Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Zen of Fencing

The biological science lab is a world of preciseness, detail, tedium and long thankless hours. Expensive equipment used to tease out complex patterns in molecular interactions, endless experiments, data sorting, charts and graphs. Composing the entire history convincingly to appease fickle reviewers is sometimes less than rewarding for that passionate idea that hatched over a glass of wine at the dinner table. The chance of making a slam dunk in the basket of a high impact journal is more elusive than reaching Magic Johnson’s scores.

Some of us scientists have hobbies that provide us with periods of relaxation. Where we can breathe slowly, allow our minds to wander at will, conduct internal dialogues, fantasize about retirement, or just sing a favorite tune. There are no emails to sort through, no phone calls to field, no buffer recipes to double check. We enter that private Zone where we are reminded that we exist for whatever purpose we choose at that moment.

My current focus of relaxation is also work, but of a different color. The conditions strikingly contrast the environment of the scientific lab: it’s hot, dirty, sweaty, requires a great degree of physical labor, using less expensive power and hand tools, preciseness is flexible and forgiving, and the results are long lasting. There is no recipe or instructions. But just as at the lab bench, the process is most important.

Recently having dismantled the chaotic mess of a fence around an acre plus of pasture, the replacement is a long and laborious project. Stubbornly dedicated to constructing a better and stronger fence than its predecessor, all the post holes were precisely measured and dug. Now the process of putting in the new posts commences. That process is enabled by intuition and faith. It is the Zen of fencing.

Fencing is no stranger to me, having fenced in many acres of sheep pasture in Oregon. But this is new territory; this is Texas. The soil type changes nearly every 50 feet, ranging from grey river bottom loam, to red hard clay under six inches of orange sandy loam. The most challenging is what locally called “black gumbo”: blackish alkaline clay that resembles dyed hard sticky putty when wet. The local wild vegetation varies, but in the undergrowth of the oak trees are sharply barbed vines, the most irritating nemesis. Gloves are a necessity. The battle scars at the end of the day are welts and scratches on any exposed skin. Separating proteins in a gel by electrophoresis is eating chocolate cake compared to this.

The holes in the ground wait patiently for their mates. Each hole is different: too shallow, too deep, roots to trim off, crooked. But they are all forgiving and surrender to the post hole digger as it scoops, straightens and cleans the hole. After confirming the proper depth of the hole, the pressure-treated post is sized up and down for flaws, bends, knots, checking, and general sunny attitude. And the process moves forward to the next step.

The pasture face of the post must align with the string stretched across the entire fence line. Just like any good soldier, the posts must also be plumb up and down. Temporarily attaching stakes to support the floppy 4-inch diameter posts in a 9-inch hole, I systematically check the little yellow bubbles on my level on all four sides of the post. Adjust here and there, and stabilize it with the supports.

Now comes the fun. Carefully open pour a bag and a half of dry premixed cement into the hole without disturbing the post. It’s an acquired art. Fill the hole with cement, recheck the pole for plumbness, and stab a stick into the hole to settle the cement around the post bottom. Then slowly pour in a bucket of water. Wallah! Another soldier set in it’s bed of concrete, joining the ranks of The Sentinels.

I step back and scrutinize my work with pleasure. Then start on the next hole and post. Meanwhile, as I pause to swat the mosquitoes or swipe away the rivulets of sweat and sun block running down my chest and arms, the growing sense of satisfaction fills me. And I look at the line of soldiers that will guard the pasture for the next 25 years and wonder if the next person will swear at me like I did at the former occupant who slapped up the fence I tore down.

Time and creatures are my peer-reviewers. The landscape is the journal and I am the publisher. The impact factor is how well the fence withstands storms and scratching horses. All the wood and steel posts are my colleagues and their common fabric will be the mesh wire attached to their bodies. These are The Sentinels, the soldiers and my friends. We share the Zen.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Night Before Deadlift

(Introduction: I lift weights. It is a passion, not a past time. Some people have drugs, some have each other, I have The Iron. The following is a poem I wrote during a full moon, the night before before my deadlift session.)

The Night Before Deadlifts

The night is thick
and the moon is full
Tomorrow I deadlift
I can feel the pull.

On the floor
like a woman in wait
the long bar lays
ready for her mates.

The warm iron calls
eager to mount
slide over bar ends
inattentive of count.

Caress the bar
Squat down deep
stretch thigh muscles
place my feet.

Sit in the hole
Close my eyes
Tighten the back
and start to rise.

The legs push
through the floor
the back waits
till the legs say "More!"

Arms are levers
Traps tighten all
Push through the hips
and stand up tall.

Please forgive me
I'm not the same
There are a million ways
to feel nothing
or a million ways
to be free
But when I lift you
Everything I am
will be me.

Tis the night before deadlift
and the moon is full
Wolves are in the night
Hear the weights sing
my soul is in the pull.

I love the full moon and The Iron......
Proving to myself that I am still alive.


Monday, May 02, 2005

The Language of Cells

“For all those who are fascinated by the magic of the infinitely small, hidden in the bosom of the living being are millions of palpitating cells whose only demand for the surrender of their secret, and with it the halo of fame, is a lucid and tenacious intelligence to contemplate them, to admire and to understand them.”
-- from Cajal's autobiography, Recuerdos de mi vida: Historia de mi laborcientica, Tercera edicion, 1923.

Cell signaling: a language between and within cells. Perhaps the most basic language in existence, it evolved, and still evolves, long before we were even a mote in a God's eye. The language of life and death, of sex and asex, of stop and go.

My interest in Cell Language goes so far back I can't remember.
What 'tells' leaves to turn red and fall off trees?
Years later: How do cold temperatures or shorter days tell leaves to turn red and fall off trees?
Decade later: What signal(s) induced at ~40 F tells vascular tissue in the base of leaf stems to thicken causing the leaf to fall off the branch (abscission), and why does anthocyanin predominate in senescing leaves?
Decade later: The Answer (TM): molecular signals cascading down a highway of stimuli, an evolutionary Russian roulette, adaptation and reproduction by survivors, a game of dominoes between biochemicals in a large organism. The language of birth, life and death. It is the Cycle.

Plant hormones intrigued me, but mammalian hormones caught my attention and never let me go. They are responsible for the differences between men and plants, and men and women. Hormones, the poetry of signaling molecules on a grand scale.

No one portrays this better than Robert Sapolsky, the bard of hormones. A neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, Sapolsky studied the interplay of hormones in baboons: how environmental stress influenced their hormonal changes and how hormones influenced their behavior. His and similar studies have served as models for hormones and humans, which Sapolsky relates so eloquently in his two books, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" and "The Trouble with Testosterone."

Hormones are the language between tissues and organs in our body. The world around us talks to us through our hormones and our hormones talk to our brains, influencing how we act. But it works in reverse as well. However, this is Cell Language on a grand scale. What we see and hear less of are the little innuendos and nuances in that language. For at the smallest level other molecules are the translation of those hormones. The rug and smoke signals on the hill. red and green lights, sign and body language. Cells signaling back and forth, inside and outside. Overlapping, redundant, and compensating.

It reminds me of a Beethoven symphony, or Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. In fact, those orchestrated signaling molecules transmit the sounds from the instruments through my ear canals, strumming the lobe hairs, and caressing the neurons in my brain, ligands coupling with receptors and playing the cords of the music in my brain, so that even the hairs on my arm tingle with the pleasure of a violin concerto.

Is it any wonder when I see people strolling by as if they were large mobile test tubes churning with chemical reactions, flinging ATP here and oxidizing lipids there, small bursting free radicals quenched by antioxidants. And it amazes me when I see the impact we have on each other, our surroundings, and our ability to reason, to think, to be able to understand all that we are. But do we comprehend all that we do?

This is my reality. I find beauty in these most minute intricate details. They are precious, magical and amazing. This is the ultimate unknown in the smallest scale. The universe is equally fascinating, in the grandest scale. Life is inspiring and passionate.

This is science.

Wait, I hear a symphony......