Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Chicken Soup for the Flu-Season Soul...


Keeping healthy during the flu season is very challenging, especially if you work with young children (they're like very adorable petri dishes!), the elderly, and/or in crowded environments like schools and universities. As a graduate student who almost lives in the lab, has never-ending work, and is perpetually stressed, this is not a good time of year, health-wise.

I get the flu shot every year. I get it to protect myself and also to protect those who cannot / have trouble protect themselves (e.g., very young infants; immunocompromised patients). But flu shots are not foolproof. After all, it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty what flu viruses might be "coming." Read more here.

I am getting quite good at taking care of myself during the flu season. 

One of my lifesavers is the proverbial benefits of chicken soup. I honestly do not know who first thought of this, but everyone (doctors, nurses, family, friends) say "chicken soup" the minute you say you have the flu. 

Daphne's chicken soup

Once my appetite does come back, it is my go-to.

I am even getting good at making it!

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Cooking is like Science...



One of the things I realised when I started living on my own was that I loved to cook. I hate cleaning up the dishes and pots and pans, but I sure loved to cook.

It was quite similar to being a scientist. You see a recipe (protocol) and you follow the recipe. And when the recipe doesn't work well or if the outcome isn't great, you re-examine the recipe and tweak it. Sometimes, there are curve balls, but that's when life experiences and skill come in!

This is my version of the spaghetti meatball. I have since learned to add anchovies and blend onions, carrots, and celery into the sauce. Well worth it.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Power Rangers!


Realisations re-watching an episode of Power Rangers as an adult:

a) Those Angel Grove city builders seriously need to come to Vancouver as they take a week to rebuild after massive destruction. UBC wouldn't be constantly under construction and neither would the roads.
b) How much taxes must cost at Angel Grove to have to constantly rebuild.
c) Those minions of Rita Repulsa (RR) and Lord Zedd (LZ) should really have been fired a long time ago as they are really bad at their jobs.
d) Those bad monsters are equally incompetent because if they figured out that all they had to do was stomp on the zords before they became megazords, those Rangers would go bye-bye.
e) How is it RR and LZ never figured out that if they wanted to really destroy the universe, they should try attacking a place far away from Angel Grove, cause, dummy, that's where the rangers are. Two words: management problems.
f) There must be some serious nepotism going on that all rangers came from one school.
g) How is it RR and LZ never figured out they were in love with each other.
h) Well, at least Zordon and Alpha5 saw the importance of diversity in hiring (White, Black, Asian; male, female).

Adulthood: Ruins all childhood fun. Next stop: Barney, the Purple Dinosaur.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Of baking and chocolate cakes...


Flourless chocolate cake


I was never a baker. I grew up in a home without an oven--Malaysian homes at that time don't naturally come with ovens. We use standard gas stoves that aren't atop ovens. So unless you grew up with a parent (or parents) who loved to bake, chances are you won't have an oven. Things might be different now in new Malaysian homes, but I have no insight into that having lived abroad for 9 years.

Despite my limited insight into baking, I absolutely love to eat: chocolate cake, cookies, cupcakes, brownies, muffins. As long as there was chocolate and/or peanut butter in them, I'm game.

This flourless chocolate cake is perhaps the ONLY cake I can bake. I got it right the first time and have gone back to it repeatedly, changing it ever so slightly every now and then. I've tried adding bananas, I've tried adding more cocoa (to make them like brownies!), I've added mayonnaise, I've tried using different types of chocolate (e.g., half milk, half semi-sweet), and they work pretty well every time!

This is one of those times I wished my Malaysian home had an oven so I can make this when I go home. Cause nobody should go without this cake. 

Friday, 30 June 2017

Correlation does not imply causation...

I read popular media and news articles and often wonder how people who write these articles can get the information so wrong. Many of these articles are in science and healthcare.

One of the most common errors are when journalists and/or bloggers zero in on any relationship implied by the authors as causational, definitive, and is "proof" that X causes Y and/or that X or Y exists and is true. Students are often taught in first year about the mantra "Correlation does not imply causation."

And yet, we see news everywhere saying:
a) Scientists prove the cause for MS
b) This is evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism
c) Cure for Alzheimer's Disease found
d) Musical training proven to make you smarter

The list goes on.

I sit and wonder.

Are these misrepresentations of the findings of the actual studies, blowing out of proportion of the data, and jumping to conclusions based on a pure misunderstanding of the data and studies?

Or are these ways to sell news, create hype, and further a cause / point of view?

If it is the former, scientists really need to work on making their work accessible. For starters, increasing readability of the text (use less jargon, write in lay language) would probably go a long way. The problem also probably lies with the lack of physical access to the papers, which hide behind "pay-to-view" journals. But then again, would anybody fully read them if they were accessible?

If it is the latter, well, it is hard to do something unless news channels and media (both online and print) say it is not acceptable and actually give training to their writers on how to report scientific studies.

Whatever the reason, I think scientists need to communicate more with journalists, and vice versa, in making news valid. We all have a responsibility to get this right.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Neurons that fire together, wire together


I have been following George Lakoff's work from the sidelines, and as a trainee neuroscientist, it fascinates me.

In essence, Hebb's law applies: Neurons that fire together, wire together.

The work is fascinating because I often wonder how so many people can continually ignore evidence when it is presented to them. I often wonder how is it that two people can read the exact piece of factual work and have such vastly different conclusions. This isn't a social situation where opinions are highly subjective.

Reading Lakoff's work gives me a little bit more perspective. It's hard to change your views because we're so entrenched. We move with people who are so much like us; we communicate (very often) with people who are like us; we essentially live in a bubble of similar, like-minded people. Our neuronal circuitry just keeps strengthening and the networks keep getting stronger. And when we see something that is different from that, it gets filtered out.

Does education change that? I really don't know, especially since we now have trigger warnings for so many things. 

I guess it is something to think about...


Sunday, 30 April 2017

Informed Consent: Version Marvel Comics

Popular media has a way of making scientists look either really, really good (we solve crimes, catch murderers, save the world all in one day) or look really, really, really bad (we single-handedly destroy the world, annihilate the universe, create zombies, completely disregard all ethics). There is no middle ground.

If informed consent forms were written for any of the experiments in the Marvel, DC comics enterprise, I can only imagine they would look something like this (this was obviously written retrospectively, tongue-in-cheek, and very, very facetiously):

Principal Investigator: Name, Ph.D.
Sponsor: Stark Industries

INVITATION
You are invited to participate in this study because you are desperately in need of validation from people around you, and are tired of being pushed around by the bullies in your life. Some of you also have a few million dollars to spare. Many of you also believe you can save the world better than entire countries combined. This makes you the ideal participant for this study.

YOUR PARTICIPATION IS VOLUNTARY
Your participation in this study is voluntary. You have the right to refuse to participate. If you decide to participate, you may still choose to withdraw from the study at any time without any negative consequences to the medical care, education, or other services to which you are entitled or are presently receiving. Sometimes, however, accidents and unforeseen circumstances happen. In which case, governments will hunt you down and you will become a fugitive and every bad person will want to harm you indefinitely.

BACKGROUND
This study will change the world. We will cure every imaginable disease, every imaginable time-travel conundrum, build the world's most formidable army, and also, we will solve world peace.

PURPOSE
The main purpose is to be the first person to cure every imaginable disease, every imaginable time-travel conundrum, build the world's most formidable army, and solve world peace. Oh, we won't tell you, but really, also be the richest on the planet.

WHO CAN PARTICIPATE
You may participate in this study if you have nothing to lose. You should be American, or residing in America, or related to Americans in some way, because 99.99% of threats are centred on the United States, New York, and the White House, and all superheroes are based in the United States (even if they previously were born elsewhere).

WHO SHOULD NOT PARTICIPATE
We can't think of anyone, really. For more details, see Who Can Participate.

WHAT ARE MY RESPONSIBILITIES?
With great power, comes great responsibility. You are the only one who can keep the world and the universe safe. Most threats to the world will be centred on the United States, New York, and the White House.

RISKS:
You should be aware this study has not been tested to any real standards. We have a hypothesis that defies all real scientific reality, but we can do anything we want. Therefore, there is a possibility you might turn green when your heart rate increases, and/ or grow a tail, and / or have sudden abilities such as scaling walls, moving very quickly, shooting laser beams, and other unpredictable mutant powers. You will also find that if you develop these powers, there will inevitably follow an enemy that you didn't know existed until you developed your powers (but correlation doesn't equal causation). Governments may or may not have a sudden interest in your movement. You may or may not become a fugitive. You may or may not suddenly find an improvement in your physique: if you see a deterioration, they include turning green or blue, growing bigger, boulders and / or rocks attaching to you, elongation of limbs, hirsutism (growing hair in places you don't normally have hair), growing a tail and /or talons. This list is not exhaustive You may or may not also have a sudden need to wear a ridiculously tight costume, and be known by a very cheesy name. All costs associated with destruction of city landscape will be borne by someone other than you. You should be aware we really have no idea what we are doing.

BENEFITS
You may or may not suddenly find an improvement in your physique. If you do, they most likely include improvements in musculature, build, senses, and having perfect makeup in all conditions and terrain (snow, rain, sleet, mudslide, earthquake, thunder, explosions, after waking up, post-crying, in outer space, zombie apocalypse, after fighting, etc.). You may or may not also develop a sudden ability to wield various weapons, and be suddenly extraordinarily skilled in various forms of martial arts. You may or may not also find that you will suddenly develop a love interest.

WHAT DOES THE STUDY INVOLVE
We really just need you to trust that everything can and will go wrong, but sign up for this study anyway, because you will become a hero. And heroes always win in the end. They will suffer throughout, but they will win in the end.

COMPENSATION
You will become a hero.

WHAT HAPPENS IF I DECIDE TO WITHDRAW CONSENT?
We have no idea what we are doing, so you can withdraw consent, but if you already grew a tail, sorry. Whoops!

HOW WILL MY TAKING PART IN THIS STUDY BE KEPT CONFIDENTIAL?
That's why you have a mask! Wear it! Sometimes, just wearing glasses will suffice. We assure you people aren't very bright and do not recognize voices, even those in your family and office. We don't guarantee confidentiality from governments, however. They are extremely smart, and can figure out who you are.


Friday, 31 March 2017

Stress...

We were learning about stress the other day in class. To put it simply, "stress" is when our coping mechanisms are maladaptive or have failed altogether.

I seem to have hit a perfect storm when it comes to stress these last few weeks.

I have a final exam, a mock grant for a topic I have never worked on due, another assignment due, a presentation related to my dissertation, a revision for a paper we submitted a few months ago, a revision for a chapter that has come back from the editors, a student-friend who is visiting for a few days, and just about everything seems to need my attention yesterday.

But the thing that really stresses me out is not really that I have all this work to do. The hardest thing is that every time I think I can finally sleep, the kids who live upstairs are either playing very loudly (running circuits, rolling the cars and trucks, banging, screaming, pounding on the wooden floor above me that vibrates) or having a meltdown. I startle out of my sleep virtually every morning, especially on the weekends. I work late as those are my most productive hours, but sleeping late just doesn't happen because I will be startled awake when morning comes. 

"They will grow up," I tell myself.

"The parents must have it worse," I tell myself.

"Turn on the TV and let the white noise drown them out," I tell myself.

And then, I come to work, and hug the lab dog, and thank the stars that when I have a massive deadline, I have a couch in the lab I can crash on so I don't have to deal with the noise.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Non-traditional Students in Graduate School...


I co-presented a seminar with a professor on preparing for graduate school yesterday at Langara College, and about 25 people showed up. These were mostly made up of non-traditional students: mature students, first generation students attending college, students raising families, students who have gone out into the working world and then returned to school, students working while studying, and also first- and second- year students.
We chatted about what graduate admissions was like, scholarships available to students pursuing a masters/PhD, the kind of experiences needed to apply for graduate programs, and the typical components of a graduate application (e.g., reference letters, GRE).

I really enjoyed the conversations. I think I especially enjoyed that people were thinking how their life experiences were informing the choices they were making inside the classroom and within higher education. It reminded me again why I especially enjoy working with non-traditional students: there are such a myriad of experiences that they bring into the mixing bowl that make us just the better for having learned from them. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

Academia in a World of Scarcity...


Academia is an increasingly stressful world to be in. The pressure to publish and to win grants often begins in the undergraduate days now, which is quite ridiculous. Students are expected to have great grades, a publication record, scholarships, presentations, leadership, and still maintain a work - life balance. 

When I look at the CVs of my (tenured) mentors and professor's, some of them didn't even start publishing until they were more senior doctorate students. So, why the shift in expectations? I feel, in part, this is due to the increasing number of people enrolled in PhDs and the very perilous job market my generation of peers are in. (Seriously, stop over-admitting so many PhD students just to boost enrollment, and offer better support to the ones you do take in)

But, it is a stupid way to maintain science and academia.

There has been so much research showing that when people live below the poverty line, something happens with their ability to make decisions involving their lives, especially in terms of long-term planning. Take the example many people who don’t live below the poverty line take for granted: going to the grocery store. If you are not poor, you probably waltz into the grocery store and buy things for the week or more. Things like milk, and eggs, and flour, and oil, and toilet paper. You probably also might buy yourself a treat, something you don't need but want anyway, like chocolate or cake or ice cream or organic fruit instead of "normal" fruit. You might buy something you don't need right away but it is on sale, like laundry detergent or your favourite brand of tea or an extra box of tampons.

But if you are poor, whatever money you have you think VERY carefully and you then go into survival mode: what can you buy to keep yourself full with the least amount of money for the longest length of time. Basically, you are so focused on the immediate future (i.e., survival), you really have no opportunity to do any strategic long-term planning (Oxford University report with the Rowntree Foundation, 2015).

I want to be clear this is *not* a post blaming the poor.  

I wonder why nobody can see that academics who live in that same position (i.e., constantly looking for funds for the immediately upcoming term) cannot possibly do any good science for the long-run. The body is tired, the mind is tired, the soul is tired; if everything is tired, the science, the arts, the humanities, the knowledge-translation, and discoveries…well, they cannot happen. 

How do we plan for the future in a sustainable way when we are so focused on the present?

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Lab that Comes with a Lab(radoodle)...



So, my lab has a labradoodle that comes to work every day. This pup has been coming to work every day since she was 10 weeks old. It is definitely one of the best things about coming to work.

You walk in, and there is a pattering of paws flying out to say hello to you and to rub noses with you. It could be raining, snowing, or hailing outside, and old furry face would just be as happy to see you.

Being a graduate student and a researcher are both very stressful. There's always a grant or paper or person or experiment that needs your attention, and things always seem to be due right now. You can be completely on top of your workload, but that usually just means that another one will creep onto your pile of things-to-do.

More and more people in academia are finding themselves struggling with mental illness and/or stress. I wonder how different a culture academia would be if animals were a part of that culture? What if labs had the *option* to come with labs? (take this with a big pinch of salt--wet labs, for example, may not find this possible or feasible for safety issues)

Might productivity go up?


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Writing a Review Paper...


One of the research skills I have been learning in these last couple of years is the ability to synthesize other people's research into a review paper. In many ways, a review paper is like a very big term paper.

The Boss and I worked on a massive review paper for a couple of years. It was a monumental effort that required months and months of reading, synthesizing, corrections, and correspondence.

The effort paid off, though.

Here is the final product.

And here is a write up on it on ResearchFeatures.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

How much does a Calvin cost?

From here and here

I love Calvin and Hobbes. Love them so much it is disgustipating. (Ok, so I love Popeye, too)

The chart had me wide-eyed because I realized that if this was a real kid, we would be shaking our heads. Having children are expensive. Forget damage. Just diapering and feeding them cost money. Our lab spends a shameful amount of money buying Pepperidge Farm Fish because the children eat them by the handful; some kids even stuff them in their pockets, shoes, and bags. I see these fish in my nightmares. I see the crumbs and empty bags in my nightmares. And these are just goldfish. Just fish. Don't get me started on juice boxes.

You haven't seen the stuff that I have to explain to my PI (principal investigator, i.e., The Boss). Like when a kid decides our bookshelves are for doing gymnastics from, or that their kid brother is for bouncing things off and, of course, the thing ricochets off their brother and breaks something.

But I take Watterson's piece with a grain of salt. Children are expensive. They break things. They get dirty. But they're loads of fun. And they're worth it. Wouldn't trade my job!

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Managing a Research Lab...


I was watching this roundtable the other day of mostly senior faculty giving advice on managing a research lab when it hit me that I knew exactly what they were talking about.

I am pretty sure if I had watched this video in my undergraduate years, most of the contents of this video would have gone right over my head.

The video was enlightening for many reasons. For one, it reminded me that many of the skills I learned coming out to work were soft skills. It also reminded me that managing people is a skill we don't often think of as a skill. There are still days when I have to remind myself to take a step back and let people "do their thing" even when I want so desperately to say something, and other days, when I wake up and have to make the decision to step in.

The video also reminded me that people are all different. Some require hand-holding all the way, like the child who needs the parent to walk him/her right to the entrance of the school every day, even when s/he knows his/her way. Others...prefer that you pretend you didn't know they were struggling but wants the option to come to you if things come crashing down. Yet, others, need just a simple invite for a drink to spill all anxieties on the table and have a good cry.

At the end of the day, managing people is about realising that no matter how long you have done it, there is always something new to learn. And that's why it is important to have your own network of people to go to. And, sometimes, that means having a giant jar of chocolate on your table to dip into.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Back to English 101...


5 years after going out into the working world, I went back to a 101 level university class this summer. Specifically, I went back to take an English class that teaches undergraduates the expectations of university-level (science) writing.

The few people who knew thought I was quite silly, of course, but I wanted to take this class to help reacquaint myself to solid academic writing and also some good tips on just how to write from an English professor.

This class is giving me the opportunity to think about what I write, why I write something, how to get to my point using a structure, and to think about issues like audience and message when writing an academic paper.

Definitely refreshing. And, hopefully, helpful for when I get to grad school.

Interestingly, today, I saw this post: Why Most Academics Will Always be Bad Writers

I guess I am not alone. We could all use some help.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Ronald McDonald House BC and Yukon...


For the past 4 years, I have been volunteering at the BC Women's Hospital's Newborn ICU (BCWH NICU). Officially, my job at the NICU is to cuddle babies when their parents/caregivers are unavailable. Often, this also means that I get to meet family members and their friends, many of whom come from all over BC. Some of these families even come from outside Canada.

Several families I have worked with during these 4 years have stayed at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH), located a stone's throw away from the NICU.


The awesome slide at Ronald McDonald House...


Tonight, I got a chance to tour the award winning house and to cook dinner for the 70+ families who make Ronald McDonald House their home while their child seeks treatment at BC Children's Hospital.

The thing that struck home the most about the service that RMH provides is the community support while a child is sick. The community support not only comes from the staff at RMH, but also from the people of Vancouver who help in many ways. For example, 4 nights a week, people in the community (individuals or groups) come out and cook dinner for the families at RMH.

This struck home because that is the main reason why I volunteer at the NICU--to give parents a chance to step outside the NICU and take of themselves and the rest of their family and trust that someone from the community is there to help support their child who is living in the NICU.

For more info on RMH and how you can help, visit http://rmhbc.ca

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Model


Recently, a mother called Beth started talking about how mothers struggle the most when there isn't a village to support her bring baby up. I agree wholeheartedly. Beth, however, didn't mention that in the absence of the village and in the face of the mother's struggle, the one that ultimately suffers, is the child.

This is one of the reasons why I volunteer in the Newborn ICU. As volunteers, our role is to provide support to the baby (for example, by holding them) when their parents are unavailable or absent. Parents rest assure that they can go home and take a break, see to their other children, or just go for a walk.

Personally, I believe it is a little bit like creating a miniscule village within the NICU.

We can also look at this through a slightly different lens. Bronfenbrenner provides a nice model for us to look at this.

Modified Bronfenbrenner's model for illustration
There is so much we can do as members of society to create that village in whatever society and ecosystem we live and work in. If we think of children as the very heart of the model and do all we can to give them the best head start, I think that said child can grow up to be that adult who can then provide support the society they live in and the next generation of children.

I also think we can view Bronfenbrenner's model as rather bidirectional. Its influences are as inwards towards the child as it is outwards to the people in the immediate circles.

This is, of course, rather simplistic in nature. Questions we haven't seemed to figure out include how do we teach compassion, respect, responsibility, grit, self-control, and all the other values (or how to not grow up to be self-centred!) to that child...

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

You are not my servant...

I was at an Asian grocery store recently, and had a conversation with the lady at the till. I don't often get to have conversations at this particular grocery store because it is usually a hive of activity and the lines are often very long. But, this time, I was the only person waiting to pay.

The lady at the till was probably in her mid-forties.

Me: Hello. I have my own bags.
Lady (Chinese with thick Chinese accent): Hello. Can I pack for you? (holds out hand for my bags)
Me: Doesn't matter to me. You can pack. I can pack...
Lady: You are not from China. You are Canadian!
Me: *laughing* Why would you say that?
Lady: Chinese people from mainland China get angry at us if we don't pack for them. Packing is a servant's job. It is my job to pack for you. Canadian...they very use to pack on their own. I have to ask for bag.
Me, a little taken aback: Cashier-ing is considered a servant?
Lady: Yes. And if I pack for people from China, I must also pack for Canadian. Only good customer service. Treat everybody the same. Canadian or Chinese.
Me: You are not my servant.
Lady: Thank you. You have a good day.
Me: Thank you. You, too.


I am honestly not sure how I feel about that conversation. A lady older than me earning an honest living being told every day she is someone's servant just because she is a cashier.

I can't tell if I'm angry, or annoyed, or horrified, or just realizing I'm being naïve about this. Could this be a cultural response? After all, just because I am Chinese, and this lady is Chinese, it is quite clear we grew up in a very different geographical location with different cultural norms and what is acceptable.

Whatever it is, it has given me quite a bit to think about.

A teacher of mine once said, "always treat someone the way you would want your mother to be treated."

I would be horrified if people treated my mother that way.

 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Leadership for *Me* is Making a Difference, One Life at a Time...


I started actively volunteering when I was 17. At that time, I thought that to make a difference, one had to make a big splash. That you had to be visible.

Over the years though, I have come to appreciate that that's not always true. You can make as much difference in the world by quietly working in the background.


I guess I have come to appreciate that the kind of leader I am is the one who will go down to the ground and work her behind off for a cause she believes in, and work with the people. I will never be well-known and I will never be worshipped, but I'm okay with that.


Because, sometimes, the changes in the causes you care about don't come from a splash in the river. Sometimes, they come from a ripple.

Friday, 7 February 2014

You don't have to like everybody; and they don't have to like you....


I think one of the lessons I learned going to university was that you don't have to like everybody you meet, and they don't have to like you.

The harder lesson, though, was that even if you don't like the person (and they don't like you), it's actually possible to work with them AND treat them with respect and fairness.

One of the first difficult people I encountered in university was a lady I was assigned to work with. She was difficult in the sense that she was very controlling and also very uptight about many things, which was very hard for me because I could be the same in some aspects. I used to get into 'trouble' with her every week because she would get her knickers in a twist every week because she was not happy with the way I cut the strawberries: she was upset when I cut them into halves, upset when I cut them into eighths, upset when I cut them into quarters, and after a while, I gave up.

One day, maybe after some 10 weeks of going round the bush of cutting her upset because she was never happy with my strawberries, I finally had a conversation with my professor...

Me: I really don't like her; she's always picking on my strawberry-cutting. They're strawberries!
Professor: Finally! I was wondering when you would realize that.
Me: I don't have to like her. Right?
Prof: Right. You don't. She's difficult. You don't have to change that.

And ironically, once I accepted that and stopped fighting, we actually worked together much better. For one, if she had problem with my strawberry-cutting, I gave the strawberries to her and told her to cut them.

Good thing I learned that in university. There's many a difficult people out there.

I don't have to like them all, but that doesn't mean I can't work with them or respect them.

In fact, I would go as far as to say it's one of the more important lessons I learned.