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

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

Quitting the PhD: when you could and why you shouldn’t

November 12, 2020

The challenges that face PhD students in science programs are frequent and often seem insurmountable. When faced with obstacles, is it better to just quit? Spoiler alert — NO! Its not!

Approximately a quarter of graduate students in science or engineering PhD programs in the U.S. will quit within 3 years of matriculation, according to data gathered by the Council of Graduate Schools. Moreover, of the estimated 24,165 graduate students in U.S. natural science doctoral programs, 6,041 will not defend their thesis to earn a PhD.

There are numerous reasons why quitting may be appropriate or inappropriate. Ultimately, the decision to throw in the towel (or not) is extremely personal.

Anecdotally, I have heard that the main reasons for quitting a PhD in the natural sciences include losing interest in the research, wishing to pursue a different passion, and feeling disheartened by academia. These are all totally understandable reasons, and I have felt them too.

There are other struggles, too. Personally, I sometimes think my experimental design is such a mess that my research is not going to help the world in a meaningful way. Every now and then, I consider the possibility that I am only in a PhD program by some fortuitous combination of personal fraud and admissions committee error. Additionally, I often worry that my future career will not require my high level of education. These feelings have certainly been exacerbated by the mental toll of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, but they had existed before March 2020.

Nevertheless, I won’t quit, and I argue against quitting a PhD in general.

The pandemic will be over, eventually. In the meantime, there is no shame in struggling during these uniquely stressful times, or ever, actually. Change is really hard, and it’s OK to struggle. Pandemic aside, the process of a PhD involves constant changes: moving to a new city, rotating in different laboratories, joining a lab and moving to a new office, forming relationships with your committee members, working through summers, and a revolving door of lab members, to name a few.

While we (usually) can’t control the changes, we can control how we respond to the changes. My thoughts of quitting partially stem from my responses to change: being supportive versus resistant of the changes experienced in academia influence my mood/outlook, which in turn influence how often the thought of quitting occurs.

PPT - Positive Response to Change PowerPoint Presentation, free download -  ID:476522
Personal responses (supportive to resistant) to change (in general) in academia over time

I’m usually in a pretty good mood and want to keep on keeping on, but I have periods of doubt that basically correspond to whenever there is a change. Indeed, I’ve felt the urge to call my advisor and hang up my lab-coat many times over the past few months, but I will not. The doubt will pass. I will defend my thesis sometime in the next two years.

Overcoming this whole mess, and emerging with a PhD is essential for me, and other candidates. Although the degree represents the contribution of new knowledge to the world about a (very specific) problem, the educational process is the most meaningful part. A PhD is an endurance event — basically a marathon. The finish is great, but the race itself is where you learn and grow against a backdrop of constant change.

Sticking it out and holding steady through the “race” is tough. However, like endorphins for a runner, the benefits of a PhD journey increase as you go on. During my PhD so far, I have become educated in much more than Toxicology. I’ve learned how to be kind yet constructive, that PI’s are just people, and that my to-do list is never too long for a run (and other means of self-care!). I want to continue to learn more while I can, so I will stick around. But not too long!

The decision to leave or stay is personal, and I realize I have certain privileges (I don’t have children, I have more free time, etc…) that enable me to make this decision more easily. Nevertheless, should “the benefits of the process” not be a sufficient reason for you to stay, I offer some others:

  1. You worked too hard to get here to quit now.
  2. The effort you have previously put in will amount to a degree that opens doors to subsequent opportunities
  3. You may inspire others to pursue a PhD
  4. By struggling, you have gained experience that you may share with mentees you can guide and help
  5. You CAN do it — anything worth doing is difficult — If it were easy, everyone would have a PhD!
    • Indeed, 2% of the United States population has a PhD., according to US Census Bureau data from 2019.

Although I urge you to stay rather than quit, spending time in a PhD program means you learned something about yourself, and made an informed decision.

“At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are, and you know what you want.” – Lao-Tzu (604 – 531 BC)

Have you thought about quitting? What are your thoughts on the process of getting a PhD? What made it worthwhile for you?

Bike to work in the winter (!/?)

October 21, 2020

Bicycles flew off the shelves in the early phases of the pandemic to provide exercise and anxiety relief to many. The weeks went on, and employees slowly returned to work – many by bike! Now that winter is fast approaching, the feasibility of the bike-to-work commute is called into question.

One serendipitous outcome of the COVID19 pandemic is that many people have discovered they can easily commute to work by bike, and reap the benefits. Riding a bicycle for just 20 minutes a day — a very reasonable length of time for a commute — has tremendous benefits for long-term personal health. The reduced carbon-footprint from not driving a car is also a plus.

For those who commute to the University of Rochester Medical Center (e.g. me, and hundreds of others), which is the largest employer of Rochester, biking to work also means not having to deal with parking and vehicle traffic. The Erie Canal, Greenway Trail, and Genesee River Trail provide a way for people living in various areas to get directly to the Medical Center. Bike commuters can smugly zip past the horrendous parking situation in Lot 1 on a regular workday, and head straight for the bike rack located right outside the University doors.

The aforementioned benefits of commuting by bike don’t necessarily go away with the warm weather. When the snow comes, certain trails are plowed and salted, just as the roadways. Although, many year-round bike commuters think that there is better traction on the non-plowed surfaces.

Timothy Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Rochester succinctly explained that, ”it’s not a big deal, as long as you’re not a little bitch.”*

*note- he is joking, obviously. But really, it’s not as terrible as one might think!

In preparation for his first Rochester winter, Anderson opted to purchase a fat-tire bike, which has more contact with the ground, thus can provide more traction. Additionally, many local bike stores in Rochester can help “winterize” your current bike. This entails switching out standard slick tires for studded tires. The stores can also provide you with flashers and lights, as rush hours in the winter are especially dark.

In my opinion, fenders are the most important equipment for your winterized bike. In addition to snow, winter douses the roads with a wet mixture of slush, salt, and dirt. Fenders prevent the rear wheel spinoff from lining your back and butt with dirt lines.

Fenders are also a must for the rainy season that precedes winter (i.e. right now). I have been riding in the rain this week and it has not been super great. Installing my fenders this weekend will be a welcome update!

Alternatively, you can forgo fenders and bring a change of clothes each day to work. This is what I have been doing. My PI, who also bikes to work, employs this strategy as well.

Indeed, biking to work throughout the harsh Rochester winter isn’t impossible. Should commuting in the winter seem feasible for you, perhaps your current motor vehicle is due for a more unconventional trade-in.

Misuse Of Acronyms is Not Stellar (MOANS)

August 23, 2020

I feel like I’m generally able to roll with the obscurities and absurdities that plague academia. Average of 21 years from PhD to full-professor status in Toxicology? Fine, I won’t think about it. Lack of eye-care in my student health-insurance package? No problem; my outdated prescription doesn’t mean I’m blind (yet)! Non-employee student status that prevents me from saving for retirement (or unionizing)? Probably unfair, but it’s not productive to dwell.

However, one thing I cannot brush off is the confusion that surrounds acronyms in academia. We use acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms to communicate faster; unfortunately, this does not necessarily mean that their use helps us communicate better. My main qualm is that I think that having so many acronyms in science makes it confusing to convey meaning across disciplines because acronyms can be mis-used to impede communication.

My favorite example of this is “MHC.” If you’re talking among biologists or schmoozing the histology core staff, MHC is understood as, “myosin heavy chain.” However, if you’re an immunologist or medical professional – your first thought might be “major histocompatibility complex.” And if you’re checking your student health insurance coverage, you may want to make sure your “mental health counselor” is still free due to COVID.

I’m pretty stuck on student health insurance issues lately… can you tell?

A recent eLife meta-analysis of the growth of acronyms in science found that acronym use is going up and acronym re-use is going down. It also suggested that journals which have policies that prohibit acronym use in the title do not enforce that rule.

The authors of the meta-analysis analyzed 24,873,372 titles and 18,249,091 abstracts published between 1950 and 2019, from which they observed over 1.1 million unique acronyms.

Introducing new acronyms so often while not using existing ones creates an alphabet-soup of terms in literature repositories (e.g. PubMed) that scientists and interested readers have to sift through. Furthermore, it is unlikely that one can completely evade this by limiting a search to titles. I want to clarify that I’m not against the use of acronyms; I oppose their misuse/abuse. The aforementioned level of acronym mis-use bugs the crap out of me.

Devil’s advocate: Given a fluent reader of the same language and discipline, acronyms certainly help scientists and writers rapidly convert print to meaning by reducing wordiness. The abstract in my most recent publication had a total of 25 acronyms or abbreviations; I would be WAY over the allotted word-count without their assistance.

Acronyms also help us wrangle long, unruly, and sometimes overly-quirky gene names. As someone who studies Drosophila, I’m familiar with (and partial to) an ensemble of whimsical gene names. They are more often referred to by their more digestible abbreviations: Multiple edematous wings (mew), kon-tiki (kon), son of sevenless (sos), held out wings (how), to name a few. Interestingly, some researchers have recently changed the names of genes in order to avoid issues when reading data sets in Microsoft Excel. The most obvious conclusion is that they should have been using Drosophila for their research…

I’m also partial to charismatic acronyms that I come across outside of the Drosophila community, which I want to share:

  • McSELFIE: McGill Self-Efficacy of Learners for Inquiry Engagement
  • GANDALF: Genetic variation and Altered Leucocyte Function
  • BEAVER: Biodeasel Exhaust, Acute Vascular and Endothelial Responses
  • PENIS: Proton Enhanced Nuclear Induction Spectroscopy

*courtesy of Academia Obscura.*

Although acronym misuse bugs me, I acknowledge it’s a moot point; researchers usually need to convey their point in print in as few characters as possible.

Nevertheless, scientists around the world need to be able to effectively communicate across disciplines to solve some of the greatest problems we face such as climate change, pollution, food insecurity, and infectious disease (#covid19). If we’re really in favor of increased efficiency, we should focus on improving interdisciplinary collaborations by communicating better, not faster.

Here are some propositions for how to communicate better:

1) Maintain consistent acronym use in a given field. Example: if an acronym exists in your field, resist the urge to create a new one. I suspect this is often done for the sake of personal branding.

2) Define the acronym once in each part of a manuscript: abstract, intro, result, discussion AND figure legends. It will require dedicated space in that precious word count, sure.

3) During oral presentations, speak the full phrase at least twice before using the acronym.

4) During oral presentations, refrain from using acronyms that have the same number of syllables as the phrase (e.g. “SC” for “stem cell” both have two, and it bothers me when I hear this acronym. However, “HUCAPS” for “Harvard Ultra-fine Concentrated Ambient Particle System” makes much sense).

5) Hire someone to communicate science. In academia, we wear SO many hats (teacher, researcher, mentor, writer, speaker, graphic designer, etc). Be comfortable seeking professional help with the one that makes your science accessible to the rest of humanity.

“You can’t take over the world without a good acronym.”

-C.S. Woolley, UK author

First-time blood donation

July 24, 2020

Two weeks ago, I donated blood to the Red Cross for the first time. The decision was pretty abrupt TBH; I downloaded the app and made an appointment using my iPhone on a random Friday evening. Tim glanced up from his card game with our friend Matt to ask what I was doing, to which I replied, “signing up to give blood.”

I’d been feeling intrinsic pressure to donate because I was under the impression that I had precious O-negative “universal-donor” blood. I’m not sure where this personal health note originated, but it had been implanted in my mind and regarded as truth until I checked the Red Cross donor app after my donation:

Turns out it’s LITERALLY in my blood to be obnoxiously optimistic. Dang.

Giving blood, even amidst a pandemic, was straightforward. The whole process took an hour, and that’s primarily because I was chit-chatting a lot with the phlebotomist Elisa, and the nurse. They were great. One underrated reason to love these health care professionals (HCP) is that they compliment you in ways many don’t.

HCP: You have BEAUTIFUL veins!

Me: Awe, shucks!

Or, my personal favorite:

HCP: Your heart rate is very low- you must exercise pretty regularly!

Thanks, running.

Which reminds me – running has unfortunately taken a hit following the donation.

Losing one pint of blood for the donation, plus additional vials for the complementary COVID19 antibody test, has meant I have significantly less RBC’s circulating. I may have registered to give blood with serum hemoglobin levels of 14.5 g/dL (as a vegetarian😉!), but I have felt a bit “off” in the days following the donation. I’ve slept-in almost every day since, and my runs have been noticeably more challenging. It’s really fascinating though – I’m astonished by the impact that losing only 10% of my blood volume has had on my constitution and peppiness.

Perhaps I should have taken the admonitions to refrain from exercise a bit more seriously?  nah.

As a child of the 21st century – I obviously Googled my experience immediately. I learned that the sluggishness I feel on runs will pass; I expect to feel up to workouts again this week or next! I also expect to give blood in September, since RBC’s need 120 days to regenerate!

I’m looking forward to running some workouts again. I’m not training for anything per-se, but I think workouts are fun (…type II fun), and I like how strong and confident I can feel during them. I want to build up some strength and confidence as I enter my 4th year of graduate school in August & start the new academic year.

One last thing: The Red Cross website has a really awesome site with interactive graphics and fun facts about different blood types and info about donations. I pulled some of tid-bits for those of you who don’t want to venture off platform:

  • Blood types are determined by different sugar and protein molecules on your red blood cells (RBCs)
  • The “+” and “-” refer to the presence or absence of protein called the Rh factor.
  • The rarest blood type is type AB-
  • The most common blood type is O+
  • About 9% of the population has B+ blood (like me!), but the site can break it down further to compare how it relates to the whole U.S. population:
Photo credit: Red Cross
  • The universal RBC donor has type O – blood
  • The universal plasma donor has type AB blood
  • Red cells can be stored for up to 42 days.
  • For a short time, the Red Cross is testing all blood donations for the presence of COVID19 antibodies — this is “the antibody test.” Learn more.
    1. I am negative.
  • You can track what happens to your donated blood after the donation using the app or this website!
  • The implication that blood type A+ is prognostic for COVID19 has recently been dispelled by researchers at HMS in Boston. If you are curious about this you can venture off platform by clicking the hyperlinks:
    1. You can read the original article on pubmed.
    2. You can read the press-release on the study, too.

“Starve the mosquitoes; give blood.” – Anonymous

(Un)healthy competition I.

June 21, 2020

The notion of “healthy competition” relates to my experience as both a graduate student and a runner. In fact, there may actually be too many parallels, because I’ve been struggling to write this post for a while! Basically, my issue has been choice-paralysis between two different ideas that I couldn’t seem to mesh together but couldn’t abandon. So, I ultimately stopped trying to force it, and instead created two posts, which are much more digestible.

Post #1:

I wanted to know how other people perceive their own competitiveness in the workplace and in athletics. I used Instagram’s poll feature to gage feelings of graduate students, toxicologists, and runners that follow the PhDistance Instagram account. The questions and results of the two-option questions are below:

Instagram’s poll-feature isn’t the most robust tool, sure, but it works!

Eighty-eight percent of respondents considered themselves competitive. I thought it would be higher, given the pool of people who answered. Moreover, the 12% who said “no” surprised me because they were NCAA competitors, Ph.D. candidates, academics, and current runners.

While the majority (58%) of respondents said they view competition with colleagues as “net positive”, it was more common see this response to competition among teammates (65% said “net positive”).

Perhaps people consider competition a mutually motivating force for group success, and maybe this is easier to digest if the team atmosphere is outside of work? Who knows! As a toxicologist, I’m not exactly outfitted properly to address these questions, empirically. If any psych/soc PhD’s are in the audience today, please stand up!!

However, also as a toxicologist, I am inclined (and find it amusing) to think of competition as a toxin; the mere existence of competition is not bad, but the dosage and context should probably be considered.

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”
Paracelsus.

Painting by Quentin Matsys

I was especially curious to see how people responded to feeling “inappropriately competitive with a colleague or teammate.” I plan to explain further in Post II, but here I will admit that observing 70% of respondents said “yes” was validating and made me feel less weird or wrong. I do wish that I had further separated that question by work versus on a team, but I’ll leave that for someone willing to use a more robust polling measure!! 😉 

I predict that poll would indicate more people feel inappropriately competitive at work than on a team. I think maybe it’s more comfortable for people to feel competitive during an athletic endeavor than at work. In either case, I think competition is a good thing, but obviously has to remain “healthy.”

The title of these (fraternal?) twin posts is “(un)healthy competition.” The second post- which contains the idea I was trying to force into this post — expands on what I think keeps competition healthy, and shares some personal stories of when that is lost.

Thanks for reading – stay tuned for the follow up!

Image taken from here.

On virtual poster presentations

May 22, 2020 (& June 6, 2020)

As any true academic, I procrastinated something important until the last minute. Someday, This will refer to grants I write or bigger deadlines I must meet, but for this post, it regards a poster competition.

I entered a virtual poster competition that offers CASH prizes for first ($500) and second($250). This is uncharacteristic for a University- sponsored award; the unrestricted money grants me the freedom to spend money on anything I want… probably something very important like rent, food, utility bills, or 1-2 dozen slap-chops.

I implore you to Wach this TV advertisement for commercial excellence…

The stipulations for the award are as follows: 1) The student had a conference cancelled due to COVID19, 2) The poster can be submitted via PDF and 3) the student presents the poster in a .mp4 recording. It seemed easy enough. I figured that it would take a half-hour of my time – tops. Which was good – because I (thought that I) had two hours until it was due.

However – it took me about twice that length. It’s surprisingly nerve-wracking to record yourself giving an academic presentation. It took a few tries to get it right! Below is a blooper from the first of 7 total trials:

Peak derp-level achieved.

While it’s unfortunate that I didn’t get to travel to California to present my research this year at the Society of Toxicology annual meeting, it’s even more unfortunate that I haven’t yet mastered Zoom recordings…🤷🏻‍♀️

I hope you took note of the aforementioned qualifier phrase, “thought that I had.” I was wrong about the May 22 deadline (when I began this post); the presentation and associated files are actually due today! However, I’m glad I finished it then, because today, I was too busy for a last-minute submission scurry. This afternoon, I headed downtown for a few hours of protest, in support the BLM movement with my Rochester community. 🖤✊

Which ostensibly points out…maybe procrastination isn’t a good M.O. to have…

Anyway, I hope y’all enjoy this post & thank you for reading! Wish me luck with the ACTUAL submission! 🙂😂🤷🏻‍♀️

PhDistance kneads PhDough

May 16, 2020

As y’all may have noticed, I’ve been using the new PhDistance Insta account to post wayyy more about bread than running or getting my PhD… #sorrynotsorry. I can’t help myself!

To keep up with that theme, this post is also about BREAD! In part, I want to throw some punches at that persistent stigma that carbohydrates are “bad.” The Atkins diet is one of many obtuse trends we should have left back in the 90’s. Unfortunately, the restrictive line of thought continues to permeate our culture today, including among runner folk. Admittedly, I too was hesitant to eat bread, convinced that I would balloon up:

How horrifying! (and also unrealistic!)

Fortunately, my outlook has shifted since graduating college. Bread and I are now great friends and do a lot of fun stuff together- mostly baking:

Sourdough, white bread, and biscuit trials!

Bread has also helped keep me entertained during the mandatory stay-at-home orders in NY state due to the COVID19 pandemic. Especially sourdough and documenting my adventures with it:

Checking the dough after 12 hour fermentation
Flouring the table
Kneading the dough- this one is off center- sorry!
Making the ball to place in the Dutch oven
Rise for 3 hours, bake for 1 hour- voila !

This loaf went to my friend, Jacquie, as a “thank you” for being a nurse during the pandemic. NURSES ARE TOUGH AF! 🏥❤️

With all the baking- I’ve gotten the chance to perfect my sourdough recipe, although I have certainly had a lot of failures along the way! And that’s OK- because the process is always fun! 💫🕺🏻

Importantly, I also accept bread as the dietary cornerstone that my body needs for its daily energetic demands. Training for marathons taxes my legs, and being a Ph.D. student taxes my brain. To replenish my mind and body, I maintain a diet that warmly welcomes Bread.

I feel great on my runs, satiated throughout the day, and have seen and felt an innumerable amount of other positive outcomes.

I began this post because I was really excited to share my most recent bread-making adventure with the world (or at least my small band of lovely followers!). Now, I find myself ending it with a somewhat preachy discussion. But then again, why is that so bad? Aren’t there a bunch of old dudes in pastel-colored robes going on and on about “the daily bread?” I’ve had their bread, and was unimpressed.

As it turns out, lots of people are pretty crazy about bread. American distance runner, Shelby Houlihan is known for her killer kick as well as affection for French bread.

The appropriate reward after (out-kicking Jenny Simpson and) winning the 1500m at the USATF Championships🥖

Also- Buzz Aldrin dined on bread and wine on the moon landing. My Ukrainian lab manager confirmed that in Russian, you can literally greet someone by shouting “bread and salt!” Amazing.

Because I haven’t yet made this post obnoxiously long, here are some more random bread facts I found:

  1. Sliced bread was only invented in 1928 and was referred to as the best thing since bagged bread.
  2. Feeding bread to ducks actually causes many health problems for them. – PLEASE DON’T FEED THE DUCKS BREAD 🦆❤️🙅🏻‍♀️🍞
  3. Ben Hawkey, the actor in Game of Thrones who plays Hotpie, opened his own bakery and sells Direwolf shaped bread.
  4. 1% of American’s have celiac disease, and approximately 6% that have gluten sensitivities. My heart goes out to them❤️
  5. When the buttered bread is right side up and dropped from a table, there’s an ~80% it will fall butter side down. This is because an average slice of buttered bread falling will complete a full turn in approx. 8 feet.

All right, not that we’re sufficiently annoyed, I can end this post!

But for real- thanks for reading this post to the end – I appreciate everyone who follows this blog & I hope it brightens your day! 💜I also hope that all who love bread never stop! 🍞💕

“There is not a thing that is more positive than bread.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky