Happy 40th Anniversary Roe v. Wade!


As part of Blog for Choice Day sponsored by NARAL Pro-choice America and the anniversary of Roe v Wade, I’ve decided to be a part of their discussion this year:

“…we’re asking you to share your story about why you’re pro-choice.”

At first I was reluctant to use the words “pro-choice” to describe my views on reproductive rights. I was hesitant to be categorized within an extremely polarized and political issue that is so frequently associated with violent images and protestors. I myself am preferentially non-political in nature and usually don’t endorse a platform so passionately. As a young woman, however, all I knew was that my body was my own- and no one, least of all the state or the government, should have any compulsory power over my health.

I viewed it as a logical progression, if the state couldn’t force me to get an annual flu shot or my teeth cleaned, why should they decide what happens with my pregnancy? It’s fair to say that I didn’t understand the nuances of the debate until several years ago. Weren’t all those people opposing a women’s right to choose just religious fanatics?

Things changed when I discovered a surprising piece of news. Someone very close to me confided that she had gotten an abortion, and for many years I had no idea. Suddenly I felt, almost outside myself, a sense of horror bubbling up. It was an involuntary reaction that I was emotionally detached enough from to analyze a bit. If I was so pro-choice why did I have this vague sense of moral outrage? I suppose I had previously looked at abortions as a last resort, mostly unnecessary if only people were a little bit responsible. I received, and therefore supported, sex education and family planning. I still do. But until that moment I didn’t understand the more complicated feelings: the helplessness, the trapped and conflicted feelings, the fear of being judged.

People like to be morally unimpeachable, and too many people rush to support what they feel is right, without stopping to think about the other lives involved, and how what is right can differ for everyone.


Recently I also read the book (and watched the recent PBS documentary) Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was an eye opening and surprisingly riveting read highlighting the dangers of limiting women’s rights, whether it is their right to an abortion, a marriage, a family, or running a business. The author makes the points that how a society treats women is proportional to how well they function, that women “hold up half the sky.” Countries that restrict women’s rights sacrifice substantial  gains in GDP and countless opportunities to climb out of poverty. Microfinance operations in the third world have consistently demonstrated how much more effective supporting women is then supporting men.

I’m pro-choice because I support women. I support organizations that support women. I support a women’s right to choose, whatever choice that may be. I think it’s dangerous to restrict women’s rights, and Roe v Wade went a long way to make sure women have options. Sure, not everyone agrees with how other people use their freedoms, which is why I feel grateful to live in a country that values freedom, and strives to protect it. I remain optimistic, and I believe that as long as those women are empowered, making their own decisions, doing what’s right for their health and/or their family’s health, then our communities, our nation, and our lives will be the better for it.


Awkward Encounters with Job In-security

As the unprecedented front of Hurricane Sandy draws near I find it harder and harder not to believe in climate change, and I’m constantly flabbergasted by those who still maintain that humans have nothing to do with our shifting global temperatures. Do you really need a PhD to understand that we have to make changes to our current treatment of the environment? Unfortunately, PhD’s are simultaneously distrusted, misunderstood, and held aloof by many people today. That outlook is bleak for me.

Firstly, everyone in Sandy’s path, stay safe and best of luck.

Now, on to my current gripe. There are certain times when I become very bothered by the long held notion that scientists, (particularly those with the three letters P-H-D attached to their names) are so intellectually removed and above the general populace. It’s with a certain reluctance that I tell people what I’m in graduate school for, and it’s generally because they recoil from me like I must be an elitist prick, often with a wide eyed facial expression followed by a physical  inclination of the head backward. Don’t get me wrong, some people really enjoy this shock-inducing attention. I’m just not one of them.

This reaction is instantly uncomfortable because it labels me as different, as part of some alternate group that suddenly doesn’t include that person I’m talking to. Everyone likes to fit in and feel included, and that is definitely not what that reaction evokes. Instantly I feel forced into a corner where I can either try to explain my research in a simultaneously non-technical yet non-patronizing way (silently arguing that no, it’s really not that out there), or look down at my shoes and mumble something inaudible. I usually choose the latter. It’s no wonder that scientists have such a reputation for being anti-social wallflower types with less than optimal party conversation skills.

This reactionary treatment from strangers has happened to me on two occasions in the last two weeks. The first, I was actually attempting not to be a wallflower at a graduate student reception and asked a girl I didn’t know (but  was introduced to by a friend) what was her graduate major. Okay, admittedly this might not have been the best opening line. She replied she was a Theater major and inquired after me. I said awesome, I was doing Genetics. Then came the feared wide eyes, step back, the exclamation of wow, she could never do that. Perhaps what she failed to realize was that while my profession may make her feel insecure, her reaction makes me feel just as insecure and self conscious. I decided to explain to her how I really felt about her reaction. I replied that theater, well I could never do that. For me who suffered from nearly debilitating stage fright in high school, her job was hard and impressive, takes work, and in my book, enriches people’s lives. That’s important! It’s just different, plain and simple. Unfortunately she seemed skeptical and soon removed herself, leaving me standing awkwardly unoccupied. I regretted volunteering my views comparing our two fields.

I had the opportunity to try a different tactic a week later, when I decided to set up in my favorite Peet’s Coffee shop with a pumpkin latte and work on some Biochemistry practice exams. Instantly the older gentleman at the table next to me took a sidelong look and asked if I was doing homework. “Well yes, attempting,” I replied, and turned back to my coffee and structures. I’m already annoyed and very obviously flashing my sparkly engagement ring as a leave-me-alone-I’m-not-single-message. Learning from my earlier experience with the theater graduate student, I try very hard not to engage him in conversation without being overtly rude. A long pause. I may just get away with drinking my coffee in peace. “It looks hard, what you’re doing,” he ventures, pretty much apropos of nothing. Then he derides himself by adding, “I could never do what you’re doing, I just don’t have the brain for it I guess.”  I’m baffled: why the incessant need to judge what other people do against what you personally do with your life? I glance over at his table, getting a peak at a well worn philosophical novel and scribbled pages of handwritten sheet music. I suppose he’s attempting to complement me or fishing for one himself, but I’m not in the mood. He was clearly writing his own very complicated musical piece, something I myself could never do. I told him, “I don’t think it’s different brains, it’s just about what you enjoy doing.” I wanted to get across that it’s what you like to do in life that should drive your profession, and just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m an instant wiz.  Everyone likes different areas and different fields, none of which are better one than the other. He looked sheepishly down at his musical composition, muttered he guessed so, picked up his coffee and left, telling me to “enjoy” my homework. Apparently that wasn’t the right thing to say either.

So it’s really hard for me to talk in detail about what I do to those who ask, and I haven’t quite figured out how. I’d rather emphasize my interests, talking about my concerns for human health and disease, how I had family members and mentors die of  cancer, influencing my career path. I think those are things people can relate to because it’s your experience not your intellect that becomes the driving force. People are very insecure about their intellects (myself included), but as the NY Times reports, smart is the norm, not the exception.

But this knee-jerk “I’m so impressed” reaction is one of those things people think they should do, as if a PhD somehow demands respect or acknowledgment. Unfortunately, not all PhD’s are created equally smart nor does “smarts” have to be a prerequisite for that PhD. I think the social isolation presents a real barrier to emerging and amateur scientists, and worse, creates an artificial barrier to the public’s understanding and acceptance of science broadly. If people constantly and immediately view science as obscure and incomprehensible, how will we make connections to the issues that we face every day that are directly related: healthcare, clean water, climate change?

Weight Loss: what really works, according to Mathematics!

I know when I read the New York Times this morning, I had to try it myself. They interviewed an obesity researcher who is also a mathematician, and what did he do? Invented, and made available for FREE a user interface to punch in your height/weight/activity levels now and what your ideal weight would be, and it will run a simulation and tell you how many calories you should be eating to lose the weight in any given amount of time. Most of all…and this is the dreaded consequence of diets…it will tell you how to maintain your ideal weight so in a few years time you don’t gain it all back after doing the hard work.
A quick excerpt from the article:

“One of the things the numbers have shown us is that weight change, up or down, takes a very, very long time. All diets work. But the reaction time is really slow: on the order of a year.

People don’t wait long enough to see what they are going to stabilize at. So if you drop weight and return to your old eating habits, the time it takes to crawl back to your old weight is something like three years. To help people understand this better, we’ve posted an interactive version of our model at bwsimulator.niddk.nih.gov. People can plug in their information and learn how much they’ll need to reduce their intake and increase their activity to lose. It will also give them a rough sense of how much time it will take to reach the goal. Applied mathematics in action!”

Had this article come a year earlier, I could have used this simulator to help me lose weight before I went on a diet to do just that. A year into this so called diet and I have lost 20 pounds, but I don’t think I will lose much more.  I was so excited about it that I blabbed to everyone…when things were going well. That was six months ago. Now I’m in the maintenance phase after exiting the weight loss phase, and that constantly grates on my psyche as I fret over every pound and try desperately not to slip back into old habits. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some way to plug in my numbers and see how I could maintain my weight?

Better yet, what would the weight simulator say?

The user interface…not SO intimidating!

I fired it up (after installing the correct java plug-in, which I apparently did not have) and briefly read the onscreen directions that looked something like this:

First I entered my height, weight (before diet), and clicked on “Estimate my activity level.” That button allows you to select various activities that generally characterize your daily life. I tried my best to approximate both how much physical activity I did before starting my diet/exercise routine according to their options. Then in the main section in the tab “Set your Goal weight,” I filled in all the green highlighted areas (see below). Clicking on the green box titled “Detailed” allows the option to list how you are increasing your physical activity, including which exercises (running, walking, or cycling), how often, and how long. I made sure to say I wanted to lose the weight within a year, but then specified a five year time window in the simulation (although it’s displayed in # of days), so it will show if my weight comes back. Then I pressed “Run Simulation” and played around with the graphical display.

My Results: initial weight loss followed by a long plateau…

The kicker: when I kept track of my own weight using my Wii Fit, I could view a graph of my weight over the course of a whole year, which I did. Astonishingly, my Wii graph looked just like this one. Somehow, my real life weight loss scenario and this mathematical calculator using algorithms I will never understand, came to the same conclusion about how the weight would come off me and how long it would take. If I counted calories (which I don’t) I could follow this simulator’s calorie suggestion and never gain back the weight! On a different note, as I went lower and lower with my ideal weight, it actually pops up with a warning, telling me “This simulation results in a dangerously low BMI,” whoops. Nice to know they are telling me what’s healthy and what’s not! I’ll probably keep playing with this thing and even start to re-think my weight loss goals. Everyone should check this out and play around to see how much they should be eating, or are actually eating!! In my case, it seems eating 400 additional calories a day for a year would result in a 20 pound weight gain if I went backwards. BUT: short bursts of eating that are few and far between: indulgences, that is, will not cause long term weight gain. So I don’t have to feel guilty about “cheating” by eating out for a friend’s birthday or whatnot! This is mentioned in the rest of the NY Times article, which I highly recommend. Anyway, I think this simulator is seriously cool…Props to Dr. Kevin Hall of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases for making this tool free and available!

This is why I love Hillary

I usually don’t pay attention to internet memes, but you got to love it when individuals that seem so far out of our daily realities can step down gracefully with a little self deprecating humor. So Hillary Clinton has done in response to a parody of her imagined text messaging exchanges with other famous people, popularized on the blog Texts from Hillary.

My favorite ones:




So Hillary responded with one of her own, submitting a funky picture of herself to prove it was her, gotta love that:


To see her response and more funny pictures, visit the original blog linked above. For a better explanation of this, see the Guardian article.

Thanks “Hillz” for being the coolest Secretary of State ever!

Siri and other search failures

I’ve been pretty much absent from blogging while I’ve finished up the application process for graduate school, and during that time I relied on my iPhone to keep me more or less connected with the outside world as much as deadlines would allow. I don’t have the latest Apple iPhone however, so mine lacks Siri’s voice command function. While I was initially disappointed…now I think it over I’m not so sad.

During my applications I totally missed the news in late November when Siri was blasted for being unhelpful and vague when asked any questions related to women’s health while being completely accurate about solutions to men’s reproductive issues. That wouldn’t have bothered me as much until it was reported that Siri seemed to be pushing an agenda, directing women in need of abortions to pro-life clinics rather than Planned Parenthood or a medical clinic.

After the applications were finished and I had time to sit at a bar with Siri, a few of my friends and I had fun over drinks, asking her to do basic things like send a text or tell us where we were.  Mundane stuff people. What she does so accurately in the commercials failed in our hands, and she kept suggesting other, unrelated things I never asked for. My first generation iPhone4 lacking Siri didn’t seem so bad after all.

But it got me wondering, would Apple ever take money from sponsors or advertisers, specific companies or chain stores to be pushed to the top of Siri’s suggestions list? Apple tries to be transparent about where Siri gets her answers from, and they don’t sponsor particular results right now. But Siri does seem a great platform for getting people to try things they otherwise might not, the holy grail of advertising. Is that next for Siri?

Not that Apple really needs to make more money then they do already, but Google and other search engines already tailor the results you see according to paid sponsorships. Google even goes one creepy step further, selectively tweaking your results and using your prior search history to discern personalized likes and dislikes. In other words, it predicts what it thinks you want to see, then shows that to you. (For more on this, see the TED talk Eli Pariser: Beware online “filter bubbles”) I don’t know about you, but I was pretty shocked by this. How can we ever get proper prospective when we’re asking questions, but not getting results that challenge our frame of mind? Science is all about asking questions, and if I got the results I expected all the time, it wouldn’t be fun or interesting, and no as many groundbreaking discoveries would ever be made!

Sure, smart searches are helpful, but sometimes I just want to see all the options and make up my own mind thank you.

Tip Tap Type

I’ve been a little surprised lately how much I’ve seen stories about typing in various media outlets. Computers and cell phones are so ubiquitous these days that putting the skill “touch typing” on your resume seems a bit outdated and self-congratulatory. After all, a skill is less desirable if everyone can do it. But wait, can everyone do it? This Monday morning’s commuter newspaper doesn’t think so. They claim Typing skills are not as ubiquitous as I would have assumed. They are not the first to imply this skill is taken for granted, as “two-finger typing” or “four-finger typing” are actually more common then using all of your fingers and not looking at your keyboard when you type. I don’t consider myself to be particularly good at typing or very fast either, but I certainly don’t use two fingers and neither does anyone I know.

Another article claims that schools do an inadequate job of teaching typing skills, and many women have been forced to learn touch typing secretly, afraid openly seeking to learn this skill would make them appear anti-feminist since touch-typing is so closely linked to “feminine” jobs (uh, EXCUSE ME?) and further if they DID learn to type they might become the dreaded cliche that is the secretary:

‘Can you touch-type?” It’s a simple question, but when I ask around, I am struck by how many women say they taught themselves in secret. Some former grammar-school girls over 35 have even told me that they were told not to learn at all – they were supposed to become executives with secretaries. The teaching of typing in schools remains haphazard. How did we end up with such an odd relationship with the instrument at the heart of most modern jobs and communication? Especially one that was a tool of female emancipation, offering women a respectable line of work in offices. – From “Typing – it’s complicated. Why do we have such a complicated relationship with keyboard skills?”

Clearly these women (although granted slightly older than I) were not forced to take the typing class I did in high school. Was my experience here with typing wholly unique? It was called, in I assumed a dreadfully awkward attempt to be current,”E-Literacy,” and it was REQUIRED. There was no gender bias here, only single minded pass or fail. I saw it as my one and only barrier to graduation, worse than the high school exit exam, worse, much worse. It claimed it would introduce me “to the touch-type system on the computer keyboard.” and familiarize me with the details of “Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, and Internet research.” I was mortified when I saw row after row of computers with keyboards covered by a black piece of plastic. I had to stick my hands under, inside this black box void of blind writing and form some association between what I couldn’t see my fingers doing and what suddenly appeared on the screen in front of me. The countdown clock started; I only had a few weeks of playing typing games before the teacher would stand behind me with her stopwatch and ensure that I could type at least 40 words per minute before I could pass the class. Punctuation, capitalization, and numbers included. I complained endlessly, yet couldn’t help but be impressed by the inch long painted fingernails protruding from my teacher’s hands that “slowed” her typing to 80 words per minute with perfect accuracy. Those were the days.

But this class I hated so passionately in high school was suddenly infinitely helpful when I landed my first job as Guest Services personnel at an amusement park. If you wanted to work in an office you had to pass the typing test. In this test I looked directly at a piece of paper and typed what I saw as fast as I could for a duration of time, then they tallied up my mistakes.

Who knew high school could be so practical? I look back and think that one stupid class has created a foundation for pretty much everything I do today, because I use a computer EVERY DAY. Good thing they made it mandatory or else I wouldn’t have considered it important enough to take. I wonder how many other high schools do this?

After that initial surge of typing tests, I never heard about it again. Now in my scienc-y job no one has asked me if I can type, asked me to demonstrate my typing skills, all simply assumed I could type just fine. In fact they assumed that I owned a laptop, and if that was true then I must be able to type, right? These days writing and typing are so closely related that I fear the pen will soon morph into a stylus. Writing itself is an undervalued commodity in my line of work, so much so that very few PhD training programs (now that I’ve looked a quite a few) include writing among the required classes of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. But then ironically publishing peer-reviewed papers and getting fund-able grants (all of which have to be written by somebody) is the direct currency of success in this business. Why then is there no required curriculum or ingrained training to tell young scientists how to write a good paper? Some programs teach grant writing, but it is far from standard. Learning to write scientific papers and grants is now my new goal, if only they taught me that in high school…


I was shocked today to browse The Guardian online newspaper and see the headline, “Outcry in America as pregnant women who lose babies face murder charges.” And yes that is shocking, but what really grabbed my attention is that I have not heard one bit about it in the American press. Outcry? Maybe there should be, but it’s not on the cover of the NY Times (which I would be reading if they didn’t want to charge me for it), I haven’t seen it on the news, I didn’t even know about it. Do I really have to go to British news outlets for U.S. stories that aren’t about terrorism or our bad economy? Well, I went on to read that in some southern states, women are being arrested for depraved heart murder, a “reckless disregard for human life” when they deliver stillborn, or their babies die a few days after birth, usually in cases of drug use.

I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Obviously, I don’t believe it’s right for mothers to intentionally use drugs while pregnant, even if that isn’t a crime in most places. However, as I read on, I have to say that callous disregard is not at the heart of this problem and criminalization seems a strange way to make change in the instances mentioned. In all the cases in which women are currently jailed, some for life sentences, there was ignorance, devastation, or simply questionable but not criminal behavior. In one case, for example, a pregnant 15 year old with a cocaine habit became pregnant, and her condition allegedly caused the termination of her pregnancy after 36 weeks. She faces life in prison under Mississippi law for second degree murder. I can’t imagine, first of all, how a 15 year old cocaine addict really has that much knowledge about which things will harm her baby, and which will not. Cocaine seems like a no-brainer to most of us, but until ten years ago smoking cigarettes was acceptable during pregnancy and caffeine is still a controversial one.  Not only that but without expensive and professional help, no matter how much she may want to stop using, it may be impossible to get clean without secondary drugs, most of which would still harm the baby. The second case mentioned was an attempted suicide by a mother who survived, but her child did not. Now, instead of receiving mental health services which would (and should) be mandatory in any case of attempted suicide, she is facing murder charges. The blow came for me when another women was told her child had Down Syndrome, and doctors recommended abortion. She declined because she wanted to keep the child regardless, but then after giving birth premature the child died. She was arrested for allegedly using drugs to cause the death of her child, and faces a 10 year sentence. If this woman declined to abort her fetus when she could have done so without consequences, why would she use drugs to endanger the child’s life?

That is what makes the least sense. Abortion, the intentional termination of a pregnancy is not illegal, and yet the unintentional  termination is being prosecuted. A lawyer defending some of these women puts it best,

“‘If it’s not a crime for a mother to intentionally end her pregnancy, how can it be a crime for her to do it unintentionally, whether by taking drugs or smoking or whatever it is,’ Robert McDuff, a civil rights lawyer asked the state supreme court.”

And I have to say, that doesn’t make any sense. Is our justice system trying to say that women should have abortions rather than try and keep their children if some unforeseeable consequence should occur like depression and suicide? Obviously not, since many politicians are trying to criminalize abortion as well.  And since legislation is also attempting to de-fund Planned Parenthood and give funding exclusively to abstinence only education, it seems this country prefers that no one have any control over the outcome or possibility of pregnancy. I simply cannot see the point in turning our backs on making informed choices, looking at the facts, weighing our options, and then making a huge decision like bringing a child into this world.

This article got it half right. Yes, this issue deserves a voice; but no, there is no outcry in America even if there should be. We are too worried that gay people are ruining the sanctity of marriage to care about the fate of motherhood. We are so concerned with our debt ceiling that we ignore frivolous lawsuits and continue excessive spending. Instead, we have to strip our society of useful information about sex, criminalize those who can’t get it right without any resources, and put those struggling mothers in jail. We should start that outcry now.