Seaweed, sushi and science

Sushi!
iStockphoto/ShyMan

I prefer my seaweed applewood smoked. However, truthfully, before yesterday, I’m not sure I could have told you whether I liked seaweed, smoked or otherwise.

I do like sushi, but the seaweed within a maki roll has always seemed more functional than flavorful– a necessary material to keep the whole thing held together.

But when I heard about yesterday’s Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting– “The Science of Sushi and Seaweed”– I couldn’t resist. The speaker’s day job is as a biophysicist at a Danish university, and he haunts sushi restaurants (and even writes a book) in his spare time. Perfect.

And so I spent yesterday afternoon at a sushi science talk and algae tasting. Seaweeds are algae after all, not plants. So though many algae synthesize food from the sun, unlike plants, seaweeds are complexes of single cells. Plants are interdependent multicellular organisms– seaweed are communities of independent operators.

Ole Mouritsen talked in a lovely cultural and scientific hodgepodge– part cultural history and part science. The flavors of sushi– the sweetness of the rice, the sour from the vinegar– date back to old methods for preserving fish. Though no longer necessary, those lingering elements of taste are part of the sushi experience. A tidbit about wasabi– though it may be fiery– its punch comes from isothiocyanates (funky molecular structures that have carbon, nitrogen and sulfur lined up next to each other). But unlike other molecules that set our taste buds on fire (capsaicin in chili peppers, for example), isothiocyanates are water soluble. That’s why you can actually cleanse your palate pretty easily if you get a little too much of the evil green stuff.

But back to the seaweed. I’m definitely not ready to become an algaetarian, but seaweed definitely makes an interesting, sometimes pungent garnish. Nori– the ubiquitous sushi wrapping– is actually paper-like, easily torn. But when wrapped around sushi rice, it quickly absorbs water and the complex sugars become gummy. The Japanese annually fete Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker, the British botanist who figured out how to culture this particular algae.

Oboro kombu looks a little like vacuum cleaner lint and melts in your mouth like umami cotton candy. And then there’s the dulse– dark red, tangy, particularly the almost bacony applewood-smoked version. Don’t forget to sniff first.

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Practical phase changes: more carbon dioxide

I get to talk about an interesting application of carbon dioxide today in my latest article for Scientific American: sterilizing transplanted tissues such as tendon and bone. Before I heard about this technology, I certainly wouldn’t have suspected that the ubiquitous gas that we exhale could become a super-scrubber with a little heat and a lot of pressure.

I’ve ended up playing with a lot of carbon dioxide over the years. Like most kids, I had ghoulish carbon dioxide bubbles from dry ice that fizzed my Halloween drinks. As a chemist, dry ice became almost too “normal.” As an undergrad, I made my own bricks of the stuff from a tank of compressed CO2, and in graduate school, I’d weigh it out by the tens, if not hundreds, of pounds. Mostly, I used it to cool things down.

But though it’s easy as a working organic chemist to think  it cliché, watching the supercritical fluid form and dissipate is amazing. That sense of wonder within a high pressure chamber– and the practical applications that come from it– keep me coming back to work everyday.

Speaking of clichés, this professor probably fits the stereotypical scientist image a little too well. But I love his giddy enthusiasm when he talks about how he uses the demonstration to see whether a prospective student might be a good fit for his research group.

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MotW: Happy T(ryptophan)-day!

Tryptophan, via Wikimedia Commons
tryptophan structure via Wikimedia Commons

Though the tryptophan rush from turkey is more hype than reality, Thanksgiving is the perfect time to put up the most structurally complex of the amino acids, tryptophan.

The body uses it to make serotonin, and biochemists use its absorbance of ultraviolet light to determine concentrations of proteins in their samples.

Today I’m thinking that it’s much more esthetically interesting than most of its amino-acid pals, at least the naturally-occurring ones.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Sizing it up or down

My scientific world is probably best defined as medium-to-small.  Because there’s usually a tie-in to a molecule, my conceptual world operates somewhere between the slightly sub-nanometer to human sizes of meters and kilometers. Except for my occasional forays into astronomy, I don’t often stretch my mind to light-years or cram it down to subatomic particles. But even then I’m often writing about the chemical stuff in cosmic clouds or the composition of Mars dust. But even the molecular world is maddening when trying to talk about size.

Science writers– particularly when we delve into the abstract– depend on reliable size comparisons. We can spend hours trying to come up with an appropriate size analogy as we desperately dodge  cliches.

But the internet is wonderful, and I’m continually amazed by its power to illustrate. Yesterday, via Amy Rice Doetsch, a science educator friend, I found out about this amazing web resource that bridges the wilds of biological sizes from coffee bean to carbon atom. In this case, a very slick set of graphics provide the equivalent of paragraphs of size perspective.

Then I went looking for even broader comparisons, and found this one– not quite as graphically refined– but one that goes all the way from cosmos to quark. I’d love to hear of other examples. In the meantime, enjoy!

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Traveling the (AMNH’s) Silk Road

Pick up a passport, and travel along an ancient road  with silk, haunting melodies and the simmering whiff of oils and spices.

At its best, the American Museum of Natural History’s  Traveling the Silk Road exhibition evokes as many senses as possible, particularly smell and sound. There’s a wonderful market where you can test your abilities to match smells, and, as a bonus, we also heard music by musicians involved in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (performing on Sundays at the museum).

I just found myself wishing that there were a few more things that I was allowed to touch, particularly with beautiful silks, looms and a video demonstrating how weavers transform worm cocoons into stunning garments.  I heard of at least a couple ancient trading posts that I’d never read about, hubs where ancient roads met for the exchange of all kinds of goods and information.

This trading network was the information superhighway of its time– 600 to 800 AD– exchanging science, culture, design patterns. I was enthralled with the water clock and fiddled for a while with the astrolabe, attempting to tell time from the night sky. I gained a whole new respect for ancient sailors– the number of steps it took just to find out where and “when” they were.

I’ve recently rekindled an interest in ceramics, so I spent a lot of time contemplating classic curves and forms of the various pots and vessels– beautiful, functional, ancient and, yet, somehow modern, too. The exhibit was a wonderful experience in seeing connections between past cultures and my daily connections to a distant past.

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Science Writing Resources (Friday follow-up)

Last Friday afternoon, I spoke on a panel about media careers for the “What Can You Be With A Ph.D.?” Symposium held at NYU Langone Medical Center. I talked to several  students and postdocs after the program and wanted to pull together a list of resources related to careers in science writing.

It was a fun session– I learned a lot from my co-panelists and the auditorium was full of people with a lot of interesting questions about careers that blend science and communications– including journal publishing, medical communications, medical science liaisons (MSL– a career, incidentally, that I didn’t know anything about until Friday), and yours truly, who talked about my mix of freelance science writing experiences. The overall symposium program looked  terrific– I wish that I’d had access to a careers program of this size and quality when I was a graduate student.

But back to science writing:

I also got a few questions (after the main session) about freelancing. A few thoughts:

  1. It’s not a good fit for everyone. You’re starting a business, so you have to think about all the issues (and potential insecurities) that go with that: finding health insurance, start-up costs, lack of a retirement plan, etc.
  2. Getting started is hard work, and it will probably take a while to prove yourself. Persistence is key: continue to pursue opportunities, get experience where you can, and build your clip file.
  3. It is possible to start a freelance business even if you don’t have a huge cushion of savings (I didn’t). Think about practical strategies that will allow you to start slowly. Having some source of steady income while you ramp up is essential if you don’t have a nest-egg to fall back on.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 23: For NYC-area scientists interested in learning more about the transition from the bench to a writing career, Science Writers in New York has a program on December 1: Goodbye Benchtop; Hello Laptop.

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Both Science and Family– but not all at once

iStock_000008482963XSmall
istockphoto/AndreasReh

My latest story for Science Careers is up– about women who took extended family breaks from their careers and came back to the laboratory. I was impressed with these women’s creativity in crafting career and family life in ways that worked for them.

What surprised me a little when I was doing the interviews for this article was that no one had really planned her break. Circumstances came up– new parenthood, illness, trailing spouse issues– and they figured out that staying home was best for them and their families. When circumstances changed, and they felt ready, they made moves back toward the workforce.

After I thought about it, the apparent lack of planning makes sense– how do you really know in advance how long you’d want to stay home with your children? Or if you’re dealing with a health issue, how do you plan a timeline for treatment? In many ways, you simply can’t.

But at the same time, if you have an idea that you might want to return at some future date, wouldn’t it be nice to have guidelines, to know that you have options? I hope the article shows women and men that they have choices, even though the road might not be easy.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Freeland, she mentioned a resource from the Institute of Physics– a best-practice guide for career breaks, and even some ideas for planning them. In a way, some of that information is common sense: stay in touch with mentors and employers and remain plugged into the science community by reading the literature and even attending conferences.

I think stories are more important than guidelines. If you know that others share the same struggles, made similar decisions, and have had successful careers, you know that all your hard work is not in vain. Universally, these women at some point in their journeys wondered if they were completely alone. Over time, they slowly met others who had made similar choices and had similar career aspirations. I’m grateful that they took the time to share their experiences and struggles with me and with the broader scientific community.

The overall message I hope scientists get from the story– yes, you have options when it comes to career and family. And most of all– however you decide to manage family balance– you’re not alone in the journey.

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Truth Values: women in the equation

It’s evolved into women in science month here at Webb of Science.

On October 9, I saw Gioia De Cari‘s one woman show, “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Larry Summers’ now infamous comments about women in science inspired her to turn her own experiences as a  math graduate student at MIT (she got a Master’s degree) into theater. My immediate reaction: this woman gets it. She articulates the experience of being a woman in an insular male-dominated world.

To be fair, I expect that chemistry is more female-friendly than mathematics, but some of De Cari’s stories– the office mate who professed his love to her even though she was married and the macho dynamics  of other offices– complete with posters of nuclear weapons– reminded me of some of my post-undergraduate experiences. Though I did my Ph.D. with a woman chemist, I spent a year in Germany in a department where most of the women were secretaries (one ran the stockroom, and there was another woman, an American, doing her Ph.D. on another floor). My adviser and my immediate colleagues– though all male– were tremendously supportive.

But I still had one jarring incident where I left a computer lab for a few minutes and returned to find a screensaver installed– a digital bare-breasted woman bouncing across my screen. I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that in English, much less in German. I suspected that a student from another floor, a frequent user of the computer lab, had rigged up “bouncy babe,” but never knew for sure.

Continue reading Truth Values: women in the equation

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Chemistry Nobel, women, and the "choice"

A chocolate Nobel Prize
A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.

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