Thoughts From A Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 3

Previous entries about my experience at Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins: Part 1, Part 2

Day 3: Finding A Routine, Learning New Strategies, Seeing Strange Fashion


7:45 AM

On Saturday night, there’s a poster session and mixer. Over the last two days, many perfectly polished posters were pushpinned into place. In other, less alliterative words, right now there’s a room full of posters waiting to be discussed. It kind of feels like a locker room, with all of the posters playing the part of a team getting ready for their moment to shine.

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Thoughts From A Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 2

This is part 2 of my experiences at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference. Part 1 can be found here.

Day 2: Food, Talks, and the Sinister Side of Science

8:10 AM

A quick update, because the first talks start in 20 minutes. The food here is merely “edible,” meaning it’s better than your standard cafeteria, but actually putting effort into the food would simply be too much work because there are over 100 people eating at each meal. One thing about the meals is that they are much more casual than the actual talks, so people are much freer to discuss which aspects of their projects are frustrating, annoying, or confusing. I bet that about 70% of the actual science that’s done at these conferences is done over a burger and beer (although, since WHOI is in Massachusetts, it’s more likely to be a bowl of chowder and a Sam Adams). One observation I made is that the people here (especially the professors) seem to enjoy wine. A lot. Most meals resulted in enough bottles of wine being emptied that there’s probably a vineyard or two near Wooster that’s scrambling to replenish their inventory. Either way, there’s a lot of interesting discussion happening over meals that are really useful to doing science. The talks and posters are for telling everyone what you’ve done, but the meals are for talking about what you’re going to do.

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Thoughts From a Sea Urchin Meeting: Part 1

This is the first article in a series about my experience at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For an introduction, click here.

Day 1: Travel and First Impressions

8:00 AM

Because it was the cheapest flight, my plane from Pittsburgh to Boston leaves at 8:45 AM today. Because I’m an anxious guy who assumes that everything at the airport will take as long as possible, I had to wake up at 5:30 AM, to carpool to the airport at 6:00 AM, so I can get through security by 8 AM, so I can get some breakfast before boarding at 8:30 AM. It would have been more expensive, but I would have had a lot more fun driving to New York or Philadelphia on Tuesday, staying the night in a hotel, then finishing the trip Wednesday. But I’m paying for the trip with a grant, so I have to do the trip on the cheap. I hate air travel. I get awful motion sickness from both takeoff and landing, so I spend the entire lead-up to takeoff anxious about getting sick, then I spend the whole flight anxious about getting sick when we land. That’s why I avoid planes whenever possible. I don’t get too sick from cars, trains, or even boats – it’s just airplanes that have my number. I think it’s because my body is wholly aware that humans were never meant to enter parabolic trajectories above an altitude of about two feet.

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Thoughts From A Sea Urchin Meeting: Introduction

Prologue – Why is there a conference about sea urchins?

This year I went to my first multi-day conference as a graduate student, the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference at the Marine Biology Laboratory, located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was a little nervous, because I didn’t feel like I knew all that much about the field, and also because I had no idea how it was possible to spend four days talking about sea urchins. Then I realized that every researcher will have to attend their first conference at some point, so I decided to write about the experience for all of you who want to know what happens when you get 100 scientists together who all work on the same problems.

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A biologist’s prayer

Safety first: scientists always wear gloves before high-fiving. At least in stock photography. 

I’m taking a group picture with my lab, and we look like an advertisement for cultural diversity. We line up like those models of different skin tones, a rainbow row of smiling faces, only we have a little less sleep and a few more pairs of glasses. A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a lab – must be another Monday. Or a Sunday. We’re not the best at work/life separation. In between experiments and cleaning the beakers, we take turns cooking different cuisine for each other from India, Iran, Israel, Korea, China, and the frozen food section of Costco. We talk about which countries our families are in, what life is like there, and try to understand the impact our governments have on each other. One thing we rarely talk about is our different religions. But when we have to sacrifice a mouse, I found that we each said a different prayer.

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Animal Tales

I want to share a personal perspective. I’ve lived my whole life caring for pets: cats, turtles, frogs, a praying mantis I found in the backyard. I wrote a rock opera about my sister’s hamster. In my professional life, I work with zebrafish for research. In short, I’m a vegetarian who believes strongly in the ethics of animal research. In this column I want to share stories of working with animals, its joys and frustrations, and pay some small tribute to the animal lives that make it possible for me to live so long, and in such extraordinary health.

Working with animals can be emotionally hard. Sometimes it’s hard even to watch, the way surgery is hard to watch – a part of me knows the higher purpose, another part has a hard time ignoring a knife that cuts into a person’s chest. In the same way, in research, I see the kindred spark of life in every mouse I’ve ever held, and when they pass through that thin boundary between living and dead, I feel it. Here’s why I keep doing it: Continue reading

What the Cell?

Robert Hooke's microscope is fancier than anything I own, period.

Robert Hooke’s microscope is fancier than anything I own, period. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

“I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular. . . . these pores, or cells, . . . were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this. . .”1 With these words, 17th century scientist and professional British person Robert Hooke realized there is literally more to life than we can see with our eyes. Continue reading

The Case Against Antibiotics in Soap: Part 2

Last time, we went through two reasons why antibiotics may not be necessary in hand soaps. First, there has not been very much study about how safe these antibiotics are, especially Triclosan. Because we don’t know for sure, the FDA wants antibiotic manufacturers to be certain that their soaps are safe. But the second argument went into reasons why the antibiotics may not be needed at all. Research from Columbia and the University of Michigan reviewed papers back to the 1960s and found that the best way to reduce the risk of infection is to wash your hands, but what kind of soap is used is much less important than the duration1. So the antibiotics may be unsafe, particularly to the environment, and they may not be necessary. Today, the final part of the argument will show how antibiotics in consumer hand soaps may, paradoxically, be detrimental to health. Continue reading

The Case Against Antibiotics in Soap: Part 1

Recently, I saw an article about how the FDA wants to remove antibiotics from hand soap1. To most people, this sounds silly. Antibiotics kill bacteria, and bacteria make you sick, so why should we get rid of this? In fact, reviewers from Rutgers read past papers in late 2011 and found that antibacterial soaps (soaps containing antibiotics) significantly reduce the amount of bacteria on a person’s hands2. As it turns out, the world of bacteria is a very active area of science, and we are learning more about how bacteria interact with us and each other every day. Recently, evidence has suggested a few problems with the most common antibacterial soaps. What are some of these problems, and why are they resulting in new FDA regulations?

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