Category Archives: Science

Let there be pie

It’s 10:45 pm, Monday night. Monday 03-14, Pi(e) day. I breeze into my kitchen after a long day of work and couldn’t NOT make pie on Pi(e) day. I’d been going back and forth on whether to go to the hassle most of the afternoon and evening. When I was still at work at 8:00 pm, I almost convinced myself that I didn’t really need to do it. After all, I have two manuscripts to finish editing, graduate student qualifying exams to review, undergraduate letters of recommendation to write and who knows what else. Pie could wait until another time.

But a thought struck my mind.

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It’s the start of spring – I might actually be able to grab some rhubarb from the store and wouldn’t that pair wonderfully with the ginger ice cream I had made a few day ago? Ahhh, the allure of rhubarb is simply too tempting for me to ignore. Store number one – out of luck, I live in Georgia now and wasn’t entirely sure that I would spot it at all. However, store number two (I love residing within walking distance to not one, or two but three grocery stores!) revealed a few vibrant pink stalks. I quickly grabbed the few remaining pieces and silently cursed (or not-so-silently, but hey, I was at the Murder Kroger). Not nearly enough for a full pie. Now what? Another stroll through the produce section had me stopping at the peaches. And the third pass through at the blackberries. Alright, I may be a little off script, but I think, just maybe, not only will it not be a complete disaster, but it may actually be quite good.

I’m quickly and assuredly making decisions as my pie idea forms in my mind – it borderlines on manic. I choose a buttermilk crust since I have some leftover buttermilk from a batch of biscuits I made over the weekend. Yes, I think that should do the trick. Given extra wet nature of the rhubarb, peaches and berries – I think I’ll not only par-bake the bottom crust, but seal it with an egg wash as well. Because the difference between an okay pie and a transformative one is often in the details of the crust. Oh! I’ll do a lattice top – won’t that be pretty! So, perhaps I’ll do 1.5x the recipe for the crust. No big deal.

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I toss together my coveted rhubarb, a few bordering on underripe peaches and the handful of blackberries along with some sugar, flour, a dash of cinnamon and a couple of teaspoons of grated ginger and give it all a good toss and let it meld while the pie dough chills. A couple of cocktails, a load of dishes and the beginnings of a long and rambling blog post happen.

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Pie, no matter how well done, is impressive and needs to be shared, if only to glory in the accolades it will undoubtedly receive. Perhaps because of the underlying assumption that it is a brave soul who attempts to put together such a concoction of pastry and fruit. The dough could be too tough or crack when rolled, the fruit too watery or worse, sickly sweet from adding too much sugar, the ratios of the two could be completely unbalanced. The sheer thought of baking a pie is overwhelming enough to scare people away. Consequently, offering pie alà mode the day after Pi(e) Day was met with an absurdly high level of enthusiasm from members and friends of my lab.

For the inexperienced, pie seems impossible – and rhubarb-peach-blackberry pie made up on the fly, particularly when paired with homemade fresh ginger ice cream (a stroke of genius) even more so. A number of students expressed awe and wonderment at the ability to tackle such a task, followed by a sad statement regarding their lack of confidence in this arena.

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My actions Monday night are reminiscent of the recent days that I’ve spent in my lab. We finally arrived at spring break during my first semester of teaching undergraduates (the semester prior was dedicated to graduate teaching) and it was a busy, and sometimes impossible to maintain semester. I desperately craved a break and contemplated renting a cabin in the north Georgia mountains to escape from it all. Yet, in the end, I spent most of that time in the lab after a seemingly endless hiatus. Regardless of the time spent away, I storm into the lab and begin tying up a number of experimental loose ends.

I’d forgotten how much at home I feel in the lab. I certainly had forgotten the sense of accomplishment one has at the end of the day spent on your feet, running around from the warm room (our yeast like to grow at 30º C) to the bench, to the autoclave, to the glassware cabinet, to the PCR machine, to the centrifuge, to the gel electrophoresis rig, etc. There is an underlying ease and confidence to my actions. It feels good. And if the gel of my PCR is any indication, I haven’t lost my lab hands. Not only is it comforting to spend time back in the lab – it’s genuinely fun.

It’s difficult, after nearly a decade of time spent in the lab, to remember that it wasn’t always second nature. That the very reason that I can waltz into the lab after six months away and nearly immediately encounter experimental success is precisely because I’ve had a decade to slowly, but surely, hone my skills, encountering a turning point that remains imperceivable to me as to when exactly it occurred. One of the more challenging aspects of my job is to to teach people how to think scientifically and importantly, to not judge too quickly when they are not immediately successful. Or to judge too harshly when a young scientist can’t immediately pick up on the nuances of an experiment or how to optimize a protocol or manage their time.

{Note: there are MANY new aspects of my position that I attempt with complete uncertainty – and am learning to forgive myself for not knowing how to do all of them with expertise. But life in the lab? That I know something about.}

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What’s it like to be unsure? To not know, or to carry the confidence that what you’ll do will end well? Intellectually, I know I that I did not arrive in the lab (or the kitchen for that matter) fully formed. But now it seems foreign to me, the notion that I didn’t always have such a deep intimacy of my study subject or, when in the kitchen, flavor profiles and techniques or to have a repertoire of resources and accumulated knowledge to draw upon. In hindsight, there are a few things that must have contributed to my development. 1) The sheer repetition of action and consistency in results contributed significantly to my confidence. 2) Learning who to trust with protocols/recipes – just because something is available online does not it will yield reliable outcomes Who are the scientists/chefs that I respect and want to build my own work off of? 3) Appropriately testing a technique and establishing a baseline before making educated modifications – but not to be afraid to try something a little different and outside of my comfort zone. 4) And finally, embracing the notion that sometimes I will fail. And possibly fail spectacularly, knowing that the failure is worthwhile because I will have learned something critical.

I struggle to find ways to extend my patience with naïve scientists, to remember to acknowledge the small victories and to cultivate an environment in which failing is a beautiful learning opportunity. To be able to remind them that the very process of doing something is as important as the result. That we may not know the outcome as we embark on a new project, but, that we can hopefully navigate logically and with our collective knowledge through the murkiness to a breathtaking destination.

And when that fails, sweeten them up with pie.

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Rhubarb-Peach-Blackberry Pie with Buttermilk Crust

Buttermilk Crust:

  • 1 7/8 (aka 2 cups – 1 T) cups all purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 12 tablespoons butter, cubed
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little water for egg wash

Filling:

  • 2 ½ cups rhubarb, chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 3 peaches, peeled and chopped in ½ inch pieces
  • 2 cups blackberries
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot starch
  • 2 teaspoons grated ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a food processor, pulse the flour with the sugar and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some pea-size pieces remaining. Drizzle the buttermilk on top and pulse until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather up any crumbs and divide into two disks – one a little larger than the other. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until well chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the larger disk of dough to a 12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Ease the dough into a 9-inch glass pie plate. Trim the overhanging dough to 1 inch, fold it under itself and crimp the dough decoratively. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake the crust in the lower third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until barely set. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights. Brush with egg wash, reserving remaining wash. Bake for 15  minutes longer, until the crust is lightly browned. Let cool on a rack. Leave the foil strips on the crust rim. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Toss together all ingredients for the filling. Pour filling into par-baked crust. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the smaller disk of dough to a ~12-inch round, a scant 1/4 inch thick. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into ten, 1-inch strips. Place strips in a lattice pattern (5 in one direction and 5 perpendicular). Brush with remaining egg wash. Cover the edge of the crust with strips of foil and bake for 45-60 minutes until top lattice is browned and filling is bubbling. Let cool.

Serve with homemade fresh ginger ice cream spiked with some Au Thym Sauvage from Farigoule de Haute Provence (and why it has a place in my liquor cabinet is a story for another time). Although, to be fair, most any type of ice cream will suffice.

 

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Scientific Style

I’ve fallen out of the practice of writing. It’s gotten to the point where I actually fear having to do it. There’s a manuscript hanging over my head, a paper that I desperately need to publish so that I’m known for something other than finding Candida albicans haploids (although, to be fair, this study also regards ploidy variation). More importantly, to wrap up the loose ends of my postdoctoral research and develop my own independent program.IMG_4027

If only I could wish that the words would write themselves. Except the paper is already written, had even been submitted and subject to review. At first glance, the rejection was hardly a blow – all reviewers agreed it was technically sound, however there were mixed feelings to the degree in which it advanced our knowledge and thus, wasn’t impactful enough for that journal. The solution seemed simple: a few quick edits and submit to a lower-tier journal.

That was five months ago. It shames me to admit that, I don’t usually operate at snail speed. Granted, that first semester as a faculty member, combined with the cross-country relocation was a substantial transition. Unbelievably, in that time, I set up a functioning lab, hired a technician and now have experiments in progress (!!!). But the manuscript continues to sit stagnant on my desktop. I usually circumvent writers block by finding an existing document and revising, editing and re-writing the whole damn thing to transform it into something distinct from the original. Not so with this paper.

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The brick wall my head keeps pounding into? I took the reviews personally. Strike that: I took the slightly less-than-glowing review personally. The positive review didn’t resonate in the least. As a naïve graduate student, some time ago now, I remember being told to not take these things personally. And most times, I think do a pretty good job of it. I’ve internalized that perspective to the point that I find myself frequently qualifying the comments I provide with the ubiquitous “it’s not you, it’s the science” statement. But is that the truth? I enthusiastically stand on my soapbox, advocating that scientists are individuals with interests and lives beyond just their science. Yet, that sentiment does not diminish the degree in which the work that we do; the research we perform and the context in which we convey the results and their significance reflects who we are.

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Scientific style has been on the forefront of my mind as I’ve been making decisions after decision on establishing the lab and the direction to move towards. So the “it’s not the science, it’s the lack of impact” comment struck an overworked and exposed nerve, disabling me in a way that I am not proud of. It wasn’t that I received that particular review, I support the rigor of peer-review, it’s that I knew it wasn’t an unfair statement. The paper, as previously submitted, DID lack meaningful insight and failed to emphasize the novelty of the results. I take full responsibility for its lackluster appearance. Ultimately, I appreciate the rejection – it has given me the opportunity to give the paper a desperately needed makeover.

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Why shouldn’t my scientific writing and research have a signature style? As with so many other elements of my life – I like being distinctive and striking to the beholder. I’m currently obsessed with residing at the intersection of form and function. Too ‘functional’ and you end up with boring ideas and dry writing. Too much form and flair and you run the risk of losing substance and credibility. I’ve spent hours crafting a single paragraph and months upon months playing with data visualization. Finding the balance between form and function not takes time, but an enormous amount of work, all in the hopes that it looks effortless.

In this day and age of ‘publish or perish’ in academics, my proclivity towards staying true to my style (not to mention my idealism towards mentoring) will certainly prevent me from being my most productive. I know that. But for me, external metrics (like number of papers published) are rarely sufficient for my sense of satisfaction. Up to this point, my own high expectations have guided me in my career, with measurable success. We’ll see if this holds true in the future.

Unapologetic

I have a confession.

I care deeply how others think of me.

I enjoy being distinctive (my purple hair certainly plays a large part in achieving this – and I love that). I am to be taken seriously – but not always seriously. I like that people like to be around me and that my thoughts and opinions are valued. That I am trustworthy and my research is well-regarded. And that my awesome style impresses upon others. Am I shallow? Narcissistic? Too female for science?

I have cried at work, on more than one occasion and even (gasp!) in front of other people. I’m incredibly open about my mood and my feelings (that seeming span a wide-spectrum). There is a hefty dose of reverse snobbery in academics – that our minds are the only thing to be valued. That we are completely objective towards all things. To say nothing of the passive-aggressive attitudes towards those with pastimes outside of science. I, like so many others, am a complex being with a wide-array of interests and emotions. I refuse to apologize or feel shamed about that.  In fact, I think it allows me to step back to see the larger biological questions and think more creatively.

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I have a hard time discussing gender and science and am extremely sensitive to broad sweeping statements on the subject. Both my Ph.D. and postdoc advisors are female, from different generations and are unalike in many ways. They are two distinct people after all, and who is to say that the commonalities they do share is because of their gender? The same is true of my female peers. I’m not in any position to speak for them.

But I think about it. What does it means to be a female in science? More importantly, to be me? I am decidedly female in my wardrobe – I own about 15 dresses to every pair of pants. You won’t find me in any neutral colors either. I wear heels. I occasionally put make-up on. I spend a considerable amount of money to control my curly hair. I have never been interested in wearing contacts because I think my glasses make me look smarter. I contemplate at length the appearance I present to the world. I agonized over choosing a photo for my faculty profile – they say a picture is worth a thousand words. I wanted something that illustrated my intellect, my openess, and my style all the while staying inside the lines of professionalism. Is that even achievable?

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It’s more than just the way I dress: I try to smile often to seem friendly and approachable – but not too often because I don’t want appear a pushover. I frequently nod during seminars or in conversations to indicate that I am paying attention but don’t hesitate to hide quizzical expressions. At conferences I make a point of asking intelligent questions during the public forums and staying out late to drink beer at the bar with my fellow nerds. I am actively trying to stop apologizing or making excuses for delayed responses. I do these things deliberately because I am female, but mostly because I want to be a vibrant, noteworthy member of my community.

I am making my way through the leaky pipeline and now find myself in a tenure-track position. The department I am joining has exactly two other female professors. Whether I like it or not, I will be an example. Hopefully in time, even a role model for scientists-in-training. My voice has weight. I worry about what sort of mentor and colleague I will be. Not only do I want to be well liked and respected, but to also inspire those I work with and lead. I try my hardest to have my interactions with others to be open, honest and thoughtful, which at times, can be mutually exclusive with being nice, but never with considerate. My intentions are always to be critical of the science, but not of the scientist. I just hope that I can achieve that without those exclusively female labels.

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Raspberry Jam

When given a choice of berry – I always pick raspberry. Their bright sassiness endears them to me. I chanced upon enough of these beauties in my backyard to make a jam (coupled with some strawberries a day or two past their prime) last weekend. This jam is unapologetically tart. It doesn’t sugarcoat the ‘I AM RASPBERRY’ spirit. Enjoyed best with a batch of buttermilk biscuits and a steaming cup of coffee on early on a Saturday morning.
 
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1 cup freshly picked raspberries
1 cup strawberries, diced
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
pinch of salt
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Collect the ingredients in a small saucepan and Cook over medium-high heat for 10-15 minutes. Mash slightly. The jam will thicken slightly as it cools. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers – it will keep for a few days.
 

A long time coming

Not all the ice creams I make are swoon-worthy. Some are interesting and pair well with certain desserts, but can’t stand on their own. Some are fine, but are only that, and don’t quite hit the right note. Some, I’m too impatient for and I end up curdling the custard, or don’t let chill thoroughly before *trying* to churn. I’ve yet to make the perfect chocolate ice cream – it’s texture problem I haven’t yet sorted out. Some, and it’s a select few (I’m looking at you, Salted Caramel and Bourbon Brown Sugar), are simply divine. This one rises to that prestigious position: Toasted Coconut with Roasted Strawberry Swirl. I’ve now made it more times than I can count.

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Regardless of the less-than-stellar attempts I’ve encountered along the way, I adore making ice cream. A pursuit that people are unduly impressed by.

It’s delayed gratification at its finest and not for everyone. It requires an investment in some specialty (and some argue, unwieldy) equipment and is a serious time commitment. This particular ice cream requires a multitude of time-consuming steps. You could, much more easily, and certainly more quickly, run to the market and pick up a pint should the whim strike.

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But me, I like the process. Making the base, infusing the flavor, letting it develop (toasted coconut!), while contrasting the tastes and textures (slow roasted strawberry!), knowing that the payoff will be not only sweet, but also long lasting. (I can’t be the only one constantly astonished that something that I spent hours or even days on, can be devoured in an instant … or has the shelf life of three days.) Ice cream, if my self-restraint can be relied upon, can live in my freezer for several weeks and savored by the spoonful.

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It’s striking to me how similar it is to my life in academics.

Time-consuming, check.
Unwieldy investment, check.
Unduly impressive, check.
Delayed gratification ……………………….
                                                            ………………………………….……………………..….. check.
 

And can have the sweetest of payoffs. Decadent and indulgent, for sure.

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I recently signed the papers accepting a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of Biology at Emory University. My first bona fide job since graduating college a full decade ago.  A job that real people  have actually heard of (i.e. those outside of academics, because really, who else knows what a postdoc is?). It’s kind of a big deal. It’s not for everyone. And, quite honestly, it’s the first thing in a very long time that I am proud of. Without doubt, worth stopping and savoring. (Even more honestly: I’ve rapidly transitioned from awe and wonderment to terrified and overwhelmed.)

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I probably could have done something different with my life that hasn’t required the sacrifices. I’ve relocated twice now, (and soon going to do it again) to far reaches of the country where I know not a single soul. I could probably have been making much more money than I have as a graduate student or as a postdoc. When I told my family of my decision to go to graduate school, I was met with skeptical looks and unasked questions of why I’d want to stay in school for even longer than I had. I could have gone to the market and bought the ice cream in the freezer section or even gone to the specialty shop and bought the artisanal, fancy-pants ice cream for $12. That may have satisfied my desires. But I didn’t. I developed the skills and acquired the equipment to create whatever kind of ice cream my heart desires. And will take that with me in the future.

A long time coming, indeed.

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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream with Roasted Strawberry Swirl
Makes about 1 quart
 
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Toasted Coconut Ice Cream
1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split
5 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons rum
 
Roasted Strawberry Swirl
 1 lb strawberries, halved or quartered (depending on size)
3 tablespoons honey
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For ice cream: Spread coconut flakes on a baking dish. Toast at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, until toasted and fragrant. In a medium saucepan, combine milk, ½ cup cream, ½ cup sugar, salt, toasted coconut and vanilla bean. Heat until steam starts to rise, cover and remove from heat. Let coconut and vanilla steep for 1 hour. Pass mixture through mesh strainer and return to saucepan. Whisk together egg yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar in a large bowl. Rewarm the infused dairy mixture and slowly whisk in the egg yolks. Continue to heat until mixture is thickened. Strain again, into the remaining 1 cup of heavy cream. Chill thoroughly. Stir in rum and churn according to manufacturers instructions.

For the strawberries: In a large baking dish, gently toss strawberries and honey. Bake at 300 degrees for two hours, until juices are very thick. Puree and pass through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds. Chill thoroughly.

Layer the churned ice cream and strawberry puree in a freezer proof container. Freeze for at least 4 hours before serving. Because of the relatively high alcohol content, the ice cream will be fairly soft and has a two-fold benefit: easy to scoop and a touch of pina colada.

 

Defining Moments

There are moments in your life that are game changers. Sometimes they sneak up on you, quiet and stealthy and alter the course of your life subtly but significantly. Others walk right up and hit you over the head, leaving you dizzy and seeing stars.

If you are lucky, you can see the latter coming. (Other times, perhaps not). In these cases I believe you actually have the ability to  wield some control over the situation. Last week I found myself staring straight into just such an opportunity.

A few months back I wrote about the thrill of discovery. What’s just as satisfying as making a discovery is sharing it with your colleagues. I was at a fungal biology conference last week and had the opportunity to stand on stage and present the work I’ve been busy with over the past six months. It was a strategic move – my mentor and I  are currently writing up the manuscript and we wanted to break the news and gather feedback before we submitted.

I have very strong thoughts about how science should be presented. Which meant I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to meet my exceedingly high standards. Not to mention the mind-blowing nature* of my current work, and the pressure builds. And let’s not forget, I am a post-doc entering the job market and need to be unforgettable. This was perhaps the most important 15 minutes of my career to date. Maybe I’m being melodramatic, as I tend towards the theatrical, but this was a big deal and the reason I’ve had so many late nights.

For a while, I thought I was going to crack under all that pressure. I’m not sure if it was psycho-somatic or an actual illness, but I was sick to my stomach the entire 24-hours before my talk (and even several hours afterwards). I am embarrassed to even admit it, as I usually relish any opportunity to be in the spotlight. But I knew this was one of the defining moments. In fact, the last time I felt this type of pressure was when I was interviewing for graduate school. I was a naive 23-year old who had gone to hippie college and didn’t have a clue as to the academic architecture. I only had gotten an interview at Duke, as the other graduate schools I applied to flat-out rejected me, and I knew that it was my only chance to get into a Ph.D. program. I was sick to my stomach then as well. I even had to leave in the middle of my interview with the director of the program in order to run to the restroom to empty the contents of my stomach. But I must have done something right, as I made it into the program, and the rest is, well, history.

And I made it through this talk also. Adrenaline is a powerful anti-nausea drug. In fact, I am proud to say that I nailed it. It’s a moment in my life that I will never ever forget. I could feel the buzz of energy in the air as I was on stage – people really got it (one person told me later they could feel the hairs on the back of their neck rising as I was speaking). As I opened the floor to questions, the first response that I received was a marriage proposal (from an already married woman, but a proposal nevertheless). I couldn’t have asked for much more, except for perhaps a job offer.

It’s been a boost to my scientific self-confidence, which as been on a roller coaster ride for the past couple of years. And it feels damn good. Success is a mix of hard work and luck and I got extremely lucky to fall into a such a compelling project.

*For my nerdy science friends interested in what I am working on:

I’ve been working on a yeast species that is a human commensal and occasionally, if the opportunity arises can become pathogenic. For decades, its been thought to be an obligate diploid with no known sexual cycle (which makes genetics and molecular biology in this organism challenging). Recently a parasexual cycle has been described in which diploid cells mate to form tetraploid cells and subsequently undergo a non-meiotic process to return to a near diploid state. We’ve found that there is also a haploid state in the lifecycle of this organism. Not only will this greatly facilitate future genetic and molecular biology studies, it suggests that a haploid phase may be important for revealing recessive alleles, and thus exposing genetic variation for selection to act upon. Furthermore, mating between haploids cells can restore heterozygosity, a trait we observe readily in clinical isolates, that as been paradoxical given the propensity of this organism to undergo loss of heterozygosity events in response to stress.