Monthly Archives: March 2011

Speaking about science

Beware. Rant ahead.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have when they go into science is that it isn’t a social job. You know the sterotype of the socially awkward, ultra-intellegent, nerdy scientist.

It’s not that these people don’t exist – in fact there is a lot of truth to that sterotype. The misconception is that these people stay holed up in their ivory towers not speaking to anybody. But, as I mentioned, being in science, at least academically, is a social job. You must got to meetings and conferences, present your latest ground-breaking work, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with fellow scientists and then are expected to drink beer with them until very, very late in the night. And repeat. For several days in a row.

For the most part I enjoy it. I find the exceptions to the norm, the people who are reasonably well-adjusted, clever and fun, but who also really love to talk biology and choose to drink beer with them. That’s not the problem. The problem is having to listen to roughly six hours of formal science talks a day by people who don’t know how to effectively present science.

Really, I was at a meeting with a thousand people. Who would presume that every single one of them is going to have the exact same interests as you do or has sufficient background to understand your work without any context? Is it that difficult to add a couple of slides of “this is the big picture” and “why somebody other than myself should care?”

So I started this rant right after I got back from California, but a week and a half later I am still ranting about the overall quality of presentations in the scientific arena. I had to give yet another seminar this evening, as did a senior graduate student from a lab down the hall. Now, I don’t always give the best talks, but I always make an effort to have my slides easy to read and follow and always, always, start with the bigger questions before going into the specific research. Is that so difficult for other scientists to do as well? Does nobody tell them that is their responsibility?

Perhaps it’s my background with the performing arts, but I think when we communicate our research, we should be telling a story. I would put peer-reviewed scholarly articles akin to a full-blown novel, but a seminar should be something more like a picture book. Big, bright pictures and minimal text. And when we present it there should be inflection in our voice and excitement to be sharing our research.

One of my biggest goals in my career is to develop a course in “Communicating Science” so that graduate students learn early in their careers how to present research in a meaningful and impactful way. Whether it’s describing what you do at a cocktail party, to a fellow colleague in the elevator, at a formal seminar or in a research paper – communication is a vital component to your career.

Okay, I am glad I got that off my chest (not that my labmates haven’t already heard it). The rant is over. And it’s good thing to, because the finale of Top Chef is about to begin…

Mangel-wurzel

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious …The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip … The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens with the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies”

-Tom Robbins

That’s the beginning of Jitterbug Perfume. It’s a madcap adventure through time about immortality and true love and the greatest of all perfumes. The beet, or mangel-wurzel, is featured prominently, as is Seattle, Paris and New Orleans. To say that I love this book is an understatement. I love just about everything Tom Robbins writes. I think he is pure literary genius and this particular novel tugs at my most romantic heartstrings. I am not sure how many times I’ve read it, but every time I do, I fall in love with it all over again. With the book and with beets.

So, when I spied some beets at the store I knew that I needed to bring them home with me.

I peeled them, chopped them and roasted them along with some butternut squash.

Then I tossed with them some salad greens, feta cheese, sweet and spicy walnuts and some balsamic vinegariette. A hearty pre-Spring salad (I know the calendar technically claims that it is springtime, but the weather outside says otherwise).

The best way to describe the flavor of the beet is that it is undeniably earthy. In fact I have no other way to describe it.

Go forth and read Jitterbug Perfume, fall in love and eat some beets.

Winters last(?) laugh

I thought we were in the clear. I got back from California Sunday evening and was pleasantly surprised by the near lack of snow in the city. By Monday afternoon they had even called off the “Winter Parking Restrictions” (which basically meant that I could only park on one side of the street because the snow pretty much takes up the width of an entire lane). I was looking forward to taking my bike out around the lakes over the weekend and just being able to walk down the sidewalk without having my eyes permanently downward, looking out for ice or puddles. I was dreaming of flower gardens and finding a CSA (community supported agriculture).

But then I woke up to this.

Snow. Again. Multiple inches of it. In fact it snowed for most of the day.

WTF?

I ask myself (once again) “Why does anybody, and more importantly, why do I live here?”

In order to deal with this completely unwelcome development I made a giant pot of soup.

Roasted butternut squash soup topped with croutons and apple cider cream.

I love this soup. And, like most soups, it is pretty easy to assemble with relatively few ingredients.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Start by rough chopping:

1 small butternut squash

2 small apples

4-5 small carrots

1 large onion

Season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 450 degree oven for 45 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, heat some butter in your soup pot and add some chopped celery. Cook until soft, about 15 minutes.

Add a few pinches of dried thyme.

And a dash of cayenne pepper.

Take the vegetables out of the oven.

And transfer them to the soup pot.

Add 4 cups of stock (vegetable or chicken).

And 1 cup of apple cider.

Bring to a boil and cook for about 15 minutes.

Working in batches, transfer to a blender and puree until smooth.

Return to the soup pot, bring to a simmer and add 1/2 cup of cream.

Now for the apple cider cream.

Cook 1/2 cup of apple cider until reduced by half.

Mix into 2/3 cup of sour cream.

That’s it.

Now that my belly is full, I am going to go back to dreaming about California and ignore all the snow that is currently outside.

California

Do you see me smiling? I’ve escaped Minneapolis once again. To the West Coast no less. Nearly back home. Here there is a jaw-dropping, staggering beauty to the natural world that simply doesn’t exist on the East Coast and certainly doesn’t exist in the Midwest. To say that it fills my heart with joy is an understatement.

California. I didn’t know how much I’ve missed you. In a past life I used to come out to Northern California several times a year, but I haven’t been here for nearly 4 years.

I am in the Monterey peninsula for a scientific meeting. A fungal genetics conference. Would you believe that nearly 1,000 people are at this meeting? A complete nerd-fest. But, being a nerd myself, I don’t mind the least. But I snuck away from the meeting this morning (having given my talk yesterday, I decided to give my brain a small break) and walked to the sleepy little town (yet undeniably yuppie) to find some real coffee served to me by a fantastically friendly 24-year old vegan barista. Oh California.

If places can have personalities than people can be places. I don’t think it has to be where you are from, but I think it is often the place you love the most. Its very being can exude from one’s pores.

I would say that I am quintessentially Olympia. The Pacific Northwest with a twist.

Furthermore, the people who have been in your life, the ones whose lives melded with your own can imprint their places into your own being. For example, Scott is Mr. New Orleans and although I’ve only visited that completely charming city twice, I am absolutely in love with that place. I have absorbed it’s New Orleans-ness and made it part of myself.

The same is true for Northern California. There was a past love in my life whose very core was Northern California and so I, in a small way, brought Northern California into my being. And so being back here is like a homecoming with myself in an odd sort of way. I recognize myself here, a part of myself that I buried deep inside myself when that relationship ended.

It’s not about the relationship with the past love; it’s about the person I grew up into while I was in that relationship. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. In some ways it feels like I am reuniting with me. No doubt that feeling is amplified because I am finally getting back up on my scientific feet. Being at this meeting, sharing my excitement about fungal genetics and evolution with other scientists and old friends is also playing a big part of me finding me again.

Of course it could also be the sunshine and blue skies that is stripping away the outer layers of gloom that took up residence over the dark and depressing Minnesota winter. Or perhaps just being near the Pacific Ocean again, smelling the saltwater and hearing the roar of the waves. Either way my heart is feeling lighter and stronger.

 

Bananas Foster Milkshake

These were sitting in my fruit bowl.

Slightly overripe, but not quite ready for banana bread, bananas.

So I wondered what to make with them. And somehow got the idea of a banana milkshake in my head. And couldn’t shake it. So I braved the still below freezing temperatures to walk to the grocery store to pick up some vanilla ice cream.

Banana milkshakes without a doubt, remind me of my great-grandparents on my mother’s mother’s side. Both have since passed away, but when I was a child, we would go over to their house and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and banana milkshakes. Most of my other memories of them are now fuzzy and blurred with age, but those banana milkshakes in the retro, brightly-colored metallic cups are crystal clear.

I wanted to jazz up this particular banana milkshake. Over New Year’s, while in New Orleans, Scott and I had a jazz brunch at Arnaud’s with some of his old college friends.  For dessert I was peer-pressured into having the Bananas Foster, apparently a New Orleans classic. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the cinnamon-banana-rum-ice cream combination. It translates into a milkshake amazingly well.

Blend together:

Vanilla ice cream

An overripe banana

A splash of dark rum

A sprinkle of ground cinnamon

And of course some milk

Simple as that.

And to complete my Sunday afternoon drive down memory lane, I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich.