Boston Bacterial Meeting

I spent the last two days attending the Boston Bacterial Meeting (BBM) held at Harvard.  It was a great time to talk to old friends and to get to know some new ones.  The BBM is a small meeting held every June where researchers from Massachusetts and the surrounding states come to share their research in posters and presentations.  This year was the 15th session for the BBM.  The speakers were really good, but the ones who caught my attention were Mathew T. Cabeen talking on Bacterial cell curvature via mechanical control of cell growth’, Hubert Lam on ‘D-amino acids govern cell wall remodeling in bacteria’, Frank Surup on ‘Antifungal agents produced by mutualistic bacteria protect the symbiotic fungi of Abrosia beetle Xyleborinus saxensi’, Genevieve Garris on ‘Antibiotic resistance encoding mobile elements promote their own diversity’, Arne Materna on ‘The evolution of Hutchinson’s Niche: visualization of 2-dimensional niche space in a marine microbial environment’, and Diogo Camacho on ‘Identification and functional characterization of small RNA regulatory networks in E. coli’.

The most memorable part of this meeting was hearing Professor Richard Losick give the Keynote Speech.  It was amazing to hear him tell the story of how of how his laboratory has unraveled the mystery of the life cycle of Bacillus subtillus.  Although I enjoyed hearing about the evolution of his scientific discoveries, what I most enjoyed was the moments he took at the end of the talk to dispense with some advice.  Professor Losick spoke of what he thought were the qualities that he valued in his life.  I am only going to discuss a couple of those that impacted me the most.

Love what you do – get up every morning and think about what it is you do and what it means to you and your life.  There are going to be very difficult days, but that is part of what makes you love what you do.  It is not the day-to-day grind, but the whole journey that matters. Live your life to the fullest.

Be a mentor – take time to help others.  Be an example to others with how you live your life.  Go out and seek those who might not have the opportunity to experience what you have experienced.  Remember that one mentor you had which made a difference in your life and try to be that mentor to someone else.

Teach – nothing is more important than preparing and exciting the next generation of scientists and engineers for the challenges facing our nation and the world.

Never stop asking questions – when you stop asking questions, you stop observing the world and the small details that make it so beautiful and fascinating.  Try to figure out how or why something works the way it does.

Leaving the BBM on Friday evening, I felt proud to be a part of this community and of having made the choice some years ago to go back to school and pursue an education in science.

American Heart Association Lobby Day

American Heart Association Lobby Day in Washington DC
American Heart Association Lobby Day in Washington DC

I reflected this week on the two days I spent in Washington D.C. lobbying for the American Heart Association (AHA). I went for Lily, my girlfriend, who three years ago suffered a stroke from a 1.5 cm blood clot that was lodged in her brain.  (for more, see her blog on her ongoing experience) She then underwent open-heart surgery to correct an Atria Septum Defect (a hole in her heart) that was ruled as the cause of the stroke.  I know that Lily and I were extremely fortunate in that I recognized the signs of a stroke and we were at the hospital within 20 minutes from the onset of the stroke. The awareness I had of the signs of strokes is what allowed me to recognize Lily’s stroke as it was happening.

As I walked around the conference and saw people, young and old, who live every day with the visible effects of their own battle with this crippling and debilitating disease, I was thankful that Lily has fully recovered and leads a whole and full life.  This trip made me realize that even though I have been working with the AHA in Boston, and I have supported Lily in her advocacy work, I have not been doing enough.  It galvanized my resolve to be a stronger advocate, to be more vocal, and to push harder for advancements in the prevention and treatment of heart disease.

I went to DC to support Lily, not having a specific topic that I was advocating for, but I realized that I could lend a strong voice to advocate for the sustained support of National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding.  I am fortunate that as a graduate student I received two fellowships from the NIH.  This financial support not only gave me the freedom to do cutting edge research, but also gave my thesis adviser the ability to support other graduate students in her laboratory.  Without these funds, my adviser would have had to deny positions in her laboratory to bright students because of lack of financial support.  Running a research lab with postdoctoral fellows and graduate students cost money, lots of money.

At the NIH funding, we allocate around 33% of research money at the NIH on cancer research, while we spend only 4% of the budget on heart disease research and 1% on stroke research (See here for NIH breakdown).  The money we spend on cancer research drives much of the basic science researching cellular processes.  This research is increasing our understanding of activation and regulation of molecular pathways in cells.  Much of the knowledge gained from cancer research is being applied to answer questions in other areas of disease.

This being said, we need to be lobby for an increase in funding of research for heart and stroke research.  Heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans.  There are several ways we can do this:

1.    Increase the pot of money without changing the total distributions – if the pot has more money, under the current distributions everyone gets more money.
2.    Maintain a steady incremental increase of the NIH budget – a steady 6-7% annual increase in the NIH budget will help us reach goal of doubling the NIH budget in the next 10 years.
3.    Increase the interdisciplinary nature of disease research funded by the NIH – this allows for the sharing of best practices and of the most recent.
4.    Increase the money for prevention and education programs at the NIH and at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) – knowledge is power and the more our citizens understand the risks of heart disease and what they can do to change their risks profile, the more we can do about decreasing the incidence of heart disease and increasing the quality of life of the survivors.
5.    Make sure that the health care reform package that is being discussed in Congress does not get derailed by individuals who do not have the best interest of our citizens in mind – it is easy to think that these changes proposed in the new health care reform package is going to cost a lot of money, but ignoring the issue will not make it go away, and the costs associated with postponing a meaningful package will be far greater that the initial cost of coverage, education, and prevention programs.

These efforts can not succeed without help from everyone out there joining in and voicing their concern to their Senators and Representatives.  You can start by joining the AHA’s lobby page and signing up for updates and issues that come up in our fight for better health coverage for all Americans.  This is an ongoing struggle that does not rest.  The victories can sometimes feel very small compared to the job at hand, but rest assured that every small push forward brings more attention to the issues at hand.  Remember, we are fighting for your parents, your children, and you.   I do this for Lily and for all the others who can not.  Take care and please join the movement.

Hector

OpenLabWare – demystifying the research process

OpenLabWare

George S. Zaidan ’08, while an undergraduate at MIT, ran into a conceptual problem while teaching a course for high school students (See The Tech article).  He asked his students to plan an experiment and in the process realized that most students did not understand the process of developing a scientific hypothesis and designing hypothesis driven experiments.  George conceived the idea of having an online presence for students interested in science to go and explore who was doing research and how they were doing it.  He called it  OpenLabWare. With the help of John Essigmann, his academic adviser, George started to assemble a working team.  He recruited other MIT undergraduates and worked tirelessly for three years, obtaining funding and academic support for his vision.

The process of research and scientific discovery still remains a mystery to most people.  But thanks to George’s ideas and hard work, more people can understand how scientists develop research programs and carry out their research.  OpenCourseWare provides a glimpse into the every day lives of the individuals who help develop the next generation of scientific and engineering discoveries.

9th Annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival

MVFF
MVFF

This weekend is the 9th Annual Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival run by my friend Thomas Bena.  Every year Thomas crossed the globe selecting films for the annual film festival.  He began the project as a way to provide thought provoking, insightful, and powerful glimpses of human nature, at its best and its worst moments.  Thomas goes to great lengths to put together a weekend program that subtly carries the viewer from topic to topic, touching the most inner recesses of their lives.  He cares about creating a space in which he can make real contributions to his community’s cultural development.  Take a look at this years program schedule.

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Life under high pressure – the setup

High Pressure Chamber PartsIt was only recently that we began to understand the capacity of microbes to populate the most inhospitable places on earth.  From the inside of nuclear reactors to highly corrosive sulfur environments, microbes are there.   We have found them in 100,000 year old ice cores and in the bottom of the deepest ocean. Microbes were among the first life forms and many of them have evolved in extreme, isolated environments.

One of my research interests is to examine how microbes thrive in these extreme environments.  One unique place where microbes live is deep in the earth’s surface.  Here, they live at elevated temperatures and pressures.   They also have to make do with very little source of nutrients.  Between the extreme environment, low nutrients,  and evolutionary isolation, these life forms harbor the possibility of novel energy regulation and utilization pathways.

To study these microbes, we have to design and build our own experimental equipment.  Currenlty, I am building a high pressure microbial growth chamber for one of the projects I am work on.  This system is going to be able to withstand pressures greater than 160 ATM (1 ATM = 14.7 psi).  We also will have an optical setup with a view cell which will let us examine how our cultures are behaving under these high pressures.  I hope to have the safety cage built this week (the picture is of me drilling the 3/8″ steel plate for the bottom of the cage) and start piping the growth chamber next week.  It is really exciting to see how all of this is coming together.  Stay tuned to see the progress of the high pressure growth chamber.

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What was your first experience with food or science?

Cooking at Lily's parents house in TivertonI remember the growing up and watching my grandfather cook.  He was a chef who loved French cuisine and made wonderful deserts.  I got my love of food and science from him.  He would sit there and tell me about what the heat would do to the sugar while I watched the sugar slowly caramelize.  I listened in rapture as he explained the changes in consistency the and flavor of caramel.  He also loved to make sauces and gelatin.  The gelatin kind of grossed me out, but the sauces always smelled so delicious and tasted even better.  I learned about blending the spices and about ratios and combination of ingredients.  I remember the care he always took in measuring ingredients, how he would clean and sterilize his work area.  How he seemed to cook from memory, but he always had his trusty notebook where he kept his notes on food and recipes.

These memories have wakened in me the desire to take the principles I practice in the lab, and transplant them into my kitchen. I love to experiment and think of new ways to prepare food.  Not just changing the flavor, but changing how it is cooked and prepared.  I am extremely lucky to have a partner who is as interested in cooking and creating good food as I am.  We share recipes, ideas, menus, and generally wreak havoc in the kitchen, but we create great meals.  She bakes and makes great deserts, while I love the salty and meaty foods.

I am lucky that I had a great introduction to food and the science of cooking at an early age.  I learned that food was much more than sustenance.  It excites and nourishes the soul just as it provides nourishment to our bodies.  Now more than ever, I miss my grandfather and I wish I could prepare a meal for him like the ones he prepared many times while I was growing up.

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Darwin’s 200th Annivesary

Picture of Charles DarwinToday is the birthday of Charles Darwin.  To me, Charles Darwin embodies the ideals of a scientist and a humanist.  I grew up in a household which did not believe in the evolution of life forms over time through natural selection.  The world was close to 6000 years old and we were approaching the end of the world.  The eminent destruction of the world as I knew it had a troubling effect on my being.

I was 13 years old when I first heard of the Theory of Natural Selection and was amazed and excited by this new finding.  When I asked about it, the answers I received were unsatisfactory.  As I learned about chemistry, radiation energy, and the structure of atoms I began to realize that the stories I grew up with had some serious holes.  After a while, I stopped asking those around me and took to reading textbooks I checked out of the public library near my house.  In those teenage years, I learned not to believe in an idea just because someone said it was true, but to investigate, analyze, hypothesize, and interrogate life until I was satisfied that the data explained my observations through an order set of laws.  These principles were what drove me to return to school to pursue science as a life long passion.

To negate the existence of evolutionary forces which drive the selection of traits which allow a species to survive environmental stresses is a self defeating position to hold.  To deny the environmental forces which drive the theory of evolution is akin to denying the forces driving the theory of gravity.  We see the results of evolution every time we ride a horse, take our dogs for walks in the part, and read about how a pathogenic organism has developed resistance to the most current drug regimens.

I hope that you celebrate Darwin Day with me and stop for a moment sometime during the day to appreciate the life and contributions of this great renaissance man.

Professor John M. Essigmann – Mentor and Friend – Wins MIT’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award

Professor John Essigmann was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award tonight for his work over his tenure at MIT as an advocate for the minority community making students, faculty, and all other members of MIT feel welcome at MIT.  John is one of those people who you meet in life and are immediately comfortable with him.  I first met John when I was visiting MIT in the spring of 2000.  I had just been accepted to the Chemistry PhD program and was in Cambridge on the prospective student visiting weekend.  I sat at the dinner table with Professors John Essigmann and Cathy Drennan and had a great time at dinner.  John and Cathy made everyone feel comfortable and welcome to MIT.

The next time I met John was when I was a Teaching Assistant for 5.07, the Chemistry version of Biological Chemistry.  I got to know John and eventually asked him to be the chair of my Thesis Committee.  As time passed and I got to know John better, I realized what an amazing person he is.  He and Ellen, his wife, at Simmons Hall, a really cool undergraduate dormitory at MIT.  The things John does around MIT are just too numerous to list here.

John also works to educate students who suffer from economic necessity worldwide. He has worked as an educator in Thailand for over two decades, dedicating his time to teach students in Thailand on how to design and develop drug research programs that investigate and provide relief to diseases which affect  third world countries.

I can’t think of a better person to receive this prestigious award than John.  Kudos to you!

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Making my first widget plugin

I have spent some time setting up my blog and playing with the design and the content.  Now I am looking to try to make my own widget plugins for my sidebars.  I would like to stream some news feed from the NY Times or from a science news feed such as Nature, Science, or any other related news feed on my sidebars.  I hope to have some of these done and put up shortly.  Wish me luck.

Beyond the mind’s eye – blind photography and other photonic sensing

This topic has been in the news lately.  It seems that there is new research that reveals a primal sense of awareness and vision underlying our ability to recognize visual images.  I first came across this in a piece done on NPR and in the NY Times on a blind mans ability to navigate an obstacle course.  This patient was left blind by two successive strokes and received damage to the information processing part of his brain, but did not sustain damage to his eyes or optic nerve.  In spite of the inability to process visual stimulation, he was able to successfully navigate an obstacle course which was laid before him.

I then saw this piece on CNN about a photograph exibit by blind photographers at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Israel.  What a unique concept.  Kfir Sivan and Iris Darel-Shinar have run a photography workshop for blind photographers.  The pictures are very stunning and haunting at times.  I would love to go see the exhibit.

I was also looking at an article written by the MIT News Office on Elizabeth Goldring,  an artist, poet, and Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  Over the last 20 years, Goldring has developed what she refers to as a “seeing machine”.  The first prototype cost over $100,000, but this most recent incarnation has a possible price tag of around $500 and the possibility of opening access to visually impared people.

The advances in understanding visual perception and processing offer hope for people who have lost their ability to connect to their surroundings.  This understanding, along with the growing recognition of the artistic contributions provided by these individuals, will make the neuro-visual research an exciting field to follow.