Thursday, May 24, 2007

not a bump

Where was this picture taken...?And this one?How about this?...Or this?And this - the best!Oh wait, that last one is sort of an inside joke. And a pretty funny one, if you happen to be inside...

And the location...Whistler-Blackcomb, considered by many to be the best ski resort in the world, located in gorgeous British Columbia, Canada!

This was the location of the 2007 Keystone Symposia on HIV Vaccines, which I attended at the end of March. Here's the conference center, nestled amongst the snow-capped mountains...What a terrible place to have a conference, eh?

And here's the dump we had to stay in...I am, of course, being sarcastic. The Crystal Lodge was wonderful!! It was less than 100 yards away from the base of both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, which are the home of dozens and dozens and dozens of groomed ski and snowboard trails as well as awesome backcountry, if you happen to be skilled enough to venture off of the trails...which...I certainly am not.

I did make some large strides in getting myself to backcountry-level, however. I took a ski lesson one afternoon when there weren't many interesting talks to attend. This was (sadly) only the second time in my life I've been downhill skiing. The first time was great, but skiing is rather expensive, and it is a lot more fun when one can go with other people. For a long time I didn't know anyone else who skied. Recently I met someone who does, but he was never interested in going to the skiing places nearby. He had grown up skiing, which meant he went to such places as Colorado and Tahoe and Utah and the Canadian Rockies (like Whistler!). He said he wasn't interested in skiing "bumps." I thought he was being ridiculous and that any mountain to ski on was better than no mountain to ski on.


As does seem to happen to me more and more often these days, while standing on the slope halfway up Whistler waiting for my turn to ski down under the watchful eye of my instructor I happened to take my eyes off of the snow before me and looked up, and I immediately realized that I would once again have to bite my tongue or stick my foot in my mouth or some other similar phrase. When I looked up, I saw something like this...Now...that is something you don't see every day. That is something you don't get to see on "bumps" in Pennsylvania or Michigan or Ohio or West Virginia or other places around me where one could ski. You can't look up from the ski slope and find yourself utterly surrounded by more mountains. I can't describe what this feeling was like - it was like being inside a circular room with a panoramic picture of the mountains up on the walls, so that no matter where I turned, I was just struck with more and more and more of the majestic, beautiful scenery. What in the world could compare with skiing in a location like this? No bump would ever come close.

So...I was wrong. Skiing these world-class resorts in huge mountain ranges does make skiing at smaller and shorter locations much less appealing. Not that I'm going to never ski bumps myself, but I can at least appreciate my friend's lack of enthusiasm for such places.

There is so much to say about Whistler. I may end up writing more about that trip at another time. So much to be said and learned from the many cultures intermingled at the resort: the ski bums...the ski snobs...the average Joes who somehow ended up amongst all the skiers...the mountain folk...the locals. There was also the reminder that life needn't be all about being the richest, smartest, or most influential. And finding myself feeling ancient as I told college seniors to follow their dreams before they were too old to do so. You'd think my brain would have been filled with information from the HIV conference, but really it was packed to overflowing with lessons about life.

I should also note that before getting to Whistler I spent a day in Vancouver, the major city nearest the resort. I'm not too keen on the West Coast, but this city certainly had a lot going for it that I enjoyed very much. I saw bald eagles soaring too high up for my camera to reasonably capture, I saw very beautiful modern environmentally-friendly buildings being constructed (which I thought would be an architectural engineer's dream come true), I saw mountains rising from the seas, I saw reminders of the native cultures of the lands, I saw ocean liners poised to whisk people out to sea, I saw industrial products waiting to be picked up and sent to a useful destination. So many contrasts, all in one city. Vancouver was great!But still, it's nothing compared to WHISTLER!!!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

happy things

Woah. BIG news! Big news from a little guy.

You know how Sheamus (the fish) hasn't eaten anything in forever? How he's somehow miraculously still alive although he appears to have exceedingly little control of his buoyancy, spine, and up-right-ness? Yeah, he hasn't eaten since at least December 2006. And it's not for lack of me feeding him.

I have basically given up hope for him, because no amount of medicine in the water or special food or frequent water changes appear to help. I resigned myself to the fate that Sheamus will just wither away and die one of these days.

This morning...for whatever reason I looked over at Sheamus's bowl and something made me think, "Hey, he's begging for food like he used to do when he actually ate food." So I thought, "What the heck, I might as well plunk some in there." I've been fooled by this before; usually when I think, "He looks like he's in an eating mood!" he just ignores the food and it sinks to the bottom. BUT...

Today...SHEAMUS ATE!!!! 4 pieces of food, no less! It was amazing.

I don't know what it means in the long-run, but it surely was a good indication that maybe he'll be okay. At least I know that he has some food in his tummy and that's he's not boycotting that type of food.

I won't frighten you with a picture of the poor thing, but here's a picture of something else happy that I will (try to) write about in more detail in my next post (whenever that may be).Anyone know where that is? And no fair "guessing" if I already told you.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

what if...?

In light of my newly recanted burning desire to plot out every last detail of my future, my mind has wandered to questions about "What would have happened if you had chosen a different place for graduate school?" Two notes on that sentence: 1) The question isn't a "Oh, woe is me, I made a bad choice!" one; it's simply, "Hm... That would have been interesting." 2) I have absolutely no idea when the last time I read or used the word "recanted" was (excuse the grammar awfulness just there), but for some reason that word flowed nicely through my fingers onto the screen...!

So. What if...

What if I had chosen to attend University of North Carolina? I had a tough time picking between Chapel Hill and Pittsburgh. In many respects, Chapel Hill is just the type of location I would love to be in: a smallish college town, lovely weather, situated equidistant from the ocean and the mountains. I even had the pleasure of meeting someone from a sister church of my college church while I had my interview, and I then spent the next summer living just around the corner from that person (who happened to be an incredibly sweet, good-looking, tall young man). The research there isn't bad, and everyone was very friendly.

The interesting thing about UNC is that one of the motivations for strongly considering the school was the Research Triangle that, in addition to Chapel Hill, has vertexes in Durham and Raleigh. Back in 2002, it seemed like THE place to be. A job was guaranteed in the area. That seemed like a very wonderful thing to me at the time. The biotech industry in the Triangle was thriving and growing. To my fresh-out-of-undergrad mind, it sounded perfect and secure. However, here I am five years later, and I haven't heard a thing about the Triangle in ever so long. Yes, there's a lot of good research being done at UNC, North Carolina State University, and Duke University. However, it's a far cry from the picture that had been painted in my mind. A forecast is, after all, merely a forecast. I feel I would have been disappointed if I had selected UNC with the prospect of jumping into industry in the Triangle...only to find that it wasn't as up on the up and up as had been projected.

What if I had chosen to attend the University of Pennsylvania? Now that is an interesting question. To this day I believe that many people probably thought my choice to turn down Penn was incredibly stupid. In fact, the more I stay in research, the more I believe that. The program I was accepted into at Penn had an agreement with the National Institutes of Health where Penn students could select from not only the Penn researchers but also the researchers at the nearby NIH to pursue their doctoral degree. At the time I was incredibly naive about what that meant. I do recall that it was emphasized in pretty much every informational talk we interviewees sat through; it obviously was something Penn was extremely proud of and thought would impress all of their applicants. Well, call me ignorant, but I wasn't impressed because I had no idea what significance research at the NIH has in HIV and pretty much every other biomedical field. To give you an idea of how appealing the NIH would be to most anyone who knew what was going on in science, at the latest HIV meeting I attended, almost every speaker was from or working in close collaboration with someone at the NIH. The rest of the speakers all seemed to be from Penn.

There you have it...I blew a huge opportunity for getting to work with the best of the best in the field at what many would say is the most coveted biomedical research facility in the world. The NIH (seemingly) has it all - state-of-the-art machines to do the cutting edge research, internal funding so grad students don't have to worry so much that their boss is going to tell them "Oh, you can't do that experiment, it's too expensive," beautiful buildings, the smartest people in the world in the next lab over, access to an endless supply of volunteers for tissue and blood samples. Besides that, it's situated in a fairly wonderful area of the country (again, not too far from both a large body of water and a open, mountainous region - these two aspects pique my interest very much). Anyone who is interested in building a solid career in scientific research would jump at the chance to get an in. And I said no??? What was I thinking!?

Yet, I still am not convinced that I would have selected Penn, even if I had known then what I know now. After all...I don't want to build a snazzy career. I don't want to spend my life chained to my research or be cut-throat competitive. I want to work hard at what I love doing, sure, but not to the extent I gather is the norm at the NIH based on conversations with other students and researchers I have since met who are there. That's not where my heart is at. Perhaps if I had chosen to go to Penn, I would be headed in an entirely different direction from where I'm pointed now...and it's anyone's guess as to whether I would be happy or not.

What if I had chosen to attend University of California, Davis? This question intrigues me most. Over the years here in graduate school, I have achieved a deep appreciation for the HIV-related work going on at UC Davis. For some reason I never seriously considered their offer, and I can only assume it was because they accepted me and made an offer without flying me out for an interview so I thought it was a lousy, second-rate place to go. Today I very much disagree with that judgment; two of the top ten people I would like to work with if I stay in HIV research are there. Probably another thing that kept me from Davis was its distance from family in Michigan. Who would have guessed that by my third year of grad school my sister would be living only an hour and a half away, which is closer than any family member is currently?

There are so many "what if"s. In the end, I really don't know. Nobody ever knows! What I am confident of is that, had I chosen a different school, I would not know the people I know today; that would be sad. And it's slightly possible that I never would have fallen in love with mucosal immunology and the gut in particular. (You can determine whether or not that was a good thing to have happen to me here in Pittsburgh!) Maybe I also would not have learned to rock climb...or scuba dive...or knit! No knitting -- now that is an unusual concept to attempt to grasp!

It's good for me to look back and see how my choice panned out, especially as I approach the end of my graduate schooling and will eventually (but not now!) need to make a choice about where to step next. I realize that what I think will happen is not what does happen. And usually what does happen is a lot better than what I thought would happen, even if it is a little nerve-wracking to get through.

For, even in my selection of the University of Pittsburgh as the school for the pursuit of my PhD, what ended up happening was not at all what I had anticipated. I was exceedingly interested in one particular lab when I moved to Pittsburgh. The projects going on were directly related to my strongest interest in the HIV field. I rotated in the lab for 3 or 4 months, and I was very happy there and got some great work done. My rotation project was not really about the particular interest I had; it was about the gut as a reservoir for HIV during chronic infection and had to do a lot with T cells. When I finished that rotation and went on to the next lab, I picked up a project involving the gut, also, based entirely on my new-found interest in that organ. And six months later when I had to select the lab in which I would continue my was not the one I had come to Pittsburgh for. I could certainly have gone there; there was an opening for a student, and I enjoyed the mentor and the people I would have worked with. But, as usual...something better had been revealed to me.

Funny how that works, eh?

...And I hadn't intended on writing this, and it sounds super, duper silly, but I just thought: D is a great guy. Wonderful. But apparently not for me. That's sad. And yet...if someone better in, Someone Better is going to be AMAZING, because D is pretty darn good!


d end

And...the week is over (mostly).

I survived! There will be a bit more craziness at work next week, but this week was the most intense as far as that goes, and all of us in the lab are still friends. We also discovered that we all like the same music. Score!

As noted earlier, the Freaky Appointment never came to be, and that situation is Very Good now. There is understanding between the appointee and me (I know that's terrible grammar, but it rhymes).

Alas, the response that was destined to be bad regardless of what it was never came. Which perhaps is for the best. Unfortunately for those interested in my love life, the anticipated response was to come from good ol' D. There is a distinct lack of understanding between that boy and me. Ungood. Sad. I'll survive. Due to lack of sleep and other things I have half a mind to use mean names and write about how I am frustrated, but wisdom suggests that's not such a spiffy idea.

Here at midnight-thirty I'm finally ready to leave the lab for good for tonight. I GET TO SLEEP IN TOMORROW (this morning?)!!! Hooray for the promise of more than 4 hours of sleep! (And you thought all-nighters only happened in college, didn't you?)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

God is good

That is all I can say. I might laugh or jump for joy or scream "Hooray!" or turn on loud, happy music - but truly in light of the way God pulled off yesterday, all I can do is say, "God is good."

You see...

Everything in the lab went well. Yes, it was a very long day, and there were a few rough spots, but considering all of that my team and I achieved decent yields of the cells we were after and there were no huge blow-ups at one another.

I have not gotten the response that I'm waiting for, but as I'm waiting I'm realizing that the response, whatever it is, is not the make-or-break-it thing I've been making it out to be in my mind. If the response is good, then okay. If the response is bad, then okay. I have peace that whatever will be okay.

And the dreaded appointment... That was the kicker. Have you ever had a moment when someone calls and tells you something and you want to drop the phone and run rejoicing around the neighborhood but that would be exceedingly rude and unkind because what the person told you was hard for them to say? Okay, maybe you haven't. But that's what I felt like yesterday. I was just putting the last thing I needed for the appointment into my bag when the phone rang, and it was the "appointee" saying we would have to cancel due to extenuating circumstances beyond human control. (Er...yes, can I say GOD did that???!) I believe I did a good job of tactfully saying, "Oh, that's too bad. Oh well, no biggie" without being disingenuous.

What a load off my shoulders...! It reminds me of "Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob! ...He says, 'I removed the burden from their shoulders'." Psalm 81:1&6.

And so, today, while only day two of the week, is looking brighter than I had anticipated. Continuing on my Relient K kick, might I just say:
Something tells me that this is going to make sense
Something tells me it’s going to take patience
Something tells me that this will all work out in the end

Sunday, May 06, 2007

looking forward to a week of life

Feeling a little introspective again today... So many thoughts have been going through my mind in the past two weeks, and probably one of the most recurrent ones is, "Can I please figure out how to stop thinking so much??" Thinking doesn't help very much in a lot of situations. What I mean to say is that as much as I think about what I should do if/when this-or-that occurs or what I should do to get this-or-that to occur...many times "this-or-that" is not something that any amount of me thinking or planning for can make any amount of difference. I cannot make stuff happen by thinking about it. I can't wish things into existence. All I can do is take life moment by moment, as it comes, basing what I do on not what I think but what I believe. Hm, can anyone follow that "think vs. believe" concept -- I once described it to some friends as "I need more wisdom, not brain cells."

Anyway... The week ahead of me is one of those that cause me to think muchly. A bunch of stuff going on in the lab; long hours await. I am waiting to hear back from someone whose response I can't predict; whatever the result my mood will certainly be affected. I have an appointment that I feel uncomfortable and anxious about attending; very long and awkward moments are guaranteed.

I think...have I prepared everything I need for the week of labwork...what if that response is unkind or disappointing...the lab work and the response and the appointment could all go in ways I don't want, and that will make the future look bleak because all these things seem to have so much to do with trying to publish results and graduate and find a new place to work...if I'm so uncomfortable about this appointment, maybe I should cancel it - but no, it's too late now, and maybe it's just my defense mechanism to avoid things I don't feel comfortable with...will I be able to keep it together during the stressful week and not go off on my coworkers and to the responder and at the appointment...all these things do not have that much of an affect on my future, why am I so concerned...these three things are what I anticipate for the week, but assuredly so many other things I have not anticipated will also crop up - can I deal with it even worth worrying about the response, maybe the person isn't really worth caring that much my worry about all of these things just setting me up to have a bad attitude regardless of what actually happens... These are my thoughts.

I do believe I need to figure out a way to make my brain turn off...!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

da po' bun

My poor rabbit, Joelle...

I neglect her beautiful coat. She does a very good job of keeping it clean - I see her licking it all the time and chewing out all the hay that sticks to her. However, she can't keep the hair on her underside free of debris and mats. That's my job, which I've been ignoring for a long time. :-(

It's led to a few rather funny incidents. Pictures of the one recently were taken the night before I left on a trip I have to tell you all about, and all of my clothes were in the washing machine, so that explains why I am wearing such a freaky outfit.What's that on her butt, you ask? Well...Yeah, she's made in China...

Well, on Tuesday my wonderful friend and coworker came over to help me chop out some of the mess that is Joelle's undercoat. Wonderful friend and coworker has experience cutting her dogs' hair, and she did a great job with her lagomorph subject. Joelle, of course, didn't enjoy any moment of the experience of being HELD and RESTRAINED and TURNED ON HER BACK! By the end of the hair-cutting session, Joelle was pretty much submitted by default because she was exhausted. When we let her free, she rested under her favorite chair for two hours before she found the strength to eat her favorite greens that were sitting right in front of her. Before she slinked to the chair, she showed us exactly how embarrassed and upset she felt...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

getting up

This week the trend is for life to be ironic. You only get to see one such example, but really there have been many.

It was both funny and sobering when I turned back the pages in my journal on Tuesday as I ate breakfast. After much thinking and talking and crying on Monday, I finally got to the place where I could see that all my efforts at trying to get my life together for the future...were not working and, more importantly, weren't necessary. I was out of control...and what I was trying to control is beyond my control.

A counselor once gave me a picture of spheres of control. There were three concentric circles. The inner one represented things I can control. The next one out was things I have influence over but can't ultimately control. The outer one was things I have no control over. I really don't like those outer two circles. But seeing them helps me to look at situations in my life and think about in which circle they exist.

Once I realize something is out of my control, though, it's still another gigantic leap to accept that it really is out of my control. And it's even tougher to let God have control of it, which is really the only way things will work out.

The irony of my reading on Tuesday was that I was sitting at the table with all of these realizations and the peace that came with them, I saw that I had written just that in my journal...on SUNDAY. Why did I not at all remember thinking those thoughts?

The answer is, quite simply, that it's one thing to think of a concept but it's quite another to agree with it. And for me, to get to the point where I realized I was not agreeing with it, I had to get a bit hurt in my heart. I had to go down to a very low place, where the only place to go was up.

Also ironic is how very appropriately my new best friends of Relient K sang about my precise feelings:
I'll tell you flat out
It hurts so much to think of this
So from my thoughts I will exclude
The very thing that
I hate more than everything is
The way I'm powerless
To dictate my own moods

I've thrown away
So many things that could've been much more
And I just pray
My problems go away if they're ignored
But that's not the way it works
No that's not the way it works

When I go down
I go down hard
And I take everything I've learned
And teach myself some disregard
When I go down
It hurts to hit the bottom
And of the things that got me there
I think, if only I had fought them

Don't fret, ya'll - I'm good now, because the song, and my story, ends like this:
When I go down
I lift my eyes to you
I won't look very far
Cause you'll be there
With open arms
To lift me up again
To lift me up again

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

they're out!

It rained all day here on Saturday.

Sunday it was sunny, but I went on my road trip.

When I returned on Monday, it hit me that it was spring, because every yard I passed was blanketed in flowers...these flowers: