Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Why I haven't been posting

I've been trying, for what seems like forever, to finish my experiments, which seems fruitless (they never end), so I can graduate with my PhD, which seems like a pipe dream. It takes something pretty monumental for me to commit to a blog post these days (Facebook status updates are another story and get more and more wacky the longer I've been in the lab). My life can be summed up like this:

I have had lots of late nights (this pic was taken 8 hours before I actually left the lab that night):

Doing lots of experiments with yeast (some might call this yeast bingo, and in a way, I guess it is)...

I've taken to speaking directly to my yeast cells, and suggesting how they should act...

I have been surviving on Cupcake Mints (and Coke, and vending machine food, and other things that won't be mentioned here though they are entirely legal, I think)...

When Saturday night gets dull, it's time to try new glove colors (the purple won, btw)...

When my experiments don't work, I tend to blow off a lot of smoke...

...Okay maybe that one was the power plant running some switchover, but it's an apt metaphor anyway.

And everyday I have to remind myself every day of who I am, that no matter the outcome of this experiment or these last 6.5 years, it's more important that I hold onto that than anything else.

So that's where I've been. Now back to the bench!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The day she defended

Today was the memorial, "celebration of life" party for my friend Johanna, who passed away this summer. It was a lovely, lovely party. And it was hard. I could feel her absence like something carved out of my chest.

While watching a picture slide show, a colleague and I started talking about the day she graduated with her PhD. Just six months ago, it was such a happy, celebratory day for all of us in the lab. It's a special day anytime someone completes their doctorate, but given the challenges Johanna faced the entire time she was in school, it was a very special day when she defended.

And the last few months were some of the worst for her. The drugs burned her skin, made her fingernails fall off, robbed her of the energy and vitality that were her trademarks. And yet, somehow, she gave one of the most gorgeous defenses I've ever attended.

I stayed up really late the night before, and I made her a little banner. Just wanted to do something special. I don't often indulge my creative impulses lately, mostly because I've felt like all my creative energies should go towards my experiments and forwarding my science. But this felt like something I really wanted to do, and should do. None of us knew how little time we had left with Johanna. I look back and wonder how it's even possible that someone completes a PhD, and dies of cancer four months later.

I certainly didn't know that little banner would find its way to a memorial shelf, amongst sympathy cards and the piece of paper for which she worked so hard and would get to cherish for so little time - with "all the rights, privileges and honors" it bestowed. I wish that little piece of handcrafted art hadn't found itself there... I wish it would have gone in a box with so many other mementos, of a life long lived, to be thrown in a landfill someday after those mementos and that life had been long used up. I wish she got more than five years of marriage to someone who loved and cherished her as much as her husband did, and does. I wish that he got more than five years with her.

I guess the truth is, that no matter how pretty we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how many honors or how much love is bestowed upon us, we have the time that we have. No more and no more less. It seems phenomenally unfair sometimes, but like it or not, that's how life works.

And if there is anything I could take from knowing and loving Johanna, it was to live it and love it all. While cleaning out my email inbox I found the following message from her. She unreservedly made fun of me for my reading choices while I was writing my thesis; they were all trying to get me to read Twilight instead (and ultimately succeeded).

On May 27, 2009, at 10:22 AM, Johanna Eddy wrote:

Read Twilight and escape. Did Liz pass it on? I know it sounds silly, but once you get through the beginning where you are thinking to yourself “Why the hell am I reading this teenage girl book?”, it’s a lot of fun.


From: Nicolle
Sent: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 10:28 AM
To: Johanna Eddy
Subject: Re: forget the drugs...

This could be the root of all my problems. Before bed I have been reading There is No Me Without You, a sometimes depressing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes tear-inducing account of the AIDS orphan crisis in Ethiopia. Hmmm.


From: johanna...
Subject: RE: forget the drugs...
Date: May 27, 2009 10:48:31 AM PDT
To: nk...

Yeah Nicolle, just heap it on yourself!!! It’s hard to top sick poor orphans, but maybe next you can read about domestic violence, global warming, financial meltdown, animal abuse, and please watch Bambi over and over (but only the part where mom is killed).

Left to right: Johanna, her cat, and her cat kissing Liz, the last time I saw her healthy, when Liz and I took cupcakes and a Twilight DVD over to her house for a girls movie night.

The last time I saw Johanna, she was sick as hell. She didn't open her eyes and barely responded to anything. We talked to her anyway. And when I told her if I were a vampire, I'd bite her right now and make her healthy and immortal, she laughed. For all I know, that may have been the last time she laughed. As sick as she was, her smile was the same.

It's that smile I'll always remember.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Whatever cheers you

Sometimes you need a bottle of LB and a lab tape flower to cheer you up. And sometimes it cheers you up even when it was left for someone else in the lab.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

My lovely friend Johanna

A dear friend and colleague lost her battle with breast cancer this week. I am beyond sad.

Please consider making a donation to the American Cancer Society in her honor. The ACS funds cancer research, which was both an endeavor of and a benefit to my friend Johanna.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Exciting news on the vaccination front

Yesterday I picked up the Seattle Times at our lunch table and saw an exciting article about a breakthrough in creating a malaria vaccine. Not only is the news exciting, but the reporting wasn't half bad either. (Generally I find science reporting rather careless, with statements that are totally inaccurate.) The official press release is here, and as far as I can tell, the PNAS article is not yet available online (I'll link here when it is).

The scientists responsible for this breakthrough utilized a genetically modified Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite responsible for causing malaria. They mutated two critical genes in the malarial parasite (would tell you which genes, if I could find the article). Mutation of these genes blocks the proliferation stage after a parasite infects the liver, thereby priming the immune system without causing disease. This vaccine conferred 100% immunity in mice; meaning that they were no longer susceptible to the disease-causing form of malaria when later re-infected.

Like the polio vaccine, this strategy uses an attenuated (weakened) version of the pathogen. In contrast to other malaria vaccination design strategies, which utilize portions of the P. falciparum organism, this strategy involves actually infecting a person with a parasite (albeit an attenuated version). The "attenuated whole-organism" vaccination strategy probably makes the vaccine much more effective at priming the immune system and protecting an individual from malaria. Also, the vaccine likely won't require other co-factors (needed to trigger an immune response) to be included.

However, utilizing an attenuated pathogen for vaccination might leave one concerned about the possibility of the weakened parasite reverting to a form capable of causing disease. Could the parasite undergo enough mutation to make itself dangerous again? This is a distinct possibility, however, the fact that two critical genes were deleted makes this outcome unlikely. And in any case, given the number of people who die from malaria in economically-challenged tropical climates, the slim possibility of reversion might prove to be far outweighed by the enormous benefits of general protection. According to the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute website, over a million people die each year from malaria-related disease, 75% of which are African children.

Another question: who will pay for vaccinating people in the developing world, those who would most benefit from this vaccine? Surely Bill and Melinda can't carry all the weight. Those of us who enjoy traversing around the world to places like South America and Africa aren't likely to be a large enough market to offset the costs of vaccine production. This question may be putting the cart before the horse (since we don't yet have a vaccine), but nevertheless must one day be answered.

Regardless of potential problems, this blogger finds the news of a promising malaria vaccine to be very, very exciting. Clinical trials are slated to begin in 2010, and though it may take many years until we know about the safety and efficacy of this vaccine in humans, many of us are looking forward to hearing the results.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Measles outbreak in San Diego

This news is a year old, but it's a nice study demonstrating 1. why I think that whether or not you vaccinate your kid is very much my business, and 2. why I find it completely abhorrent that people refuse to vaccinate based on what they read in the popular literature (e.g. earthy crunchy mother magazines):

CDC Study on San Diego Measles Outbreak