Friday, August 22, 2014

Looking Back: My Glasses Don't Need to be Rose-colored

It is official; I survived a summer alone in France. Before this summer, I had never travelled further than the next state by myself, let alone to a foreign country. Honestly, at some point in mid-July, I found myself sitting in my apartment wondering why I didn't just stay home and participate in the SURE program. I would have been able speak to my family without worrying about the time difference, or hang out with my friends after work, or not have to worry about a language barrier. However, I soon realized that the positive outweighed the negative. In fact, the negative aspects of my time in France were quite negligible. I was able to adjust to the time difference and my French improved significantly. I combated my introverted nature and met some new people (even people on the metro). My time in France became more than just an internship; it was a major life experience.
I conducted some amazing research and interacted with some truly talented scientists at Hopital Saint-Louis and the Curie Institute. My project was a joint effort between the two institutions to investigate the dynamics of proteins in the nuclear pore complex in order to ascertain if there are effects on nuclear export. It was such an amazing opportunity that allowed me to go from knowing absolutely nothing about microscopy to exclusively conducting microscopy experiments.
When I wasn't working hard, I got to play hard. My leisure time was full of adventures: from exploring the beautiful city of Paris (with its spectacular museums, parks, and monuments), to visiting the extravagant palace at Versailles, to relaxing in the south of France on the Mediterranean coast, to just finding a cool new (cheap) place to eat.
I learned so much from participating in IRES, not just about science, but also about myself, and how important it is to explore new places. I wish I could do it again.
The Notre Dame of Paris
The Gardens at the Royal Palace at Versailles
Canal St-Martin near Hopital St-Louis
The Thinker, Musee Rodin

Moulin Rouge

The Calanques, Marseilles

Old Port, Marseilles

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Part 2: FOOD :)

First, an update with my research. My research has hit a roadblock because I'm not allowed to order some reagents. Apparently, one of them was recently outlawed in Korea due to safety reasons and the other must be imported and so was too expensive. I've been given a new project to try to see oxo-formation with some of my polyoxometalate complexes. It's been challenging to learn the new instruments and the fundamentals behind the chemistry, but it's been enjoyable regardless. 

After being here in Korea for almost 6 weeks, I have to definitely say that this has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I'll go into some detail about various aspects Korea life.

The Food: The food here is amazingly cheap and so easily accessible. My area, Sinchon, is a very college oriented city that has a thriving nightlife and food scene.I can go eat almost anything, from traditional korean food/bbq to even Indian food. Additionally, another perk is the incredible delivery service that Korea offers. Besides being able to order the typical jajjangmyun (black bean noodles), I found out I could order McDonalds. I was the happiest guy in the world when my meal came in 2am. Yes, they're also 24 hours. I couldn't help to think about America's obesity rate if we had this service.

I could post some food pictures but I have too many. Here are a few:

 Kimchee Tofu

Duck BBQ 

Awesome Pasta

An amazing delivery story: I once ordered jajjangmyun and jampong (spicy noodles w/ seafood) via phone. I proceeded to watch one video on my bed and then, got a phone call. They had literally delivered my food in 5 minutes. Yes, no exaggeration. It was incredible and a testament of Korea's speed and efficiency.

The Desserts: This deserves its own paragraph because of its sheer awesomeness. Korea has a very strong culture of eating desserts after EVERY meal. Literally on every block, there will be a coffee shop that boasts all kinds of cakes, ice creams, and drinks. Basically, everyone goes to these coffee shops to get everything but coffee. However, I fell in love with one of Korea's staples, Bingsoo. Imagine snow, topped with various toppings and condensed milk (No, its not a snow cone). Though I had eaten it in America before, I was surprised at their stark difference in quality. 

As you can see, I love BINGSOO.

I'll stop here about to food. Next time, I'll talk a little more about the culture.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Very Lemur Birthday

Rooftop of Centre Valbio
Just like I promised, I have decided to do a post more dedicated to the biodiversity aspect of Madagascar. As of the twenty-second, I'm feeling 22! To celebrate, I spent my birthday how any reasonable biologist would: trekking through the rainforest! Entrance to Ranomafana Park can get expensive for someone without a forest research permit, but my teammate Katie and I decided to splurge for the occasion.
Dauphin, our friendly local guide, walked with us to the entrance of the park where our "lemur spotter" was waiting. The high volume of tourist traffic in the park means that large groups often scare off the animals, so lemur spotters are sent ahead to find them before we get there.
Male Red-bellied lemur
We first headed to Belleview, an overlook high on the hillside from which the rooftop of Centre Valbio is visible. I often sit on the roof to read or do laundry, so it was disconcerting to realize how many tourists probably watch me every day! Dauphin was on the phone with his lemur spotter while we took some pictures, and we quickly moved on to watch a small group of Red-bellied lemurs (Eulemur reubriventor). Red-bellied lemurs are fairly easy to watch, as they are not easily startled, and often stay in one place to eat fruit. These lemurs in particular seemed particularly habituated, and didn't bat any metaphorical eyelashes at the twenty French tourists shouting, pointing and snapping flash photos. 
Golden bamboo lemur
Female chewing on a fruit
One of the other guides spotted a Golden bamboo lemur (Haplalemur aureus) up the path. These lemurs are much smaller than their fruit eating cousins, and significantly more shy. As the name would suggest, Golden bamboo lemurs feed almost exclusively on bamboo. According to Dauphin, the bamboo contains trace amounts of cyanide that would kill most mammals their size, but they have evolved to eat dirt and small mushrooms to neutralize the poison. The lemur quickly became uneasy, and bounded through the trees away from the main trail. We took a small (and slightly slippery) path to follow it, and were able to get a much better look. The Red-bellies showed up as well, and one of the males (easily recognizable by white facial markings) came to the ground about ten feet in front of us to eat some dirt. It turns out that Red-bellied lemurs also use dirt to neutralize some substances in their food, although Dauphin wasn't sure what. 
Lounging sifaka
We returned to the main trail, and moved along quickly to meet our lemur spotter, who had found a group of Milne-Edwards' sifaka (Propithecus edwardsi). This group had a baby, still so small that it clung to its mother stomach rather than moving around. I couldn't really get a good look at the infant, but we watched as the four adults huddled together and groomed in the beginnings of a light rain. 
U. phantasticus
Our luck was still with us, and as we turned back down the trail to head more toward the bamboo forest, another guide pointed out our first non-primate organism of the day. I should clarify: the guide pointed to a tree, and we stared at it in confusion until we finally recognized the sleeping gecko sitting at eye level about three feet in front of us. Dauphin told us it was a Uroplatus phantasticus, commonly known as the Satanic Leaf Tailed Gecko. These geckos are nocturnal, but quite common: they sleep in plain sight during the day, and hunt insects by night.
The luck stones
We continued on to the bamboo forest which, aside from being absolutely beautiful, held one last group of surprises. We walked past a group of stones, which Dauphin said were put up by Malagasy people in times of trouble in order to bring luck. Each stone was given a separate ceremony, which would have gone on for several days, depending on the relative wealth of the family. As if to confirm the effectiveness of the stones, the lemurs were waiting for us just a a little further down the path.
 The Greater bamboo lemur (Prolemur simus) is one of the rarest primates in the world, with only about 500 remaining throughout Madagascar. In Ranomafana, there are only two, a father-daughter pair that represent the remainder of the sub-population. The guides watch them almost constantly, and as a result they have become so used to people that one of the two came within three feet of us: extremely unusual behavior for a lemur. We watched as they chowed down on (also cyanide-containing) bamboo stalks as large as their heads, and made cute, chirping vocalizations at each other.
Me and the lemurs

I think that's long enough for now! I'll do a part two with some of the creatures we've seen on other hikes. Mozotoa (Enjoy)!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Last weekend I ventured out of Edinburgh and went on a tour of the Scottish Highlands. I was in awe as we approached the mountains. They seemed completely unreal. Now I understand why they've enspired so much admiartion. Our tour guide said that the first time Charles Dickens saw them he wept. I can understand the urge.

It was a welcome break from my research. I've hit a road block and have spent the past two weeks really frustrated with my computer. I'm anxious because I only have a little bit of time left to finish my project. Hopefully in the next few days I'll have a bit more luck and everything will come together.

Stirling Castle

Doune Castle, where they filmed parts of Monty Python

Loch Achray

Hairy Coos!

Loch Lomond

Trossachs National Park

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

International Conference: Primate Parasitology: Development, Methods and Future (Brno, Czech Republic)

When most people think of the Czech Republic, they immediately appraise the beautiful capital, Prague. But many people, including myself until recently, have a hard time naming another city in this country. However, I had the great privilege of presenting my SIRE research from this past spring at the International Conference on Primate Parasitology, which was hosted by Dr. David Modry’s research group (Laboratory for Infectious Diseases Common to Humans and Non-human Primates (HPI)) in Brno, Czech Republic.

It was incredibly humbling to hear presenters who have committed over a decade to research on identifying various pathogens and listening to their passion in this field. Key note speakers included both my supervisor from Emory, Dr. Tom Gillespie, and my supervisor from Berlin, Dr. Fabian Leendertz. It was particularly intriguing to talk to Dr. Jaco Verweij from the Netherlands about his research for the past twenty years on differentiating Entamoeba species, which was my own project from the spring. More intimidating was presenting on my preliminary findings, and being asked questions by experts and other students who were conducting similar studies. However, it was a really great opportunity to meet great scientists and students from all over the world and also to continue working on improving my presentation skills.

After the presentations, we were able to explore the city of Brno. Brno is an unbelievably underrated city. For example, I found out only after arriving that it was in a monastery in Brno where Gregory Mendel conducted his famous “peas” experiment. I visited the museum, which is located next to the greenhouse where Mendel’s peas were grown. The museum does an extraordinary job of showing Mendel’s life and his diverse interests in numerous scientific fields. For me, it was inspiring to see the astonishing amount of details which filled Mendel’s notebooks and created his comprehensive understanding of observations.

It was inspirational to visit the garden where Mendel's "peas" experiment took place - the foundation of our current understanding of genetics
Mendel’s presence in Brno is only one of the fascinating attributes. Brno is the second largest city in Czech Republic, and is known for being very youthful, due to the large numbers of universities in this area. With consistently cool and sunny days, exploring the famous landmarks such as the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul (Petrov Cathedral) and the castle is easy and beautiful. There is also one of the largest catacombs in Europe under Chruch of St. James in the center of the city, combined with an extensive underground labyrinth, which includes a torture room, wells, and rooms for refrigerating goods used in the past. It was fascinating to learn about the history of Brno through exploring what is beneath its exterior beauty.

Brno, Czech Republic
View from on top of a roof. To the left is the Petrov Cathedral
Underground tour of Brno included a lesson on how the space was utilized for forwarding medicinal practices in Europe

One of the torture methods preserved in the underground labrynth (Apparently a little cage that would not allow person to sit, stand or lay.... but we think something may have been lost in translation)

I would like to give many thanks to Dr. Modry and the great team who put forth a lot of energy into organizing the incredible conference! Also, thanks very much to the Environmental Studies department at Emory for funding my travel to Brno with the James G. Lester travel grant!

Robert Koch Institut - Berlin, Germany

The city of Berlin welcomed me with torrential rainfall and cold weather. After visiting Cologne, Germany and seeing the beautiful gothic cathedral while meeting some great and hilarious new friends from Canada, I continued my journey to Berlin via overnight bus. Since I arrived early Sunday morning, virtually every store was closed and streets were absolutely void of people. Of course this made being lost so much less embarrassing and so much more difficult. Skip forward all the struggles, and with the help of some exceptional strangers (one who couldn’t speak English and called her son, who then proceeded to google-map directions), I made it to my new temporary home!

The next day I began my first day at the Robert Koch Institut, a public health institution funded by the German government. It plays a comparable role as the Center for Disease Control for the United States. Dr. Fabian Leendertz, my supervisor here, gave me a tour of the building and briefed some of the ongoing projects, which was particularly impressive since he was recovering from malaria. It was really fascinating to hear of all the projects ongoing in this group encompassing so many different pathogens, hosts and habitats. Some of the recent endeavors of Fabian’s lab involved creating a collaborative team to go to Guinea in pursuit of finding and understanding the source of the Ebola Virus pandemic. In the scope of this infectious disease group, I will be focusing on a project looking at polyomaviruses in pregnant mountain gorillas from the Virunga National Park in Rwanda.         
While beginning a new project and meeting my working group has been an exciting process, finding housing for three months in Berlin has not. According to Berliners, finding affordable housing has become an increasing problem in this growing city, particularly in the past few years. I arrived in Berlin with only a week of housing, hearing that finding a room to rent is much easier in person. My experiences verify that finding a room is likely impossible unless in person, and pretty impossible even in person. I can attest to the difficulties after sending over 50 emails, having visited rooms from across all corners of Berlin after sorting through the “fake” apartments, and only one apartment inviting me to move in after two weeks. While finding a home is difficult alone, there are additional issues arising from the language barrier, as I discovered when I was asked to sign a 15 page document in German in order to secure one of the rooms... no, I didn't and yes, I lost the room.

Though initially stressful, I’ve gotten to really explore Berlin through looking at different apartments. I’ve realized how large Berlin truly is, and the large variances in the numerous districts. Ranging from “cool” to “touristy” to “quiet”, the districts are very different, yet knitted together by the common and rich history they share. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to learn about history through simply walking through the streets and seeing the barriers imposed by the wall that once split Berlin or visiting places like the 'Topography of Horrors,' which give a detailed account of how Germany transitioned in that time . Being a tourist without the rush or limitations of time constraints has really been a privilege I’ve enjoyed my first few weeks here!

East Side Gallery, Berlin (Friedrichshain, Berlin)
Painters from all over the world converted the old wall into a space for art 

Tempelhofer Airport (Neukolln, Berlin)
This airport, in the  which is no longer operating, is now a space where people can go for picnics and bike rides. A beautiful giant green space - one of the coolest parts of Berlin I have seen so far!

Volkspark Humboldthain Park (Wedding, Berlin)
I ran into this park a few days after moving into my new home in Wedding. It was an old anti-aircraft bunker during WWII, but can now be climbed for a beautiful panoramic view of Wedding. There is also a hidden rose garden, and the walls are now used for rock climbing as well (below)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is this a Research Station or a Hotel?: Life at Centre Valbio

     Things have been incredibly busy over here on the other side of the world. After leaving Tana, we took a [slightly harrowing] car ride all the way to Ranomafana, the location of the world famous Centre Valbio. The ride was about 10 hours, and involved roads where the potholes were so bad that it was better to drive next to the pavement, herds of zebu who just couldn't be bothered to move, and a whole bunch of motion-sickness inducing zig-zags. In spite of that, the view was consistently amazing.

We happened to travel on Pentecost
      I had been told how nice the station was before I arrived, but I have to say that it has far surpassed my already high expectations. Many field stations don't have potable water, much less HOT showers, three course meals, and a laundry service!
A beautiful day at Centre Valbio
The "high speed" internet definitely wouldn't fit that label elsewhere, but I think it's pretty impressive for a remote area in the poorest country in the world. The building itself is stunning, and the staff ever friendly and willing to help. I've even begun to pick up a little bit of Malagasy, although I think that I may need to learn a few words other then "misotra" (thank-you), "salama" (also pronounced, "salamo", "salame", "salami" or just "salam", depending on your preference)(hello) and "veluma" (good-bye) before I can be considered fluent.
The prettiest place I've ever dried laundry
During the week, the Centre is a little quieter, as all of the researchers are generally out camping. For the first week or so, we were busy preparing the lab and equipment for use in our projects. The "Infectious Disease Lab" was an empty room when we arrived, so I'd say there has been a marked improvement.
Field data collection has been my favorite part of our project so far. I don't mind lab work, but I really enjoy going into the villages and interacting with the people and the animals. Our Malagasy guides, Tov (Rhymes with "groove"!) and Jon Claude are fond of teaching me supposedly simple phrases, which turn out to be a huge laugh when I attempt to say them to village children. I still have trouble differentiating between "ulona" and "ulana" (I think that's how you spell them!), one of which means people and one of which means problems. I know there's a joke in there somewhere!
Hamming around with a subject
The project so far really has been extremely interdisciplinary. All of the randomly selected households were given a survey by an in-country statistics group called INSTAT, who have been extremely helpful and efficient. We then go in collect fecal samples from the humans and their livestock, which the Gillespie team will use to look at parasite prevalence and the potential for "zoonosis", or disease transfer between the different species.
 Our days had been starting extremely early, to the point that we were up before the kitchen staff. An average wake-up time was at about 5:40 a.m., with the idea that we be on the road by 6:15. People here often keep their chickens inside, but generally let them out very early in the morning (way earlier than 6:30). I don't know if you've ever been woken up by a rooster at early o'clock in the morning, but I'm surprised so many people kept their chickens in for us.
Most Malagasy households have chickens, so a whole lot of time was spent capturing chickens,

Preparing a sample
placing them in pens, and essentially waiting for them to "produce a sample". Like I said before, the people here think everything we do is hilarious, and collecting chicken poop is no exception. I've been fully trained in the proper way to hold a chicken, but it seems there is no better training in catching chickens than to chase them. To my chagrin, and the the villagers' delight, any chicken that wasn't already in a basket or coop was able to evade me with apparent ease.
There's always an audience around here
My favorite village that we went to, although my teammates may not agree, was Ampitavanana. Ampitavanana is extremely rural, existing at about an hour's hike from the main road, if you're feeling quick. The road was pretty steep and a bit rough, but it was a beautiful place to be at around 6 in the morning. On nice days here, the fog settles in the valleys, and you can look down over it if you climb high enough. The first day we went was a Sunday, so we passed many families in their finest sun hats on their way to either church or market. I gave each passing group an enthusiastic (and horribly mispronounced) version of "Good morning", which inevitably produced more than a few chuckles. As villages around here go, Ampitivanana seemed poorer than most: I didn't see any tin roofs, which are a marker of slightly more well off families. I certainly didn't see any tiled floors or concrete walls, which are marks of the rich. The village had very few zebu or pigs, which are generally owned by wealthier citizens. Some houses didn't even own chickens, which is unusual. The village was fortunate in that it had a school, which
Tov en route to Ampitavanana
was quite nice for one so far from the beaten path. The people of Ampitivanana were more than willing to help us. I felt like either a celebrity or a side show, as at least 25 kids followed us while we were doing our work. The one man in the village who spoke a little English asked my name and told me that he "would never forget me".
     We have had a couple of afternoons to go into the park itself, so everything hasn't been all work and no play! I'll do another post soon about all of the cool non-domesticated animals we have seen.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Missing the Bus: Adventures from London to Germany

“The station will be closing in 15 minutes. Please leave the station at this time.”

After watching my 10pm bus out of London leave the station in the mere seconds after I arrived at the station, I couldn’t imagine how things could get worse. That was, until, I heard this announcement. As I looked around in a panicked, sleepy, frustrated haze, a stranger assured me, “They always say that. Don’t worry it stays open.” With my re-booked ticket for the early morning in hand, I settled into a seat. After all, it was only just a few hours wait. But at 2am, a policeman eventually approached me to tell me that due to renovations, the station was actually closing. The station was ACTUALLY CLOSING.

With no other choice, I left the protective walls of the bus station and stood outside, layering on the light cardigans I had packed – the only time in my entire journey that I was glad for my 50 pound bag companion. It was a bizarre moment to begin friendships, but those of us thrown outside were naturally inclined to begin conversing. Where are you from? What time is your bus? Where are you going?

Soon I knew that the stranger who told me that the station would stay open was a Scottish man, an aspiring writer, a history enthusiast, and a fan of Andy Murray (who is DEFINITELY from Scotland and NOT an Englishman). Incredibly, there were also two Gambian men who could not hide their surprise when I recited all the Wolof phrases I could remember from studying abroad in Senegal. While limited, this bit of common language and our shared love of ceebu jen and bissap juice turned into remarkable conversation filled with intimate nostalgia.

Eventually the station reopened, the bus to Cologne came, and my adventures in London ended as I continued my journey towards Berlin. I will never forget the overwhelming sense of awe I felt upon seeing the panoramic views from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. No words can describe the grandness of Big Ben or the intricate architecture of the Palace of Westminster. The hidden works of street art in the shadows of the city were equally inspiring as the famous works displayed in the Tate Modern. However, the most memorable experience of London was momentarily humanizing the diverse strangers in this bustling and overwhelming city, thanks to a series of unfortunate events.

View from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral (London)

London Eye

A really great and affordable way of learning about the street art culture in London is through taking The Alternative London Tour. 
We even ran into a street artist, Louis Masai. His aim is to spread awareness of a project called Save the Bees, advocating the importance of creating space for bees and stymie their population decline.