Photo courtesy of Mike Siegel

This article first appeared in 2009 when I was writing for the MIT graduate student run news magazine The Graduate. However the website is no longer available and as far as I can tell The Graduate does not currently exist (perhaps it will be revived in another form someday as it has in the past). I really enjoyed working on these articles so I will be posting them on my blog over the next month. They mostly focus on groundbreaking work of graduate students at MIT.

At only 33 years of age, Neri Oxman’s list of accomplishments and accolades is exhaustive. The graduate student in the School of Architecture was most recently commissioned for an exhibit, Neri Oxman: At the frontier of ecological design, currently on display at the Museum of Science here in Boston, that highlights the unique biological influence in her design. She has been variously described as an architect, engineer, biologist, and computer scientist for her work that melds these myriad disciplines. She is intelligent and thoughtful, gracious and warm, and highly photogenic as a quick google image search of her name will prove.

Although an architecture student, Oxman’s work is a thing of art.  Taking inspiration from the natural world, she transforms nature, using computer algorithms, into impossibly complex, organic, three dimensional forms.  Her models are based on the fine structure of butterfly wings, bones, cells, informed perhaps by her earlier pursuits in the field of medicine. Read the rest of this entry »

Richard Axel is a science celebrity. He is brilliant, funny, and, oh yeah, he won a Nobel Prize. And I got to sit next to him at lunch the other day! He was in town to give a talk in my department. To give us grad students a chance to brush with greatness, we are allowed to have lunch with the invited speakers (woohoo, they let us out of lab! free food!). I find that many famous scientists (perhaps like famous celebrities? although I have yet to meet celebrities of the non-scientific persuasion) have quirky personalities. And Dr. Axel is no exception. He is larger than life, quite a tall man, and incessantly chews nicorette gum (this was confirmed by my boyfriend: during his interview for grad school at Columbia years ago Dr. Axel was also chewing said gum).

As I’ve said, he is an extremely intelligent man, and he has formed many ideas about the field of neuroscience, on which he does his research. He studies the olfactory system in particular (and was awarded the Nobel Prize with Linda Buck for discovering odorant receptors – the protein structures in your nose that detect smells). One student in the room asked him whether he thought that humans have pheromones – chemicals that animals use to communicate with each other about food, sex, predators. The behaviors that pheromones trigger are often innate, hard-wired, instinctual responses since they are about things essential to live and reproduce (eating, mating, avoiding being eaten…), as opposed to learned behaviors. Pheromones are detected much in the same way as smells, using the vomeronasal organ which is also in the nose, although in humans the vomeronasal organ is pathetic and wimpy and its function in humans is very controversial. Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies to my small group of readers (small in number, NOT spirit!) for a very, very long hiatus. While it can’t take all the blame, I must say, the long interminable years of grad school can sometimes… er, interfere with things (I was going to say “sap the will out of us” but I think that is going a bit too far). Friends of mine have dubbed this the “quarter-life crisis”, an affliction though not unique to PhD students, perhaps more prevalent than in groups of our peers from college who went on to start “careers” right out of college. I think it is hardest for those of us who look at our PI’s (principal investigators – bosses basically) and realize we are not made of the same stuff as them – we do not love studying __(fill in arcane thesis project here)__ so much that we are willing to go through all this effort again as postdocs, and then again as tenure track junior faculty. Don’t get me wrong, I truly respect and admire my PI. She is, and tries hard to be, a wonderful mentor. And she is hard-working and brilliant, and I think focuses her work on very important, relevant biological questions.

So now I am at a crossroads where many a senior grad student before me has stood. I hope to be finishing up by the end of the year, but I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I think I am very much interested in medical writing – kind of a catch-all for technical, non-journalistic science writing – but I’m really really scared to leave this lifestyle to which I’ve devoted much of my life. I do love working for myself, deciding how to schedule my time, what I want to do next (with guidance and blessings from my PI of course). But I also do like the idea of a job with regular hours, no tedious benchwork, and no guilt for taking a WHOLE weekend off! Although perhaps the grind is the grind no matter where or what. I do still have a insane passion for science and would probably be pretty happy with whatever I do as long as I get to think science. But what if I make the wrong choice! (I must admit I also feel like a bit of a jerk for sitting here whingeing about all of this when I am in the very privileged position of having numerous, fantastic career options practically laid at my feet, and in this ecomony). Read the rest of this entry »

While it may be debated whether Craig Venter’s newly announced creation of a synthetic genome controlling a bacteria is a stupendous breakthrough or just hype, one thing is certain: it has got the public talking.  I am fascinated reading the threads of comments following articles about this on the web.  They really give me, a scientist-in-training, a glimmer of the public’s feelings and understanding of science and scientists.

Take this thread for example in response to the BBC’s “Have Your Say: Will synthetic biology do more harm than good?”  The public seems to have a bit of a B-rated sci-fi flick mentality when it comes to science.  They hatch up all sorts of doomsday plots including one of my favorites: what if these bacteria are engineered to consume carbon dioxide but then mutate to consumer oxygen and then consume ALL the oxygen in the ENTIRE WORLD?!!  Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Mooney, currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, gave a talk this evening that focused on science and society.  He started by giving some rather depressing stats about the American public’s relationship with science.  Only 18% of Americans know a scientist personally, only 13% follow science and technology news closely, and only 44% can name a scientific role model.  Of those that do name a role model – the top three named are Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates.  As Mooney points out, they’re either dead, or not actually scientists.

But why should we care about the public’s scientific literacy?  Well, Mooney has answers for you.  He outlined four reasons: 1) knowledge is generally good in and of itself, 2) it empowers people, 3) it leads to good citizenship, 4) it also leads to good policy. Read the rest of this entry »

I just finished reading the wonderful new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  It is about the supersized contributions of a little known woman to science, it is about a family, it’s about a journalist.

Skloot’s years and years spent researching this book, from her tireless attempts to sway the Lacks family to talk with her, to her endless patience in gaining their trust, has given her a uniquely personal perspective on this story.  While she first heard of Henrietta Lacks, the woman who is HeLa cells, in a college course, she has over the years integrated herself into the story of the Lacks family.  When it came to finally writing this story she decided to do so from a first person perspective, interweaving information about the Lacks family, Henrietta, and the science made possible by HeLa cells, with her own narrative of researching this book. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Wine Wine, creative commons Ingorrr

A study published Monday in the journal, The Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that women who drink moderately gain less weight they are middle-aged.  I first stumbled across mention of this yesterday on the BBC news website in this article, Women Who Drink Wine ‘Likely to Gain Less Weight’.  Then I ran into it again today on the front page of the LA Times website in this article, Women Who Drink Moderately Tend to Gain Less Weight in Midlife.  Being a moderately drinking woman myself, I’ve decided to delve further into this supposed new, exciting, scientific discovery! Read the rest of this entry »

Recently a crew from BBC Horizon came to the lab I toil in as a graduate student to film this clip for a program they titled, “What Makes a Genius”.  They wanted to film a knockout mouse a postdoc in the lab created, and that I happen to be doing my thesis work on.  This mouse is missing a gene that is important for proper growth of neurons.  Some of my work, and others, has shown that it has trouble forming connections in its brain during development.  This is why we think it is not a great learner.  However, the way this clip explains the research, I’d want to give my boss, Elly, a Nobel Prize for finding THE intelligence gene.  So let’s go through this clip’s weak and strong points. Read the rest of this entry »

Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey

I just returned from the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Diego.  Since I am really interested in science writing and communication, I attended most of the sessions along those lines.  While I took away many awesome tips and saw many fantastic presentations, I was still shocked at how bad some people were at communicating.  At a conference where communication and engaging the public was a key topic, it was a shame. Read the rest of this entry »

Eric Lander Addressing AAAS Attendees

I was excited to see Eric Lander, a co-chair of the the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, address the attendees at AAAS 2010 tonight.  As a TA I’ve watched Lander deliver numerous intro biology lectures to bored, young MIT undergrads (mostly engineers who couldn’t pass out of the Biology requirement), but I’ve never seen him give a public talk.  I was particularly thrilled when, while giving his speech on Science and Technology in the First Year of the New Administration, he went off on a bit of a strange tangent to talk about (what else?) the movie 2012! (I mean, seriously, who will survive 2012?) Read the rest of this entry »

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