Thursday, September 5, 2013

Home and Hopes

I've been back at Emory for a little over a week now, and every day I've told myself that I'm going to sit down and write that last blog post about finally making it back home. Better late than never, right? It's just that there are a few things I have to say about a summer that changed my life.  And a few more pictures to show:

I snapped this one in rural southern France, where I stayed for a week with a French family that my mother knows. I'm not going to write about this one much, because my research was done by the time I made it there for my last week in Europe, and as far as I'm concerned that relieves me from blogging duties. It was pure vacation for me.

I will just say that the Giraud family really made me feel at home, and more than anyplace else I went this whole summer I wish I could have stayed longer. It also helped that Alain, the retired professional French chef in the house, cooked four course meals for lunch and dinner every day. Ah...

In case you don't recognize this one, it's Amsterdam. The same thing about vacation goes for it.

What I really want to talk about in my last blog post is how my whole summer experience affected my plans for the future. I've got dozens of pictures of breathtaking sights and intriguing surprises scattered throughout all my summer blogs. I saw Germany, Italy, France, Austria, and the Netherlands all in one summer. I goggled at the pope in a Vatican window. I skimmed over Ann Frank's original diary in the same place she wrote it. I dipped my feet in the canals of Venice. I brushed my hands along the remnants of the Berlin wall. I was swallowed by a cloud on the top of the Alps. If you want to read about my adventures, go ahead and peruse through the blog archives, but I haven't talked about what this experience will mean for my plans from here on out.

One goal I had for the summer I had was to become more proficient in lab techniques so that I could work more independently when I came back to Emory. That one was accomplished. I'm more proficient than I ever wanted to be in PCR, gel electrophoresis, transformation, and mini-prep than I ever wanted to be, to tell you the truth. But after having worked back in my lab at Emory for a few days at Emory, I'm glad. I work on my own schedule now! 

I was also hoping to learn a few entirely new things, and I did that too. Not only did I enjoy learning about lasso peptides, an entirely new surprise in biochemistry for me, but I learned how to interpret mass spec results near the end of my stay in Marburg. It seems very useful, and applicable to many kinds of problems. I imagine that I will use it in my research in the future.

Of course, the most useful part of my experience for going forward may be the least obvious. I've taken up work every summer for the past few years, and by the end I was always ready to go crazy, always convinced that there was no way I could continue doing what I was doing for the rest of my life. More than the language barrier, more than being alone in a foreign country, that was my biggest fear for this summer. I was terrified that the research path that I had envisioned for myself after college would be overturned when I actually spent fifty hours a week doing research and found that I didn't really like it. To my tremendous relief, I never came to that conclusion. There were times where I felt like throwing my barren petri dishes out the window, to be sure, when I felt like slowly dismantling my pipette after punching its stopper for the five thousandth time (my graduate mentor actually encouraged me to use more profanity in the lab. He said it made the experiments more likely to work). Yet, at the end of the summer, I wanted to continue. I was getting data, and I wanted to know how it would all turn out. I wasn't even ready to leave. From this experience, I've finally convinced myself that I want to go to graduate school after chemistry, that I want to pursue research with my life, and that I will be happy with it.

Thanks to everyone in the Marahiel lab at the University of Marburg for accommodating me, and making me feel welcome. Thanks to Emory and everyone involved there for providing me this opportunity. Thanks Leah.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Au revoir for now!

If it’s one thing I learned this summer (besides Western blotting of course), it’s that one should not judge a place by how big it is or how many souvenir shops line its streets, but rather by what each place has to offer – and believe me, there is something unique about each and every place I’ve been to this summer, from the magnificent gardens of Versailles to the majestic snow caps of the Alps. But perhaps the place I underestimated the most was none other than the quaint, but ever so magnificent city of Lyon. Maybe it was the fact that in our history classes, we were never taught about how it was a place of resistance during WWII, with secret tunnels (“traboules”) running through the city. Or, perhaps it was the fact that I always knew it was just a tram ride away, and was too busy exploring the typical touist-y cities of London & Paris, but I finally got to see the city for everything it is and more, when my friend Evan (an Emory graduate who actually studied in France) came to visit. 
inside a secret "traboule." From the outside, they look just like doors to residences.

But there was no better time than my last weekend here to explore the beautiful city of Lyon for all it's worth, from Les Halles (the foodie central of Lyon, started by Paul Bocuse himself) to biking down the Rhone River trail, where one can pass by Interpol and end up in the heart of the city, l'hôtel de ville.
Scenic view of the Rhone River from one of the biking trails in Lyon.

Interpol headquarters is in Lyon!

One can spend days just wine-tasting at the different brasseries and bouchons of Lyon, and never try the same wine twice. Personally, I prefer to go big or go home, so we went to the very Lyonnaise <<Brasseries George>> where I finally tried some escargots and even la tête de veau, or calf's head! I have to admit, feel free to quote me on this, snails are delicious - but when it comes to eating animal heads or liver (foie gras, which literally means liver fat, is a paste made of goose liver and a very expensive delicacy at that), I prefer just sticking to some fresh regional French cheeses with some wine at the local cheese bar.

Cheese-tasting at Formagerie Mons in Les Halles.
An escargot. Yum!
From the amazing infrastructure of the city (one of the days, we navigated the entire city by an iPhone map, bikeshare and by foot), to the indescribable view of the city from the top of the Fouviere church, I have fallen completely in love with the city of Lyon.
The gabillion stairs up to the Fouviere.
Completely worth it though. (The pointy building they literally call "the pencil.")

Not to mention, it has some of the nicest people I've ever met - my PI's took me out to jazz music and ice cream one of my last nights in Lyon!
My PIs Nathalie and Jean-Francois with me in "le grand labo"

Pistachio&hazelnut flavored.

I knew goodbyes were never easy, but with the view of the seemingly endless Atlantic over my right shoulder and the book "The Lyon That I Love" (which my PIs generously bought me as a parting gift) in my lap, I truly realised how lucky I was to be able to do what I love with such awesome people in a truly magnificent city. So thank you Dr. Roesch, my Emory PI's Drs. Wei and Yu, and finally my French PIs Jean-François and Nathalie, for giving me an amazing summer of knowledge, of discovery, of laughs that I will remember as long as I live.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


The majority of my week was spent writing up the second manuscript to my experiments. Next week I'm going to have to do a presentation for my lab in anticipation of the presentation that my P.I. back home wants me to give once I return O.O (<--how I feel about this turn of events).

But the highlight of my week was definitely getting to have a little reunion with one of my SIRE mentees from last year, Amaka!

Amaka! And some delicious dulce de leche-based drinks.
Amaka is spending a whole semester abroad in Buenos Aires! She'll be here till the end of December, taking courses at various institutions throughout the city. She came with around 100 other students from the United States from schools like Yale, UPenn, and Northwestern. We got to catch up at the McCafe in our neighborhood while waiting for some of her other friends from the program to go to some touristy destinations. It just so happens that Amaka and I live within 15 minutes of each other by walking and went to the same grocery stores and restaurants around the neighborhood without knowing each other was so close for the last two weeks.

The puppeteer and his puppet after a performance.
I think this character was in Inception?
At San Telmo, we went through the long street of Defensa which holds all kinds of artisans and performers, with tons of great things to eat and buy along the way. I was able to go on a successful shopping spree for presents for my family during this day.

DDL's greatest rendition yet.
While on this beautiful Sunday afternoon stroll through San Telmo, I stumbled upon my most favorite form of dulce de leche: pancakes with dulce de leche filling! This family-owned street cart sold these delicious treats for only 10 pesos (>$2). The pancake (panqueque) is cooked right in front of your eyes. The end result is a lighter pancake, not quite as thin as a crepe. A generous filling of dulce de leche is smothered on one side, and the whole thing is rolled up.

During the past few days, I've found my mind going back to the panqueque con dulce de leche and may even revisit the spot just to get this again before I leave. Where else could I readily find this simple, yet glorious snack?

Casa Rosada; literally, Pink House
At the end of the long street, we found ourselves curiously in front of the governmental buildings. These beautiful buildings look like Parisian castles but actually function as the equivalent to the White House. Interestingly, the president does not have her residence in la Casa Rosada and actually takes the helicopter to work every day from the city outskirts to avoid the heavy Buenos Aires morning traffic.

Around the corner from la Casa Rosada lies the Argentine national bank. It also looks more like a European hotel with palm trees lining its perimeter. Apparently in the park-like square bordering the national bank and la Casa Rosada, called the Plaza de Mayo, there are weekly, and sometimes daily, protests. One particular protest is led by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children were taken away from them during the late 70s while Argentina was under a state terrorism by the military dictatorship. During this time, the government took away political dissidents and other sympathizers and made them "disappear" - either by murdering them or taking them away to political detention camps. The victims number in the 10,000s, and to this day, the fate of many are still unknown.

When three meats meet.
This plate represents my dinner plate of the week. It had some deliciously seasoned pork ribs, beef carne asada, and chicken in the rice. The pig, which the ribs came from, was roasted whole, and the rest of its body parts were similarly sold in the same location, head and all. It's definitely a different marketing approach than those in the States. 

Less than two weeks are left for my stay, but there are still lots of editing and powerpoint-making to do!

The Ultimate Goodbye

There's really no place like Ho(l)me. I am writing this last and final blog post from Hamilton Holmes Hall at Emory. A new year, a new residence hall. I'm going to travel back in time a bit to try and recap my last week at Oxford and the busy life of an avid traveler and ambitious researcher.

The last weekend in Oxford was bittersweet-Toby, one of the other IRES kids and one of my good friends, came up to visit England from Denmark. She spent Saturday with me and Heeryoung, an Emory student who was studying at Oxford through the British Studies program. We had a blast showing her around as I had my last glimpse at Oxford. We toured the Bodleian, climbed up the tower for the beautiful view, had a full English breakfast, and even had a fun sleepover at my little place in Greater Leys.
The heart of Oxford

full English Breakfast (vegetarian version)

the view from the tower!

Magdalen college

Sunday was another day of exploration. Toby left early in the morning to spend Sunday in London with some friends from Emory who were studying abroad at UCL. I wanted to see another part of England, so I ventured with Alice, an Oxford undergraduate who is also working in the lab, to Stratford, the town where Shakespeare grew up, and the Cotswolds, which are little village towns that are part of the English countryside.

Shakespeare in the park

Thutch roofs of Cotswold


With my poster almost done, and my project completed, I wanted something to do for that last week. I started to help Jonathan, an undergraduate who was working on a cool perceptual learning experiment. Earlier this summer, I had met with Jonathan to work with him on his experiment that we had planned on starting in June, but we had some technical problems along the way, so the experiment was on hold. This particular experiment is similar to something my lab a few years back, so it was definitely of interest to me. It deals with the mapping of our fingers in the brain through a learning task. The experiment is drawn out over 4 days and lasts 7-10 hours. Basically, the participants are presented with little domes that have gratings. The domes vary in the space of the gratings. One finger is "trained" to learn how to differentiate if the gratings are horizontal or vertical (parallel or orthogonal) and other fingers are tested to see if they also learned to differentiate. Past research shows that the homologous finger and the adjacent finger do, which may have implications into how our tactile system learns and how the different fingers are mapped out in the brain. Very practical stuff. Anyway, not only was I helping Jonathan run the experiment, but being short of some money, I even volunteered to participate! It was a busy week and my time was divided into participating, helping him out, and packing all my belongings.

The last group goodbye was bittersweet. It was the last week spending time with the wonderful people of the lab. Only at Oxford can you sit in the Exeter College Gardens and have a beautiful view of the Radcliffe Camera. I will surely miss this place.

 Later that week, my mom and my sister joined me at Oxford before we left for a tour of Europe. After seeing the sights of Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and France, a few days at home were surely cherished. Given the humid weather of Atlanta, I am missing England, but it does feel great to be back.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

No need for a history lesson here

Maybe a geologist would disagree with me, would tell me that the formation of the Alps is a long and remarkable story, fit for lulling children to sleep at bedtime or creating an HBO series, but my lab group and I did not visit the Alps because of its history. We went to find some snow that we could still throw at each other in August 

to lose ourselves in clouds even while our feet were on the ground

to test our determination on the craggy sides of cliff faces

to listen to the wind chimes that echoed throughout the valleys of the alps, which rang even when there was no wind and turned out to be cowbells (but really they sounded just like a huge collection of wind chimes),

and to admire the view, of course.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like to be at the top of one of those mountains. I know I’m not the first IRES participant to chronicle an experience at the Alps this summer, but I think one thing you guys left out is the exhaustion you feel by the time you get to the top. Still, it wasn’t the exhaustion that made you want to stay up at the summit for the rest of the day, or the thought of a long hike back down. Sitting on top of the world, breathing clean mountain air as the wind ruffled the tall grass and flowers all around, scanning the miles and miles you could see in every direction without a single sign of human development, is just a cool experience. Every once in a while on our journeys, we would come across an old hidden cabin that served refreshments to hikers. I tried some buttermilk, a specialty of the region, as well as a drink known as Holunderblütenschorle, which contains syrup made from a local type of flower (The Holunder was so good that I actually bought some of the syrup at a grocery store later, and I’ve been adding it to water to make a really tasty drink. We need this stuff in America). We came across a lake one day and went swimming for a while, maybe getting a little too much sun while we were at it.

Of course, there was an educational aspect. As a lab, we actually stayed at a big lodge in the area that the University of Marburg owns, and so the trip was on their dime (one of the best things about the trip). In the evenings, we had enough talks from different members of the lab group that almost everyone presented something. I picked up some information on new methods in biochemistry. I even gave a presentation about the research that I had been doing at Emory for the past semester. The feedback was pretty good. I got a lot of questions and I think my lab mates learned something interesting about c-di-GMP signaling. We did have to keep the talks short, since most people had cracked open a beer or two by the time we started seminars in the evening.

Just look at this beautiful lab group

I’m going to miss these guys when I leave Marburg in about a week! Then I’ve got just a bit of traveling before classes start back up at Emory. I’m immensely grateful that I got this trip to the Alps in this summer. More than any other trip I’ve taken this summer, it really just felt like a vacation. I stayed in a lodge with a big group of people I knew for a few days, and never had to worry about a thing. I didn’t need a tour guide. I didn’t have to read any plaques or explanations to appreciate the scenery around me. I just had to be there.

And when we started a bonfire, and I showed my lab mates how roast marshmallows from the huge bag I had brought from the U.S., that was one of the most fun nights I’ve had all summer.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

From Division to 1UP

The tram station had to be crowded, or the plan would fall apart. That made 5:26 on a Tuesday perfect. Unsuspecting middle-class Germans packed the line next to the tracks, near enough that nobody would dare step in front of them and so that they could be that much closer to the briefly available doors, which were just coming into view around the bend. They stared at the approaching train to avoid making eye contact with the flushed, plump businessmen around them, the lady holding a cane who had some kind of wart on her forehead, the mustachioed man asking for money. All they wanted was home, and taking off their shoes. Unfortunately for them, the monkey wrench to their plans and routines was riding to meet them, a college newbie out to prove his loyalty to the 1up crew of Berlin. He wore H&M jeans with a beanie and thick black-framed glasses, indistinguishable from hundreds of other students in the city, but his laptop case was one laptop short of utilized.

As the tram rolled to a stop and the doors opened to a rush of people, Mr. Monkey Wrench stood up, smiled, and yanked on a bright red emergency brake. In three minutes, three things would happen. The authorities would arrive, the train would be cleared for departure, and a band of miscreants that had just given the tram a new paint job would have disappeared as if through trap doors in a magic show.

From purses, from backpacks, hoodie pockets, and baggy sleeves suddenly appeared canisters of spray paint. One woman in a black skirt and business jacket slipped a surgeon’s mask over her face and made the train her canvas. To her left, a red-faced man with a balding head held a canister in each hand. With white he laid the background, overlaying it with bright red lettering. Another was intent on depicting a hand reaching up from underneath the train. Twelve of the crowd around the train were no longer waiting for a ride back to their homes, but illegally transforming one of the state’s prized devices into what they considered a work of art.

Paint fumes repelled the commuters as if as the crew was spraying bug spray on a swarm of insects. Some stared in indignation, others in fascination, but almost all stared as chalky grey paint began to disappear beneath flashy tags and hasty murals. Gangs and artists at work are two things people are wary of messing with, and the spectacle in front of them seemed to be some strange combination of both. A boy in a Chicago Bulls hat whipped out a smart phone and started taking a video, a smile on his face, as another couple others hurried away to find some blue-vested official. Their intention would not make a difference.

When the authorities arrived on schedule, all they found was the message left for them and everyone else in the city, emblazoned from top to bottom and door to door like a bold billboard on wheels:

One United People 

At night, a nearby light casts the shadow of a flag on the astronaut's outstretched hand, as if he is holding it.

All right, that’s enough prose for one blog post. I had to use my imagination for the details of that story, so if anyone from the 1up crew of Berlin is an ardent follower of my blog, I’m sorry for any misrepresentation or mistakes. Think of it as promotion rather than libel!

In case you’re wondering, the 1up crew of Berlin is a real group that does things such as paint trams with military precision. I bring them to your attention because I think they embody certain characteristics that are essential to the spirit of Berlin. Because of this spirit, Berlin is recognizably different from any other city I’ve visited. It’s got kind of a punk feel to it. It’s not necessarily a beautiful city, but it is modern, and full of excitement. You only need to look at its past to understand why. Berlin was largely destroyed during World War II, and mostly rebuilt recently. While Berlin was still cut in half, young citizens were given exemptions from military service if they lived in Western Berlin, a small island of democracy surrounded by Eastern Germany that would be otherwise unappealing. The city filled with college-age kids who left a legacy. Then when the wall came down in the recent past, others flocked into Western Berlin, leaving hundreds of residences in East Berlin open without any kind of market. Squatters and starving artists moved into these residences and gave the area an edgy, alternative kind of feel that it still has today. Even now, it’s constantly changing and growing, evidenced by the hordes of cranes that seem to photo-bomb every picture with a horizon. People are beginning to discover Berlin, and it’s slowly becoming more expensive, and filling with a new kind of demographic, a transition that the current residents are fighting. Maybe Rome could see evidence of its past through the building that had survived for thousands of years, but Berlin’s history is happening now, this instant. You only need to look at the differences in the colors of the light bulbs between Eastern and Western Berlin (for this reason the divide is still visible from space) or at the raging battles in this city right now.
By the way, I took most of the photos of graffiti on an “alternative tour” of Berlin, in which I also learned much of this history lesson. Did you know that within one night, a wall like the one in the picture above (minus the artwork) was constructed around West Berlin? One night! These people went to bed like it was any other night, and when they woke up the next morning the entire city was behind a twelve-foot barrier.
Along with the wall, I made sure to visit several other sites in Berlin. I have to say that the German History Museum was the most interesting place. I could have easily spent an entire day there. Surprisingly, my American education neglected to provide me with much knowledge on German history. Of course, we all learned about these kinds of things:

But Germany’s history is not all about world wars.

Berlin is also the hometown of one of the best fast food meals that must be in existence.

This delicious food is known as currywurst. It may be a difficult concept to grasp, but the name comes from a combination of bratwurst and curry. Mind blowing, right? As a cheap college student, it made for a great meal beneath the tram tracks, especially when you could get two of these things with fries for only five euro.

As much fun as I had in Berlin (I went with Hannah and some other Americans living in Munich, so of course it was fun), I made sure to see some of the sobering sights as well. I stopped by the Holocaust Memorial, a good place for pondering. I also visited the topography of terror, a museum dedicated to the Gestapo and their tactics during WWII. Within, I found newspaper pages printed in Germany during that time period, Hitler filling the front page. I saw mug shots of holocaust victims and heard their stories. There were walls of depressing photos too.

But I'd like to end things on a better note. It's been awhile since I uploaded a blog, and that's because I've been in the Alps, where I couldn't really upload anything to the internet. So here's a preview for my next post.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Travelling around the City of Porteños

This weekend, I had the opportunity to see the diverse aspects of Buenos Aires. Since the city was built around a port, it is sometimes called Porteña City. As such, the citizens of Buenos Aires are often referred to as Porteños.

My host P.I. invited me to her home to meet her husband and to see some sights in the city. After a short bus ride, I found myself in the downtown area of Buenos Aires. My P.I.'s flat is absolutely gorgeous and has a European-esque interior architecture. Her study was well designed and had some interesting artwork:

Animal figureheads used by indigenous people in Northern Argentina for special ceremonies.
Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood to look at some points of interest. One of them included the great ombú tree.

It's branching was extraordinarily long and extensive. It was hard to believe that it all came from one tree. This majestic tree is regarded as something like the unofficial national tree of Argentina. Apparently the branches grow so large sometimes that they have to be held by scaffolds to support the massive weight. A park was built around the great ombú, and families were out enjoying the warm Sunday afternoon. Buenos Aires has several such parks dotted around the city, and they work as nice respites from the towering skyscrapers and bustling city life.

The Obelisk of Buenos Aires
Only a few hundred meters away from the ombú tree, one can see the massive Obelisk monument. This is one of the great symbols of the city and are comparable to the Empire State Building of New York City or the Space Needle of Seattle. It stands proudly at the center of a busy intersection that is supposedly the widest avenue in the world.

María Eva Duarte de Perón
On the same avenue lies a building that commemorates one of the most influential First Ladies of Argentine history. She was affectionately known as Evita Perón by the common people, and she was a champion for woman's suffrage and the well-being of the poor. She was widely popular among the people and was known as the "Spiritual Leader of the Nation" before her early death. Evita's work as a revolutionary female political activist is still celebrated by Argentinians.

The Río de la Plata
Next on the stop was the great Río de la Plata. Literally, the name translates to the Silver River. This acts as the water boundary between Argentina and Uruguay. However, the river is so vast, you couldn't make out the other side. I actually thought it was an ocean because it was so expansive. One could say that the port based off of this river is what gave Buenos Aires its namesake.

Bife de chorizo (top); papas fritas provenzal (left); house-baked bread and chimichurri sauce (right)
We went to one of the most popular tourist destinations of Buenos Aires for carne asada in the colorful neighborhood of San Telmo. The name of the restaurant was El Desnivel, and it is definitely worth the trip, even if some wait time is involved. I ordered a dish of bife de chorizo, which is like a type of sirloin cut. It is rated by many websites to be the #1 cut of meat to try in Buenos Aires. Chimichurri sauce, which is an olive oil-based sauce with many different spices, works as a very good steak sauce. To accompany my main course, I ordered papas fritas provenzal (very crispy French fries with parsley and garlic). The meal was definitely satisfying and left me full for the entire day.

A remodeled house in San Telmo, now transformed to various artisan shops.
San Telmo is definitely one of the tourist hot-spots in Buenos Aires. On the streets, there are artisans with their craftsmanship displayed and for sale. Food vendors regularly walk around with empanadas, cakes, and other sweets, hoping to catch the attention of passerby. Many of the buildings used to be residences of wealthy families, but after years of disuse, they have been renovated into shops.

Inside the shops, many artisans are actively at work, making all kinds of hand-woven clothes from the native llama wool. These are definitely beautiful pieces but very pricey for their authenticity and quality of work.

Plaza Francia on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
Our last stop was at Plaza Francia, definitely a recommended destination for visitors to the city. There were many people simply lounging on the grass on picnic blankets while various musicians performed impromptu concerts in front of them. But the real attraction of Plaza Francia lies in the various stalls lined up around the grassy areas. All kinds of artisans flock to sell their creations on Saturdays and Sundays. These goods go from mate tea gourds, to Argentinian leather bags, to handcrafted silver jewelry, and many more.

In terms of my research, things have progressed better than we hoped for! Although we don't have a substantial n for the second round of experiments, correlations have been unbelievably high (~0.98 range). My P.I. would like for me to start up another write-up of our results, so most of this week will be dedicated to that cause. We may also start a third group of experiments which will measure the activity of the two cells that we previously studied in relation to tension application. That will work as a nice wrap-up to everything I've done here so far! With a little less than three weeks left here, I'm hoping to make the most out of my time in Buenos Aires.