Breast Cancer(s) Heterogeneity and Personalized Treatments

Image used with permission of Dr. Hongdi Liu.

Image used with permission of Dr. Hongdi Liu.

Recently Promega hosted a special guest from Duke University—Dr. Neil. L. Spector, one of leading scientists in the field of breast cancer research. In a simple way  Dr. Spector presented advances in this field of cancer research and informed us of new treatments that have the potential to improve patient lives. Continue reading


Of Primes, Fractals and Interactive Websites

spiral_primes1Warning: This blog post deals with mathematics, but not the math you may remember from school. But by virtue of it being mathematics, some people may be tempted to skip over this post. Don’t let this happen to you – there’s too much wonder here to miss out on.

Warning 2: The websites mentioned here use WebGL interactive 3D graphics: They only display correctly on browsers that support WebGL, such as Google’s Chrome browser. If you haven’t already done so, consider losing yourself for a few hours in the chrome experiments website.

Back when I was a mathematics graduate student in the early 1990’s, I felt that I had to sift through tomes of tedious formalism and obtuse notation to get at the few rare jewels of genuine mathematical insight. Or so my memory tells me. Then again, I also remember having to trudge uphill both ways through monstrous snow drifts to get to classes, so I can’t quite vouch for my memory (actually, that last part may have been somewhat true of the math department at the UW Madison, in the winter at least). In any case, my sense of mathematical wonder ebbed, and I eventually turned to the pursuit of more tractable goals, like finding a decent job and starting a family. In effect, I had built a mental wall between me and mathematics.

This wall only began to crack earlier this summer, when I saw a short but amazing presentation at the Eyeo festival in Minnesota. Continue reading


The Stuff of Life: A genetics course in a comic book

Copyright by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon from “The Stuff of Life” (2009)

A few years back, when my wife and I were moonlighting as amateur comic artists, we would set up our table at local comic conventions. At one of these, we found ourselves sitting not too far from a charming comic artist by the name of Zander Cannon. His black-and-white artwork was gorgeous to behold. But what really drew us to him was a modest hardbound book on his table, entitled The Stuff of Life: A graphic guide to genetics and DNA that he co-illustrated with Kevin Cannon and whose script was written by Mark Schultz. It turns out that illustrating educational comics is one of Zander’s true passions. Of course, we bought our own copy. Continue reading


Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code

BannerA new exhibit opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Friday, June 14: “Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code” to recognize the 60th anniversary of Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double helix and the tenth anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project (HGP) in 2003. The goal of this temporary exhibit is to educate visitors about DNA in general, the technological and scientific accomplishments of the HGP and implications of new knowledge gleaned from the complete human genome sequence, including many ethical, legal and societal issues such as potential genetic discrimination by employers and insurance companies, the use of DNA for human identification, prenatal genetic screening and privacy concerns.

A few of us here at Promega were fortunate enough to view the exhibit the night before it opened to the public. There was a lot to see and do, with plenty of interactive displays to keep even career scientists interested and amused. What were some of the highlights?

Continue reading


Easy Science Experiments You Can Do At Home

Image from CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Find more experiments in their Science By Email program,

Image from CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Find more experiments in their Science By Email program,

If you’re looking for activities to get the young people in your life to step away from the TV or computer, consider teaching them some science! Now, I understand that most young people probably will not jump at the opportunity to learn when they are “playing” online with their friends, but once they see how cool science can be, maybe they will change their minds.

A great resource is created by Chemistry Professor Bassem Shakhashiri at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  This website is packed with information, but one of my favorite parts is the first option in the “Explore” section: Experiments You Can Do At Home. Continue reading


What Will You Do on Your Summer Vacation?

Promega Connections is delighted to feature this guest post from Amy Prevost, Director Scientific Courses, BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute.

btciSummer time in Madison = a great time and place to get in some lab-based training in molecular biology techniques.  Amp up your skills and connect with other scientists in the lab!

The BTC Institute ( is a nonprofit organization located on the Promega Madison campus and dedicated, in part, to providing educational opportunities and hands-on learning experiences to support the biotechnology community. We have been offering courses since 1993 – that’s 20 years of teaching and training experience in biotechnology.

Our courses attract university students and scientists, but they are also appropriate for industry employees. We aim to help learners make concrete connections between technical content and technique by providing lectures and discussions followed up with laboratory work and invited talks that augment the program by giving students some additional context and application for the techniques.

In the past, the diversity of perspective that is represented when industry scientists work with academics has enhanced the learning environment for everyone.

Here is a brief list of the courses we are offering this summer : Continue reading


Bacterial transformation and counting colonies for grade school students

Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.

Our experimental setup: Microbe plushies, Lego DNA, plates, iPhones and makeshift stand, ready to go.

A few weeks ago, our elementary school held its annual science fair. Owing to the greater-than-usual number of scientists among the parents, the halls of this event were lined with tables staffed by said parents, showing off the wonders of science, tech, and especially biotech. There were at least three stations devoted to various aspects of stem cell research, and the table next to us had kids run simple nucleic acid extractions from wheat germ using detergent and alcohol – my son loved that one, as he pulled out the stringy goop with a q-tip at the end of the process.

My wife and I contributed to the festivities by putting together a presentation on bacterial transformation. I was just about finished working on a colony counter iPhone® app for Promega, so I figured why not try it out in the field: Print out some colorful ersatz bacterial plates, have the kids count the colonies using the app (yay, touch screens!) and maybe teach them something about genetic engineering along the way.

Our setup turned out to be a lot of fun to run, and quite popular to boot. It went roughly like this: Continue reading


The “Simple” Capillary Finds Its Niche

Today we feature guest writer, Kim Smuga-Otto, stem cell biologist and assistant researcher in the Regenerative Biology Laboratory at the Morgridge Institute for Research at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.


The old school of thought: "Capillaries are boring". Not any more. Illustration credit: MSO. copyright Promega Corporation

The old school of thought: “Capillaries are boring”. Not any more. Illustration credit: MSO. copyright Promega Corporation

When I was a child, I was taught that arteries were red, veins were blue, and in between them spread a net of tiny tubes called capillaries that, the text assured me, managed to reach all the cells in my body. The capillaries started off red and went to blue as they exchanged oxygen and nutrients for carbon dioxide and waste. The Wow factor—that the vessels were so small that cells, something so tiny you need a microscope to see, had to squeeze through one at a time—made an impression on my developing geek brain. But once you get past that, it’s mostly just plumbing. So as I expanded my knowledge of biological, the circulatory system remained a comfortably simple diagram of red, blue and tiny tubes.

Turns out, there’s more to their story. Continue reading


AutoPACK Visualization Challenge

HIV 3D structure in Blender, as imported from autoPACK

HIV 3D structure in Blender, as imported via autoPACK

Last week I attended VIZBI 2013, the 4th international conference on visualizing biological data. I was wowed by the variety of visualization techniques and tools presented, as well as by the high quality of art and design I saw on display . The conference covered a diverse range of visualization problems, from pure data visualizations of genomic, expression and even epidemiological data, to renderings of biological structures at various scales.

One of the posters presented at the conference that really impressed me showed off the entries for a contest, just finished, to render artistic visualizations of HIV in blood serum.
Continue reading


Star Light, Star Bright… Wait! That’s a Comet!

Image credit:

Image credit:

I don’t know a lot about astronomy, but I do love to look at the stars. In grade school, we learned many constellations and the stories behind them. My dad loved looking for the planets and used to point out Mars, Jupiter and some constellations for me when I was a kid. Even though I live in an extremely light-polluted area, I still love to hunt for seasonally-visible constellations, and do my best to catch the occasional meteor shower. This year, we will get a couple of rare treats if we’re lucky. There are two comets that will be visible to the naked eye! Apparently, experts say that we are usually lucky to catch a comet with the naked eye only once every five or ten years! One is traveling close to Earth right now called C/2011 L4 a.k.a. PANSTARRS because it was discovered in June of 2011 by the Pan-STARRS telescope (source: Wikipedia). Your best chance to see it may be March 12 because it is not that bright. If you want to try to catch it, experts say you should look close to the western horizon just after sunset. You might have better luck with binoculars or a telescope, but if you’re lucky, you can catch it with your own two eyes!

If you miss out on C/2011 L4 you might get a second chance in late November when C/2012 S1 a.k.a ISON (discovered in 2012 by the International Scientific Optical Network) enters perihelion (i.e., makes its closest approach to the sun). To learn more about C/2012 S1, check out this cool Infographic at

If you want to learn more about the stars, I highly recommend visiting It has lots of cool pictures, easy to understand articles and educational resources! I’ll leave you with this neat video that describes exactly where to look for these comets. It also describes the Rosetta Mission, which is attempting to orbit and land on a comet! Happy stargazing.