Thursday, July 24, 2008

Workin' the night shift

Yes, I've been away! But it's because I've been working very very late nights.... and for far too many hours of the day.

I sure hope the flies appreciate it.

In the meantime, enjoy this gallery of labs at night.... 'cause that's exactly what I've been doing every day. Except, less pretty colours and more fluorescents. Ew.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Florence Bascomb (1862-1945, July 14), geologist

Alright...something a bit different this time! Geology!

Not only was she the first female hired by the United States Geological Survey, but she was also the first female graduate of John Hopkins University. Apparently she had to sit behind a screen so the men in class wouldn't have to see her (God forbid! A woman! Gadzooks!) She taught at Bryn Mawr (like Nettie Maria Stevens I wrote about before) and developed the geology program there into a full-fledged course of study.

She studied the geomorphology of the Piedmont (a section of the Appalachian Mountains). According to the USGS, her arguments were occaisonally "caustic". As if they would ever note this about a male geologist...

Anyway, moving right along... she is recorded as writing:
"The fascination of any search after the truth lies not in the attainment...but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed by the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds joy that is beyond expression in sounding the abyss of science and the secrets of the infinite mind."
Amen to that--and that's as religious as you'll ever see me get.

Oh! And she has a crater on Venus named after can see it here to the right. Awesome.



Crater Database

Phrase of the Day!

Me to Physiology Prof: "I guess my supervisor cares if we wear bike helmets because he's invested a lot of money into what's underneath them".

Physiology Prof to Me: "So does that make you like the fighter pilots of insect physiology?"

...yes...yes it does...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Home sweet home

I come from a deeply contradictory place. Although I mostly grew up in a small village called West Montrose (our famous covered bridge is to the right), the "big town" nearby was Elmira.

Elmira is an interesting town. It's one of the few places where you can still see Old Order Mennonites drive their horse and buggies down the street every day. The picture to the right is a pretty common sight during the summer.

It is, as you can imagine, a very conservative town where family values are king. Life is respected, community is valued, and during the wars, conscientious objectors were in almost family. Mennonites are pacifists, you see.

Elmira is home to the world's largest maple syrup festival, a gorgeous cultural heritage, and a chemical plant that produced Agent Orange during the Vietnam war.

This town of pacifists has been featured in a recent story by the Globe and Mail. The story talks about the legacy of birth defects and cancers the defoliant left through Vietnam and North America.

I have difficulty understanding this town and trying to relate to it. I respect the community that people try to build here. I understand the struggle between clinging to tradition and the drive towards progress. But I find the contradictions so very difficult.

A complicated kindness indeed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mathilde Krim (July 9 1926 - ), cancer researcher

I'm so sorry. This is our first still-living famous female scientist, and I'm afraid if she ever stumbled across this it might be kind of creepy to be listed with a bunch of dead scientists. Or hey, she might be honoured (I hope so anyway!).

So, since I can't find an obiturary, I'm afraid information is a little thinner on the ground. She's listed as a cancer researcher on my list, but from the information I've seen she's done a lot of work in AIDS research as well. The holder of 16 honorary doctorates, she has been showered with awards for her work with all sorts of AIDS-related activities, including the United States' highest honour: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She co-founded amfAR with Elizabeth Taylor.

Currently working as an Adjunct Professor at Columbia, she received her doctorate at the University of Geneva in Columbia. She worked at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel


Liebert Online

Catching up: Nettie Maria Stevens (July 7, 1861 - May 4, 1912), geneticist

Alright, moving along then.

Wow. I didn't even realize there were geneticists (other than Mendel) back in the ninteenth century. And, on top of that, I didn't realize a woman had such an important role in the discipline.

Along with a geneticist named Edmund Beecher Wilson, she discovered one of the few things that almost everyone knows about genetics. (That's her on the right, by the way.) Using the same fruit fly that I mentioned below, she found the chromosomal basis for sex determination: the X and Y chromosomes.

So you know how this goes. Females have two X chromosomes, males have an X and a Y. And that genetic difference drives all the physical differences that appear between males and females in most species (there are some very notable exceptions).

She travelled in some pretty awesome company: Thomas Hunt Morgan was one of her professors (he later won a Nobel Prize for his work establishing that same fruit fly as a model system for studying genetics and embryology).

Nettie herself was born to working-class parents in Vermont. She taught for 10 years before saving enough money to go to university, which she attended at Stanford, graduating with a master's degree. She worked then at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, but died of breast cancer before she was able to receive the research faculty position she desired.

Her position in history is somewhat controversial. Usually Edmund Beecher Wilson seems to be given the credit for the X and Y chromosome discovery. Her obiturary, published in Science and written by Morgan, seems to indicate that he considered more a technician than a scientist. Wikipedia also claims that she brought the fruit fly to Morgan's lab in the first place (although my copy of Fly: The Unsung Hero of Twentieth Century Science doesn't mention her at all).


Wikipedia (of course!)
DNA From The Beginning

Bad Kitty!

I know, I know. I missed a few days/female scientists. It's been super-busy! I've been working 14+ hours a day, mostly nights, for the last week and my energy reserves are running kind of low.

To make up for it, I'll give ya a quick run-down on what I'm doing.

I study insect cold tolerance. But more importantly, I study what happens with multiple cold exposures. Can insects repair damage caused by chilling or freezing? Does a single cold exposure for a longer period of time cause more damage than many short cold exposures? Just how variable is climate now, and how variable will it be in the future?

There's a few systems I use to try and figure this out. One is using the woolly bear caterpillars I talked about before (they're freeze tolerant--more about that some other time) to repeatedly freeze and thaw them (and yes, they can survive that!). I can sort out then which damage is caused by being frozen and which is caused by being cold (two very different things!).

But what's been keeping me up at nights lately has been the fruit flies. I'm looking at the very common lab fly Drosophila melanogaster. We collected them wild from the London area last summer and fall, so we suspect they're likely more cold tolerant than the ones that have been kept in stock centres for decades (not individual flies, but the whole culture of them).

So I'm doing what I described before: I have some flies that I give a 10 hour exposure to -0.5 degC and some flies that get 5 two hour exposures (with one day in between) to the same temperature (plus a bunch of control flies of various treatments as well). And it's pretty nifty--more than 75% of them will survive that. Then, I take bunches of flies at 0, 24, 48, and 72 hours after their cold treatment and test them for lipid (fat), carbohydrate (sugar), and protein storage. I also give some of them boyfriends to see how many offspring they produce.

So what do I think I'll see? Well...there's a few different possibilites (assuming cold exposure causes damage visible in either fuel storage (those carbs, lipids, and proteins above) or in the number of offspring they produce):

1. Flies can repair damage caused by the cold exposure. So the flies given the multiple cold treatment will have higher fuel stores and more offspring compared to the sustained cold exposure.

2. Flies can't repair damage caused the cold exposure. So flies in both groups will have similar fuel stores and numbers of offspring.

Hmm... which is it? I won't know the answer until Christmas probably... but in the meantime, think about how important this is. If we know how flexible insects are at repairing damage from low temperatures, we can figure out better how where they can live if climate changes. And considering the number of insect-borne illnesses out there (Malaria alone kills 1 -3 MILLION people a year), understanding the ecophysiology of insects and temperature is so important!