Wednesday, June 23, 2010


So...the internet connection here is neither fast nor reliable. Not fast I can deal with, but sometimes it just stops working. You'll have to bear with me. I think what I will try to do is write my posts while I am here, and post them next next weekend when I go back to Hyderabad for a couple of days. I can schedule them so they show up once a day or something like that.

I want to include a bunch of pictures of the school (on my project blog), but this connection won't allow it. I'm taking field notes (kind of) in a notebook, so hopefully I won't forget anything. And hopefully you won't forget about me!

I'll try to post short things like this, but if you want the filling of the sandwich instead of just the bread, you'll have to come back in a week and a half. Sorry!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is my 150th post, so I want to talk about something meaningful. I just finished reading a book I started sometime in the middle of spring semester. I got about halfway before my mom borrowed it to read. I brought it on the flight to India knowing I would have plenty of time to read, but I ended up sleeping for a large portion of that time.

At any rate, I finally picked it up again yesterday, and I want to tell you about it because it affected me strongly. It's called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

In it, Rebecca Skloot (who signed my book!) tells the story of the woman behind HeLa cells, as well as her descendants and family. HeLa cell lines all originated from a cervical cancer tissue sample taken from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks. As the first human cells found to be immortal (able to survive infinite divisions rather than stopping at 50 like normal cells), they were - and still are - used in research on pretty much everything. They are the lab mice of the cellular biology field. They could be cultured easily, and are (relatively) genetically identical. Experiments can be done with the knowledge that other researchers would be able to replicate the results (which is necessary to get rid of bias in science) because they can use the same cells.

Yet Henrietta Lacks never knew what was being done with her cells, and her family was never informed. What they were told was made difficult to understand by their lack of education. Nobody bothered to explain exactly what cells were, and how Henrietta herself was not being tortured by all the things being done to the cells. Researchers took blood samples to study the genetics of the cells, and the family thought they were being tested for cancer. When no results were forthcoming, they lived in constant fear that they would develop the same type of cancer and die. Entrepreneurs cultured and sold HeLa cells, but not a cent went to the Lacks family, which was left with no knowledge of this business, still living in poverty.

The story is eye opening. The only cells I have worked with are Chinese Hamster ovarian (CHO) cells, but it made me realize that when working with anything human, you really have to think about the patients. The purpose and possible good that could come from you research may be obvious to you, but to someone who has not dived as deeply into the subject as you have, it can be terrifying.

Biology has advanced to the point that scientists have to narrow down their focus and specialize in order to discover anything new (or so we usually think). This means that understanding most breaking news in the scientific world requires a grasp of a wealth of previous knowledge. So we get a little lazy and stop trying to explain all of our results.

Even I was caught up in this. Science has too many subtleties for the general public, I thought. People want absolutes, and every one of the "maybe"s that is part of the essence of science decreases their belief that science works, I thought. What could I do to alleviate that? There's not really much hope. But that's not true and what is is not all their fault. Science has come to be seen as something elite, something that is not relevant to normal people's lives. Compared to the decades of the Space Race, it's become unimportant. But scientists are partially to blame for not reaching out to make themselves understood.

I honestly think that this book should be required reading for any students interested in going into a biological field. Whether it's research or medicine that that fills up your time in your imagined future, this book will remind you to not forget that even while working for the greater good, you need to give a little time to the smaller good.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Home Away From Home

It's like coming home. I only come here on average once every couple of years, but after all, home is where the family is. The thing that surprised me a little, though, was how much it felt like I'd found a part of myself that was missing. Being Indian is something I don't get enough of while I'm at Berkeley, and that's dangerous, because it really is an integral part of my identity.

I am very Indian in some ways, and less so in others. In a lot of circumstances, my values are similar, but the reasons behind them different. I am very close to my parents, and I dearly value my family, but I'm not religious. I'm too Indian to wear short skirts in Hyderabad and too American to wear a salwar in Berkeley. The most Indian thing I've done there is to eat the food my mom gave me with my hands instead of a spoon because I felt rebellious (and tired of trying to eat something that wasn't made for a spoon with a spoon).

Here, I get to show off my Indian side and speak Telugu most of the day without a second thought. I don't think I could be this person all the time, because the American half of me is just as important. But the American half is usually the one that gets to go out and play while the Indian half sits inside, staring wistfully out the window.

Being here is also a relief from some of the pressures I face in American society. I'm sure being on summer vacation and not having much work to deal with is a major factor in my current relaxed state, but there are other things as well. For instance, I'm 20 and I've never had a boyfriend. But here, it doesn't matter, because there's no expectation that I should have a boyfriend. Of course, it also goes the other way. There are social pressures here that aren't present in America. It's just nice to deal with something different for a while.

And seriously, salwar kamizes are so much prettier than pants and shirts.

Monday, June 14, 2010


You might've noticed that this blog looks a little different today. Well, as I was creating my blog for my Global Poverty and Practice project, I found that Blogger has a new Template Designer feature. It's awesome, because I can finally change the width of my blog without having to sift through all of the template code!

I'll probably be playing with it for a while, until I settle on something I really like, but for now, I'll stick to this pre-made template. It's much prettier, isn't it?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

I'm Here. No, My Here, Not Your Here.

I'm in India. I've got some posts about the journey and the like, but they will wait until I can get wireless access for my netbook. That's mainly because I wrote them on my netbook, and I can't post them from this computer in my cousin's house. And now I get to sound like a TV announcer:

Stay tuned, I'll be right back after the break with breaking news about my education project blog’s location. ^_^

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Society Inside You

My last post was about a racial problem at a school in Prescott, Arizona. People in the community who were against having dark-skinned kids on the school mural drove by yelling racist slurs at the artists and children. The principal asked the artists to lighten the skin color (of paintings of actual kids who go to the school) on the mural.

This is how discrimination perpetuates itself.

It's not just white kids who learn that white is good and black is bad, stupid, mean, etc. Black children learn it too, and they learn that society is against them. Black parents have to have discussions about race with their children all the time because it comes up again and again in their lives. White parents have the privilege of not doing that. They probably even think that not mentioning it is better, because then their children won't notice it in the first place. But that's not true.

Children learn what they see happening. They internalize the status quo, even when it is against them. A study by CNN replicating the doll study initially done at the time of Brown v. Board of Education showed that, sadly, nothing much has changed since the time of de jure segregation.

As a parent, I think you have a responsibility to society to actively teach your children to fight racism. Unless we do that, we're going to have this ugly discrimination that contributes to the cycle of poverty. If you've been told all your life that you're not worth as much as a white kid, and that you will always be poorer, dumber, and meaner, would you really believe that you could do better with your life?

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The term "whitewashed" is often used today to describe someone who acts like a white person (whatever that's supposed to mean, considering that Caucasians can come from multiple cultures as well). In the days of Tom Sawyer, it used to refer to white paint made using chalk and lime that was often used to paint houses.

Well, now that old definition has some new meaning. A mural painted on the wall of an elementary school in Prescott, Arizona included the faces of children who actually attend the school. The school has a diverse ethnic mix, and the mural as a matter of course included white, black, and brown faces.

Some members of the community (beginning with a city councilman) apparently took offense to that. While the artists and the children helping them were painting the mural, they drove by the school screaming racist slurs for two months. Don't forget, this is an elementary school. Since when has shouting racist slurs at children become the best way to exercise your right to free speech?

In the end, the principal of the school decided the best way to handle the matter would be to ask the artists to lighten up the color of the children's skin. Make them more white, in other words.

And also don't forget that the faces in the mural are those of real kids. Isn't that a great message to send to your children? We don't like the skin color you were born with. If you manage to make it a little bit lighter, though, we might tolerate you a little better.

It seems like nowadays I'm reading about racism and discrimination every day. I live in the Bay Area, where most people respect other skin tones, at least in public. So I haven't been as exposed to this. And it sickens me that these problems are still out there. I thought we'd gotten past slavery and Jim Crowe. Hell, I thought we'd even gotten past World War II and Hitler and the Nazis, where we were fighting on the side of equality (kind of) and justice. What happened?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Saving the World

I usually try to post at least every couple days, but I've been AWOL for a little while. Let me tell you the reason. Within a week's time, I'm going to be leaving for India. I'm going there of course to visit family, but I have a second reason as well.

We have a minor at Berkeley called Global Poverty & Practice. It's not like most minors. You do take your 4-5 classes, but that's not enough. You have to do a practice. Something in real life. You're supposed to go out into the world and help alleviate poverty (or at least learn about it first-hand so that you can do the real work soon in the future with knowledge of what kinds of things are going on). They encourage you to go abroad, and that's just what I'm doing.

The students in the minor are involved in a diverse range of projects, from self-led to student-run to NGO-directed. From creating crops for sustenance farming to helping medical teams service remote villages to fighting disease in urban slums. And me? I'm going to be working in education. My practice project is going to be improving science education in a couple of rural schools by making it more interactive.

Sometimes when I hear myself talk about it in comparison to all these other things people are doing, I wonder if it seems like my project is much too narrowly focused. But, to paraphrase and contextualize the Pareto principle, 80% of the problems come from 20% of the causes. You just have to pick the right 20% to fix. There was a study done in rural China that showed how the presence of a science lab in a school, even after controlling for financial differences and student self-selection, was correlated with students attending school for 1.8 more years. If a little science lab can encourage some interest and keep students in school, isn't it worth having?

At any rate, I've been working on finding/modifying/writing lab protocols, lessons, and questions for some of the simple experiments I've picked. I'll go into more detail later, but I should also let you know: I'm planning on creating a new blog for me to talk about my project while I'm there. I won't abandon this one of course, but all posts to do with that experience will probably go there (and possibly be duplicated here). More info will come when I've decided what exactly to do. Ciao for now!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Maker Faire 2010 (pt. 3)

Other coolness included a video game table with 6 sets of roller ball + 4 buttons surrounding the screen. There was a tank vs. tank game, as well as 6-player (two teams of 3) Pong. It was quite fun to toy around with, and play against the random people who happened to be there at the same time.

Next, we went back outside, got some food (I haven't had a churro in a long time!), and walked around out there before it got too cold. There were multiple guys on stilts, and a couple themed areas (I caught a Renaissance vibe from one and a Steampunk vibe from the other). They had workshops for soldering, and providers of all the supplies and services you might need in your future making.

There was a pool, where apparently some battleships were set to battle in a while (like BattleBots, but in water!). The Western Warship Combat Club also put up a sign next to the bleachers deeming it a low-velocity projectile area. A waiver wristband was required to sit there (despite the line of frames of bulletproof glass separating pool and bleachers). We didn't think we would have time, so we missed out on the battle.

Picture from the WWCC website linked above - those ships seem to handle pretty well too.

At least 4 different strange-looking vehicles drove past us. The ones I remember are the guy sitting on top of and riding what looked like a giant pillbug, a wagon that looked as though it should be pulled by horses once the metal frame was covered with upholstery, except that it appeared to have neither horses nor driver, but only passengers and a camera in the front. There was an old-looking car, and a little kid driving a go-kart with a solar panel on top and a sign on the front saying "Science Wiz." Oh, and of course, the muffin lady. She was riding in a giant plush muffin.

Not my pic. Photo credit to Willivolt on Flickr.

Then we went into the Expo Hall, where there was too much stuff to remember. Near the entrance was a pneumatic calliope, whistling its merry way through multiple tunes.

Other things that pop to mind are of course the Pulse pen, the Utilikilts (why use a utility belt when you can have a whole utility kilt!), the cute little solar-powered DIY cars that had no battery or on-off switch so they would just sit under the light until they were charged, then spontaneously zoom off in whatever direction they were pointed until they ran out of power and built up their charge again, and the sewing lessons. MAKE magazine also had some tables with things made from the instructions in the magazine (and possibly some workshops earlier in the day). We only got halfway through that hall and completely missed the Ok Go performance because it was almost time to go. That was regrettable, since they apparently performed underwater...


That would've been a nice end to the day, but it's okay. I got to spend the day checking out cool, artistic, random, fun, cute, and techie things. Most had multiple of those characteristics, and some were even all of the above. If you are ever in the vicinity of a Maker Faire, I suggest you go check it out. Spend a whimsical day in a whimsical way. Maybe you'll see a reflection of yourself as a child.