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Monday, September 6, 2010

Milan

The Bosch bus drops us off at Milan Malpensa Airport.  We say our goodbyes.  From this point on, it’s just Jose Luis and me.  I am a little sad.  I hope to stay in touch with new friends. 

Our plan is to hop on a train to go to Cadorna station, then take public transportation to the hotel.  My perfect itinerary, however, failed to account for one little detail—the disorganization of Italians (if you are Italian and reading this, I hope 1. you are not offended and 2. you agree with me).  My navigational skills are quite good.  Years of getting lost has taught me to read maps and follow signs accurately.  But all that means nothing when there are no signs, or worse, when the signs are wrong.

We circle the airport three times before finding the correct train.  At the train station, there are no maps.  When we finally locate the tram stop, there are no signs indicating directions of the stops.  In the end, I remember that our hotel is west of downtown, and use the setting sun to get us on the right tram.  Wow, impressive, self, impressive.

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At least the tram is super cute.  Having never been on a tram despite 3 trips to San Fran, I am ecstatic to finally have my first tram ride, in Milan no less!

Once we reach the hotel, JL and I get in touch with Carlo.  Carlo is a fellow Lindau Meeting attendant, who graciously agreed to show us around the city.  My first LNLM10 reunion!

First impression of the city—Milan feels like New York with shorter buildings.  It’s busy, crowded, and filled with pedestrians.  The hustle and bustle continues as the sun sets.  For all these reasons, I don’t love New York.  Yet in this moment, I find Milan so very charming. 

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First item on the agenda is to try authentic Italian cuisine.  Carlo takes us to a cute family-owned restaurant.  I pretend to read the menu for a few minutes and then do the smart thing of letting Carlo order for us.  The food comes quickly, and it does not disappoint!  You can really taste the freshness of all the ingredients, and I think that’s what makes the food so great.  Then we eat several kinds of prosciutto, or cured hams.  I am hesitant at first.  It looks more like a plate of raw meat.  But as soon as I take my first bite, I instantly love it.  The flavors are excellent!  The two pastas and the risotto are also delicious. 

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At the end of the meal, Carlo orders limonchelli and grappa—liquors traditionally served after a meal to help with digestion.  Ok, this is the one thing that I do not like about Italian cuisine.  Both liquors are very strong.  The odd taste aside, it burns as it’s going down.  And I don’t believe that it helps with digestion.

After dinner, we go on a walking tour of the city. At first it’s just a shopping district.  Sure, it’s beautiful.  The streets are wide and clean and filled with happy pedestrians.  The shops are brightly lit, proudly featuring the hottest fashion items in their windows.  And then suddenly, straight ahead of us, the Duomo peaks out.  This breathtakingly beautiful gothic cathedral stands quietly in the night at the end of the bustling shopping street.  We first get to the base of the back of the Duomo.  The architectural details are incredible.  Then Carlo takes us around to the front, but strictly forbids any peaking.  We wait until getting to the center of the square in front of it before turning around for the full view.  This is what I see.  And my heart skips a beat.  Serene, beautiful, majestic.  I am speechless.

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I am in love with this city.

The next day, we visited the famous mural, The Last Supper, and came back to the Duomo.  In broad daylight, the Duomo is also beautiful, but it doesn’t feel magical any more.  Friends, if you visit Milan, be sure to take the night tour.

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Did I mention that in Italy, gelato is in its own food group?  Around noon, we head back to the hotel, pick up our luggage, and hop on a bus to go to Milan Centrale.  On the way there, three random strangers warn us about the thieves at the busy train station.  Fortunately I pack light and have a fierce roundhouse kick. 

This concludes our 24 hour whirlwind tour of Milan. Italy is lovely. <3

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tiny little update

Ok. I know I'm way behind on the travel entries, but there are only 2 more to go, and I swear I'm working on them. They will definitely be posted by August 15, when Carlo comes to visit Jose Luis and me from Italy. This will be the first Lindau Fellow reunion, yay! Aside from battling with western blots daily, I am really enjoying cooking, eating, and shopping these days. Last weekend in Annapolis, I found the most stunning little black dress at WhiteHouseBlackMarket for only $60. What a steal! Finding the perfect dress is almost as hard as finding true love.

Did I mention that I'm going back to med school on August 23? I am. It feels surreal. I am both excited and scared. I miss the patient interaction, but at the same time, I go into complete panic mode at times just thinking about how much I've forgotten. Do I even know how to hold a stethoscope? Ok, yes. But that's hardly enough. The transition is going to be rough. I hope I survive it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Benvenuti a Torino—science is in the air @ESOF2010

Remember when I said that the 9 hour bus ride to Torino would be a “piece of cake?”  I must have forgotten that I hate cake.  Without going into details, I assure you, this is a trip that I would not wish upon anyone.  The only silver lining is the brown bag dinner, which comes with a banana.  I’m not great at math, but I’m pretty sure monkey + banana = happy.  If only I had a real pet monkey.  I actually looked into this.  Owning a monkey is both expensive and time-consuming, in other words, not suitable for a graduate/med student budget and lifestyle.

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We get to the hotel at 2a.m., and the first meeting is at 8:15a.m. at the Lingotto, which is a 45 minute bus ride from the hotel.  Eeesh, who needs sleep anyway.  The Art Olympic Hotel is a gorgeous place.  And I have a bidet in my bathroom.  A bidet.  Why?  Is it necessary?  Is it at all useful?  Why not just use the bathtub 3 steps away? 

I take a quick nap and make it to the Lingotto on time for the first meeting.  In contrast to the Lindau meeting, ESOF is a bit disorganized.  We have three different program books, each containing three different sections.  Okay, yes, there are more sessions going on here, but is it really necessary to cross-reference three booklets to find a talk that I want to attend? 

On day 1 of the conference, I meet up with Sabrina, a collaborator in Torino.  Sabrina actually trained at my current lab for a year, long before I joined.  I’ve seen her pictures, exchanged emails, worked with her cells, and at last, we meet in person!  Sabrina takes me to Eataly, the most amazing food market.  It’s not really fair to just call it a market; Eataly is more like a culinary mecca.  The food and beverages here are of the highest quality.  Clearly, in this country, food is holy.  Their displays of the cheeses, meats, and wines are prepared with such pride and meticulous care that the place feels like a museum.  Check out the cheese storage room:

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There are various bars where you can get meals made to order.  I gorge on a plate of seafood pasta—wow, Italian pasta is nothing like what I’ve eaten before, I could really get used to this—and then a generous serving of gelato.  Oh delicious gelato, I can never eat enough of you.  And speaking of gelato, look at this gem from a gelateria at the Lingotto (click on the picture for an enlarged version):

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Wow.  Apparently the rest of the world does not think of Americans very highly.  If you are a fattie, you go for size Americano.

Back to the conference.  The talks are informative, however, unlike most other science conferences focused on a specific field, ESOF is more of a general science meeting aimed to communicate recent research results to the public.  In fact, nearly half of the attendees are journalists.  The Robert Bosch Foundation is supporting not only 50 young scientists, but also 50 young journalists to attend ESOF.  Each morning, all of us meet in a room, and representatives from each group recommend best talks of the day to everyone.  It’s interesting what scientists and journalists consider to be good talks.  Often, we pick the same talks but for different reasons.  What a novel idea—bring researchers and journalists together so that they can team up and make science more accessible to everyone!

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My two favorite sessions are as follows:

  • The challenges of a changing environment: How do animals cope?  Ok, the talks were actually very different from my expectations, but interesting nonetheless.  I ask the panelists how global warming has affected the sea turtle population—because sex determination in sea turtles is temperature-dependent.  So is the female:male ratio out of control, and are the turtles heading toward distinction?  Turns out, despite active research in this area, little is known.  Global warming may be changing the ratio, but the exact number is still unknown.  Fortunately, the way sea turtle mating is done, not a lot of males are needed (harharhar, insert men-are-useless jokes here).  So at least for a while, they’ll be ok.  Whew.
  • Epigenetics: Changes in genomic functions that control differentiation, stem cell tumors, and ageing.  Compared to what I’ve learned in graduate school about epigenetics, this talk contains very basic information, starting at the structure of DNA and chromosome.  The most important lesson I am taking away from this session is how to present scientific research to the public: don’t use jargons, do use good graphics, and just use plain English.  A good scientist should be able to explain his/her work to just about anyone, including his/her own grandmother.  By the way, did you know that Virinostat (SAHA), an HDAC inhibitor, has seen great success in treatment for leukemias, and has already entered trials for solid tumors?  Wow.  Conventional wisdom would tell you that an HCAD inhibitor has too general of a target and would likely carry a huge side effect profile—so far, not true.  In science you really need to have an open mind!

Science aside, I am loving the free coffee at the conference center.  The Italians really know how to make a delicious cup of cappuccino.  I weaned myself off of coffee at the beginning of graduate school, but if I knew coffee could be this tasty, that never would have happened.

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My most favorite memory at ESOF is, of course, lunch with Dr. Julia Fischer.  It’s no secret that I love monkeys.  The opportunity to attend a lunch-time roundtable discussion with Dr. Fisher, one of the most famous monkey researchers in the world, is absolutely amazing.  At the end I ask for a group photograph with my monkey Affee in it, which in my opinion, is completely appropriate.  But not everyone is so thrilled with this idea.  Whatever, Dr. Fischer actually agrees to do this!

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My love of monkeys always brings me good fortune.  At this lunch, I meet Matteo, who is a Turin native, and kindly agrees to take the Bosch fellows on a tour of the city the next day.  Ok.  Prior to this tour, Turin to me felt like Baltimore, or maybe Detroit, of Italy because all we’ve seen so far are our hotel, the Lingotto (in a not-so-glamorous part of town), and crowded buses.  Then this walking tour of the city completely changes my mind.  What a charming city full of culture and history!  This is where Italy was unified 149 years ago, and Turin was the first capital city.  At multiple downtown locations, ESOF booths are bringing fun little experiments to people on the street.  Everywhere in Turin, science is in the air!  I am also very impressed by how safe it is to walk and bike in this city, even at night.  Public transportation is convenient and accessible.  I can actually see myself living here, and that is definitely a pleasantly surprising discovery. 

Photos below are from this tour.  The first one is of the Mole Antonelliana, which houses the Turin National Cinema Museum, one of the most famous landmarks of the city.  It was first constructed as a synagogue, but halfway through, the rabbi in charge decided that the building had become too costly, and sold it to the city.  The second one is the view of the city from across the Po River.  On a sunny day, you can supposedly see the Alps in the background.

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On the next day, Matteo kindly offers to drive me to Sabrina’s lab for a quick visit.  Their lab is south of Turin in a smaller town, about a 45-minute drive away.  I am so grateful that I didn’t have to navigate on my own and go by bus, which would have taken about 90min.  Thanks a million Matteo!  Driving in Italy is terrifying.  There are no painted lines to distinguish one lane from the next, and the drivers are at least as aggressive as East Baltimore drivers.  How do you know if you are in one lane or straddling two?  Matteo says it’s one of those things that you “just know.”  Perhaps; but I didn’t know.  Then again, I am not Italian.  I do, however, love that most cars are hatchbacks—so practical!

All good things must come to an end.  Just as I really begin to love the city, it is time to move onto our next destination.  Goodbye Torino, can I come see you again soon?  I hope so.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mainau—the jewel of Lake Constance

Early Friday morning, we load our luggage on the Bosch fellows' bus (to take us to Torino for ESOF later in the evening), and board a boat for a day trip to Mainau, an island on Lake Constance known for its beautiful gardens.  I’ve been on boat trips before—most recently on a half-day cruise in the Baltimore Inner Harbor.  Since I don’t know how to swim, I am generally disinterested in water-related activities…that is, until I saw the Sonnenkonigin, the “Sun Queen.”  Holy cow, you call this a boat?  This futuristic space-age looking massive 5-floor “boat” barely fits in the Lindau harbor.  The exterior is so shiny and clean that you can see the waterfront hotel in its reflection. 

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As I board, I begin singing “I’m on a boat!” excitedly.  Alas, I am met with blank stares.  Really?  NO ONE knows about this T-Pain phenomenon?  Maybe I do spend too much time on youtube.

From the top deck, the view of Lindau is beautiful as ever.  Everything about it is so dreamlike.  I’m really going to miss this charming little town.

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Inside the boat, I am even more impressed.  Four immaculately clean floors are elegantly decorated.  Each floor boasts its own buffet table and open bar (just water and juice for breakfast; because if you need an eye-opener, it would be a problem).  We sit and eat and I enjoy the free wifi for a while.  There is an MC, a live band, and later, a magician to entertain us.  Wow, really?  You already had me at “buffet,” all these are just icing on the cake, appreciated but not necessary. 

After breakfast, it’s time to explore.  I go outside, up and down, from the front to the back to fully soak in the sun from every angle—under sunscreen protection, of course.  The view afar is a bit hazy due to the morning fog.  The sky and water melt into each other, endlessly blue.  The mirror exterior of the boat is even more fascinating up close, mostly because I can’t believe how clean it is.  Spotless!  At this point I start going camera-happy.  Yes, even more so than usual. 

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We arrive at Mainau a couple of hours later.  Before getting off, I snap a picture with the mascots, a griffin and a deer.  I believe they are mascots of the Baden-Wurttemberg state.  I’m not sure why a state would need mascots, but I like it.  Maybe we should adopt the idea in the US, so I can be an Oregon Tree Hugger, or a Maryland Crab Eater (Think these are awful? Allow me to introduce you to my high school mascot—the Fighting Fisherman/Fisherlady; and one of our rivals—the Tillamook Cheesemaker…oy…).

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The Sun Queen docking at the Mainau Harbor is an unbelievably beautiful sight.  “Paradise Lost” comes to mind—just the title, not the story.  Again, I feel like I accidentally walked into a postcard.

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Our only organized activity for the day is an “Energy and Sustainability” panel discussion with laureates and distinguished guests.  Environment conservation and energy sustainability have been a hot topic in the media in recent years and at this meeting—rightfully so.  It’s encouraging to see top notch scientists actively researching this topic and advocating for our planet.  The panelists present largely the same opinion, that we as a human race are heading toward a perilous direction, and our current rate of energy consumption is selfishly high and unsustainable.  Within the scientific community, most agree with this notion.  However, it remains a challenge to fully convince citizens globally that environmental issues are real and are of dire consequences, and that we must take responsibility and try to solve this problem. 

One interesting question comes from a student in the audience: “with distortion of the truth from some journalists, such as ‘Snow storm in Houston proves that global warming does not exist,’ how do we persuade the public that global warming is indeed a real phenomenon?”  Certain journalists, the panelists explain, sometimes bend the truth to sell their product.  We must do our part and present the overwhelming data that point to an unmistakable trend.  And one panelist brings up an interesting analogy: for those who believe that an increase in temperature by a few degrees is inconsequential, think of the human body: homeostasis is of utmost importance—an increase by a few degrees causes fever, and a few more degrees, death!  Planet Earth is much the same.  Although we might not feel the immediate effect of “a few degrees,” the ecological system has already seen a big change.  When the ice caps melt, we will lose cities, countries, our whole existence. 

And the solution?  Well, for such a complex problem, there is not one simple answer.  We must thinking of many new ways to reach energy sustainability.  Be it creating novel methods of obtaining alternative energy, or implementing existing environmentally-friendly systems (for example: wind energy), we must act fast and do it now.  Of course, everyone should also take part in conservation.  Now, this perfectly aligns with my “3 R” philosophy: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order.  Dr. Yuan Tseh Lee suggests that we all cut back, because happiness comes not from materialistic possessions but from interpersonal relationships.  Very zen, right?  I agree with what he says, but even as environmentally conscious as I am, it would be very difficult for me to give up my car.  The infrastructure in Baltimore is just not developed enough for me to get to school/grocery stores/anywhere safely via public transportation/bike/walking.  I think this is where the government needs to step in and learn from Europe—public transportation there is so convenient, you barely need a car at all.  Better public transportation would make America even more awesome!

After the discussion, we have some free time to explore the island.  The entire island of Mainau is one giant garden, with a castle in the center. 

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Even more impressive is a row of hot new black Audis parked in front of the castle.  Nobel laureates travel in style, apparently.  This is quite a scene, very baller.

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By noon, the sun is scorching.  Benyam and I find a restaurant for a quick lunch.  After a week of man food (meat, beer, more meat), I am starting to miss my old days of 80% vegetarianism, so I order a salad for lunch.  This turns out to be a mistake.  I get a plate with a large pile of stuff, composed of little piles of different vegetables.  Why they are not mixed, I don’t know.  And there is popcorn in the salad.  Maybe I should stick to meat in Germany. 

On our way back to the castle, we run into the mascots.  Poor mascots, I am uncomfortably hot in a skirt, I can’t even imagine how they are feeling inside those furry suits.  And this scene immediately makes me fall to the ground laughing, or ROFLMAO, if you will: it is so difficult to walk and see in these costumes, that they each require a guide.  So there they are, walking with a funny gait similar to bilateral foot drop with compensation, and holding hands with their guide ladies.  Mad props for being such troopers, it certainly isn’t a job that I would sign up for.

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The closing ceremony promptly begins at 3p in front of the castle.  Several VIPs make speeches about why science and technology are important for our society.  And then, Countess Bettina bids us farewell.  The 60th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is over—sad, does that mean I have to go back to reality?  The media group comes to hand out a 6-page newsletter—literarily hot off the press—summarizing events from the week.  It is complete with thoughtfully written articles and many photos, including one from this morning’s boat ride on the cover.  Wow, they really set a new standard for efficiency.  When you want something done quickly, leave it to the Germans!

We have a bit more time to hang out on Mainau.  The afternoon heat is getting to me.  Instead of exploring the island on foot, I pick a spot in the shade and just simply enjoy the moment.  Then, look who comes to join me.  OH HAI PEACOCK!

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I get an ice cream and am delighted to find that on the nutritional facts label, the units are listed both in kcal and kJ!  In the US food labels use Cal for energy units.  One Calorie is really 1000 calories, or 1kcal.  Of course if you want to go all SI about it, you would use joules, or in this case, kJ.  Since I am a total nerd, I am going to share this photo with you.  How cool is that!! 

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On the boat ride back to Lindau, the fun continues.  I meet several new friends, including Akshat, who infamously wrote a parody of my blog entry about packing.  Upon learning that I study breast cancer, Akshat poses an interesting and controversial question: since funding for science is limited, and cancer research has already made much progress, should we temporarily reduce or stop funding cancer research and instead, spend the money on finding alternative energy and fuels?  Tough question.  Undoubtedly, both are important fields of research.  But what is more important?  Ensuring future survival or ending current suffering?  I don’t think I can choose.  While it is true that cancer research has come a long way, we are still far from fully understanding the various diseases that fall into this monstrous category, and finding cures.  So no, I say, we absolutely cannot stop funding scientific research in this area.  At the same time, we should also allocate more money to alternative energy research.  Science is important for all of humanity—I can only hope that those in power recognize this fact and provide more money and resources for research, because in the end, it benefits us all. 

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After getting off the boat, the 50 Robert Bosch Stiftung Fellows board a bus to go to Torino for the ESOF2010 conference.  But first, I stop by a bar at the harbor one more time.  Since it is my last German beer for a while, I work up the courage to ask the bartender if I could pour my own beer.  He actually agrees to my ridiculous request!  So here it is , one more drink for the road.  Nine hour bus ride to Torino—piece of cake.

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Farewell Mainau, Lindau, and Germany, I sure hope to visit you again soon!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lindau—memories to last a lifetime

I tried to blog while in Lindau, I really did.  But functioning on at most 6 hours of sleep per day, I just could not allocate any time to blogging. 

Now that the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is over, I can finally sit still for a moment and reflect on the experience.  And where do I begin?  The whole week felt like a dream.  Hanging out with 60 Nobel laureates and 600 young researchers on a beautiful medieval island over looking Lake Constance—pinch me, is this for real?

Nobel laureates, having reached the pinnacle of success, are treated like celebrities in the scientific community.  Needless to say, it’s interesting to meet them in person and realize that they, too, are humans with diverse backgrounds, personalities, and yes, hobbies.  Many of the laureates are still active in scientific research, although some have switched topics of studies or even fields.  A few laureates have moved onto other career options as educators and advocates.  During conversations with the laureates, I am surprise by how humble many of them are.  Winning the Nobel prize is a REALLLY BIG deal, yet they talk to us like colleagues and show genuine interest in what we have to say.

So what does it take to win the Nobel prize?  From what I’ve heard, luck does play a part.  Being in the right place at the right time helps.  But luck alone is not enough.  Chance favors the prepared mind.  Hard work, innovation, persistence, collaboration with collegaues, and passion for science are important factors too. 

Many of the lectures are available at lindau.nature.com, so I won’t go into the details of each talk.  Instead I will list my favorite moments, in chronological order:

Day 1:

  • Meeting Dr. Jack Szostak (2009 physiology or medicine), and discussing his work on the Double Strand Break Repair (DSBR) model of meiotic recombination.  Dr. Szostak and my former PI, Dr. Franklin Stahl, co-authored the paper on the canonical DSBR model.  I read this paper many times during my undergraduate research days, and I finally meet the other author!  Dr. Szostak recalls spending the “most intense” weekend in Frank’s house in Eugene writing that paper, followed by some great skiing.  Work hard, play hard, right?
  • Meeting Dr. Hamilton Smith (1978 physiology or medicine), who headed the project on the first synthetic cell (synthetic genome capable of driving self-replication, to be more precise) at the J. Craig Venter Institute.  When this paper came out in Science Magazine a few weeks ago, I was so excited that I posted the link on my facebook status.  And I finally get to ask him how they chose which 14 genes to omit.  The answer: it was random.
  • At dinner, I am flanked by two Nobel laureates, Sir Harold Kroto (1996 chemistry) to my left, and Dr. Leland Hartwell (2001 physiology or medicine) to my right.  When does that EVER happen??! 
  • The Bavarian polonaise dance: boys and girls line up, pair off, and dance slightly awkwardly…high school much?  It was quite intimidating at first, but I think Sergei, my dance partner, and I manage to do ok.  See the awkwardness for yourself here.
  • The dance party continues after the polonaise.  I ask Dr. Agre for a dance, and he graciously agrees.  He is a great dancer, even though his last dance class took place in Reed Hall, when he was a student at Hopkins.  Clearly I’ve missed these lessons at Reed, as I step on his feet… twice. 

Day 2:

  • Dr. Roger Tsien’s (2008 chemistry) talk, where he mentions that his group went on Crayola’s website to seek inspirations on naming of their fluorescent proteins.  I’ve worked with tdTomato in one of my graduate school rotation projects, and now I finally know where the name came from… a crayon, imagine that!
  • Lunch with Dr. Peter Agre (2003 chemistry), and talking about marathons.  How many scientists-runners have you met?

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  • Asking Sir Tim Hunt (2001 physiology or medicine) for an autograph (so I’m a science groupie, please don’t judge me), and he draws me the cell cycle!
  • Sir Harold Kroto’s talk, where he challenges young researchers to embrace modern technologies and take on a more active role in communication of science.  He also speaks of sustainability and environmental conservation issues—a frequently seen theme at this year’s meeting.  This was one of my favorite sessions.  It’s inspiring to see a world-class scientist becoming a social activist and making his voice heard.
  • At the grill & chill dinner, we eat 3 different types of steaks and 2 types of sausages, and consume a large quantity of beer.  There is no bad beer in Germany.  Can you tell that my face is getting rounder?  I’ve probably gained at least 10 pounds by now, and it’s completely worth it. 

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Day 3:

  • Dr. Oliver Smithies (2007 physiology or medicine), who takes us on a journey of his scientific career by showing pages from his notebooks.  At age 85, he still does bench work and even makes his own buffers!  Here’s the page where he recorded that gene-targeting by homologous recombination works.  My PhD thesis, knock-in of oncogenic mutations in breast epithelial cells, uses a method based on his work.  How cool!!

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  • At Dr. Richard Ernst’s (1991 chemistry) discussion session, he challenges us to think more of mankind and less of ourselves in order to achieve energy sustainability.  This idea was met with some controversy from the audience.  Several students bring up that it’s human nature to be selfish—from a biological standpoint, we are born to be this way for survival.  So we will never have a world full of Mother Theresas and Gandhis.  I am reminded of the US pharmaceutical industry, where drug companies’ primary goal lies in profits, but in the process, conduct useful research and create new therapies.  I ask Dr. Ernst for his opinion on such situations, and he agrees that there are large ethical gray areas.  The key is to strike a balance between greed and altruism, and realize that as citizens of the world, we share the responsibility to preserve our Earth not only for current residents, but also future inhabitants.
  • An evening concert featuring young musicians from all over the world.  Ok, the Stadtheater was a bit too warm, but the music was fantastic.  After dinner, we visit the beergarden again.  When in Germany, do as the Germans do!

Day 4:

  • The morning talks in chemistry and physics are out of my league.  They are intriguing but I don’t understand much.  But then one physics talk presents fascinating biomedical applications.  I’m keeping this a secret for now, as it will likely be a part of my presentation at the upcoming Park Lab retreat.
  • During lunch with Bosch Fellows who are going to ESOF, I speak fondly of my recent trip to Paris, only to scoffed at by a German guy: “Ugh, Paris smells like urine.”  Clearly, Germans have high standards for cleanliness.
  • Dr. Agre gives a fascinating presentation of how he first got involved in basic science research and in more recent years, public health research.  And the link between these two seemingly unrelated fields? Aquaporin, of course.  After his talk, we, the Bmore crew, go to the podium to say goodbye (until we meet again in Torino).  His parting advice to me: “be careful in Italy, Grace, you can’t trust those Italian men.”   
  • Sending books back to the US at Deutsche Post was definitely the low point of the week.  Germany achieves total perfection in every aspect, except their post office.  Long story short, we successfully ship out two boxes before the day is over.

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  • Fantastic Bavarian dinner.  There is music, dance performance, great food and beer, pretzels the size of my head, and most importantly, just before dinner I rescue a monkey, appropriately named Affee (German for monkey):

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With that, our stay in Lindau comes to an end.  The meeting goes on for one more day at the island of Mainau, but early Friday morning, we say goodbye to Lindau.  What a whirlwind it’s been.  We come together to celebrate some of the greatest scientific discoveries, and in the process, establish friendships all across the globe.  To my surprise, inspiration comes from not only the laureates, but also my fellow scientists-in-training.  I asked a young chemist why he chose a career in science, and he says: “because I’m curious, I want to know more about the world around me.”  Indeed, curiosity is what led many of us to this business and continues to drive us.  It is a privilege to have the opportunity to discover truths through scientific methods, and advance the world with our knowledge.  I hope I always remember that, particularly on those awful days when every experiment seems to go awry.  Farewell Lindau, I am forever grateful for this experience.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2010—opening ceremony

First of all, allow me to share the view from my bedroom window.  My apartment is right next to the old town hall, and this is what I see when I wake up:

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Lucky me!  In fact, that’s how I feel about this whole experience.  I almost can’t believe that I really am here.  On the way to the registration desk, I run into Jose, my fellow Hopkins attendee.  The registration process is a breeze, and we pick up this giant laureate portrait book.  In an email before the conference, we were warned that the book would be heavy.  But 16.5 pounds feel much heavier now that it’s actually in my hands.

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Jose and I decide on the spot that we would ship these back to the U.S. rather than hauling them by ourselves to Torino, Milan, and Rome.  After putting these away in our hotel rooms, we head out for lunch.  I keep hearing about the amazing d├ľner kebaps so we try one from the little shop next to the train station.  I cannot believe that for €3.30, I get this humongous sandwich nearly the size of my head (and I assure you, I have a rather large cranium!). 

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Jose and I sit at a bench in front of the harbor to enjoy our lunch.  Birds gather at our feet to eat the crumbs.  They are not afraid of humans at all, even coming to our hands to take food, very cute.  This is the view during lunch:

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We have a few hours before the opening ceremony begins, so we explore Lindau on foot, stopping occasionally for beer and ice cream.  On the other side of the island, we run into a family of swans chilling in the shade.  The babies look like fur balls.  Swans.  Did I really just casually run into some swans?

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3p.m., it’s time.  The conference center is full of laureates, students, and journalists.  The air is buzzing with excitement.  I soon discover there are royal VIPs among us—Countess Bettina Bernadotte of Sweden, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand.  At the conference center we find Dr. Peter Agre, who nominated us for this opportunity (thanks a million!!).  Dr. Agre won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2003 for his discovery of aquaporin.  How he discovered aquaporin is quite an intriguing story.  Benyam is also here, representing Harvard.

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During the ceremony, Countess Bettina speaks elegantly about the history of the Lindau meetings.  She and other speakers bring up the theme of communication and collaboration again and again.  This year’s meeting is the 3rd interdisciplinary meeting, where laureates and students in chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine are all brought together.  Over 60 countries are represented.  The lectures, discussions, and conversations in the next few days will undoubtedly inspire and motivate us.  In science, when you are studying everything about just one thing, sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the small details and forget the big picture.  A step back and a fresh perspective often brings the best solution—look at the forest not the tree.  My lab is having a brainstorming retreat at the end of July, where each person will present one novel idea on breast cancer therapy.  I hope my fellow researchers, particularly those in chemistry and physics, help me find a cure.

After the ceremony, I have some free time while Benyam and Jose go to a Qiagen meet-and-greet.  I meet Tingting from China, and we chat over a cup of coffee.  She might be going to Stanford soon for postdoc training.  Maybe I will run into her in Palo Alto in the near future.  We explore the island a bit more, and come back to the conference center for dinner.  Oh delicious German food, I can never eat enough of you.

Swans of the edible kind:

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The rest of the evening is, of course, devoted to World Cup matches.  Go Germany!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Frankfurt/Lindau—city rhythm and country melody

Bright and early, we set out for Frankfurt.  I experience the autobahn for the first time, it’s exhilarating.  I normally hate driving, but even I would enjoy driving in Germany.  The roads are smooth, and the drivers obey traffic laws—what a novel concept!  The autobahn has no speed limit.  We are in the fast lane, going on average at 200km per hour (125MPH), occasionally going up to the 220 range (that’s almost 140MPH!).  In no time, we make it to Frankfurt.  The city is brimming with pedestrians.  There is a diversity festival going on.  Everywhere we go, music plays loudly.  We go past the city opera to see the stock trading center—supposedly this is the biggest one in the European Union.  Nice place, but it’s got nothing on Wall Street.

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Germany is all about preserving historic architecture.  Even in downtown Frankfurt, new buildings can only be added onto, not replace, the centuries-old houses.  The building in the photo below is a perfect example of the extreme measures they are willing to take.  When the city had to construct an underground train station in this spot, they tore down the house but numbered each brick.  Upon completion of the station, they rebuild the house with the original bricks in the exact same order.  Mad props to Germany.

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We walk by the newest city galleria, or shopping mall, and I notice something interesting: a giant hole in the wall!

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Our stroll takes us to a town square.  This area was destroyed after WWII and later rebuilt to look exactly like it used to.  I suddenly hear loud traditional Chinese music.  Whoah, definitely unexpected.  Turns out this is part of the diversity celebration. 

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Finally, we get on the pedestrian bridge on the Main River and cross halfway to admire the city skyline.  After that we stop by a cafe to eat some Frankfurt sausage  and head back to the car.  In comparison to Paris, where there are also large crowds of people on the street, I think the difference is that in Paris, I saw mostly foreign tourists; where as in Frankfurt, most of these people are local residents or tourists from other parts of Germany.  Germans seem to really know how to enjoy life.  I admire their balanced work/play lifestyle.  Of course it’s easier to achieve that balance when you are blessed with beautiful weather and awesome beer everywhere you go.  I can see myself living in Germany happily—this, in my book, is one of the highest compliments for a country!

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Karen and her husband drop me off at the train station.  I thank them profusely for being such gracious hosts and showing me the best of Aschaffenburg and Frankfurt.  I hope they will visit me, so I can show them the best of Baltimore… on second thought, scratch that, we’ll go to DC.

Onward to Lindau I go! What do you know, the train is late again.  This time, I only have 6 minutes to transition to the second train at Ulm.  I get in at 6:15, I curse a little under my breath, preparing for the second train, scheduled to leave at 6:12, to be already gone.  Luckily, it’s still there!  I sprint (ok, maybe it’s more like a jog, by now my luggage has gotten heavier) to the train and as soon as I get on, doors close and the train starts moving.  Whew.  I think my expectations for German trains were too high.  I’ve heard too many people boast that the trains here are ALWAYS on time, like on-the-dot on time.  I just have to realize that yes, in general they are punctual, but they are people not robots, so a ±5 minute is forgivable.

I reach Lindau just past 8p.m.  The walk to my apartment is easy.  When I get here, I don’t see the landlady.  She is supposed to meet me here to give me the key—we arranged it 2 months ago.  Uh oh, this is another classic Grace mistake—scheduling something weeks or months in advance without a confirmation the day before.  Fortunately I run into one of the media coordinators for the conference (forgive me if you read this, I don’t know how to spell your fancy European name), who helped me call the landlady.  In a few minutes she arrives and shows me the apartment.  She tells me that until my roommate arrives the next day, I am all on my own.  The rest of this building are business offices, which don’t open on Sundays.  She bids me goodbye but promises to come back the next morning to bring me a map. 

After she leaves, I unpack a bit and hop in the shower.  Literarily, as soon as I start to soap myself, I hear a knock on the door.  I completely freak out—ohmygawwwwwd, I thought there is no one else here, who is it how did they even get in the building?  I panic and don’t know what to do next.  Should I ignore it?  Oh, can’t, this person continues to knock.  Should I get dressed first?  Well, that takes at least 10 minutes since I have to dry off first.  So of course I do what in my mind is the most reasonable thing—wrap myself up in a towel and go answer the door.  Why I thought this is a good idea at the time is beyond me.  Had this been a bad person, how would I defend myself?  With my bare hands?  Alas, I am not Chuck Norris.  Fortunately, it’s my landlady dropping off the map. 

I finish my shower in peace, and head out to find dinner.  For a small island town, there sure are a lot of Asian cuisine choices: Thai, Chinese, Japanese.  I choose an Italian restaurant because they are playing the US-Ghana game on a projector.  The food is good, but the game not so much.  After dinner I go on a stroll by myself.  There is a live music performance by the harbor, but for the rest of the island, darkness has brought silence.  Under night sky, tranquility permeates the air. 

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I stop by the harbor one more time to get a picture of the light house—the symbol of Lindau.  The moon is up, its reflection dances and sparkles on the water. 

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I head back to the apartment to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is going to be a good day.