Monthly Archives: May 2014

STEM Female Role Model Spotlight: Flossie Wong-Staal

Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month!  If you’re not sure what that is, the official site is here.  May is almost over, but I’m squeezing this post in just in time!

Today’s STEM role model is a woman who has made tremendous strides in the fight against AIDS.  She was the first to clone the HIV virus and map its genes, and she helped to make the initial connection between HIV and AIDS.

Yee-ching Wong was born in China in 1947, but her family fled to Hong Kong in 1952 to escape Communism.   Following a basic science-track education taught by British nuns in Hong Kong, where she chose her English name Flossie, she began her higher education at UCLA in 1965.  She chose to follow on with graduate work in molecular biology.

In 1971 she married Steven Staal, and in 1972 she earned her PhD and was named the Woman Graduate of the Year at UCLA.  In 1973 her husband, a medical doctor, began working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD, so Flossie joined him there and got a job at Robert Gallo’s lab in the National Cancer Institute at NIH.

The research Robert Gallo was conducting in that lab focused on viruses that caused cancer in animals, and how those viruses affected cells.  Their work on oncogenes in animals led Flossie to be the first to find oncogenes in humans.  Flossie quickly rose to a leadership position in the lab and flourished, enjoying the research that frequently led to new and exciting discoveries.

In 1983, the NCI lab and the Pasteur Institute in Paris separately isolated and identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  In 1984, Flossie Wong-Staal became the first to clone and map the genes of HIV.  This was key in allowing for development of HIV blood tests.  In 1985, she was divorced but kept her hyphenated name.

In 1990, she accepted a position at UC San Diego to head their new center for AIDS research.  There she pursued multiple avenues to try to combat HIV and AIDS, attempting to find treatments, vaccines, and cures by various methods.  The most promising of these so far is a ribozyme treatment that keeps the virus from reproducing.

A widely respected researcher, Wong-Staal’s publications were once found to be the most-cited by a female researcher in the 1980s.  She was named the top woman researcher of the 1980s by the Institute for Scientific Information, and in 2002 she was named one of the top 50 female scientists by Discover Magazine.

In 2002 she left UCSD to become vice president and Chief Science Officer (CSO) for genomics at Immusol, now renamed to iTherX.  She continues to work to defeat deadly viruses,  and is particularly focused on pursuing treatments for Hepatitis C.

If you’d like to know more about this talented and dedicated researched, check out the links in the resources section below.


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A PSA for Memorial Day

Memorial Day is the holiday in which we remember the sacrifices of those who perished in our country’s wars.  Veteran’s Day is the day where we remember all who have served, both living and dead.  Thanking Veterans is always appreciated, but when someone thanks me for my service on Memorial Day, I always think in my head, “But I’m not dead yet!

Also, if you really want to do something for Memorial Day or really any day… then actually go do something.  Don’t just say thanks and slap a ‘support our troops’ magnet on your car or watch a parade.  Offer to babysit for someone whose spouse is deployed (and remember that many of those spouses are male, they aren’t all wives!); go visit some lonely folks in the VA hospital; volunteer to beautify a Veterans cemetery or memorial that’s fallen into disrepair; write to your congresspeople about your feelings on the ongoing wars, or the outrageous disaster that is the VA medical system.  Don’t just pay lip service.

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Book Review – Undaunted: The Real Story of America’s Servicewomen in Today’s Military


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This book really rubbed me the wrong way.  A lot.  And I’m having trouble putting my finger on why.

A couple things I can identify right off the bat are that while it’s generally well-researched, a few things show that the author just… doesn’t get it.  She talks about someone exercising with cattle bells – it’s kettle bells.  Little things like that, that show someone who talked to people in the military but hasn’t done anything beyond talk.  She hasn’t lived it, and so the terminology and details are just that little bit off.  All military books/drama have little things wrong – or even very big things (I’m looking at you, Full Metal Jacket and JAG and NCIS), but those don’t bug me as much for some reason.

The phenomenon is probably comparable to the irritation my medical-type friends have watching shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy – sure, they had highly paid consultants, but some of it still ends up just plain wrong or unbelievable or unrealistic for the sake of entertaining TV.

But mostly it’s the overall attitude of this book that gets me.  The books screams, “Look at this woman in the military!  She’s such a novelty!  Still!”  And we’re not new or novelties.  We may still be outnumbered approximately 5-to-1, but we’re not new or novel or even exotic.

There’s also an implication over and over was that we’re still struggling really hard to find a niche and prove ourselves.  It says we’re fighting to find our place in a man’s world, instead of simply doing our jobs the best we can, and we’re really the second and third generations doing so.

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about here because the stories focus on Soldiers and Marines rather than sailors, and I haven’t been one of those services in particular.  I have been an Army spouse and done a joint deployment though.  But I do know a lot of women in the other services, so I will have to see if any of them have read this book and have the same reaction or not.

I was surprised to find this on some of the services’ “professional reading” lists.  I might recommend a friend read it, just to see if he or she had the same gut reaction as me, but I would certainly never recommend this as professional reading.  It reinforces stereotypes – those of military women being outsiders and really not being able to ‘have it all’.   It shows only women who either don’t have families or who ended up divorced.

The book follows four women through their respective careers – sort of.  It’s fairly hard to follow, as it jumps around unpredictably between the four stories.  It ends abruptly, followed by an awkward epilogue.  Essentially the stories are of an Army Major who graduated from West Point, an Army Lieutenant who went to Norwich University, a Marine Sergeant who serves in combat and becomes a Drill Instructor, and a Marine General who deals with being both a woman and a minority.

Author Tanya Biank hits one of my sorest points, too, harping on how much harder it must be for women to leave their children to deploy, and how it’s so much less socially acceptable than for a man.  It reinforces the false message that you can’t be a good mom if you leave your kids for a deployment, but you can still be a good dad if you do so.

The book represents these stories as typical lives in the service for all women, and I don’t think they are.  The stories also imply that women in the military must be married to their jobs, or else have dysfunctional relationships.  Yes, the stats for married women in the services are depressing, but I think she overdramatizes the stories and ignores the fact that the stats are just as depressing for married men in the service.  I also have to wonder just how much of the book is exaggerated or embellished for drama’s sake, and how much of the very deeply personal anecdotes she was really given permission to use.

I haven’t read her other, more notorious work, Army Wives (yes, the one that gave us the TV show).  I don’t particularly care to, either, so someone else will have to fill me in on that one.  Anyone have feedback on that?

I’ll write some more here if I ever figure out what, besides the tone and focus on the negatives, irritated me so much about this book.  Army and Marine ladies out there, have any of you read this?

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Arthroscopy: better living through science!

So two weeks out from my wrist surgery my incisions are just about healed shut, and I’ve regained about 20% of my range of motion.  That’s really incredible.  How is this possible?  Because the surgery was arthroscopic – it involved just two tiny incisions (about 1/3 of an inch each), some tools, and a camera.  They could see inside the joint, fix it up, and do everything they needed without slicing my entire wrist open.  This is truly one of the marvels of modern medicine.

This was my second arthroscopic surgery – the first was to repair a meniscus tear and inflamed plica in my knee back in 2001, and I was walking (well, limping) on that leg within 3 days.  In fact, the Doctors encourage rapid use of the limb you’ve had operated on to avoid loss of range of motion and atrophy of muscles.

Again, this is just amazing.  A few decades ago, none of this would have been possible.  Surgery for minor issues wasn’t usually a viable option, and surgery for major issues essentially involved major opening up of limbs.  Long recovery times.  Huge scars.  Arthroscopy is really, really cool.  I’m grateful to have such short recover times and expect to have pretty much full use of my wrist again within two months with a little physical therapy.  Already I’m using it for everyday things (carefully, and with a brace, but using it).

The surgery was a procedure called  abridement, used to try to fix the damage/inflammation from the initial injury incurred about 7 months ago.  Even with marvelous arthroscopy, surgery is always a last resort – we had tried everything else already: physical therapy, rest and splinting, steroid shots, etc.  So here’s hoping this finally fixes the problem so I can get back to some of my favorite activities that had been limited by the hurt wrist.  Looking forward to things like swimming, bicycling, yoga, baking, playing piano, and lifting.

What marvels of modern medicine have made your life better?  Has your life been improved or even saved by medications, implants, prosthetics, or surgical procedures?

And if you have a strong stomach, I found a cool video of a similar procedure to mine on YouTube:



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Book Review: Wool



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I don’t often gush about books, especially post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian ones. I know those are all the rage these days, but I normally prefer the fictional worlds I escape into to be a little less dark.  But this one I’m going to warn you up front about: there will be a little bit of gushing here about Wool.

Wool is a page-turner, but not in the cliché, “I just couldn’t put it down” way.   It was more of an, “Ok, I’m going to put this book down and think about it a while before devouring some more pages” kind of way.  And I adore books that make me think.  That’s the main reason why my preferred genres are sci-fi and mystery.  I like wondering how they made a new technology, figuring out the motivations of the characters, exploring new social structures, and the classic case of whodunit.

Originally written in five separate self-published novellas by author Hugh Howey, Wool, and the sequel I am now plunging through just as rapidly, have made quite the sensation.  I’m probably rather late to the game with this review, as I am with most TV, movies and books – I’m a busy person who tends to wait until such things are free or discounted anyway (for me that means available on Amazon Prime, or as a library download).  Or, in the case of this book, I wait until several friends have insisted it’s soooo good and I just have to read it.  And they were right.

This book is both a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel and a mystery, so it was particularly irresistible for me.  I won’t give away any of the mystery bits here – no spoilers – but will give you some of the basics.  Humans are living in a massive underground silo after some disaster made the Earth uninhabitable.  They’ve been down there for a long time, somewhere in the hundreds of years range.

Howey breaks the standard storytelling mold of modern bestsellers and gives us some wonderfully three-dimensional, realistically flawed, and very likeable protagonists.  Starting with the young-ish sherriff,  his aging deputy and equally aging mayor, the focus of the story gradually shifts over to a brilliant mechanic and her counterpart, a younger man in IT with divided loyalties.

I love that the story doesn’t follow a single person, and that we get to know the characters so well and so quickly.  It’s also refreshing to read dystopian fiction that’s (for once) not about angst-riddled teenagers or people killed for sport.

The mystery part is drawn out in an agonizingly good way.  I desperately wanted to know what the big secrets were – how they got into the silo, what was outside the silo, what caused the destruction in the first place, who was keeping the secrets and why.  Some of those questions I will have to finish reading the sequel to finally find answers to, and some of them were answered by the end of Wool.

The worldbuilding in Wool is fantastic and detailed.  Really deep thought and imagination went into how a society with fixed resources would function – things like the lotteries for having children because the population has no way to expand; apprenticeships (shadowing) being a necessity of life to train the next generation; a complex system for currency, goods and services; paper and wood being exotic and expensive, and how very tough travel is in a massive place where there are lots and lots of stairs, but no elevators.

There’s also an interesting social structure ranked by the floor you live/work on: the topside folks, mid-levels, and ‘downbelow’ types stratified into classes where the higher up you live, the more highly you’re regarded.

And of course most of the action and conflict center around how you keep people from going crazy or breaking all the rules in place to keep order in such a place.

What I particularly loved about reading this book is how deeply I got into the heads of the characters and their world.  I wondered what I would do in their shoes.  I thought about where I would fit into that society.  I like it when a book makes me do that.

Overall, an excellent read and I’ll post another review when I’m done with Shift and have had some time to absorb it.

Have you read this book?  What did you think?


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The Art and Science of Home Preserving- AKA fun with fruit lava

Definitely worth the effort

Definitely worth the effort

It’s apricot season here.  Last year I missed it because I didn’t realize the season is only a few short weeks.  So this year, the second I saw apricots showing up at the farmer’s markets and roadside stands, I pounced right away.  Why?  Because the relatives almost rioted when there was no apricot jam in with their Christmas presents last year.  Apparently after three years of our living in California – land of produce-a-plenty – it had come to be expected.  And berry jams just weren’t cutting it.  So this year it was get the apricots or have some disappointed and upset relatives on my hands (starting with my apricot-loving spouse).

So last weekend before the wrist surgery there was a bit of a frantic jam-making day with some probably-not-as-ripe-as-ideal apricots before I had to try to do jam-making while one-handed.  Working with one, non-dominant hand is a lot less than ideal when you’re dealing with what I fondly refer to as ‘fruit lava.’

I love home preserving.  It makes me feel like I have one more valuable skill in case of the apocalypse, the products tend to be way better than storebought, and it’s an inexpensive (albeit time-consuming) way to make some very nice gifts.  Especially if people send you back their empty jars.  Also, it involves a whole lot of science, whether you notice it or not.

I first started preserving about five years ago, when we lived in Monterey.  We had joined a CSA and I just couldn’t keep up with the bounty, even with us getting the “small” boxes each week.  Even with a lot of it being turned into homemade baby food (another post on the ease and cost-effectiveness of that later!), there was just so much produce.  I’d always adored the fresh jam my aunt made when I was growing up, so I decided to take a stab at it.

After all, people have been doing home preserving for millennia.  How hard could it be?  I learned that while it’s not that hard, it does take a lot of time.  And work.  And a bit of trial-and-error.

Naturally, I bought books on the subject.  My two favorites are The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (AKA the bible of canning), and Canning for a New Generation, recommended to me by a friend.  The Ball book is put out by the Ball company and is very user-friendly.  After all, it’s in their interest to make it easy for people to use their products.  Ball is pretty much synonymous with jars.  Even though there are several other companies on the market, you mainly see Ball on the shelves at grocery stores.

Speaking of Ball, I also like to support their jar division because it probably helps keeps their aerospace division afloat in the lean times of the aerospace industry.  No kidding, Ball Aerospace is part of the same company.  And they make really nifty parts for spacecraft.  The specialize in things like moving parts, sensors, and small satellite buses (platforms that host payloads), and I got to tour one of their really cool facilities in Colorado once.  Neat company – and seriously, all the same company.  So buying Ball jars, in a tiny, roundabout way, helps support the space industry.

Back to the jam-making.  It involves science on many levels, and once I trust my kid around fruit lava I think it’s going to make for some awesome ‘kitchen lab’ lesson time.  Here are just a few of the areas in home preserving that directly relate to serious science:

1) Killing and keeping out germs – you sterilize the jars, cook the snot out of the fruit, put the jars through a nice water bath, and seal them really nicely.  There’s also the sugar and the acid to help preserve and keep those nasty germs at bay.  Because if you screw up the sterilization part, your lovely Christmas gift could turn into botulism, and no one wants that!

2) Pectin – Whether you use storebought packages of pectin, or throw in some slices of apple in a cheesecloth, or just cook your fruit down forever and use the pectin already in there and hope it gets thick enough for your liking, it’s not technically jam if you don’t thicken it up (it’s just preserves).  And good luck making jelly without a lot of pectin.  There’s a lot of chemistry involved in turning your fruit from solid to liquid to a gel.

3) Sealing – why do you need head space in the jar, and what causes that satisfying little pop when your jars seal?  This is a great chance to talk about gases heating and expanding.  You leave that head space so there is a little bit of air.  Then when you put the jars through the water bath, that air heats up and some gets pushed out.  Pull the jar out to cool, and… as it contracts, you get a little bit of vacuum to suck that lid down nice and tight – and it makes that lid button go ‘pop!’ and tell you it has sealed.

4) The states of fruit lava in the lab – why does fruit break down and ooze juice when you add sugar to it (technical term: macerating)?  Why does lemon juice keep the fruit from turning brown (oxidizing)?  How long does it take your fruit to break down before slowly turning from solid to rolling-boil fruit lava to glossy, lovely jam?

5) Dealing with frustration in the lab – sometimes your best efforts are not rewarded.  Something goes wrong with the recipe.  Your jam foams, or it sticks to the bottom, or your pickles turn out soggy instead of crispy.  A jar fails to seal.  This is a great lesson opportunity for budding scientists – failed experiments are ones to learn from and start over.  Also, if the jar doesn’t seal you can still stick it in the fridge and eat it within a few weeks (or put it in the freezer for a few months – just don’t try to give it to grandma for Christmas).

6) One of these days I want to get a pressure canner and branch out even more.  Beyond what you can do with fruits, tomato sauce, and pickles using just a water bath, canning most (low-acid) vegetables safely needs more heat.  Short of getting industrial equipment, a pressure canner is the best I could get at home.

Bottom line, canning is both an art and a science.  I’ve gotten better with practice.  I’m still working on keeping my strawberry from foaming/bubbling, and those perfectly crisp pickled squash chips are still eluding me, but I’m getting closer with every experiment – er, batch.  And my daughter will slowly move up from fruit-washing assistant through the ranks: fruit cutter, sugar measurer, assistant stirrer, pot washer, and someday, when she is ready… wielder of the jar grabber.

What science experiments do you like to do with your kids in the kitchen?  Have you ever tried home preserving?  Do you think it’s worth the effort?

If you’re looking for an easy way to get started, I recommend starting with freezer jam.  It’s low-effort, delicious, and pretty much impossible to screw up.

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Time off

Tomorrow is the dreaded wrist surgery, so there may or may not be a post on Saturday, or even the following Wednesday – it will depend on how the recovery is going and whether I’m up to typing with just my left hand.  Also, I’ve warned my husband he’ll have to screen anything I write while on Vicodin before I post it here 🙂

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Ode to my Uber-Excessive Collection of Small Kitchen Appliances

Being both a geek and a foodie means I have a lot of kitchen gadgets.  I mean a lot a lot.  And I covet more.  If it were up to me, I’d have every multi-use and single-use kitchen doodad known to man – and about three times as many cupboards as I currently have to hold them all.

Many are the result of combining two households, some were received as wedding gifts, and some just seem to have appeared in the collection in between moves somewhere.  As in “Hey, did that mystery thing even come out of one of our boxes?”

So doing a quick inventory I came up with, in order of most-used to least-used: microwave, coffee maker (x2 – one lives at work), rice cooker, electric kettle, blender, toaster, slow cooker (x2), food processor, stand mixer, crepe maker, immersion blender, fondue pot, waffle iron, ice cream maker.  This doesn’t begin to tackle the list of thingamajigs I have that don’t plug in, by the way.  And I’m not even the chef in the family!

What don’t I have anymore that I collected over the years?  There are a few things that actually didn’t make the gadget-hoarding cut.  The donut maker never worked right, so it went to Goodwill a few weeks ago.  The electric skillet died in the last move.  The juicer was more trouble than it was worth to clean and was passed on to someone who might love it more than me.  Maybe I’ll try a different one someday (when I can afford it).

Then there are the gadgets I’ve loved to death.  I’ve killed the motor on several blenders and one immersion blender.  The blender/mini-food processor combo was handy and space-saving, but under-powered.  The George Foreman grill was highly overrated and generally just terrible at cooking things.  A popcorn air-popper that never really worked right.  In my just-after-college years I used to death a very cheap rice cooker that was upgraded to my current fuzzy-logic masterpiece.  And those infamous movers get credit for cracking the bowl of the old food processor.

What would I add to the collection if I could?  In order of would-love-to have: A Vitamix, a dehydrator, an induction burner, a deep fryer (which I actually won’t ever buy because I like fried food way too much to have that in my house) an electric griddle, and a raclette grill – just because I want to try it.  And of course the remaining KitchenAid accessories I don’t have: the meat grinder, the pasta maker, and the ice-cream maker attachment for whenever my current one dies.

If I had to whittle it down a bit, I could probably cut down, but… no, probably not.  I might use them all again in the next month or two!

The one that surprises me with its frequency of use is the Panasonic rice cooker.  This fuzzy-logic little marvel is multitalented.  I think we use it to steam things more than we use it to cook rice.  It has an awesome steaming tray and is perfect for vegetables or heating up those nice frozen pork buns.  Mmmm, Dim Sum.

This baby has settings for white rice, sticky rice, and brown rice.  It has a set-ahead timer so I can have fresh rice to make Misubi with in the morning, and it has a porridge setting so I can do overnight steel cut oats as well.  I haven’t ever tried it, but it even has a recipe for chocolate cake.  Yes, in the rice cooker.  So that, by far, wins first place in my book as the ultimate geek kitchen gadget.

My favorite kitchen appliance

The other gadget that *gasp* doesn’t plug in that I can’t live without is the apple peeler-corer.  For under $20 one of these little wonders will save you a lot of time with anything you need to mass-peel and slice.  It can be set up to just peel, just core, or both, meaning that when you have to feed 20 for Thanksgiving you can actually use it to peel potatoes for the mashed potatoes.

But most importantly to me it 1) makes “slinky apples” for my kid with its amazing spiral-slicing, and 2) makes things like homemade applesauce, apple butter, and apple pie a whole lot less painful.  I also get a surprising amount of use out of my salad spinner, because while I love the convenience of bagged salad, it usually disappoints.

What kitchen gadget(s) can’t you live without?


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TV review – Australia: First Four Billion Years

This show actually aired a year ago on PBS, but I just found it on Amazon Prime recently.  It’s a NOVA miniseries, and it covers four billion years of Australia’s history in four episodes.  We just finished the fourth episode tonight and the consensus in our house was that it’s fantastic.  We will definitely be re-watching this one.

The series begins with the formation of the planet and continents, and ends with early human history.  This show has something for everyone to love – both the adults and the four-year-old were completely captivated.  This show has dinosaurs, geology, marine biology, you name it.  Seriously good science-y stuff.

The four episodes are titled “Awakening,” “Life Explodes, “Monsters,” and “Strange Creatures.”  I learned a lot watching each one.  My husband and I frequently found ourselves uttering things like “cool” and “I didn’t know that!” throughout each episode.

The show has great cinematography and really good CG that blend fairly seamlessly.  There are frequent transitions between showing a fossil and a live animation of what the creature or plant likely looked like.  They also do some neat shots where they show a now-dry lakebed or sea, and then a view of what it looked like when under water.

The only irritating thing was this recurring aside where they ‘drove’ through history, complete with cutting to host Richard Smith driving along a dirt road, and nausea-inducing spinning shots of the car to simulate moving through time to the next era.  Could definitely have done without that part.

If you or your kids are fans of geology, history, paleontology, biology, zoology, archaeology, all things Australia-related, or even something more obscure like paleoentomology, this show has something for you.  We really like nature and science shows in our house, and this one was the best we’ve seen since Planet Earth.  And Richard Smith’s voice is almost as captivating as David Attenborough’s.

If you have Amazon Prime it’s free on there, or you can watch on the PBS website here.  It’s also available on iTunes and DVD.

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