Nov 16, 2008

why i could never be a doctor

My job requires that I use splenic dendritic cells, harvested directly from the spleens of mice. The cells cannot be stored or cultured for any length of time because they mature and become useless very quickly. This means that every time I do an experiment involving splenic dendritic cells, a mouse must be killed, and its spleen harvested immediately.

I am already "exempt" from killing the mice myself - a co-worker does it for me. This was not always the case. At first, it was assumed that I was merely sentimental about rodents (on account of having them for pets) and that my discomfort would pass. (I am leaving my moral qualms with the use of animals for various human purposes out of this post.) Then, I proved myself utterly useless in the euthanasia process by crying so hard that a) I could not even SEE the mice through the tears and b) I had to keep taking off my surgical mask to blow my nose. Ok. So somebody else will do that job.

Now, I receive the spleens, which are approximately 1.5 cm, red, bean shaped organs, on ice immediately after they are harvested from the mouse. The spleens arrive with bits of connective tissue still attached. Before I begin to process the spleens (to extract the cells I need), I have to remove the little bits of fatty tissue. I do this with tweezers and surgical scissors. It takes about 5 minutes.

What has convinced me that I should never, EVER try to be a doctor is this: even though I've now processed more than a dozen spleens, I cannot get used to the sensation of pulling off the fatty tissue. I've always had a sense - unsubstantiated until now - that I would be unable to cut in to the skin of any organism, dead or alive. Many people have tried to convince me that performing surgery or autopsy or dissection is not as repulsive in actuality as it may seem in concept. This does not appear to be true for me. Every single time I clean those spleens it absolutely sickens me. I have no experience cutting any other kind of tissue, but something deep in my brain tells me that it FEELS WRONG. I just seem to have this built-in visceral knowledge that tissue is NOT SOMETHING YOU CUT, just like I have built-in knowledge that I should never break a bone on purpose, or never put my hand in a fire on purpose. I just can't get used to it.

Other people do not appear to have this mental block. This is a good thing, since if I ever need surgery I'd very much like to have a surgeon who is not freaking out. But man oh man... I'll leave doctoring to those with stronger stomachs than I.

Nov 4, 2008

thanks be



I'm so excited I don't think I'll sleep all night.

Sep 9, 2008

Walden Pond

We set out just as the sun was going down. It was a cool night, cooler than it had been since May. The roads were beginning to clear out, but the streets were full of people, overflowing from clubs and bars. We pedaled through the city, on our best Law Abiding Bicyclist behavior.

Once out of the city we picked up the bike trail. There was no moon and the trail isn't lit, so we were in total darkness, the way illuminated only by our own headlamps. The trail goes on for 15 miles or so, and although there were some people along the way at the beginning, pretty soon we had it all to ourselves. We took over the trail, flying in to the dark. The farther from the city we got, the clearer the stars became.

When I'm cycling along, time seems to pass very quickly. Almost two hours had gone by before I looked at my watch. We were in a rhythm, moving steadily through empty town after empty town. The air got steadily colder. In several places cold air pooled in valleys and as we glided down at 30 miles per hour we all got the shivers. The night was very live.

As soon as we got to the trailhead that leads to the pond, we switched off our lights - lest anybody notice us slipping down to the water - and quietly walked our bicycles in to the forest. The trail happens to be one of those trails that, despite having been there several times before, never quite looks the same twice. Maybe it's the dark, maybe it's the fact that one is always whispering to one's friends instead of paying attention to the route, or maybe the sprit of Thoreau himself cannot bear to see any adventure become familiar.

When the water was finally in front of us, it was gusty and chilly. We had cooled during the walk to the edge of the water and we were plenty cool, but you can't bike all that way to Walden and then sit out. We stripped down - there's really only one way to swim in Walden at midnight - and plunged in to the cool water. The pond was completely empty under the stars. Beautiful.

Once snacks were eaten, water gulped down, feet dried, and bicycles adjusted, we hopped back on for the ride back. There's nobody on the road late at night in the suburbs. We rode four abreast, bombing down the road as is every cyclist's dream. It was *cold*. We picked up the pace. We were flying!

The ride back puts you in a sort of reverie. You pedal on and on, mile after mile, in the still darkness. The bike wheels make a very comforting whirring noise, like a window fan on a summer night. When you stop at a red light, everything is still - there are rarely cars going the other way - and you can hear your own breath. When you start up again, there's no engine noise, nothing to break the stillness.

We rolled in without much fanfare in the early hours of the morning; the feeling of stillness sort of... sticks. Once in the door, we scattered, each of us putting away our helmets, fetching snacks and tossing our shoes off and falling in to bed.

Heaven on wheels!

Aug 27, 2008

oh, the places you'll go

Lately, I've been waking up at strange hours of the night. For no particular reason. Usually from some strange dream. I lie in bed, staring blankly in to the darkness and thinking unimportant, sleepy thoughts. And then all of a sudden I'm blindsided by a fact. Just creeps up silently and springs over me. Lissa, you have no idea whether or not anything you experience is real. Everything you feel could be an illusion. The people you know could be figments of your imagination and you could be horribly, horribly alone. Or, Lissa, you have no idea what your purpose in life is. Or, Lissa, it is actually possible that everybody who says they love you is lying.

Um, what the heck? These are thoughts you need full body armor to confront, even at high noon in the best of circumstances. But half-awake and chilly in the middle of the night? You've got to be kidding me. It's impossible.

Seriously, what do you DO about that? Here I am, living my life. I get up, I do my thing. Once in a while I do something abstract and complicated and I call it "success". Once in a while I do something abstract and complicated and people are unhappy with me and I feel horrible. The things that I do are so incredibly specific to my situation, this ridiculously engineered existence that I live. It's incredibly hard to make any sense of it. In order to know if anything I'm doing is worthwhile, I suppose I'd first have to know if humanity is worthwhile, then if civilization is worthwhile, and so on with education and music and love and friendship and engineering, all the way to whatever my latest dilemma is. About something like whether or not I've called my grandmother recently enough. It's dizzying.

Of course I want to be right. I want it to turn out, in the end, that I did the right thing with my life. But the energy it takes to face up to the task of determining whether or not I'm on the right track is too much for me to handle. (Humor me here. I know I'm 22. But you never know what's gonna happen tomorrow.) So I lie there in bed and I just wipe away those thoughts. I tell myself that my senses do not deceive me, that my existence is real. That my life will be made purposeful if I live it well and that I should not hope for anything more. That I am not as alone as I feel. That it will be ok in the morning. I have no proof, but there are lies you have to tell yourself... there are things you cannot face alone.

When I wake up, and the sun is streaming in the windows and I can hear my housemates up and about in the rest of the house, and I can see B sleeping soundly right next to me, the world is a whole lot friendlier. But it does leave me with a feeling much like jet lag. I feel as though I've been away a long, long time. I sit at the breakfast table. My friends filter in. I'm so relieved. They seem so real in the bright sun. I want to jump up and hug them and tell them I made it out safely and how glad I am to see them again. But this seems silly and unwarranted. I eat my toast and smile.

Aug 12, 2008

a survey

I don't know about you, but sometimes I go on internet-quiz binges. I'm most likely to take a lot of ridiculous quizzes like "which vegetable do you most resemble" (ooh, I hope I'm broccoli, the green tree of awesome!) or "which famous detective are you" (Sherlock? please?). However, once in a great while, I get serious. Today it's chilly and rainy and I've got lots of time, so...

There are a lot of different versions of the Myers Briggs Personality type tests on the internet. I often find the test questions nearly impossible to answer. For example,'s test asks whether you are more likely to "say things as they are" or "avoid conflict" in conversation. My goal is to do both! Similarly, the test asks whether I process information through "my 5 senses" or "my intuition". As far as I'm concerned, intuition and sensory perception are completely intertwined. Your intuition comes from noticing things - a posture, a tone of voice, a glance. I tend to find the tests frustrating.

So this morning, while feeling philosophical, I decided to take 6 different Myers Briggs tests. (, Human Meterics, Kisa, Personality Pathways, Similar Minds, and Know Your Type.) Are they consistent? Totally bogus? Does changing one answer give you a completely different result?

Apparently not! On all 6 tests, I came up INFJ (also see this, this, and this). Then I went back and retook each test, changing the answers to the questions on which I was completely split. The result: 3 tests came up INTJ. Two stayed INFJ. And the last came up INTP. These particular changes were not surprising. Some of the tests show you to what degree you are, say, Introverted instead of Extroverted, or Intuitive versus Sensing. For the first two letters of my type, I always scored very strongly "IN" (Introverted Intuitive), but the last two letters, T/F and J/P, the scores are more middle-of the road. Therefore it makes sense that, overall, changing the answers that I struggled with resulted most often in a switch from F (Feeling) to T (Thinking) and, slightly less often, in a switch from J (Judging) to P (Perceiving).

I have to conclude that there *is* consistency in these results. In all 6 tests, there were quite a few questions that I felt I couldn't answer truthfully, but in all cases, the answer I eventually chose, even while finding it inadequate, lead to the INFJ personality type. The INFJ type does, I feel, describe me fairly well, but as I read through it, I thought that several particular things were missing. Those qualities - broadly, interest in logic and technology and interest in math and language play - are hallmarks of the INTJ and INTP types, respectively. Even more interestingly, from the point of view of the INFJ, the INTJ and INTP represent "Companion" and "Compliment", respectively. (Other types represent "Neighbor", "Counterpart", "Contrast", "Cohort", "Pedagogue" and so on.)

I think it's probably rare that any one person feels totally comfortable being described by 1 and only 1 type. I think I'll call myself 70% INFJ, 20% INTJ, and 10% INTP. Wait - scratch that. Can I be Type Broccoli? Or The Next Sherlock?

Aug 10, 2008

Why I Love Brightwater

When you get out of the car, this is the very first thing you see.

The trails around the cabin are covered in centuries of pine needles. On the springy pine needles, you can run almost silently.

This trail takes you to the top of Wildcat Ledge, from which you can listen to the ocean.

On the top of Wildcat Ledge is a flat forest completely carpeted in moss a full foot deep.

If you walk silently through the woods, you're likely to see a deer or a fox.

Back at the cabin, Harmony rocks at her mooring on a still afternoon. The mast makes a lovely clinking noise.

The sunsets can be spectacular.

Like lava in the sky!

Jul 7, 2008

doing "nothing"

This summer I am not working, but as a friend of mine wisely said, "nerds abhor a vacuum". At the end of May I announced my intention to "do nothing", but somehow there is still not nearly enough time in which to do all the things I want to do.

But the pace of life certainly is different. No homework, no schedule. This leaves time for thinking. When I decided not to work this summer, I decided to *think* instead. I decided to use the summer to Figure Things Out - what exactly I was going to figure out was, um, undecided. I thought that without a crazy schedule, things might rise to the surface.

And they have. This is my mid-summer report on Figuring Things Out. Since Figuring Things Out is a subject notoriously difficult to convey - hey, if they were easy to write about, they wouldn't count - I'm posting a series of vignettes I've written over the past week.

It begins in a dark place. Warning: the following dream is very disturbing.


In the dream, I was in my grandparent's house, although my grandparents weren't there. Instead, in various rooms in the house, were all but a few of my closest friends, puttering around, reading, doing their own quiet thing. I was in the study, looking through my grandfather's old desk, trying to find something. I got distracted, though, by examining the many little things in the small drawers of the desk. I can only remember one of those objects - a letter opener with a wooden handle - but in the dream, I got completely carried away, poking through the drawers for hours. Then the dream made an awkward shift to the next phase. I was still standing in the study, and a sickly aura had enveloped the house. Everything seemed blue tinged and silent. When I breathed in the air felt slimy and wrong. I floated out of the study and in to the dining room. Hanging over one of the chairs was one my friends, swollen and limp and blue and purple - dead. My heart raced. There was poison in the air. I tried to run to the other rooms to alert my other friends. But I was frozen. I floated, with no sense of the ground or of force at all. I could move, but painfully slowly. The force my muscles put out didn't move anything, it just disappeared. I was swimming through the air madly when I finally got to the next room. The friend who was in that room was still alive, staring at me with little comprehension, obviously under the effects of the poison. I opened my mouth to give the warning, and found that I had two tongues. All I could do was choke. I tried to speak a few words, but my friend could not understand. I realized I wasn't speaking English, though what exactly it was I'm not too sure. I reached out through the inexplicably thick air and tried to grab my friend. But everything in the house, my friend included, seemed to be rooted to the spot, unreachable. Despite using all my energy I could not make any difference. I fought through the closing air to the next room. There was another friend sitting, facing away from me, looking out the window. I tried to make a sound - any sound, but I choked again. As I floated there, my friend slid from the chair to the ground. I was too late. I gave up. The dream made another abrupt switch. I was running across a wooden bridge that was covered with sand. I must have been somewhere in Maine. This time the air was almost nonexistent, hypoxic, thin. I ran effortlessly until I came to an empty wood cabin. I went inside. It was completely bare except for one man sitting at a desk in the corner. There was no other furniture. The man at the desk was bush with some paperwork, and gave me the sign to wait. I stood there for a very long time. Finally, he beckoned me towards him. I opened my mouth but found I still had two tongues. I couldn't speak. He sneered at me. "There was one you could have saved, sitting in the door way, near the fresh air," he said.

I woke up soaked in sweat. It was 5 AM and still hot outside. I had only been asleep for two hours. I took off my sweaty tank top and stood at the sink and splashed water on my face. I looked in the mirror. Only one tongue. Maybe nobody had died after all.


I started out on the run knowing I didn't feel well. I told myself that if I wasn't comfortable, I'd stop running. I always tell myself things like that. It doesn't make any difference.

A mile in, it hurt. Ten steps later, it hurt a lot. I leaned my head back to get a better angle on breathing. Swallowed hard.

As I rounded the corner and passed the sandwich shop, I couldn't swallow. I stopped running and walked a few steps. The seconds ticked by on my watch. 11 seconds. I started running. I felt like some strange LEGO person, cobbled together out of parts that didn't match. My legs were restless, my lungs healthy, and my stomach (for which running is supposedly no work at all) an ill-fitting piece, the weakest link.

I made it back home in 31 minutes. I was sure I couldn't have gone another minute, but that's what I thought at minute 26, too. I stood in front of the sink again and splashed water on my face, holding my neck back in a funny position so I could swallow. I looked at myself in the mirror. The pain was completely invisible.


It rained on the day of graduation. All 2000 of us lined up in 4 rows, in the athletic fields, our mortarboards shielding us from some of the rain. I didn't feel well. It was a big day, and I'd just spent 2 hours waiting in a hugely crowded, incredibly hot gymnasium (wearing my robe, of course), talking to dozens of students. The air was pretty charged. Graduating from MIT is kind of like taking the top off 2000 soda bottle that've been shaken for 4 years. Of course, put me in that kind of energy, and no matter how celebratory the mood, I'm like to go under.

I stood in line, moving forward every once in a while. We had about half a mile to walk to the lawn on which the ceremony would take place. Even 10 steps seemed like too much for me. I watched people jumping out of line to hug family members, people shouting across the lines to their friends. I took a few more steps. I couldn't swallow. Was this how I was going to graduate? Would my family line up with their cameras, tears in their eyes, to take a picture of me in this state, barely able to focus my eyes, wondering if I'd be able to hold on? Would I have to forgo shaking the President's hand, and slump in my seat as the next person in line collected my diploma? Is this really want I wanted to remember about my graduation?

Of course I wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to feel instantly well, I wanted the sun to come out and the rain to stop. But throwing hate at my kind of pain only feeds it. C'mon Lissa, I told myself. You've pulled through before. You don't have to give this up. You can just take one more breath. Don't worry about it. It'll be fine.

It took a quarter mile. I followed the guy in front of me and didn't look up. But when we neared the entrance to the lawn, I realized that I was actually... fine. I looked up. It was still raining. The grass was slick and well-trod and the entire audience was clad in identical MIT ponchos. But all of a sudden it looked beautiful. I passed through the entrance and in to the sea of people. I heard a shout. My family was to the right, all of them waving like madmen and yelling and snapping pictures. I smiled - and it was easy. Later, as I shook the President's hand, my sister jumped up in the audience in excitement and obscured the video my mom was making of the moment. No matter. The videotape wouldn't have shown how good I felt right then, anyway.


"When the spring comes, the grass grows all by itself."

Jul 1, 2008

a lesson

Yesterday, in the sweltering heat on the 6th floor of the old Steinway building, overlooking the Boston Common, I had a violin lesson. Just a regular one. But if you've never taken a violin lesson, it's certainly not obvious what that means. Many people have asked me, over the years, what exactly happens during that hour-and-a-half. You already know how to play the violin, they point out, since you've been playing for 17 years. You already know how to read music. Don't you just have to practice now? Other people wonder if I learn some brand new note each time I go - say, an E-flat 3 octaves above middle C. Or maybe I just go for interpretation advice - play this note quiet, this one long, this one angrily, and so on.

The reality, of course, is very complicated. Because the violin is complicated. And because music is complicated. There are technical challenges to tackle, and the better you get the more there are (you never get to stop practicing the basics). And there's the huge emotional challenge of making a piece of wood speak.

So... in case anyone's interested, the following is an annotated description of my lesson. It will, of course, be full of technical descriptions that are bound to be terrifically boring if you don't play the violin. That's ok. You don't have to read it :)

At the beginning of my lesson, we chat about what's been going on in my life, and how things are going in general. I find it's easier to be honest about my life in a violin lesson than anywhere else. The sense of rapport and trust with one's teacher is critically important. There's unusual potential for a meaningful relationship too, since private music lessons mean that the student will spend about an hour each week as the sole beneficent of the teacher's attention. I ask about his upcoming performances, and about the summer camp he founded. We talk about my grandfather's death.

I start with scales. A-flat major, 3 octaves. I play the whole scale with 1 note per bow, then 2, then 3, then 4, and then he stops me before I get all the way up to 16. He compliments me on improving my shifting. It's better, but not quite there. I have a tendency to let my left wrist flop backwards a little bit when I shift, instead of keeping my wrist completely straight. The difference between "correct" and "incorrect" is so small that I can't actually feel it, so I stand in front of a mirror for hours and practice the correct movement. The wrist must stay straight, but the forearm must also rotate clockwise. And the fingers must bend. Ok. I'm keeping that in mind.

He says that he can hear all my string crossings (and that's not a good thing). There are two reasons for this. First of all, I am picking up the last finger on the old string *before* putting down the first finger on the new strings. The timing is a few milliseconds off, and it makes a difference. I must leave the old finger down until the new note has sounded. My right elbow is also a problem. When you move from a low string to a higher one, the weight of your right elbow should aid, and when you move from a high string to a lower one, you should hold your right elbow aloft so that it doesn't make the crossing difficult. I play the scales again, thinking of my left arm in the shifts, trying to keep my fingers loose but firm, keeping the old finger down until the new note sounds, making sure my elbow is assisting the shifts. He says it's better, but my tone is not yet liquid enough. My notes sound portato, not cantabile. In order to achieve a truly connected sound, I have to use the weight of my entire right arm to my advantage. I play the scales again.

We move on to arpeggios and thirds. He says that when I play upbows, my right shoulder hunches up and forward. I have to keep it down, but loose, so that the rest of my bow arm doesn't become tense. My posture, too, comes up. I've got all kinds of posture problems. I used to lean heavily on my left hip, which caused my entire torso to twist. I've mostly fixed that problem, but I still tend to twist my neck up and back, and my back is still too bent. I concentrate on keeping my head centered and down, and my back straight.

A discussion of intonation comes up. Intonation is no simple matter. For one thing, there are LOTS of tuning systems. Pianos are "even tempered", meaning that the frequency of a note must be multiplied or divided by the 12th root of 2 in order to get the next and previous pitch, respectively. This mathematical tuning is convenient for pianos, but doesn't work for violins. This is because the harmonics produced by any given note are, of course, pitches themselves - and they do not correspond exactly with the notes dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule. Close but no cigar. Therefore, if you play a note, and a third above it, where the third is dictated by the 12th root of 2 rule, it will sound out of tune, due to the harmonics of the bottom note not corresponding with the top one. On a piano you don't notice much, but on a violin, it sounds awful. So on the violin, every note you play must be tailor-tuned to match the other notes you are playing. If you play a G and a B at the same time, you'll have to play the G higher than the even tempered pitch in order to get the third in tune. But play a G and a D, and the G must be lowered again. The list of adjustments you must make is enormous.

We spend a while talking about the Bach Sonata #2 for solo violin, and the tuning issues it presents. I go through the piece, playing one note, then hearing the next note in my head before I play it.

At the end of the lesson we talk Mozart 4th violin concerto. I need to work on my bow distribution. In preparation for this, he gives me a number of exercises to do. I must play long, slow notes while sliding my bow between the bridge and the fingerboard, keeping it perfectly parallel to the bridge. It's supposed to make me more aware of my contact point. I'm also supposed to practice playing in a pattern: 4 notes to a bow, then 1 note to a bow. WITHOUT slowing down. This teaches bow control.

Finally we talk about how Mozart's violin concertos really harbor an element of opera. The key to playing them well is to realize that although there's only one solo violin part, that one violin must speak all of the operatic roles. The player has to be a quick-change artist, changing character and voice every time the concerto demands a new "singer".

The elevator attendant says to me, as I step in to the old-fashioned lift, "Rictor must be a very good teacher. Everybody always comes in to the elevator looking happy!"

Jun 12, 2008

The Far Shore

When I got the call, I was underground. The subway was crowded, chilly and damp. The Green Line screamed around the bend so loudly that I actually had to ask my mother to repeat herself. She couldn't; once was hard enough. My father took over the phone. He began in his best "we-must-accept-the-inevitable" voice. Before I had time to respond, the train started again, and as the car dimmed my phone went dead.

Grandpa came out of his coma at the last minute to kiss Grandma goodbye. She kissed him, he kissed her back. She kissed him, and he was still, and she knew he was gone. The church had sent roses for their 57 years of marriage, and a candle burned in the corner. A group of singers sneaked in, just minutes after he died, and sang for them.

I slid off the train and walked over the bridge towards home in the fog, and in my own personal fog besides. The rain started and stopped every few minutes. My feet and my mind went numb.

Four days later, after my graduation had slipped by, we buried half his ashes.. It was a scorching hot day. Grandma tipped the urn in to the hole in the church garden and began to scoop the dirt back in to the hole with a clam shell. Each of us got a turn with the shell, as Grandma spoke to him. Bill, she said, we're burying your ashes here in this beautiful place, and we love you. Nobody else could speak. People walked by on the street, only 10 feet from our gathering in the garden, trying not to look at us. We couldn't see their faces through the tears, anyway. We left the clam shell in the hole, in the end. A piece of the ocean, to make him feel at home.

The rest of the ashes sat in a bronze urn shaped like a pineapple, on the wood stove. Grandma thought he'd get a kick out of that; living in a pineapple. I could almost hear his chuckle just around every corner. I kept expecting him to be seated at the dining room table, eyeing a plate of cookies keenly. His leathery, shaking hands would extend slowly across the table, so slowly that everybody else, engaged in conversation, hardly noticed. In this careful manner he consumed a diet that consisted mainly of dessert. Nobody would argue.

The pineapple will live in Maine, in our little cabin, where all our hearts escape to, until Grandma dies. Their ashes will be mixed together and spread over the forest, and out in to the ocean.

At the service, the next day, I played a little trio with my parents, for Grandma, who loves the sweet gentility of Renaissance music. Then Ashokan Farewell, a simple folk tune, for Grandpa, who sang everything off-key, but with an quiet, woodsy expressiveness that was unmatched. I looked out from the balcony at the hundreds of people in the chapel. I didn't take a deep breath before I started. I didn't even think. I just put the bow on the string, and drew it across.

His picture, a twinkly photo from 5 years ago before Parkinson's set his face like a mask, sat on the altar during the service. It seemed so horribly wrong to see him up there, in the little brown frame, instead of with us in the pew, nodding and sparkling at the people across the aisle. I couldn't look at it. The service wore on; it was more than 100 degrees in the church and I couldn't tell sweat from tears. Amazing Grace, his favorite song, began, but I couldn't make a noise. I mouthed the words.

At the end of the service, the minster read a poem that Grandpa had written, less than a year ago. It was for the grandchildren, but I'd never heard it. I think they were saving it for the occasion. The last line read, "I would like them to know that I am an honest man, who likes to help people in need."

Good enough, as he always said to me with an air of awe and appreciation. I can hear his thin, wispy voice saying those words perfectly, with so much grace. Good enough.

*This is the same Grandfather of this story. He only lived in the nursing home for a month or so. The family decided that he was not given enough respect or freedom there, and he moved back home, which is where he died.

May 29, 2008

in which I write on an awkward topic

Walking through Boston yesterday afternoon, I had a rambling conversation with a female friend about body image. At first, we were totally engrossed in our discussion, and we hurried through the crowded streets, paying little attention to our surroundings.

We talked about what makes us each feel attractive or unattractive. Amazingly, we had almost nothing in common in this regard. I tend to feel most attractive after I've been exercising - right after a long bike ride, or a good swim, especially if I've taken a shower. That's when I feel the most confident. To my great surprise, she feels least attractive right after exercising. She said that no matter how well she's performed, she always feels as though she isn't in good enough shape and needs to do better. A constant pressure to perform better. It was surprising! Neither one of us had expected such a radical difference in perception, especially since the two of us have similar intellectual opinions about body image and women's health.

The two of us also have markedly different relationships with food, and with clothing. Both of us have struggled with food in the past; she with an eating disorder and I with a debilitating stomach condition. She now finds that she feels compelled to eat on a schedule, no matter what, a compulsion that developed as she recovered from her eating disorder. This habit now leads her to feel that she has, yet again, an unhealthy obsession with eating, and it worries her. Complicated!

I, on the other hand, being relatively free of pain only recently, tend to eat very erratically. It was only last year that eating any food at all was sure to cause me significant pain, and I dreaded eating, although I was very hungry, uncomfortable with my uncontrollable weight loss, and tired of having a fearful relationship with my lunch. Now that eating rarely the problems it once did, I find myself quite pleased with the ability to skip a meal, eat early, eat late, or otherwise get off schedule. This, however, sometimes triggers the very condition from which I was celebrating my freedom. Although I eat almost no junk food (I may be relatively pain free, but I have far more limits than most people) I could do with a few more rules. Again - complicated!

The contrasting relationships that my friend and I have with clothing was something that I also thought about as we walked along through the crowd. My friend is fond of dressing up. She has the flair of a thespian and can assume beautiful poses and expressions. She feels beautiful when she puts on her best clothing. I, on the other hand, am not particularly fond of dressing up. Sometimes, the idea appeals to me. But when I wear nice clothes, I don't feel beautiful. I feel self conscious and awkward, unable to sit or move in the ways that I normally do. I do not have my friend's flair as an actress. I can do impressions of people - pretty good ones - but they're not glamorous or even attractive. She's a graceful, poised dancer; I move with power but little grace. I feel the best in a plain tank top, plain shorts, and bare feet.

Each of us has a full set of strong opinions about the body image problems facing young women today. We are both keenly aware of the pressure that girls feel and we both try to of reject those pressures in our own lives. But, as this conversation made perfectly clear, our conscious rebellion hasn't entirely worked. We are carrying around all sorts of neuroses. Our daily lives are constantly impacted by these various inadequacies that we carry around with us all the time. The choice between a t-shirt and a low-cut blouse can take me an hour, and several tryings-on of various outfits, which surprises even me, given that I am usually dressed in under a minute. Every meal can present a difficult decision for my friend, a woman who is fully aware of the necessities of good nutrition. Both of us grew up in supportive, loving families. How did this happen? How do we start over? Will either one of us ever believe that we are beautiful? Perhaps the problem is trivial; we are MIT students, it doesn't much matter what we look like. Our friends are people we trust not to judge us by our appearances. Neither one of us depends professionally on good looks. But on the other hand, we are not women who want to live in shame of who we are, and the fact of the matter is, both of us, in complex, different ways, feel ashamed about our appearances.

By this point, we had gotten on the subway and off again, and were walking through a busy commercial area. My thoughts drifted towards the environment I was in. For a young female, walking through any major city without a male means that you will certainly get some "looks", regardless of how conservatively you dress. The best thing to do, of course, is ignore them entirely, lest you give the lookers (who are almost exclusively men) any ideas. However, I think this attitude of oblivion has given many men the idea that women do not notice their stares, or are not bothered. I have found that men in groups are especially unpleasant; they seem to feel as though being in the company of other men gives them the right to stare with impunity, as if their manliness leaves them no choice.

Beyond stares, a female is likely to hear a few cat calls, and observe a few rude gestures. I've complained about this already. Unfortunately, there is very little one can do to avoid this behavior. Almost anything that a female does can attract unwanted attention. Case in point: when I wrote the entry that's linked above, I could not, for the life of me, figure out why I kept getting catcalls while biking to and from my violin lesson. I later figured out that it was the shoulder bag that was the problem. I would bike with my violin on my back, and the shoulder bag, of course, over my shoulder. The placement of the strap was drawing unwanted attention to my chest. The ironic part is, I bought the shoulder bag specifically so that I could wear my violin on my back, instead of using the case's shoulder strap, which is very uncomfortable and only makes the problem worse. I just couldn't win. A heavy parka helped, and so I wore one, long after I needed it, until the heat was unbearable.

As we walked through the city, I understood more and more why my friend and I still struggle with body image despite our most sincere efforts to cleanse our minds of Seventeen Magazine ideology. We really are seen, all the time, as anonymous people who happen to have breasts and hips and long hair. It's almost impossible for us to hide behind our clothes; short of spacesuits, we're clearly women. And when we're anonymous, we are not treated with the kind of respect to which we've become accustomed in our personal relationships.

It would be naive to demand that no stranger on the street ever think a sexual thought while looking at my friend and I. Although it's certainly a bizarre and uncomfortable reality to ponder, I think it's probably safe to say that strangers on the street are probably thinking all sorts of sexual things about other strangers all the time. That can't be helped, and as far as I'm concerned, it's perfectly fine. But I do think that something destructive begins to occur when those thoughts, which I'll hastily attribute to the human condition and neglect to explain, are made public. When I feel the eyes on me, when I must remember not to smile at any men because it could give them the wrong idea, when I hear the catcalls... when I am actually molested on the train (this has happened, and it was disgusting).

These actions are so often brushed off as "normal human sexuality", or worse, "boys will be boys". Everybody agrees, of course, that it's never OK to molest anybody else on a train. If the victim is brave enough to speak up when it happens (I wasn't, and I'm ashamed of it), the others in the train are likely to stand up for the victim. But nobody cares if a man stands on a street corner making catcalls. It's not a taboo. No one will stop him.

And that's how I think it happens. My friend and I have learned that it's our responsibility alone to deal with the way these men make us feel. We should be confident and strong and love our bodies no matter what. Our body image problems are our own fault. We should ignore those men. We should accept that there will always be men like that, and that we can't do anything to change that.

It undoes my careful self-conditioning. The crawling, dirty feeling that remains on my skin after an unpleasant encounter overwrites the confidence-building talk I gave to myself in the morning. I feel ugly. I feel exposed. Yes, I have lots of personal battles to win, and those are my job to fight. But being treated by strangers as if my purpose is to be an anonymous sexual object in their world is not my battle. It's just one I choose to fight.

May 23, 2008

all grown up


This is the sound of relaxation. I have just finished 4 years of MIT. Everything is squared away: no more projects, papers, exams, problem sets, forms, meetings - nothing except graduation, which, admittedly, requires that I get up very early, but that's really the only inconvenience. On every other day, I can wake up whenever I want, stretch, and decide to go back to sleep, or embark on some crazy adventure. It's a beautiful existence.

This luxurious life is one perk of having finished my undergraduate degree. Another perk is the respect it commands. People are very impressed by an MIT degree. Generally, I'm treated like an intelligent person in conversation these days, even when the people I'm talking to are much older or more accomplished than I. When I meet new people, they generally ask me about my interests, not just my classes. We find common interests and discuss them. Very nice. As it should be.

Compare this to how I was treated 12 years ago, when I was 10 years old. Now don't get me wrong, I was certainly never mistreated or abused by the adults in my life! But virtually every adult that I met asked me the same 3 questions: "How's school?" "What's your favorite subject?" and "How old are you?" At dinner parties, I was not invited to be a part of the main conversation. (Not that this is unusual - children generally aren't.) Very few adults inquired as to what my interests were or considered that I might have anything in common with him or her.

This sucked, and not just in retrospect. I attended countless dinner parties and felt very left out indeed; I wasn't much interested in watching cartoons (or whatever) with the younger children, and although reading on my own often suited me, sometimes I wanted to be a part of the conversations that the adults were having. Not just because I wanted to be "grown up", but because I had something to say. (Is that really so surprising? Children may think differently, but they certainly don't spend all of their time thinking about toys or food. There's depth, if not the vocabulary to describe it. And even as, say, a 17-year-old, when I definitely had the ability to articulate my thoughts, only very rarely was I considered an adult.) Due to the boredom, I was almost always ready to leave hours before my parents were, and I did my fair share of moping near the door and hanging on my mother's arm and whispering "can't we go yet", much to her annoyance.

I remember promising myself, as a young child, that I would never, ever become the sort of grown up who treats children as understudies, practicing to take over the role of a good adult some day. I was terrified that one day I'd wake up and find that I'd lost all memory and respect for the experience of being a child. One particularly hard day at school, I shut my eyes, crouched on the edge of the playground, and told myself over and over that I'd never forget how it felt to be treated as though my feelings were merely the side effects of the disease of childhood, to be brushed away and ignored.

Now that I'm 22 years old, with a completed college degree, I can stop worrying about what sort of adult I'll grow up to be. As a child, I imagined that when you became an adult, there would be some sort of ceremony, you'd solemnly receive your Adult Status, and you'd promise to stop trying out silly accents, stop loving plain noodles with just butter and salt, and stop crying when you hurt yourself. You'd be Different. Well, thank goodness that's not true. I still love plain noodles with just butter and salt, I still cry if something hurts bad enough, and I love silly accents just as well.

Happy as I was to realize that no cosmic force will prevent me from loving childish things for the rest of my days, some aspects of my transition to Official Adulthood have been disappointing. I am now 100% sure, for example, that my feelings now are not any more important or valid than they were when I was 10, or 5 or, 1 year old. I know more facts, and I'm wiser, but I'm not a different person - I'm the same person I always was, I just get more respect. I feel like shouting back through time, at my little 7-year-old self, huddled on the playground, not to worry, because I will not forget what it felt like to be that age. I was living life, not preparing for it. So are all children. And every adult was once a child - they must all have had this realization. Why, then, are children treated as though they are monsters in need of taming? Why is it acceptable to ignore the desires and feelings of children in favor of the staunch routines and rigid boundaries we are taught we must impose? It seems as though adults have collectively given up on trying to communicate with children. We are not so different, me and my 10-year-old self. A little respect goes a long, long way.

The day after I get my degree, I'll be having a little graduation party, and I've invited the people who probably care the least about my degree. Ironic, isn't it? But these are the people who took me seriously, right from the beginning. They will tell you that I am the same person I always was, and that my interests, though they've certainly developed over the years, have remained remarkably constant. They know this, because back then, instead of talking over my head about Things Children Don't Understand, they spoke to me directly, as an equal. The fact that I've gotten a degree from MIT doesn't change how they treat me, because it doesn't need to. They never needed any special reason to treat me with respect.

Now that I've finished, now that it's summer, now that I'm free and my mind is wide open, I find that the support that has meant the most to me over the years has nothing to do with any of the respect that I have won by being a student at a prestigious college. There is nothing that has meant more to me than unambiguous respect for who I am and what I'm about, regardless of age or accomplishment. Should you ever get the chance to offer this to a child, take the opportunity - the child, and the adult he or she becomes, will never forget it.

May 18, 2008

weather vane

I was sitting on the porch in an enormous, decrepit easy chair when a cold front moved in. One minute it was still and warm, and then edge of the front crept over my bare legs and the wind started to blow. The sky dimmed and the smell of wet soil rose up.

When the weather's like this, I want to run late at night, cool air sliding across the back of my neck and feet pounding. Rain's not bad, either, if you're feeling stormy. There's something a little bit wild and desperate about running in the dark, with the wind and rain chasing. It gives you something to run from, something to fight. A challenge to rise to. It's a dangerous feeling.

Tonight, however, I will not be running; I will be reading through class notes, an experience which is, to the restless soul, the mental equivalent of listening to a voice speak in monotone in a language you do not understand, for hours. Tomorrow I will get up early, squint in the sun as I bike across campus, and immerse myself in my very last exam.

When it's all over, it'll be noon. The weather report tells me it'll be very windy, cloudy, with a bit of a chill. Stormy weather; dangerous weather; but nothing else will speak for the restless soul.

Apr 30, 2008

in the boat of myself

Late at night, thoughts mill around in my mind like skaters on a pond. They drift across the ice, an endless kaleidescope. I'm there, weaving amongst them like a ghost. I can glide and breathe, spotlight on one skater, then another, blades glinting in the bright light. My own private peace.

And then without warning, a monstrous noise, the ice cracks, I slide beneath the surface, and I'm drowning in chill nothingness, this vast lake below my thoughts.

Or maybe it's not quite so instant...

Maybe you've felt it. Have you ever been on the edge of sleep, only to feel the bed disappear from underneath you, heart in your throat? Have you ever reached for a doorknob in the darkness, and found that you misjudged its placement, and stumbled forward? Have you ever woken up from a dream, reaching for something that wasn't there?

When I'm very tired, I'll lie in bed in the dark, mind pulsing with nervous energy and racked with exhaustion. I'll begin to think of all the things I have to do the next day. Must write this paper, must turn in this form, must email this person, must practice the violin, must clean the rat cage, must pay the library fine. I try to organize it all. Look, I tell myself. It's ok. You have enough time to get all of this done. Here's how it'll work. See? Now you can relax. Just push those thoughts away - admire the empty pond, look at the fresh dusting of snow - tomorrow is just another day. Take your life one day at a time.

But once the pond is empty, my mind is dangerously open and there is nothing I can do to stop the demons from arriving. It happens so fast. They melt the ice with their hot footsteps, and I'm breathing carefully, keeping everything steady. Why, they ask me, are you so worried about that library fine? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters. YOU don't matter. I brace myself. I've seen THESE fellows before. I'm here because I'm a human being and I'm a student and I'm learning what I need to know to do what I want with my life, I tell them. It doesn't help. Anything I say sounds petulant and defensive. The ice is melting and I feel a strange mix of hot tears and cold apprehension. Why? They ask me. Why are you living? What point is there in your life? You are a tiny, meaningless accident. Your life will be forgotten as soon as it is over.

And the ice cracks the minute I must admit to myself that I don't know the answer to any of those questions. There is a physical sensation of falling, my heart jumps and my mind grasps blindly for anything to hold on to, followed by a painful loneliness that blooms when I realize I'm truly lost. I have so many answers, but none to the questions that really matter. Ask me why and all I can give you is an answer I've constructed to keep me sane. I have no idea why I'm here, but I want so badly for it to mean something.

I can't replicate this sickening fall if I've been sleeping well. My mind is protected from those horrifying absolutes, most of the time. But a lack of reserve power, brought on by exhaustion, gives me these glimpses in to the world below my little skating pond, a vast, endless well. I try to live with that endlessness, but I don't think my mind is built to handle such things. I need something to hang on to, some assurance that I deserve this consciousness I've got.

The will to return, to pull myself out of the void, out of that hole in the ice, is just as strong as the will to breathe. I can't help it, no matter how much I want to live with the reality that I'll never know these answers. I fight my way back to the surface and haul myself on to the ice, cold and shaken. From the surface I can see clearly again, but I know I'm seeing only my little pond. Somewhere below lurks that huge loneliness.

I decide that I will make my existence worthwhile, somehow, instead of waiting for an answer.

"Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick. I try to stay
just above the surface,
yet I'm already under
and living with the ocean."

Apr 22, 2008

gypsy airs

It's recital time again.

I'm playing Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate. It's a fantastic little piece. The entire thing is designed to look impressive, as well as sound impressive - Sarasate was a virtuoso violinist, so he wrote in all the most difficult-sounding things he could think of. The audience is supposed to flutter their fans and say, "Oh, my, that certainly was quite something, wasn't it Georgina?" It's the icing on the cake.

It's not the deepest thing I've ever played. If the Beethoven concerto is a bottomless well, this is a very attractive puddle. It's all pomp and circumstance, but it's also damn tricky. It is composed entirely of phrases, which, if they were merely a little part of another piece, you might think to yourself, "I better watch out for this line. It's kind of tricky. If I get nervous, I might flub it". Practicing, therefore, mostly consists of playing the runs and flying spiccatos so many times that your hands do it even if your brain is busily thinking about how long it is until dinner time.

So, Beethoven it's not, but it's still a great piece, and it deserves more care than just technical precision. It's not a very personal piece, though. You can't really play it from the heart - to do that, you might as well stand up and explain that you've got an ego the size of the Pacific. It's way to blustery for sincerity. So the decision I've come to is that it must be played almost as a soundtrack for somebody else's life. I can use the grandeur and over-the-top glamor that way.

'Course, I can't tell you who it's for, because that would ruin the magic. But the piece does lend itself nicely to a story. It starts out in a rage, then lingers around some seductive business for a while, gets all mournful, and then goes absolutely nuts in the scramble to the finish. A very interesting life indeed.

Mar 31, 2008

science education

I'm going to graduate from MIT in a few months. My imminent release in to the Real World (out of the frying pan and in to the fire, really) has got me looking back on my scientific education so far. As it turns out, until I came to MIT, my schooling contributed almost nothing useful to my body of scientific knowledge - an interesting observation indeed.

I should define by what I mean by "nothing useful", or, in other words, I should state what I consider to be useful knowledge. It's actually a difficult task. Since a lot of scientific knowledge builds upon previous knowledge, I don't want to trick myself in to thinking I learned nothing in school, if in fact I was learning basic principles upon which later learning depended. So I'll have to dig deep in to the memory banks and figure out where I learned about truly essential stuff, like the scientific method, gravity, careful observation, the existence of cells, and so on. Once the absolute basics are accounted for, I can define useful knowledge more precisely: knowledge which, at some point after learning it, I needed. For example, when I was one or two, I began asking my parents how electricity works. (There's a note in my baby book that says I was "quite good at remembering explanations of what it does", although I still had to ask all the time, apparently!) It has mattered many times in my life that I understand how electricity works. So that information is useful. (Incidentally, it's also something I was never taught in school.) On the other hand, I learned about grasshopper anatomy in high school biology. I still remember it, but it's never mattered.* That doesn't necessarily mean it shouldn't be taught - but I think it's reasonable to assume that at least some of the things you learn in school ought to be useful later on, or else schooling has failed to accomplish its goal. The question is: did they fail?

*One might say, at this point, that learning grasshopper anatomy was a vehicle by which I learned deeper scientific lessons about comparative anatomy, dissection, and so on. I've considered this possibility, but I must conclude that the only reason I learned about grasshopper anatomy was because it was tested on the New York State Regents exam. The content was certainly not presented in any way which would lead me to gain greater understanding about comparative anatomy or anything else.

So. Like everybody else, I really started learning about science the day I was born, since one really can't help but learn while living, but in this post I'll be looking at the more concentrated chunks of scientific education in my life - momentous occasions in my learning, if you will. Where did it all begin?

When I was 7 or so, I was given a copy of the Dorling Kindersly Science Encyclopedia. It instantly became my favorite book. For years, until I'd read it cover to cover several times, my parents would come in to my room in the middle of the night to find me asleep on the open book, lights still on. As far as I can tell (and actually, somebody has commented on the Amazon page saying the same thing), the encyclopedia covers everything that is generally taught in grade-school science class. It also covers a whole lot more - there's a lot of detail in there that I didn't see in school until high school, at least.

Because of the encyclopedia, I can say fairly certainly that although my school did present some interesting and/or important science topics in class, very few of them were new to me. In first grade, I did learn a great deal about astronomy because my teacher (whom I loved - I have very few complaints about first grade!) had me draw charts of every constellation in the night sky and memorize them all - and to this day I can see that drawing in my mind every time I look up at the sky. In third grade, my teacher assigned me an "independent research project" while the other students did I-don't-remember-what (this will be a theme in this post, you'll see) and I learned a lot about puffins and presented my findings to the class, which was fun. But other than those two things, I don't think I learned anything in science in grade school that I hadn't already read. And furthermore, the amount that I learned in grade school was a *tiny* fraction of what I had read. So that encyclopedia was one major teacher.

(Not every kid likes reading a science encyclopedia, obviously, but this post isn't about every kid. Just me.)

In fourth grade, a friend of mine mentioned that her father, a mathematician, had taught her how to do a word problem with algebra. I had heard of algebra from my encyclopedia, but I didn't know much about it, especially since neither of my parents know any algebra (they're musicians). That afternoon, during recess, my friend showed me that you could use letters to represent numbers, and then move them around in equations. Similarly, another couple years down the line, another friend of mine (with a mathematician father again!) mentioned the quadratic equation in a sort of off-hand way one day. I asked what it was, and she told me - just like that. I have a feeling that a lot of learning goes on this way - under-the-table conversations between peers, fueled by curiosity - even when schools think that they've done the teaching.

The third way I remember learning a lot in grade school was from my parents. My mother especially has always been very interested in nature, and she taught my sister and I to identify birds, trees, and bugs. We never had lessons of any kind - we just went to parks a lot (especially this one), went to museums, and went walking in the woods. I never felt like I was being forced to learn anything. I was just having fun.

The encyclopedia, conversations at recess, walks in the woods - the three most memorable ways I learned in grade school. None of them happened in the classroom. Moving on to middle and high school... did school take over as my primary informant as the subject material became more and more complex? Did I find school indispensable?

Nope. I'm actually going to leave school classes out of this bit almost completely, because the only important thing I actually learned was how to identify minerals. Almost everything I learned came from a string of obsessions that I had, in to which I would throw my self whole-heartedly until something new caught my fancy. The first obsession was ham radio, which isn't particularly typical of 10-year-old girls, but hey. I took my operator test, which required me to know how antennas worked, which required all sorts of other knowledge about energy and waves and electricity. I was so in to it - and then all of a sudden I was in to dolphins and marine biology - much more typical of young girls! I had dozens of books on dolphins. I wrote letters to children's magazines about the plight of the Indus River Dolphin. It was my thing. And then in a flash my thing was astrophysics. I read Kip Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps". I rented Carl Sagan's video series about the cosmos (think "billions and billions") and was glued to the screen. I was terrified of nuclear war. I stared at the sky all the time and begged my parents for a telescope (it took 10 years, but I got one for my 20th birthday)! I was fascinated by black holes. Eventually, an awesome organization in Ithaca called The Learning Web set me up with an internship at Cornell's Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility. My job was to work with a cool guy called Rick on organizing all of the pictures that came in from orbiters and satellites. Which meant that I got to hang around with astronomers and play with the computer and use Adobe Photoshop, which I thought was the most exciting thing in the whole world. Even more thrilling was when the group allowed me to come to the midnight party that they held when the Pathfinder touched down on Mars in 1997. I showed up in my pajamas, having already slept for some time, and the grad students gave me grape juice and let me sit in the front so I could see the TV. It was incredible.

That same year, I was assigned a "research paper" in my 8th grade earth science class. I was supposed to research any topic of my choosing, write a paper, and present to the class what I had learned. I wrote a paper explaining what black holes are (with an analogy to a trampoline, which I think was actually moderately clever), how they form, what they look like, etc. I had a blast. I wrote this 8-page paper that I was really proud of, and I made a presentation to give to my class. I got up there and talked for my allotted 10 minutes, after which my teacher told me... that I wasn't allowed to present on topics that nobody understood. I was absolutely crushed, mostly because the entire point of my paper had been to explain black holes from the bottom up.

After I worked at SPIF, I got more and more interested in particle physics. I read Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe", a book about string theory. I didn't understand any of the math in it, but luckily the internet could offer some insight. I even wrote Brian Greene a letter asking him some questions, but unfortunately he never wrote back, though I waited for a response for months and months.

Eventually I got involved with the Learning Web again, and they set me up with an internship at the Cornell Wilson Synchrotron. I worked for a guy called Rafael, a retiree who'd gotten bored with retired life after only a week, and who'd returned to lend his considerable expertise to the operation of the particle accelerator. He was one of the people who helped build the synchrotron on the first place, and the only person still working who knew its deepest darkest secrets, so he was invaluable, but since he was technically retired, he didn't have specific duties. Which made him a great mentor - he had plenty of time to show me around. The facility is absolutely incredible. If you've ever been inside a particle accelerator tunnel, you know how cool it is - enormous bending magnets, cavernous detectors, massive boxes of electronics - it all looks like some fabulous science fiction paradise. I was a little out of place there, granted, being the only person under 25 around, and one of only 2 females, the other being a professor in her 60s, but physicists are known for being kind of aloof, and nobody seemed to mind too much.

Rafael had been a well-known lecturer in physics and electronics, which was absolutely to my advantage. When I first started working for him, I didn't know enough physics or electronics to build anything useful for the sychrotron, so he had to teach me. Which meant that I got private lessons in two-hour chunks from this guy. It was a great way to learn, especially since my new knowledge was immediately applied in the context of the project I was working on.

Later on in high school, when it came time for me to start taking normal physics classes, I found that I just didn't have any patience for sitting through dry, boring lectures with no fun projects in sight (neither did anybody else, I bet). I had also already taken calculus at that point, which made it a bit silly to take the physics class that my school offered, which attempted to bypass the calculus with long-winded, fuzzy explanations that obscured the math. So for the last couple years, I actually took physics, and later math as well, from a distance-learning program called EPGY. It worked out pretty well, because I could work at any pace I wanted, and it let me leave school after only 2 hours of morning classes.

Since I'm getting a degree in bioengineering, one might wonder why so little biology has appeared so far in this overly-lengthy narrative. It may just be blatant cynicism, but I think the reason is actually directly attributable to one person: my 9th grad biology teacher, whom I won't name.

Early on in the year, were were assigned a research project (oh no, not another research project...). I can't exactly remember what the constraints were, but I decided to test whether or not vegetables and fruits that had a bright red color had more vitamin C in them than paler vegetables and fruits. I did some very simple test (I think it involved iodine and potato starch), and found that indeed, the red fruits and vegetables I tested had more vitamin C than the others. My teacher refused to believe me. She hadn't heard of it being true, and not only was she was totally unwilling to believe that I had done a sound experiment (which is a legitimate concern in the context of a sloppy high school lab), she didn't even believe that I was telling the truth. She honestly thought I was fudging my data. We never got along after that. (Also, in her class, I was bullied pretty ruthlessly by 3 guys who sat at my table, and she refused to move my seat. So that didn't go over well either.)

(In case anybody's curious, my results were actually correct for at least one of the vegetables I tested. I had used orange and red peppers, and red peppers are now known to have 50% more vitamin C than orange ones.)

My interest in biology lagged for quite some time after that disastrous class. It only picked up when I was 16 so when I began to get interested in cancer research. When I first began reading about cancer biology and treatment, I became totally obsessed. I'd stay up all night reading. I'd download articles and read them on my laptop whenever I had a free moment - which I now realize is exactly my style. Complete immersion until I have the basics down, and I feel ready to ask questions, and talk to people, and understand the whole thing on a deeper level. (As it turned out, the way to understand things on a deeper level in the case of cancers was to get involved with the ACS and participate in the Relay for Life, which, if you haven't ever done it, is an incredible experience.)

After I had recovered from my bad introduction to biology, I started reading a lot more of it, and I got in to neuroscience and cognitive studies. And then I ended up at MIT, where I floundered around for my first year, unable to choose between physics, bioengineering, electrical engineering, and neuroscience. I feel that my education here has been very good. I certainly can't sum it up here, since it's really a whole 'nuther beast, so I won't try, but that's not the point of this post anyway.

The point I'm actually trying to make is that when I look back on my education, I find that I was incredibly fortunate to have opportunities to learn science in interesting and diverse ways. I am fairly sure that if I hadn't had the opportunities I've mentioned in this post, I would feel pretty negative about science. It would probably be lifeless and dull. I'm not even sure who I'd be today if these experiences hadn't been such a big part of my life...

Which really makes me wonder about education in this country. And if I had to answer my own question from the beginning of this post, I would say that yes, the schools did fail to educate me in science. Anybody who reads this blog knows that I have a lot of gripes about education, but I promise I won't go in to them all. Let's just say that public science education is... well, it's no fun. It takes a subject like physics - which is responsible for the Mars rover, and that magical party I attended in the middle of the night - in to an emotionless subject that exists between the cardboard covers of a (badly-written) textbook. It removes science from the forces that motivate it, all the emotion, passion, and urgency that scientists feel to discover and innovate, and isolates it in a small world of petty facts. It's sad, really - astronomy is so grand and humbling and biology is intricate and delicate and physics is full of explosions and bizarre theories... I'm beginning to think that we shouldn't separate science from science fiction, really. I don't mean to suggest that we should teach people science THROUGH science fiction - I'm all for keeping the facts accurate - but I think public science education has lost sight of the fact that science is what sends us to the MOON and builds mushroom clouds and saves peoples' lives. Where's the glory?

Mar 21, 2008


Because it isn't published yet, I can't say much about the work I did last summer on an HIV vaccine. What I can say is that the work wasn't particularly glamorous. I spent a lot of long hours mixing and measuring tiny amounts of clear liquid in tiny plastic tubes, which isn't quite as exciting as rocket science, but hey - that's bioengineering. Things that bioengineers think are exciting are generally about as thrilling as watching paint dry.

But damn, if it works... Imagine how it would change the world. Just thinking of it gives me the shivers.

HIV is a tricky monster. It attacks CD4+ T cells. Those helper T cells are supposed to activate B cells, which then produce antibodies, which bind to the virus, causing them to be endocytosed by macrophages. So if you don't have any T cells, you don't have any antibodies, which means that your specific immune responses are... zilch.

When it enters cells, HIV unpacks its (tiny, efficient, scary) RNA genome, uses an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to translate the RNA in to DNA (all the better to mimic human genes), and then inserts itself in to the human genome. There it lurks for years.

The virus can only replicate if certain transcription factors (molecules which bind the DNA such that transcription to RNA can occur) are present. (For example, in the case of HIV, one of the factors it needs to jump out of the human genome is NF-kappa-B. Sadly, NF-kappa-B is upregulated (produced more) when T cells are activated.) When such a transcription factor comes along, the viral genome is transcribed to RNA and translated to protein unwittingly by the body's machinery. The completed virus assembles, bursts out of the host cells, and goes on to infect again.

It's awful.

HIV is only made trickier by its tendency to mutate extremely quickly. The virus can change significantly within one person, within one month (this is mostly because the virus doesn't package its own proofreading enzymes, so when it transcribes its own genome, it makes a lot of mistakes). Which is part of the reason that no vaccine has been made so far - it's incredibly difficult to fight against a mutating enemy.

Therapy for HIV basically consists of anti-retroviral drugs right now. They work in a number of ways - they can inhibit reverse transcriptase, they can inhibit some of the viral proteins necessary for viron assembly, they can inhibit the protein that allows HIV to insert itself in the human genome, etc - but all of them focus on blocking the virus from doing what it wants to do. This means that all of them are dependent upon the virus not mutating so much that it becomes unrecognizable to the drug - and that's unlikely, given how fast HIV mutates. So lots of people become resistant to treatment, and then there's very little that medicine can do.

Most of my understanding of HIV and AIDS comes from a very scientific perspective. I know a lot about HIV surface proteins. I can go on about immune response. But the epidemic hasn't come too close to my life. It started just before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to know anything about it, it was a pandemic. Friends watched friends waste away. AIDS orphans were suddenly everywhere. The disease reared up from nowhere, ugly as hell.

I've never personally known anybody with HIV or AIDS. I've never even met anybody with HIV or AIDS (that I know of - though I probably have). Sometimes it makes AIDS seem so surreal. I've been hearing about it ever since I can remember, this hellish disease, for which we have no cure. I even forget, sometimes, that the disease is only a couple years older than me. How can it even be real? How can it have changed the world so fast?

Once in a while, I get a flash of understanding. Maybe I read something (like Susan Sontag's "The Way We Live Now" - not for the faint of heart), or overhear something on the T... Today, in a restaurant, just as I was leaving, I heard a group of people make a toast to a man who had died of AIDS. In those moments I'm reminded how blissfully untouched by AIDS my life has been, and how little I really know about it. And how very, very far we have to go before it can be forgotten.

Feb 29, 2008

animal testing

I'm a bioengineer and a vegetarian.

This causes some interesting complications.

First and foremost, I oppose causing animals, or anybody else, to suffer unnecessarily. (This begs the question, is suffering sometimes necessary?)

But I also disagree with animal rights activists who jump to the conclusion that research on animals is always 100% wrong, mostly because their opinions seem to be build on shaky ground. Let's have a look at what PETA's website says about animal testing:

"Educating people and encouraging them to avoid fat and cholesterol, quit smoking, reduce alcohol and other drug consumption, exercise regularly, and clean up the environment will save more human lives and prevent more human suffering than all the animal tests in the world."

I think this is the kind of argument that loses PETA its credibility. It's true that promoting a healthy lifestyle probably would save more lives than animal research if we suddenly decided to spend all our animal research dollars on education. (In the USA right now, Lipitor, a statin, is making 14 billion dollars per year. Thats the size of the GDP of Tanzania or Senegal. And high cholesterol is greatly influences by weight, activity, and diet. So yes, it's a significant lifestyle problem.)

But that's not the point. Clearly, not all diseases are lifestyle related. People don't only get sick due to bad choices, they get sick because of all kinds of factors. I'm not going to flesh out an argument now for why we should save peoples' lives when they need medical attention, so I'll just leave that as a given.

PETA's argument is shallow. It implies that the only purpose of medical science is to save us from disease we should have avoided. The fact that this is so obviously untrue robs them of credibility.

Once we've decided to treat disease whenever possible, we are immediately faced with the question of animal testing. Complex, deadly diseases often require therapies which are themselves complex and dangerous. PETA says:

"If the pharmaceutical industry switched from animal experiments to quantum pharmacology and in vitro tests, we would be better protected from harmful drugs, not less protected."

Again, this is blatantly false. While in vitro testing is very useful sometimes, it just can't simulate the way a drug will act within the larger world of the body. There is no circulatory system in a petri dish, for example. No organs. While animal testing is far from perfect, it offers a much more realistic model of the human body. It's TRUE that animal testing sometimes results in a drug which appears safe for humans, but turns out not to be in the long run. PETA implies that this problem will be solved by using in vitro testing. That's just plain false.

There are currently some attractive alternatives to animal testing. I believe they should be used whenever possible. Some reputable sources, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine think that animal testing is no longer necessary. Others say it's still irreplaceable, especially for animal models of certain diseases, and for testing "discovered" drugs, the mechanisms (and therefore risk factors) for which may be completely unknown.

Let's look at some reasons why animal testing is currently unacceptable. There are MANY.

1. Until 1989, veterinarians were taught to ignore animal pain. Many veterinarians practicing today were educated in this way. It is only very, very recently that any concern for animal welfare has been demonstrated, and standards are still incredibly low.

2. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) doesn't include mice, rats, or birds. In 2002, the AWA was specifically amended so as NOT to include those species. It also specifically excludes farm animals. Because of this, very few of the animals that are tested on are actually protected.

3. While pain management is now common in some veterinary hospitals, research animals are rarely given any pain medication. Sometimes procedures are designed to be less painful than they could possibly be, but painkillers are generally thought to be too expensive and difficult to control. It is legal to perform ANY experiment on a research animal as long as it can be scientifically justified.

4. Research animals are given absolutely minimal room or comfort. They live in tiny cages. While their cages are often clean, there have been many documented cases of research animals drowning in their own feces. They are not given toys, playtime, or attention. The difference in standards between standards of treatment for pets and standards of treatment for lab animals is enormous, even though the animals have the same needs.

5. Some animal research and testing is completely ridiculous. Skin products are often tested by injecting the product in to the eye of a live rabbit, and looking for swelling, oozing, and pain. This is ridiculous (there's even an approved substitute, EpiDerm, for use on human volunteers), but it's not the only example of such cruelty. And I think it goes without saying that we do NOT need to be testing eyeshadow on mice. There are plenty of substances that make safe cosmetics (minerals, mostly). And anyway, so many mainstream cosmetics are mutagens (one survey found that 884 chemicals in cosmetics are toxic) that we should rethink the whole process anyway.

Basically, I think that the pressure should be on and that alternatives to animal testing should be found within 10 years. I'm willing to believe that currently, some animal testing may still be essential. (I think this is largely because small animals like mice have such quick life cycles compared to human beings - you can get data about 80 times faster in mice. Once we get computer models of entire vertebrates, this will no longer be necessary.)

In the mean time, I think there is NO excuse for not raising standards of animal care significantly. Yes, it costs money, but what really infuriates me is the way Americans often pander to their pets - sometimes buying them diamonds and clothing, which I have yet to see any pet demonstrate affection for, by the way - and then completely forget that the animals being used for research (and, yes, FOOD) are so very, very similar. It's not just mice and zebrafish, people. Cats are frequently used in neurological investigations, half of which officially cause "pain and distress" (though that definition of pain doesn't include any suffering induced by boredom, poor living conditions, or neglect). Dogs, especially beagles, are used in all kinds of biomedical research.

Some people say that a measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable minorities.

**I have sources for almost all of the facts in this post; if anybody wants them, just ask.**

Feb 19, 2008

culture and innocence

When I was 10, I bought an ASL dictionary, signed up for ASL I at the Finger Lakes Independence Center in Ithaca, NY, and totally fell in love with signing. I hung out with a bunch of Deaf 45-year-olds at FLIC and I volunteered at a Deaf school, teaching 4 and 5 year olds simple math. I signed my thoughts by accident on the school bus; I signed "Happy Birthday" to my father instead of singing; basically, I drove my family crazy.

This is somewhat remarkable. First of all, most 10-year-olds don't hang out with 45-year-olds. 10-year-olds are generally considered irritating. They ask a lot of questions and they are a bit grubby behind the ears. Most Deaf schools are not inclined to let 10-year-olds become volunteer teachers, either. And perhaps most strangely, I expect that most adult education ASL programs are disinclined to admit little kids.

But somehow, for reasons that I've never been able to explain, I was a part of the Deaf community in Ithaca back then. I had no obvious reason for wanting to be there (I knew zero Deaf people beforehand), and I had no practical goal in mind (still wanted to be a physicist), but it didn't seem to matter. I was a child, and nobody suspected any impurity in my motivation. I just liked it, that was all.

When, 2 years later, I finished all the ASL classes that FLIC had, I found there was no place else in town (except Cornell, which cost a lot) that I could study. I tried to find some kids my age who signed, but failed to make any contacts. The woman who'd been working with me at the Deaf school moved away. There was nobody to talk to, so I stopped signing. For 10 years.

Now, finally, I'm signing again. My reasons this time around are very similar. I love ASL - and I've missed it - and my face practically falls off from grinning so much every time I go to Deaf events around here. My interests haven't changed much since I was 10, honestly. Signing just makes me happy.

But I'm not a kid any more. I'm not a cute little 10-year-old. I'm a biological engineer now - scary! I'm 22, and my overloaded academic life has nothing to do with interpreting. I still don't have any practical reason to learn ASL. Nobody in Boston knows that I was once an accepted member of the community in Ithaca, of course.

So it's different. I find myself a definite outsider to a group I used to be part of, and that's weird. When I was younger - and fluent in ASL - I really felt as though I was "one of the crowd". That degree of comfort with the community is almost impossible for me to imagine now, but I guess it's a testament to the adaptability of children. These days, I'm incredibly conscious of the insularity of the Deaf community and the fact that I will probably never be "one of the crowd" again. It's frustrating. As a child, and as many children do, I plowed right through the cultural boundaries that I didn't realize existed. Now, as an adult, I can't ignore them, but that doesn't mean I've lost any respect for the group I used to be part of.

Obviously, in the process of growing up, I've learned that such boundaries exist, and that's been invaluable. There's no way I could have ever grown up to be an aware individual without recognizing the boundaries of the Deaf community (and others) for the ideals and causes they represent. But it makes me a little bit sad that I missed my window of innocence during which I could have settled myself in to that world, for no particularly good reason, and stayed.

It's not as though I'll never fit in again. There are a lot of steps I can take to bring myself back to the signing world - just as soon as I stop being shy about it! It may never be quite the same, but waving from the outside - or from a seat in ASL III here in Boston - sure is better than nothing :)

Feb 11, 2008


I'm not going to celebrate Valentine's Day. I'm not in to it, and I'm cynical about all the pink and chocolate and uncreative standard roses, so don't go and worry that this post is going to be all "I LUV U". (I do love you. Yes, you there at the computer. But damned if you'd ever get me to say it on Valentine's Day.)

Instead, here's a warning: I am about to reveal a totally pathetic fact about my past. Dangerously pathetic. Get your hankies ready.

When I was in third grade, I had very few friends at school. My best friend was (everybody *gasp*) a boy - this automatically made me the class weirdo - and my other friend was a girl from a different class. I was mildly acquainted with a boy who played the cello and a girl who'd been in my kindergarten class, but that was it.

So Valentine's Day was a bit of a sad affair that year. We made Valentine's Day "mailboxes" in class, and come the big day, we passed out our valentines, and then hurried back to our desks to see who loved us. My mailbox contained a few stock valentines - the sort that are ripped from larger sheets and sport pictures of superheros - and one actual, factual valentine. I think that each student was SUPPOSED to bring a valentine for everybody in the class (if they brought any at all) but clearly, that rule was not enforced, as some of the more popular girls next to me had overflowing mailboxes and packets of red-hots and candy hearts. Anyway, my valentine was from the boy who played the cello. I still have the darn thing.

Now, 14 years later, even though nobody I know (except my Aunt) actually gives valentines any more, I feel like a kid with an overflowing mailbox. I know people who actually *want* to spend time with me. Just because I'm me. I can't explain it, but I love it!

Often I find myself operating under the assumption that I am very unimportant to everybody else. This is mostly true, of course. But I am incredibly, incredibly grateful that it's not completely true.

Life is good.

Jan 30, 2008


(Note: Halfway through getting the pictures together for this post, I realized that Christine over at Cacophony, another housemate of mine, beat me to it. Oh well - can't get enough of this ramp!)

The Ramp to which I've been frequently alluding is now done, save for the handrail. The project, which has been a major part of my IAP, is one of the best examples I've seen of "can-do" culture, on many levels, and I feel grateful to have been involved.

The Ramp was first proposed some time in late November, when ismith decided to pledge pika. He uses an electric scooter to get around, and the batteries don't winter well, so he couldn't move in until there was some reliable way to get the scooter inside. Or house has 7 entrances, all of which are no where near ground level - so we put on our thinking caps. After much discussion, we decided to go whole-hog and build a 70-foot ramp (5 feet of rise) out of pressure-treated lumber.

Building a 70-foot ramp is a big decision for a little co-op (30 people) that has a very tight budget and is populated by MIT students (always busy!). It's not totally obvious that such a large project can be managed by inexperienced young people, but what I've learned at pika is that there's nothing so motivating as attempting the impossible. We attempt it all the time with our experiment in cooperative living - widely regarded as impossible by those who believe that trust is not a safe philosophy - but even so, it never ceases to amaze me what pikans are capable of. Or more accurately, what people are capable of, if they are part of an environment were "yes we can" is the dominant attitude.

The project was all about people. When it started out, it was about finding a way for our housemate to move in. And then it grew. It became a creative outlet for the considerable design talents of one mechanical engineer, a fun project for an experienced alum who helped us out, and an opportunity to become comfortable with power tools and construction techniques for many. Sure, people got tired and grumpy, and my fingers were freezing most of the time, but that's the reality of doing something significant (in the middle of winter...).

It feels really good to do something that *matters*! And it feels even better to do it with a light heart, with friends, and with an immediate reward - our new housemate.


Stage 1: Drilling holes with this AMAZING DRILL.

Stage 2: Mix concrete to pour in to the holes.

Stage 3: Get a LOT of lumber.

Stage 4: Start putting up weight bearing posts.

Stage 5. Install crossbeams.

Stage 5 continued...

Stage 6: Install joists.

Stage 7: Lay down decking.

Stage 8: Ramp is drivable for the very first time!!

Stage 9: Install guard rails.

Stage 10: Add balusters - and voila!