I 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.
The 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.
Buying the neuroscientist in your life a great present has been made easy this winter, with the following list of limbic system stimulating treasures.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recent studies have found evidence for the healing properties of blood from younger individuals, but the fascination with “young blood” has been a part of the human condition for centuries.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates introduced the concept that our health and temperament were controlled by the four humors, proposing that blood was the one responsible for courage, playfulness as well as hope. From the 16th century story of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary, the idea of “blood baths” acquired decidedly more sinister connotations.
Hungarian children were told the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. The “Blood Countess” holds the Guinness World Record as the most prolific female murderer.
With 80 confirmed kills, Báthory might have lured up to 650 peasant girls to her castle with the promise of work as maidservants or courtly training. Instead of etiquette lessons, they were burned, beaten, frozen or starved for the Countess’ sadistic pleasure. Folk stories told how she would bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.
Humors remained a staple of traditional western medicine until the 1800s when medical research and our modern concept of medicine emerged. In this new, enlightened age, people started sewing animals together to see what would happen. In the mid-1800s, a French zoologist named Paul Bert first experimented with the creation of parabionts: the surgical joining of two animals, usually two rodents of the same species, in order to study the effect of one’s blood on the other. The first manuscript looking at parabionts was published by Bert in 1864, titled ‘Expériences et Considérations Sur la Greffe Animale’, which when loosely translated means ‘I’m a sick bastard and IACUC hasn’t been invented yet’.
As if parabiosis were a great rainy day activity for the kids, Bert described how to attach two animals together through their skin in an attempt to determine if a common circulatory system capable of exchanging nutrients would form: “the process is one the simplest: a strip of skin is removed along the opposite flanks of the two experimental animals; stitches and others handling systems that I described in my memoirs, maintain the animals attached and prevent frictions.”
In autopsy, he showed that vascular channels developed connecting the attached animals and that fluid injected in one would pass to the other. He was awarded the prize in Experimental Physiology by the French Academy of Science in 1866 and his discovery was later memorialized in a Simpson’s Tree House of Horror’s episode featuring a “Pigeon Rat”.
Using parabionts wasn’t just grossly cool, it was the beginning of transplant research. Fifty years after Bert, around the turn of the century, a scientist named Dr. Alex Carrel was performing experiments studying the ability to sustain living tissue outside the body, eventually connecting it to other living bodies. His methods of blood vessel connection won him the Nobel Prize. Once immunosuppressant drugs were developed, this research paved the way for organ transplants.
Transplanting organs is all well and good, but can it guarantee the promise of everlasting life? While not the goal of the study, the first evidence that healthy blood could extend lifespan came from a parabiont muscular dystrophy study in the 50s (Hall et al., 1959).
Recent parabiont research has been proving what 17th century Hungarian villagers always knew, “dysfunctions associated with normal aging might likewise be rescued by parabiosis to a ‘healthy’, that is younger, partner and that lifespan itself might be amenable to prolongation by heterochronic parabiosis” (Conboy et al., 2013).
However, it isn’t a panacea. Quinn et al. found that there was no significant difference in post-surgery mortality between patients who received plasma from young versus old donors (Guinn et al., 2016). Being alive is wonderful, but the second best thing has got to be being alive and able to make and recall memories.
Even though young blood won’t rejuvenate your skin, recent research discovered young blood rejuvenates your synaptic plasticity (Villeda et al., 2014). Using heterochronic parabiont combinations of young and aged animals, neuroscientist Villeda and colleagues found that exposing an aged mouse to young blood reverses pre-existing brain aging by acting at the molecular, structural and cognitive level.
The hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with memory formation. In the older of the parabiont mice there was an increase in dendritic spine density and synaptic plasticity when their circulatory system was connected with that of a young mouse, a physiological marker associated with memory (Yang et al., 2009). Old animals connected with young ones also showed improvement in learning tasks like fear conditioning and spatial learning. While this means I’ll have to wait for advances in cosmetic surgery to reach Photoshop quality, having the cognitive capacity to remember to pluck that one mole hair on my cheek will have to do.
But what is so special about sweet, sweet virgin blood?
That question is yet to be completely answered, but there are some likely culprits. One difference between old and young blood could relate to immune function. The choroid plexus is the site where blood is filtered to make the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the brain. In the choroid plexus of older mice there were more signs of an inflammatory response than in younger mice (Baruch et al., 2014). When an immune signal called cytokine interferon-I was inhibited, cognitive functioned improved.
There’s also a really boring ‘anti-aging’ agent called “nuclear factor erythroid-derived 2-related factor” but his friends call him Nrf2. Nrf2 kicks in when cells are under oxidative stress and normally is involved with vascular smooth muscles. It’s also produced by neural stem/progenitor stem cells (NSPCs). These cells are present in the subventricular zone of your brain into adulthood and they depend on Nrf2 to maintain their function and survival. Upregulation of Nrf2 increased cognitive performance in elderly animals who have smaller NSPC populations (Corenblum et al., 2016). Now put it in a jar and sell it to me. Other pathways which are likely to be influenced by blood magic include the Wnt and TGF-B signaling pathways (Brack et al., 2007; Carlson et al., 2008).
From being one of the four humors to a source of rejuvenation, humans have always found blood fascinating. The identification of factors with ‘pro-aging’ or ‘anti-aging’ affects is a hot area of research because everybody sucks but no one wants to die.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to draw myself a Hungarian bath.
When I need a book that will force me into an existential crisis, my go-to authors are Rand or Kafka—you know, because I like to sound cool at parties. So it came as a surprise that despite my academic intentions in reading this book on the history and implications of probability, The Drunkard’s Walkblew my mind.
I’m fairly confident (95% confident, one might say) that Mlodinow didn’t set out to make people question their existence with this fun non-fiction. It’s full of human interest stories about the Greeks, gamblers, and gamers that made probability theory what it is today. Mlodinow lets the reader solve problems along with the historical figures, making math history more fun and interactive than I would have thought possible.
Mlodinow also has plenty to say to the “lay-statistician” about probability in daily life. Jury duty, medical diagnoses, sport predictions, even business decisions are victims to common misjudgments based on faulty understanding of probability. For that reason alone, this book is worthwhile.
More than that, though, The Drunkard’s Walk got under my skin. Near the beginning of the book, Mlodinow discusses the human tendency to favor stories over statistics. We have a natural, almost insurmountable tendency to find meaning and purpose in the events around us, even when (especially when?) those events are random. I started questioning my long-held life paradigms—was I just searching for patterns in a world void of order? In the later chapters, a discussion on chaos theory hammered the nail in the coffin of my sane state of mind. The sheer overwhelming permutations of possibilities that fractionate infinitely into the future…the crushing weight of chance that brought us to where we are in the world today…the endless array of paths forward, paths to which we don’t know the ending…I felt flattened by the enormity of it all. Why make choices? Why pretend that working hard has any real bearing on future happiness?
I found myself frustrated when my roommate, after I had blurted all these questions in an ever-more-feverish pitch, answered with what I saw as simple assurances and trite self-delusions. Doesn’t she see that we’re walking the lines of an infinite fractal, seemingly moving forward, but really only subjects to the whims of the chaotic law that rules our lives? It was only after talking to some other friends who had read the book that my perspective began to change. I had thought that all-pervasive chance stole every happiness from us, because we could never really work for it. They, instead, thought that chance stole every failure, because how can we be hard on ourselves if chance plays a part in our faults? This, at last, was a hopeful way to navigate life and its inherent randomness.
The Drunkard’s Walk has something in it for everyone—for the scientists who bemoan their lack of proper statistical training, for historians looking for the human side of science, for risk-takers who want to know if their next chance will pay off. For me, now, it has come to remind me to be hopeful and gracious, to not be too devastated when I fail and to not be too proud when I succeed. I recommend to everyone, and would love to hear if it sends you to the pit of despair and back like it did to me. We’ll discuss it and be super fun at parties.
Each year for the Neuroscience retreat weekend, the Central Sulcus produces a packet of articles and fun content for attendees. If you couldn’t attend the retreat last weekend, check out the packet here!