Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Danes: a weekend in Denmark

It's been a while since my last post, but so much has happened since then, I've had a hard time deciding how to break everything up. I am officially done with my 10 weeks in the lab, but I will take you back in time a little to where I last left off, which was around week 8. As I was saying, I've been spending time in the lab finishing up the poster. I had sent a first draft to my PhD mentor, Carlos, before I had left for my weekend in Denmark and spent week 9 finalizing it before sending it off to Professor Spence. Week 8 was also full of a few more goodbyes in the lab, as both Allegra, a visiting student from Italy, and Carlos were leaving soon. I've seen so many people come and go in my time here, and I slowly realized that I would soon be the next one to leave.

But enough sentimentality, the post about my weekend in Denmark is long overdue, so let me tell you about my weekend in Aarhus. Denmark was the first place I've visited in my life that the locals speak a language I do not know. There's definitely a challenge visiting a country where all the signs, information, and even the roads, are different.


I had a long journey ahead of me, as I had to leave Oxford Thursday night at 1am to reach London Stansted at 4am to catch my flight at 7am. It was a long journey, but well worth it. While I'm not too used to public transportation, one thing I've surely become accustomed to here in Europe has been riding buses, trains, and navigating my way around. Toby was nice enough to pick me up from the airport and ride the bus back with me to her place. We're so used to seeing each other almost every day, that after 2 months of separation, we were just glad to meet again. We spent Friday visiting ARoS Museum. This is the museum that Toby talked a little about a few posts ago, so I won't go into too much detail, but it was really amazing. As a Spanish minor, I learn about the different artistic movements, and it was cool to see the influence of Dali's surrealism and Goya's realism on modern art.

One exhibit that was really cool was the 9 spaces, an allusion to Dante's Divine Comedy, which features a journey through the 9 circles of hell. Each room had some sort of commentary on life, death, and the human condition.

Of course, the best part was the circular walkway which provided a colorful panoramic view of Denmark. The windows are all tinted according to the color spectrum. The view was breathtaking and definitely the highlight of the day.

Earlier that day, one of Toby's housemates had grabbed some vegetables and the residents of "2 Studen" had a fun little barbecue outside. I'm going to miss these summer days-picnics in the University Parks, barbecues on a hot summer day, and just enjoying the moment. Perhaps I'll make more of an effort to enjoy the great outdoors more at Emory.
the little houses-in pink!

an orange tint

feeling green

Saturday, we ventured off to rediscover our inner child at Legoland, which was 1.5 hours away from Aarhus in Billund. The things that can be made out of lego are truly amazing. From miniland to the roller coaster rides, we had a fun-filled day. 

Miniland-little towns replicated, made out of lego!

We visited the Cinderella Castle in Germany!

and the Statue of Liberty!

We were rather tired after our long day, and after making some tasty quesadillas (I was craving that Tex-Mex), we called it a night. Sunday, we ventured to the Old Town, a little town that has been preserved to illustrate the true culture of Denmark. Each little house had some sort of representation of what was-the tradesmen, the artisans, and took us back into the past. After seeing some of true Danish culture, we went back to the dorm to have a fun night of hanging out with the others before my early morning flight on Monday. Denmark was definitely a wonderful experience, and having fun with a good friend created several memories that I will share forever. 
the Old Town

making those cigarettes

Thursday, July 25, 2013

J'aime Paris!

As I write this blog post I’m sitting in my dorm room listening to the music in English and conversation in German that drifts in through my window. It’s a good thing I’m not trying to sleep yet. Of course, I’ll be returning home in just a month, and I’ll need to catch up on sleep before then. We all know what that’s like in college. Here’s a shout-out to all my friends and family back home, whom I do miss. See you in a month!

But I’ve still got the dust of Paris on my shoes, and that’s not something I want to get rid of too soon.

Yes. Paris.

 And Paris.


Before I can get into my experiences in the historic city, I have to give my second shout-out of this blog (I sort of like this shout-out thing. I may do it more often) to the most gracious host I’ve ever known, Julian. You can see him in the picture above. While my mom was in college, she studied abroad in Paris for a year, and stayed with Julian’s family. He was a kid at the time and my mom hasn’t been to Paris for a while, but we have stayed in touch with Julian and his family. Not only was he kind enough to let me stay at his place, but he took me to his favorite restaurants in the city, where real Parisians were eating their escargot and steak tartar (me too), and he got me into the Louvre for free without waiting in line!


One thing that surprised me about the Louvre was the amount of Egyptian relics and monuments it had. I had expected the portraits, the giant paintings of battle, the napoleonic busts, but not so much mummies.

I talked to my dad about it afterward, who led a study abroad trip to egypt once, and he told me about how the Egyptians actually complained that the British and French stole all their history. I guess that's colonialism. 

The Mona Lisa was something else that defied my expectations. I mean, it's a nice painting. I enjoyed looking at it, but I really wasn't sure what all the hype was about. Maybe I'm just not cultured enough. Fortunately, there were several paintings in the Louvre that did really enjoy, several that I could have studied for hours. I even bought a replica of one, although I must admit it's quite a sad picture. Haunting, even. The woman floats in the water, her white lace dress billowing around her legs, tinged with green where it dips below the surface. Her hair billows too, some of it floating and some sunk into the murky green. The water laps against her forehead, threatening to swallow her but for the moment only cradling her. She looks the picture of innocence, although it seems like she must have struggled recently, judging from the way the rope that binds her hands is loose and sliding up her arms. Now she doesn't even make ripples. The light in the painting comes from a sharp halo that floats above her head, suggesting her final fate.

I would even call it tragic. I was happier after I found Tyrion Lannister hiding in one of the paintings.

If you don't know about Game of Thrones, I feel sorry for you, and you should get on that. Other surprises include this strange little... garden...

And a tiny American grocery store. Look! Jif peanut butter! Kraft Macaroni and Cheese!

I made these discoveries simply while walking around Paris. It's got to be one of the best cities in the world for just walking around in. I probably could have walked for days without leaving sight of shaded outdoor restaurant seating, bars, bakeries, and boutiques. It's really a fun and lively city, with a lot of green spaces if you can find the hidden gardens behind stores and apartments.

I was not ready to leave Sunday evening. But there's research to get back to, a presentation to work on, and soccer. Our lab recently challenged an inorganic chemistry group to a match. While we were handicapped by an American on the Fußball team, we still trounced them.

Silly inorganic chemists.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A continued foray into Argentine cuisine: Italian influences

Recently while doing my finances, I discovered that I've lived quite frugally in the first half of my stay here in Buenos Aires, so I've taken it upon myself to be slightly more adventurous with my spendings, especially with regards to food.

On one particularly bustling morning, I didn't have time to make myself breakfast, so I decided to buy a chocolate bar instead. This went against every healthy eating habit that I've been taught, but the wrapping was incredibly appealing - and I was very hungry.

Comes in tons of other varieties, like cookies 'n' cream, white chocolate, and more!
Of course, it would be filled with dulce de leche, or as the natives here call it DDL. I personally think that is better than any milk chocolate caramel bar I've had in the States because the DDL doesn't seem to stick in your teeth as much as caramel does.

Some of my other unhealthy eating habits have included Maruchan instant noodles!

Roast Beef and Spicy Chicken flavors!
I'm always interested in comparing how the same brand offers different selections between the US and Argentina. I've recently picked up a cheese flavored instant lunch as well, so I'm actually very excited to try it out since cheese is a rarely seen ingredient in even psuedo-Asian cuisine.

Last week, I had a relatively short day at work on one of the days, so I decided to spontaneously get off the bus on my way home before reaching my destination. Since it was a relatively nice day, I could get around with just my North Face jacket and a t-shirt, something my P.I. believes is an adaptation I acquired for having come from the Pacific Northwest. Native Argentinians don't seem to do too well with the cold and are usually doubly bundled up than I am. On my way through the streets, I discovered one of Argentina's must-go destinations, Freddo's Ice Cream.

Freddo may be one of Argentina's national culinary treasures. Many Argentinians believe that Argentinian ice cream is quite possibly the best kind of ice cream in the world, making Freddo's ice cream the best of the best. Even my friends who have traveled to Argentina before have recommended it to me, so I thought it was definitely worth stopping.

One thing I've been wary of is that the process of ordering food from restaurants and eateries are not entirely the same as they are in the US. I've also learned that to get exceptional service in Argentina (and probably anywhere else in the world), it's best to be confident and say "I've heard that your establishment serves the best (insert food) in the whole country!" After buttering up the cashier, I was kindly introduced to the menu items and how to go about ordering something.

Classic DDL on the bottom and Chocolate Almond on top.
Freddo's can be seen as one of the many products of Italian immigrant influence on Argentinian culture. The ice cream has a consistency more similar to gelato and is definitely better than your typical Baskin Robbin's brand. There were a wide variety of flavors to choose from, but I had to get the DDL flavor (where else would you get it?). The cashier recommended the chocolate almond, and its mild and earthy flavors ended up being a great compliment to DDL's sweetness.

One thing that has been concerning me was my diet in Argentina because I feel that there is not many fruits and veggies available as there are in the US. Argentinians don't seem to be as health-crazed as Americans with the organic-this and the organic-that. They regularly consume french fries or other starchy foods as sides to their breaded and fried meat cutlets, and it seems like a greater majority of the adult population in Argentina smokes than a similar demographic in the US. With these observations aside, I've been alarmed by the great intake of red-meat that I've endured in the last few weeks, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found a vegetarian option in the school cafeteria.

Eggplant milanesa with lettuce and tomato slices. 
Granted, even this vegetarian option had a breaded and fried component to it. But the ensemble of colorful vegetables in my mouth was a welcome and delightfully delicious surprise. Even though I usually abhor raw tomatoes, I couldn't stop taking bites into the sandwich. Eggplant milanesa is definitely one of my new favorites. I think my labmates were amused with how much I was enjoying this sandwich.

Even the style of cooking involved with milanesa is a very much Italian-influenced dish. Although it goes by a different name in Italy (cotoletta), this cuisine is as popular in many parts of South America as it is in the assumed origin of the dish, Milan, and its surrounding areas. The wave of Italian immigrants also brought with them a globally recognized tradition in the form of pizza.

In a previous post, I had a picture of matambre a la pizza, which is a thin cutlet of meat with pizza-like toppings on it. In a very similar rendition, Argentinians have made the genius cross between pizza and milanesa to create the ultimate Italian fusion cuisine:

milanesa suprema a la napolitana
The chicken milanesa cutlet was topped by a very thin layer of tomato sauce, a slice of cured ham, mozzarella cheese, tomato, and some herbs sprinkled on top. Again, the addition of the tomato was welcomed in an attempt to balance out everything else that went into the dish. The sauce itself is very light and used sparingly, compared to American pizzas which seem to put a comparatively greater emphasis on the sauce. It is also a slightly lighter variety, more akin to some types of Mexican salsa with actual chunks of tomato present.

After walking past a pizzeria for the past month, I finally gathered up enough courage to go and order some authentic Argentinian pizza. It was certainly an interesting experience because, as with ordering ice cream, ordering pizza in Argentina is not an entirely familiar process. I went into the pizzeria and attempted to give my order. And although there was some need for using hand signals and pointing, I managed to get the message across. Interestingly enough, they insisted on delivering the pizza when I asked for a to-go order, even though I was perfectly fine with waiting for the order. Since I didn't have  my house phone # memorized, the owner told me to call his cell phone when I came back home. Once I walked the few blocks back and confirmed my order through phone, the delivery man came 20 minutes later with my orders.

Calzona di gulfo napolitano y la suprema especial pizza
In Argentina, I've developed the mindset to always buy in bulk, at least when it comes to food. Since cooking for every meal can be tiresome, I like to think ahead for the potential leftovers I will have that will greatly save me some time and effort. As such, I ordered a large calzone and a large pizza, although they ended up being a lot larger than I anticipated. Apart from one of the items being named in Italian, the Italian influence is very obvious in this branch of Argentine cuisine. In fact, I believe the owners of the pizzeria were from direct Italian ethnic backgrounds.

My favorite out of the two was definitely the calzone. It was completely stuffed with cheese, onions, tomatoes, olives - the works. The parmesan-garlic encrusted dough and strips of roasted red bell peppers brought the entire dish together. The pizza was definitely an eclectic mix of ingredients that I have never seen on pizzas before. Similar to the milanesa suprema, the pizza had a very, very thin layer of sauce. It was proportionately replaced with cheese, a layer of ham, more cheese, and topped off with red bell peper, hard-boiled eggs, artichoke, and olives. I was not a fan of the olives because it made the dish too salty for me, but these pizza slices definitely worked well as leftovers for the next few meals as any slices of cold pizza do.

And thus comes the end to another great week. Right now, I am actually writing up a report for my project because my P.I. believes that we have reached the conclusions we set out to find. And for the remainder of the trip, I will start working on a second project with another important mechano-sensory cell located in the leech ganglion. We have promising preliminary data on this project already and hope to finish this up before I leave in about a month! Time has definitely passed by quickly here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

All things French

From hiking in the Alps and Bastille Day to Tour de France, I am taking full advantage of all that is out there without even having to leave my own backyard of Lyon. But I also know that there is no way I can leave France before seeing Paris, so I hopped on a high-speed train last weekend and spent an extended weekend in the city of love.

How can I forget the ever exciting things going on in the lab though - unfortunately, a lot of it is too exciting (and unpublished) to put on a public blog according to my PI but I can definitely give you a quick glimpse of what I've been working on. 
Rouge Ponceau.
This is an image of my Rouge Ponceau, an early indicator of whether or not my Western blot is working or not. Western blots are used to look for specific proteins in different tissue types. We are looking for specific brain proteins that are integral for functional purposes. Want to hear the full story? You will just have to wait and visit my poster this fall at Emory!

Mont Blanc (White Mountain) in Switzerland.
I found out that my PIs are avid hikers and they invited me to join them on a hike through the Swiss Alps with some other labbies. We went up nearly 1000m in elevation to get to the summit, navigating through many steep drops into the abyss. Some parts were so steep that there were chains to hold on to in case you took a wrong step. Since it was my first time, my PI used fancy rock climbing equipment to rope us together in case something happened. But alas, we made it to the summit and even saw some mountain goats on the way down. It hurt my legs to go down stairs the next couple of days, but it was so worth it.

Tour de France float.
What impeccable timing that the Tour de France would pass through Lyon this year the day before Bastille Day, the independence day of France? I went with a labmate to see the cyclists zoom by the streets of downtown Lyon, so fast it was hard to to take pictures! But at least there was a mini-parade about an hour before the racers arrive, where the sponsors on floats threw free stuff at the crowd. Sound familar? Luckily I've had 3 years experience at Emory so far so I came prepared. 

Happy Bastille Day! July 14th, 2013.
I actually got to see 2 night of fireworks, because our house is in Vileurbanne, a small suburb of Lyon that does its own fireworks display the day before Lyon. They really put on a show - complete with American oldies music and even starting out with MLK's "I have a dream" speech. If you look closely, you can see a small castle-looking thing to the left of the fireworks. This is a very famous church in Lyon called the Basillica of Notre Dame de Fouviere (not to be confused with the Notre Dame de Paris - pictures of that next week!), dedicated to the Virgin Mary who saved the town from a cholera epidemic in 1823. This is the same church from my very first post in this summer, quelle coincidence!

Gotta go finish up these Western blots but stayed tuned for more adventures in Paris and Geneva (I am going to tour CERN, so excited!).

Until next time!

The Alps

How do you describe the feeling of reaching the summit after hours of hiking up a mountain?  When you're surrounded on three sides by jagged Alpine peaks that have a certain charming but rugged character from withstanding the force of time.  And on the fourth side, you see a sparkling lake of pristine blue water and flat land that blends seamlessly into the sky.  Not even the best artist could replicate such a scene with the emotion it elicits.  To say it's breathtaking is an understatement.
Where does the land end and the sky begin?
The tallest peak in the distance is the Wendelstein, the mountain I hiked up several weeks ago.
Like a true Munchener, I went hiking up the Spitzingsattel with my lab on Monday.  It was a reasonably easy hike (much easier than the last one I did when I first arrived in Munich), but the feelings at the top remain the same--one can only feel ecstatic and deeply humbled.  And of course, being in good company helps make the hike even more enjoyable than it already is.  If I lived in Munich longer, I can easily see myself picking up hiking as a new hobby.  Now if only Atlanta had mountains like these nearby! 
The lab group resting at the summit of the mountain.
It's also getting to that time of the summer when many of my DAAD friends are leaving Munich.  We got together on Monday night after my hike for one last hoorah before one of our friends left.  It's bittersweet knowing that I've made incredible friends here who I might never see again, and before I know it, it will be my turn to leave my German friends and remaining DAAD friends.  But I'm happy to say that I've learned a lot and have amazing memories that will always remain from this experience.

Lab-wise, everything is going well.  I'm putting together a presentation next week with the results of my research here so far and a personal touch with info about Atlanta, Emory, and my previous research experiences.  I'm sure this presentation will help me as I prepare my poster for IRES in the fall as well.

Other adventures this week:  the Neuschwanstein Castle!  This is the castle that inspired Walt Disney's Cinderella castle.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


“HOW MUCH IS THE FISH?” screamed Scooter, during one of his classic nineties europop songs. The guys in my lab recently introduced me to the dance music that was popular in Europe during the decade in which I was born. Apparently, it was trendy to use English, even for people like Scooter, who didn’t really speak English. According my labmates, Scooter combined just about all the English he knew and created a hodgepodge of a song with it. I guess it’s not too surprising that the product would come out titled “How Much Is the Fish?”

Oh, the nineties were a dark time for music.

But if you feel like dancing, and don’t care how ridiculous it is, or if you just want to watch a weird nineties German music video, feel free:

Now that Scooter has had his turn, it’s my turn shout in aggravation


That’s right, all of the other students I’m living with in Studentendorf are still spending their nights studying for tests. I know Germany hardly gets a summer, but come on… Although, I’ve heard that German students get a much longer winter break as well as some lengthy breaks in the middle of each semester to compensate. I wonder if that would lower stress levels at a place like Emory? Food for thought. I’ve been learning other interesting things about the German education system, too. They don’t have pre-med students at the colleges here. Medical programs start at the college level, and you can enter them directly or soon after graduating high school (which lasts a little longer here too). It’s still a selective program, since students here are not admitted to some general college of arts and sciences with the ability to declare a major later in Germany, but rather are admitted to only a specific program at a specific college. But hey, it’s all paid for! (And I bet it’s nice not to have to deal with those pre-meds who only care about the MCAT, although I’m sure they have their own problems).

It’s just too bad all this studying in the middle of July kept any of my friends in Studentendorf from visiting Heidelberg with me.

Oh well. I met up with a bunch of other Americans and stormed the town. It was nice to be around so many people who spoke English at one time, thanks to Hannah. She is also a participant in the RISE program for American, Canadian, and British students conducting research in Germany. They had a conference in Heidelberg ending on a Saturday afternoon, and I was happy to join them. The picture above is not the bulk of Heidelberg, but does show the huge hill that the bunch of us hiked up in the evening.

That’s more like Heidelberg. Take a good look at the castle. You won’t see it in the next picture, which I took a little higher up.

Heidelberg is the picturesque small town in Germany. When tourists don’t want to see the picturesque sights of the big cities, or the picturesque Alps and forests, they come see picturesque Heidelberg.

The old town in Heidelberg is one of my all time favorite places for window-shopping. I saw cuckoo clocks so intricate it looked like they had taken months to build. Postcards, beer steins, chocolate shops were everywhere. We visited a student prison, the local university’s alternative to the town jail where students back in the day used to do time. Heidelberg really is a fun city to be a tourist in. Apparently even Mark Twain loved the city, and used to climb up on the same path I took to get all those aerial pictures. It’s called the Philosopher’s Walk now.

Even the parking lots in Heidelberg are interesting.

I guess it’s just because bikes are everywhere. We saw some more as we were getting ready to leave the city.

And they’re off!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cheap Food: a college student's dream

One of best pieces of advice that I've received in my college career was from my major advisor. She told me that if going to graduate school was my objective, I should do everything I can to "pretend being a grad student" while I was still an undergrad. During the academic year, I've tried to follow these sage words by working in the lab more, taking a graduate course, attending various lectures, and partaking in other activities that grad students generally do. I believe this summer is another extension to this lifestyle.

For one thing, I didn't want to receive any financial aid from my parents, so I am hoping to make it the whole trip with only the stipend I received from IRES. The idea of really living on my own and making ends meet by my own means excites me in a self-denying kind of way, but I would've needed to learn these traits sooner or later, right? As such, there is really me, myself, and my research here at Buenos Aires.

The lab work has been going immensely well. Even though there are not as many luxuries in the laboratories here as we do in the U.S., the environment is brimming with a scholarly and collaborative ambiance. My host P.I. has been enormously helpful in establishing the framework and questions to explore through our experiments. She has so far taught me various techniques involved in the different preparations of the leech used in this lab. Previously, I have worked with leech heart tubes and started to delve into the neuronal workings of the leech heartbeat modulatory system. The focus of my project in the Szczupak lab is to use a not-entirely different preparation to study the skin and muscle contractions through intracellular recordings, combined with my previous training with force transducer tension recordings from the Calabrese lab.

Generally I finish dissecting the preparation, taking care not to damage the nerve cord, ganglion, and innervating nerves, while Dr. Szczupak or one of the postdocs, Martin, impales one of the six cells (NS, N, T, P, AP, AE) in the ganglion which we are investigating. We proceed to change the membrane potential of the cell while I adjust and add tension through the force transducer attached via hook to a part of the leech skin still connected to the innervating nerves. Our experiments are a highly coordinated process with the three of us actively contributing and thinking aloud about what next to improve our experimental conditions.

The nature of experiments involving electrophysiology make it so that we can accumulate a vast amount of data rather quickly, especially since we are looking for the effects of tension on so many different cells. From one leech, we can produce 20 or more recordings before the cells start to die out. Even after sorting through and screening out bad recordings and controls, we still had an upwards of 70 experiments to analyze. But without the distraction from school, extracurriculars, and other social inconveniences, I was really able to sit down and focus all my mental energies on data analysis. Somehow, over a span of two or three days, I've analyzed through most of the recordings and will talk with Dr. Szczupak tomorrow about our next steps for the experiments. It is really great to just sit down and do experiments without having to worry about much else!

In keeping with my thrifty budget keeping, I've tried to establish a couple habits. One includes keeping a budget list of everything I spend money on, and the other is attempting to keep all my receipts. Low-budgeting also means cooking a lot at home for me to cut those unnecessary costs.

Typical breakfast of omelette with toast and/or cream cheese on bagel. Omelette contents vary with whatever meat/vegetable is in my fridge.
This past week, I made one of my best discoveries in Buenos Aires: a foodery at the local supermarket! It gives me access to various Argentine cuisines at a very cheap price. I've gone there to load up on food for a couple days at a time. It's interesting because a lot of the foods that are sold are quite literally the staples of a typical Argentinian diet. I know this is true because most restaurants offer these dishes, and my roommate always seems to be cooking one of these things or variations. It is very interesting to compare it to things considered staple to American diet. Here are some of the things I've picked up from them:

So much healthier than manufactured food, yet so much cheaper than restaurant food!
Ham and Cheese "Tart" (more like a quiche with a pastry top)
Left, Matambre a la Pizza (thin flank steak with pizza topping); Top Right, Rotisserie Chicken; Bottom, Tuna Pionono (a type of sweet bread rolled with tuna, peppers, and eggs stuffed inside)
Left, Beef and Veggie Tarta; Top, Empanadas; Right, Spinach Canolones; Front, Chicken Milanesa

A more "gourmet" rendition of the chicken milanese classic with ham, cheese, a salsa-type sauce and Spanish rice.
Milanesa and empanadas are particularly ubiquitous in all kinds of eateries in Argentina. One person told me that the ideal meal for any Argentinian child would be "milanesa de pollo y papas fritas" a.k.a. chicken milanese and french fries!

Argentine desserts have always caught my eye since I got here. I recently picked up this random bag of cookies and was surprised by the cheapness and quality of the product. Not to mention they had fun smiley faces to look at:

My favorite confectionery delight so far though still goes back to the national sweet, dulce de leche. These biscuits were perfectly soft and had just the right amount of dulce de leche, lightly dusted in coconut sprinkles:

Pricey, but definitely worth it!
I realize that I'm quickly approaching the middle point of my journey. I hope to continue my experience with the local culture and get as many results in the lab before I leave.