Tag Archives: research

New generation of drugs, and the next things for TBU

Occasionally, I get asked what I do. Here’s a little introduction to the kind of technology I’m working with. Aptamers are short bits of DNA that bind to whatever target of interest you might be interested in. Why is that useful?

Here’s one good reason, from a TED talk by Kary Mullis. He won the Nobel prize for inventing PCR. Now he is making aptamers that act like the tape on a big note on a bacterium’s back that say “EAT ME” to the immune system.

I’m going to take the Big Upshot in a new direction. From here on out, I’ll be doing my best to make posts relevant to current and future medical students and biomedical graduate students. We’re going to talk about the periphery of a scientific education that might otherwise get missed.


the Now Habit for Grad Students: Stop Procrastinating

This is a continuation of last week’s post.

The Now Habit has a few gems worth passing along. The book is full of psychological explanations for procrastination that are pretty well laid out. The first thing I got from it was the fact that low-level “motivational techniques” result in more procrastination. Second, and more importantly, is that “guilt-free play,” is an important aspect of Habit 7, Sharpening the Saw.

In terms of low-level motivational techniques, I mentioned a while back that there are not too many ways to motivate others. Bullying and financial reward are common, but not very high-minded. They can be as easily applied to oneself as to others. But they don’t work any better on oneself than they do on others. If procrastinators could inspire personal motivation through mental flagellation and self-bullying, then there wouldn’t be any procrastinators. The Now Habit suggests that this might be due to an increased perception of risk. Negative mental self-talk reinforces the idea that only perfect performance is adequate. This makes procrastination seem more attractive. It’s easier to deal with a self administered lecture than actually risking failure by taking action.

The book devotes some pages to discussing “peak performers.” One example that hit close to home was that of PhD students. The range of time to completion of a PhD is wide – it can take anywhere from 4 to 10 years. People who avoid procrastination finish sooner (obviously). What Fiore points out is that those people who successfully avoid procrastination (sounterintuitively) include many “distractions.” They don’t cut out all of the play from their lives to make more time for research.

In terms of completing a dissertation, there are benefits for people who are engaged in some form of extracurricular, guilt-free play. They finish their “real work” sooner, procrastinate less, and complain less of the difficulty and lack of reward that come with graduate student life. Treating play as an important (if not urgent) part of life seems to be critical in overcoming procrastination. It’s not just a reward for getting things done, but rather play is an enjoyable part of the overall habit of proactivity. Indeed, play is part of the “productivity” that makes up an effective and healthy life.


Ukraine and more biofuels – politics and energy research and development

My mind is on the Ukraine a lot these days. My dear betrothed lives there. For those of you living in a cave, Russia and NATO were having a little tiff over Georgia. Last month, a US official, Richard Holbrooke, predicted that Ukraine would be next. I think the situations are pretty different, and the Guardian agrees. From some reports I heard through the underground grapevine (who can you trust these days?) Georgia tried to expel some ethnic Russians. That’s why Russia stepped in. Or Russia cooked up the story as an excuse after they moved in. Who knows? But Georgia has allies and European ambitions… so we got escalations.

Will Ukraine try to expel its ethnic Russians? Doubtful. It’s a much bigger country with a lot more Russians. Could Russia claim this was happening as an excuse to annex Crimea (where they have navy bases)? Maybe. If Russia tries to annex Crimea for whatever reason, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I’m a scientist, not a soldier. And what side do you fight for? Besides, I don’t speak Russian well at all.


I had a faint notion in the back of my mind of going to Ukraine some day to see if I could start a biofuels R&D business. It’s a fertile country with a huge energy deficit and an underused intelligentsia. It seems like a prime location. But the political situation, clearly, leaves much to be desired.

A company spin out just started up here at the U. of Washington with what seems to be the basic business model that I think could succeed in that kind of environment. Rapid development of new algae strains for fuel production on land or sea. It sounds perfect. The don’t do recombinant genetics, it looks like just forward screening, but I think I would add some splicing if budgets allowed. But I would definitely consider rapid screening using micro-scale systems. How fast can a new algae strain go into production?

I would bet that the main practical problems will be political. A dollar can go a lot farther in Ukraine, but not if it gets taxed at the 40% tariff rate. And if government dissolves, then where is a company that depends on a laissez-faire tax system and a free energy market? Because those would be pretty important to this company.

You know… that could be an issue here.


big right turn: analysis of mitochondria

I’ve been running capillary electrophoresis for days looking for a particular chemical reaction. I never found it.In the interest of getting something useful before I leave, I’m switching away from the synaptic vesicle (SV), the subject of my work to date. I have a great deal of emotional attachment to the SV. It’s hard to let go.The SV is what I’ve worked for these last 5 years. The mitochondrion is great, but I know little about it.

To change gears at this stage is terrifying. I’ve never made such a huge turn with so little time to get the task done. We’ll see how it goes. I need to prepare mitochondria, label them, and see what’s inside today. It’s been done, I’m sure, but I should also get some standards and more reagent for the stuff we expect to see inside. It’s going to be exciting!

Here’s something amusing: this is what I first saw in my sample. You want to make sense of that? Because I did. It was Thrilling.

There are lots of different kinds of grad school experiences. There are ones where the goal is to make it work. Other grad students know before starting that it will work but they don’t know until after what it means. In my line of work, we’re contending with both.

If you are a prospective grad student looking for a research program, I offer this advice: figure out which one you like before you start. Then make sure the project you are working on is the one you prefer. Only attempt a project that requires both if you are insane.