"Normal" Is A Dryer Setting

Parenting A Child On The Autism Spectrum


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The Explorers

A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things. ~ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Lake Superior, Minnesota side

Lake Superior, Grand Marais, Minnesota

Last week I spent my lunch hour and beyond discussing my career path with the sweetest fourteen-year-old I have ever met. She will be starting high school this fall and is interested in a career in biomedical engineering. One of my coworkers had her tour our company for a day, meeting with people from different functions, to help her see what The Real World is like and hopefully glean some advice and guidance.

One question curious minds frequently ask me is how I got to where I am today in my career. The general assumption always seems to be that I made some kind of conscious effort or decision to move in a certain direction. I have moved, but not in a deliberate, well-planned-out-kind-of-way. Rather, during my time working in industry, I have gravitated toward where I am most comfortable. Here is a biology analogy to help explain:

No energy expenditure for me so far.

The sciencey explanation of my career path.

The cells of your body have different transport mechanisms to move molecules in and out. Active transport requires energy, which is ATP (thus the lightening bolt). Passive transport does not require energy, and molecules tend to move from higher to lower areas of concentration. If you think of a crowded party, active transport could be the host or hostess packing everyone into one corner like sardines. The diffusion form of passive transport is where people disperse themselves more evenly depending on where the food or music is. Facilitated diffusion would be where the host takes one or two people and moves them to another part of the room.

Diffusion allows molecules to go where they are most comfortable, where they would naturally be found in an environment. They stop moving when they reach an equilibrium, which is a state of balance. While all forms of transport in and out of a cell require movement, some expend more energy than others. There is also only so much energy to go around.

My energy for the past almost sixteen years has been used up exclusively in raising my son. While I enjoy my job and do my best every day, I have not performed extraordinary feats of energy expenditure to move up in the company. If I did, I would be exhausted, burned out, and not a good parent or role model. I do not tell people this, especially fourteen-year-old children who are just starting their careers, when I first meet them and they ask about my career path. I actually don’t mention this to my best friends. The only way people notice is by paying close attention to where my own attentions lie.

So if I don’t tell people that actively pushing myself forward in my career would have resulted in my becoming a perpetual Medusa day in and day out, what do I tell them?

Here it is.

I went to graduate school for cancer biology. When I had permission from my thesis committee to begin writing my thesis and look for jobs, here were my options:

1) Stay in academia. No way Jose. At the time, the NIH funding rate for grants was at a low of approximately 10%. That means that for every 1000 grants submitted, only 10 were being funded. As a single parent, there was no way I was going to take a chance on an academic career. Tenure at an academic institution is based largely on how many grants you have funded and how many publications you have in scientific journals, and the first five years can be rough. I knew if I went into academia I would have no time left over for my home life.

2) Teach at a liberal arts institution. This was a definite possibility, except that jobs are highly competitive and few and hard to find due to the fact that they are really good jobs. A liberal arts college or university usually has smaller class sizes, and as an instructor you have the opportunity to become closely involved with your students and in campus life. My last year of graduate school I taught Advanced Microbiology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and loved it. Several years later, I am still in touch with several of the students who were in my class. Since we were close in age when I taught them, they are now my friends.

3) Do a post-doctoral fellowship for the government. I interviewed for several NIH positions in several parts of the United States. If you want a post-doctoral fellowship that offers you a lot of career options upon finishing, I would highly recommend looking at the NIH. The military also has post-doctoral fellowships, and one of the perks about working on a base is that, as an employee, you may enjoy the same benefits the soldiers do. I almost went to work for the NIH, but then this happened….

4) Go into industry, which is what I did. My graduate school advisor told me repeatedly that this was a definite yes based on my personality and the way I worked in lab, but being who I am I didn’t listen to him. The way I got my industry position is also kind of a fluke, which has started to make me feel a bit guilty when trying to give other scientists advice on how to get into industry. One afternoon while filling out NIH applications, an email popped up in my inbox from my advisor. He had forwarded me a note from the chair of the department with a job opening in a local industrial corporation. On a whim I submitted my resume, and thank goodness the hiring manager couldn’t open it the first time because when I showed it to my advisor he freaked out and made me revise and resend it. When the hiring manager opened it the second time, he called me the next day to come interview for the position. I was one of four applicants, and I ended up being the person who got the job.

I didn’t get my industry job based on my scientific skill set. I was offered the job for two reasons:

  • First, I interviewed very well. Social skills, as I told my fourteen-year-old lunch companion, are critical to having a successful scientific career. You can be the most brilliant scientific mind in your field, but if you are unable to communicate both verbally and through writing and / or get along with your coworkers and / or represent your company in a professional manner and /or resolve conflict when it arises, and I promise you it will, forget the job offer.
  • Second, I was my advisor’s first graduate student. As the first graduate student, I had my choice of projects, which was wonderful. I also spent an inordinate amount of time helping get the lab set up and running. I trained most of the undergraduates, ran our facilities and ordered supplies when we were between technicians, and actually had a large say in the research direction the lab took based on how my thesis project shook out.

Now we are at the point where I am a cancer biologist working at an adhesives company. I have been at this company for almost a decade, and I have never once been in danger of losing my job, or if I have, no one told me about it. I always have more than enough projects to work on, and three of those have turned into actual products that our company sells. If I do happen to have a few slow weeks, the curious cat part of me starts noodling around with my coworkers to come up with new ideas. Sometimes I have a specific project to work on, but usually it’s more of a concept, a vision that someone has in his or her head. My job is to make it happen and dictate size, shape, color, smell, and so on. The best part of my job is that I learn something new every day.

I spent the first four years of my industrial career in lab, all the time, every day. I love working in lab. Cell culture is meditative to me, with all of the repetition and routine. Trying new procedures and tweaking old ones, such as ELISAs, are always fun. If you need things to work the first time, every time, lab may not be the right place for you to be. For me, however, a failed experiment meant one option crossed off the list and new avenues to explore. The best part is when you get a result and think to yourself, “Hmmm…this is…interesting.” And then the next experiment blossoms up in your mind.

The way I left lab was very circuitous and not something I planned. It was passive, not active. I was assigned as the technical lead on a major program for our group, and in addition to the lab work, I started organizing our weekly meetings. I also became the person who wrote the technical updates, made update slides in Powerpoint when our manager needed them, and putting together our project reviews. I made sure the team stayed on task, kept to our timeline, and maintained good communication with the product development part of our company. If this is sounding less and less like a techie position and more like Project Management, you are spot on. The best part was that I was unwittingly evolving into a Project Manager. A part of myself that I never knew existed had emerged.

After our team finished that project, I started looking around for something new to do and went back into lab. That lasted all of three months until my technical manager asked me to initiate a new platform. A platform consists of several inter-related products, so by saying yes to the request, I knew that I would be unofficially stepping out of my technical role and into a full time Project Management position. The caveat, however, is that the part of the company I was in rated the employees on technical accomplishments. There was no Project Management career path, only technical or supervisory. I believe in bringing my genuine, true, and honest self to every situation, however, so I began managing our platform. The best part was helping advance the careers of the scientists on my team and watching the project progress.

It all paid off because I was offered the job I have now for two reasons:

  • First, I have an excellent track record as a Project Manager, previously unrecognized as it may have been. My teams function well together. We communicate at all levels, from our summer interns up to our most important stakeholders. I figure out what my assigned scientists excel at and help them succeed in their own careers. The projects I manage stay organized, on schedule, and we deliver sound technologies that are able to be commercialized. I also do not fear conflict and try to use it to strengthen our team instead of letting it tear us apart.
  • Second, I am a risk taker. I do not always do what everyone else does, and often I go on my own way, about my own business, and keep time to my own music. This is not hostile, rebellious, or disrespectful on my part. It is simply part of who I am. I started performing a Project Management function because that is where I was able to offer the most support to my team. I have gone against the grain like this multiple times in my career, often in small ways. Sometimes it is noticed, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it does not. When taking a risk works in your favor, however, the results can be significantly life changing.

Now after over half a decade of Project Management under my belt, I am considering yet another transition into Technical Management. After being at my company for only two years, my supervisor at the time strongly encouraging me to go into Technical Management. I did not actively pursue that career path at the time because it felt like a forced fit. I wanted more time to be in the laboratory running experiments and figuring out where I fit in and what I wanted to do with my career. Now, years later, the opportunity for Technical Management has been offered to me again, and this time I am strongly considering taking it. The position is not something I sought out. It came to me because I have a strong network of coworkers throughout the company. Networking is a critical component of career success in any organization, and it isn’t always the quantity of people you know. Sometimes a few excellent connections is all it takes.

My fourteen-year-old left with a big smile on her face and shining eyes after we walked up from my building’s cafeteria through some of the labs on my floor. She saw her future unfolding before her, knowing that she had a lot of work and dedication to do to reach her goals. This is where all of the best parts of all of the bits and pieces of my career add up to one Big Beautiful Best Of Everything – watching a fledgling scientist dip her toes in the water and wonder what lies on the other side of the shore.

 

 


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The Yorkshire Pudding

People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves. ~ Paulo Coelho

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether something is genuinely difficult to do or whether it’s all in your head. All in your head, in my experience, is usually due to a lack of knowledge.

I have been hearing about the gloriousness of Yorkshire Puddings for almost half a decade now from Daniel. How they are the perfect accompaniment to roast beef. How they are one of the few recipes his mother, not being a baker, bakes from scratch. How he hasn’t had one in years.

When Merlin’s Rest Pub recently added Mini-Yorkshire Puddings to their already delicious menu, I decided to give them a go one day for lunch. The idea Merlin’s has is to combine a roast dinner into a small plate, so the pudding comes out with a bit of roast beef in the middle and a gravy on the side. On first bite I realized that A) Yorkshire puddings are indeed really good and B) these can’t be that difficult to make.

Last weekend I was making a roast dinner at Daniel’s house and decided to look up Yorkshire Pudding recipes. After pulling up a few recipes online, I flounced out into the front room where Daniel was plopped in front of the TV and said

Me: “This is one of the strangest recipes I have ever seen.”

Daniel: “Why?”

Me: “What is WITH YOU PEOPLE? This is nothing more than pancake batter that you bake in the oven. What do think you are, German?”

Daniel: “Well all I know is it tastes good.”

Me: “Hmph. How is this supposed to rise?”

Daniel: “It’s not that difficult to make.”

Me: “Not according to the websites I found…”

Daniel (interrupting): “You and your bloody websites……………………….”

Me (interrupting back): “…It just seems that there is a very specific way of making Yorkshire Puddings. I’ll figure it out.”

I discovered Yorkshire Puddings are quite easy to make. Here is how my first attempt turned out.

Puffy Yorkshire Pudding.

Fantabulous Yorkshire Pudding.

Hungry now? Here is the recipe I used:

Makes four individual puddings, or one big one.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • Two eggs

Measure the flour into a bowl. Make a small well in the middle, as if you are making pasta, and crack the eggs into the well. Mix the eggs in to make a stiff dough. Next, pour in the milk and mix until the batter thins out. Take a whisk or a fork and whip the batter for a full minute or until you feel as if your arm is going to fall off. Let the batter rest for at least one hour, during which you may choose to take a bubble bath, play with your children, or drink a glass of wine. Or play with your children in a bubble bath while drinking a glass of wine – your call. Anyway, when you are ready to bake the puddings, preheat your oven to 425°F. I use wide-mouthed jam jars to make the individual puddings. You can also use a muffin or popover tin, but remember that your puddings are going to puff up. Mine stay puffed up due to cooking them in glass instead of metal because Daniel does not own proper bakeware. Anyway, when the oven is heated, pour about 1 tablespoon oil in the bottom of each jar, enough so it’s coated, then place the jars in the oven for a few minutes. You want the jar and the oil to be HOT or else your pudding won’t rise well. When your jars are hot, remove them from the oven and evenly distribute the batter. The batter should sizzle a little when you pour it in. Bake your puddings for about 20 minutes, and DO NOT open the oven for at least the first 15 minutes. At 20 minutes, give them a peek to see if they are done. They should definitely be done by 30 minutes. Serve deliciously smoking hot with roast beef, potatoes, and gravy. I also serve them with roast chicken since I am a Yankee and don’t know any better.

This is not the recipe verbatim that I found on the internet. I ended up combining two recipes, one from the BBC’s Food Website and the other from a woman who posted how her mum used to make the puddings. The ingredients, carbs, fat, sugar, and protein, are incredibly basic, which is why I was incredulous at how the puddings would rise. The only way I knew what to do was from previous experience. I have been cooking, for better or for worse, since I was ten years old, so even though this was my first time through the recipe, I instinctively knew what produce a good end result.

The short list of tips for a successful Yorkshire pudding include:

  • Whip the batter a lot until you see it begin to foam.
  • Let the batter rest for about a hour.
  • Make sure your oil is hot when you pour the batter in.
  • Don’t open the oven door (RESIST THE URGE) for at least 15 minutes. Peering in through the viewing window in your oven door is, of course, permitted.

That’s it. When I brought Daniel’s supper out to him, he gave the Yorkshire Pudding a little stare. I asked him if it looked right, and he said yes. Then out of the corner of my eye I watched him take his knife and fork and cut into it like he was judging a cooking show. He took a bite, and I could tell that it tasted like something good that he hadn’t had in a long time. He saved one little bit of the pudding for his last bite, so it would be the final taste of supper.

The key to a successful pudding, however, is found in previous experience. Supper turned out due to a little research on my part and a lot of having-been-there-before with baking various flour-based concoctions in the oven. People all over the world have been baking for thousands of years, and Yorkshire Puddings are centuries old. Only having eaten one, I had to make an educated guess about how to make the recipe from scratch.

Interestingly enough, I am also reading a book by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee called The Emperor Of All Maladies. This book is a history of cancer, and it is a most intriguing read for people from all walks and professions of life, not just the cancer researchers. Cancer seems to be treated by popular media as a recent disease that emerged in the past century. The truth, however, is that cancer has been around for much, much longer than that, with the oldest surviving description written on papyrus in 1600 B.C. Physicians over the eons have tried everything under the sun to treat patients with cancer, even before they had a clear idea of what the disease actually was. As with the Yorkshire Pudding, these physicians built on both previously recorded cases and their own life experiences to advance their knowledge one step at a time. Even in our modern day and age, there are still some cancers which are not well understood and for which there is no cure. On the bright side, however, there has been a dramatic increase in cancer survival rates and prevention within the past two decades.

I have been reading (me and my websites again) that, as cancer was dubbed the disease of the previous century, autism may be for this one. First of all, autism is not a disease. It is a neurobiological disorder with both genetic and environmental components. I read about people wanting a cure for autism. Again, not a disease, so I question whether “cure” is the most appropriate term. There are also people with autism like my son Timothy who like themselves just the way they are. They don’t want to become someone they’re not. They don’t want to acclimate. They don’t want to be put on medications to control their moods and behavior. I have no say either way – it’s an individual decision, and we live in a free country. That is why the people who cooked Yorkshire Puddings 400 years ago moved here.

In retrospect, as physicians, researchers, and psychologists have gained knowledge and experience in the field of autism, there are historical figures who may have been autistic. While this is speculation, it actually provides useful background information in the form of studying these peoples’ interpersonal relationships, interests, professions, accomplishments, and idiosyncrasies. Autism as a term, however, was first described in 1943 by Leo Kanner in his paper “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” in the journal Nervous Child. Compared to cancer research, we have a long way to go with autism. What is unclear with the increasing rate of autism diagnosis is whether more people are developing this disorder or whether psychologists, due to more experience, are making more diagnoses.

Fortunately, research builds upon itself. Since cancer research forces you to understand the mechanisms of normal cell behavior first in order to understand what goes awry in the disease state, many genes, proteins and signaling moieties were characterized that may have remained undiscovered. The tools and techniques used for this type of research translate over into the genetic component of autism research, as may some of the pathways and proteins involved. Since cancer also has a strong environmental factor, epidemiologists, dieticians, and public health employees have also been working on how what we eat, where we live, and what we do day to day affects our well being. This research translates over into the environmental component of autism, where diet, exercise, and location may all make a contribution. Every little piece of data and experience can help contribute to understanding what autism is and how it affects each individual.


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The Grasshopper

I lost my sense of passion and direction to protect myself from hurting and despair. ~ Heart of Stone, Erasure

Last week at work our group had a poster session, just us. This is the first time in the seven years I have worked at this company that our small cluster has been highlighted. Usually we get pushed down to bottom of the pile, under all of the optical films, adhesives, and nonwoven technologies. We had one executive come through who was particularly hostile at my poster, but his mood changes at the drop of a hat, so I shrugged him off, figuring he was having a bad day.

Later in the afternoon my coworker Crixus and I were standing around in my lab talking. We call him that as a joke. He is named after the character in the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. He started it by calling Daniel “Dominus”, after John Hanna’s character, and Daniel started calling him “Crixus” since he is as physically strong as an actual gladiator. He finished last summer’s Warrior Dash in about 20 minutes, and he is the person who held my hand off the Leap of Faith at our Mudrun last fall.

Anyway, I digress. Crixus and I were shooting the breeze when in walks The Grasshopper. One of our newer employees, I actually call him Grasshopper because he has a desire to learn, to work hard, and continually asks questions to help advance his knowledge on, well, everything. He asks about how we know when to file a patent, whom he should inform when he goes on vacation, and recommendations for a good dentist. On this particular afternoon, however, he walked into my lab distressed.

He wanted to know why the angry executive liked everyone else’s posters except for his. I told him that the angry executive was angry at my poster too, and, as I later found out, he was actually angry at ALL the posters. Crixus, for all of his brute strength, informed us that when Angry Executive made his grand entrance, he actually left the room and hid since he is a recent addition to our group that the executive may have not officially OK-ed yet. I told both Crixus and Grasshopper that I don’t really care what Angry Executive thinks at this moment because overall he is supportive of us, and everyone has bad days. My guess was that something set him off in the morning before he came over to our building.

Grasshopper left feeling warm and comforted instead of being a tiny spot rubbed into the carpet. One of the most difficult positions for me to put myself into is that of the other person. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. That is some heavy duty stuff. If my coworkers and I have a hard time being empathetic, imagine how Tim feels. His world can get rough sometimes due to his lack of being able to see the other person’s perspective.

The longer you are a scientist, the thicker your emotional exoskeleton becomes. It has to be or else you don’t survive. We are constantly having our data and results called into question, mostly because what some of us work on, like Daniel, Crixus, and myself, are products that keep people healthy. The product Daniel launched in December is a diagnostic kit for the food and beverage industry. This allows manufacturers to test for pathogens in their food before they ship to groceries and restaurants. Imagine the consequences if people didn’t put Daniel’s product through the wringer to ensure that it is the real deal.

The hard exterior of an insect such as a grasshopper is just that, however…the outer shell. Inside is a soft, squishy spot that can leave permanent damage. If you are the person being poked under your armor, empathy can become excruciatingly challenging. Instead of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, the more self-protective route may be to add more armor. That way the hurt doesn’t hurt as much, and no one sees how vulnerable you really are. Several months ago Daniel stomped on me without meaning to. He didn’t realize what he had done until it was too late, and even though he apologized, and has been trying to make it up in every way possible, nothing has been good enough for me. On my pedestal, I have been carrying a boulder of mental pain around in my heart. And I did not share with Daniel how much hurt and resentment I had.

My thinking place.

I uncovered the back story by accident a few days ago. The week actually balanced itself out because when I realized why Daniel did what he did, the boulder in my heart shattered and the empathy rushed in. He had been protecting me the only way he knew how, and he had become a victim of his own actions. People tend to see only what they want to see, and in this case I had wanted to see him as a villain, not a hero. I should have known better. I should have trusted him like he asked me to. I should have been empathetic from the start. Fortunately that afternoon I had to split out some cells for an experiment. Cell culture helps me relax and think. It becomes a meditative process for me since working with cells requires repetitive, precise measurements and movements. They also look beautiful under the microscope.

Empathy is something I need to keep at the forefront of my mind all the time, not just when it is convenient for me. It shouldn’t matter where my place is in a given situation. Sometimes we tend to be hardest on the people we love the most, the people in whom we have placed the most emotional investment. What I need to practice instead of judgment is love, loyalty, and understanding.


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室內花卉

I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return. ~ Frida Kahlo

“I call him ‘Indoor Flower’.” This is what one of my coworkers called her husband, and since she is from China, the Chinese characters in the title of this entry say “indoor flower”, at least according to Google Translate. Our cluster was out for lunch, and my coworker seated across the table from me was talking about how she loved to be outside, in nature, walking through the woods. Her husband, however, preferred to stay inside, thus the nickname. My other coworker seated next to me almost spit his food out laughing as we all dissolved into giggles at the thought of this woman calling her beloved husband “室內花卉”.

I went to this same coworker’s wake this morning, where I gave her husband a hug and told him how very sorry I am about her passing. I have shared lab space with her for the past two years, and she was always smiling, always joyful, finding the good side of everything. On the rare occasions where I saw her frustrated or having a bad day, she shook the off part off and continued on with her life. She was also a brilliant scientist, and her office is full of plaques with her name on it for patents, leadership awards, and technical achievements. Last May she went to the doctor for a lump on her leg that turned out to be skin cancer, and unfortunately it had metastasized too far by the time she started to feel ill. Once she left work last spring on long-term disability, she never came back.

When our cluster found out a few weeks ago that she was being put on hospice, one of my lab neighbors and I set up a time to go through her samples. Her lab was full of tubes, films, and reagents, and we needed to sort what to keep and what to dispose of. We didn’t know if anything was hazardous or what the shelf-life was, and we had her former technician come in to help us out. We set this up for last Wednesday, thinking that we would still have time to contact her if we had questions. Even though she had been put on hospice, which is usually end of life care, we all still hoped that she would recover and return to work. Monday afternoon, however, I received a message in my email inbox that she had passed.

With that news, I spent Wednesday afternoon sorting through a dead woman’s belongings. When her technician arrived, she said that most of the samples in question were garbage, either because they were several months old, they didn’t work, or they could easily be made again if need be. We filled up a waste drum, set a few tubes aside at a coworker’s request, and that was that. As I looked into the waste drum before I sealed it up and took it to our building’s loading dock for disposal, I felt as if I had thrown this woman’s career into the garbage. I had minimized her life as a scientist into a single bucket.

My coworker is not the first one of us who has become ill. I have had two other female friends die from cancer over the past few years, and two who have had tumors removed and are currently living normal lives. Most of my female friends in graduate school miscarried during their first pregnancies. What is unclear is whether these occurrences are work-related regarding exposure to chemicals or too much stress, or whether there is no connection. I had my own tumor removed last October, as well, and the past few months I have spent a lot of my time mulling over what my mortality means to me.

One non-negotiable for me is telling Tim, every day, that I love him. He needs to hear it, and I need to hear myself verbalizing it to him. We hear about how love is a verb, and actions speak louder than words, but in this case I think the words are important. Tim and I don’t have many bad days where we are at odds with each other, and I keep waiting for him to hit the teenage years where he shuts me out of his life. It hasn’t happened yet. The worst I have weathered with Tim is, when I tell him I love him, he makes a joke of it and mumbles back, “Yeah…Iluvvvvyewwwtoooo…”.

I have also been thinking about how I spend my time, and whom I spend it with. Am I being real in my relationships, or am I surrounding myself with people who make me feel good in the moment? Am I being supportive of my friends and family, and letting them know how important they are to me? Am I doing everything I want to do, and seeing everything I want to see? Right now I am working on finding a balance between nurturing new friendships while maintaining the well-established ones. The bottom line is to live life to its fullest, the best way I know how, and to make sure Tim is along for the ride as much as possible.


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Simplicity

Less is more. — Mies van der Rohe

Simplicity at its yummiest.

We made Stoved Chicken, one of our favorite meals, for supper this weekend. This is a Scottish recipe that dates back to the seventeenth century and is cooked in a closed pot. The result is a most delicious dish that turns out every time. Here are the directions:

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. butter
  • 1 chicken, cut up
  • 2 red onions
  • Several potatoes
  • Salt, pepper, thyme, and parsley

Melt the butter in a skillet. Brown the chicken on both sides, about 5 minutes. Peel several potatoes and slice them thinly. Put the potato slices in a single layer on the buttered bottom of an ovenproof casserole dish. Peel and slice one of the onions and place a layer of onions on top of the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and sprinkle on some thyme and parsley. Place the browned chicken pieces on top. Peel and slice the second onion, and place the onion slices on top of the chicken. Add more potato slices on top to cover the onions. Season this layer as well with salt, pepper, thyme, and parsley. Place a layer of aluminum foil over the casserole, and place a heavy baking sheet on top of that. Cook for 2 ½ hours at 275ºF, removing the baking sheet and foil for the last half hour of cooking to brown the potatoes.

I cooked this in a clay pot, but we have also done it using the foil and baking sheet method. The result is a succulent roast dinner with minimal prep time and virtually no clean-up. As Daniel and I were eating, I mentioned to him that I love cooking recipes that are hundreds of years old. As I cook, I love thinking about how another woman was doing this under much different circumstances, in a different part of the world, but with the same purpose: to nourish her loved ones.

What intrigues me about Stoved Chicken is that it was invented, in my opinion, by a genius. Whomever was the inventor had few resources to work with: a chicken, potatoes, onions, and herbs a.k.a. glorified weeds that smell good and don’t make you sick growing in the yard. This person also had no clean dishes and no time to prepare a seven-course meal. This is fix-it-and-forget-it at its best. This person was working with what was available. The genius part is that it tastes amazing.

I need to be more patient with autism research. I want solutions NOW, and I easily forget that we are at the beginning of a very long road with limited resources. The educators, doctors, and psychologists who interact with my son Tim are working with what they have available. They are doing everything in their power to make sure he is learning what he needs to learn in school, and adjusting as well as he can to living in the world around him. We have to start somewhere, and right now all we have are the basics, and even those are rudimentary.

The advantage we have today lies in the technological tools available to do research faster and better with more accurate results. It may be the same recipe, the same procedure, such as isolating DNA or looking for the presence of a particular protein, but instead of taking a week in lab the experiment takes a day. I purchased my chicken and vegetables at the grocery. The Scottish woman who made the same recipe four hundred years ago started with a surly chicken pecking around in her back yard and onions and potatoes buried in the dirt.

The hard part, the genius part, of scientific research comes in knowing what technique to use and when, and to keep the experiments as simple as possible. When I started graduate school in cancer biology, my advisor told me that in his lab we don’t do hard techniques. Everything is simple. The complicated part comes in knowing how to stitch those techniques together to tell a story. To make progress. To let a result lead you to the next experiment. And to begin knowing, instinctively, the direction in which you need to head.

Life comes one small step at a time.


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Old School

An expert is someone who has made all of the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field. ~ Niels Bohr

SDS-PAGE

When I was in graduate school, our lab studied proteins, lots of  ’em, and I spent my days running electrophoresis experiments. Since our lab was running on start-up funds, we did all of our procedures as cheaply as possible. While some of the set-ups took a little more time, one enormous advantage to building things from the ground up is that I learned how the systems work. Instead of using expensive kits or the latest fad in the world of cellular and molecular biology, I had to put the pieces together myself. In order to do that, I needed to understand the theories behind why certain steps are performed in a certain order.

Today, working in biotechnology, life is different. The time we scientists spend in lab in limited due to us having more responsibilities in our job functions. In addition to experiments, we have meetings to schedule, presentations to draft, customers to visit, and other odds and ends that arise during the day. We also order the kits and the fads to help us out in our experiments because we simply don’t have enough time in the day. A kit will let you purify DNA in four hours instead of eight. A computer program will design your PCR primers for you, preventing the need to scratch your sequence out, nucleotide by nucleotide, with paper and pencil. This morning I set up an SDS-PAGE to analyze the purity of one our proteins, and I pulled a precast gel out of our coldroom in ten seconds instead of taking an hour to pour one by hand the way I did almost every day in graduate school.

The recent college graduates who come to do internships at our company is that all they know are the kits and the premade supplies. They don’t understand why the procedures work, and a lot of them don’t care to discover the theories behind the systems. No one has taken the time to educate them on some of the fundamentals behind Why Things Work. Even if you never need to do it the old-fashioned way, it is still good information to know. It makes you a better scientist. It helps you make mental connections, think faster on your feet, and *gasp* come up with inventions.

The best part of all, however, is that you make mistakes when you do experiments by hand, without the kits, without the ready-made solutions. The more steps you introduce into a procedure, the greater chance for error. I have done so much electrophoresis and goofed it up so many times, every which way, and I’m talking both DNA and protein gels, that I know everything about the procedure, inside and out. The only way to become really proficient at something is the willingness to fall down, over and over again, and scrape yourself up each time to make a fresh start.

Little bites of gingery heaven!

My son and I made our first batch of Christmas cookies for the year last night. I have found that cooking and science are quite closely related. If you do good work in lab, chances are you are also an excellent cook. As an aside, I always look forward to potlucks with work colleagues because the food is guaranteed to be outstanding 😀 . As with experiments, I like to spend time in the kitchen cooking as opposed to picking up a pre-made meal. Last night we made soft gingerbread cookies from a new recipe I tore out of a magazine. After so many years of learning how to cook, I had a feeling the recipe would be good. My son, the picky eater, tried one when they came out of the oven and declared them delicious. As with science, not all of my recipes turn out every time. Poor Daniel has borne the brunt of a few dishes gone horribly awry, but that is an easy fix…you simply start over and cook something else.

My son is participating in two clinical studies. The first one, on ASD and attention, starts on Friday. You can read about the study by clicking here. The second one, on body chemistry of ASD, starts next week. The doctors who are conducting these studies are experts in their fields, and yet I feel skeptical, and I don’t know why. I should be supportive and enthusiastic about their programs, one scientist to another, but I wonder if they will know what to do with their results. Too much information is also a bane of modern technology. What do you do with a million data points? How do you begin to sort through and organize all of that? And is any of it meaningful?

We volunteered for these studies in the hope that the results are relevant, that they do mean something. Some of the techniques I use to run my experiments in lab are decades old. The scientists who pioneered these techniques needed to start somewhere, and, knowing how research goes, they probably had a lot of failures. The good part for the experiments my son has volunteered for is that there is no harm done to him if the results are ambiguous. The ASD And Attention Study is an IQ test and an interview, and the Body Chemistry Study is a urine sample.

The scientists coordinating these studies are at the early points of really beginning to dig deeply into autism research. With all of their hard work, they will be experts in no time! While there are bound to be be mis-steps and hurdles along the way, there is also the opportunity for them to gain an in-depth understanding of what autism spectrum disorders are and how to help affected individuals live healthy, happy lives.


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The Calling

“How do you manage all those scientists with their egos and their bickering and their full-frontal nerdity?” ~ Better Off Ted

Life at home.

I am back at work after almost six weeks of leave. Even though my life slowed down for a bit temporarily, the rest of the world kept chugging along at the pace of a high-speed rail. Before I left work in October, I cleaned up my lab, hid certain objects, such as Rainin pipettors, that I didn’t want wandering off in my absence, and closed the door to my office. Upon returning, I had been at work for approximately five minutes before the following order of events began to occur:

1st day back, walk in the door to my lab, been at work for under one minute: Maintenence guy is working on a ladder in the middle on my lab on the electrical wiring in my ceiling. Informs me that my lab may be without lights for a few hours on and off during the day.

1st day back, 8:25 am: Angry coworker from two halls down wants to know how long the -30°C freezer in our lab area has been broken. I told him a few months. He wants to know what happened to the giant roll of membrane that he had been storing in our freezer (N.B. – not his freezer in his lab or a freezer in someone else’s lab who is actually working with him on his project) went to. I told him I have no idea and there is a good possibility that it was thrown out over six months ago when the former occupant of that lab space cleaned out that particular freezer before it became sensient and decided to shut itself off back in September. Coworker left in a huff and has since decided to speak nicely to everyone but me.

Life at work.

1st day back, 9:15 am: I peek into one of our rooms in our lab area to see if the Massive Pile O’ Antique Lasers And Other Electrical Thingies has been taken to Resource Recovery yet. These pieces of equipment are the last remnants of a former occupant of our lab space who managed to fill five labs and three offices from floor to ceiling with Stuff That No One Will Ever Use. After several repeated attempts to have this cart picked up by the millwrights, it is still sitting there and I spring into action. I haul it into my lab and phone in a work order.

I haven’t even made coffee yet, people. I was exhausted by noon and barely able to stay awake during our project’s team meeting later in the afternoon. I went to bed that evening at 8 pm and told myself that tomorrow is another day.

And the second day back to work was, indeed, another day.

2nd day back, walk into my lab: No electrician, no angry coworkers, email in my inbox says that the cart of lasers will be taken away by the end of the day. Life is looking up.

2nd day back, 10 am: Get in car, drive down the street to our fancy schmancy building where we host important guests to sit in on a Voice of Customer interview on a Key Opinion Leader (KOL) for our project. We all do introductions. I introduce myself as having a background in cancer biology. Our KOL looks up at me rather intently and, with a good reason, asks if I am doing cancer research now. I say um, no, we don’t do cancer research at this company, and for the past few years I have instead been working in areas such as materials science, microfluidics, and applied biochemistry. He begins staring at me like I just sprouted a second head, and I begin to question my career choice.

2nd day back, 1:30 pm: I have my end of the year review with my supervisor. It was short and sweet. He said I had a good year, I agreed, and that was it. Since our company is sending him overseas for a long term assignment in a couple of months, he had sent out a note telling all of us that he wants to discuss our 5-10 year goals during our performance reviews so he can help position us to achieve those goals. During my review he didn’t ask me the 5-10 year question, so I asked him if we needed to talk about that. He said oh, sure, so we talked about it for a minute.

Despite all of the stresses and little annoyances that creep up in the workplace, I realized something when I was at home during November. I do not have a job. I have a vocation, which is from the Latin word vocare, which means to call. When I was college we studied the meaning of the word vocation for one of my literature courses. We reached the conclusion that when you have a vocation, you have something that is an integral part of who you are as a person. It is something you cannot live without. There can be a religious connotation to this, but not always.

The week before I came back to work I started to become a little blue. I wasn’t bored or lonely at home, I simply missed being a scientist. I started to feel empty in my heart, like I was missing a piece of myself.  When you take the scientist part of me away, it leaves a bottomless void. This is an important realization because, as Daniel has told me many times before, I don’t seem to have many needs. I tend to be a complete person on my own. Start taking away key parts of me, however, like the science part, and I begin to come undone.

Another key part for me is being a parent and a caregiver. One perk of being home during the day is that I get to see my son both when he leaves for school and when he comes home. I usually make sure he catches the bus before I leave for work each morning, and during the winter I drive him to school so he stays warm, but he gets home from school a couple of hours before I get home from work. Add in running errands or other extra activities, and sometimes he and I don’t see as much of each other as we should.

Hopefully I will never know what it is like to not be a parent, to lose that part of me. The wonderful part about being a parent is that, once you become one, you are usually one for life. Compare this to a career, where people have the option of changing paths or leaving altogether. What I have learned to is actively appreciate what I have when I have it. Taking a month off from working as a scientist showed me how much I love what I do, and to not let the day to day challenges obscure the larger picture. I am also able to transfer this knowledge to other aspects of my life, such as being a mother, friend, companion, and helpmeet. These all have their day to day challenges too, but keeping the larger picture in mind changes them from challenges to opportunities for improving myself along the way.