Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: July, 2009

Mystery Mold Friday

Due to a leaking compressor in the cold room, a bunch of my agar plates got contaminated by mold. It’s interesting, but annoying–and according to the undergrads working in lab, totally gross. It was somewhat amusing watching them screaming, “Ew, ew, ew, ew!!!”, jumping around as if they were walking barefoot on hot coals, and flapping their arms like last night’s chicken dinner (when it had been alive).

Moldy Plates

Moldy Plates

Moldy Plates

Moldy Plates

Moldy Plates
I’m also sort of curious as to what mold has infested the plates, so if anyone has any ideas, I’ll be happy to hear them.

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For Me, Science is a Black Hole, Inevitable

In Nor does Burberry make lab coats, Dustbury suggests that anyone who wants to get into science will get into science regardless of the teaching environment. I think this depends on the person.

I have only my own experience to relate–which I think is pretty boring compared to some stories from other women in science. I didn’t have anyone telling me that I couldn’t do science* or that maybe I was better off doing something else. I didn’t have any terrible obstacles to overcome. Then again, going into science or something science related was sort of a given since I was young. Given a choice, I got toys like legos or robot building kits or a microscope. My mom once tried to teach me embroidery and enrolled me in a pottery class, but that stuff didn’t hold my interest even if all the other girls were doing it.

Grade school science classes weren’t particularly scintillating. I was mostly ignored by the teachers in favor of the more vociferous and aggressive students. There was an aerospace class I took in which I was the only female student–but I didn’t feel ostracized at all, probably because I didn’t seem like the other girls to the male students. I’d rather figure out how a plane works than babying around a sack of flour for home ec–and maybe that made me like one of the guys.

By the time I got to college, I was considering majoring in physics and biology. I dropped the physics, but it wasn’t because of the all boys environment of this particular hard science. I’ve met some wonderful physicists–but I was bored. When you find yourself falling asleep at physics seminars on cutting edge research, it’s definitely a sign that this particular branch of science is not for you. Biology, on the other hand, still holds this allure for me as an elaborate, complex puzzle waiting to be cracked. This isn’t to say that physics isn’t important–in fact, it’s very important. To me, the difference is more of preference for what puzzle I want to solve. It’s sort of like how my sister, the artist in the family, views sculpture and drawing. One isn’t inherently better than the other, but she prefers doing the sculpture.

This isn’t to say that environment plays no role. It’s just that I consciously try not to let it affect me to the point that I want to chuck it all to become a hawker at some roadside stand selling tacky souvenirs. The last two years as an undergraduate, I worked in a lab with eleven post-docs, only one who was female. I heard a bit of gossip in that lab–and none of it was particularly nice to anyone. Frankly, you just have to roll your eyes at the latest on dit and continue on with your experiments. More recently, a former post-doc in the lab I now work in (he’s now a professor), once had a female undergrad working for him. On several occasions, he had managed to make her cry–not because he was being particularly mean, but he is very demanding. Two months ago, he had remarked that maybe I should be doing more 24-hour experiments because I wasn’t doing an all-nighter that particular week. And as any reasonable person who doesn’t want to scare the more impressionable undergrads with a loud WTF, I just shrugged and chalked it up to temporary insanity.

There is the assumption that there’s an unspoken notion that if you’re not interested in science all the time, you’re not a real scientist. I will say that this isn’t entirely true. They’ll still consider you a real scientist if you have hobbies–if those hobbies include beer and athletics–hobbies traditionally considered male. Heck, if you’re taking off Friday to go fishing or hang out at the local pub, the professors will happily agree (and possibly even join you). But if it’s something else, well, there’s a reason I do not talk much about my fiction writing in real life (even if what I’m writing about contains microbes and spaceships). Instead, I try to work hard–so that if anyone does find out about my writing, it can’t be used as something to question my dedication to research.

Maybe for some people, they do need the right environment. Another student had talked about how one of her friends went to an all women’s college and became more confident about what she wanted to do after all the feminist-positive reinforcement. Perhaps for some people, science is like an acquired taste. Maybe on their own, they wouldn’t go into science, but with encouragement they might grow to love it–like trying wine, slowly growing to like it, and eventually becoming a connoisseur. Personally, I’m not sure an absolute women-centric route is the way to go. Having a variety of different teaching styles rather than just one or the other might be a better solution. The real world workplace is made up of both men and women. More importantly, the workplace will inevitably include someone who will rub you the wrong way. So eventually, you’ll have to learn to deal with them regardless of gender or how you were taught.

*Addendum: I take that back. There was one time when someone told me I wasn’t cut out for science. It was probably at the lowest point in my academic career. But I guess I’m pretty good at blocking out the bad stuff cause it’s taken me this long to recall it.

Game Review: Morbid

I am, at best, a casual and occasional player of flash point-and-click games. I do not go looking for games unless someone else mentions particularly good ones on their own websites and blogs. The exception is Pastel Games which seems to put out consistently entertaining games. Recently, I had the interesting experience of playing Pastel Games’ Morbid.

In Morbid, the player is an amateur vampire hunter in post-Black Death Europe. (I say amateur because the player must find all the equipment.) You find yourself just outside an abandoned cottage next to a river. Obviously a vampire is lurking around there somewhere–you just have to find it once you’ve gathered the stake, holy water, and other vampire extermination paraphernalia. Morbid, unfortunately, is similar to other Pastel Games in that it also possesses the problem of “pixel finding”. While the artwork is suitably breezy and moody, the style also makes it difficult to find certain objects.

Although the puzzles themselves aren’t too intellectually taxing, I will have to say that this game absolutely excels in atmosphere. With just you and the game environment–no non-player characters to muck things up–the disturbing factor is all in your head. The sound effects enhanced the edginess of the playing experience–and I was already pretty creeped out even playing in a fully lit room.

This paragraph is a bit of a spoiler–so don’t read this if you want to play Morbid without any preconceived notions. The ending was a bit of a let down for me. You kill the vampire–but the vampire cries! And the game congratulates you that you killed the beast. Frankly, I don’t feel like I deserve any congratulations if the beast cries like a little boy with puppy eyes. Okay, so maybe the vampire was crying happy tears because you, the player, have liberated him from his tortuous undead life. But still. I had the impression that at the start of the game, the player was supposed to be up against some sort of terrifying evil. Crying vampires are not my idea of terrifying evil.

Anyways, aside from some serious flaws–both technical and story-wise–this was still a very enjoyable short game in the horror genre. Play it to get that pleasant thrill of uneasiness but don’t expect too much of a challenge.

Book Review: Julia Quinn – What Happens in London

During the long holiday weekend, I was bored. And I had already justified myself that I had made a dent in my to-be-read pile with the previous book. I wanted to read something new, but I didn’t want to spoil the weekend with anything particularly heavy or serious–so I picked up an author who I swore I would not pick up again. After reading some positive reviews, I figured it wouldn’t hurt (much) to give the author another try. So why the hesitancy in the first part? I previously read two Julia Quinn novels: How to Marry a Marquis and Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. Quinn has a certain light style encompassing “cute meets” for her main leads followed by witty banter and amusing situations. The writing itself is extremely polished, but I only have a tolerance for so many cute situations. It’s like gorging on too much cotton candy or having a particularly devious friend prank your house by wallpapering your rooms with Hello Kitty. You’d rather jam a pencil in your eye.

In What Happens in London, society belle Olivia Bevelstoke decides to spy on her neighbor, Sir Harry Valentine, after listening to her gossipy friends claim that he killed his fiancee. She’s pretty sure that he didn’t kill anyone, but she watches him from his window anyway–just in case. Despite Olivia thinking herself well camouflaged, Harry is well aware of her peeping Tom activities. Far from cooking up devious schemes, he is merely translating Russian correspondence for the War Office. Their first meeting does not go well–at first, they dislike each other. But after a few more chance meetings, they become friends, with Harry gifting Olivia with a gothic novel that she subsequently forces him to listen to while she reads particularly badly written passages. It is only with the arrival of a Russian prince who sets his sights on Olivia that Harry realizes that he loves her.

The middle of the book, unfortunately, was far more amusing than either the beginning or the ending. The prologue containing Harry’s childhood reminded me way too much of the beginning of Loretta Chase‘s Lord of Scoundrels (which I only managed to get halfway through and only picked up because a certain mathematics professor liked it). I usually do not read historical romances so I am curious–was this an homage to Chase or is beginning a book with the hero’s childhood a well established convention in the genre that I was not previously aware of? Or, I suppose, a coincidence? At any rate, I wasn’t very impressed. While it was a convenient device for the author to put in some character development, I’m not quite sure it was the best way to do it.

And as for the last seventy pages of the novel–it wasn’t particularly original or interesting. It was as if the author had run out of steam after making up all the witty dialogue in the earlier part of the book and had decided to paint by the numbers to finish out the story. While I can very well believe Olivia’s actions in this last section due to her fluff-brained antics previously, I could not reconcile Harry’s abrupt change from the reasonable and staid guy who still has enough self-control even when provoked to the typical romance hero who debauches the girl in the middle of a party behind some hidden alcove/room/potted plant without a thought of who else might barge in. And the additional suspense element was at best, tepid.

I liked, far better, the development of Olivia and Harry’s relationship through their inadvertent meetings at social gatherings, at the park, and at the windows facing each others’ homes. However, the best moment in the novel did not involve Harry or Olivia at all–rather one of the secondary characters, Harry’s cousin Sebastian. I will only say that the particular scene with Sebastian includes the badly written gothic novel and a disastrous acting performance. It had me laughing out loud–which for me is a rare response elicited from any book.

Verdict: I liked parts of the book but not enough to even say I would recommend with caveats to someone new to the genre. The plotting was seriously flawed, although not irrevocably so, but enough to make me second guess if there really was any story involved–whether it be external or internal conflicts. As I mentioned earlier, the suspense aspect of the novel, particularly involving espionage and the Russian prince, were tepid–more of an annoyance to the characters involved rather than a real obstacle. And as for character growth, I didn’t see any, unless you count the out-of-character behavior near the end. Would I read another Quinn book? Well, maybe the next book on Sebastian, but only if he stays in character.

Book Review: Patricia Briggs – Cry Wolf

I first came across Patricia Briggs on a now defunct science fiction and fantasy site. Her name and her books were listed under “recommended”, but other than that, there were no reviews or summaries. Then, I had plenty of spare time on my hands, so I hunted down When Demons Walk (review) at the local library. I really enjoyed it, but it was almost a year later when I ventured to try another of her works–Moon Called. By that time, I was pretty jaded with the “new” urban fantasy tropes of first person kickass heroines who seriously need attitude adjustments. (As opposed to the “old” urban fantasy where the “urban” actually reigned supreme–such as Charles deLint, Emma Bull, et al.) Thus, it would have to be really good for me to even get past the first chapter. Again, I enjoyed Briggs’ writing. But there was a love triangle in the plot. Love triangles are one of my major pet peeves. The wishy-washiness of such a situation–no matter how well written–really drives me nuts. (I’ve seen them in action in real life and without an exception, everyone acts like idiots.) Anyways, that stopped me from continuing that series.

Recently, I decided to try Briggs again. She is definitely not a mediocre author, and I figured I’d give her another chance with a different story. The Alpha and Omega series takes place in the same universe as Moon Called and begins with the same titled novella in the On the Prowl anthology (note: I have not read any of the other stories in the anthology so cannot say anything of their quality) and continues with the novel Cry Wolf. While the two could be read as stand alones, I wouldn’t recommend it. A significant amount of background character development occurs in Alpha and Omega which helps inform the reader of character motivation in Cry Wolf. I read the novella and novel back-to-back in one sitting–and I think that made my impression of the stories all the more stronger.

After surviving a werewolf attack, and becoming one herself, Anna lives at the bottom of the local pack–abused, cowed, and left ignorant of the usual werewolf customs. It is only after reading the news about a missing kid that she thinks her pack is responsible for kidnapping that she decides to contact the leader of the North American werewolves–who sends his son and enforcer Charles to investigate. The confrontation with Anna’s alpha and his mate, along with revelations about Anna’s identity gouges the local pack of a festering cancer within–resulting in some major restructuring. As a result, Anna returns with Charles to his pack as her former pack struggles to rebuild.

Anna is an Omega wolf, particularly rare and prized because such a wolf is ordinarily outside of pack structure and possesses unique abilities such as calming down other werewolves by merely being present. However, even as Anna tries to come to terms with her elevated status and her issues with becoming Charles’ mate–a bigger problem looms, threatening the well-being of the pack and possibly even the rest of the werewolves on the continent. A rogue werewolf has been spotted at the edge of their territory making kills, but as Anna and Charles track it, it becomes apparent that the rogue is just part of a larger and more insidious danger.

On the surface, there are quite a few tropes that ordinarily would have me shaking my head. First of all, there is the problem of the crowded universe. Aside from wolves, there are mentions of vampires, angels, witches, and others. Native American magic coexists with other traditional magics. The hodge-podge makes little sense (although one could argue, if it’s magic, maybe there shouldn’t be any sense), but Briggs manages to mostly sidestep the issue by concentrating on the werewolves. There’s also the notion of soul mates that many other authors using as emotional shorthand. However, I think this, at least Briggs’ twist on the theme, is where the strength in the novel lies. While the characters themselves don’t seem to have much doubt in who The One is, the path to accepting a mate is not so straightforward. Briggs considers a more realistic outcome due to Anna’s traumatized past. Anna’s wolf half accepts the mating to Charles without question, but it takes longer for her human half. And while she is internally struggling with this, Charles seems cognizant enough to not push.

While the external plot point of the rogue werewolf and the actual villain was interesting, it was not surprising or even the centerpiece of the story. Anna’s help in defeating the villain was more of a showcase of how much her character had grown from being the downtrodden to the determined. What I really liked about this story was that Anna was a strong heroine without being kickass, foul-mouthed, and cranky. Strength comes in many different forms, and I think Briggs was able to show this without resorting to easy characterizations.

Overall, I really liked Cry Wolf. There’s a heroine who is able to transcend and deal with her past. There’s a hero who views his heroine with respect and isn’t an overbearing brute. There are intriguing secondary characters and pack dynamics which would be interesting to see as they develop under Anna’s influence. It is a measure of an author’s skill to wrap up a book satisfactorily and still make me feel like I have to read the next one right now. It’s a good thing that I don’t have long to wait, cause Hunting Ground will be coming out in a little over a month.

The Irritated Storyteller and the Three Fairy Godmothers

I dreamed that I was babysitting an acquaintance’s hypothetical kid. I sat on a rooftop with the baby in my lap looking onto the facade of a German palace. The setting sun glinted along the windows, making the building appear as if it had winking gold eyes. I began telling the kid a story about a princess exploring the palace and discovering witches (both good and bad) living in the rooms.

As I was about to get to a good part (the princess was in a confrontation with a particularly evil witch), three young women come out of nowhere (they appeared to be floating just off the edge of the rooftop, but in my dream, I didn’t question it) to take over my story with princes and tea time and who knows what else.

When they paused to think up the next thing, I said, “Please go ahead and finish it. I already had my story planned, but you can do whatever you want with it.” I said it solicitously, but I am very annoyed. I wanted the princess to take down the evil witch by her wits, not be rescued by some prince who then takes her to tea and some evening theater.

One of the young women opened her mouth to reply but couldn’t. The others clammed up. The kid appeared tired and not particularly thrilled with the derailed story line. But I woke up before I could get it back on track.

I’m Not Quite Sure What I’ve Started

I blame Dustbury. Earlier this week, I signed up for a Twitter account. My reasoning: I probably should not be doing the eye roll thing unless I’ve tried it. So far, I’ve found the 140 character format useful for random story ideas, minor lab misadventures (or major ones, I suppose), and bits of overheard conversations. A drawback–it is hell on your impulse control, especially when you’re annoyed or sleep-deprived or both. At the moment, I’m ignoring the social networking aspects of it–I am definitely not searching for people who I’ve originally met in Real Life. Of course, I am also well aware that people who do know me in Real Life might eventually suss me out. Which gives rise to the self-imposed rule (which also applies to the blog):

Do not tweet anything that you aren’t willing to say in person.

Surprise! You Have More Students

I’m already busy in lab doing my own projects and supervising some undergrads who are helping me on some sub-projects. Yet this morning, I was surprised by a new task–to mentor a couple of high school students who want some experience in a science lab. I have no problem with this, per se, but originally some other professor (not my advisor) was supposed to teach them. That prof had thrust these high school students to a support scientist to mentor, but he’s leaving on a much needed vacation tomorrow. And now I’m apparently in charge of them.

I have mixed emotions about this. First, there’s the exasperation because this is just one more thing on my plate. I was hoping that I would have enough time to myself to concentrate on getting things done during the summer so I will have some actual data for my next committee meeting. Second, there’s idealism. There’s always the possibility that maybe I’ll inspire these high school students (or at least get them excited) about science so they could actually help me on my project. Third, there’s cynicism. They could be bored out of their minds as they think what the hell is she talking about? while I’m trying to explain something. They could just not get it and cross off “science” as something they’d want to do when they grew up.

Today, I had them practicing some basic microbiological techniques. And they set some paper towels on fire. Perhaps I should try to be optimistic. At least they didn’t burn down the lab.