Monday, October 27, 2008

Lists, Nobel Prize, Science Funding, Depression

Before: Regular jellyfish.

I'll start with the Nobel prize. In an article article aptly titled "Depression and then Nobel Prize", Tara Parker-Hope elaborates on depression as the major factor for Douglas C. Prasher leaving biomedical research. (Kenneth Chang wrote the original article published in the Times.) In addition to individual cause of Prasher leaving biomed research, there are larger structural issues too, mainly inadequate science research funding.

Prasher's relationship to this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry is that he was the first scientist to isolate the fluorescent protein gene from jellyfish. The Nobel was awarded to Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Y. Tsien for the technique of inserting this gene into other organisms to use as a marker. Prasher gave the gene to Chalfie when they were both working at Woods Hole and Prasher then left Woods Hole.

But reading the blog post and Chang's original article, it struck me that this attribution ignores larger structural problems with science research: lack of funding. Prasher's story through this lens would read something like this:
  • Applied for 5-year NIH grant to study fluorescent protein gene. Application denied.
  • Applied for 2-year American Cancer Society grant to study the same. Grant received. But it was less money than the NIH grant.
  • Quit job at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
  • Gets job at USDA. Quits job. Beginning of depression.
  • Gets job as NASA subcontractor. Position eliminated due to lack of funding.
  • Depression returns.
  • Gets job driving van for Toyota dealer.
I don't know what caused what: if depression lead to loss of interest in job or lack of research funding lead to depression. I don't know if maybe Prasher just wasn't a very good scientist and the other NIH grant applicants really were better than he was.

But depression seems to me only a part of the problem. I don't think this is sufficient evidence to make this an example of the American individualist psyche that blames failure (and glory) on individuals, but I'm tempted to make the generalization. I'm also tempted to turn this into a policy pitch for increased federal funding for science research. The bad news is that NIH funding has remained flat since about 2003 and flat funding is in essence decreased funding because of inflation.


I try to keep a short list of things I want to write about soon but I usually never get to write about most of these things because my (un)productivity is about one entry a week. I hope that now that I write these out, I'll feel like I have an obligation to write them.

This week I want to write about:
I read publications outside the NYTimes, I swear.



Mouse neurons. source
An image drawn with fluorescent bacteria colonies on an agar plate. source

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'm not over the hill

Rebecca Walker said during the student colloquium last Friday that she was "maxed out on feminism" when explaining her unusual, and some would say unfeminist views. Her lecture was not a rallying cry to stand up, speak out. It was the opposite. She had no grand schemes to spread her idea of openness but seemed to describe it as something that happens between individuals or entirely from within the individual.

So after that lecture, I got the feeling that she had moved beyond her activist past. She was born to be an activist -- a movement child -- a symbol of the Civil Rights movement, a interracial marriage. And she was an activist at Yale and the founder of an activist foundation. But she is an activist no longer.

Her lecture seemed a bit like an older person tut-tut-ing at young foolish kids. Her point may be right for a 40 year old. But I'm not over the hill. I haven't lived those years.

In 20 years I may very well be married, have children, drive them around in a minivan, and (insert gendered role you love to hate). I might actually enjoy it. But I'm still working my way through those twenty years.

I'm young. I'm idealistic. I think I can put off having children for as long as I want. I will never compromise my feminist views. I strive for social justice. And I am not over the hill of my feminist ideals.

This also might well be true, that in 20 years I may not be an activist. But I will always care.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Rebecca Walker, what I agree and disagree with.

Over the past couple of days I had several chances to hear Rebecca Walker speak and speak to her. I was grateful for these three opportunities -- her talk on Thursday night, a student discussion, and a luncheon on Friday -- because they gave me a more complete understanding of her ideas about not just the election but also feminism and activism.

To be honest, after the first talk, I wasn't convinced by everything she said. I agreed with some of her critiques but felt there were convincing alternatives or ways to achieve the alternatives she proposed.

AGREE: I agreed with her critique of the election, that identity politics continues to play an undeserved role in influencing voters. She used this presidential election to illustrate that our lens of seeing the world in terms of race, class, and gender is used against us, by ourselves and by others. We remain locked in identity politics. Some people will not vote for Barack Obama because he's black. Some people will not vote for Sarah Palin because she is a woman. Some people will vote for her because she is a woman. Voters are being manipulated by the strategists who understand their weakness. Thus Palin was picked to win the votes of white women. I agree with all this.

CONFUSED: But I was lost on her alternative: to practice "openness", to reject race, class, gender, and history. She encouraged us to be human, to let go of the histories of the bitterness of the oppression suffered by ancestors belonging to our race, class, and gender. I wasn't sure how to achieve openness or how to spread this idea of openness to others once I achieved it myself. Of course Walker would just call this "disbelief" and tell me to "stamp it out", but I wasn't sure how to stamp it out. I needed some steps to take, some plan.

CONFUSION RESOLVED: On Friday, Walker explained that she believed we still should participate in interpersonal dialogue about openness, resolved my confusion about what I thought was the private nature of "openness". The better way to reach other to people is to share our ideas through education and dialogue.

DISAGREE: In addition, it seemed to me that she talked about openness in conjunction with a critique of America's political system. Politics is a not a way to achieve progress because politics is civic warfare. Engaging in warfare for peace is impossible, like planting corn and expecting to harvest wheat. I do agree that American politics has its flaws. But I also believe that a liberal democracy is far from the worst system of government one could have, not only because I study this government and politics so I naturally want to feel that my studies aren't for naught, but also because having lived in not-democratic places, I rather like the rights we have in America.

I don't disagree with all of Walker's criticism, I just don't think we need to be unduly alarmist about it. She said that the presidential candidates should calm the public about the financial crisis. I think we also need to be calm over the state of this country.

Yes, these rights are being eroded, which is why Walker no longer believes America is as safe and free as it used to be. Indeed, the US has dropped to a "moderate" country in the Failed States Index from a "sustainable" one, but we're joined by countries such as the UK, France, Germany, South Korea. There are only 15 sustainable countries, mostly Scandinavian ones, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (I think Iceland won't be "sustainable" on next year's list.) But try giving this same criticism of the government in say, Burma or China. I guarantee you a much better chance of being hauled away by the government and never seen again.

I'm running the risk of sounding like a deluded lunatic "patriot" (Republican) by lauding some aspects of America but I feel this attitude that America is the Titanic going down seems arrogant in the face of people who do live in failed or nearly failing states. It's like saying, I understand extreme poverty in the global south because I'm below the poverty line, I live in the housing projects, and I drive a crappy old car. You don't. America still has a lot of power and influence in the world, not the most power and influence, but a lot.

Monday, October 6, 2008


I apologize for not posting an Entry of Substance.

It's already past 2 and I'm not done with my homework for tomorrow so I can't write about Joe Biden or the crazies I talked to while phonebanking, or how important melamine-laced White Rabbit milk candies are to my childhood.

Because I feel like it takes so long to write a good blog entry, I want do ask how much my fellow bloggers spend composing a blog entries:

Less than 30 minutes?
30 minutes - 1 hour?
more than 1 hour?