Royal Lessons for Scientific Discovery

rdeyes-2This Summer I had the chance to travel to Isle Royale (‘Royal Island’) in Lake Superior for what was a trip that would challenge me in more ways than one.  Our group, comprising 3 adults and 5 boys, drove up to Copper Harbor in the Michigan Upper Peninsula and then made the four hour ferry crossing to the Isle Royale National Park.   We spent the next 6 days hiking across the island, covering a total of 50 miles with backpacks and tents weighing us down every step of the way.

The sights were fantastic, the weather tremendous and the sheer thrill of being unreachable by text, email or phone thoroughly satisfying to say the least.  But, like any adventure of this nature, there was an element of fear that accompanied the trip.  What if anyone got hurt on the island?  How would we handle losing all our food if critters raided our camp during the night?  Might someone get seriously sick on the ferry crossing?  Had we brought enough food to keep us healthy while not overloading our back packs with unnecessary weight that would hinder our progress?  What if our portable water filters got clogged up? Continue reading

Because Timing Is Everything….

Camp Indian Trails Morning Flag CeremonyTiming is everything! I learned that the hard way just two weeks ago when I took my son to scout camp and thought I would try to capture the traditional American flag ceremony for posterity. I set up my camera for a panoramic shot and scanned the crowd.  Feeling very pleased with myself, I got home that evening ready to show my family the great camera skills I had honed over the Summer months. To my horror, I noticed that half of the scout troop was saluting the flag while the other half were standing to attention! I had got the timing horribly wrong (although the picture is still fun to look at in a strange sort of way).

Timing is everything in science as well.  As a technical services scientist at Promega I have sung the ‘timing’ tune to many a biologist. No more so than in the study of apoptosis where Caspases activate each other in a choreographed cascade of molecular triggers that all have their place and time in a domino sequence of enzymatic cleavage events. I frequently talk to researchers about that ‘sweet spot’ of activity when any given Caspase is busily cleaving a peptide moiety off of the next Caspase in the sequence. Finding that sweet spot is anything but trivial and often requires a considerable amount of patience during the optimization phase of experimentation.

Promega has developed a comprehensive suite of systems (see here) designed to help get the timing right for the cell and compound combinations you might be working with.  The end result is that you have experiments that are timed so as to give you reliable information about what is really happening in your cells.

Grays On the Move: Whale Watching in San Diego

As a boy, one of my favorite childhood books was without a doubt, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. For those not familiar with the story, it tells of the obsessive quest of one Captain Ahab to kill a white whale in revenge for an attack that left him with a severed leg. The story is told by the character Ishamel who accompanies Ahab and provides the reader with a front row seat on the doomed saga of Ahab and his crew. After reading the book, I set myself the task of learning more about whales and how we can do more to protect the lives of these magnificent ‘leviathans of the deep’. My parents bought me Jacques Cousteau’s Whales one Christmas. From that moment on, my heart and mind were transfixed. This year I was privileged to see Gray whales for the first time, following their migratory path down the west coast of the United States. Together with a handful of other excited tourists, I went on a 3 hour cruise outside of San Diego bay, organized by the Scripps Institute Birch Aquarium. Below are several of the many pictures I took on that memorable day.

All Aboard Skipper!

All Aboard Skipper!

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“Carpe Diem!” Lessons From A Humbled Foreigner

There I was in the town of Saint Nazaire on the west coast of France—a cute seven-year-old with locks of auburn hair. Days earlier I had arrived for a two week stay with a host family as part of a student exchange that had been organized through my school. We had traveled down from the Loire valley city of Angers to visit the grandparents who lived in a beautiful coastal home. And lunch was waiting for us on the table—tomates du jardin, les rillettes, and a tender cut of beef from the local charcuterie. The setting would have made the perfect advertisement for a French holiday had it not been for a little nuisance that lay in my way.  Before I could savor these delights of French cuisine, I had to attend to my bladder’s incessant demands for relief. That’s right, I had to go to the bathroom. I made my intentions known in my best French “Je vais au WC” and dashed down the corridor to where I knew I would find that all-important room called the ‘Water Closet’. 

Up until then, the WC acronym had been a source of amusement for my French hosts. It epitomized the liberal exchange of French and English words between our two cultures—one that would later spur on the Franglais revolution. And being an English school boy, I should have understood what this particular combination of two simple words meant, right? Continue reading

The Makings Of A Cerebral Music Decoder

A Review Of Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music

ISBN: 978-0-452-28852-2

Physicist Emerson Pugh once quipped, “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t” [1]. In his book This Is Your Brain On Music neuroscientist Daniel Levitin notes how the number of ways that brain neurons can connect is so vast that we will never fully comprehend all the thought processes that we are capable of.

In recent years, mapping techniques have revealed a lot about the functional regions of the brain. Wernicke’s area is responsible for language processing, the motor cortex for physical movement and frontal lobes for generating personalities. Both encephalography and MRI have given us key spatial-temporal data about brain function in these regions. But we also find that activities such as listening to music contravene such a simplistic compartmentalization.

In fact the perception of pitch, tempo, the emotions invoked by a piece of music and the lyrics of a song all use different parts of the brain albeit simultaneously. Levitin repeatedly emphasizes the multi-faceted aspects of the music ‘experience’ noting how a, “precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake” leads to our appreciation of music. The brain is thus a massively parallel device, capable of carrying out several different tasks at once.

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Where Mycologists Go To Church On Sundays

When it comes to academic triumphs and laudatory honors it can be said that mycologist Paul Stamets has his fair share. Stamets has authored six books on mushrooms, holds over twenty patents, is a winner of the Collective Heritage Institute’s Bioneers Award. Today he also runs a facility that boasts twenty four laminar flow benches across four laboratories processing between 10-20 thousand kilos of mycelia each week. He has close to a thousand mycelium cultures growing at any given time and is renowned across the world for his view of fungi as the ‘grand molecular dissemblers of nature’. And so it was that the Biopharmaceutical Technology Center was pleased to host a lecture by Stamets almost two years ago with the promissory title: How Mushrooms Can Save the World. Continue reading

Rob Mies: Lessons From A Real Life ‘Bat Man’

On a blustery, frigidly cold day in mid-April, a small gathering of cub scouts from one of several local packs congregated outside the Lussier Heritage Center on the southern end of Madison for the annual bat festival. They had braved the elements to see these furry creatures, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and to put aside the myth that they are little more than Transylvanian-born vampiric vermin. The cub scouts had come to hear the experts talk. And there could have been no better person for the job of getting the education process started than conservationist Rob Mies- indisputably the star of this year’s bat show.

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Rowing: The Crewed Sport Of Synching Boats

In 1983 the world-renowned Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews took part in a friendly match-off on a river in the heart of São Paulo in Brazil. I was privileged to be on the sidelines watching with binoculars in hand. The grit and determination shown by those men at the prime of their college careers was a far cry from the carefree afternoons I had spent punting and picnicking along Cambridgeshire’s river Cam with family and friends. Unable to shake off the enduring legacy of those Oxbridge athletes, I took to learning their trade in 1991 on the placid waters of Lake Washington, just east of Seattle in the northwest corner of the United States. I was an exchange student looking for adventure. And rowing seemed to be just the pastime for nourishing my inner soul-need. I would clamber into an eight-man scull and spend Thursday afternoons crossing the lake. Rowing at high speed with the coxswain in front maintaining our rhythm took my mind away from the demands of schooling. Riding alongside in the comfort of a motorboat with megaphone in hand was our fearless coach-—a man of modest build with a prosthetic leg who appeared to draw pleasure from reminding us that even a momentary loss of concentration might result in oars smashing into our ribs (‘catching a crab’ in rowing speak).  We had to remain alert, synching our seemingly graceful movements with those of the rest of the crew.

During my more gutsy moments I would venture out in a single-man scull. I learned how to recover from a capsized boat the hard way, deliberately tipping myself into the water and sliding back on through a delicate combination of oar grabbing and body contorting. My crew buddies got a kick out of declaring that it is better to learn safety drills in the cold of icy lake waters than in the heat of an emergency scramble. With my ever-growing confidence, I soon decided that it was time for the competitive scene. Continue reading

The Living Microarray: The ‘Coming Of Age’ Of Transcription Profiling

American artist Andrew Leicester has made a bit of a name for himself at Iowa State University by incorporating his art into the architectural design of the University’s Molecular Biology Building. Leicester’s much heralded G-Nome Project represents his attempt to evince the benefits and threats of genetic engineering to society, through sculpture and mosaic (1). I chanced upon Leicester’s art five years ago as an instructor at a Promega/Corning collaborative workshop in Iowa on the applicability of microarrays in transcription profiling. The workshop aimed to bring Promega’s cDNA synthesis chemistries and Corning’s cutting-edge UltraGAPS slide technologies to the attention of a small group of ebullient young scientists with a broad spectrum of research backgrounds. The floor of the atrium right outside our teaching room showcased Leicester’s ‘Novel Agents’ mosaic, incorporating a super-genetic monster as a warning of the potential perils of genetic manipulation.

Microarray results from the Iowa workshop gave us only endpoint data for the experimental conditions we were studying.

Fortunately for us, the ever-prolific genomics era seems not to have spawned the terrors that Leicester depicted in his art (at least nothing as singularly destructive as a super-genetic monster). To be sure, genetic research is playing its role in the development of novel pharmaceuticals for today’s most challenging diseases.  One can be similarly upbeat about the world of transcription profiling. Microarrays have come a long way since the days of self printing on a slide for single time point analysis.  Continue reading

The Shifting Sands Of Our Crustal Earth

On a bright February afternoon in 2001 the technical services team here at Promega received word that a major earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale had struck the American Pacific Northwest, and that telecommunications with our customers in that region would be significantly disrupted. The major shock had occurred at precisely the moment that one of our own had been on the phone with a researcher in Seattle.  That call was prematurely cut short as electrical power outages and extensive building damage rocked through the Seattle-Tacoma metro area. Fortunately the epicenter of this particular 45-second quake was 52 km below the ground (1). 400 injuries, four of them serious, was the extent of the medical burden suffered. As earthquakes go this was a weak one, although strong enough to rekindle our awareness that the earth beneath our feet is often times worryingly unpredictable (1). This month’s mega-quake in Japan was a painful reminder of the apocalyptic potential of our planet’s extensive seismicity.    Continue reading