Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good Choice

And now we finally come to the last one on the last day of the year. I'll end this series on a sweet note.

Challenge 11: In fifty words write a love story with a foreigner and a bottle.

Good Choice
“What do I do with her?!” he asked, voice panicky.

“Just be natural,” came the tired reply. “She’s yours too.”

Dale glanced down at the crinkly-eyed, blanket-swaddled baby. For a second, she seemed so small, so strange, so…foreign.  But as the warm bottle arrived, he smiled, glad he’d returned.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Flying High

Only one more to go, but before I get there, a little taste of something slightly longer. This is the "Cheating" Challenge, and was supposed to be 200 words maximum. Maximum?! What is this craziness? It's supposed to be 200 words EXACTLY. So that's what I did.

See if you can spot the Tom Swifty ;)

Challenge: Write a short scene in which a character "cheats."

Flying High
As Dorian settled the helmet on his head, he could feel the adrenaline rush starting. One strong kick and the motor began to thrum. He looked out over the scene in front of him and grinned. This was going to be fun.

With a twist of his wrist, the bike growled and came to life. Dorian leaned forward excitedly as he sped down the slope and then up again off the ramp.

Yes! Finally, he was flying again!

The familiar black-robed figure appeared floating by his side. “This time, you really are coming with me,” said Death grimly.

The audience cheered for their newly returned hero, then gasped as the realization struck them: with this trajectory, Dorian would never clear the last truck.

Dorian had been waiting for this. The stadium fell silent, he pressed the button, and the release from the hidden canister of compressed nitrogen pushed him to safety. The tire spun in the air two inches from the edge of the truck, and he landed to an eruption of cheers.

Pulling off the helmet, he looked to his left. The reaper was gone, and he had once again cheated death. Now that was what life was about.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

When You Have Eliminated the Impossible...

Based on a great Sherlock Holmes quote.

Challenge 6: In fifty words, write a whodunnit.

When You Have Eliminated the Impossible...
Davis dug through the cupboard, searching for his carefully hidden box of Marshmallow Pebbles. Pouring them into the bowl, he noticed a distinct lack of the chewy, colorful title objects.

He considered the possibilities. Jimmy was on vacation, Barry couldn’t reach the top shelf, which meant…had he been sleepwalking?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

His Ears Will Be Ringing

Challenge 3: In fifty words write a story with three mood changes and apple pie (in any quantity).

His Ears Will Be Ringing
“I got you a present!”

Sherry put on the lovely green ring, admiring the color as it turned blue.

“Now, you’ve gotta promise not to get mad,” Jerry continued, eyes flicking to the ring. “I’ve gotta tell you something.”


“I…kinda ate the whole apple pie.”

The ring turned black.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Packed Bleachers

One of my favorites, for sheer how-on-earth-did-I-come-up-with-this?

Challenge 2: In fifty words write a cliffhanger including a rubber duck and a vegetable.

Packed Bleachers
The Millikanville Town Fair’s final, nail-biting event had arrived: the Oddly Shaped Vegetable contest. The Obama-mato had been rejected on the grounds that it was a fruit, but the dragon carrot, the anatomically precise cabbage brain, and Mrs. Winston’s rubber-duck turnip were still in the running.

“And the winner is…”

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pirates of the Sea++

New Challenge 1: In fifty words write a story that includes a pirate and rubber gloves.

Pirates of the Sea++
“Zack, what are you doing?”

“Hold up, mom, I’m seeding the last season of Chuck.”

“You’re 25! If you’re not going to get a job, you can at least help out around the house!” She entered, flinging a pair of rubber gloves at him. “Clean the bathroom.”

“Mommm –”



Saturday, December 24, 2011

On-the-Job Training

50 Words was gone for a while, but returned in its second generation with a whole new set of challenges.

Challenge 1: In fifty words write a story that includes a pirate and rubber gloves.

On-the-Job Training
“This is a stick-up,” said the cutlass at his throat. “Rubber gloves behind your head.”

“…you serious?”

“I’m dead serious. And you’re plain dead unless I get my booty.”

“You’re probably new at this –”

“The loot, dammit!”

“Look! I’ve been trying to tell you – this is a fishing boat!”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Time Waits For No Man

Challenge 28: Story must be centered around the phrase "Be careful what you wish for".

Time Waits For No Man
More time, that’s all he’d wanted. Time to finish his presentation, time to play with his kids…

He’d chuckled as his daughter urged him to toss a coin into the well. He’d humored her.

Well, now he had time. All of history, in fact, if this really was the Paleozoic.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Challenge 27: Story must include someone seated, someone standing, and a view of the horizon.

Dorian sat at the balcony’s edge, legs dangling between the posts. Gazing through the bars of his prison, he followed the endless cornfields till they met the sky. In two weeks he’d graduate and be done with this place.

First things first. Sighing, he rose and returned to his desk.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

A silly one.

Challenge 27: Story must include someone seated, someone standing, and a view of the horizon.

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

She leaned on the railing, gazing at the sunset. A cool breeze whipped past her, and she shivered.

He quickly wrapped her in a blanketed embrace, whispering in her ear, “At least your feet are warm.”

She giggled, for this was indeed true. Charlie the retriever was sitting on them.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Two Halves of a Rainbow

Bit of a reference to something you might know ;)

Challenge 27: Story must include someone seated, someone standing, and a view of the horizon.

Two Halves of a Rainbow
Reds and pinks and oranges. Sunset colors.

Davy, standing behind her chair, placed his hands on her shoulders as they stared at the sea.

Would today be the day they would see the sky’s rainbow enhanced?

There it was!

The green flash!

Five years of waiting. It was finally time.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Another one I'm proud to have written, though of the past rather than the future.

Challenge 27: Story must include someone seated, someone standing, and a view of the horizon.

Eyes glazed, hands trembling, she rummaged through the records.

She placed the needle and stumbled back, collapsing into the armchair.

Music wafted out. Their song.

She reached for the picture frame beside her. A happy couple, beaming at the photographer as the sun set behind them.

Teary-eyed, she smiled, remembering.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Childhood Dreams Fulfilled

This one is my absolute favorite of the 50-word stories I've written.

Challenge 27: Story must include someone seated, someone standing, and a view of the horizon.

Childhood Dreams Fulfilled
“It’s beautiful,” Gary remarked. “I’ve wanted to see this sunset since I was little.”

Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the room, Sally looked up at him.

On the ceiling above her, Gary stood upside down, staring out the window at the curvature of the Earth.

“I know. Me too."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Judge a Horse By Its Cover

As my excuse, it was Christmas time, and, well, you know how I like re-lyricking songs.

Challenge 26: Story must include a horse, a prize and a happy ending.

Judge a Horse By Its Cover

Polly the mini dwarf horse
Was a very tiny mare.
Maybe you even saw her,
And didn’t notice she was there.

All of the purebred stallions
Designated her last place.
Whenever they ran derbies,
She could barely even race.

Judge by covers, broncos – look,
Now she’s on the Guinness Book!

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Challenge 26: Story must include a horse, a prize, and a happy ending.

“Please mom, two more dollars?”

“Okay, fine. But this is your last try, Marty.”

The money was exchanged for three rings.

Swoosh. Miss.

Boink. Oh man, that just bounced off the bottle!

Tink-toink. Finally!

“Here you go, little man. We ran out of goldfish, so you get the seahorse.”


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Tempting Heist

Not one of my favorites, because it requires you to know something about Dali (or look it up), but I wrote it, so here it is.

Challenge 26: Story must include a horse, a prize, and a happy ending.

A Tempting Heist
Francis strode purposefully through dark halls, weaving between statues, through archways, past Impressionist paintings.

Upon arrival, he gazed reverently at his prize, DalĂ­’s rendition of The Temptation of St. Anthony.

The plan was perfect, his part simple – just walk out with the painting. Time to take this long-legged horse home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time to Go

Challenge 26: Story must include a horse, a prize and a happy ending.
Time to Go
She returned home that night to, “You’re late again, you bitch!”
As usual.
Gathering her things, she strode toward the door. Brutal arms grabbed her. An elbow in the thigh – Charlie horses weren’t debilitating, but they hurt – he loosened his grip, and she wrenched herself away with her prize: freedom.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Given that there have been no new challenges or progress on the book since 2010, I get the feeling that 50 Words on the Rocks: Short Stories to Sip On is probably not getting published. So how about I continue putting up the stories I wrote?

This time, though, you're going to get them one at a time, to sip on, as they were meant to be taken in.

Challenge 26: Story must include a horse, a prize and a happy ending.

“They won first place and lived happily ever after.”

A snuggle, a goodnight kiss. As I tiptoed out, closing the door, a tiny voice mumbled, “Mommy?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Can I have a horsey too?”

“Someday, dear.”

“…always someday…”

Someday, darling, you’ll understand why I saved for your college tuition instead.

Monday, November 14, 2011

SfN 2011

(Oops, never clicked publish on this post.

I am at the Society for Neuroscience Conference 2011! I opted to use the online version of the conference program because it had an itinerary planner that you could use with your mobile device. I knew there would be >30,000 people here. I still goggled at the length of the list of poster sessions, but when my friend picked up her physical, paper program, my jaw completely dropped to the floor (or it would've if it weren't hinged on to the rest of my skull). This is what it looks like:

7 books. 7 WHOLE BOOKS. Wow. It's a bit overwhelming.

The jet lag doesn't help either, so I'm going to go check out the 10-15 posters/areas on my list for this afternoon and head back to the hotel for a nap.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Last month, I had my first experience with patch clamping neurons. In the neuro program here, the two weeks before the official quarter begins are spent in boot camp. The graduate students in this interdisciplinary field tend to come from various backgrounds, from electrical engineering to psychology to molecular biology. Boot camp, then, is meant to get everybody on the same page about certain important neuroscience concepts and techniques.

Neurons communicate with each other through the use of electrical signals. If you recall, a cell membrane is hydrophobic in the middle, which means that water and charged particles cannot pass through. A neuron uses this property to maintain a voltage across its membrane - it pumps certain ions in and certain ones out in such a way that there are more negatively-charged ions inside than outside, meaning the inside of the cell is more negative than the outside.

The electrochemical gradient of the sodium ion (Na+) depends on both the concentration and the electrical potential difference between the inside of the cell, and is set up in such a way that if a path across the membrane opens up, these cations will immediately flow inward. When a neuron is signaling, sodium-selective channels open and create that path through the membrane. This causes the inside of the neuron to become more positive than the outside, flipping the sign across  the membrane; this is the beginning of an action potential. There are certain channels that only open up when the voltage change passes a certain threshold, but these allow neighboring regions of the neuron to pass sodium as well, such that this flip of voltage is passed down the length of the axon. Potassium (K+) channels open with a slight delay and do the opposite, so the membrane voltage is flipped back slightly past normal in a wave following the original depolarization.

In patch clamping, you start with a tiny microelectrode that consists of a very thin pipette containing a conducting solution, whose tip is on the order of 2-3 microns (1/50th of a millimeter). Using a control box called a micro-manipulator, you watch through a high-power microscope and move the electrode in increments of less than a micron until you can rest it on the surface of the cell you're trying to record from. Cell membranes are flexible, and if you've done this right, the membrane should stick to the outside of your pipet and form a seal across the open tip.

Now, for a whole-cell recording, you have to break into the cell. You want to break open the patch of membrane across the open tip without tearing the membrane away from the outside of the pipet, so that you have the only hole into the cell. This requires a most advanced form of technology, on par with expensive microscopes and carefully pulled microelectrodes: your mouth.

No, seriously. Electrophysiology is still a developing technique, and there is not yet that much standardization between labs. In order to break the membrane, you want to apply suction in a small pulse (or multiple pulses, depending on the lab's preferred technique). Doing this by mouth is actually pretty accurate once you get the hang of it, though sometimes you end up sucking large portions of the membrane into the pipette before you ever break it open. Luckily, the thinness of the tip means that even if you apply a lot of suction, only a small portion of that will be evident to the cell, and it does take a surprisingly large amount of suction to break in.

So now you're in, and thanks to slightly more modern technology, you can use your single electrode to clamp the voltage or the current at a set amount while simultaneously recording the current or voltage, respectively. And then you hope that this cell is not leaky, not dying, and will actually have an interesting response to stimulation. That's how science goes.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Beginning of an End and a Beginning of a Beginning

Okay, time for me to be excited. I just got the keys to my apartment in Stanford's grad student housing today. It's actually pretty spacious, and furnished to boot. I a couple days, I'll start moving my stuff over and organizing everything, which will make me happy because my room at home is currently a total mess (it is over capacity - all available space is filled and even clean clothing must sit in piles).

The timing is perfect. All my traveling has been finished for a few weeks, and I've been heading towards being bored. Actually, I was afraid I wouldn't be bored by the time school started. This would be a disaster, because then I wouldn't want to start school and would have second thoughts about not taking a year off before grad and not be completely rested (because I wouldn't want to be burned out already!), etc. etc.

Turns out my summer was just more exciting than usual, and all I needed was 2 weeks of doing nothing to want to do something meaningful again. Phew. I feel ready to get back into things now. And actually having a schedule and work to do means I will probably return to updating this blog more often than once in 3 weeks. I hope.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back to School Sales

I'm heading off to grad school in a month, and I'm wondering if I need a new laptop. My current one is getting low (for me) on hard drive space, and it's almost 4 years old. But I take care of it, and it's still working great. For my current patterns of activity, it's fast enough with its 2gb RAM (though Vista is constantly using some large percentage of it).

The question is, will I need something more for crunching data or visualizing protein structure, or whatever I'm going to be doing? If I do need need more power and a slightly more future-proof computer, back-to-school sales are the best time to buy laptops, and it would be another year before such chances come around again. My dad keeps saying that I should get a new laptop before this one breaks down, rather than waiting until I need one immediately. The situation has changed a bit though, since I won that 10" netbook last winter. If this computer dies, I still have something I can use for simple tasks. It even has the files I'm working with synced via Dropbox.

So perhaps I'll wait. The HP Envy 14 I customized on the site is making me quite envious, but it's also making my credit card cringe. In a year, the price of a quad-core Sandy Bridge processor will have come down, I'll have even more RAM than I know what to do with, switchable graphics will be easy to find on more computers, and the beautiful high-res display the Envy used to have will be back in stock.

Or...they might just discontinue the line. One or the other. Guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Let’s talk about pencils. I always take notes in pencil. I like the flexibility to change things and the neatness of not having crossed-out words (I’ll take the simplicity of erasers over whiteout any day). 

I usually use mechanical pencils. Wooden pencils are a thing of the past for me.

But wooden pencils are the ones used to create art, and apparently in ways besides smearing graphite all over paper. Check out Dalton Ghetti's work:

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I Forget About This Blog Sometimes...

Okay, well, ummm...that was a fail. Sorry, moving back to doing Words For the Day is obviously going to be a tougher transition than I thought.

Besides, trying to wrap up my work in lab and move out of our apartment once and for all has kept me busy.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's Got Character

We're moving out next week. I'm going to miss Berkeley.
I'll miss my friends. I'm even going to miss walking through Sproul Plaza trying not to make eye contact with people who might foist flyers on me.
And I'm going to miss things like this that illustrate the city's character:
A stuffed puppy on a tree stump playing fetch, bike racks with knitted sweaters, a car license plate that says "Stop Stop" in genetic code...

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Okay, I have been failing at posting regularly of recent. Since it has now been two years, I think it's time for me to revisit my origins in an effort to get back to writing at least every few days.

So consider this the return of Words For The Day - a story for the day in 75 words, no more, no less (unless I have something I really want to blather on about).

And this counts.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Doing It By the Book

I bought a book on photography this weekend, and as expected, there is a ton I do not know. The book, however, seems to do a good job of laying out different aspects of composition and editing, so I'm going to start trying things out one topic at a time. I hope I will be able to stick with this (I have a problem sticking with hobbies, perhaps because I love trying new things), but at least for the next couple weeks, I'll try to post some things I've looked at in each lesson.

Digital Photography Essentials

Monday, May 23, 2011

The End of the World As We've Known It (For the Past Four Years)

Last Tuesday, I walked across a rainy stage in the middle of a sea of umbrellas to be handed a rolled-up little piece of paper that said I had graduated. Actually, that particular paper was more along the lines of "Thanks for coming to the ceremony," but we all knew what it stood for.

I realized just how many people I've never met in my own major, in my own emphasis. Berkeley is a tough place to make friends in academic settings, in part because the class size is often quite big. Despite that, I befriended the person seated next to me. It turns out she's going to be at Stanford next year as well!

However big the world may seem, it's really rather small.

And thank goodness for that, because going out into the world is a scary thought. I am so glad to have my family and friends providing a circle of support. I've been working on being proactive in spending time with my friends, and I'm going to do my best to stay in touch with them after graduation as well.

This post was supposed to be about graduation and how when I lamented that it was raining only the three days of my roommates' and my graduations, my friend told me to think of it this way: Berkeley is sad to see us go.

Instead, it became about my friends and family. People who sat through the rain for the ceremony, risked their cameras in the rain during the receptions, and cared enough to ignore the cold and tell me congratulations.

My message for my fellow graduates, then:
It's the people around you that make life worth living. Keep them close when you move out into the world, because they will keep you happy - and sane.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Up, Down, All Around

Look around you. No, seriously, take a look around you.

Where did you look? Maybe, like me, you looked to one side and saw a door, some blinds, still-hanging Christmas lights. Or you looked forward and saw a table, a chair, a television set. Perhaps you were even looked behind you and saw the back of the couch.

Did you look down? It's possible.

Did you look up? Probably not.

Our world has 3 spatial dimensions, but we often only pay attention to the 2 we move around in.

How can we escape this plain plane of existence? Let's start with the simple ways:

Get on a plane (the day after a massive snowstorm in Chicago).

Look down from the roof (at the UCSF Parnassus campus).

Doesn't have to be somewhere exotic (top floor of my apartment building).

Find interesting patterns.

And sometimes the little things get overlooked if you forget to look down.

Looking up is harder. Start by getting under something (bridge over the Berkeley Amtrak station).

Or in between tall things (heading up Powell St).

Roofs can have interesting stories too (the domes in the roof of the de Young museum are built not of stone but of cloth, to allow music from the organ pipes behind to permeate the museum).

This lesson again - even common subjects can have cool patterns when viewed from a new angle.

When you have a choice of down or up, pick the one you do least often (inside the Westfield mall).

And go Bears!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Living in Downtown Berkeley

Shattuck in the evenings, a musician on every street corner.

Life is bustling, everybody's a character.

Sign-holding street person saying "Hey, can you spare..." as I walk quickly by, and finishing with "a smile?", surprising me into doing exactly as he asks.

However enclosed I've been in my lab or apartment, working hard or hardly working, walking outside always reminds me there's more to life.

And there's nowhere else I'd rather have learned to live.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Trying to write my honors thesis when all I want to do is sit out in the sun. Damn California weather.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Human Knowledge

I'm reposting this from Federico Pistono. I'd seen the first half before, illustrating what exactly a Ph.D means, but I really like the message at the end of this one. Over the next 6 years, I'll try to keep it in mind.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I can't really spare much focus for a post right now, because I'm trying to finish up a scientific poster for the MCB honors poster session on Friday. Re-organizing my thoughts about what I've been doing for the past year and putting it back in context is a bit tough. It's looking pretty good right now, but I have to send it to my PI (who is out of town) and hope I have enough time to make the corrections that I know she will suggest. The poster, of course, needs to be printed, which means that I need to be done with it by tomorrow night at the latest. Oh man, where'd the time go?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Beautiful Days

I walked around Central Park with my family today! Only, in San Mateo, not in New York, and we got some self-serve boba from the new Teaway afterward. But California has some advantages over New York, such as clear blue skies and some beautiful flowers. Here are a few of my favorite pics from the day:

Monday, March 28, 2011


I had finally decided, made up my mind, crossed all the others off my list. Stanford and Hopkins were the schools were I felt most at home with the people and the program, but Stanford won out with more people I really wanted to work with in each of the various fields (within neuroscience) that I'm interested in. I also felt the biosciences program there was more integrative, and would give me exposure to more non-neuro topics.

And then once I had crossed out Hopkins and Rockefeller (too small for my undecided interests), UCSD popped up again because apparently Stanford could not run unopposed. But while I loved UCSD as well, I think it might be the opposite of Rockefeller - too big for my undecided interests. Stanford was the only one that I didn't have any objections to program-wise, and everything I loved about it overpowered my hesitation over staying in the same place for another 5-6 years.

"I'm going to accept Stanford's offer!" I exclaimed to myself, excited that the vacillation was over. I grabbed my admission letter, looked up the website, extremely happy to be done with the decision making - and then I read the instructions. You have to wait one day after creating an ID in order for the system to give you permissions, then you can go accept your offer. Damn it.

So now, faced with a day to wait before I can act on the decision I made, all of my choices are floating before my eyes again. Was it a mistake to decide against Harvard so easily? So many of my friends among the recruits are going there and it's not so bad, right? All of my reasons against the other schools seem to have dropped in my (relative) panic. But I have to put it out of my mind right now and get my paper written so that I can work on my poster for my thesis. And probably after a good night's sleep, my full confidence in my decision will be recovered. Regardless, for now I'll trust my judgment and refuse to second-guess myself, so I think I can let you know I've made a decision now - I'm going to Stanford!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Quietly Brilliant (or, An Ode To My Aria)

I have to say, HTC's tagline seems pretty much on the ball to me. I didn't know much about HTC until I got my Aria last year, but it is brilliant. And their whole "it's about you" campaign? Well, at least some of the designers seemed to agree, since they came out with the Aria last summer.

It's not the most amazing, largest screen, highest resolution, superfast smartphone out there. But bigger isn't always better. That wasn't what I was looking for when I was getting a new phone. What I needed was a phone that fit in my pocket.

Now, I would be willing to bet the majority of programmers and engineers working on these phones are male. Unless they're wearing hipster jeans, their pants have big pockets. iPhones fit. Droids fit. Size is not an issue, and their smartphones just keep getting bigger and bigger. The only small phones are dumb phones. But someone at HTC looked at these phones and thought, "Hey, maybe there's someone out there that has smaller hands and smaller pockets and wants a smaller phone that's still pretty darn smart." I don't want to suggest that it's a girl phone, but it's definitely a small people phone.

It's fast and responsive, even more so now that I have Froyo (Android OS 2.2) on it, and is so comfortable to hold. The soft touch finish on the back is, well, soft, but also non-slippery. HTC Sense looks lovely and acts quickly, and comes with a lot of the features for which other Android users have been rooting (gaining root user access in order to have more options) their phones and voiding their warranties. With Swype installed as my main keyboard (something you cannot have on, say, an iPhone), typing one-handed is extremely easy and fast.

I mentioned I got this phone last year, right? It was last September, after my old phone stopped working, and I'm still absolutely in love with it. That's a testament to its worth.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Final Impressions

My arms feel like noodles right now. Today was the first time in 6 weeks that I was finally able to go to yongmudo! The one week when I was here on a Wednesday night, I was sick. And Mondays are usually spent in the lab, but that wasn't going to work out today, so instead I worked out today.

So basically, interviews are over. Of the places I went to, I got accepted to most (but not UCSF) and waitlisted at one (Hopkins). And now, I have to decide where I want to go. This is a really hard choice because all of these schools have top-flight neuroscience programs. My top 3 keep fluctuating, so I was waiting a couple days after this last visit to allow them to solidify, and I think they're getting there. Stanford and Hopkins are at the top (contingent on my actually getting in to the latter), with Rockefeller close by. I can't just rule it out yet because it's a completely different type of program (not neuroscience alone), and I'm soon going to have to decide just what I want. Harvard and UCSD are right beyond that.

Many of the other interviewees I met are choosing between Harvard and UCSF, but those two didn't feel quite right for me. Harvard felt a bit more tense, which might be unfair because it was the first interview, but another recruit, an undergrad there, independently agreed with my assessment (pictures, by the way, are not all of the campuses, but just my favorites I took in each place). The thing is, I really liked Harvard, but then I went to Hopkins and liked it more.

UCSF, on the other hand, felt, if anything, too familiar. I did an internship there a couple summers ago, and while it was fun, it made me decide not to go into strictly computational work. And maybe that feeling was sticking around, making an appearance as soon as we visited the Mission Bay campus (lovely as it is there). When I learned I hadn't gotten in here, I was not all that disappointed.

I liked the feeling at Hopkins, though I don't know why. For whatever reason, I came home feeling like I could live and work there and be happy for the next 5 years. More importantly, that feeling stuck around beyond the first weekend, unlike with some of the others.

The same went for Stanford, where I felt not only extremely comfortable, but very excited about the professors and labs (probably because more exposure to current goings-on in neuro over the course of interviews meant I understood more).The weekend there was also common for all of the biosciences, and it did in fact feel like there was more collaboration between departments.

Rockefeller, on the other hand, does not have a neuroscience-specific grad program. There are fewer neuro labs, but much more exposure to a broader range of topics in biology and chemistry. I loved hearing not only about the neuro, but also about cancer metastasis and developmental cell death that isn't run by apoptotic machinery. I thought I was extremely interested in neuro, which is still true, but having that breadth around me felt nice. That's how you make discoveries, by drawing together different fields and new ideas.

I also feel a strong connection to the place because that's where my postdoc mentor worked for a while. That's where another postdoc in our lab was a grad student. And most importantly, that's where my parents, then postdocs working at Rockefeller, lived when I was born. That's where I lived until I was 8 months old. I've got history there.

At any rate, it's going to be a very difficult decision. Fortunately, I have some time to decide, and wherever I end up going, I will probably end up happy. Unfortunately, I now have to use my noodly arms to lift my heavy genetics book and study for my quiz/midterm/midterm this week, so that's all for now, folks!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Placebo Effect

We talked about placebos for a little while in the "Psychology of Consciousness" class I'm taking this semester. So far, it's been mostly the various theories that encompass the history of the study of consciousness, but is still sometimes a little too abstract for me. That said, the placebo effect is pretty real and pretty fascinating.

There seems to be a physiological basis for the placebo effect in pain - some neurons of the Raphe nuclei in the brainstem project down to the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, where primary sensory neurons enter on their way up from the body. Those involved in sensing pain make a synapse here, and that's where this effect can act. The Raphe neurons release serotonin to stimulate inhibitory interneurons, which then release enkephalin (an endogenous opioid) directly onto the axons of the pain-sensing neurons before they transmit the signal to the secondary neurons in the pain pathway. So less pain.

But this still doesn't answer the question of how our beliefs can affect the size of the effect, and why that effect is always about half of whatever we believe it should be. And then there's the placebos that are used for things other than just pain (homeopathy, for instance). Do they in fact work better than no treatment at all? And if they do, how? So many questions, so little known.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interviews are Fun

Interviews for grad school can be nerve-wracking and exhausting. But I cannot deny what an experience it is to talk to all these awesome neuroscientists doing amazing work at the forefront of their fields. Much of this work is probably unpublished, so we get to see all of these questions and answers that are going to show up in the big journals within the next year or two.

If that doesn't excite you to no end, well, grad school might not be the right place for you. But for me, being in this community, with people who are as excited as me about the cool stuff being discovered, is like being on cloud 9. Or maybe cloud 8 (I like the number 8).

There's still the tiredness and the work I have to make up and missing multiple weekends of my last semester at Berkeley. But hearing about cutting edge research (sometimes literally, with electron microscopy), making friends with other recruits on the interview circuit, and getting free food/drink/hotel/airfare (which is honestly the least of it) - so worth it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Interviews Are Exhausting

Harvard's interview weekend for the graduate Program in Neuroscience was this past weekend. And so it was that I happened to be sitting in the airport Thursday morning before my flight, sporting a new black peacoat with my carry-on bag in front of me (with gloves, hat, and scarf easy to reach in the outer pockets). There I met another applicant from Berkeley, and we boarded the plane together, chatting about our majors, the interview, and our expectations.

About an hour after our arrival at the hotel, the first year grad students picked us up in groups to take us to pre-arranged dinners at various restaurants around the city. It was a nice opportunity to talk to not only the grad students, but also the other recruits, the majority of whom I will probably see at future interviews (we'll all be best friends by the end of this, I guess!).

Anyway, for the night, we stayed at the Best Western Inn a couple blocks from the Longwood medical campus, which was convenient, as the next morning turned out to be quite snowy.

A short walk down the street, and we arrived at the Harvard Medical School campus, where the program and many of the faculty's labs are housed. Nearby were the many hospitals and medical institutes where most of the remaining faculty worked.

We had 2 half-hour interviews that morning, with a short break for a talk (during which my eyes were closing not for lack of interest, but for lack of sleep) and lunch, followed by another 3 interviews, and then a reception/mixer at which we could mingle with and talk to other faculty we were interested in working with.

Busy day. Exhausting, really. And so of course that night everybody was taken on an outing to King's for bowling fun! Except the few of us under 21, who went instead to an improv comedy show (Improv Asylum, check them out if you're in Boston - they were pretty good). We had a little time before the show, so we walked a few streets up and down the North End, and got some cannolis from Mike's Pastries.

The next morning, we got on a bus to visit the Cambridge campus (where Harvard's undergraduate college is located) and the faculty working there. Our bus, however, turned down a small side street lined by snow-covered parked cars. Almost at the end of the street, we got stuck. There wasn't quite enough space for the bus to pass, but we were too far to back all the way out. So after some discussion, we disembarked the bus and walked a block in the snow to our target, the building with whale skeletons just hanging around.

Some talks, pizza, and fun faculty stories later, we scurried down to Harvard Square, where we got what was purportedly "the best hot chocolate in the world" (Madagascar for me - I liked the flavor of "citrus with a hint of vanilla"). Extremely rich and chocolatey, and certainly quite yummy. While there, I happened to spot an entire store devoted to my namesake, though unfortunately I didn't get a chance to go inside.

Our hot chocolate done, we waited in the cold for the M2, early enough to visit the library and see the skull of the legendary (to neuroscience students, anyway) Phineas Gage.

You may have noticed that is the library, not the skull. I have no pictures for you because there was no photography allowed. Sorry. Here, instead, is a helicopter flying in to one of the medical centers, which I couldn't fit in anywhere else in the post.

Returning to my story, that last night, the recruits had dinner with some of the faculty members, either at their homes or nearby restaurants. The advice they all reiterated? When you're choosing a thesis lab, don't focus on a specific topic. Keep an open mind, but pick a lab based on the mentor. Good parting advice. I will keep it in mind.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Interview the First

I'm heading to Boston in the morning for my first interview weekend. I'm excited, and a tad nervous, but it should be a lot of fun. Weather report says it won't be snowing on either of the days I'm flying, though it will be snowing Friday. I got myself a nice warm peacoat in preparation, and I've got some layers packed away, so I'm hoping I won't freeze too much.

I'll post a report and some pictures upon my return. Arrivederci!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Grad Interviews

Berkeley's on the semester system, so school starts on Tuesday, Jan 18th for me. If my New Year's Resolution were to go to all my classes this semester, I would fail within two days. Not because I'm lazy, but because I have grad school interview weekends that often start Thursday or Friday.

So I understand having interviews Thursday/Friday means professors at the school don't have to come in on Saturdays and Sundays, but for me, it means I won't be going to my Friday class for at least 6 weeks in a row. On at least 5 of those weeks, I'm going to be missing all my Thursday classes as well. And sometimes the Wednesday ones too, for those on the East Coast (and also UCSD). Wouldn't be so bad flying in the other direction, but I have to start 3 hours earlier here.

I still have one class I need for my major, a class I need in order to graduate. And I'm going to be missing almost 1/3 of the lectures for that class. I really have to talk to the professor too, because I recall correctly, the midterms for that class tend to be Thursday nights. Lovely.

So I'm flying across the country every other weekend, interviewing within California the other weekends, missing classes I'll have to catch up on, including one for my major, and trying to do research for my honors thesis at the same time. And I don't even get to go home every couple weekends to recharge.

I think I understand now why so many people take a year off. Here's my suggestion to future grad school applicants: even if you know what you want to study, and that you want to go to grad school, think hard on when to apply. If you're applying to a bunch of places that you think you have a pretty good chance of getting in to, and you still have requirements to fulfill during your last semester, it might be to your benefit to wait. Find an internship or a job for 6 months or a year, and apply the following spring.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy new year! It's 2011, and in a couple weeks, I will be beginning the end of my undergraduate career. My last semester, my first grad school interviews, my second brown belt (I hope).

I would tell you my resolutions, but I don't believe in resolutions. If I see something I need to fix about myself, I try to fix it starting the day I notice it. Why wait till New Years? Most of those resolutions fail anyway.

I'm not saying I'm completely successful in my efforts either, but at least I last a couple weeks. And then a couple weeks again next time I notice it, etc. Eventually, I get there, without having to wait a year in between trials.

Slow and steady wins the race, right?