Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Axelrod philosophy

Julius Axelrod was quite an atypical scientist. I knew little about him (I had vaguely heard about him while reading some review about neurotransmission), but recently read a nice little biography of Axelrod in Molecular interventions (April 2007), and found his story quite inspiring.

But this post isn't really about his life story. There was one little section in that biography that I really liked. It was his philosophy on research. I read each one of them, and found myself nodding in agreement with most of them. So much so that I made a photocopy of them and stuck them on my poster board. This is what he said:

Ask simple questions (but look beyond the obvious)

Do something new, but not too new (work just right or left of mainstream questions).

Talk to people and read, then talk more and read more.

Science is 99% discouragement. Stay focused.

Do one good experiment a day.

Find and exploit your own scientific style.

Skimming the cream is a good thin. But do enough science to know that the cream is real.

Don't sweat the details. focus on your hypothesis and don't get swayed by complexity.

Publish to clarify your thinking and your hypothesis. Nothing more.

Those are some quality words of wisdom.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A drama with scientists

TV's had plenty of shows based around hospitals, with doctors providing the main characters. Right now, there's the fantastic Scrubs, which can only be described using superlative adjectives like witty, smart, hilarious, brilliant, as close to a hospital setting as it really can be, brilliant characterization, and a great cast with perfect timing. The only thing missing are a few Indian doctors (what's an American hospital without Indian doctors?). Then there's House, M.D., which started out with a big bang and at the time was "riveting". But with dramas like House you're eventually going to run out of outrageous diseases and inexplicable symptoms (at least in order for it to be believable). After that you're left with the cast to carry the series through. Luckily they have the extremely talented Hugh Laurie as House, and the dynamics of his character with the rest of the cast is terrific. Incidentally, if you haven't seen it, I'll throw in a plug for Laurie's perfect performance as Bertie Wooster in the "Jeeves and Wooster" series. There's also Grey's Anatomy. Yawn.

But I'm yet to see a show on TV which is based in a research lab. OK, so you think scientists are dorks with no social life and even less than no social skills. But you'll be surprised at how much drama there can be in a lab. There can be the principal investigators, and almost all of them out there are interesting characters. Some are dynamic, some bombastic, some reticent, some passive-aggressive, some utterly dull boring.....

And then there are all the people in the lab. You have technicians and secretaries. You have young, rookie grad students who are cocky and know nothing. You have senior grad students, desperate to finish their Ph.D.'s. And then you have the postdocs, who vary from competent to completely useless. All of them come with different personalities, from selfless team players to selfish troublemakers, and pleasant, happy personalities to eternally bitter and cynical grumblers.

If you thought The office was great, just imagine how much more can be done with a drama series on scientists in a lab. All the drama and personal dynamics AND dazzling science, and plenty of jargon for script writers to impress audiences with. Throw in some hot microscopic images, and we have a winner.

Now, does NBC want me to write a script for them, and pay me millions?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Universities leading the green wa(y)ve

Even the most skeptical have now come around to accepting the fact that we on earth are guzzling way more resources than the earth can sustain. Amongst many other consequences, the most disturbing are the effects on global climate change.

Anyway, people around the States are slowly beginning to think about consequences, and are starting to make minor changes in their lifestyles, with perhaps huge consequences. Of course, national policy and politics will be the last to change, as is always the case. But I think universities, as centers of learning, should be trend setters in changing their own ways of energy consumption and resource utilization.

So, I was more than pleased to read an editorial in the alumni magazine I get from Seattle every few months or so. There, I read about some rather interesting research from the UW on some pioneering research on oceans and the effect of temperatures on ocean acidification, coral deaths and the massive consequences that will have for ocean life (and thereby life on earth itself). But more importantly, I read that the old alma mater was at least starting to do its role in fixing the problem.

There is a clear effort from the school in minimizing carbon emissions. This was apparent even while I was a student there, and it isn’t too surprising since it was Seattle. After all, it is the granola city of America. People recycle with a vengeance there, and all household trash is sorted into paper, cardboard, plastic, yard waste and whatever else. But most large public places (like large universities) lag behind in recycling. Not the UW though. Corridors and hallways would all have separate bins for paper (white or colored), general trash, and cans and bottles. More importantly, even the large public bins around campus were cleverly designed to incorporate a receptacle for cans and bottles. The (men’s) toilets around campus installed “water free” urinals. Yup, I can hear a snicker, but we were all just as skeptical when they first installed them. We thought the stench would make us all abandon the labs and stay at home, but were pleasantly surprised. The technology actually works, and very well too. This apparently saves some 30000 gallons of water a year per urinal! I thought it was a particularly positive effort in the water-rich Pacific Northwest.

Then there would be regular emails to all of us reminding us to turn off the lights after work. No one complained when the university started to increase the temperature of hallways by one degree in summer, and cooling it by one degree in winter (this little change saved thousands of kilowatts of energy annually). Additionally, the university is fantastically connected by public transport, which means a lot of people can (and do) take the bus. There are bike racks everywhere, to park your bicycles, and importantly, you could even get yourself a bike locker (costing a mere 60 dollars a year or something), where you could store your bike securely on campus. This meant that thousands of students, staff and faculty would gear up and happily bike to work, obviously saving tons of gas.

Now, in the alumni magazine, I was pleased to read that the efforts of the university don’t just end here. The UW has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 to seven percent below 1990 levels, and this isn’t just rhetoric. Already, gas emissions have declined over the past five years by 9 percent, even as the student population increases. That, to me, is serious commitment.

While the general support for a “greener” lifestyle in Seattle certainly helps the university adopt such practices with overwhelming support from the students and staff, I think it is particularly important for universities to go in this direction for a number of reasons. First, since most of our knowledge and research about global climate change (and human actions causing it) comes from universities, it is imperative that the schools practice what they discover. Second, university labs are hotspots of innovation, and invariably come up with next generation technology, which includes “greener” technology. It makes perfect sense if universities also pioneer in their adoption. Third, there are thousands of students in any campus. By seeing how greener technologies work, or how simple efforts can make major changes, students can go on to adopt these methods themselves, and can evangelize these methods as they graduate and move on. And finally, from the university’s own perspective, it is fantastic PR, and while image isn’t everything, it means quite a lot.

So, to cut a long story short, this is terrific. I just hope other large institutes and universities adopt similar methods. And since some of you readers are in school, what do you see around your campus that is sustainable, and what to you seems wasteful?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Happy day, but Dell disappoints

My laptop is finally back, and appears to be fixed. But it was quite an ordeal to get it fixed.

I first called Dell tech support on the 5th of July, and had it "analyzed" on the phone. After much troubleshooting, the support personnel first confidently said my power chord was defective. That made absolutely no sense (since firstly I could see that it was working, and second, the error messages I was receiving were all BIOS errors). Still, to humor him, I tested a new power chord, and that didn't fix anything.

So, I had to call again the next day, and this time it was diagnosed as a motherboard problem, as I had originally suspected.

Anyway, I agreed to pay a small king's ransom to get it fixed (the price was just low enough to prevent me from buying a whole new laptop). Then Dell was supposed to send me a shipping box within 2 business days.

Unfortunately, even 4 days later, I had no box. So, I ended up calling Dell again, THREE more times. I suspected that the person taking the call may have messed something up, and I thought it was the address that was the most likely culprit. So, I asked them to verify if my address was correct, and the person said it was. But then I finally got tired of calling Dell, so called DHL directly, and lo and behold, found that they had the incorrect address (a street number on my street that doesn't exist), so they couldn't deliver the package. Anyway, after more trouble, I finally had my shipping box delivered, and sent off my laptop. I also taped a paper slip with my correct address, so that this wouldn't repeat.

Then I called Dell again, and after a prolonged explanation, asked the support personnel to confirm my address (so that they wouldn't screw up again, and just to be doubly sure). The person on the phone practically swore that the address was now corrected.

Luckily, Dell sends an automated message once they ship a repaired laptop. Once I got that message, I immediately called DHL, just to be sure that they'd deliver the computer to the correct place.

Guess what, Dell had screwed up AGAIN, and had shipped it to the wrong address.

Fortunately, I caught this relatively early, so finally have my computer back. Overall, I must say I'm rather disappointed with the Dell tech support. If I need to call them a total of seven times AFTER diagnosing my computer, just to ship it off and get it back, with days of frustration in between, there's something wrong in their system.

Not very impressive, I must say.

At least now I have my computer back, and blogging will resume soon. I really hope the computer doesn't die again, two days after this new warranty expires.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Computer down

My laptop is now officially toast.

If I try to start it up, the green light blinks, and then goes off. After much trouble shooting by myself, and also getting the thing analyzed by the Dell tech support folks (working all night in some office in India, it seems), it appears most likely that the motherboard needs to be replaced.

Anyway, about one week from now, I might be poorer by mucho dinero, but might have a functioning computer again.

Till then, enjoy the weather. Hopefully blogging will resume after a week.