How to deal with delicate situations in the lab

Welcoming diversity in the workplace has become second nature in the US, and I would venture to guess that the biomedical workplace has been paving the way for years. The reliance on international scientific talent in the US has truly made the biomedical science laboratory a mosaic of cultures, religions, ethnic groups and nationalities that could almost outdo the United Nations in diversity. My own laboratory, since its inception 13 years ago, has seen students and postdoctoral fellows from nearly every continent, religion and culture, and overall, the tolerance and willingness to learn and empathize with others (in my lab and all others I have seen) is nothing short of remarkable.

I would further venture that based on my experiences throughout the US, this tolerance and open-minded behavior is the reigning sentiment. I know that skeptics will point out the recent racial tensions in St. Louis and other US cities, and will comment on “Black Lives Matter,” and I do recognize that there is still a way to go before things will be as they should. However, seeing my own teenagers at school, and their friends and their attitudes, I can honestly say that it appears as though the next generation will be “color blind,” “gender blind,” “sexual orientation blind,” and so on. It just isn’t an issue to them, and they truly fail to understand how such issues have been so divisive for so many for so long. I am encouraged by the spirit of the younger generation.

In this era of enlightenment and optimism, how then, do we deal with the day-to-day issues relating to tolerance in the laboratory—tolerance of those of any culture, including our own? Specifically, how do we manage to thrive if our work environment is subject to odors resulting from poor hygiene, or noises made by bodily functions that are perceived by many as unpleasant? And how can we ensure that our responses to such incidents are not viewed as being ‘intolerant?’

Many years ago, in another place and time, a graduate student joined the lab and my ‘tolerance’ was tested to the limit. She was from another country, but it was not a true cultural difference that created a rift; she was a heavy smoker. I am not only a non-smoker, but having grown up in a family with a parent who had no qualms exposing me to second-hand smoke in the home and in enclosed automobiles, I developed a severe reaction to even the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke. Yes, nausea, coughing and wheezing were probably as much psychological as physiological, but my pain was real enough.

Of course, smoking in the lab was forbidden—even in those days, when people were still inclined to pipette with their mouths—but when she would step out for a smoke and return to our tiny lab space, working back to back at the bench, her clothes, breath and hair would reek. What is the proper way to politely deal with such an issue? Is there one? Speaking quietly to the principal investigator of the lab to try and locate bench and desk space as far away as possible was the only, albeit partial, solution.

Years ago, in another lab, in another time, I became acquainted with a postdoctoral fellow with several habits that I found to be rather less than pleasant. He was an extremely likeable and helpful person—traits that made it even more difficult to broach a sensitive topic with him. He would arrive in the laboratory promptly at 8 am, head to the sink in the center of the lab space, and proceed to clear his nasal passages and throat. “Would you mind not doing that?” Or, “Could you please do that at home?” just did not seem like a compelling option for me or any of the other early-birds in the lab. Instead, 8 am became time for a coffee break in the library, far from the distracting noises in the lab.

I was reminded of these instances some time ago as I entered an elevator and caught the scent of poor hygiene/body odor emanating from the only other occupant of the elevator. She appeared to be oblivious to my discomfort, as I recalled instances when poor hygiene had been an issue with someone when I was in the military. After been forewarned and not taking corrective measures, in the military such a person was subjected to a ‘night shower,’ being carried and dumped unceremoniously in the shower, sleeping bag and all. Not a solution for the laboratory, obviously. So, how to deal with it? Grin and bear it? Grimace and bear it?

These examples, and other similar instances, are difficult issues to resolve. Sometimes they revolve around differences in culture, other times they may have more to do with socio-economic status. At times they have no nothing to do with anything—an example that’s probably no longer relevant in the realm of iPhone-carrying and headphone-wearing lab personnel is the once controversial radio channel/volume debate that every lab seemed to have. I worked in a lab once where a postdoc loved Carmen so much, that for months I couldn’t get the music out of my head.

What’s the solution? As I noted earlier, there is no magic bullet. In many cases, a more astute lab chief can minimize tensions by instituting common-sense rules that promote the most efficient workplace. For example in the case of music, if the music or volume bothers someone, then no music. After all, it is a place of work. But in other, more sensitive instances—personal hygiene and such—aside from a more efficient ventilation system, it seems difficult to find a solution where someone will not be offended.

 

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Pending

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First, I must say that I feel more than a tinge of guilt at my lack of ‘productivity’ on the OT site in recent months. I would like to maintain that it’s my hectic schedule, science, grants, teaching, papers, reviewing–and outside the lab, the recent election to the American Society for Cell Biology’s Public Policy Committee (more on that as I learn the ropes), the imminent upcoming publication of my fourth (lab lit) novel (coming soon, to be published by Big Table Publishing: title “Saving One“). I will reserve a separate future blog for this new work, about which I am extremely excited and proud. By far my best yet, according to my editor…

I can also claim that I have been extremely preoccupied, seriously considering a job offer in the American desert Southwest, and now buying a new home here in Omaha and trying to sell the one we are in. All valid excuses. But really, have I not out-blogged myself in the past few years? Do I even have anything or interest to say any more? Time will tell, I guess.

For now, major renovations go on from the massive water damage caused by a small and insignificant fire. Our laboratory had relatively little damage, compared to others on our floor and on other floors of the 8-story research tower (Durham Research Center 1). So, we were able to continue working most of the time unhindered by the surrounding mess. However, this week it was finally time to fix up the less damaged labs, and it was our turn to shut down the lab for a day or two.

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As for now, everything is ‘pending.’ A lovely word, that puts life in the lab on hold. Grants are ‘pending.’ Papers are pending. Reviews of manuscripts are pending. Frozen in time. Glacial. Inching forward with no tangible change. As the pilots call it: a ‘holding pattern.’ In my humble view, a key skill in science these days is to maintain one’s cool and confidence, and to be able to continue to be productive, even in the wake of days, weeks and even months of pending, because that is the essence of a scientific lifestyle today–everything is always pending.

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Fire and ice (water) — parallels to inflammation

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The hallway in front of my lab space filled with fans for drying the moisture.

Things have been a little hectic around here recently. And to make things even more challenging, there was a fire on the floor above me last weekend. The good news is that no one was hurt, and the fire was put out by the automatic sprinkler system fairly quickly. The bad news is that it took a long time to get the water system turned off AFTER the fire was put out. It turns out that there is tremendous property damage caused by the water–damage that will take (probably) months to mitigate.

The fire was apparently caused by a piece of equipment that did not shut off, overheated and led to the fire. It was on the 8th floor of an 8-story research building. 43 laboratories appear to have been damaged by the water– relatively little equipment, but walls and ceilings and cabinets and footboards.

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Water damage seen on the ceiling and the need to protect the benches and equipment for mitigation.

My mind, which is inevitably thinking about science–even in the wake of this mini-tragedy for our excellent research building–found an interesting analogy to human disease. In many diseases there is often a situation where the inherent damage due to the disease is dwarfed by the tremendous damage caused by the body’s response to the disease; if you will, the attempt to overcome the disease. A classic example is the process of chronic inflammation; studies in recent years have shown the terrible detrimental effects of chronic (as opposed to acute, temporary) inflammation, often result from the attempt to combat a disease. The initiator could be cancer, infections, etc., but the overwhelming response and damage done by a powerful inflammatory response that is meant to fight the disease is often worse than the disease itself. Just as the water-sprinkler system was designed to combat the fire, and ended up causing far more damage than the fire did. We need to train our immune systems (and sprinkler systems) to respond with appropriate (rather than overwhelming) force.

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Damage in the lab.

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Fire–but also ICE in Omaha…

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Got no time for the blogger-blagger!

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One of the toughest things about modern science is its all-consuming nature–it literally sucks up one’s time. And while I am unable to sit down and write a serious blog, I thought this photo nicely illustrates how scientists struggle-to-juggle their time.

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Hey, I didn’t even get the grant!

Scientists today spend a considerable chunk of their time writing: grants, protocols, manuscripts, reviews, grant reviews, etc. One of the bureaucratic requirements that most of us are familiar with is the “progress report.” Every year — or even after every six months of funding, we are obliged to send in a report detailing our progress in carrying out the aims of the grant proposal.

I think I am on fairly safe ground in claiming that although this can be time-consuming, most scientists don’t begrudge this task — they are too happy and relieved to have money for their research. However, I managed to lose my temper with such a request this week.

Into my email box came a rather stern note complaining that I had not met my deadline for submission of the annual progress report, and I was being given a final warning to submit. However, although I typically try to comply with all of my grant-related obligations, this time I unequivocally refused. No! I will not submit this report! Absolutely not! Enough bureaucracy! No! 

Yes, dear reader, I refused. I decided that I would not comply. ENOUGH is ENOUGH!

And why would I be such an adamant refusenik and troublemaker? Because the private foundation that was demanding I submit the report — read carefully, dear reader — this esteemed research foundation HAS NEVER FUNDED ME!

How my name became entangled in the web of grantees who were required to submit progress reports, I will never know. But what I do know is that every scientist has his limit — and this is where I draw a line in the sand: no funding, no progress reports! Go pick someone else’s email out of a hat…

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Libraries, technology and e-books–go with the flow…

Kindle vs paper

Libraries are becoming virtual, and there are some distinct advantages…

Technology is changing the world, and libraries are picking up on the changes. As a long-time library patron, it has not been uncommon for me to head out to the local branch nearly every weekend. Typically with ~20 books out, including paper ones, CD audiobooks for the car, and more recently, “Playaways” (not to mention another stack of books for my kids when they were younger), I often find myself unable to renew and return everything precisely on time. The library used to be more lenient, and have a grace period for late returns, but no longer. So I often willingly pay the little fines for late returns. All for a good cause.

All that is changing. A couple years ago, I bought a basic Kindle to read e-books. In truth, I prefer the paper (okay, ‘dead tree’ for you tree-huggers) format. Why? First, I find that I am less likely to remember the title and author’s name when I read the Kindle format. The book opens to the page I am on, and unlike a paper-book, I don’t continually see the title and author’s name (which eventually become etched in my ever-weakening memory). True, I can always look up what I have read on the Kindle, but that’s beside the point. Second, I like to know how much of the book is left. Kindle gives me a percentage (i.e., read 88%), but that’s not the same. The problem is if there is a reader’s group discussion, or long acknowledgment at the end–in such a case, the actual book might end at 95%. With a paper book, it is easy to just flip and see what page is the end. Another minor complaint is navigation within the book. I feel much more comfortable going back a couple of chapters to check what a character said in the paper format. However, admittedly, that is me being ‘old-school,’ as there is certainly an opportunity to e-navigate on the Kindle–especially for those who grew up with e-technology.

The advantages of e-books are many. For a start, the size and weight of a Kindle makes it an excellent choice for travel. Before travel, I was often faced with the irritating decision of whether I would complete my book on route, and be left as a ‘book-orphan’ for the rest of the trip, or whether to drag a second heavy novel with me. At times, I would even start a new novel just before travel, and leave the one that I’m halfway through at home. Another feature that I love is the built-in dictionary; looking up new or unfamiliar words has always been a sore point with me, as I hate to stop reading and pull out a dictionary mid-sentence. Even using an iPhone dictionary is disruptive–but the Kindle has a wonderful built-in dictionary which is a pleasure to use.

Perhaps the biggest change coming is the burgeoning relationship between libraries and e-books. Rather than decry technology, libraries are bravely embracing it, and evolving rapidly to stay relevant. And they are succeeding! My library (and the entire Omaha Public Library system) now carries Kindle, PDF format e-books and even recorded books on ‘OverDrive‘ for remote electronic checkout. This means that on a ‘simple’ iPhone, I can browse the library catalog, and download Kindle books and recorded books, which I can listen to on my iPhone while exercising or driving, or read on my Kindle, iPhone, iPad (which I don’t have) or computer. Instantaneously–instant gratification.

As a reader, I am like a kid in a candy store–but as an author, I am also enjoying the rapid changes in the publishing industry. Being as this is the holiday season, and everyone is avidly looking for a great gift for their favorite scientist, I can shamelessly resort to plugging my own creations. As recently outlined in a Nature article about scientists who are authors of fiction, my books are selling. Most astonishingly, my first novel, Matter Over Mind, selfpublished back in 2010, is still selling strong — in fact it’s outselling my other two books combined. I have no real explanation for why it continues to do so well comparatively, except that the subject — a scientist with a parent suffering from bipolar syndrome — is of interest to a wide group of readers.

All my novels are selling better on Kindle than on paper, and now that Amazon/Kindle has expanded into libraries and books can be ‘borrowed,’ I find that I am receiving consistent royalties from the tracked “number of pages read” too. It is, however, too preliminary for me to quit my day job and live off my royalties…

Here’s wishing all scientists, authors and colleagues and virtual colleagues and friends — a Happy Holiday Season and happy, healthy, New Year.

 

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Beertown: anatomy of an American town

Omaha may not be known as a Mecca of the arts, but for a mid-sized Midwestern US city, there is no shortage of good theater. No, it’s not Broadway – although we do get the occasional traveling Broadway show that comes through – but the endemic talent of local playwrights, directors and actors is quite phenomenal.

This week I had the good fortune to experience three local productions. The first was a high school play written by budding playwright and actor, Ben Adams; this was a clever and humorous satire written and directed by a high school senior that had the audience laughing at the witty dialog.

The second play was really a reading of Omaha playwright Noah Diaz’s “The Motherhood Almanac,” at Omaha’s unorthodox Shelterbelt Theater. The play (or rather, the reading) has been described as:

“A play about women; about daughters and mothers // a play about the tropics, death, birth, rain, adoption, white trucks, peaches, rabbis, weddings, Tuesdays, hair ties, eyelashes // about what’s spoken and unspoken and understood and everything in-between // about swimming pools, wine, lists, wrists, fists, poetry, divorce, and the parallel lives we were never meant to lead // about learning how to carry on and all the things we must leave behind …// a play about women and the women who raised them.”

Hefty topics for a male 22 year-old playwright, but successfully done with aplomb and style and carried out magnificently by Omaha’s top ‘amateur’ actors (note that there is one who carries the same last name as me…), and under the direction of Omaha’s premier director Susie Baer Collins.

Finally, last evening we attended the Omaha Playhouse’s production of “Beertown.” A very unusual production, “Beertown” represents small-town-America at its most democratic. The play begins invitingly with the town members (we the audience) bringing an array of desserts to the 20th quinquennial town meeting and time capsule ceremony. As we Beertonian’s filled our plates with calories, the Mayor of Beertown, State Representative and other townspeople chatted with us about the upcoming quinquennial program, while the Beertonian Bugle editor took photos and interviewed  some of the townspeople.

The distinctive idea was to introduce the permanent and ‘ephemeral’ artifacts that the town’s bylaws had included into the capsule, and to democratically decide what, if any, new artifacts should replace any of the nine ephemeral ones in the capsule – and if so, which artifacts would be replaced.

The play presents a window for the audience to view how attitudes and values have changed and are still evolving in small town America. The subtle or not-so-subtle conflict between youth and the older generation. Disagreements over the significance of sport vs. the arts. And so on.

The unique angle of the production is that it allows for significant input from the audience, allowing the actors and Mayor of Beertown to use their superb improvisation skills to navigate through interesting debates and lead the democratic decision making. In all, a very interesting experience and unique theatrical production. And did I mention that the playwright from “The Motherhood Almanac” makes a superb performance as State Representative Pickel-Cooper?

Well, none of it is Broadway – and for that, I’m very glad. One doesn’t need New York for first class drama.

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Gut feeling: colonoscopies are a marvel of modern medicine

About 10 years ago, suffering from some stomach troubles, my family doctor recommended that I do a colonoscopy. I was barely 40 years old, and just the thought

colonoscopy

Not even ‘pixelated’ — my ‘gut feeling’ is that these images showing my healthy colon are pretty high resolution images.

of having someone explore my inner workings, by shoving a small camera affixed to a flexible rod — well, you get the picture — made me lose my appetite for a month. When I asked the doctor, whose overall bedside manner (not to mention qualifications for dealing with a mild hypochondriac) was brash at best, “what if the colonoscopy doesn’t find anything,” his answer was: “Then we’ll go in from the other direction and do an endoscopy.”

I ‘freaked out,’ and decided that this doctor was not a good fit for me. When a few months later I read an article in the local Jewish rag about this doctor being part of a team that visited archaeological sites in Israel that used medical endoscopic tools, I realized that I had been dealing with an endoscopy-obsessed physician, and lauded myself for running away from him. Let him use his tools on the archaeological digs — not on me!

Well, for the past ~10 years, I have been dreading the 50 y tune-up. Dreading, fearing, and wondering if I should pass. It’s easy to find pseudo-science to “support” not doing the procedure: Many claim that it’s invasive, and can do more harm than good. After all, some people end up bleeding from a punctured colon. I assume that many of these who oppose this test for screening purposes probably also deny the importance of vaccinations.

Over the years, I have followed the development of the “PillCam Colon,” a pill that carries a miniature camera that will traverse the digestive tract when swallowed and obtain photos of the colon before being excreted (and recovered). But most insurance plans do not yet cover this type of (expensive) procedure, and it is still deemed a weak alternative of the colonoscopy. An additional problem is that during many colonoscopies, small (or larger) polyps are discovered. These are considered to be potential precursors of tumors, and their removal (and pathology testing) is an essential part of the colonoscopy process.

So, I sucked it in and acquiesced to a regular colonoscopy.

Everyone I talked to told me that the procedure itself was ‘nothing,’ that one doesn’t feel a thing, and that it’s easy and no big deal. But it scared the hell out of me. On the other hand, my friends and colleagues all lamented on the horrible “prep” — the need to drink buckets of the laxative to cleanse the colon, and the cleansing itself. That, for some reason, did not scare me.

Well. I was wrong, and they were right. The prep was AWFUL. The same polyethylene glycol that I used years ago to make liposomes was the main laxative in the dense, disgusting-tasting prep. There was about a gallon of “Nu-Lytely” that had to be drunk, in two sittings: from 5-9 pm, and from 2-4 am before the morning of the procedure. Nauseating stuff. I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. But, I did not want to go through the fasting and be forced to eat green ‘Jello’ and clear broth on another day.

On the other hand, the procedure was a piece of cake. They hooked me up to an iv. Put a warm, heated blanket on me until the doctor was ready. They asked me to lie on my side, and the next thing I knew I was waking up after a nice nap. With a clean colon (see images above) and 10 years until the next one!

I did have a tiny 2 mm polyp removed, but the lab found it to be benign.

All in all, I think modern medicine can chalk up a victory (this coming from a hypochondriac), and I hope everyone who can will take advantage of this opportunity for screening.

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The Lady and the Trump

This week, my family and I convened to do something very unusual: to watch television. And not just any television program — no, it was to watch the Republican presidential candidate debate. While I fully expected the debate to be ‘entertaining,’ perhaps I underestimated the sheer level of ignorance that I would encounter. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

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The Chicago skyline, with Mr. Trump’s building, as observed on a recent visit.

Having seen the spectacle of Donald Trump in the first debate, with his childish, bigoted and chauvinistic remarks, I guess nothing should really have surprised me. But nonetheless, I came away shaking my head in disbelief.

Toward the end of the debate, when the candidates had already vied for the title of who would “defund” Planned Parenthood” most rapidly and who told the most moving stories of  love for their hero, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump (mistakenly called “Tramp” by my spouse) let the vaccine out of the bag. According to Mr.–or should I say Dr.–Trump, childhood vaccines cause autism. And how does he know this? Someone he worked with had a beautiful baby, and took him for vaccines–and lo and behold, the baby turned into an autistic monster. Point proven.

The hell with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the decades of study by thousands of scientists and doctors–no, no. He, knows better. But no better was the follow up with comments by two physicians who are also in the running for the Republican nominee: Dr. Ben Carson and Dr. Rand Paul. First, neither doctor contradicted the comments of Mr. Trump. Dr. Carson made very ambiguous statements, claiming that (in agreement with Mr. Trump, who he jokingly called “an okay doctor”) vaccines are bunched too closely together and should be spread out over longer periods. I doubt if Mr. Trump could even name the diseases that these vaccinations prevent, but the important thing is that his careful scientific analysis demonstrated with perfect clarity that the vaccine schedule needs changing. Dr. Paul, the Libertarian, invoked freedom of the individual to choose, and carefully avoided contradicting Mr. Trump’s claims.

I find it incredible that in a country that has enough real and serious problems, we have to waste time and energy inventing non-existent ones. I realize that Google has made everyone an expert in everything, and that parents can now diagnose their children’s pediatric illnesses with the click of a mouse, but this is creating a false sense of comfort. One cannot become a trained scientist or physician by exclusively reading online. It just doesn’t work that way. And we should not be giving equal weight (or any weight for that matter) to politicians or uninformed doctors on issues that they do not understand — that is the province of the CDC or NIH — to establish rigorously researched protocols based on the best data available. Mr. Trump and his cronies may be good at paying for tall buildings in Chicago, they they should stay the hell away from putting in their ignorant  two-cents worth on subjects that should be left to professionals.

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Right on: the only museum dedicated entirely to human rights

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Technology and hands-on exhibits make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights accessible for visitors of all ages

When I last visited family in the city of Winnipeg, Canada, I had the opportunity to do a tour of the outside of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), as it was not yet opened for the public. On this visit, 2 years later, this one-of-a-kind museum located at the Forks — the meeting place of the Assiniboine (east-west) and Red (north-south) Rivers is now hosting over 800 paid visitors per day.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The CMHR — not my photo

I found the idea to be unique — important and intriguing, although I was very skeptical before seeing the exhibits. My childhood in Canada had caused me to anticipate a very back-slapping and self-righteous museum, in which Canadians would denounce others and proudly announce their own commitments to human rights, without mentioning the many failures. I was wrong.

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A display seen from one of the many alabaster bridges that work their way up the building.

The CMHR is not perfect — but no museum is. However, it makes a sincere attempt to reconcile Canada’s past with its many errors. These include, but are not limited to the assignment of First Nations’ children to Christian religious boarding schools over the past 100 years (indeed, until the 1990s) — what was conceived as an attempt to remove any traces of native Canadian First Nation culture. Also included was a serious discussion of Canada’s abysmal record of turning away immigrants (mostly Jews) who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War. Many of these immigrants ended up returning to the shores of Europe only to die in Hitler’s gas chambers.

In the history book “None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948” the authors address Frederick Blair — the head of Canadian immigration — who reportedly was asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada as refugees after the war — and his answer was “None is too many.”

The museum is unique in that it is focused mostly on personal stories — victims and heroes — and typically shies away from too much emphasis on blame. More important is the attempt to understand how the violation of human rights led to atrocities, and how this could have been stopped.

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An exhibit hall on the 3rd floor

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Women’s rights. 50% of the population, and many countries

Women’s rights are an incredibly important part of the exhibits — and the problems presented are not limited to third-world countries. The museum does not shy away from showing western commercials and advertisements that present women in a demeaning manor — ads for shoes and clothes and fashion models. Seen as part of a gradient of sexism, this is very compelling.

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Very few women in Saudi Arabia are permitted to drive

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Interactive displays have movies and stories on a multitude of human rights issues

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The Holocaust and at least 11 documented recent atrocities

Reading about the museum, I was informed that there were demonstrations by certain communities against the museum for its “unequal exhibits.” I read that some members of the Canadian Ukrainian community felt that the Holocaust received ‘too much’ attention as opposed to the Holodom0r, the man-made famine forced upon Ukrainians by the Soviets in the pre-WWII era, where anywhere between 2-7 million people perished.

The Holodomor was presented as part of a permanent exhibit that includes 11 horrific atrocities in the 20th century. The Holocaust received its own exhibit. Part of the complaints, as I have been informed, stem from the fact that a wealthy Jewish donor contributed a lot of money to the museum, and there is/was a perception that this may have influenced the museum’s content. While any human suffering is horrible, I do feel that the Holocaust deserves special treatment, as it was a very unique situation. Not land disputes or fighting between tribes — but rather an entirely scientific plan to murder millions of people — even at the expense of losing the war. Nothing like this has ever been perpetrated on humankind, and understanding how this could have occurred really does deserve special attention.

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View of the city and into French-speaking St. Boniface from the CMHR tower

In summary — I strongly recommend to anyone who has an opportunity — if they end up in the middle of nowhere in central Canada — to visit the CMHR. Well worth a full day’s visit, and should be a must for every school child.

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