Sunday, July 29, 2007

Summer in Boston - Week Seven

Every time I write one of these notes, I become slightly frightened at the change of the is almost August, and I feel as if there is so much to be done and so much to be accomplished and definitely not enough time to finish! It's a reminder that no matter how long or how hard you work in science, there is always work left to be done. Job security, I guess. :)

This week has saw a Monday through Thursday of 9 am - 8 pm days trying to get experiments running, data worked up, and prepare for my presentation. As a part of the program, we are each required to share a twenty minute presentation with the rest of the's funny that instead of being petrified for a presentation that long, I'm worried that I will have far too much to talk about! about becoming a complete science dork. I am guilty as charged.

Part of the reason the first part of my week was so busy was due to a planned visit to see NYU and visit the campus where all of the environmental health research takes place. I had to go on a Friday, which made for a very interesting schedule. I took the T into town at about 11 pm, stopping first at the South Station Diner, a famous Boston establishment. Open from 5 pm to 5 am, it has great diner food and atmosphere (read: the best Reuben I have ever tasted). My bus (Greyhound) left from South Station at 12:30 am (between Thursday and Friday), arriving at Port Authority in New York City at 5 am. Honestly, the ride was noisier than expected: you'd think people would have no reason to be on cell phones at 3:30 am, but apparently I was mistaken. I bummed around in the station awhile, waiting for it to become a bit lighter before taking the subway to Washington Square. The NYC transit system is extremely efficient and fast, yet confusing for a newcomer. It doesn't help that Minneapolis has confused my sense of what is "up town" but I made it through all right. I made the decision (albeit unknowingly) to show up in Manhattan on garbage day. Eww. It may have given me a slightly skewed vision of the city, but I was rather disappointed. I love cities, and I cannot stand to see beautiful buildings and parks profaned with litter when a garbage can is all of three feet away. I also expected the area around NYU to be cleaner specifically because it was a college campus, but it wasn't any cleaner than the surrounding area. I think in some ways it just may not be worth it to try.

I walked around for a time before settling in at a coffee shop to try and wake myself up (besides the scant hours of sleep I had tried to catch on the bus, I had been awake for 25 hours and counting). Since the campus where environmental research takes places is about 50 miles away, NYU provides a van for students living in the city to get to Tuxedo. Now, when I did a little bit of research trying to figure out how to get to Tuxedo (before I knew of the van), I saw that Tuxedo had a commuter rail stop. So, I had this picture in my head of "Oh, it's kind of a suburb: it was just built out of town because land in Manhattan is expensive." Not even close. It's in the middle of a state park. In the middle of nowhere. It's absolutely beautiful, with tree-covered mountains and so much green! However, it was completely unexpected to wake up after dozing on the bus in an area that could have very easily be located in northern Minnesota.

I was ushered into the cafeteria to await my first appointment (since I had arrived before some of the professors with which I would be interviewing). It looked like the cafeteria at my elementary school, except smaller in size with adult chairs. There was a lady there wearing a Yankees cap with a fantastic accent from Brooklyn serving jello and coffee. It was an odd blast from the past (given that the whole building was probably built in the 1970s as well). For the next five hours, I talked with a few graduate students as well as four different professors: Dr. Terry Gordon, Dr. Judy Zelikoff, Dr. Jerry Soloman, and Dr. Cathy Klein, regarding my graduate school plans and dreams. Most of them didn't know quite what to do with the policy-oriented side of my personality, but once we descended into the world of "hard science," things went just fine. The research focus of the institute is mainly pulmonary and respiratory toxicology: for instance, one of the research scientists exposes pregnant mice to cigarette smoke in an effort to study developmental problems related to tobacco and nicotine. If you are interested, the link below will take you to the homepage for NYU:

As far as classes go, the first two years would be spent living in downtown New York City, attending classes at NYU's Manhattan campus. Every Monday and Friday would be spent up in Tuxedo for a specialized environmental toxicology lecture as well as journal clubs and laboratory rotations. The remaining three to four years would be spent living in graduate student housing (apparently 20 or so crummy apartments) about two miles from Tuxedo. Apparently a car is a necessity, for the nearest grocery store is over half an hour away. I have to say: it would be very different going from one of the largest urban areas of the United States to a very rural research center through five or six years of study. All of the students I talked with impressed upon me that the isolation isn't a bad thing: you get work done. Honestly, I'd like to think that I can get work done without being completely cut off from friends and the outside world. The other thing I didn't like was the closed bays: laboratories today have two styles: open and closed. Closed means that each separate bench has its own room, so you work in isolation for much of the day. Open bays are more like one large room separated by benches: there are almost always people around and more activity. It's a source of debate as to which is a better system. Some say that closed bays are safer since chemicals won't spread as easily if there was a spill. Some saw that open are safer since one is less likely to make a mistake when around background noise and other people (besides the fact that having extra people around is a sort of safety net to make sure if something does go wrong the incident can be reported immediately). Frankly, I much prefer open bays because I hate feeling lonely at work. It gets boring. Sure, you can argue that you get less work done when you are talking to labmates, but I have a feeling more than one "aha" moment has occured within conversation with someone who is just far enough away from your research to see it from a new perspective.

All in all, I'm not sure if I'm cut out for both downtown Manhattan and the boonies. The program and classes sound great, and the professors seemed quite nice and extremely knowledgeable, but I just didn't feel it (especially in comparison to how much I have enjoyed my time at MIT). The stipend is also substantial, and there is a guarantee of funding even if the grant for your sponsoring researcher loses money (a larger concern than you would think). We'll see...I'm still going to apply, but I'm very glad I was able to visit the campus now and have an idea of what their program is all about.

Because I was visiting NYU, I was planning on staying in the city until Sunday with a friend to enjoy the nightlife and shopping. Unfortunately, the friend that I was going to crash with became very ill and it didn't work out. So, I ended up doing a little shopping near Union Square (hello $15 little black dress!) before heading back to Port Authority to try to catch another bus back to Boston. I waited in line for nearly an hour, and as soon as the lady heard I wanted to get on the next bus to Boston she said, "Next bus leaves in five minutes...gate 84. Walk fast and you'll make it!" I was already off and running. I made the 9 pm bus, which put me into Boston at 1 am. Now, normally that wouldn't concern me: I'd just take the subway home and be extremely careful walking the four minutes back from Central Square to the frat house. However, public transportation here stops running at 12:30, which is a combination of a pain in the neck and just plain dangerous. So, in lieu of having to take a cab, a guy friend from the frat walked the two and half miles to the station and walked me back home. Upon arrival, I took a quick shower and basically fell into bed. After 44 continuous hours of being awake (minus slight dozes on the buses), it was time to sleep. Let's just say I made to oh, about 4 in the afternoon on Saturday. I made dinner with a friend (homemade beef stroganoff with crescent rolls, as well as an amazing concoction of cornflakes, marshmallows and butter) before going back to bed. I cannot pull such long days. I become completely useless.

Today was slightly more productive, with lots of GRE studying and getting caught up on paperwork. It's been really hot here, so the other goal is to move as little as possible. Hopefully the rain tomorrow will cool things down a bit.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Summer in Boston - Week Six

I'm now done with week six, and Boston keeps me on my toes with a good mix of rain, cool weather and heat: I never know how the weather will be when I wake up...This week saw the end of my mom and Jacob's visit, as well as quality time spent at the bench.

Monday was a shorter day in lab, followed by a shopping spree in the Coop, a co-operative bookstore that has locations at MIT and Harvard. My entire family has now been outfitted in MIT paraphernalia...yes! We walked again to the Bertucci's near Kendall Square, again enjoying delicious bread and Italian food. I spent the next hour trying to pass on my knowledge of pool to Jacob in the frat house: he has a good eye and feel for how hard to hit the ball, but sometimes he is a little too impatient and pulls his hands away from the cue too quickly (see hand go...see ball go in completely wrong direction). He's a lot better than I was at his age, and I actually practiced a lot with my grandfather: basically, he's going to be a lot better at it than I am when he grows up.

Tuesday was a normal day in lab until it had to be shut down for a decontamination (fondly known as "decon"). In our lab, we do a lot of work in something called a laminar flow hood, a workspace that is quarantined from outside air using filters and intake suction. It creates a safe and sterile environment for our experiments with cells and other biohazards. Twice a year (or whenever there are maintenance checks), the hoods need to undergo a decontamination cycle to ensure the safety of everyone in lab as well as optimal experimental conditions. Sometimes, it is kind of nice to have a forced overnight break from lab work. So, I met Jacob and Mom downtown at Quincy Market for their last night in Boston. They had spent the day seeing the USS Constitution, North End, and part of the Freedom Trail. We enjoyed a meal at the Cheers restaurant, and we said goodbye until August 18th at the T Station at the site of the Boston Massacre. I took advantage of the TJ Maxx right next to the Downtown Crossings red line stop and found some shirts (can you say early back-to-school shopping? oh yes...).

Since then, my life has been pretty absorbed by lab: when you get good results and have only four weeks left, it's important to take advantage of every last second of time you have for experiments. I was in lab most of the weekend, and it's going to be an absolute zoo tomorrow. We're actually doing a 3D study in a bioreactor, which is really exciting but a lot of engineering for someone who is completely ignorant of said subject.

As far as free time goes, I have been studying for the GRE (snore). However, it's one of those things you just have to get through in order to be ready for graduate school applications. Oh well... I also had my first visit to Trader Joe's this week, and I fell in love. What a fantastic store: huge bars of chocolate, great trail mix, lovely cheeses--I can't wait to go back! Too bad Bloomington-Normal has not yet discovered the joys of such delicious food. I've also seen a couple of great movies:

Sweet Land - love story with very little plot and excellent cinematography and characters that takes place in Minnesota after WWI - she is a mail order bride, but there is no sappiness a la most conventional chick flicks.

The Last King of Scotland - Idi Amin is one scary guy, and Forrest Whitaker played the pants out of him. Whew. Make sure to watch it with someone who will cover your eyes during the "meat locker" scene.

The Royal Tenenbaums - Stellar cast and hilarious plot - very quirky, with a fittingly random soundtrack (look up Sparkplug Minuet for a sample)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer in Boston - Week Five

I'm done with week five, and it's scary that my time here in Boston is half over! I'm starting to fall in love with the walking, intelligent people, international this point Cambridge is looking like a real possibility for graduate school. We'll see...

Monday brought another great restaurant: Indian food in Inman Square...the saag paneer and naan were fantastic. The restaurant itself was two floors, but the first was where you ordered your food, and then it was served to you as soon as it was cooked. Apparently the mango lassi was also delicious.

Tuesday was a super-long day in lab: 9 am to 6:30 pm, followed by a bit of a break and then back from 10 pm to 12:30 pm. I love research. Fittingly, I spent my break eating dinner and then hanging out with a friend in "The Miracle of Science," a bar next to the frat house I live in. It's famous for its geeky MIT patrons as much as it is for the menu on the wall within a periodic table of the elements. I had my mandatory taste of Sam Adams, and I still stick by my avoidance of American macrobrews. Chocolate frosting and cookie dough taste far too delicious for me to want to waste calories on beer. However, this day in particular made me realize how much this scientific life suits me: even though I was doing quite a lot of work and staying busy, I still had time to hang out with friends. I like my future life, and that's a very cool feeling. I won't be bored, but I won't be in a constant state of overwhelmed-ness for the next six years. Oh, and then there was another 3 am fire alarm. Sweeeeeet...

On Wednesday, my mother and brother made their way to Boston on a very very early flight: 4 am is no fun for anyone. I worked all day in lab, giving them a quick tour of campus when they arrived at Kendall Square before we made our way to Bertucci's for dinner. Although it is a chain, the food is quite good: it's kind of like Olive Garden, but with more pizza and "red" pastas. They also have huge portions, which made my next few days filled with some amazing leftovers. Their rolls were also quite a hit: I ended up with eight extra to take home, a very exciting event indeed.

On Thursday, I didn't need to be in lab until the afternoon, so I spent the morning with mom and Jacob at the Science Museum. The exhibits were extremely well done and suited to the sometimes random and sporadic mind of a child: there is something new to look at or think about every five feet. Jacob's favorite was an actual prop from the first Star Wars movie (the new one): a Naboo starfighter. My mom's favorite was the Jane Goodall exhibit, and it amazes me how long she has been working with the chimps: she started in 1962 and has never really completed her time as a scientist. I am struck by any number of her quotes on the environment and the interaction between people and their surroundings. My favorite part of the museum was the butterfly garden: there is nothing quite like being claimed by a territorial butterfly or seeing a moth the size of my head (really. they were gargantuan). The chick hatching display was great, as was the playground physics exhibit. All in all, a fabulous (and very accurate) museum experience: I would highly recommend it to anyone coming to Boston. Thursday night was spent catching up, and another fire alarm (this time at 10:30 pm). I'm going to have to get a photo with Cambridge's finest before I leave...

Friday was a full day in lab followed by meeting mom and Jacob in Harvard Square for dinner. We ate at Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage, an extremely cramped and loud establishment famous for its burgers named after celebrities. The sweet potato fries were also superb. Friday night was spent at the frat house watching the German film "The Edukators." I was expecting screwball comedy, but it turned out to be more Communist thriller. It was still good, though.

Saturday was a day of history as mom, Jacob and I walked the beginning portion of the Freedom Trail starting at Boston Commons. I took over fifty pictures in the Granary Cemetery, and it struck me as odd how much I truly enjoy graveyards. They embody an element of peace, as well as a reminder that our time on Earth is short and there is so much to be experienced, accomplished, and learned. It also gives one a sense of their age when so many of those buried at the cemetery were so young. Interestingly enough, the area where the Boston Massacre took place is now a T stop (subway). It's also mind-boggling to think that the bell hanging in the eaves of one of the churches was actually cast by Paul Revere, and it still sounds twice a day.

I took a nap that afternoon in preparation for the ballroom dance that night, and I'm definitely glad I did. Honestly, I had the most fun I've ever had at a dance in my life. There were no awkward Prom-like moments or gossip-infested drama. Instead, the room was filled with dancers of every personality enjoying themselves as they went from dance to dance and partner to partner. Everyone had their strengths, and some were much better teachers than others. The talent ranged from me (absolute beginner at partner dancing but with a little bit of dancing experience) to pros (people that are paid to dance and teach ballroom lessons). Amateurs compete at bronze, silver, and gold levels, and the dedication of many ballroom competitors is intense. It is great exercise, although my feet were really beat up by the end of the night. Even so, it's pretty cool that after about five hours of dancing I know the basics to samba, rumba, jive, swing, international waltz, foxtrot, tango and hustle. When you are at a social, they have a DJ as well as a placard that tells you what the next dance will be...I thought this would be helpful until I realized that really, the leader can dance whatever dance they want to as long as it is in the same meter (a fact that did not help me recognize which tunes went with each dance). The Viennese waltz was really tough: you literally FLY in the line of dance, trying like mad to take big enough steps and spot so you don't get too dizzy. One of my partners described it as a race to the finish line, and he's right. It was also cool being dipped and twirled and just being taught new steps and ways to think about dancing with a partner. My frame (how I stand and hold my upper body) is still pretty awful: it's hard to concentrate on arm placement when really all that is immediately worrisome is where my feet are going next. However, I'm told that will come with time. When all is said and done, I cannot wait until the second social can bet I will be doing lots of practicing between now and then!

Today, I went to the MIT museum with Mom and Jacob: the robots as well as the kinetic sculptures and the strobe photography were a hit! Next, I showed them around Central Square, and we picked up food for Jacob before heading back to the frat house. A friend here offered to play video games with Jacob, so mom and I were able to go out for seafood: apparently he had just as much fun with a game of pool, Scrabble, and Worms as we did with our crabcakes and stuffed jumbo shrimp. (as an aside, if you have never played the game Worms, it's pretty hilarious. The object of the game is to blow up other worms using a variety of explosive devices: while this sounds quite macabre, it's actually pretty fun.)

It's been really great to have my mom and brother here: I'm so glad they're seeing Boston as well as the things I do here. Time is really flying by, and it's hard to believe that all too soon I'll be back in Illinois for my final year of school. Wow...

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Summer in Boston - Week Four

Hello all!

Week four is now complete, and suffice it to say, celebrating the Fourth of July in Boston is quite spectacular! My former roommate Becky and I slept in, and then went off to the Cambridgeside Galleria, a mall that isn't too far away. I got some shirts at H&M since my wardrobe currently isn't conducive to the jeans and tshirt look that everyone wears here for practicality's sake. It's just not safe (or cool enough) to wear my customary skirt and blazer look. We had a leisurely walk back to the frat house and enjoyed the beautiful weather. I took a lovely nap in my lofted bed, waking up just in time to have a hamburger that some of the members of the frat had grilled before heading off to the Cambridge side of the Charles River. Most of the REU crew went, playing Phase 10 on a couple of blankets while waiting for the show to start at 8:30. Unfortunately, it did turn chilly and rainy, sending me back to the frat house for a sweatshirt. Although we didn't get to hear the Boston Pops in person, they did a great job with all of the marches and patriotic songs. After the singalong medley, a couple of us burst into "Fifty Nifty United States" a song most of us learned in elementary school. The first half of the show ended "V for Vendetta" style with the rousing finale of the 1812 Overture resulting in a flurry of fireworks from the barge anchored on the river. The second half with headliner John Melloncamp was really difficult to hear from the speakers, and most people were restless for the fireworks show to begin. When it finally did start, it seemed like it would never end. We had a fantastic view, and the fireworks were accompanied by music clips or songs that ranged from Sesame Street (fireworks in the shape of cubes, numbers and smily faces), a romantic ballad (hearts and stars) and Pirates of the Caribbean (lots of explosions). The coolest fireworks were the kind that exploded in a half-sphere directly over the river: it must have been both nerve-wracking and incredible to be a boat on the water during the show. You can check out clips of the fireworks on YouTube, but you can't replicate the booms and vibrations that course through you, or the slight sulphur-y smell that penetrates the air, or the glow on everyone's faces from the intense lights in the sky magnified by both the Charles River and the windows on the skyscrapers. It was definitely an experience I'll never forget.

As far as delicious food goes this week, Monday called for noodles at a Thai place in Harvard Square with the REU-ers. Big portions and really good spring rolls made the walk back to the frat house a little bit longer. The next day, I had an AMAZING Italian dinner in Davis Square with a friend. While I do love spaghetti with prego sauce and frozen garlic bread (so much butter! and garlic! yum!), the sausage rigatoni was so fresh and delicious. There was also a lovely lemon ricotta spread for the freshly baked bread. Afterwards, we had ice cream at a local chain called JP Licks: the entire store is painted with blackboard paint, so they can easily change their in-house flavors every few days. Saturday brought a visit to Upper Crust, a famous pizza place (thin crust) off of Charles Street. I had the steak and gorgonzola, and while that combination sounds weird, it was fantastic. That night was a bar called the Pourhouse for my first glass of Sam Adams with a $2.25 hamburger and fries combo: gotta love those bar specials!

Today brought a very new experience to my life: I got up at 7:30 and made the trek to the MIT Boathouse with other REU-ers. We registered for our dinghy, and spent about an hour trying to wade through nautical terminology like tack and gybe (sounds like the lyrics to a swing tune). We then sat through about three hours of lecture and demonstration and learned how to set up the boom and all the was intense, but one still wonders how they can just throw 50 people into a river with no experience and a life jacket, especially in today's climate of health insurance and risk management. They told us point blank that almost every week someone has to go to the hospital for getting hit by the boom. Our boat was named Harold S, and although it was a bit chancy on our first tack (and trying to keep the boat from capsizing in the strong winds), no one fell in, and I came away mostly unscathed (only bruises). The day was hot, but it was still a great decision to wear a long sleeved biking shirt and bike shorts: I definitely got wet. While it was really fun to learn the basics and get a handle on sailing, I think I like to be in situations where I have more control over where I go and how fast and whether I will be dry or wet at the end of the day. I realize this comes with practice, but Illinois just doesn't have that many places to sail. My next goal? Crew.

Work in lab has been going well, but our current project has been slightly frustrating. However, I am reminded by the slightly more cynical members of my lab "If every experiment worked the first time, we wouldn't have a job." So, tomorrow will be a bright and early new start with lots of data analysis and graphing, plus updating the ever-changing powerpoint presentation for a group meeting sometime in the future. As always, feel free to email me questions about research: I'd be happy to talk more about it if you are interested.

The upcoming week brings my mom and little brother to Boston: I'm really looking forward to walking the Freedom Trail as well as giving them the tour of lab and what I do every day. There's also a ballroom social on Saturday night: it'll be exciting to get all dressed up and dance the night away!

Also - there was a 3am fire alarm last Monday night...I feel like I'm back in freshman year of college!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Summer in Boston - Week Three

Week Three is now officially over: research is still going great, and I am loving the first-hand experience planning and executing experiments instead of just relying on someone else's protocol. If anyone is curious as to the scientific updates, just message me and I'll go more in depth on our most current data.

As far as experiencing Boston, a group of us went to see the USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") last Sunday. The ship is beautiful, and she doesn't seem over 200 years old. We actually had to pass through a security checkpoint and metal detectors before getting on the ship. It is still an active Navy vessel, and it was guarded by lots of men and women with guns in fatigues or dress whites (which prevented me from shimmying up the rigging to the crow's nest...darn). Unfortunately, it was very touristy: I felt like most people that were visiting went to see it only because it was something you were supposed to do when visiting Boston. From there, we walked through the North End of Boston to Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, and then back to MIT on the Longfellow Bridge. That night, we had chores: one of the fabulous parts of this frat house is our every-Sunday meeting where we all are assigned a part of the house to clean...mine was the kitchen the first two Sundays, the chapter room last Sunday, and who knows what it will be tonight.

One of the best parts about Boston is the ethnic food scene. Bostonians are slight snobs about what they eat, and because of this, restaurants don't stay in business unless they serve fairly decent food. This makes finding interesting and new restaurants really easy for a summer visitor. This week was Ethiopian, and I had the best lentils I have ever eaten in my entire good! Other favorites have been Algerian, Indian, Italian, Thai and seafood, but there is so much more left to try! Good thing I still have seven weeks left.

MIT Ballroom sponsors a three week session of dancing lessons for $1 a lesson on Tuesday nights, and this week's dances were the Bronze Foxtrot (translation = easiest to learn) and international waltz. Surprisingly, there were more guys than girls: we actually had to rotate partners the entire evening. I found the Foxtrot much easier, mostly because the instructor had a partner and you could see the interaction between dancers better than the waltz teacher, a guy who was trying to do it all by himself. My partners and I would just end up doing an awkward sort-of-wedding-waltz that sure, had three steps, but not much else. However, there is a guy here in the ADP house who is actually in MIT Ballroom and has promised to continue my waltzing education: should be fun!

Friday was a late night in lab (to take care of my cells), but Saturday was a really long and fun day. I walked to the Museum of Fine Arts and saw some great art: one of my favorite Renoirs is there, as well as some great Etruscan pottery and a really beautiful cubist painting of Alma Mahler and her lover (sorry Gustav). The musical instruments room was also quite excellent: they had a chromatic horn as well as great examples of the transition of keyboard instruments from organ to harpsichord to pianoforte. I met up with a friend of a friend at the museum: he lived in Vienna with a friend from IWU who was studying abroad at the time and is a high school music educator looking to go to graduate school in music history. We drove to Revere Beach, and had roast beef sandwiches from Kelly's. The seagulls were eager to try and steal food: one wonders if they actually remember how to fish because they get so many handouts from people visiting the beach. I walked (shoes off) in the water for awhile, loving the ocean...while I have been afforded some amazing opportunities in my life in the past four years, none have landed me near a beach, so it's great to finally be near one again (even if it is freezing cold!).

Our next stop was his hometown of Reading (said "Redding"), and we visited his high school and walked around a park: it was a very cute little community, complete with Dunkin' Donuts (a pervasive New England tradition). Housing was a mixture of Colonial and Cape Cod: very much Massachusetts. We also stopped at a nearby lake in Wakefield: in comparison to Minnesota lakes, it was kind of small, but apparently people here are pretty proud of their lake. Even so, no one swims in it: you can sail and windsurf, but it's too dirty to dive in.

The next stop of the day was back in Cambridge: one of the other girls in my REU program turned 21, so we went out to a seafood restaurant in Inman Square for dinner and then back to the ADP house for cake and hanging out. All in all, a busy and exhausting day full of friends and seeing Boston.

As far as this week goes, I'm really looking forward to this Wednesday and spending Fourth of July on the banks of the Charles River watching fireworks and hearing the Boston Pops play the 1812 Overture: should be a great time!