The spectrum of notebook keeping in science and in life – Part I

I have recently read a great blog post on the evolution of notebook keeping, and how notebooks provide a tried and true method of keeping track of our lives in spite of explosion of their technological counterparts.

This series of articles triggered a flurry of thoughts on how I have interacted with notebook keeping in my own life. Continue Reading

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Pushing the envelope- Part II

Last week, I wrote about pushing the limits of science by thinking outside the box.  In that sense, “thinking outside the box” is used quite figuratively to indicate how traditional thinking will not lead to new ideas, and constant innovation is necessary to achieve breakthroughs.

In this post, we will examine the same concept in the context of art.  Art is also an ever evolving process.  While all of the same principles apply to art as to science – in that new techniques and concepts lead to new styles and forms of art; in addition art has the luxury of showing this concept a bit more literally.  An artist has the power to control the physical boundaries of his/her work. Continue Reading

Pushing the envelope – Part I

“Thinking outside the box” has become a bit of a cliché. But in science it is more important than ever. As the base of human knowledge propels ahead with lightning speed, it takes a special set of skills and knowledge to be on the cutting edge of innovation.

When I was in graduate school, there was a relatively popular depiction of the concept of a Ph.D. You can find the full schematic at “The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.”  Briefly, if you imagine the whole pool of human knowledge as a large circle, in elementary school you start out by learning a small subset located at the center. Each step of the educational process, from high school to college and graduate degrees, brings you closer and closer to the outer limits. But with each level of higher education, you also limit your field and specialize. Finally, in graduate school, you push at the boundary and make a tiny, microscopic dent – and that dent is called a Ph.D. While its size and impact, relative to the large picture, may seem laughably minuscule, the key lies in the fact that it managed to break through the limits of the “box” (or circle in this case).

Because of this, science cannot be pursued with a cookie cutter approach. It needs to be innovative, revolutionizing and pushing the limits to achieve real breakthroughs. This concept inspired my most recent project at NeuroBead. To capture this concept, I not only took a flat image of a cell and made it 3 dimensional – reaching beyond the surface at which it was taken; I made it reach outside the boundaries of its frame.

The image that inspired this work was taken at a high magnification (63X). High magnification and resolution usually requires the sacrifice of having a limited field of view. But the elaborate dendritic tree of this beautiful neuron does not end there. It reaches beyond the frame that was forced on it by a microscope. It reaches outside the “box,” to sense its surrounding environment and send signals to its center – the cell body. This feeling of reaching for something beyond the visible first resonated with me when this neuron was tucked into the car during our move, but still reached its dendrites beyond its limits. It looked like an octopus spreading its tentacles and trying to escape from its assigned frame.   It was reaching for the “adjacent possible.”

Moreover, this particular confocal image stood out from the majority. The three most traditional colors used in confocal microscopy are blue, red and green. If these colors overlap, or “colocalize”, they can make a new color, such as yellow. These simple colors can create magnificent images in confocal microscopy. But, this particular image was portrayed in cyan and magenta colors that only show up relatively rarely in scientific publications, making this image even more unique.

You can find the original image on my Pinterest board.  Please follow me on Pinterest, Instagram and WordPress and stay tuned for Part II of this mini-series.

And check out my Etsy shop for the currently available pieces of wall art inspired by microscopy images!

Why we have cells in the living room 

When I was in college, happily trekking down my pre-med program, I happened to attend a talk by a guest speaker from Albert Einstein College of Medicine graduate school program. Two things from her talk have stuck with me through the years.

First, and likely the more important, is the fact that her talk served as the tipping point for me to seriously consider a career in research rather than medicine. Despite working in biological research labs since high school, I have never considered thinking of it as my ultimate career until this eye-opening seminar. Well, I am so glad that I did. From that point on, my mantra has become “I’d rather be dealing with test tubes than with patients”.  Fast forward about ten years, and here I am, still dealing with test tubes, but working on a drug that is currently being tested in clinical trials to actually help patients.

The second, more whimsical detail from her talk stuck with me as a quote. While describing how going into a research career had impacted the rest of her life, she said “I met my husband next to the flow cytometer”. Well, guess what? A couple of years after attending this talk, I met my husband at the graduate school picnic during orientation week!  Yes, we are both science nerds, and we speak the same language that transcends into other areas of our life as well.

When we got married and moved into our first apartment, we had a bit of a dilemma.  There was a huge empty wall in our living room, and we could not come up with a way to decorate it. Well, scientists are problem solvers, right?  Guess what we came up with?  We decided to showcase our nerdiness and hang six large picture frames with blown up microscopy images of the cells we worked on.

I guess we have never intentionally taken pictures of this wall art, but here are a few shots I was able to find, starting with first months of my older daughter’s life.

 

My dad and my older daughter in our very first apartment.

 

The funny thing was that in the beginning, even our friends with medical degrees couldn’t quite put their finger on what was depicted in these pictures. They just perceived them as abstract art.

Since then, these pictures have followed us through two more apartments, and witnessed the early stages of our family life. It was particularly funny when a nanny we just hired asked us if these were pictures of cells.

 

My older daughter when she was a baby.  Check out the background!

 

My daughter and husband chilling under the cells.

 

Now that we have finally bought a place and need to think about decorating it for the long-term, we had a brief conversation about where to hang these pictures. When I gently suggested updating them based on our more recent research, my husband immediately objected. The whole beauty of these cells comes down not only to the bright colors and intriguing cellular structures, but to the fact that these images came from our early days in science. When the passion began.

And speaking of passion, my next piece of wall art, a 3 dimensional neuron with spines, is almost ready for prime time.  Stay tuned to get the first sneak peek of it at my Etsy shop NeuroBead!  And follow me on Instagram to see the work in progress!

Art therapy

Last weekend was very intense for me. There was a lot of shopping and family activities. Overall, it was good, but I barely got any time to myself.  Over the course of this week, I have been making time to dedicate to NeuroBead every evening, but it was still inadvertently getting mixed with discussions of housework and errands.

Yesterday, I finally got the option to come home about 20 minutes later.  I spent these 20 minutes in a nearby park, doodling in my sketchbook, putting the beading details on the neuron I drew on Tuesday.


I wonder why drawing tiny details on a delicate neuron in the midst of the bustling New York City is so therapeutic for me.  I truly enjoyed that little stretch of peace, and am now  looking forward to implementing this project in 3D.

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The water maze

Yesterday I attended a talk by one of my colleagues. He was giving an update on a project we are both heavily involved in. The key difference is that he works on animal models (in vivo), mainly asking “what” type of questions; whereas I work at the cellular level (in vitro) focusing on the “why” and “how”.

While I cannot delve into the details of his project, I will say this much – the study used mice as an animal model to study effects of a drug on spatial learning and memory. The main brain region responsible for this type of learning is the hippocampus. A battery of behavioral tests was used to determine the effects of treatment on hippocampal function.

One of these tests is a classical paradigm in behavioral neuroscience, called the Morris water maze.  Rodents typically dislike water, but if they need to survive from drowning they can swim and float. The Morris water maze consists of a large circular pool filled with opaque water. In one quadrant of the pool, the scientist places a small circular platform that can be used by the mouse to escape from the water. The platform can be made visible, by placing it above the water level, or invisible, by submerging it just beneath the water. A mouse is placed in the the pool, and is timed for how long it will take to find the platform and escape. If an animal shows good learning over multiple trials, the amount of time it takes to get to the platform progressively decreases over the period of training. As a final test, the scientist can completely remove the platform from the pool and measure how much time the mouse will spend in the correct quadrant of the pool in search for the platform.

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Despite this technique not being new to me, I went home thinking about it in more abstract terms. As I was going to bed last night, it hit me that the Morris water maze can serve as a great metaphor for life in general. While the rodent test typically does not last for more than a few minutes, we all go through life stumbling, “swimming” and searching for our ultimate destination. The path can be circular, tortured and quite murky. And some people may have visible goals in sight, whereas others may be searching for something hidden. Some mice give up and try to float instead of swimming, analogous to some people just trying to get by. Still others may come to what they consider their correct destination, and not find anything there.

A lot of people say that happiness is in the journey rather than destination. But unless you have a goal in mind, you might as well just be floating. How do we uncover our hidden platforms, and can there be more than one? Or are all of them just moving targets?

via Daily Prompt: Clumsy

Original work

We live in a modern world where everything has been said and done.  There are so many great minds and creative people that it can often be tough to be original.  I have written in my previous posts about how I have always found art to be my oasis.  During my childhood and teenage years, I would get lost for days – sitting in my room, working on an art project.  I have always loved to process of execution, the attention to details, and the challenges of figuring out the finer points of the project.  Yet, in terms of finding original ideas for new projects, I have mostly relied on external sources.

You might say, that is not so new.  Probably all artists have built on groundwork laid down by their predecessors.  It may be true, and the same concepts apply to science.  No one could go at it alone.  All new findings build on the previously existing knowledge, modifying and combining ideas to discover or create something new.

Innovation has been a huge buzzword lately.  Everywhere. But what does it mean to be truly innovative?  When I was a postdoc, I took an entrepreneurship course called Q.E.D – “which is what had to be shown”.  One of the first things we discussed in that class was the difference between sustaining vs. disruptive technologies.  One of the most popular examples of a disruptive technology  is the invention of hydraulics to replace cable-driven excavators.  I have found myself to be more closely positioned to the sustaining side, which keeps polishing and improving what is currently available.

During my graduate studies, I was given a project that branched off of a larger, more mainstream, project of one of the postdocs at the time.  I had to carve out a very specialized niche and function within it.  Moving on to my first job outside of academia, I found myself in a similar situation, where I had to “go with the flow” for a while.  Only in the last few months did I really begin to feel truly innovative, proposing bold new ideas that put whole bodies of current knowledge into question.  I am beginning to feel more disruptive.

Seeing this daily prompt on originality served as a tipping point for me to begin putting some of my own ideas on paper for NeuroBead  as well.  I have jotted down a few things in the past that I would like to implement in the near future, and now I have finally begun sketching them out.

My next project will be centered around Sholl analysis.  I remember how much I loved the concept during graduate school and tried really hard to find an application for it in my project on neuronal differentiation in response to cannabinoid receptor stimulation.  Unfortunately, it did not lead to any interesting results, but the elegance of the method itself still pulls at my aesthetic heartstrings.  I hope to begin this project in the near future and will be posting updates on the progress.  Stay tuned!