Monday, April 30, 2007 what?

This past weekend I took a few steps in trying to figure out where I'm supposed to be headed after graduation. I know that I won't really know for a while (part of this is that I don't have a graduation date established, just "by the end of 2007"), but I'm trying to weigh my options and send out some feelers for some of the directions I am feeling nudged to head.

For this past weekend, that meant two things:
1. Inquire for the MFC researcher I'm interested in if he anticipates any openings for a postdoc anytime soon. I sent this email on Friday evening.

2. Visit one of the cities I'm thinking of going. Why? To get a sense of the place. And...maybe get a blast of lightning saying, "YES!! This is the place to go!! Now, find someone to work with here!!" (I might add that I realize this probably seems like a totally backwards way of selecting a job - at least a postdoctoral research position - to first figure out to which city one wants to go and then figure out if there's a job there. As my boss told me once, the only reason to do that is for family or boyfriend/fiance/husband. I assure you, that is not the case in my situation.)

So, I went to the city yesterday, which was sort of a disaster because I had planned on leaving my house much earlier than I did but that ended up not happening for reasons beyond my control, and as it turned out I hadn't really put much thought into how much time I would have in the city, and all the things I had put on my mental list of stuff to do would have taken at least 7 more hours than I had allotted myself. Well - the getting to the city and doing what I hoped was a disaster. The visit was actually very much NOT. I got a lot of very good, very tough thinking done on the way there and while I was exploring some of the area. No bolts of lightning, though. I did, however, really, really, really, really, really, really appreciate the fact that this city does NOT have insane, falling apart roads like Pittsburgh does. And people also know how to drive there, unlike in Pittsburgh. And it's clean, unlike in Pittsburgh. (I don't hate Pittsburgh,'s got a lot of stuff that really bugs me. Some cities are just not for certain people!)

Then I came home this morning. More thinking on the way back. More thinking as I walked to the bus to go to work. One thing I had gleaned from my visit was that regardless of the choice I make - to move there or to move somewhere else or do something totally different than what I'm thinking now - it, in a sense, doesn't matter. It's not like the world will end because I make a choice that is less than perfect. And my life will not be ruined if I make a bad choice, either! So if I go to this city and then it turns out to be a lousy idea...well, that's it. It was a lousy idea, and I accept that fact and move on. (Perhaps easier said than done, but still the thought makes me feel much less anxious about my choice.) And suddenly on the way to the bus I thought, "Well, then GO! There's nowhere else you want to go, so why don't you just go and do it! And it's not a bad choice, anyhow!"

Hm. ...Okay!

And then I got to work and turned on my computer and checked my email and read...

"My lab is pretty full right now, so no, I don't anticipate any openings in the next few months."

Oh. Bleh.

Well, that negates that option unless I somehow decide to beat a dying horse (which I have realized recently I'm pretty good at doing!) and figure out a way to convince this researcher that I can write a grant and get funding for a project of my own to do in his lab. And - I'm not being low-self-esteemy here! - the chances of me actually getting a grant for this type of research coming from the field I'm in is very, very, very low, so that does not seem like a very wise course of action. My efforts would be best spent somewhere else.

And so...what does it mean? Shall I search for other opportunities in the city? I'm sure there are lots, and many that are much more related to my current work and expertise. Do I look somewhere else? The interesting thing is that besides the MFC research, right now absolutely nothing grabs me. Not like when I was in undergrad and looking for grad schools - I was passionate about HIV, and that guided my choices. But I'm not passionate about HIV now, and I don't feel passion for anything except bacteria making electricity. And this is both frustrating (I'm not even at Square One; I'm at Square ZERO!) and comforting (I can do...anything! Wow - that's a lot of options!). But not very informative.

...I suppose that in conclusion I shall say...stay tuned to see this story progress and discover the exciting conclusion in a matter of (I hope!) months...! Oh, and if you have any passion to pass on, please do.


Friday, April 27, 2007

relient k

As I said to my friend Leeann yesterday when I arrived at the gym and she asked how I was doing because I looked 'not okay'..."It's been a...year." Indeed, life has been full of very interesting and semi-overwhelming occurrences since January 1. Ups and downs, of course, but I remember commiserating with my coworker one day after we both encountered weird, weird, weird results in the lab during the last week of January - and she said, "2007 is not going so well."

Er...I hope this isn't sounding too melancholy...!

At any rate, it had been a long day of thinking and fixing and working with people, but after some biking and ellipticaling (since the chiropractor says running is not such a good idea for my back, hips, and knees), I headed home and felt rather better. And as I sat down on the couch to start working on my home-work (that I needed to do at home to "turn in" to my boss today), I popped an old favorite CD into my new laptop. I was craving some of the comfort and truth of "Getting Into You" from Relient K's 2003 album Two Lefts Don't Make a Right...But Three Do. According to the artists, nobody knows them, but I've known them for a long time, so it's hard for me to tell if that's really true. Anyhow, if you don't know them and you have the sense of humor that made you smile when you read the album title ('s true!), check them out (and while you're there, make sure you listen to "Must Have Done Something Right" - even if you're a bitter single person, you'll probably smile because this guy's in-love-ness is so cute and genuine!). Oh, and they also have lots of fun things to say about the 1980's, so if you like the 80's...there you go.

What I appreciate about Relient K's music is that it's not about big, crazy drama. It's about everyday things that happen. When there's a song about "I'm mad at you!" it isn't, "...And my life is ruined and it's all your fault and you'd better come apologize or you'll be sorry." It's "Hm, getting along with people is real tough. Real and tough. I feel angry. You probably do, too. I feel worse thinking that I made you angry. We're both wrong. There's a lot of stuff that needs to get worked out between us and within me." ...Sounds like healthy, well-adjusted, thoughtful people approaching a problem in a logical way. And I guess that's why I couldn't stop with just the one song I had set out to hear last night; I listened to two of their albums. And if you know me and my musical inclinations, you'll know it is quite abnormal for me to spend that much time listening to something. I'm much more of a peace and quiet type.

But - good thing I wasn't last night, because after the music (oh, and a nice cup of cappuccino), I felt much, much relieved of many of the stresses that have been bogging me down lately. It's not that the music fixed my problems. No...I guess it rather reminded me that bad things occur to everyone and we all have to select our way to deal with the bad things and sometimes it takes a long time for bad things to get fully worked out; and that good things also occur; and that the year hasn't been that bad; and that I can thrive under the grace I've received and live a much more joyful life if I recall to extend grace to others.

...Deeeeeep, eh? All that from a band whose songs say stuff like "Ohio has the flavor of a water chestnut."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

would you like a picture?

Okay, okay, here we go. I have so, so, so much to catch everyone up on! And that means I need to start back in March...

March is Spring Break time, although that means very little in the world of graduate students. In general that has meant one of two things for me as a grad student: 1) there is more time to work in the lab because classes are canceled for that week OR 2) it is absolutely an oxymoron to say it's "Spring Break" when we grad students have to teach the med students during that week because med student Spring Break is the week afterwards!

Since I've finished my teaching responsibilities as a student and I really didn't feel the need to spend more time in the lab, I chose to take a break. Only for a couple days, though. I drove about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh to Linn Run State Park where I had rented a rustic cabin. When they said "rustic" I figured it would mean REALLY rustic. Electricity, sure that was to be expected, and I had been told that there would be a refrigerator, also. But I was quite surprised when I stepped in the door and found this:We're talking full kitchen here, folks. No running water, but there's a stove with an oven. And, although it didn't make it into the picture, not the tiny dorm-room refrigerator I was expecting but a full-size fridge/freezer just like I have in my apartment! Too bad I didn't know about all of this before because I had worked really hard to pack food for two days that could fit in a tiny space and be made using nothing but...a coffeemaker (one of my secret talents is coffeemaker cooking... They're good for much more than liquid. Mwa-hahaha!).

Despite the nice kitchen, the remainder of the cabin was much more rustic. There was a wood-burning stove (with which I had a fight because I couldn't get the fan to work the night I got there and I felt unsafe letting the fire burn without it so I was quite a bit cold and wore as many clothes as I could over my pajamas) and a dining set with table and wood benches and a connected room with a bed and a bench and night stand. And there was a mouse. How much more rustic can you get?

Other than the cold, which was quite annoying (I wore a hat most of the time), the place was wonderful. If I stepped out of the door, I walked onto a covered cement porch with a picnic table and a lovely view of the little "run."I could even hear the river/creek gurgling when I was sitting in the cabin - it was that loud!

While I was at the park, I did some hiking and reading and thinking. It was very nice to get away from the many stresses of life and worry about more basic things like keeping the fire going. And it was also very nice to see some natural beauty, even in the midst of a winter that came late but wanted to extend itself as long as possible. Due to the weirdness of the weather, the waterfall I hiked to was not completely frozen, but it was mostly frozen.After two nights in the cabin, I packed up and hopped back into the car to get back to the city for my appointment with the chiropractor. I definitely want to go back to my little "home" in the woods!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

we don't know a lot

Man, oh man, this surely isn't what I feel like blogging about. I feel like I've been in a chronically bad mood for the entirety of April. That may be my imagination, but it's true today, and so it makes all the previous days seem like they were probably like this, also. "Bad mood" isn't quite the accurate term - I've actually been in a GOOD mood most of the time, but I fret a lot. I am filled with many, many questions, mostly about my life and where I'm going and when. I am stressed about not having answers. And I want to spew it all here right now, but I think that's probably rather unwise. Plus, it's not very nice to read stuff like that, is it? :-)

So, what I'm going to be blogging about today is not that at all. It is about immunology.

At the end of March I attended a meeting about HIV for work (many lovely pictures are waiting to be transferred to the correct computer and posted onto this very blog; promise! Oh, and they're not pictures of HIV or any of that boring work-related stuff - they're of the area surrounding the conference center, which was anything but boring and was also very beautiful). One thing I am always amazed by when I leave an HIV meeting is how much scientists don't know. Not just about the HIV virus itself, not even about the immune response against HIV. Scientists just plain don't know much about the immune system period! It seems that the more we (meaning the scientific community immersed in HIV research) learn, the more we find we don't know. And while the microbial fuel cell is my number one choice for a future career at the present moment, the workings of the immune system is a close second.

I am guessing (hoping, since you all out there will have to read this!) that you don't have to be a scientist to find it interesting that depending on the origin of the "instructor" cells that interact with blood cells to tell them to fight disease, the fighting cells go fight in different places. That probably needs a bit more explanation. Okay... Basic immunology: we all have a bunch of cells floating around in our bodies doing different stuff. "Instructor" cells (technically called "dendritic cells") have the main duty of picking up stuff, figuring out if it's bad, and then telling certain blood cells (e.g. T cells) that the bad thing is there and they should fight it when they run into it. What's new and neat in the field of immunology is that it kind of appears that not only do the instructors say "Bad thing exists!" but "Bad thing exists in a certain location - now GO THERE and attack it!" For example, if you take an instructor cell from the skin and mix it with a fighting cell, the fighting cell goes to the skin. But, if you take and instructor cell from the intestine and mix it with the same fighting the fighting cell goes to the intestine! It doesn't matter where the fighting cell comes from, all that seems to matter is the instructor cell.

I think that's pretty cool. The rather troubling part is that nobody knows why any of this happens or even if it happens in any other body parts than the intestine and the skin. I happen to really like the intestinal immune system, so I don't really care, but surely it would be intriguing to find out if this happens in other tissues (and if not...why not!?). Did you ever realize that nobody even really knows the details about how to properly stimulate cells to fight off the bacteria, viruses, and parasites that try to attack your body every day.

Yet the body does it quite well. For even though I was sick last week for a few days...the rest of the 360 days of the year I've been fine! Truly that means on only ONE day a respiratory virus was able to get past all the barriers my body has up - and that's a protection success rate of greater than 99.7%! (Hm, come to think of it, that's way better than most birth control methods... Not that this means anything, and not that pregnancy is something you "catch" like a cold! I'm just saying...the body does a good job!)

Oh my, now this is going somewhere I never intended. I think I'll stop and get back to work!

So...moral of the story: we scientists might seem (and certain ones will attempt to convince people of this!) like we're smart and all that, but really, we have NO idea.

Monday, April 23, 2007

got sick

Oogh... Bleh. I figured it out on Tuesday: that headache that wouldn't go away and the aches in my body and the severe exhaustion... These were not signs that I had eaten something bad or that I had played too hard in the hockey game Saturday. No, indeed: I was SICK.

So I spent Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and half of Saturday in bed.

Yick. It's just a bad cold, and I'm feeling much, much better now, but I think I'll be hacking up whatever is still stuck down in my lungs for quite some time, if the people around me who have been sick recently are any indication!

Anyhow - sorry for no posts. This time I had a good excuse!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

all a matter of perspective

The old adage is true: I'm my own worst critic.

Last fall I started testing out a new technique to try to suck some more information out of the precious cells I collect in my research. The snazzy technique of intracellular cytokine staining allows me to look at what types of cells are making what molecules that are important for immunity.

I obtained a protocol, tried it out a few times, and it appeared to work on my test cells. Then I tried it out on cells that actually mattered - experimental cells. And that was not so good. I went back and looked at my original data on the test cells...and it kind of looked like the stuff I thought was good wasn't really so good after all. I compared my "good" to what others said was "good" in their systems, and mine was decidedly BAD.

So...thus began much fretting and fussing. I tried everything I could think of to get my little cells to be good. Was I doing the technique wrong? Were the cells just misbehaving? Was I going crazy?

I finally broke down and Asked For Help. Guys dread the Ask For Directions horror; I don't mind asking for directions, but asking for help with an experiment...admitting that I can't for the life of me figure out what's going on and the only remaining possibility is that I myself am the problem - that I don't like. But I did, and I asked the person who I knew would be able to give me a clear and accurate answer but who is also one of the harshest scientific critics I know. That is to say...if your stuff isn't 100% perfect, she'll tell you. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how low or high your self-esteem is and how fragile or solid your ego is.

I don't have much to say about my self-esteem or ego qualities, but after meeting with Said Scary Person (actually she's a real sweet person, not scary) yesterday, I can say one thing definitively: there is nothing wrong with my technique nor my cells nor my results! I can do the technique, the cells have little bits of what I'm searching for, and those little bits are all I should expect.

Fancy that. All that worrying and thinking I was wrong, and through it all...everything was okay. Hm.

It is good.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

making money from home

Joelle gets bored sitting at home all the time. As much as I let her run around the apartment when I'm home, there are still many days when she has to spend at least 9 hours in her kennel. (I might note, however, that she quite enjoys her kennel and chooses to sit in it even when she has the option to be elsewhere.) At some point in these long hours she has taken to picking up new skills. I'm not sure where she thought of this because we don't have a television at home, so it certainly wasn't from a commercial! Maybe the nameless bunny who came to visit clued her in. Regardless, I caught Joelle practicing to be none other than the Cadbury bunny in the week leading up to Easter! Behold:(Quality isn't so hot...but it's short!)

Seems that Joelle wants to break into show-business and add to the household income after seeing me toil over tax forms.

Monday, April 09, 2007

the best of times, the worst of times

While I was traveling in Europe last summer, our tour guide made a profound statement that has stuck with me. She was in the habit of telling all of us very long and involved stories about the history of the regions we visited. Most people found these periods during our bus rides to sleep, but I found myself listening intently. It was because of this alertness that I was able to catch what she said: She actually never liked history while she was in school, but as she got into the tourism industry and traveled herself, she found that history was fascinating because it told a visitor how the region he or she was in got to be the way it was. And this is precisely what was keeping me awake! History - I could take it or leave it. But, when it came to "How did Hungary get to be Hungary? Didn't it have something to do with settlers from Russia? And wasn't it part of some bigger empire at some point?" I suddenly found that I LOVED history. Basically, I hadn't seen the point of learning all those dates and events back in high school and college, but now I see their significance. I think math is like that for some people, although I suppose math isn't quite as relevant to "everyday" situations like travel as history is.

Regardless, I was further reminded of the significance of history and how time changes one's capacity to comprehend various pieces of knowledge. This friendly reminder came from none other than Charles Dickens. I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities looking all pretty on my bookshelf, and in the angst and restlessness of the past few weeks I decided to throw aside all books I have that want to make me Think or Learn or Dream and instead pick up one which is simply to entertain (and isn't full of sensuality). Perhaps many would find it odd to read Dickens for pleasure, but that's just how I am.

And I must admit that it's been a real joy to absorb the print on the pages of the old book. I have only read it once before, and that was in 1994 or 95. I see now that this book is a bit like the history "lesson" I received last summer. I KNOW that I read it those many years ago, but I am quite sure I didn't get nearly as much out of it then as I am getting now! Some of it is a better appreciation of the history of the late 1700s (although that can't be the majority of it, because I'm still no history buff!), and some of it is purely that I understand Dickens' language and highly appreciate his use of words and symbols. And no longer are the symbols items I have to store away in my memory bank to recall for an exam later in the semester!, all of the literary wonder of Dickens can be enjoyed simply because it is enjoyable.

Hey...why didn't they teach me that in school?

Friday, April 06, 2007

a little introspection

Okay, here's a post for you all. I must preface it with the fact that the topic on hand is NOT what has been driving me batty for the past several weeks!! It certainly has come up once or twice, but it's merely one of about a million and seventeen other thoughts and priorities and concerns that have been rocking my brain of late. ...So no jumping to conclusions, as I know some of you are wont to do. ;-)

It has come to my attention that relationships are hard. I'm not talking about dating or marriage or any of that romantic stuff. Just plain, old relationships. Friendships. Acquaintance-ships. Being academic or career colleagues. Interacting peaceably with coworkers. Being civil to individuals with poor customer service skills. Relationships are hard because people, unfortunately, aren't perfect. And they're hard because we can't control them, as much as we might try.

It is the "hardness" of relationships that makes me turn up my nose to them. It's not like school, which I comprehend quite well having spent at least 85% of my lifetime in some sort of school: in school, you get a syllabus, you get a text book, you get told precisely what you need to do to get what grade and to succeed. Not so with relationships. Each person is different, each has a different "grading scale," and NOBODY tells you what that grading scale might be. I don't mean that relating with people successfully means one must live up to others' expectations - I am simply saying that there are many, many unknowns. When I meet someone, the interaction doesn't even communicate, "Ah, I see! The goal of interacting with this person is to become friends." Unlike a new course on the first day of school, you don't walk into the meeting of a new person with a long-term vision. (Okay, well, sometimes people DO do that, but in reality there is absolutely no assurance of anything. Maybe the "semester" with this person will last for 2 years. Maybe 2 hours. Maybe 2 minutes!)

As the realization of the work and uncertainty of relationships slowly unfolded in my mind, me in my infinite wisdom declared internally to myself that I would not stand anything that was so full of unknowns. Certainly I would not want to embark on anything so completely complicated! Er...yes, this is a bit ironic coming from a PhD student trying to cure AIDS... Yet before I realized that irony, I realized that the DIFFICULTY of relationships is precisely the POINT of them! Without tough stuff to endure and work through, I don't ever get to know anybody very truly, and nobody else gets to know the real me, and I stay stagnant in my maturity and self-awareness. I am reminded of the classic song: "I am a rock, I am an island."

It is a pity that Rocks are oftentimes hailed as persons greatly to be admired. Those people who are stoic and self-sufficient and serene regardless of the circumstance. You can't hurt them. ...But...Rocks lack that important quality that separates humans from the rest of nature: humanity!

And so...I guess I'll give relationships a chance, even though I'll get an F in them sometimes. Better to go through something that is hard than to be hard. And quite often the most difficult hard thing about relating is - to take another line from the same artists quoted above - "the sound of silence." The whole waiting, wondering, waxing and waning about what's occurring with the alternate half of the relationship pair...that's what really gets me. Ah, me - I do hope that some day I'll be content in NOT knowing EVERYTHING.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Ugh, I so don't feel like blogging.

Just wanted to tell ya'll that I'm alive and well, just a bit overwhelmed with life and work and things. I have muchos pictures to share with you, but it's going to have to wait until I finish sorting out a variety of odds and ends.