Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New page

I'm moving over to a new site over at www.wordpress.com. Their tools are just a little bit easier to use, and since this blog was originally intended just to be a travel log.

I might keep this one updated when I do some more traveling, but for now, head over there to keep in touch.

Edit: the link should be working now

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Micro RNA's

Yeah... I know I suck at keeping this thing updated. Exams are over, they went fine. It snowed, the snow melted, and it's supposed to snow again tomorrow. My parents and brother visited Boston for a week, and left yesterday. I hope everyone had a jubilent solstice :-)

I think now it's time for me to actually try to explain what it is I'm doing here at Harvard. I personally think that explaining science to non-scientists is one of our most important jobs in academia, but few people even attempt it, and so most are pretty bad at it. I haven't had a lot of opportunities to do it myself, so I have a lot to learn. Please leave comments, ask questions, and make me better (also, leave comments because if you don't, I will think no one is reading and will lose all motivation to write even sporadically).

As I mentioned previously, right now I'm working on things called micro-RNAs (miR for short), and in order to explain what they do and why they are interesting, I should give some back-ground. Most people know a little something about DNA: it contains the information on how to build an organism. DNA is the principal component of heredity (kids look like their parents, because they inherit DNA, identical twins look alike because they have identical DNA etc), but DNA itself doesn't do any work. It's like a schematic or a blueprint. Blueprints don't actually move around and make buildings, they just spell out how to make the building.

Which brings us to proteins, the molecules that actually do the work. DNA is just a set of instructions on how to make proteins. If you have brown eyes, it's because your DNA contains instructions on how to make a protein that creates a brown-colored pigment in your eyes. So what do microRNA's do? microRNA's fine-tune the expression of genes, and therefore proteins. As you might imagine, it takes an incredible about of precision to take a single set of instructions and churn out all of the complexity that makes up a typical human (or mouse or worm). microRNA's are just one level of regulation, and they work by blocking the expression of particular proteins.

So who cares?

Since microRNA's regulate the expression of genes, when things go wrong with microRNAs, you can seriously throw off the calibration of cells. The disregulation of microRNA's has been implicated in several types of cancer and a few other diseases. Besides all that, they are still poorly understood and that makes them appealing to study.

I am almost done with this rotation, and I am currently looking for the next lab to rotate in. I hope this post was at least somewhat informative. If not, please let me know so I can do better (too much detail, not enough?). I'm still honing my ability to describe this stuff in print, so any suggestions are most welcome.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Wow, it's friggin' cold here. Last night it dropped to about 20 degrees F (-6 C) and it's been hovering around freezing during the day. It's so weird to look outside, see beautiful sunny weather, and then put on 3 layers and a heavy coat. Everyone keeps asking me, "Are you still excited about this weather?" To which I reply, "Yes!" To which they reply, "Well, just wait until March, then we'll see what you think." Seriously, I've had this exact same conversation at least 5 times in the past week. Anyway, I'm really looking forward to snow. I think it will happen the next time we have any precipitation whatsoever (but the forcast says sunny and cold for at least the next week).

I stressed a little over my exams, but they are over now and went fine. I did slightly better than average on both of them, and in gradschool, my understanding is that average is about a B or B+. It is also my understanding that no matter how poorly you do, they will not let you fail. That is, if you're actually willing to put in any effort they won't let you fail (this seems a sensible position for them to take considering they've already invested about $25,000 in each of us). In addition I have been told by everyone from my TA's to the Dean of Harvard medical school that no one will ever look at my graduate school transcript, so grades really don't matter. I'm still having trouble adjusting to that fact (and the fact that being average is pretty damn good considering the company I keep), but that knowledge is making hard to be motivated to study.

For now, I'm spending most of my energy focusing on my research, which is going pretty well so far. I will explain more or less what I am doing in my next post some time this weekend.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ready... Almost

Tomorrow I take my first exam in almost 3 years...

I think I'm about as prepared as I'm going to be, and that's a good feeling. Perhaps I could have done more, but at this point I think I just need to sleep and let my dreams help me learn (no, really).

In other news, it's dropped below freezing temperatures several times in the last few days. When I got up this morning it was a balmy 35 degrees. I still rode my bike to class though, complete with gloves and beanie. To all those who said I wouldn't enjoy the cold, my joy is still going strong. Check back after a few months of this, but I can't see growing tired of this.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Momentous joy!

After four months, I'm finally in a lab again. It was great taking a break, but I also felt like part of me was missing when I wasn't pipetting something.

The way it works is that I get to try out at least 3 labs (called rotations) before deciding where I will do my thesis work. Since the vast majority of my time over the next 5-6 years will be spent in lab (classes are actually a minute part of getting a PhD in biology), it's a pretty important decision. I've joined the lab of Judy Lieberman, and I'll be working (at least for my rotation) on micro-RNAs. More on what that is later, but now I have to study for my molecular biology mid-term and I'm woefully behind.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Slacking and catch-up

Ok, I meant to have this thing updated a while ago, and it's just not happening, so I'll just outline the last 2 months, put up some pictures and then start from the current time.


During my week in Santa Cruz, I also took my cousin Tanja to San Francisco, went across the Golden Gate Bridge, had clam-chowder in a bread bowl on the wharf, and managed to get lost even while using a fancy GPS. (tanja, you need to post pictures when you get them).

The next week I down to Baja California with my brother and his friends Andres and Aurthur. We got stranded in Puento Conejo due to a tropical storm that wiped out the highway leading to our original destination, Scorpion Bay. I still had a great time though, camping on the beach, hanging with my brother, waking up before dawn to go surfing before the wind picked up, eating tacos, playing with scorpions, etc. We took 900 pictures, but I've uploaded a selection here.

I arrived in Boston on Sept 1st, and have been slowly getting accustomed to living on the east coast (I realized on friday that I can no longer judge what I need to wear just by looking out my window - it was bright and sunny but around 50 degrees). I started classes on the 15th of September, and I've had to get used to being in classes again and not working. It's wierd finding myself at home, with a bunch of time on my hands, but actually having a lot of stuff to do.

Last weekend I went to New Hampshire (you can drive less than 2 hours and be in another state... it's weird) to canvass for the Obama campaign with my roommate M.E. (say Emmy). It was a lot of fun, though I don't know if we really accomplished much (most of the houses we went to had no one home). The fall foliage was beautiful though.

My roommates are great, and my classmates are great and I've been having a great time. I just got back from New Hampshire where we had our immunology program retreat. There were a bunch of great talks (a few not-so-great talks too) and I got a better sense of what some of the labs here at Harvard are doing so I can make better decisions about where to do my rotations (we get to try out several labs before choosing where to do our thesis work, which is the bulk of the degree).

On Saturday I joined a group of students and post-docs on a hike up Loon mountain. It's a ski resort in the winter, and we essentially just walked up the slope.

I'd never really seen a ski-slope without the snow before. At the top there was a magnificent lake...

and we were so tired from the ordeal that we ended up just taking the gondola back down.

I'm back in Boston now and trying (in vain) to motivate myself to study for mid-terms.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Surfing at Pleasure Point - back in Santa Cruz

Baja was fast approaching, and I hadn't been on a surfboard in months. During the week I was in Santa Cruz, we did manage to get out on the water a couple times. We went to Pleasure Point, and Steve and Andres brought the camera along so we could practice and even get some photos for imagineawave.com.

Steve and Dre paddle off to the Hook for strength training... I'm in no shape to make the trek.

Steve on the nose

Dre drops in on Steve...

That's Arthur - another friend from high-school that's going with us to Baja. Dre drops in on him too...

And he drops in on me...

He manages to catch his own waves sometimes though