Book Review: Lab Girl

by Erica Akhter


labgirlI stumbled upon Lab Girl as I was walking into my usual bookstore looking for coffee and free WIFI. I don’t spend much time these days reading for pleasure, but the title and cover intrigued me. “Lab girl,” I thought, “Hmm. I am that.”

As it turns out, I’m actually not, at least not in the same way the author is. And that has complicated immensely how I think about my relationship with science and my future career, but I’m extremely grateful I read it anyway.

As soon as I picked up the book (actually, as soon as I plugged in my headphones because I rented it from the library for FREE) I couldn’t put it down. Lab Girl made me laugh, made me cry, and despite having listened to it over a year ago, I still think about it—or stress about it—on at least a weekly basis.

Lab Girl is the nationally best selling memoir of the remarkably successful geobiologist Hope Jahren, now a professor at the University of Hawaii. Throughout the book, Jahren describes how she developed from a curious and outdoorsy girl playing in her father’s lab into a radically determined woman who successfully built her career despite struggles with funding, mental health and men in power who regarded femininity as weakness.

Jahren’s style is first and foremost one of storytelling. She writes about her experiences frankly and with such candor that it’s almost uncomfortable. The majority of her adult life was spent with the singular focus and determination that most developing scientists wish they could harness. It is clear, though, through her anecdotes that this remarkable concentration came with a high price. A feeling of loneliness permeates the book and this sense is strikingly juxtaposed with the love and passion Jahren illustrates when talking about her science and the relationships she built because of, and eventually in spite of, it

To me, the most striking aspect of Jahren’s perspective is the absolute reverence she has for both the things she studies and the way she studies them. Only the most gifted scientist and teacher could make a mass spectrometer sound at the same time magical, interesting, and completely comprehensible for even a majority-lay audience. When speaking about plants, or lab equipment, or—eventually—people she venerates, Jahren’s writing becomes hauntingly beautiful, bordering on poetic. Her descriptions of the most complex and seemingly mundane processes are both educational and awe-inspiring. These are the parts of the book that explain the drive it took for Jahren to make it through the many challenges, disappointments and exhilarating discoveries that true lovers of science live through and live for. These are the parts that may explain to those non-scientists in your life why you’re willing to work to answer big questions for little money. If you’re anything like me, these descriptions are also the parts that may make you question whether your own passion is sufficient enough to push you through the struggles that come with life inside academia.

Two things are guaranteed if you decide to read Lab Girl. One, that you will develop a new respect for plants and the workings and lessons of nature. Two, you will reexamine your own love affair with science, what it can take from you and what it will give you. It’s definitely worth your time.

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Review of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

by Rachel Cliburn


[[WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]]

CS_Cliburn_bookreview_Oct2017_coverThe winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature normally comes as a surprise. Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was a dark horse contender for the esteemed award. Though he’s had commercial success (two of his books were made into movies), such popularity is normally a factor that precludes favor from the Swedish Academy. But as part of the award announcement, the secretary of the academy describes his work as a mix of “Jane Austen and Franz Kafka….but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix.”

I had never read any of Ishiguro’s works, or seen any movie adaptations of his novels. After he was awarded the Nobel at the beginning of this month, I read Never Let Me Go. It had sat on my ‘to-read’ shelf for years, as I never felt motivated to read about British boarding school life.

Y’all. So glad I read it. Never Let Me Go is the story of a 30-something-year-old woman, Kathy, looking back on her time at an art-oriented private boarding school in the British countryside. [[SPOILERS AHEAD]] As the reader is immersed in Kathy’s first-person recounting of her young social life and coming-of-age struggles, you also come to realize that something’s not quite right. For one, Kathy has no memories before the boarding school. No one comes to visit them, and they never meet people from the ‘outside world.’ The teachers tell the students that they are different, and that they should never dream of having any other job than the one set out for them. They are told that they will have to make “donations” after they leave the school. And why do the students have to make so much art—art that the school administrators regularly confiscate? The reader gradually comes to realize that the students are human clones, created with the sole purpose of donating organs for the benefit of ‘normal’ humans. We learn that while most clones are raised in factory farms, the art-heavy boarding school is an experimental environment to see if clones have souls (as revealed by their artistic works). Kathy looks back on all of this, reminiscing on her idyllic youth right before she is required to give up her body.

What a ride. I’ve never read a book that is so slow-paced but so gripping. This book straddles memoir, romance, sci-fi, and horror genres, with a very generous heaping of classic British understatements and meaningful small moments. The narrator, Kathy, is never bitter, accusing, or sad about her fate. She doesn’t ask questions about her society. That is left entirely up to the reader. The book is essentially an ethics prompt—it never actually addresses the questions that it provokes.

It’s obvious to the reader that Kathy has a soul. Her childhood friends are sometimes cruel, but it never crosses the reader’s mind that they are empty, or anything less than human. However, Kathy and her friends are completely accepting of their fate as organ donors. My 21st century sensibilities tell me that the fictional clone organ donor program is awful–totally morally repugnant. Another character describes the positive side to human cloning: “by the time people became concerned about… about students, by the time they came to consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back. However uncomfortable people were about [clone] existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends did not die from cancer, motor neuron disease, heart disease.”

If we lived in a future society in which diseases were curable, at the expense of a perfectly willing sub-caste of clones, would we do it?  Would we feel compassionate towards the clones? Would it be worth educating them, pretending that they have any function in society outside of their ultimate death? Would it be more compassionate to keep them mentally handicapped, so that they never were aware of the extent of their own sacrifice? Again, my gut recoils at the thought of willingly creating such a system, but I’m not sure how steadfast I could be if I had a child with cancer.

The genius of Never Let Me Go is that the focus is on the relationships and the small moments in Kathy’s life. It doesn’t focus on these looming ethical questions. The reader is gently brought into this world, and the horror and complexities of its reality settle in very slowly. I recommend this book, particularly for people interested in modern medical research ethics.

2017 Retreat Newsletter

by Elizabeth Barfield

If you couldn’t make it to the Neuroscience Program’s annual retreat weekend this year to pick up a copy of the Central Sulcus’ printed newsletter (retreat edition), you can check out some of the articles here!

For the “Status of Statistics” article, syllabi from the courses described can be downloaded here.

 

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2017 Eclipse Coverage

by Amielle Moreno

The eclipse was a celebrated experience across America, especially for the scientific community. Researchers across Emory University campus poured out of laboratories and joined in make-shift viewing parties. Rollins Research Building had its own celebratory group, partaking in eclipse glasses fashion shows and using the green space for crescent tree shadows gazing.

Rollins group
Professors and students alike compare glasses, and makeshift pinholes in the green space outside of Rollins Research Center.
Neuro students
Blind yet stylish Neuroscience students follow auditory cues to face the right way for photos. Left to Right: Olivia Moody, Varun Saravanan, David Nicholson, Lyndie Wood.
Caddie plate shadows
A well-caddie is the toast of the town as scientists gather around to view the crescent shadows it casts.

Caddie plate shadows

Crescent rays
Article author soaking up the crescent rays.
Eclipse shooting
Turns out the selfie-mode-viewing we were told online was possible … wasn’t. In search of that quintessential eclipse shot, many turned to using our eclipse glasses as cell phone camera filters. Lyndie Wood.
Eclipse tanning
Professors, post-docs and graduate students lay out looking for that special eclipse tan.
Stylish
Stylish in science, these ladies make the eclipse easy on the eyes: Left to Right: Stephanie Pollitt, Kim Lang.
Rollins group
Scenes like this occurred across America and the Emory Campus.
Goals
With the eclipse in our past, graduate students now focus themselves on new and exciting goals as detailed in the sign outside of Rollin’s 2nd floor neuroscience lounge.

 

 

Pre-candidacy

By Erica Tracey Akhter

Fall One

Beginning jitters
Give way to anatomy,
Imposter syndrome.

Spring One

Chasing free lunches
And perfect labs, unicorns.
All are elusive.

Fall Two

Maybe we got this.
Lets breathe a few minutes we’re
Halfway qualified.

Spring Two

Beware the confound
And inadequate controls.
Man, f*ck writing grants.

Fall Three

Thank God that’s over.
Wait, shit, again qualify.
Imposter anew.

….

But then, you have passed.
They say the third year is worst
So lighten and breath

A sigh of relief
Until science proves again
Always, we’re its bitch.

2016 Winter Neuroscientist Wish List

By Amielle Moreno

Buying the neuroscientist in your life a great present has been made easy this winter, with the following list of limbic system stimulating treasures.

The Artist:

gold brain.jpeggold-foil-neuron

Nothing makes anatomy glimmer like AKAFoil‘s vintage anatomical illustrations with real gold foil. Starting at $22 you can adorn your office wall with the beauty that is the brain and cranial nerves (above). Or, who  likes the cerebellum? No one? … Really? Well, who needs it, but GABAergic Purkinje neurons are still things of  beauty. Choose the image, background, frame and purchase today for the special scientist in your life.

The Anatomist:

brain-coasters

Think Geek is serving it up right, by protecting the wood finish of every nerd’s coffee table. Each one of these Brain Section Coasters is another horizontal slice of the human brain.

The Neurochemist:

These wall hangings available on Houzz boil down the chemistry of the brain with charming simplicity. Houzz offers: “Bliss”, Dopamine; “Love”, Norepinephrine; “Happiness”, Serotonin; as well as “Mary Jane” THC, Estrogen, and Prozac options.

The Correspondent:

brain-stationary

This handmade stationary features vintage images of the brain’s gray matter and comes with brown kraft envelopes, a hand-stamped brain tag as well as brain and science stickers for $20. Or check out the other beautiful science themed cards on society 6 (Neuron stationary).

The Illiterate:

For the recently born, consider picking up the toddler proof “Baby’s First Neuroscience Book.” Although “Baby’s First Evolutionary Biology Book” might be more stimulating, featuring more child friendly pictures as well as covering material soon to be eliminated from highschool textbooks.

The Literate:

drunkardswalk

Consider picking up the book The Drunkard’s Walk, a book recently reviewed on this blog.

The Note Taker:

These notebooks starting at $12 for everything from creative writing or lab meeting notes. Above are Brain B&W, Brain Phantom, and Brain Control. The best part, if you fall in love with any of Society6’s hundreds of images, is that they’re available to cover your digital notebook as laptop skin stickers.

The Dreamer:

rem-pillow

This stylish pillow features REM EEG recordings and is perfect for an afternoon lab nap.

The Kitchen-Bench Scientist:

A great way to ensure you eat well is to spread cooking knowledge across your friends and family. The Food Lab cookbook is an International Association of Culinary Professionals award winner which takes the reader through classic American dishes with scientific specifics and in full color.

Refine your culinary protocols! For the ultimate food nerd, pick up Cooking for Geeks, which ensures you never have a burn “practice” pancake and also explains why the perfect pancake needs certain portions of baking power and baking soda.

The Organizer:

With this Floral Anatomy Brain small carry-all pouch you can organize your life for only $11.90. Available in three sizes with wraparound artwork, these pouches are perfect for toiletries, headphones, or your favorite lab supplies you secretly hoard. With a durable canvas-like exterior that’s machine-washable, so brain washing has never been easier.Brain freeze carry-all pouch.

The Virgin:

natures-futures-cover

Do you or some scientist you know love SciFi but doesn’t have time to read? Then the Nature Journal’s Futures collection is for you. This collection of short science fiction stories makes it easy to jump in and out of mind-expanding fiction.  For a taste, give the loneliness of the long-distance panda story a glance. And for the wet scientist, consider purchasing the audio book version for bench work listening fuel.

The Gemologist:

tiffany-t-square-bracelet

A bold move by the iconic jewelry company, Tiffany’s & Co. has released a line of dendrito-dendrite inspired pieces for the winter season. The graphic angles and clean lines of every item of the new ‘Tiffany T‘ line has subtle hints of inhibitory intrigue. The color of these stones are sure to activate the dendro-dentric homologous gap junction in the alpha-Ganglion Cells of your special someone, when you surprise them with one of these dazzling diamond studded bracelets, rings or necklaces. The white gold bracelet with princess-cut diamonds featured above is available for only $45,000.

“Across from where?” -Maeby-