And it’s June!

Published June 1, 2016 by iampotassium

Hellllooooo everyone. Sorry I’ve been away forever. Part of it was lab/work but part of it was that I had been away for so long, it was hard to get back into it. Every time something cool happened to me, I thought “Oh ho! I should post this on my blog!” and then I thought “… but it’s not Tuesday and that is my day of posting and I just remembered I have this super important thing to do right now that may or may not actually be important but I have to do it right now and I’m lazy and I’ll just post something about it next Tuesday…” Well guess what – it’s Wednesday and I’m posting! Plus it’s summer and there are a lot of crazy things happening so I kind of have no excuse to post anymore.

So I thought I’d post a list today of some exciting things and then we’ll pick one of them for next week.

  • The Bolder Boulder is an annual 10K here in Boulder on Memorial Day. This year, Cobalt spend the spring getting in shape and then ran the whole thing in under an hour. Whoa! Call me impressed.
  • A dose of Science Policy, please! At the end of April, I got the opportunity to go to Washington DC to spend a day on Capitol Hill talking to the kind representatives and senators (read: mostly their staff members) from Colorado, Kansas, and Missouri about funding for NIH. The NIH, or National Institutes of Health, funds biomedical research and it (and its basic research friend, the National Science Foundation) gave me the funding to attend grad school, which was extremely useful. During my trip to the Hill, I got to be a scientist who knew statistics like 1) how many jobs the NIH funds in the Congressperson’s state/district and 2) how much money we spend to treat vicious diseases vs. how much we spend to do research on how to cure them. It was an amazing and inspiring experience and I loved every second of it. We young scientists were paired with Biochemistry faculty members from around the country. My faculty member and I had a Fitbit battle all day (lots of walking between House and Senate office buildings). I totally won but it might be because he was crazy tall and because I was in a suit with a skirt and had to take at least two steps for every one of his. Anyway, there’s clearly a lot to talk about here so I will post more on this in future posts.

    Potassium with Boulder’s representative, Jared Polis

  • Add to that a strong dose of Science Communication! Since the last time I wrote, I officially accepted a position in the UCSC Science Communication program for the fall! So Cobalt and I are moving to CA this September and I am (finally) gonna be a banana slug! I am excited and terrified all at the same time but I think it’s going to be a fun adventure. P.S. If any of y’all know anything about housing in the Santa Cruz area, any advice would be greatly appreciated! Stay tuned for fun updates coming from here soon!
  • Exploration part 1 (of ??)! Because Cobalt and I are escaping from Colorado this fall, we decided that we really need to make this last summer count and explore the whole state/area before we go. For those of you who don’t know, while Colorado is pretty nice year round (depending on your fondness for random snow storms any time between September and May), summer in Colorado is amazing. Our first adventure took place last week – we went down to NM to see some of our friends/Cobalt’s family and then headed up into southern CO to see Mesa Verde, Durango, and Telluride. Turns out that that part of Colorado is beautiful! Cobalt and I took the most ridiculous route back to maximize seeing prettiness. It was amazing. More posts on this soon too!

    Cobalt and I had fun taking pictures of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace through the lens of a viewfinder.

  • I started getting a monthly subscription to Scrawlr Box, which is an art supply box that comes from the UK. It’s awesome (and well worth the money)! Every month, I get cool pens/pencils/etc and a “Scrawlr Challenge,” which challenges to me actually use all my new stuff to create something! The challenges so far have been “Spontaneity” (which included tea to paint with!), “Manga Yourself” (which included a Gelly Roll pen woooo 7th grade!), and “Write ScrawlrBox” (which has been by far the most challenging for me but also the most fun). It’s been really inspiring and great for me to flex my creativity a little bit.

    This is the result of my “Write ScrawlerBox” Challenge. Let me know if you want to see the results of the other challenges (warning, there is definitely a shark theme).

Soooo what’s going on with you guys? Anything amazing lately? What trips do you have planned for this summer? What did you do for Memorial Day? Any of those things up there sound like something you want to learn more about? Vote for what I talk about first in the comments!

Telescope + Camera = new sky friends!

Published March 22, 2016 by iampotassium

Hello everyone! How were your weekends?! I hope they were good. We are on spring break so Cobalt and I headed up to Steamboat Springs to hang out with our friends L and B and their kiddos. We had tons of fun eating, playing pool, skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, game-playing, hot springs-ing, etc! It was so awesome to get away from Boulder and relax a little in great company. Plus I think I am finally succeeding in teaching myself how to snowboard!

One night, B set up his telescope so that we could see Jupiter up close and personal. I have only seen Jupiter from earth without the aid of a telescope or in books that show it waaaaaaay up close with its huge spot that can fit 3 (!!!) earths in it. That night, I got to see a middle version – Jupiter with two rings around it! So cool. I tried to take some pictures with my cell phone camera but it was hard to point the tiny phone camera into the eyepiece of the telescope. I ran upstairs to grab my big DSLR so I could try that instead. It still turned out to be a bit of a challenge. Jupiter was moving around in the sky so B had to readjust the telescope frequently and I had to hover with my camera around the vicinity of the eyepiece to try to catch Jupiter in the eyepiece of my camera! Plus, autofocus was not working (it has a hard time in the dark) so I had to hover around the eyepiece while constantly fiddling with the focus to try to bring Jupiter’s cute little rings slightly more into focus. Whew… 50 pictures later, I think this picture (which is actually one of the first ones I took) takes the cake! Introducing my new friend: JUPITER!!

Soooo stripey. Jupiter kinda looks like a baseball… or a Mr. Stripey tomato…

After B and I had so much fun trying to get cool pictures of Jupiter, he decided to set up the telescope to look at the moon. It was REALLY bright and also REALLY COOL. I was completely floored by how much detail we could see! Again, I am used to looking at the moon without the aid of a telescope or seeing pictures of moon craters in a book. I couldn’t believe that all the rocks and crags that I was looking at through the telescope belonged to the same moon that I usually see outside my house! Photographing the moon through the telescope eyepiece had its own interesting set of challenges. First of all, it was much brighter than Jupiter so I could mess with some of my camera settings to decrease the chance that I would make the moon blurry by all my hovering around. I learned that I could change some camera settings but not others (e.g. the f stop, or how much light you let into the camera, had to stay the same). Second of all, the moon is BIG and my camera was limited to how much it could see through the eyepiece of the telescope. It was really hard to get the entire moon into frame with the lens I had chosen to use (a 50 mm prime lens). That was kind of okay with me though because I really liked focusing on various parts of the moon and didn’t really feel the need to have ALL MOON in my pictures. Finally, the focusing – still hard. Even with a bright moon, I was still messing with my focus to try to get the moon details as sharp as possible while hovering around the telescope eyepiece. None the less, I really like a lot of my pictures, including these awesome ones:

(my relationship with the moon is forever changed by this picture….)

Cheese, Gromit!

Another fun thing – we also looked at sunspots during the day (obviously not through the eyepiece). B held a piece of paper up by the eyepiece so that the BRIGHT light from the sun was projected onto it. There we could see tiny little sunspots hanging out with the sun. Before I got a chance to look, apparently a plane flew in front of the sun and Cobalt and B saw a tiny plane projected onto the sun on the paper. Jealous…

Anyway, that’s all for now too. Do you get a spring break? Are you doing anything fun? It seems that the most popular options for spring break are: a) go to the beach, b) go to the mountains, or c) staycation/sleep. What did you choose? Back to work for me today – technically postdocs don’t get spring breaks. :(

PS – If you remember me talking about the moon in my Top Books of 2015 post, yes I am still unhealthily obsessed with the moon (you try reading a book in which the moon blows up without warning and then having a normal relationship with the moon after that…).

Spring Thoughts

Published March 18, 2016 by iampotassium

A Friday post?! No way!

Potassium and Tarantula pondering life one evening.

Hellloooooo everyone! I hope you are doing well! Sorry these posts started to get infrequent again – I wasn’t kidding when I said that adding teaching my class into the mix was going to make my life insane! But it’s almost spring break now and I am finally coming up for air.

Here are some things that are interesting me right now:

  • Mimivirus. This virus infects amoebas and can also cause pneumonia in humans. This virus is HUGE. You can see it under a light microscope (note: you can see most bacteria but NOT viruses this way). The mimivirus also has a huge genome. Most viruses have a few genes but the mimivirus has more genes than a lot of bacteria! Just a note, the HIV virus (causes AIDS) has ~10 genes while the mimivirus has ~1000 genes. What is it doing with all of them?! Who knows… but it has them!
    In addition, the mimivirus has its own “immune system” in that it has a system set up where it can recognize DNA from other viruses that might try to infect it (yeah… viruses can infect other viruses AHHHH! What is this ridiculous world that we live in?!). Bacteria also have systems like this to protect them against viral infections. This is all super interesting because the mimivirus and its family members (including an even BIGGER virus called the mamavirus) are challenging the idea that we scientists had of viruses not being “alive.” I can go more into that if you want – it’s kind of an interesting philosophical question except also with science.
  • Science rhetoric – that’s right. Let’s talk about how to talk about science. That’s like a million levels of nerdy in one sentence but still. It’s so interesting to me. I have been loving the class that I am co-teaching because it is opening my eyes to so many cool ways of talking about science! Plus I get to hang out with college students and have them debate things like: who is responsible for sharing science with the general public (all scientists? some scientists? journalists?, etc)?
  • Science Communication – Speaking of talking about science, I’ve been accepted to the Science Communication program at UC Santa Cruz! It just keeps getting better and better! It’s big decision time! Life is getting exciting and terrifying.
  • So Metal – This Tuesday my friend L and I drove down to Colorado Springs to see Nightwish and Delain in concert. There was much head-banging and jumping. Wednesday was a hard day…
  • Soccer – I finally got to play soccer last week. I’ve been having some major IT band and bursitis issues that were initially flared up by doing Insanity workouts last summer but I think they also initiated drama from an old soccer injury. But I got the OK from my PT to start soccer again and spring season started on Sunday. Our team lost 5-2 but I was so overjoyed about being able to play again that I barely noticed. Also I assisted on the second goal so WOOT.
  • Inclusive Excellence- It’s a big deal right now on CU’s campus as we try to shift the campus climate to be more inclusive and welcoming. I’ve been playing my part by drafting a document for the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee I serve on and by moderating a meeting between the Chancellor of the University (!!!) and the group I co-founded called CU Café.

Craziness… I swear I am still working in the lab on top of all of that!

Okay, let’s talk about some future posts. Do you have any preference? I could write about my life in general, life as a postdoc, previous trips (like how we went to Germany last October and I haven’t talked about it at all?!), race, cool science topics, science communication, etc. How’s your spring shaping up? We’re getting our traditional “pre spring break” snow storm right now… perfect because my PT has also cleared me to go snowboarding!

The good, the bad, and the coffee

Published March 1, 2016 by iampotassium

I’ve been doing a lot of networking coffees/informational interviews with people around the University/across the US. It’s been pretty epic fitting all these events in with actually working in the lab; it means I am running around like a crazy person even more than normal. Plus I start teaching my section of the class I am co-teaching next week (how is it March already?!?!). I might explode!

Anyway, I want to talk about these coffees/interviews because I’ve noticed a striking pattern. I think that within the first minute, I can tell whether a particular interview will be useful. Then I either leave feeling inspired and excited about my potential future and career or I leave feeling miserable and like I totally missed the boat somewhere along the way. I’ve been going over my various interviews recently trying to figure out what’s happening in each scenario so that I can share them with you! Let’s break it down:

Good interviews:

  • make me laugh.
  • make me feel comfortable “in my skin.”
  • involve my coffee-mate listening to me and acknowledging that what I want to do is important.
  • include a list of potential contacts for follow up interviews, potential fellowships to apply for, potential new directions to go in, etc.
  • include a list of ideas for making me more a “competitive” applicant.

Bad interviews:

  • make me feel like I should have already figured out my life.
  • make me feel like I fail at communication and basic human interactions.
  • involve my coffee-mate not really listening to what I am trying to say and pushing their own agenda on me.
  • involve my coffee-mate telling me that everything that I want to do is competitive and assuming that I am not a hard worker and do not have the skills to succeed in the field of interest.
  • include a list of potential contacts for follow up interviews, potential fellowships to apply for, potential new directions to go in.
  • include a list of ideas for making me more a “competitive” applicant.

I think that the bad interviews are bad because I have a different personality from the person I am chatting with, not because I am not interested in learning more about his or her job. I guess I never thought about how completely jarring it would be to try to get career advice from someone who thinks differently than me. I am tempted to chalk them up as good practice but not too important but I feel a bit uneasy completely writing them off. I’m sure there’s good information in there (see the bottom two bullets of both categories) but I leave them feeling so down about myself that it’s hard to find it. Ideas for how to make the most of these situations? Is there a way I can take charge of these situations and refocus them in a way that’s actually useful for me? Should I even try? Anyone want to share their own job-hunting stories?

I’ll leave you with this picture of tasty tacos from last weekend when Cobalt and I went to Torchy’s tacos for the first time with our friends J and K. Delish.

Now I want tacos…. I should start setting up networking taco interviews………

Let’s stop being robots!

Published February 16, 2016 by iampotassium

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations about how scientists are trained to take the human out of their experiments as much as possible. The conclusion of these conversations is that maybe we’ve gone too far and trained scientists that they should strive to be as non-human as possible. Right now, it seems that scientists are supposed to be robots who work millions of hours a week, have no personality, and have no work-life balance. For example, I often feel guilty about leaving lab early to go to a doctor’s appointment or about not going to lab on the weekend. Besides encouraging young scientists to stop seeking out ways to enrich their lives and take care of themselves, this “robot scientist” culture also really hurts science communication with the public because we end up talking at other humans instead of with them.

Potassium being “Cardbo” the robot in her old lab at the University of New Mexico (SUPER BONUS POINTS if you know where Cardbo is from).

Robot scientists are sad to me because science needs some human component. We need creative (and healthy) people to come up with cool ways to solve really hard problems! We also need to be able to tell the world what’s happening in our labs so that people can learn about cool new science/have opinions on the proper usage of new technology/etc.

So today I want to talk about science communication basics. How can we stop being robots and have productive conversations in which we talk with each other and not at each other? Note: these ideas are important for all conversations – not just science conversations, so you’re not off the hook today, nonscientists. This semester, I am co-teaching a science communication class for junior and senior science majors at CU. To help our students work on science communication, we ask them to think about the intentions behind what they say. Obviously, there is the main intention: to share some kind of knowledge/opinion with an audience (e.g. kale is good for you, don’t smoke, climate change is real, etc). Then there are all these subtle intentions that maybe we don’t think about as much. What other messages are hidden in the main message? Are we concerned friends (Hey, I know you’ve been having XYZ issues and I found that eating kale really helped me feel better…), are we impartial people who are experts on a topic (Kale is good for your body for these main reasons…), or are we secretly judging our audience for not eating as much kale as we do (if you don’t eat kale then you clearly don’t care about your body…)? There are so many secret intentions hidden in the way we communicate that it’s really important to think about all the types of messages we aim to get across (and the types of messages that are hidden in our preferred news sources).

After we figure out our intentions (all of them, not just the main one), it’s important to think about what our personal values are with respect to the topic and how they differ from the values of our intended audience. If they don’t align at all, it’s time to get creative. How will we communicate our messages in a way that aligns with all of our intentions and still shows respect for our audience’s opinions and values? I’m not really sure what the answer is but I think it requires some insight and the capability to act like humans and take responsibility for all of our intentions (not just the main one).

Now it’s your turn to continue our science conversation. I want to learn more about you. What would you like to talk about now? Diseases (Cancer, Zika virus, Salmonella, etc)? Science words that sound scary but are probably just fancy ways of saying normal words? More on reading about science (such as how to interpret numbers, pictures, and graphs)? More on science communication? More on jobs for scientists? Are there non-sciencey things you want me to talk about?

In other news, I am thinking about transitioning the science part of this blog to its own blog, updated bimonthly. Thoughts?

Year of the Monkey!!!

Published February 9, 2016 by iampotassium

Hellooooo everyone! Today we are going to postpone this week’s science post because I was too busy to finish writing one Cobalt and I made dumplings for the year of the Monkey and I want to talk about those instead. Also apparently this is my 400th post so in celebration let’s talk about food!

I think one of the best ways to make new friends is to share a tasty meal together and talk about traditions. When Cobalt and I were in Germany last year, we met a girl who had participated in this crazy dinner activity where she and a few other random people that she didn’t know had to make dinner together. She said some people there only spoke German or English, but that was okay because most Germans know some English so they could still communicate pretty well. Then there was someone who didn’t speak English or German! Extra challenge! How are you supposed to communicate about recipes?! I guess it all worked out because their dinner sounded fantastic.

Anyway, weird-slightly-not-related anecdote aside, the point is that I like learning how to make new foods from different cultures. A few years ago, my friend T taught Cobalt and me how to make dumplings for the Chinese New Year. It was super fun and really tasty so we did it again the next year. This year T and her husband are in China with her family for Chinese New Year so Cobalt and I had to make our own dumplings.

It was pretty fun. We googled a bunch of recipes and sort of cobbled together our own version of the filling: including ground turkey, shrimp, and bok choy! Looking back on my dumping pictures from previous years I am thinking of other tasty things we could have added to the filling but I guess that means we will have to make them again soon! Anyway, during the folding of all the dumplings, I got inspired to take some artsy hand model pics so now you can see them! This part was made especially tricky because Tarantula was very interested in this meaty doughy stuff on the table and kept looking like she was going to try to get up there (humannnnnnssss I want that in my belleh!!!)!

First you put the filling in the wrapper… if you look closely you can see an almond. We put almonds in some of them to make them “lucky.” If you eat a lucky dumpling then hopefully your year will be great!

Then you fold the wrapper in half – taco style.

Cobalt took this one of me making the fancy ridges because I wanted to show off my sweet nails (nail wraps from Espionage Cosmetics)!

Once all the dumplings were folded, we tried steaming them instead of boiling them as we had done in the past. They turned out great! Then it was time to eat them…….

Cobalt! Stop eating my art! ;)

Now it’s your turn: Were you born in the year of the Monkey? What did you do last weekend? What’re you up to this weekend? Last weekend, Cobalt took me to see My Neighbor Totoro, which is my favorite movie evarrrrr, in the theater. It was amazing to see everything so big and I enjoyed having a closer look at all the beautiful backgrounds, which look like watercolor. I am so excited about this weekend because Cobalt and I are going to hang out with one of my blog friends! We finally get to meet in person! Excitement….

Stay tuned for that science post, y’all. It’s still on its way. :D

Cucumbers, cats, and how to read about science

Published February 2, 2016 by iampotassium

Yay science posts are back! Today we are (finally) going to start that daunting question about how to read about science by talking a little about experimental design and what to look for when trying to read about a science topic in the news. There’s a lot going on here so take your time and leave me a comment if something didn’t make sense or you want to know more about something.

Let’s start at the beginning. All science starts with a question, such as “Why are cats afraid of cucumbers?” Then, in order to start answering the question, the scientists have to come up with a hypothesis – their educated guess for an answer. For example, “Cats are afraid of cucumbers because they are green.”

Now comes the tricky part. Scientists have to design an experiment that directly tests their hypothesis. This part is tricky because there are always a ton of potential answers and scientists need to figure out how control their experiment so that solely it tests their hypothesis and doesn’t bring any other factors into the mix. For example, if we wanted to test whether cats hate green, we’d want to control our experiment so we wouldn’t accidentally be testing the cats’ response to different shapes or smells.

Designing a good experiment is really complicated. It’s made even worse by the fact that the very systems that some scientists study are filled with differences. For example, all humans share more than 99% of the same DNA but think about how unique we all are (even identical twins who have exactly the same DNA). The term we use for this phenomenon is called “heterogeneous” and scientists are finding to this day that organisms with the exact same DNA can act completely differently from each other. So with all of this crazy heterogeneity in mind, another way scientists can be cautious about designing experiments that solely test their hypothesis is to replicate the experiment a lot or test multiple subjects (cats, people, bacteria, etc).

Replicating an experiment is really important. For example, if I put a cucumber behind my cat and she doesn’t freak out, can I really conclude that all cats are not afraid of cucumbers? Let’s add some replicates in there! I could put a cucumber behind my cat 10 days in a row and then determine if she continues to stay nonplussed by the cucumber. I could also try putting a cucumber behind my cat at different times of the day to determine if it depends on the time of day. Or I could put cucumbers behind a variety of cats to determine if my cat is just weird and likes cucumbers. All of these ideas would add replicates to my experiment and help me identify if my results are just a weird fluke associated with some other factor that I don’t care about or if they are directly related to my hypothesis.

Tarantula says stop talking about cats and cucumbers!

Good science experiments have established controls and include large numbers of replicates to eliminate “weird flukes.” All of these factors should be listed in the original scientific paper describing the study but these papers are often incredibly dense and hard to follow (even for fellow scientists). However, a good science report or article written for the general public should also list these qualifications. So to test the quality of a good source, I like to see what an article says about controls and replicates.

Here is a fake article that I just made up:

Scientists determine that too much sleep causes cancer.

Scientists at Questionable Science University have completed a study about sleep and cancer. They interviewed two different people who have lung cancer and found that they sleep 7 hours every night. As these data clearly show a link between too much sleep and cancer, people should sleep no more than 6 hours a night to prevent cancer.

Yikes! Does this mean we should stop trying to get a solid 7-8 hours a night?

Tarantula doesn’t like this article at all…

Well, it looks like these scientists talked to two people who already have cancer. I want to know more information about the people who were interviewed for this study. Did the scientists take care to control for other variables like age, race, or gender? What else do these people have in common (i.e. do they smoke? Do they exercise? What type of food do they eat? Are they the same age?). All of these questions could have affected their results in a way that disconnects sleep from cancer. Furthermore, they didn’t talk to anyone who doesn’t have cancer (this is called a negative control and is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT). Plus they only asked two people! That’s like me saying cats aren’t afraid of cucumbers because my cat isn’t! It doesn’t look like they have any controls or replicate the experiment so maybe this isn’t a great source after all. Yay! Time to get more sleep! -_-

I like to think of science as “a quest for the truth.” Good experimental design is hard but it’s worth it because it helps scientists get closer to finding out the truth! It’s really important to make sure your sources report on good science so that you can learn about the truth! I tried to give you some tools that let you sift through some scientific topics you are interested in so let me know if they help! Go practice the game and then report your findings back to me! :D

Now it’s your turn: tell me about the science you are the most interested in learning about. Or tell me about something completely unscience related. That was a lot of science for one day…

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