Wednesday, April 29, 2009

See how they grow Part II

Today is my baby brother's birthday! He's now fourteen years old. To put a little perspective on his life relative to mine, I started college when he started first grade. He was six. Now he's about to become a high school freshman.

Michael has always been my special bud. I love his refreshing take on life, his optimistic attitude, his caring nature, and his sense of humor. When I think of Michael, I think of

-books. First and foremost, I think of books. For quite a while, I would take Michael to the library and he would request that I give him books to read. I thought this was lots of fun. Then he got a little older and he started giving me books to read, too. He's got good taste in books, I always enjoy the ones he gives me.

-Music. Michael is an excellent trumpet player. He also decided recently that he wants to learn more instruments, so I gave him a rudimentary lesson on my old flute. He has an excellent ear, and can pick out just about any tune you give him.

-Animals. I love watching him with his two pet rats, Salt and Pepper. He loves animals, and it's fun to see how gentle he is with them.

I also love doing new things with Michael because his enthusiasm is so refreshing. A few years ago during a boring break from school, I took him to the fabric store and we came home with the supplies to make a hoodie. We had so much fun together while he figured out how all the different pattern pieces worked together.

Happy Birthday, Michael!

the amazing complexity of life

When people learn that I’m a geneticist, often the question of what I do specifically or what I want to do will come up. And often, I’ll get some sort of query as to whether or not I’ll go searching for the cure to cancer.

What I don’t get is why so many people seem to be under the misconception that cancer can have a single cure when there are so many causes of cancer. There are limitless ways for a person to develop cancer, all of which in the end come back to some kind of malfunction in that precious guide to life, DNA.

Each one of your individual cells carries within this acidic molecule instructions for how to metabolize, how to heal wounds, how to eliminate invaders, and, most importantly to this discussion, how to divide and grow- and also how to stop dividing. Cell division is imperative for life as we know it. Your skin cells divide constantly just to keep up with the outer layer that’s constantly being removed. And let’s not even start on what your poor stomach lining cells go through. They live in a very hostile environment with an extremely acidic pH. The key to their survival is that they don’t survive very long- just a short existence mostly marked by their furious division to keep up with the decaying effects of the stomach acid. So, new cell division is a major part of what keeps us functioning correctly.

But as important as this division is, there are an amazing number of genes in your DNA that are dedicated to the sole purpose of making sure the cell doesn’t divide too often or if it’s not ready. These gene products act as checks before giving the okay for the cell to go ahead and complete cell division and telophase. They make sure that it is necessary for the cell to divide, and also that there aren’t major problems within the cell that will cause more problems in the daughter cells. These genes are crucial to balanced growth. And if they get damaged, the result is usually uncontrolled cell growth, or what we commonly call cancer.

Because really all that cancer is is the unchecked division of cells. The cancerous cells consume precious energy that could be going to maintaining a healthy system elsewhere and disrupt the functions of the organs or systems that they are growing in. This is why cancers almost always form in body systems that are actively growing; no one ever hears about nerve cancer because the nervous system in an adult has ceased to undergo cell division. Cancer is much more likely to take root where cell division is active- the colon, the stomach, and especially the reproductive organs, where cell division is constantly taking place. And, as I mentioned, there are numerous genes checking the growth of these cells. If any one of these genes are damaged, or even if a gene that controls the expression of one of these genes is damaged, the result will almost invariably be cancer. Molecular biologists like to say that anyone who lives long enough will without fail contract some kind of cancer, and this is largely true. Througout the course of our lives, we pick up mutations and deletions and other alterations to our DNA in different cells throughout our bodies. Most of these are harmless and have no consequences. But once a mutation hits a critical gene, cancer is the result.

And this is a big piece of why it’s impssoble to come up with one simple one-size-fits-all cure for cancer- things that are caused from different sources need different treatments, even if the symptoms are the same. There’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s a point that most people don’t seem to realize.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Animalian Invasion

I ran a few errands tonight after Family Home Evening and it was pretty dark when I finally pulled up by my building to go inside. As I put my car in park, I noticed two shapes trotting across the lawn to my left, and realized they were deer. I turned off my car and watched them for a moment. They approached the house next door at a pretty good clip, and then they slowed down, walked right up to the front porch, and peered in the windows. Then one of them kind of just stood there while the other gazed purposefully across the street. Then they both slowly and cautiously circled around the back of the house. At this point I decided it was safe to leave my car and make a dash for my apartment building. I'm not sure what the deer were up to, but they were clearly scouting something out and I don't think they'd take kindly to an unintentional spy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

See how they grow

Anyone who reads this blog with any kind of regularity has probably noticed a pretty consistent theme of family popping up in my posts. This one isn't any different.

In my church, young men are expected to dedicate two years of their lives to serving as missionaries, preaching the gospel in every country whose government will permit it. They generally leave when they turn nineteen and return at age twenty-one. And it's always amazing and wonderful to see what two years of studying the gospel and serving people will do to a boy.

My kid brother Mark returned from his mission to Spain on Tuesday night. I suppose I really can't call him my kid brother any more, since he's several inches taller than me, in his twenties, and a pre-med student at college. I met up with most of the rest of my family on Tuesday evening at the airport (sans Rebecca and her family) to welcome him home.

Mark and I have always been good buds. I'm not sure why, since he's five years younger than me, and in general, thirteen-year-old girls are not good pals with their eight-year-old brothers. But Mark and I were. For whatever reason, we've always had fun talking about everything. When we were younger, we both loved plants a lot (I still do, I'm not sure Mark's infatuation is as strong as it used to be, though), and we decided at one point that we were going to live near each other when we grew up with a setup so our backyards were back-to-back one huge yard, with a greenhouse in the middle.

When we were kids, we had an old grey clunker of a family van. My dad's solution to getting more kids in the family was to simply add more seatbelts to the van. So by the time Michael made his appearance, we had four seatbelts in the back, three in the middle, and a bench seat in the front so there could be three seats up there. Because of its color and bus-like nature, we began calling it the Greyhound.

Once, when Mark was about fourteen, I think, he and I decided to go see "The Lord of the Rings," which was showing in theaters. So we clambered into the Greyhound and got about three houses down the street before the engine suddenly died. We sat there in the dead car and looked at each other and then Mark said, "put it in neutral and I'll push it to the side of the road!" Now Mark was a rather skinny kid, but I agreed to let him try. I was very impressed when the van actually moved while he pushed it.

Now he's no longer an absentminded, happy-go-lucky, slightly disorganized teenager, but a dedicated, hardworking, motivated young adult with incredible people skills and a mind like a trap. Isn't it great what dedicating your life to the Savior can do?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Winter's on the Wing . . .

I woke up early this morning and decided that a little reading and meditation on the balcony while watching the sky lighten would be just the thing. While sitting there in contentment, I discovered that the first green blade has pushed its way through the dirt in one of my garden boxes! There will be gladiolus and nasturtiums and wind flowers and sweet peas soon! (well, sort of soon). This is a good day.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Angering the sleep gods

Monday, April 20

2:30 AM- woke up abruptly and completely. Pondered the fact that I was also very hungry. After lying in bed for half an hour thinking about a very pleasant topic that unfortunately didn't help me get back to sleep, got up, drank chocolate milk, and finished the last hundred pages or so of "Heidi"

4:00 AM- attempted to fall back asleep. Succeeded after a while

6:45 AM- rudely awakened by my alarm. After laying in bed and trying to ignore it for about 20 minutes, finally got up, dressed, and off to work.

8 AM to 4:45 PM- read papers about chronic lymphoid leukemia, followed L through a new piece of the maze-like building to learn how to ship things off in the shipping room, had a very enjoyable lunch with the cytogenetics people, went to staff meeting and enjoyed the free treats, and set up a troubleshooting project. Only dozed off once or twice.

4:45- ran to the in-house gym to beat the post-work crowd and did a 4-mile workout on the ellyptical. Starting to feel good about the 5K I signed up for in June.

5:30- drove home, grabbed my dinner contribution and headed straight to the pre-FHE potluck dinner (tonight's theme: picnic foods, eaten on a blanket in the backyard). Discovered that the plan for FHE was to play games. Wished I hadn't worked out quite so hard.

7:00- began a rousing game of Ultimate frisbee with my ward. Kept threatening to leave after the next point because I was so tired, but the game was too fun. Stuck it out until after 8:30.

9:00- collapsed on my couch and got ready for bed. Had a great conversation with Matt.

11:00- read scriptures and fell soundly asleep.

4:00 AM, Tuesday- woke up suddenly and completely and, oddly enough, ravenously hungry. After laying in bed for a bit, decided that it was pointless to fall back asleep for such a short period of time, and so, of course, I decided to blog about it instead. Am I part of the 21st century or what?

Today's agenda: go to work, go straight from work to dinner with Aunt Gladys, go straight from dinner to the airport, where I will meet up with the rest of my family and we will welcome my brother Mark home from his mission, drive home, and crash into bed. Keep naps at my desk to a minimum.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sketches from work

Notes from Friday afternoon:

This afternoon, anticipating a quick but fun trip up to Idaho and just rather enjoying life in general, I was seized by the sidden desire to start singing. Sadly, I decided that singing to oneself in one’s cubicle is probably asking for trouble. As I’ve discovered, people who work in cubicles live on top of each other and if they’re paying any attention at all, can learn all kinds of things about each other.

One thing I’ve started noticing recently is that my desk is kind of in this little island of multiculturalism. Between the Iranian tech and the Chinese researcher behind me, the Italian woman on my right, the French lady who frequently comes and jabbers with the Italian woman, and the man who speaks some kind of Slavic language loudly on the phone on the other side of the cubicle divide (when he’s not speaking loudly in English with a Slavic accent), I feel very multicultural sometimes. My favorite part is when I hear conversations being carried out in other languages that are science-based, because then they are punctuated by random English science words that don’t have a convenient equivalent in the other language. It might be something like “Blah blah, blah [insert Slavic words here] blah metaphase plate, blah blah blah cytology blah blah E. coli blah . . .” and these are fun because I still have no idea what’s being said, but I can piece something together. Or it’s just funny to hear random English words thrown in. Take your pick.

I also don’t understand how these people, along with all the native English speakers, can carry out so many conversations at such a volume. Granted, not very many of them speak really loud, but if I listen, I can make out so many different conversations. Granted, not many of them need to be private or are of a personal nature, but I’ve definitely overheard some funny things. This is why I always run out of the cubicle area when my cell phone rings. I am incredibly self-conscious about my elder colleagues hear me talking on the phone. Of course, bad cell phone etiquette has always been a pet peeve of mine, so that probably plays in here somewhere. It’s also kind of entertaining to hear the quiet symphony of cell phones going off. They are likely to not be answered, since we are the research team and odds are pretty good that someone will be in their lab and not at their desk. So I’ve listened to a wide variety of rings in the past month or so. The only one that I’ve been able to actually place with its owner is that of my coworker and friend L, whose ring is the theme of “The Office.” That one wasn’t hard to figure out, since she is an avid fan of the show (and although we talk about a lot of things together, we haven’t made much headway there since I’ve seen about 2 ½ episodes of “The Office” ever).

I’m still working on making my cubicle an aesthetically pleasing place to be. It sports a batik from Africa, a vase from Thailand, a few pictures, lots of office supplies, and two plants. Interestingly, my plants at work are looking healthier than my plants at home. I think this has mainly to do with the fact that I stare at my work plants frequently and it’s very easy to remember to water them. It’s a little harder to remember to do the rest, especially on days like yesterday when I got home from work, an hour later left to do a session in the Salt Lake temple as part of my stake conference, and didn’t get home for good until almost 11. Something about days like that make them less conducive to plant watering. Anyway. If anyone has a really cool idea for my cubicle and I like it and decide to use it, you might get a prize. If you’re lucky.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Contemplations of a Stormy Night

Although it is halfway through April, the weather is definitely acting manic-depressive, in Melanie's words. A slow drizzle has been slowly saturating the city for most of the day, accompanied by thick, grey, lowering clouds. In fact the clouds are lowering enough to make it kind of misty. From the window of my third-floor apartment, which is set up in the foothills and affords an excellent view of the valley, most of the city has been rather shrouded in the greyness, which made sunset and twilight a rather surreal affair. Now the clouds have lifted just enough that I can see the city lights sprawling out across the valley, accompanied by the sound of cars traveling down the wet and busy road that runs past the building.

It's the kind of night that would have found me outside, barefoot, tromping through the grass and damming the gutter about fifteen years ago, reveling in the rain, the spring, even the coolness. As my toes would slowly get colder and colder, I would have jumped and skipped and sang, fancying myself a dryad or a wood sprite, unless one of my brothers happened to find me, in which case they would have teased me and my temper would have flared. But usually that didn't happen.

One thing I miss the most when I live in an apartment is having a yard. A little place of my own to dig in the soil and have a garden, to dance in the rain, to lay on the grass and gaze at the stars, to just sit in the sun and soak up its warmth or to enjoy a good book. And when I'm home for a visit, I try to steal out back to turn a few cartwheels and say hello to the rose bushes and if I'm there at the right time, watch the sun set over the orchard and see the stars come out. I've made Michael sit outside with me a few times to do that. I don't think he understands why I enjoy it so much. But he humors me.

Rainy nights make me contemplative, as you can tell. I believe I will take my contemplation and curl up in a blanket with a book. Since I have no yard to glory in the rain, I will take the second best option for tonight.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Moderato con gusto

I think Salt Lake is starting to feel like home. Slowly. A little.

I haven't been sleeping well lately, so after sleeping in unusually late this morning, I got up and ran an extraordinarily fun set of errands. First on the list was grocery shopping. Grocery shopping in and of itself isn't necessarily an amazing activity, but the store I went to had their garden center out and I drooled over it. I exercised admirable self-control, though, reminding myself that I already had purchased seeds for flowers and herbs on my balcony and limited myself to purchasing potting soil and two planters for flowers. I can't wait to have a balcony garden in a few weeks. During the course of my shopping, I made sure to buy some yogurt on sale so I can use the cups for starting seeds after the yogurt has been consumed.

After the grocery shopping was done, it was time to go over to the University of Utah to listen to my friend Kerstin perform on her violin for her Master of Music recital. She did an excellent job. She played a very nice Beethoven concerto, with that nice late-Classical, early-Romantic feel, then an early 20th century piece, and finished with a piece by Brahms, definitely Romantic era. The Brahms piece utilized the method of naming the movements using the tempo markings, so I listened to Allegro molto moderato, Adagio, and Vivace ma non troppo. During this piece my mind began meditating on the fact that his would be a good way to classify my days- it's like saying "today was a really long, slow day," only much more sophisticated because instead it would look like "Saturday: Andante and largo." Today, as you can see, is Moderato con gusto. Not a busy day, but not a slow day, and a good day.

The refreshments after the recital consisted of chocolate-covered strawberries and cream puffs. There were a couple other things too, but they pale in comparison. Chocolate covered strawberries and cream puffs just seem so elegant, light, and spring-y. Yum! They had lots of extra food, so I was urged to take home a plate. Now there are chocolate covered strawberries and cream puffs sitting in my kitchen. Yay!

While I was trying to find the location of Kerstin's concert, I stumbled across a building that took me aback- the John A. Widstoe building! I felt like I was in a parallel universe, because the name of the biology research building at BYU where I essentially lived when Iw as a grad student is none other than the John A. Widstoe building. After getting over my surprise, I read the plaque that explained how after Elder Widstoe was a professor at BYU, he served as the president of the U of U. Probably I should have known that. Did everyone else know that? Anyway, it was kind of weird.

My last task of the day was one that I've been meaning to do for quite some time. I drove to the Salt Lake County Library and got a library card! Then, because I was short on time, I explored the children's wing and decided to devote my first checkout to children's books. The ones I ended up with were:

-"Encyclopedia Brown," because all my brothers loved these books when we were kids but I can't remember if I ever actually read them or not. Now's my chance to find out.

-The 3rd and 4th books in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," because I started the series a couple of years ago but clearly didn't get very far (I'm kind of cheating. I haven't read the second book but they didn't have any copies of it there. But there were about ten copies of Book the First. What's wrong with this scenario?)

-"Frog and Toad are Friends," along with a couple other Frog and Toad books, on the recommendation of my friend David and also because I think I may have read them as a kid but once again, can't remember (in my defense, I read a lot of books as a kid. I call my siblings as my witnesses).

-The first two "Five Little Peppers" books, because I know I've never read them and they look fun.

-"Heidi," which I also read several years ago, and want to re-read. Also, when I was in high school, a man in Utah Valley turned "Heidi" into a musical, which premiered at Utah Valley University, and I played the flute and the piccolo for the soundtrack. I doubt it's commercially available, but I have a copy, and it's kind of fun.

-"Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo," because, honestly. Can you turn down a book with a title like that? This is a case of strictly judging a book not by its cover per se, but by its title. I hope it lives up to my expectations.

The Salt Lake County Main Library is a large and impressive building and I fully intend to return soon and do more exploring. It seems much more cosmopolitan to me than my beloved Orem library, more mainstream, more sophisticated, but it also feels a little less scholarly. But the children's section at least is dang cool, sporting a human-sized stuffed giraffe standing on its hind legs and dressed like a nurse. Probably it's referencing some story that I don't know, but I find it hilarious.

Driving around today, I was caught by surprise at just how many flowering trees there are around Salt Lake. Redbuds and Magnolias and weeping cherries make spring so exquisite. I think I shall have to go on a walk through my rather ritzy neighborhood tomorrow and celebrate Easter by drinking in the sight of the flowering magnolia trees.

Now I'm home and waiting for Melanie to get back so we can go to the BYU ballroom dance concert. Plants, books, good music, and dance- anyone who knows me well should understand exactly why I label this day "Moderato con gusto."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Passover: a time of remembrance

Tonight, my pre-FHE potluck dinner group decided to have an informal Passover feast. It turned out remarkably well, although I didn't get word of the theme in time to contribute anything worthwhile. But it was a very tasty and enjoyable evening, sitting on a blanket on the floor with our grape juice, flatbread, hummus, bitter herbs, and matze soup.

Even better than the food though, it was an excellent reminder of how important this week is, not just as Passover week, but as Easter week. The two celebrations go hand-in-hand so closely. Passover is a time of remembrance for how the Jews were led out of captivity to a promised land, and Easter is a celebration of the event that allows all men who consciously choose it freedom from sin and the chance to live in an eternal promised land, in the presence of the Father.

It is so ironic to me that Christmas is such a huge celebration worldwide and celebrated with such pomp and that Easter, by comparison, is celebrated on a much smaller scale- and yet which is the more important event? That Christ was born, or that He conquered death?

Don't let Easter slip by uncelebrated in your own life. Perhaps it is not such a bad thing that the world considers this holiday to be worth less monetary value than Christmas- maybe they are right. But if Easter is really celebrated in its true spirit in the hearts of men, its value surpasses anything else that we can possibly aspire to. A world with no atonement and no resurrection would be a dark, dismal, terrifying place to live. Take some time this week to thank God for the gift of repentance, of rebirth, of communication with heaven. Ponder the greatness of the gift, and then take the spirit of Easter on through the rest of the year with you.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


How many people in the world are fortunate enough to (1) have seven brothers and sisters and (2) be good friends with them all? I've always loved them, but one of the best things about growing up is watching everyone develop their character and decide who they are and what they like and what they'll study in college and how we can all become peers instead of an uncertain pecking order.

Since this weekend was General Conference, I spent it with my family. We're a little more spread out now, but Friday night was especially fun because there were five of us home. I draw such strength from my siblings and their warm, strong personalities.

Elder Bednar, one of the twelve apostles, spoke today about temples and homes. He mentioned that temples are the most sacred place on earth, being God's house on the earth, and the only place that can compare to the temple in holiness is the home. I remember hearing this as a child and furrowing my brow a little. I loved my home, but it was a rather noisy place, and with so many small children, there were definitely lots of arguments and scuffles. But today as I sat with my parents and Michael and Angi and thought about how much I love my family, it made so much sense. The home is holy- the temple is where we go to form eternal families, but the home is where we go to develop them, teach them, and provide for them a refuge from the deluge of filth that pervades the world. A home will be whatever we try to make it. If we are not trying to make it anything, it will not amount to much. Just like developing a character, developing a home takes conscious effort and work. It takes lots of effort to not only make a home a pleasant place physically, but also spiritually.

Even though my family's house when I was small was a little disorganized and sometimes loud and dirty, I think it did qualify as a holy place, where we we all taught that God is our Father, who loves us and wants us to return to Him. In those walls, we were taught that, because we are God's children, we must act accordingly and not do anything that would defile or demean us. And, for the most part, we tried to live the lessons we were taught. And now, as we grow up and one by one become adults and move away to college and try out all these lessons we've been taught for ourselves, away from home, all those years of learning in our home are paying off. I love by brothers and sisters so much. They are among my very best friends. I'm pretty blessed.