PhDistance | WELCOME

Hi! My name is Ash, and I’m a marathon runner and toxicologist with a Ph.D. A toxicologist is someone who studies the potentially adverse health effects of chemicals.

I started this blog in graduate school to reflect on my experiences and have a space to practice my writing and science communication skills.

I attended the University of Rochester for their toxicology training program, which is housed within the Department of Environmental Medicine. I completed my thesis under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Rand. My thesis work used a fruit fly model to learn about methylmercury toxicity during muscle development. I learned so much and had an overall great experience, but I’m really happy to be done!

When I wasn’t in lab, I was literally running around Rochester. The weather was pretty wild there, given the city’s proximity to the Great Lakes. But, it was usually fun to be out there!

…and other times, it was not:


If it looks like I’m crying, it’s because I am.

During graduate school, I ran 5 marathons and 3 half marathons (see the Races tab). There were injuries, personal records, as well as other highs and lows along the way, and I’m grateful for it all.

I’m currently training for Boston, as you can see by the countdown to the left.

Running continues to keep me sane, provides a “reset” when I feel spun from work, and has led to wonderful friendships. It also gives me those infamous post-run endorphin spikes.

I will continue to recount my post-grad adventures on this blog as I chase after my athletic and career goals.

 Subscribe (email) and follow this blog to keep up as I run towards my goals and away from my problems!

Houston Marathon Recap

1/21/2022

Hi friends! I returned home from Houston on Monday, and had some time to write up a post about my latest running adventure: the Houston Marathon!

Short version:

I prepared to get up early and run really far by eating lots of carbs and resting. I finished running really far in 3 hours 13 mins and 41 seconds, and was then rewarded with a medal and 12oz of chocolate milk.

Long version:

More details in this one, but you can also hear about my solo travel experience 😎 I ventured to Houston alone, as in without a running friend or Tim. It made me feel uncomfortable at times, but mostly I was just really proud of myself for navigating the city and this trip all by myself. Although I definitely prefer company, it’s comforting to know that I can hack it on my own!

So anyway, I flew in to Houston on Friday and took a bus to downtown, then another bus to Montrose. I’m familiar with Montrose, so I felt safe staying in an Air b&b there.

View of Texas from the plane ✈️

The air b&b was VERY Texas. Look at all this cow:

Yeehaw

On Saturday, I went to the grocery store to get a few things I needed (mostly carbs). Then I went to grab my race bib from the Race Expo in the George R Brown convention center, or as I like to call it, the S.S. Houston because of its architectural design.

The Convention Center in all its nautical glory🚢

The Expo is like a scientific conference, except that everything is running-related. Also, you can get massages from your colleagues instead of presenting a poster to them. For real though: there were a lot of folks selling these muscle massage guns; I tallied 3 free massages. I would never buy them because they’re a little pricy. I was told by each vendor how their $299.00 massage gun was a special deal because MSRP is $800.00. Like, OK…

I had run from the Airb&b to the Expo, and walked/Lyfted home. Other than that, I didn’t do much besides eat carbs and rest to stay off my feet. I saw Tim’s parents in the driveway and we had a brief, socially-distanced hangout. It felt weird to be taking so many precautions, but Tim and I really don’t want them to get sick.

Also it’s interesting that leading up to the trip I was sad to leave Abbie because I would miss her, but I didn’t think I would miss Tim that much. I missed Abbie the first night, but then I pretty much forgot about it. I missed Tim more as the trip went on though. Especially after the race, because crossing the line without him there felt sad and like something was missing.

Takeout spaghetti and meatballs from Paulie’s

Ah ok now about the race… I did say this was the long version. Here is the rundown of the hectic morning and then a race recap mile by mile-(ish):

Hectic morning:

4:30am – wake up and eat breakfast/coffee. Two slices of sourdough toast with PB& banana.

5:20am – Walk to bus stop

5:22am – Bus fails to stop at bus stop and zips past me. I call Lyft instead.

5:50am – arrive at convention center and hand off my bag at gear check.

6:35am – jog over to my corral to start… It was cold (34 F), so I tried to leave the building as late as possible for my 7am start time. I stayed warm by literally dancing/bouncing in my corral 🕺🏻

7am- start! WOO!

Near the start line after I felt fine enough trot ditch my mask

Race recap:

Mile 1-2: I’m so happy to just freakin be here!

Mile 3: Oh wow- that’s a very cool sunrise

Mile 4: Hi Anderson Fam!! Oh crap I’m probably going a little too fast…

I’m in the navy long sleeve

Mile 5: Met Lisa, a 60-something year old blind runner. It was her 10th Boston and 26th marathon!

Mile 8-22: Still running too fast. But maybe not? In the River Oaks neighborhood, there was a priest dousing runners with holy water as they passed. Another runner shouted, “it burns!” I started running with that same runner, Miguel, around mile 9 and stayed with him until he dropped me around mile 22. Very interesting guy. 9.3/10 conversation. Apparently there is a fun desert party in California I “have to” go to (Burning Man festival).

Mile 23: supposed to see the Anderson’s, but I’m WAY ahead of the time I told them to be there so I miss them

Mile 25: so close that it hurts. Really, it hurts.

Mile 26: Man, this 0.2 stretch is killing me.

Mile 26.2: DONE! 3:13:41. Yeehaw 🤠

I felt really awesome after finishing the race (naturally). But what I thought about the most was the LACK of pain in my hips. My hips hurt REALLY bad after the last official marathon I did in Atlanta in 2020, because they were weak. Leading up to this race I did hip and glute strengthening exercises every other day, and I think that made a difference in how my legs felt after such a long hard effort.

Highs:

⁃ Meeting interesting folks along the course and having some fun conversations

⁃ Finishing a marathon (my 4th official and 6th ever!)

⁃ Running 3 minutes off my PR (which is 3:10:28) when I quite literally could not walk in October due to my glute/sacroiliac injury.

⁃ Having Tim’s parents see me run at mile 4

⁃ Velvet taco for dinner after the race was 👌👌

Three very scrumptious tacos

⁃ Lots of free massages at the Expo

⁃ Feeling capable and independent to travel solo 🕺🏻

⁃ Being part of a race where the women’s American Record was broken for the full (Keira D’Amato, 2:19:12) and half (Sarah Hall, 1:07:??)

⁃ The air b&b had my favorite scent of Epson salts (spearmint and) for a bath after I got home from the race.

⁃ Buying cool headbands and a scrunchie at the Expo

⁃ Walking around in Montrose. It’s very convenient and walkable

⁃ Visiting the Science Museum to see the Body Worlds exhibit after the race. I didn’t think I could be more in awe of what my body is capable of after running a marathon, but I was wrong. Bodies are so cool!

Limber gymnast with organs

⁃ The gemstone/Russian Tzar heirloom exhibit in the museum reminded me of when I saw the play, Anastasia, with Laura. It was a nice memory!

Two beautiful crystals. I don’t remember the names and failed to record them. Darn.

⁃ House-made Spaghetti and meatballs at Paulie’s on Friday, which was picture above

⁃ Not getting my period also rocked. I am supposed to today, but there is always a chance it can come early, so PHWEW! 😅

⁃ The Time magazine book in the Air b&b

Lows:

⁃ The worry of probably having contracted covid (PCR test scheduled for Thursday, rapid test ready for when I get home)

⁃ Awkward interaction with Keira D’Amato the day before the race where she waved back at me and said good luck and then I RAN AWAY because I was star struck 🙃

⁃ The H-E-B carrot cake

3/10 carrot cake.

⁃ Seeing expensive running gear just tossed in the middle of the road near the start line.. It’s a reminder that running is not a sport “anyone can do, you just need shoes!” Running marathons (at least road races) requires time affluence (the training, and the traveling cost a lot of hours!) and money (the race entry for Houston was $200). I feel like I’m lucky to have a job that gives me both of those things because I know it’s not true for everyone. So, I felt a little bit sad seeing other folks toss away their running stuff.

⁃ A few uncomfortable interactions with folks on the bus and a homeless dude who kept complimenting my legs. I walked across the street to get away from him and stand near another man who was talking in the phone.

⁃ The flights could have been better. There were crying babies behind me on both flights. The departing flight had a shorter duration of baby crying, but there was also someone farting the whole time. The return flight did not have a fatrter (yet… still haven’t actually landed), but had the worst baby ever. It could be an endurance athlete too if crying was a sport.

So anyway, that’s my trip summary! I hope you enjoyed reading!

My next marathon is Chattanooga, TN, where I will be part of the pacing team. After that, Boston with Laura and Erin!

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to ones courage

First day of work as a toxicologist

August 23, 2021

My first day at ICF is today!

Given the pandemic, I’m stating remotely from my home office. I have a pretty snazzy setup, if I do say so myself, and I’m excited to use it for more than just blogging and mapping running routes.

Given the work-from-home situation, I worried today wouldn’t feel like I’m truly starting this new stage of life. So, I’m trying to make it feel more “official” by dressing as if I would be going in to the office!

I have mostly onboarding meetings and orientation today. The company I work for has a buddy-system for new hires, so I also have buddy-check in meeting this afternoon. So if I do not feel sufficiently oriented, hopefully my buddy can help me.

Thanks for reading and wish me luck!

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” -Abraham Lincoln

PhDone!

August 18, 2021

Major life update: I successfully defended my thesis and earned my doctorate in toxicology from the University of Rochester. PhDistance is official now!

The leadup to the defense felt protracted, but not very stressful. I must have practiced my talk over ten times, so I felt prepared and genuinely excited to give a talk to my friends, family, colleagues, and committee.

About ten minutes before my defense, I logged on to Zoom to ensure everything was working correctly, like the Share Screen feature. Oh, by the way, I defended my thesis via Zoom due to the pandemic. Sure, it’s not how I dreamt I would end my PhD, but given the fact that I live in North Carolina now, it was very convenient.

After a very sweet introduction by my advisor (complete with photos of me and handmade cards I had made for him over the years) I began my talk. My friend, Kelly, took screen-shots of me during it:

Methylmercury is released by industrial activities (e.g., coal-fired power plants) and natural sources and cycles through the environment
Biomarker data from national biomonitoring programs showing levels of blood mercury by country. Pregnant women are advised to limit consumption of SOME fish because methylmercury is found in fish and is bad for babies brain development.
The Faroe Island’s and Seychelle Islands are the locations of two ongoing longitudinal cohort studies evaluating exposure to methylmercury during development and adverse outcomes in children as they age.

About 45 minutes later, I was done talking about research and began my photo collage of acknowledgements:

That’s all, folks! Also, I’m about to cry…
My advisor!
My lab-mate, neighbor, best-friend, and fellow Drosoph-a-teer, Jakob!
Thanks, guys!
My lovely running buddies! Erin is another PhDistance gal.

I got a chance to answer a few good questions after the photo sharing. Then, I logged into another Zoom link for my closed-door defense. Whereas the open-door defense is public and involves me filling the hour with a research talk. the closed-door is exclusive to my committee, me, and the chair of my defense, and I don’t give a presentation during this.

Everyone congratulated me on my talk and said some nice words about my thesis document. Then I was moved to a Breakout Room while the committee went over the rules of the defense and determined the order in which they would ask me questions. I re-entered the main Zoom room with everyone and then we just went round-robin-style asking questions. (Almost) everyone asked good questions that were actually somewhat fun to discuss.

After approximately an hour of answering questions, I was excused to a Breakout Room for about five minutes. When I was let back in, the committee congratulated me and told me I passed. Huzzah! I now have a terminal degree and I feel quite old.

…So, that was last week. Wow. Time really flies.

The most common question people have asked me in the past week is, “how do you feel?!” Honestly, there are a lot of emotions and I’m probably still processing more. For now, I know I feel accomplishment, happiness, pride, relief, and freedom.

Reflecting on my feelings up to right now as I type, the dominant feelings have been of relief and freedom. I’m relieved that it’s done. I had been frustrated with my research project (what PhD hasn’t?) and had qualms with the fundamental premise of my lab’s research topic. I sincerely hope that other PhD’s don’t experience the latter. I think my sense of freedom stems from speaking up about those qualms, which I decided to do during my closed-door defense.

During the closed-door, one of my committee members asked me, “Do you really think it’s worthwhile to study how muscle development is sensitive to methylmercury?”

To the chagrin of my advisor (and amusement of my committee) I said no.

My advisor became defensive (naturally) which required me to share thoughts I’ve had for the past year and a half on why I think the current focus is unlikely to have a significant impact on public health.

I truly could not believe I said no. However I had some pretty good reasons, given I had perseverated on this for so long. My committee seemed to agree with me, which felt validating. Additionally, my committee asked good questions for the most part; the kind that were broad, thought-provoking, and stimulated some truly good discussion. I wish all of my committee meetings had been more like this!

However, there were some not-so-good questions as well, which was a shame. Whoever said, “there are no bad questions!” was wrong.

Here is how bad questions tend to begin:

I am interested in Thing X and will proceed to talk about it. Oh, I forgot my question. Sorry. *note that Thing X is unrelated to my research*

There were not many bad questions, however I was pretty incredulous that my advisor interrupted me to remind other members of my committee to write a lstter of support for his grant resubmission. The opportunistic nature of this action really just left a bad taste in my mouth. A student’s thesis defense is not the place to remind colleagues to write a letter of support for a grant resubmission… I digress…

Here are some examples of good questions:

I noticed in your talk that X happened during Y. What do you think that meant?

How relevant are these doses and why did you select them?

What is an experiment you could do to test X?

What is one part of your work that you would like to see continued and why?

Also, many of my committee’s questions demonstrated that they had actually read my document. I was worried that no one would have read my document because my advisor told me no one would read it. Thankfully, he was wrong. They read it, and they seemed to have even liked it.

I felt really proud when they congratulated my writing. I enjoy writing and like to think that I’m decent at it. Honestly, after writing 140 pages I better be good at it. The positive reinforcement I received from my committee and defense chair meant the world to me. They used words like “scholarly” and “concise” and others that affirmed my belief in myself and my abilities.

I had one measly edit from the University (to bold my name in my publications) plus one suggestion from my advisor (to rotate one of my figures in my thesis document). But I technically passed with no revisions. Cool.

After I responded to my edits, I uploaded my thesis document to ProQuest so that it can be formally published. I ordered two hard copies too: one for the bookshelf in the Department of Environmental Medicine where all Ph.D. theses have a home, and one for my own bookshelf.

Given I have a manuscript under review, I opted for a year and 3 month embargo period prior to allowing worldwide access to my thesis document. So if anyone is interested in reading my document, please reach out to me directly. Honestly, I would just read the introduction and maybe the discussion if you want to hear me roast my lab’s research premise.

And so that’s a wrap. I’m all done. I’m officially terminated as of August 15 from the University. I begin the next chapter of my career on Monday as a toxicologist. Cheers!

Celebrating with Tim in Durham after my defense

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.” – John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

North Carolina

July 6, 2021

It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived in North Carolina for a full two weeks. I feel like I JUST said my goodbyes to Rochester and packed the UHaul to head south. Where has the time gone, you ask? Well, I’m not sure. But, one of the great things about blogging is that is provides me time to reflect and figure that out.

Our wonderful friends have certainly helped the time go by faster. With their help, it only took two hours to translocate all the earthly belongings Tim and I own from our apartment to the truck. Not sure what we did to deserve such good humans in our lives.

Packed boxes
Our empty apartment. It looks smaller, somehow.
Friends!

We left Rochester at 10am and arrived at the new place at 11:30pm. The drive down went by fast, thanks to hours of podcasts. We caught up on Ezra Klein, The Weeds, and Short Wave (my favorite) as we went. We passed through the rolling hills of rural New York and Pennsylvania and crossed a short stretch of Maryland as well as a sliver of highway in West Virginia.

Entering West Virginia

When we got to Virginia, the hills turned into mountains. A detour sent us snaking down the mountains along skinny roads with no shoulder and some pretty steep cliffs. Now is probably the best time to say that I was towing my car behind our UHaul on a tow-dolly.

Photo taken while weighing the loaded truck plus tow dolly

I maintained a speed between 25-30 mph the whole way down, much to the chagrin of every truck and motorcycle trying to enjoy a ride through the mountains on that beautiful evening. We made it (HUGE relief) and got finally back on a normal highway to continue south. We ultimately got in at 11:30pm and were passed out on the air mattress in our new home by midnight.

The next morning, we relished in the fact that we made it, and we were living in our new home at the end of a quiet little street. It felt pretty darn great. Unpacking was basically a breeze, thanks to Tim’s best friend, Spencer; he lives in Chapel Hill and drove over to help in the morning.

There was only one casualty during the entire process of packing and unpacking: our pour-over coffee maker. It was accidentally dropped… and shattered. R.I.P. For a brief moment, we thought we would have to forgo coffee on our very first morning in our new home. However, Spencer (and his wife, Lindsey) are ANGELS and bought us a house-warming present that included a new Chemex coffee maker! Again, what did we do to deserve such good friends?

We’ve been getting settled since then, getting on routines, new schedules, trying new places, etc.

I adjusted my running schedule from whenever-I-feel-like-running to heading out before 7am. It gets pretty toasty and humid down here, so the earlier runs are more enjoyable. I might even try to run before 6am *gasp* when I start doing more 2+ hour long runs. The Boston Marathon is less than 100 days away, so my weekly mileage is starting to increase. I haven’t run over 16 miles since the Turk-a-thon (our unofficial makeshift marathon) in November with Erin and Laura. I’ll get used to it again!

I’ve been doing most of my runs along the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) due to its proximity to our house. The ATT is a shared-use path that runs north/south, is shaded by beautiful, tall trees, and has water fountains every few miles. Like most of the other spaces to run around here, I find myself always running uphill or downhill. Rochester was comparably very flat, so I’m definitely still getting acclimated to the grade changes.

Besides running, I’ve been exploring my new home! Here some additional spots I’ve found and already love in the area:

  • Carrboro/Chapel Hill:
    • Beer Study
    • Mediterranean Deli
    • Open Eye Café
    • Weaver Street market on Saturday mornings
    • The Chapel Hill public library
    • Wegmans
    • The woods around Carrboro (I now dream of living in a house that backs up to this beautiful botanical space)
  • Durham:
    • Triangle Coffee House
    • Dos Perros (Mexican food)
    • The downtown Durham YMCA
    • The Glass Jug
    • Our backyard
Our backyard!
What a looker 💕😍

Since I turned in my thesis document yesterday (related post to follow), I have more time on my hands…. I guess that means I will have plenty of time to explore more!

“Home is where the heart is, even if you can’t remember which box you packed it in.” 

A Cat-astrophic Ordering Mishap at Two U-Penn Labs

Image credit: @GaryBeck

April 17, 2021

In mid-March, formalin-preserved cat cadavers were unexpectedly delivered to two independent scientific laboratories at the University of have Pennsylvania. Both labs had anticipated orders of 50 mL conical tubes.

It was a late Friday afternoon when Julia Eberhard signed for a package in her lab. She and her laboratory at University of Pennsylvania had been expecting a delivery of 50 mL conical tubes from Fisher Scientific for months. The 50 mL conicals are standard research lab supplies used to mix solutions, and just one of many products backordered amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Eberhard cut open the cardboard box, expecting to see the typical blue, quarter-sized caps of the conicals arranged in their standard grid pattern. Instead, there were cat cadavers.

While Fisher also sells the cat cadavers, Carolina TM Formalin Cats, as, “ideal dissection specimens” for research and educational purposes, it is unclear how such a mistake occurred.

Soon after the box was opened, Eberhard tweeted, “Fischer, if you’re out of 50 ml conicals, you coulda just told us…” The tweet initiated a flurry of retweets, questions, and even commiseration.

Dr. Daniel Hammer, another scientist at University of Pennsylvania and head of a lab, replied, “I’m a little jealous. We only got one cat.”

Hammer’s lab had placed the order for 50 mL conical tubes from Fisher in November. Commiserate with Eberhard’s experience, Hammer “instead received a dead cat (albeit, very well preserved)”

After 24 hours, there were over 600 retweets, 2.7k likes, and a few jokes:

“Have you checked inside the cats for the tubes?” – @MercerLab)

“Worst packing peanuts ever” – @JoeFlowImmuno)

“Well, the cat’s out of the bag and in the bag” – @Weinbergerrrrr)

“Does ‘vcat’ on the label mean, ‘very cat’?”  

“Schrodinger’s cat?” -@Urso_bruto)

“Are you kitten me?” -@PhDistance

“Stop ordering from Schrodinger’s lab supply…” -@kkeilts

“Looks like there is a reason it is called a ‘cat’alog” -@tweet2Rbhadani

Other researchers shared their newfound suspicions of some unusually long boxes they received at the end of the workday on Friday, labeled “50 mL conical.” Most have stated their intentions to leave the boxes unopened throughout the weekend. Indeed, a box of dead cats is a Monday Problem if there ever was one.

Eberhard thanked the Twitterverse for “going on that journey” with her lab. The journey and associated humor were probably a welcome distraction from the fact that her lab still lacks the supplies it needs to conduct research experiments.

It is likely that the mishap is an absurd side-effect of the current national plastic shortage due to the U.S. Defense Production Act. This action was initiated by the U.S. government last April to allocate “health resources” (e.g., lab grade plastic used for the conical flasks) for COVID testing supplies.

In addition to the 50 mL conicals, other essential lab products have been backordered for months including plastic pipette tips. These tips are used to transfer small aliquots of liquid between various tubes and solutions during experiment. Both the conicals and pipette tips are as essential to an experiment as measuring cups and spoons are for a tricky recipe.

Hopefully the plastic shortage will end, research can resume its steady pace toward progress, and this cat-atrophic mixup will be a terribly strange memory of the Pandemic Years.

NPR Morning Edition recently discussed the plastic shortage. Click here to listen.

I have a thesis defense date!

March 30, 2021

It’s official: I have a defense date scheduled for August 10 at 11 am. MARK YOUR CALENDARS, FRIENDS! Also hit me up for that Zoom link. The buildup to this has been pretty stressful, so I am ecstatic that is worked out and I get to leave.

Before August 10, I have to write a thesis — specifically, I turn it in July 6! The average PhD thesis is around 75,000 words. The task is pretty daunting, but I have a strategy to tackle it. Basically, I will write about 15,000 words of introduction, about the same for a discussion, and my two papers will go in between. Older graduate students in my program have called the strategy, “the sandwich method.”

After I write and defend, my next step is a move to Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. My partner has accepted a job at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is AWESOME and I am so freakin’ proud. On my end, I aspire (dream) to become a science journalist that covers environmental health news and toxicology. I have accepted that I might not be able to get there right out of the gate, so I have been casting a wide net with my job applications and career search. I have applied for science communication multimedia fellowships and toxicology consulting and risk assessment positions. Additionally, this week I am meeting with some mentors to *gulp* inquire about post-docs. Ideally the post docs would be at the National Toxicology Program or NIEHS, and have an obvious public-health focus and maybe even value science communication and outreach. Does such a specific post-doc exist?! I have no idea. Hopefully time (and the right contacts) will tell.

At work, my main responsibilities have shifted from laboratory work, writing, and extracurricular activities to mainly writing all day, every day. Honestly, thank GOODNESS because 1) I love to write/edit and 2) I have gotten to the point in my PhD where I want to bang my head against the black Masonite benchtop every other day. Apparently, that level of frustration is a good indication that a student is ready to leave.

Another indication is a publication record.

I published my first first-author manuscript in Toxicology last fall, which is the unwritten base-requirement (in addition to completing coursework and maintaining good academic standing) to graduate from my program. However, my advisor wanted a second first-author publication from me before he would let me go.

At first, I was basically like “heck no this is dumb and I am tired” but in slightly more articulate and professional language, of course. Eventually (and begrudgingly), I acquiesced. While I’m proud of myself for doing it, I must credit a supportive committee member who gave me the tough love I needed to “just write the damn paper and get out.” In a three week span, I pivoted from an obstinate stance against writing the paper at all, to having the first draft completed and sent to my advisor.

That draft has been sitting in his inbox for over a week now, but it’s not productive to dwell…

Anyway, I’m really proud of myself for setting my mind to something and just doing it, even though I very much did not want to. I’m leaving out a lot of details, such as panic attacks and angsty walks to work. In any case, please trust me when I say that my experience with the second paper is pretty emblematic of the grind of a PhD: it can be mentally grueling.

Now would be an opportune time to say something along the lines of, “if it was any other way, everyone would do it.” Approximately 2% of the U.S. population has a PhD, according to Inside Higher Ed. Sure, a small fraction of people in general complete the PhD. Here’s a thought: what if we made it less mentally grueling?! Surely more people would have a PhD. Why is that such a bad thing? I digress. This is definitely a topic for a future post.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to joining a tiny nerd-guild of Toxicologists in the very near future.

Methylmercury pollution is a problem – can Hollywood help?

January 29, 2021

The story of the world’s worst methylmercury poisoning disaster comes to the screen in February. The film, Minamata stars Johnny Depp as American photojournalist, W. Eugene Smith, whose work publicized the disaster in Minamata, Japan. Hopefully the film will renew public interest in mercury pollution, which remains a major threat to global public health.

(Warning – spoiler alert) The movie is set in Minamata in 1971, where Smith and his wife, Aileen, visited the small coastal fishing village for a journalistic expedition. The pair learn how Minamata and surrounding towns were ravaged by methylmercury water pollution from the chemical factory owned by Chisso Corporation. Smith captures the tragedy on his camera, which leads to an infamous eight-page spread in Life Magazine in 1972. Based on the trailer, centerpiece of the film is likely to be Smith creating this photospread.

The photos captured emotional scenes of the distorted, frail bodies of poisoning victims. To implicate Chisso, Smith sequentially arranged the photos: shots of factory wastewater followed by people fishing to explain the exposure, and lastly images of physically crippled victims in their daily life.

Left: Industrial waste from the Chisso Chemical company. Middle: Fishermen in Minamata Bay. Right: Tomoko Uemura is bathed by her mother. Photo credit: W. Eugene Smith.

Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxicant, a poisonous substance that causes brain damage. In the case of methylmercury, the damage is permanent. With high levels of exposure, such as those at Minamata, the brain damage results symptoms akin to cerebral palsy: erratic, uncoordinated movements and cognitive impairment.

A peculiar attribute of methylmercury is that it accumulates in fish tissue. Even small amounts in the environment can lead to extraordinarily high levels in fish. Thus, people who ate fish from the bay in Minamata were poisoned. Chisso stopped dumping wastewater in 1968, but hundreds of Japanese had already been crippled or killed by the poison. To date, approximately 3,000 victims been officially recognized, according to a recent report in the Japan Times.

Dr. John O’Donoghue, toxicologic neuropathologist based in Rochester, New York, first learned of Minamata after seeing Smith’s photo spread in Life Magazine many years ago. “One particular black and white photo has stayed in my mind ever since,” he said. “It was a picture of a woman who was bathing her crippled daughter with such care and tenderness – the child was precious to her.” In Smith’s photobook, Let Truth Be the Prejudice, the photo is called “Tomoko Uemura is bathed by her mother,” and is also pictured above.

Dr. Celia Chen, director of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program, was similarly struck by the same photo. “Seeing the degree of physical impact of a toxin through the environment was really sobering,” she said. “It was painful and inspiring as well – there are so many emotions with the photograph.”

The story of Minamata is powerful, but Dr. Chen stressed that the poisoning event was distinct from most mercury exposures. “Minamata was like a punch to the gut,” she said. Chen explained that the more subtle low-level exposures experienced most often today can still be dangerous. The most sensitive populations to methylmercury are unborn babies, who are exposed through contaminated seafood eaten by the mother. While all fish contain some level of mercury, the most concerning are large predatory species like swordfish, tuna, and shark; these are the ones clinicians advise pregnant mothers to avoid. Another way to protect the next generation is by reducing the amount of mercury in fish to begin with. For this reason, international limits on mercury emissions are crucial.

Indeed, the international Minamata Convention of Mercury was formed limit mercury emissions into the environment. According to Chen the Minamata Convention “is like the Treaty of Paris for carbon emissions.” Italy joined the Convention on January 5, 2021, bringing the total number of participating nations to 127.

Chen said that coal fire-power plants have the highest mercury emissions in the U.S. In order to regulate power plant mercury emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in 2012. Chen explained that the MATS rule helps the U.S. meet commitments under the Minamata Convention.

The MATS rule has helped substantially reduce mercury emissions. According to EPA data, mercury emissions from the U.S. coal-fire power plants have declined by 85% from 92,000 pounds in 2006 to 14,000 pounds in 2016. Additionally, the estimated number of children born in the U.S. each year with pre-natal exposure to methylmercury levels exceeding the EPA reference dose has decreased by half.

Despite such progress, the EPA recently stepped back from its commitment to reduce mercury emissions.  On April 16, 2020, the Agency deemed that it is not, “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and other hazardous pollutants from coal-fired power plants under section 112 of the Clean Air Act. According to legal scholars, this decision undermines the foundation of the MATS rule and invites challenges to mercury emissions standards.

While the Biden administration is likely to consider more stringent environmental regulations, it’s noteworthy that our new President neglected to include coal-fired power plants in his January 27th executive order limiting emissions (coal leasing) on federal lands.

Nevertheless, movies like Minamata can help people take notice of important environmental issues surrounding mercury. Public awareness and understanding of such issues can help protect the next generation from the health threats of methylmercury.

Researchers who study mercury today such as Chen, O’Donoghue, and myself are hopeful that the public reception of the film will be similar to that of prior historical dramas with an environmental interest. In the 1984 film, Silkwood, Meryl Streep brought a story of corporate negligence and plutonium radiation toxicity into the public eye. Mark Ruffalo did so more recently for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Dark Waters.

As Chen succinctly put it, These kinds of movies, whether on mercury or PFAS, are so important because the public will go see a movie and gain interest. Movies can be an on-ramp for people to care about important environmental issues.”

A new era

January 20, 2021

“The best social program is a job,” reads a sticker on a garbage bin at the curb of my parent’s driveway. The sticker pays homage to Roland Reagan, 40th president of the United States. I’ve never known their intention for putting the sticker there.

In 2016, and again leading up to 2020, I learned the extent of my folks’ conservatism. As dyed in the wool Republicans, they will throw their support behind any candidate the Party puts forth. Ironically, they claim to have voted for Donald Trump because he, “was not a party politician.”

I don’t think people throw their support behind a candidate based solely their beliefs. Reagan also once said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” Yes, really.

Like many other people my age, the political polarization in America has elevated the tension in my family. I don’t understand it at all. I’m reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein, American political journalist. Klein has studied politics for over 20 years, so hopefully his expertise can help me come up with some more ideas.

In the meantime, I don’t think my familial rift will dissipate any time soon. The current climate is tense, but I remain optimistic that personal relationships will heal. I hope that the whole nation will come together again. I’m feeling especially hopeful today, on inauguration day.

As I write this, Joe Biden is being inaugurated as 46th president of the United States with his wife Dr. Jill Biden as the new First Lady. Kamala Harris, a black woman of Indian heritage will make history as the first female VP. This is a huge moment in history; the glass ceiling is breaking!! Unfortunately half of America is petrified that the shards will fall on them. Half of Americans have intentionally distanced themselves from their progressive neighbors, and maybe that means they face more discomfort in the coming years.

VP Kamala Harris being sworn in via FB page of Biden Inaugural Committee

If slight discomfort for a privileged few means that more Americans than ever before have a shot at a better life, I think it’s worth it.

I’m looking forward to America rejoining the Paris Agreement. I’m looking forward to consistent and unequivocal public messaging on the Coronavirus. I’m looking forward to leadership that trusts science rather than scoffs at it. I’m looking forward to a (slow) return public trust in journalists. I’m looking forward to a foreign policy that makes me feel safer and does not rely on scapegoat tactics. There’s just so much to look forward to for the first time in a while.

I’m hopeful and optimistic. Plus, I just got a Twitter notification that there is a new @WhiteHouse account #finally. Whatever the medium or platform, I trust the new president to follow through and be the leader we desperately need right now.

Also check this out: “Biden is now president. Here’s what he wants to do in office” https://www.vox.com/22237275/joe-biden-inauguration-policy-build-back-better

“To live together and work together. That’s how I see America. That’s how I see the presidency, and that’s how I see the future.” – Joe Biden in October 2020, inspired by FDR

(Post-grad) races:

May 29, 2017: Buffalo Half Marathon — 1:29:53

October 14, 2017: Empire State Marathon — 3:31:38

May 5, 2018: Taco de Mile — 00:7:30  

May 27, 2018: Buffalo Marathon — 3:18:36

September 23, 2018: Rochester Half — 1:34:30

October 6, 2018: Castle Rock, CO Trail Half-Marathon — 1:55:17

January 4, 2020: Winter Warrior half marathon — 1:33:37

March 1, 2020: Publix Atlanta Marathon — 3:10:28

June 28, 2020: Probably Humid But Still Cool Covid-19 Marathon — 3:27

November 10, 2021: Dirt Cheap Trail Stage Race day 1 (3 miles): 27:23

November 11, 2021: Dirt Cheap Trail Stage Race day 2 (5.5 miles): 39:01:41

November 12, 2021: Dirt Cheap Trail Stage Race day 3 (11 miles): 1:38:51

November 21, 2020: Turk-a-thon Marathon — 3:19:30 (ish)

May 23, 2021: Lilac 10k — 41:19

Female fruit flies expect great love songs

December, 2020
Have you ever wished your partner would treat you to a sweet serenade? If you’re a fruit fly, you don’t just wish for it, you expect it. A team of researchers at Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus recently mapped out the neural networks that underlie female response to a potential mate’s song.

How to woo a female fruit fly

If a male fruit fly successfully woos a receptive female, the pair will mate. To entice his partner, the male fly “sings” by extending a wing and vibrating it to produce an acoustic signal. The fly song consists of two repeating verses: brief trains of shrill tones followed by continuous soft hums. Previously, the researchers had uncovered the neural networks behind the male’s courtship song, but how the female perceives the melody was largely unknown.

In the new paper, the team investigated how the female fruit fly brain integrates the song to respond to a potential suitor. If she accepts the advance, her vaginal plates will open to allow mating. The team found that female receptivity depends not only on a good male performance, but also on the intrinsic mating status of the female.

Brain circuitry

Inside the female fruit fly brain, the right song is transduced into sensory information, which feeds to a special class of neurons and integrates with information from a second set of neurons. The second set of neurons conveys information about the mating status of the female. In response to a male song or mating status, both sets of neurons will produce a series of “stop” or “go” signals that eventually connect to the muscles of the vaginal plate. If the female has not yet mated, and if she “hears” a good enough song, the neuronal circuitry in her brain will produce a net “go” signal to the vaginal plate muscles. The vaginal plate will then open to allow mating. Alternatively, if she’s not satisfied, she will reject the male.

The researchers used a series of elegant genetic and physical manipulations of transgenic female flies to establish the relationships between different neuron types and vaginal plate opening. Using genetic tricks (GAL4/UAS and optogenetics) analogous to operating a molecular switchboard, the researchers determined in what context neurons will fire in response to a male song or mating status, as well as where these signals integrate.

Removing the aristae

The team physically removed the “hearing” organs of the female flies, the aristae, or the wings of the male flies. In each case, they observed that neurons which respond to male song did not fire in a pattern that normally leads to the vaginal plate opening response.

Additionally, the song of a different species of fly could not woo the female.

These experiments showed how crucial it is for the female to perceive the right male’s song. The researchers also established that the receptivity of the female was governed by whether or not she had previously mated.

In other words, if a female fly “hears” the right song from the right male, and has not previously mated, she’s DTF.

Maps to set the mood

In certain conditions, the male sang and sang, but to no avail. The female would not open her vaginal plates. The team synthesized information of these particular experimental conditions to assemble a map of the neural pathway that governs female fly receptivity to sex. The paper is important because it establishes how three components of a fundamentally important mating behavior are wired together as a unit.

While the paper is fun to read (who doesn’t like learning about fruit fly sex?!), it’s important to understand the big picture of this research.

Understanding neural circuity behind female sexual receptivity in the fruit fly may help us better understand signal processing that influences behavioral decisions across a range of species, including humans.

The female fruit fly maintains high standards for a love song; she turns down potential suitors that can’t hit the right tune. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s probably good to set the bar the high to get the best partners.

Keep your standards high, ladies and gents.

“If I cannot fly, let me sing” – Stephen Sondheim (American Composer)

Link to the original paper, published in the November issue of Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2972-7#Sec2