driving, I unconsciously identify trees and wildflowers on the roadside. At art galleries I am drawn to the intricately tiny plants Medieval and Rennaissance artists painted in the backgrounds of their classic renditions of Madonnas and saints. I am also fascinated by the disjoint between the methods and principles of botanical study and the art of growing plants; for you can do one with excellence and fail at the other. You can love you some molecular biology and care less about that random field flower you carelessly spotted while trying to figure out why the fragments in your gel aren't the right size even after redesigning the primers. You could recognize and appreciate close to every single plant species growing in a forest, yet have not a clue about the staggering array of busy mRNAs and proteins massed in a single cell of one plant among those myriad species.

I sit at my desk, with Murphy and various other favored plants that I feed, water, and fuss over between gels and protein assays in front of me. How does the science I do on frozen leaf tissue dissolved in chemicals fit together with the simplicity of my alive and entire African violet plant, faithfully flowering away?

Image upper left: Murphy, after luck turned, photographed by Arabidopsisgirl