Saturday, July 28, 2007

Oscar The Cat, Harbinger Of Death

There's a cute little cat in Rhode Island that can predict when someone is about to die.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. "Sure," you say. But the story was compelling enough to make it into the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine:

Video article: HERE

The cat's name is Oscar, and he resides on the third floor dementia unit of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was adopted as a kitten two years ago. He's cute, but he doesn't have a loving personality. In fact, it turns out he shuns most human contact. Except, that is, when you're about to die. Each day he makes his rounds like the doctors do, examining each patient for a few emotionless seconds then moving on to the next one. Many of the patients are so far gone they don't even realize they've been visited. But if Oscar stops and curls up in the patient's bed, the nurses and doctors have come to recognize that the patient will die within a few hours. Apparently he even becomes loving, nuzzling the dying patient and purring. At first they thought it was coincidence, but after the thirteenth death, they realized the cat was more than fluffy, cute, and aloof, he was actually a harbinger of death. Oscar has now predicted 25 deaths this way, sometimes surprising the doctors.

The article presents this as a good thing. Maybe it is. After all, it gives the nurses enough time to contact the patient's family and get them there. It also means the patient doesn't die alone; he at least will have a cat there to see him off.

I can only imagine the effect it has on the other patients, though. Good thing Oscar isn't very personable; I doubt the patients would care to have him jump on their bed and be best pals. If he spends much time there, your clock may be ticking. I'm a cat person. My family has four of them, all indoor cats, but I'd think twice about having mister-not-so-cuddly in my household pride of felines. If curling up on your bed and purring means you're going to die in your sleep, I shudder to think what coughing up a fur ball on your leg at 3AM would mean.

No, I think Oscar has definitely found his calling. Is it supernatural, or does Oscar only respond to a natural sense of smell or the behavior of nurses or patients? Who knows. Whatever the case, keep it up Oscar. Meow!

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Science Salary Survey

The results of a survey on scientist salaries was just released in the current issue of Microscopy Today:

I’m always leery about these surveys. Not because I think they are inaccurate somehow, but because I always seem to fall at the lower end, or less, of whatever bracket fits me. That just makes me angry at my cheapskate company. But, seeing as how this particular survey is most suited for me, given it falls in my particular line of work, I took the bait. As usual, it makes me none too comfortable to see the results.

First they compared salaries by discipline. I’m in the biological sciences. Naturally, they fall lower than either physical sciences (like nanotechnology) or traditional sciences (like chemistry and physics). Bio peaks around $51-60K, where the others plateau at higher salaries. Okay, I’m used to it. Next!

Then they looked at salary by institution type. Academic falls lowest, peaking around $51-60K. I’m glad I left academics. I don’t enjoy starving for my hard work. But Industry scores only slightly higher at the next bracket, $61-70K. Fine. I’d live with that. But Industry also has a second peak, much higher, at $91-110K. Those would be the “Big Talking Heads” who run the company. Yay them. Government work earned a bit more, but the best of all were vendors and suppliers. Their salaries just keep going up up up. I’ve had a few chances over the years to take positions with some instrument manufacturers selling and being a tech for their products, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of traveling all the time.

When they looked at salary by title, there weren’t any real surprises. Students earn slave wages, while corporate managers get the biggest slice of the pie. You should see the graph! Professors earned a pretty good salary, peaking in the $91-110K bracket. Pretty good, if you can weather the process to get there.

The kicker came with the comparison of salary versus educational degree. No surprise that doctorates earn more than bachelor’s, which earn more than high school. But what surprised me is that there is really no difference between bachelor’s and master’s level. So that extra two years I spent earning my master’s degree didn’t really do anything for me in terms of potential salary. So if you’re going beyond a batchelor’s, skip the master’s and head straight into a doctoral position (which most folks seem to do anyhow, it seems). And what about post-docs? Forget it. If you think you’re going to get more money by earning your doctoral then post-doc-ing around the country, there was no significant difference there, salary-wise. Maybe you’ll be more hire-able in certain careers, though.

Years of experience only mattered for the lowest and the highest pay brackets. All those in the middle were pretty mixed, meaning that if you’re a newbie, you ain’t getting’ squat, and if you hang in there long enough, at least 26 years, there’s a slim chance you’ll move up in the pay bracket. But given the volatile nature of science careers, I laugh at your chances.

So there you go. If you’re a scientist, now you’ll know approximately how much you’re worth, or not worth, compared to 624 respondents to the survey. Now go buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and make yourself feel better about the years you spent in academics and the loss of social life to get you to your lab bench. Then use this info to ask for a raise. You can do it!

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Lab Vending Machine?

Here’s the scenario: You’re working late at night in the lab, trying to beat the deadline imposed upon you by your tyrannical manager and the irrational business types. It’s the weekend. You’re all alone at work. You’re at a critical step in your protocol. You open the fridge to grab that all-important enzyme for your gene splicing experiment and – oh my god, it’s gone! That f*ckin’ lab tech Bob down the hall borrowed it without asking and didn’t return it again! You run madly through the halls of your lab building, frantically throwing open lab fridges to look through other people’s badly-labeled reagent boxes trying to find your vial, or anyone’s vial, of your precious enzyme. Resigned to failure, you stumble back to your lab to figure out how to save your experiment, your project, your deadline, and, while you’re at it, your miserable career in biotech (or doctorate project or whatever is most applicable to you if you are in science).

Well never fear! Before you start contemplating hiring a hit man for Bob, now there are vending machines for your precious reagent!

Yes, you too can enjoy the modern marvel of vending machines. It’s not just for cola, chips, and soggy sandwiches anymore! With the press of a button combo and a swipe of a payment card, a bag of your favorite enzyme or E. coli bacteria will neatly screw out of the chosen slot and fall to the opening like a bag of pretzels, any time of the day or night.

Of course, that little vial of reagent costs a heck of a lot more than 75 cents. Try up to $200.00. Careful with your button-pushing!

It’s important to note that the lab vending machines are situated directly next to the cola and chip machines. Given the groggy state I’m in during those late-night lab “emergencies,” I’m just as likely to choose the wrong frickin’ machine and wind up munching on a vial of DNA while shaking potato chips onto my lab samples. Mmmmm, GFP-transformed bacteria. [insert slobber sounds]

And what do you do if your all-important, $150-bag of enzymes gets hung up on the dispensor? Shake and bang the vending machine, of course!

Ya gotta love convenience-technology.

Image from HERE.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Eaten Alive By Maggots

Here’s an eerie story for you. A guy named Aaron Dallas recently had five fly larvae removed from his head:

Video news segment: HERE

Article: HERE

Yes, Dallas went to Casa Beya, Belize, to assist with a mountain bike race. When he returned to the U.S. he noticed that he had some bleeding bumps on the back of his head. The bumps grew. Then they started moving! The pain was unbearable, and he could hear them in his head, emitting popping and chewing sounds. Initially the doctors thought it was shingles. Finally, the doctor removed five live botfly larvae, each about as big as your thumbnail.

Ick. Yes, maggots were growing in his head and eating him alive. Doctors thought they were placed there though a mosquito bite. Dallas’ wife (ironically named Midge), took it all with a bit of humor.

(From the article): "I told him, 'I will love you through your maggots,' she teased. She's even made a three-minute short film titled, ‘Aaron's visitors from Belize.’"

Where’s a can of Off! when you need it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Eat A Cow, Kill The Earth

I never liked cows. I grew up next to a cow pasture, and just down the road from a large dairy farm. They’re nasty, smelly, sluggish beasts. Sure, they’re docile animals, they give us milk, they get carved up to give us all sorts of interesting edible meaty bits. That’s cool. I don’t mind a nice thick burger once in a while, dripping with potentially E. coli-infected juice and swarming with mad cow prions. It’s, you know, yummy. You can’t taste the mad cow if you douse the cooked flesh with plenty of A1 sauce.

But then there are all the studies of cow farts.

Yes, you’ve probably heard about it, those jokes made about silly scientific studies, lab rats like myself shoving pipes up a cow’s derrière to measure the methane output from eating a bucket of feed. All those studies about the contribution of cattle fart methane to the ever-alarming global warming problem (like THIS study). Yes, global warming is real. Every scientist knows it. And every politician knows it, at least those whose political party name doesn’t begin with “R” and end with “epublican.” What is a self-respecting carnivore like me to do? Where’s the beef? I needs my cow flesh, thank you. Get in my belly!

A soon-to-be-published paper in Animal Science Journal sheds a little more light on the problem:


As the article says, “A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef causes more greenhouse-gas and other pollution than driving for three hours while leaving all the lights on back home, according to a Japanese study.”

Yes, feeding your favorite bovine creates a noxious cloud of methane that winds up wafting up into the atmosphere and trapping solar heat in our world, causing accelerated polar ice melts, entire ice shelves to break off of polar ice caps, the destruction of high mountain glaciers, and alarming ice dams cracking, just to name a few outcomes. Think of it this way: every time a cow “gets the flutters” another few inches of coral bleaches, another chunk of glacier melts, and some poor tropical frog kicks the bucket. And it’s all because you and I had to have beef meatballs on our spaghetti.

Additionally, the process of producing and transporting all that feed and meat adds up too, in emissions due to gasoline and other power sources. From the article: “That one kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef also requires energy equivalent to lighting a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days. The energy is needed to produce and transport the animals' feed.”

There are all sorts of other crazy global warming solutions, but most aren’t very realistic beyond having our industry-happy government actually put more restrictions on gas-belching factories and trying to change the sorts of fuels we put in our cars away from the extremely-profitable market of war-ravaged crude oil. These things aren’t likely to happen in a speedy way, either. You don’t like paying a day’s take-home wages for a full tank of gas? Tough. Oil industry execs are laughing at you. So what can we do about the cow fart issue? Short of lighting the farts of every bull and heifer in the world, the best solution would be to stop eating meat entirely. That doesn’t sit well with people like, well, ME, who choose to use our canine teeth.

But there’s a solution for people like me. We don’t have to buy our beef or burgers from mass-market outlets like Safeway or McDonald’s, where the beef comes from cows that had been penned up by the hundreds in horrible conditions, fed cheap, “gassy” foods, slaughtered, frozen, and shipped from as far away as Brazil. You can, instead, invest a little bit of your time to find local stores and organic stores that sell meat produced locally, fed on grass and healthy feed, and most likely leaner and better for you anyhow, with no hormones or antibiotics.

As the article says, “A Swedish study in 2003 suggested that organic beef emits 40 percent less greenhouse gases and consumes 85 percent less energy because the animal is raised on grass rather than concentrated feed.”

So, to celebrate this, I’m going to consume some Kosher, non-hormone-injected beef hotdogs tonight. I’m not going to ask what parts of the cow went into them, but I can rest assured that the intestines that are now mashed up with other parts and wrapped in a conveniently-edible tube and put on my bun had 40% less cow farts flowing through them than their mass-raised cousins in Texas.

And when I’m done eating, I’ll be sure to hold my farts in.

Addendum (7/24/07): I just realized my last paragraph was inaccurate. Seems “kosher” hot dogs do not include any of the hind parts of a cow, including the intestines, and thus no natural casings, either. HERE is more info on the Hebrew National hot dogs I ate.

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, July 16, 2007

China Is Trying To Kill Us

I’ve decided the People’s Republic of China is trying to kill you, your children, and your pets.

I guess it’s nothing new, really. I mean, for decades they’ve been trying to get Americans fat and give us heart attacks by exporting their food style. Call me paranoid if you wish, but have you ordered chow mein lately from your local Chinese restaurant? Or a nice, big egg roll? A side of wontons? Even fried rice? Go ahead, order some take-out tonight. I’d bet my left pinkie finger your dish is dripping with grease. Yum, but do you really need to see through your napkin? I really became suspicious when my MSG-laced Chinese food started giving me migraines. So I pretty much stopped eating Chinese food.

Perhaps, sensing this, China changed its tactic. They’ve stepped up their efforts to assassinate you. Now they’re taking the direct approach with good ol’ fashioned poison!

Consider these news stories from just the last three months:

1) Toxic Trains! Approximately 11 million “Thomas the Tank Engine” toys were made in china with a particularly dangerous lead paint, and are now recalled (ARTICLE). My soon-to-be three-year-old son really wants a “James” train. We had to tell him “Sorry, Son, but James is stuck in China.”

2) Recalls Galore. According to Scott Wolfson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, “So far in 2007, 60 percent of the recalls we have conducted are of products made in China. We have done 24 recalls of toys; all of those products have been made in China." (ARTICLE)

3) Booty Bungle. I also had to rescue my children from another Chinese contaminant. There is currently a recall for a children’s puffed corn snack called Veggie Booty, which my kids love to eat. It turns out they are made with spices that are contaminated with Salmonella bacteria (ARTICLE). Yum! That’s good eats!

4) Malevolent Melamine. Dogs around the nation are dying from kidney failure and other symptoms due to shipments of wheat flour containing the protein melamine and, apparently, poisonous cyanuric acid from Chinese factories (articles HERE and HERE). China initially denied the contamination, then admitted the problem, but has been slow to investigate or work with outside investigators. They still deny the poisonous nature of the contaminants. It is highly likely some of this wheat flour got into human food. Careful with your dumplings!

5) Antifreeze Toothpaste. At least 900,000 tubes of toothpaste containing the toxic antifreeze component diethylene glycol came to America from China, winding up mainly in mental hospitals, prisons, and juvenile detention centers for some reason (ARTICLE), as well as your friendly neighborhood discount store. The FDA recommends throwing out all toothpaste made in China. A similar diethylene glycol contamination in cough syrup from China killed at least 100 people across Latin America, but Chinese officials say you shouldn’t worry, since the concentration in the cough syrup was much higher than in your toothpaste so the toothpaste is perfectly safe to use, and no one’s died - yet. Don’t forget to floss!

6) Shellfish Shocker. The FDA is carefully inspecting all shellfish coming from China, as a number of shipments have been highly contaminated with DDT and other toxins (ARTICLE). Mmmmm. I likes my oysters raw and full of chemicals….

7) Blown Tires. At least 450,000 tires made in China (by Hanzhou Zhongce Rubber Co.) are being recalled by their American distributor. Seems the Chinese manufacturer skimped on necessary glue (or “gum strip”) to hold the tread on, resulting in tread separation and blow-outs. At least two people are dead and another badly injured. Does 450,000 tires sound like a lot? That was just one distributor. There are at least six other distributors in America that have not come forward. I guess if the contaminated food doesn’t get ya, the drive to the gym will.

8) Magnetic Intestines. A product called Mag Stix is a children’s toy made of nifty sticks that interconnect using strong magnetic balls. Neat. Made in China. Unfortunately, if small children swallow the magnets, the magnets interconnect within the intestines causing blockages and perforations (ARTICLE). It has now been recalled. A previous toy, called Magnetix, was made much the same way and resulted in the death of a 20-month old. Other small children required surgery and hospitalization (ARTICLE). And where was Magnetix made? You guessed it: China.

9) Hang ‘Em High. And what has China done to fix the problem of all their toxic and malfunctioning goods? Why, execute those responsible, like any good communist regime, of course! (ARTICLE) Seems some high-ranking health and safety officials were taking massive bribes to look the other way, particularly for another oversight – falsely approving a number of fake drugs, mostly for leukemia and arthritis. Now they look down a gun barrel. Sure, they’re scum, but do they have to DIE for their crimes? China has also shut down 180 food manufacturers and publicly tried many of those responsible. Truly I don’t want to die from Chinese poisoning, but I wouldn’t care for them to die, either. But what else would you expect from those who masterminded the Tiananmen Square massacre?

Don’t worry, there’s more. Go to the Chinese Poison Train site to learn more.

Heck, after all this, it makes me wonder if Chinese president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao are sitting back laughing about all this. “Stupid Americans,” they must be thinking, “As long as they shop at Wal-Mart, we’ll have free trade status, and we can get away with poisoning their dogs, selling black-market copies of movies and CDs, and selling them cheap crap for a profit. And we don’t even have to be democratic, respect the rights of our citizens, or protect our environment to do it!” And they’d be right. One family recently finished living an entire year without Chinese products. They wrote a BOOK on it, and said it was extremely difficult. I don’t doubt it.

So, to my tens of readers, next time you crack open that fortune cookie after consuming mass quantities of egg rolls and shrimp chow mein dripping with cooking oil, be sure to read the fine print. It may read, “Made in China. Not approved for consumption by the FDA.

Addendum (7/27/07): HERE is a good webpage devoted to the issue of tainted Chinese products and the fallout from it.

Update (8/1/07): HERE, from, is yet another massive toy recall due to Chinese production using lead-based paint. This time it’s for 967,000 Big Bird, Elmo, Diego, and Dora toys. Geez. Why the hell would companies keep doing business with China after all this??

Update (8/13/07): One of the owners of the Chinese company that made those Elmo (and others) toys has hung himself in disgrace. See THIS more recent post for details.

Update (8/15/07): (More Recent Post) Recalled lead-containing toys and baby bibs.

Update (8/23/07): The August 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology (Volume 25, number 8) has, on page 835, an article on the rise, fall, and eventual execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration. He was supposed to be the face of a new era in Chinese modernism, now he's just another corrupt official that got rich off of making products cheap but dangerous products.

Update (11/8/07): (More Recent Post) Chinese AquaDots products metabolize to the date-rape drug GHB when ingested, as well as other recalled products which contain lead.

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Say No To Crack, Dam It

In a previous post, I reported about a 100-foot deep lake in the Andes mountains of Chile which had mysteriously drained away. After an investigation, geologists have now determined the cause: Crack.

No, not the drug. The lake had apparently been formed by a gigantic ice dam. The dam began melting, then cracked, and the water rushed out into a nearby fjord, then the sea, completely draining the lake (which was about the size of 10 football fields). Now the lake is slowly re-filling.

In my previous post I had hypothesized that the disappearance of the lake couldn’t possibly be blamed on global warming. Alas, though, seeing as how a crack in an ice dam was the cause, global warming IS a possible source for the warming of the dam.

And to think I had thought the problem was incontinence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tagged By A "Meme"

Damn. I’ve been tagged for one of those blog “memes” (which is somewhat akin to the sociological term, HERE). In short, this is one of those phenomena of the blog world, which I consider to be similar to viral email chain letters, but more interesting. The rules are thus:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

I have Tantalus Prime to thank for this, from a comment he left in a recent blog post. Normally I would ignore completely, but I have to admit to a certain bizarre interest in meaningless facts about strangers and thus assume you have the same interest in me. I’ll be a good sport this time, as I have a good deal of respect for Tantalus and his blog site, even if he is a damned robot. But I’m going to bend the rules in one regard, and completely break the rules in another. I’m bending by only talking about my facts/habits as regards to science, health, or working in biotech (the whole point of this blog, don’t you know). I’m flagrantly breaking the rules by not passing it on to eight other blogs. I don’t care to be part of the virus. So there. If you as the reader are so inclined, you can consider yourself “tagged” and take it upon yourself to continue the chain.

And if any of my tens of readers decide to tag me again, I will ignore completely, delete your comment, and leave a nasty-gram on your blog site. [insert scowl and gnashing of teeth]

So here are my eight random facts/habits about myself in regard to science, health, and working in biotech:

1) When working late at night or on the weekend at my biotech company, I sneak upstairs to the R&D Director’s office and snag some chocolate from the dish in his office lobby. Then, if I’m having extra trouble staying awake, I go up to the executive conference room. There’s a little food prep room with a fridge adjoining to the conference room. The door to the prep area is usually locked, but I crawl through the little service window between the rooms and steal a cola from the fridge. I consider this “donation” a tip for my undying loyalty and late night work, and since the only employees who got a bonus this year were the top executives, I’m not sorry at all for my theft and will likely continue illicitly feeding my late-night caffeine and chocolate addiction.

2) When I was around 11 or 12, my mom got me a kid’s chemistry set. It was a plastic affair with dozens of little bottles of compounds and some basic equipment. She also got me a basic microscope. I loved my little “lab”. It was probably the one best purchase she ever made for my career. But early on I lost the instructions (if there were any), and had little idea what experiments to do with it all. I had lots of “brilliant” observations on my own, though, like making tar out of wood, and discovering that the pH indicator, phenolphthalein, can also work as a preservative (using mashed poke berries as a model). This allowed me to use the berry juice as a non-molding purple ink to write with.

3) I once discovered a population of endangered lilies in the Rockies of central Idaho.

4) I daydream about leaving biotech and bench science and doing work for some forest ecology topic, as I had a couple summers of my college years. But there’s little money in it, I’m out of shape, and there are few full-time, year-long positions with which I could support my family. I’ll keep daydreaming. Maybe some day ….

5) A Bunsen burner leaked and started a fire in a histology lab I worked in during my Master’s studies years ago, made worse in part due to ignorance of an undergrad researcher and lab shelving that had been painted with flammable paint. There were a lot of flammable solvents around. I attempted to snuff the fire by inverting a giant beaker over it, which only shattered the beaker and made the fire spread. I then put it out with a fire extinguisher. What a mess. I let the undergrad clean it.

6) Because of the highly bureaucratic way my evil biotech company is run, it is almost impossible for lab rats like me to innovate new products and techniques there these days – a far cry from the way we used to do things at my work. So I have gone to doing unapproved, “underground” experiments to follow my intellectual curiosity whenever I get a few hours of unexpected down time (which, unfortunately, almost never happens now). I have told no one about them, and if asked, I will deny it. Maybe some day, when innovation is truly allowed again, I’ll reveal some new product ideas from it all.

7) I’ve nearly drowned twice (once in a swimming pool when I was around 10 years old, and once while undergoing river rapids training for the U.S. Forest Service in my college years). I had another close call while canoeing with my family as a teen. Perhaps I was saved by good karma, since I had saved a girl from drowning in a YMCA swimming pool when I was about 9 years old.

8) I love bugs. Almost a decade ago I was an entomologist, dissecting beetles, fruit flies, and moths to study their physiology, making observations about insect behavior, and collecting a particular family of beetles. Most of my studies were centered around insect reproduction. So much so, in fact, that when a friend’s grandmother heard what I did for a living, she dubbed me “Mr. Genitalia.” I don’t mind the nickname.

There you go. Eight “science” factoids about moi.

Tag, you're it, but only if you want.

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Run-In With The Ice Queen

I wouldn’t say I’m a hateful guy, but I found myself in an interesting situation yesterday which exposes my dark side.

Here’s a little backstory first: Many years ago, before my biotech company was bought out by an evil global conglomerate, we were an evil privately-owned business. There were three people in the company whom the employees considered particularly mean and immoral: one of the company founders, the Bio R&D director, and the Human Resources Director.

The company founder was a crusty old bastard who had some good product ideas, but had absolutely no social skills. He ran the company back in my early days there. If you dared to raise objections to his opinions, he’d just as likely fire you as ignore you. Happily, he retired to a third-world country and is now trying to fix his Karma by helping orphans.

The Bio R&D Director was famous for taking credit for other peoples’ ideas, panning off his own personal failings upon his employees, and pitting employees against each other. When enough of us complained to HR about him, HR’s decision was to move him to another department. When he had run amok in the new department and received the same sort of complaints, what was HR’s verdict? Promote him, of course! As my boss at the time said, “Shit floats.” He was given his own facility at another site in the company (which had been recently bought out at that point). Sadly, that fool is still part of the company, and his “special” facility is now failing miserably. I am watching intently to see what happens next and drooling at the prospect of laughing openly at him as he carries his personal effects out the door for the last time.

The HR Director, a beady-eyed woman named Sherrie, seemed to delight in the suffering of the employees. She hired and fired employees not by some detailed methodology, but seemingly on the whim of upper management decisions. There were a lot of relatives of upper management hired into unsuitable roles. A lot of good employees were let go because they didn’t agree with how things were run, and a lot of bad managers kept despite serious flaws. She saw her role as solely representing upper management to the employees. Of course, that wasn’t what she told the employees. She was always quick to say that any concerns or grievances should be brought to her, but when they were they inevitably wound up being used against the employee by the very bosses that generated the grievance. Unfortunately, I was one of those unwitting victims when I once complained to her via email about my boss not updating my woefully outdated job description (which any promotions would be based on in the coming weeks), but instead of addressing the problem, she forwarded the email to my boss. My boss flipped out. The job description was updated, but I didn’t get promoted (again). The only negative comment he put on my performance review: “needs to improve his email communication skills and tactfulness”, and the only example he could come up with was the email to HR. Luckily, Sherrie was booted a couple years ago when my global biotech company decided to run HR out of their home office.

So fast-forward a couple years to yesterday evening. My wife and I hired a babysitter and went out to a movie. After the movie, we decided to have a rare treat and went to a local Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. And who did we see dishing out our ice cream? Sherrie!! Oh, how delicious it was to see the person who was once the representation of evil dressed in a restaurant uniform and scooping out my mousse-chocolate ice cream. How suiting that the woman I most regard as having a cold heart is the one dishing out ice cold food to others. I wanted to gloat, wanted to point and laugh openly and bark commands to the once high and mighty evil minion. But I didn’t. I took the high road, kept my composure, and said hi. I even engaged in a little somewhat friendly banter. Decrepit as she had been, I felt a tiny pang of sympathy that she would have to take a minimum wage position. A fall from a position of authority. I took my ice cream and looked in my wallet for a tip.

And then she revealed that she owned the restaurant.

My heart sunk. Cosmic destiny had failed me. Whatever deal she had struck with the devil had remained, keeping her in charge, even if it was just an ice cream shop and a handful of employees. I hardly had the will to eat my dessert, and I urged my unknowing wife to eat outside and to flee the heavy atmosphere. Alas, my wife wanted to eat at a table inside, and thus we did, and I was happy when I finally finished my cone and left. I didn’t say goodbye to Sherrie, and never intend to return.

Oh well. Shit floats. At least she haunts people other than me.

Image taken from HERE.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Public Speaking For Scientists

In my profession as a biotech scientist, good public speaking skills are essential. In fact, having bad public speaking skills, particularly due to shyness, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins for Lab Rats. The last thing you want to do is get up in front of a bunch of scientists and look like a moron, especially if they know as much as you do about areas of your own study, and possibly more. In any given crowd there will be novices and experts. Somehow you have to appeal to them all while giving them at least one good nugget of information they could fine intellectually stimulating. The big thing is for people to overcome their fear and make themselves comfortable standing up in front of (sometimes) dozens or even hundreds of perfect strangers and sounding both knowledgeable and relaxed. Today’s blog from Scott Adams was about that. HERE is a good article on overcoming that fear.

Scientists aren’t shy when it comes to pointing out flaws in your protocols or logic. In fact, it’s what we are trained to do. So much so that when the question and answer period comes at the end (as most are prone to do), you expect critical questions to be asked about why certain choices were made in the experiments and how we made certain assumptions about the data and results, and you have to explain. Sometimes you will gather new insights about your process and can go back to the lab to test them out. That’s the real value of these presentations. If, being a scientist, you give a presentation and there are no questions or comments at the end, then either you’ve blown them away with your incredible genius, or you’ve failed in your mission entirely and wasted a great deal of your time and that of the audience. As much as I would love to think I fall into the genius category, I would have to admit my failure. Luckily, I can’t think of any talks I’ve given lately that were complete failures that way.

Inevitably there will be one older professor in the audience who will glibly point out some crucial mistake you had made that surely could have avoided if you had only read their seminal paper on whatever obscure protein or cellular process they’ve studied for decades. If it’s a good idea, you say so, and get the reference from him later. Probably 90% of the comments are that way. If not, you say “Thanks, I’ll look into that.” That’s usually code for “Thanks for pushing your own interests, dumbass, and abusing your authority to make me look bad in front of my peers. I’ll ignore your comment.”

I’ve taken a couple public speaking courses, but only because I went to a liberal arts college. They were taught by the sociology department. Oddly, science departments don’t seem to include speaking classes. This always perplexed me, given the importance of it. It seems they assume you’ll somehow pick up the skills by watching other (sometimes very bad) speakers during the seminar series. So the classes you learn from are geared more toward speaking from a marketing perspective (“Here’s why my product is a good one”), or a dry information perspective (“Here are the latest sales figures”). Science is at its core an interactive discipline based partly on rational thinking and partly on peer review. The talks have to keep that in mind (“Here’s my data, now tell me where it’s lacking”). Oh, sure, you have to enunciate, make eye contact, not rely on notecards, not stutter and all that sort of thing, too (HERE is a starting place for learning). That much is in common, and scientists by and large are really good about those basics. But here are some additional recommendations that I am vainly going to make to my fellow scientists, even if I am sometimes guilty of not following all of them:

DON’T BE BORING. For crying out loud, reams of data and slide after slide of chemical structures will put your audience to sleep in minutes. Only the worst geeks will stay awake. In every experiment is a story crying to get out. Pretend you’re trying to tell your grandma about the purpose of your experiment. The story you tell will inevitably be reductionist to the point of being interesting. Refer to that story off and on through the talk. Talking about your studies of filamentous actin and its role in G2 states of cellular division is dry. Adding that the protein conjugate you used is highly poisonous and was purified from the Death Cap Mushroom is much more interesting.

HUMOR IS GOLDEN. Scientists love stories of how experiments went wrong but resulted in unforeseen eureka moments, or how they got fed up with someone and wanted to prove them wrong, only to prove them right but then one-up them. Some scientists are so dry in their presentations that you wonder if they’re drugged.

DON’T BE FLASHY. Leave the animated graphics and marketing logos for the sales folks. Scientists just want the facts. Nifty text fly-ins and superfluous decorations from clip art are simply annoying. One example of doing it right was when a guy I work with recently showed a slide of a simple Excel chart on a white background. He said it was the only flashy slide he had with animation then proceeded to grab the cloth screen with his hand and shake it, making the text scintillate.

GET TO THE FRICKIN’ POINT, ALREADY. Scientists love to go on and on about their specialty. Who can blame them? Many have spent half a decade focusing on one obscure metabolic pathway or gene studied by only a handful of other scientists around the world. Chances are, though, most of their audience could care less about most of that work. They really just want the highlights. Know who your audience is and gear it to them.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO TURN OFF THE PROJECTOR. Here's a big one. Nearly every presentation I’ve seen in the last 10 years has been solely a PowerPoint presentation. That’s okay. That’s the best way to get across most of the points. But somewhere along the way it seems most of us scientists have forgotten the fine art of turning up the room lights, raising the screen, and putting away the laser pointers. Draw on a chalkboard. Gesture with your hands. Get out from behind the frickin’ podium and use the space up front. Maybe, in your wildest moments, even produce props to pass around the room, such as chemical models or actual (non-toxic) samples from the lab. It’s so rarely done, I would consider the presentation a novelty worthy of attending even if I otherwise would have no interest in the topic.

So, to my tens of readers, what have you done to make your presentations more interesting?

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy Day Of Spectacular Explosions!

Today is the 4th of July, the day when U.S. citizens mark the marvel of our Independence from England in 1776. And, of course, the best way to celebrate the magnificent glory of our honorable and valiant forefathers is to consume copious quantities of cheap beer, eat badly-cooked hamburgers and hot dogs, go mostly-naked at local swimming holes, and shoot off large amounts of colorful explosives.

Watch out, though. Fireworks might be capable of causing seizures:

Has anyone actually HAD a seizure from watching fireworks? Um, well, no, says the author, but it COULD happen, especially if you or your family are prone to epilepsy. Just keep one eye closed during the show and I'm sure you'll be fine.

One might argue that the best way to observe the holiday would be to read Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the relatively quick reading Declaration of Independence, the much longer Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. You haven't read all of these all the way through? Don't worry, you're in good company.

I guess one could also argue the best way to get into the spirit of Independence would be to rise up against the ruling power and wage a guerilla war, a la George Washington. Sure, most people wouldn't be in favor of it, but then most citizens of the early American colonies weren't in favor of rising up against the British, either, at least early on.

Okay, so maybe armed warfare is a bit extreme, but how about just being a tad more politically active? A letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or a letter to your local senator, stating your opinion on some important topic you feel strongly about is a good first step toward changing your society for the better. There's nothing more uniquely American than exercising your right to free speech and governmental representation. Of course, that assumes you actually HAVE an opinion on some important topic worth sharing.

I had a letter to the editor published just two days ago in my small-town newspaper, speaking out against the potential of allowing a "big box" store, like Wal-Mart, to come to our town. It took all of a little thought, 10 minutes to write, and a moment to email off to the newspaper. You can do such a thing too, right?

So how am I going to celebrate? You guessed it. Grilled food, friends, and large, spectacular explosives. I'll just be sure to close one eye during the flashes.

Happy Fourth of July!

Image taken from HERE.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Bad Breath Paste

Does bad breath get you down? Have you noticed an alarming percentage of people sitting next to you spontaneous gagging or coughing? Do babies and small animals suddenly start crying and running from you when you get near? Do fellow boat passenger jump overboard when you step on deck? It could be your looks, but have you considered your breath?

Well fear no more, my toxin-breathing friend! Now there’s “Bad Breath Paste”:


Patent: HERE.

"Bad breath poses a serious problem both for sufferers and for relatives and friends, as it generates mutual discomfort and may put a strain on a person's social life,” said Christian Cardon, the Belgian inventor of Bad Breath Paste.

Simply squeeze a glob of Bad Breath Paste into your mouth and let the miracle of enzyme technology do its job. These enzymes break down sulfur compounds, starch, and cellulose trapped in your mouth and between your teeth that lead to your rotten respiration. Flavor enhancers help speed up their activity.

Brushing your teeth or using mouthwash are so passe. Squeezing goo into your mouth is much more exciting.

But wait, there’s more! Bad Breath Paste will work for your pets, too! Have you seen what Fido's been eating?! Give a squeeze to Fido and his horrifying halitosis will be no more!

Think how much better your life will be when people will want to be near you again. Attract dates! Get a raise! Be the life of the party! Don’t wait, order now!

Image taken from HERE.