A letter to my younger self

I hope I have made you proud

Dear younger me,

I know you’re confused, should you do journalism? What about packing fish in Alaska, maybe a paramedic… I know you don’t care right now, but you really should.

Stop cheating on science quizzes, you actually do understand and enjoy the work. You just enjoy the extra 30 minutes of not studying and it’s something fun to do with your friends. Stop that right now and find other ways to entertain yourself. Even though Mean Girls hasn’t come out yet, you’ve started pretending not to understand in maths class to get the guy behind you to help you. It will backfire when, you really don’t understand and at the end of the year, you’ve only completed 3 pages of homework the day before an exam. In fact, you’ve become so proficient at playing dumb, that when a girl asks you what you want to do after school, and you reply with physiotherapy, and she tells you, “you have to be smart to do physiotherapy” … not only have you convinced other people that you don’t have what it takes, but sadly, you start believing it yourself.

That brilliant brain fart that you’ve had to only focus your efforts on English and Biology homework and ignore the rest… It’s the start of your fear of failure, I mean if you don’t even try it won’t hurt when you fail, right? Well, you will fail countless times throughout your life and you better start getting used to it, because it’s the foundation that builds a great scientist. Yes, you will be a scientist but we’ll get to that later on.

You’ll move schools and suddenly you’re in a competitive environment like never before. You’ll realise for the first time in your life that all that pretending has even got new teachers believing that you aren’t actually smart. And it will be the beginning of a long journey of self-doubt for you.

You’ll fail the first science test of the year. Little do you know, it’s a ploy to actually weed out the weaklings. You see, your school is known for being a top achiever in maths and science, and you and many other unfortunate souls are about to jeopardise their records. So when you get told you should rather do typing than science, don’t take it personally. Instead you’ll get a great tutor who sees your potential and make you work on it every damn day. And you’ll end up getting an A.

When you get told, you will never get in for physiotherapy with the maths marks you have, again, get a great tutor, work your butt off and get a B, followed by a distinction in University maths (future you still doesn’t understand calculus).

Choose a science degree because you find it challenging. Put your head down, work hard while others party and you’ll graduate with distinction. Your love affair with viruses will kick off and it’ll be a stormy ride for sure.

When the only criticism you get after a departmental seminar is, how does she do her labwork when she’s so… short. It’ll take you years to find your voice, but then you’ll make Instagram clips showing how you actually get around lab spaces that were not made for “people like you”.

When they say, “the candidate fails to show proficiency as a scholar of science at the level of a Master’s degree.” You will feel like your world has come crashing down. It’ll take you a long time to heal from the insults, but you will start a PhD. More to prove to yourself that you are a scholar of science. This, is in fact, possibly the dumbest reason to pursue this degree but boy will you learn from it.

When you get told, if she put more effort into her labwork than putting up pictures at her workspace…, cover the whole damn wall and carry on anyway.

Be grateful for the sceptics and the naysayers. Without them, you might never have discovered your potential and would’ve meandered down the lazy river of complacency.

Love,
You (almost PhinisheD)

Advertisements

Not all men…

I parked my car in a neat row in the mall parking lot, conforming with all the other cars, feeling chuffed with myself. I was going to meet a friend to write up my thesis in a coffee shop. He parked alongside me, struggling a little. While I was halfway into my car boot, taking out my laptop and handbag (#shortpeopleproblems), he said, “Hello”.

Immediately, my defences went up. Because I’ve been taught time and time again, don’t trust people especially men, even if it’s an innocuous greeting. Especially in a mall parking lot, even though it’s full and it’s the middle of the day.

And then I saw his genuine smile and thought, oh he means me no harm. Don’t be rude Yuri, just greet back.

And then it started…

“Might I just say, you are gorgeous!”

And that took me aback again, but I graciously accepted his compliment and again thought, oh what a nice man, that just made my day!

But he took it as encouragement. Spurred on by my thank you, he went ahead, “Let me be your friend”. I politely declined, adjusting the weight of my bags, saying, “I’m sure you already have someone.” He eyed his wedding ring, a well-worn silver band, twisting it around his finger, coming closer to me, looking me in the eyes almost as if he could sense my vulnerability. The one thing that would get me to lower my defences in this situation; reveal your pain to me and my codependent instincts take over, I will want to help you and nurture you like a bird with a broken wing, except I don’t like birds… so insert other analogy here.

He said, “You see, my wife passed away, 7 years ago”. My eyes softened and he knew he was getting closer. “She passed away giving birth to my child”, he continued.

And as I was about to apologise, tell this man how sorry I was that he had to go through this; a voice of a well-known philanderer (read: man whore who’s been trying to get into my pants/ colleague of mine) rang in my head. “Do you think that just because you are a good person, people have to be good back to you? This isn’t how the real world is, maybe it’s your turn to meet bad people. I don’t know what you’d do if I called you and messaged you for 3 months straight, and at the end told you, it meant nothing. You don’t see how vulnerable you are right now, guard your heart, we can all see it.”

And at that moment parking lot man revealed his true intentions, the pain in his voice gone, “I’m hoping you’ll be the one to make me take this ring off.”

Coming closer still…

Me overthinking, how can I be the person to make this man stop mourning his dead wife, after just a few minutes? Is his wife really even dead, did his child survive?

Coming to my senses.

“No, thank you”.

More firmly, with greater resolve, walking away with my head high, my eyes steeled to the mall entrance, not looking back… Walking faster still when more men start heckling at me from the doors of their shop, adding insult to injury. My defences back up, not stopping until I reached my destination.

To the man who asked me to be his friend in a mall parking lot, you might not have given much thought about that interaction as you went about your day, but I struggled to get on with my work, beating myself up for wearing vulnerability on my sleeve. For expecting goodness back. And instead of writing up my PhD thesis, I sat writing this account in a coffee shop, tears brimming my eyes, thinking, why does everyone want to mess with me?!

This post was unlike any I’ve written before. But I felt compelled to share and be vulnerable. Because these are the things I go through that in some way, slow down my progress on my PhD.

Accept. Process. Move on. It’s a new dawn.

5c9e08b47a2c5ea61f5fd50f4832cca3

How your grandma’s trauma lives on in your genes

It’s taken me a couple months to get over life’s many sucker punches but I’m dusting off the spidey webs on my blog with a much requested (er Yuri, only one person requested this – pipe down!) post on epigenetics and the link to generational trauma.

So before we get into the heavy stuff, let’s break it down simply. Who we are, is encoded in our DNA, a unique code (unless you have an identical twin) that tells whether you will have the musical talent of a blocked nose or be the next Mozart. Since the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel first played around with his pea plants, things have become slightly more complicated, leading to the field of epigenetics in the last 50 years. Epigenetics refers to which bits of your code will be switched on, or to be more exact, the changes in expression of your genes.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene expression without changes to the genetic code which in turn affects how cells read the genes.

Your DNA stays constant throughout your life but how your cells read the genes changes. These can be natural and regular occurrences, but it can also be affected by factors like age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state. These can turn the activity of the genes up or down and can tell your cells what they should grow up to be – skin cells, liver cells or brain cells. In more serious instances, epigenetic changes result in diseases like cancer.

Epigenetics and trauma

The 1944-45 Dutch famine provides an interesting and unexpected experiment on epigenetics. Children born during this period ended up being influenced by the famine throughout their lives, even though they only experienced the effects in the womb. As adults, they were slightly more overweight than average with higher rates of high cholesterol, diabetes and schizophrenia.

Methyl_Group_General_Formulae_V.1
Innocuous methyl group

Researchers attribute obesity in these adults to a small change, a specific methyl group (pictured) on a gene, PIM3. Basically, the Dutch famine added a methyl group to foetuses born to starving mothers, which made the PIM3 gene less active –> thus leading to a slow metabolism. Now, this explanation makes sense to me, if your body thinks you’re in starvation mode (low-calorie diets included) – it’s likely to pile on the weight, polar bear pre-hibernation style.

alexander-andrews-560359-unsplashOther epigenetic studies have tried to understand the trauma that seems to be passed on at a biological level, that perpetuates the experience in a trans-generational manner. The first researcher to make headway on this topic showed that when plants were traumatised with ultraviolet light, the mother plant was able to produce seedlings with exactly the same DNA. Although there were no physical changes to the appearance of the seedlings, they were highly sensitive to ultraviolet light that lasted three to four generations.

Inherited nightmares

More interestingly (IMO) is the concept of inheriting nightmares from your ancestors. This paper described how survivors of the Holocaust went on to have children that have a biological memory of what their parents experienced. This either gave these children a greater resilience to stress or predisposed them to stress.

“It seems that these individuals, who are now adults, somehow have absorbed the repressed and insufficiently worked-through Holocaust trauma of their parents, as if they have actually inherited the unconscious minds of their parents.”

This phenomenon is not exclusive to Holocaust survivors, offspring of other PTSD parents are also vulnerable; including descendants of war veterans, survivors of war trauma and childhood sexual abuse, refugees and torture victims. Not only that, but the transmission may continue down the lineages for many generations. Mothers who were pregnant during the 9/11 event gave birth to babies who had elevated levels of stress agents in their saliva.

The exciting field of epigenetics is only starting up, with further research we may be able to detect the changes that would lead to health problems later in life. Further studies in animal models would help predict how a pregnant mother’s food supply affects the epigenetics of her offspring. Epigenetics could also help tailor treatment of transgenerational transmission of trauma.

Want to know about another sciencey topic? Let me know!

Stay curious


cropped-logo.png

Advice to a budding scientist

Thoughts on what it means to be a scientist. Getting the degree alone will not make you one.

The last hurdle to pass my honours degree was to go through an oral exam. You could be questioned on anything science/microbiologically related, from something that was self-study in a textbook from 2 years ago, to your opinion on a current outbreak, it could be a role-play scenario where you have to lead a lab using the skills you’ve just acquired, whether you thought viruses are living or not and evidence supporting it… To calculations of a dilution series.

After I got over the trauma of the 2 hour barrage of questions (granted there were a lot of snarky professors and I sometimes don’t test well verbally – a trademark of being an introvert, but something I’ve tried to work on), I realised that there were many life lessons to be learned from that exam. Seven years later, and I still remember the external examiner saying to me, “talk more science in your everyday life”. This advice has been invaluable to me.

So for today’s blog post, some thoughts on what it means to be a scientist and just a well-balanced person really. And if you want the summary of the post –> Getting the degree will not make you a scientist, science is all around you so anyone can be a scientist.

Be curious

Science is everywhere. Ruminate on concepts, chew it over and over. What do you mean you don’t stay up at night wondering how they get the soft gooey centres in the chocolates or for that matter, how they get the tiny bubbles in chocolates?! I just admitted I have sleepless nights over chocolates🤦.

Stop studying just to pass exams

Study for the job you’re going to do as a scientist. Study for the decisions you will make in a company as to whether the water is safe enough for human consumption, what are the acceptable levels of rat hairs in the chocolate, what are the implications of the outlying data in the medicine you’re developing. Study to be able to advise people in power, of the policies they’re about to implement.

Jargon – get rid of it

You’re not a scientist if you’re bamboozling people with your jargon. Einstein said it best, ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.’ Cut through the clutter, find the simple in the complex. That is what distinguishes great scientists from the merely competent.

Arrogance doesn’t look good on anyone

Yes, you studied hard. Yes, not everyone can do what you do, just the same as you can’t do what everyone else does. Be able to accept that there will always be opposing ideas to your own, yet you should still be able to converse in a respectful manner. Listen to what others are saying, you might just learn something new.

Own your science

You’re taught in science to write in the passive voice, they say it gives an air of objectivity. I recently wrote an abstract that went like this: we did this and we found that. My PI scrapped it, but that doesn’t mean that this is how science is going to be communicated forever. It’s time for scientists to embrace self-promotion. If you’re doing interesting science (all science is interesting in some way), why not speak about it and own it?

You are the next generation

When I was going through a tough time (snarky professors), my father said, “don’t worry, they won’t be around forever. Someday they’ll retire and you’ll be there to take over”. You will be the next generation of scientists to take over, so the changes you want to see being made, hold onto that. What I want to see, is kindness in academia.

Develop your voice, have an opinion

Nobody likes fence-sitters and people doing a dance in ambivalence. Focus on being an interesting person, make efforts to develop your personality. Gone are the days of the stereotype of the boring old scientist. Read outside of your field, keep up with current affairs. Become a global citizen, be a critical thinker.

Keep in mind, it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize!

We work on big questions that have been around for years or decades, and we have to identify new aspects of those big questions. We might make small progress towards those questions and it will take years. Incremental science is still important. Little by little makes a lot.

And for those that made it thus far, the Easter egg for you is: they use a bacterial enzyme that slowly breaks down the contents of the middle of a chocolate until it’s nice and gooey. And to get the bubbles, they pump gases like carbon dioxide or nitrogen, they don’t use oxygen because that would make it rancid.

Stay curious


cropped-logo.png

Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 2-9 February 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

Friday Faves (5).png

Read more here

Take a look last week’s Friday faves here


cropped-logo.png

Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 29 January – 2 February 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

Friday Faves (4).pngRead more here

What are your thoughts on this week’s discoveries? Drop me a comment!


cropped-logo.png

Book review: ‘The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane’ by Lisa See

January’s book club choice was the award-winning book, “The tea girl of Hummingbird lane, set in the remote village of Yunnan and following the life of Li-yan.

Lisa See first introduced the Yao Chinese minority in her book, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. This book sees her exploring the culture and traditions of the indigenous hill tribe, the Akha.

Li-yan and her family’s lives revolve around tea farming. They live a simple life and their village has not been westernised. Li-yan is regarded as less than worthy than her brothers, she has inherited, what she first thinks are, useless tea trees. As she grows up she challenges traditional Akha beliefs and taboos, leading her to leave the safety of her village. As she narrates her story, we simultaneously get to see, the life of Haley, her daughter she’s had out of wedlock and whom she’s given up for adoption.

“No coincidence, no story.” ~ A-ma

As Li-yan’s mother says, “No coincidence, no story.” Lisa See eloquently weaves a tea-infused story of coincidences throughout all the character’s lives. I enjoyed the different writing styles and English usage employed in the book; English almost directly translated from Akha language, American English and scientific writing that appealed to my nerdy side and made me want to research catechins and polyphenols in tea!

Be prepared to curl up with this book, accompanied by steaming cups of tea as you traverse remote China, explore the topics of Chinese adoption, the international fine-tea market and finally, modern Chinese migration to the United States.

I am looking forward to reading more books by Lisa See, including “On Gold Mountain”, a 400-page memoir and nonfiction biography of her family.

danurwendho-adyakusuma-20997

Click to read more:

Happy reading until next month!


cropped-logo.png

Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 22-26 January 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

Friday Faves (3).pngRead more here

What are your thoughts on this week’s discoveries? Drop me a comment!


cropped-logo.png