Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

The results on Washington Initiative 522, which would require labeling foods that contain GMOs, are coming in… and it looks like it won’t pass. I voted for the measure, but, as I was admitting to David the other day, not for very nice reasons. I want to put companies that push GM seed and farming out of business. I think the “No” side is right- putting “made with GMOs” labels on produce and processed foods will amount to putting warning labels on them. And while GMO labels may not increase the price of GM food itself, I do think that people would end up spending more money on their grocery bill to buy non-GM food, just like they spend more money to buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, and to avoid clothing and shoes made with child labor (though, Nicholas Kristof says that the only worse thing than being exploited in a sweat shop is not being exploited in a sweat shop- gotta start somewhere.)

So, what do we do if this initiative fails? How do we avoid buying and consuming GM food?

First, why are we avoiding GM food? I would hazard a guess that most people are against GM foods because it is unclear whether consuming them is safe. Because they are relatively new, I don’t think we have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Given that the FDA tends to operate on a innocent-until-proven-guilty platform, waiting until food additives have been shown to cause tumors or brain damage in rats and infertility (or what have you) in humans before banning them from US food, it might be smart for consumers to play it safe and not eat them. But as I argued in an earlier post, the foreign gene inserted into the crop (the one that makes corn cobs have those horribly ugly faces on protestors’ signs) is the least of our worries. On the other hand, there is ample evidence suggesting that agricultural pesticides are bad for us (Round-up ready crops get DOUSED in Round-up) and other critters, and that monocropping (which GM companies like Monsanto brutally push) is bad for the soil, the waterways, the oceans, and our future ability to grow enough food to support ourselves during unpredictable and harsh climate changes. The wave of fear and disgust toward weird monster corn genes may not be enough to get WA I-522 passed, but there are plenty of other reasons to avoid GM foods.

So here are some suggestions for how to do that sans label:

The simplest is to buy organic. USDA organic regulations do not allow GM ingredients in processed food, nor do they allow animals to be fed GM feed (which is where most of the GM crops produced in the US go- animal feed), so consumers can avoid GMOs by buying organic produce, meat, and processed foods like breakfast cereal. Buying organic also has the advantage of avoiding antibiotics used to raise animals, which have contributed to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and have led to lapses in cleanliness in slaughtering and processing procedures. (Logic being, why wash shit off the cow hide when the cow is pumped full of drugs?)

But, organic food is expensive. Is there any way to half-ass it? What are the most important foods to buy organic and which are not so important?

If the goal is to avoid GM ingredients,
1) stay away from conventional meat, dairy, and eggs (as animals are often raised with feed containing GM soy and corn)
2) or buy pasture-raised meat and dairy products (I don’t think they’ve genetically engineered grass yet…)
3) don’t buy conventional baked goods or grain products (GM corn and soy), or processed foods (GM corn syrup and soybean oil)
4) avoid particular products that you know have been genetically engineered, like some apples, sweet corn, and salmon- instead, buy organic and wild-caught versions of those foods.
5) uh… what’s left to eat? Based on this list, pasta, beans, and rice.

If the goal is avoiding pesticides, buy organic based on this list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. Some produce is more heavily sprayed than others. Produce grown by small farms often carries less pesticide residue than produce grown by huge farms. Know that washing your produce won’t get rid of all the pesticide.

Lastly, if you want to avoid GMOs because of the effect farming them has on the environment, on genetic diversity, or on small farms, buying your produce, meat, dairy, and bread at a local farmers market is your best bet. How much extra money are we willing to spend to save the environment, our health, and local businesses? That’s a tricky question. If you come up with a dollar amount appropriate for yourself or your family, spend it at the farmers market!

-I apologize for not citing my sources- it feels wrong… but perhaps when I’m finally finished with my PhD- two weeks till my defense!- I will come back and write about this in a more scientific way…

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Have read a few interesting articles lately that were passed on by my science buddies.

First is how to be a productive procrastinator, via Lisa. I think i have a lot of potential for using this technique, as i find myself being incredibly productive while i avoid working on my thesis.

Second, via Melanie, is about surviving the rat race that is tenure track… by not racing. Some very good advice in there. I have been pretty good in grad school about not subscribing to the whole “good graduate students work 80 hours a week” insanity or the list of things i must accomplish to succeed, like networking (i hate networking) or attending as many conferences as possible, or publishing x number of papers. It may all come back to bite me in the butt later if i ever try to get a tenure track position, but whatevs, i’m having fun now.

And a third linked to by the above article about life-work balance in academia. Now, this one is interesting too, and brings up good points about how weird it is to expect ourselves and our colleagues to work so goddamn hard that we have to give up most other aspects of our lives. The emphasis here, as it is in many articles written about life-work balance, is on splitting oneself between career and family and how we women can’t have it all if these crazy career expectations continue.

All fine and good, but i am bothered that in the discussion of life-work balance, life = children. Life does not equal children. It’s unfair that, in our consciousness, life = children for women and thus women have to choose between a career or raising children (or be mediocre at both), yet not many people feel that men have a similar choice to make. For men, life = life apparently, and more work means fewer adventures with friends, wooden canoe building, and brewing beer. In fact, life = life for everyone, and anyone can choose to make their life revolve around kids. Parents bemoan that they can’t possibly work the same hours that their childless colleagues work if they are to be good parents. Why the hell aren’t people without kids complaining that they have to work insane hours and they don’t have time to play city league softball or volunteer at the animal shelter or write a novel? It’s all crazy- the hours and hours of work for shit-tastic pay (shouldn’t forget here that science grad students get paid to go to school; not all disciplines are so fortunate), the stress of trying to be known by lead scientists in your field, the race to publish papers to beef up your CV… Forget the damn kids, our whole lives are suffering because we’re trying so hard! My dog is bored, my garden is neglected, I barely see my friends, and I’m getting skinny-fat for chrissake!

Ahem. So. Life-work balance. What i aim for is to do what i want. Maybe what you want is to spend time with your kids. What i want is to spend time with my husband (yeah, we got married, whut!), make sure my dog is happy, grow beautiful veggies, pickle and jam everything in sight, get off my ass, chat with my buddies, see my family, go on adventures. That’s what i’m going to try my best to do.

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Occasionally the New York Times publishes articles like this one on the crises modern agriculture brought on by gawdawful weather. Some discuss government-paid crop insurance and lament the plight of farmers across the country. This one actually mentions compost as a way to ameliorate the effects of drought, as well as gray water systems, and the importance of maintaining seed banks so that we can weather the weather with drought- and heat-resistant varieties of crops. I’m going to go ahead and add a plug against big Ag companies that promote and sell and monopolize crops with single varieties that are bred or genetically engineered to do well in shitty soil with lots of synthetic fertilizer. Bad idea. We need to be increasing the genetic diversity of our crops and animals, not whittling our base down to a teetering giant disaster waiting to happen.

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Talking to my Ma on the phone the other day, she said that she and Pa decided not to build an outdoor fireplace on their new patio after all- both of them being space cadets, overhanging trees may catch on fire if they forget to put it out and the whole house and yard could burn down.  And the whole neighborhood and bone dry foothills of Boise- that’d be no good.  I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  Wait, you guys are both space cadets?!” (This whole time i thought that my dad was the only one with a horrible memory.)  She laughed, “Yep- you’re doomed!”

So that partially explains my increasingly gawd-awful short-term memory of the past… oh… 10 years.  Add to that the medical finding that stress can cause short-term memory malfunction, and you have a good explanation for why, when i decide to go backpacking post-giant experiment or post-fellowship application deadline, i forget to pack a crap-ton of fairly important gear.

First example- following my latest giant experiment (of previous blog post fame), i slept for 4 hours, booked it back to lab to finish some stuff before Lauren arrived in Seattle, ran home to literally throw handfuls of gear into my backpack and get in the car for a 2 night trip with Lauren and Natalie.  Upon arrival at our first campsite, realized that i had forgotten my sleeping bag.  My SLEEPING BAG!  Who forgets their damn sleeping bag on a backpacking trip?!   Fortunately, Natalie happened to have a lightweight summer bag in the trunk of her car for emergencies.  So with long underwear and Nat’s emergency preparedness, i was saved from the emergency of me being a dumbass.  I also forgot my trekking poles, but luckily Nat doesn’t use hers going downhill, so that saved my dumbass knees as well.  And my sunglasses, but hopefully my hat saved my dumbass eyes from too much UV light.

Second example- after i spent the last 2 weeks working waaaaay more than i usually do in attempt to have awesome data and write an awesome research update for the training grant that i’m on- it’s up for competitive renewal, and if i don’t get it there will be some serious scrambling in my lab as we do not yet have grant funding for my project- aaah!!!- i got home, chose a trail with David while again throwing handfuls of gear into my pack and then left for another 2 night trip.  I did remember my sleeping bag this time, and upon settling down into said sleeping bag, realized that i had forgotten my hiking boots.  GAH!!   Hilariously, i did remember to take my Superfeet insoles out of my shoes and bring them along to put in my forgotten boots, so i managed to make some surprisingly comfortable footwear by putting the Superfeet in my Crocs.

Sidenote- i only condone Crocs as slippers for getting the paper, putzing around the yard, walking the dog, and as camp shoes.  Chacos and Tevas are of course better than Crocs in almost every way, but for backpacking Crocs have become my camp shoe of choice because they weigh negative 3 ounces (I think they’re made of marshmallows), and Chacos weigh a ton.  You can’t cross treacherous streams in them like you can in Chacos, but for knee-deep lazy streams they work just fine.  And you can waterproof them by putting plastic bags on your feet inside them, in case you are camping in rain or snow.

And apparently, you can hike in them.  Granted,  we hiked four miles to a campsite on a very easy trail, then day hiked sans-packs up a crazily steep trail to a sweet lake (Tuck lake)- so i was not carrying any weight on any sort of difficult trail…  good, because i also forgot my trekking poles. Again.  In any case, my feet did not die and the trip was pretty great despite my dumbassitude, perhaps because i walk the dog every morning for half an hour in my Crocs, and have built up some strength in the arches of my feet.  I did wipe out and scrape up my hands a couple times on the trail because Crocs have negative 3 traction, but there were no broken ankles or tweaked knees.  David even hiked the whole way in his Chacos to show solidarity.

Our feet were horridly, horridly dirty when we got home, which added to the shame of having forgotten that Jodie and Lisa were coming into town to stay with us that evening.  (David is experiencing job search stress, so he’s almost as bad as i am these days.)  Luckily we made it back into cell phone range just in time to prevent them from renting a hotel room.  I’m hoping that fresh eggs for breakfast partially made up for some of our dumbass (lack of) planning.


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It’s not often that i work long hours in lab.  I usually come in to do what i need to get done, then go do something like walk the dog or tend the garden or go hiking.  Sometimes i read articles in the backyard.  It is apparent to me and to most people i work that i do not do as much work as i could.  But, i am happy not working at break-neck speed so that i may enjoy other realms of life a bit more.  My PI may not be too happy with this, but he’s exactly the same way and knows it.  Brags about it, even.  But then, he probably worked pretty hard in grad school… still, i’m secretly hoping that one day he will tell me he was a slow poke too.

So, 8 straight hours of work in lab will tire me out.  I’ll wonder how people in real life can do it 5 days a week.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, i will muster a stupendous amount of energy and stamina and complete a  16 to 18 hour experiment that requires almost constant work-  every time i stop to pee or stuff food in my face i feel like i’m letting the quality of my data decline.  Luckily i am able to recruit people to help me- the experiments would be impossible without their help (ie, all the cells would croak and i’d get shit for data and there aren’t enough hours in a day), and i just wouldn’t survive mentally or physically without their support.  I learned this craziness from Jess- i used to think her 20 hour experiments (into which i put my share of grunt work) were pure insanity.  How could she possibly stay up into the wee hours of the morn running the flow cytometer?  But i get it now.  Especially the part about supplying snacks for your helpers.

Anyway, i”ll start with yesterday’s preparation for today.  It involved mixing up several liters of buffer and media; making 8-color fluorochrome-tagged antibody cocktails; mixing cell separation gradients to the correct percentage and aliquoting to tubes; prepping solutions – formadehyde, sugar water- and tubes in which to collect bits of liver to section and stain for beautious fixed and fresh-frozen immuno-histochemistry pictures; wrapping and autoclaving several dissection kits- scissors, blunt forceps, pointy forceps; collecting all the crap that i needed to bring down to the vivarium- like pipetmen, pipets, slides, tube racks, petri dishes, etc- and putting it on a big cart (the sight of which always makes the vivarium staffs’ eyeballs pop out because they know it’s going to be a bloody, stinky, sweaty mess down there for 4-5 hours); labeling no fewer than 263 tubes; then biking up Capital Hill at 8pm to have a Molly Moon’s sundae for dinner in celebration of Goo’s birthday.

I am slowly, slowly learning to prepare for experiments (especially big ones) before the day of.  Now, by the end of my third year in school, i seem to be doing ok.  I am at least less of a pain in the ass to the people helping me with the experiment and to my own self.   So, as i sit here at the flow cytometer at 9:30pm on the day of the experiment, it is not because i was under prepared and had to scramble around making buffer and labeling tubes this morning, it’s because this is a big fucking experiment.  I mean, i stopped at PCC to buy bagels for my helpers on my way in and was still here, showered,  in lab by 8am.  Granted, i could always prepare more.  More reading and research into the best techniques, or looking at past notes wouldn’t hurt.  I just realized that i forgot to stain my cells for an activation marker that’s fairly common in these types of experiments.  Whoops.

I should mention at some point that this experiment is aimed at measuring/evaluating/figuring out what the heck is going on during T cell priming against immunization with genetically attenuated malaria parasites. In mice.  Who get injected with transgenic T cells.  That are green.

This morning i biked in and before i showered, got the collagenase buffer out of the fridge to start warming up in the water bath so that the soon-to-be-added collagenase would dissolve.  Then i went downstairs to shower.  I did not wash my hair, because it always gets nasty and matted down by 5 hours in a vivarium hair net anyway…  but now, at the end of the day it’s especially gross-tastic.  I finished my day-of preparations which included weighing out and adding collagenase to the buffer, grabbing a tube of  mouse anesthesia,  filling two ice buckets with ice, and getting all of my collection tubes out of the fridge/off the bench and onto the cart.

8:45 I headed downstairs to the vivarium, where i was met by my new malaria buddy, Jess #2, and we transferred all the stuff from the lab cart onto a clean vivarium cart.  We went through the vivarium barrier (read “super clean area for immunologically messed-up mice”), which involves putting on a second layer of booties, gloves, a humongous gown (hence why we get all sweaty),  a face mask (which i just wear under my chin because it drives me crazy) and a hair net.  We set up the work side of one mouse room with a liver-perfusion station, a liver smushing station, and a lymph node and spleen smushing station.   Each gets a dissection kit, pipets and tubes and filters, slides, petri dishes, etc.  I brought four cages of mice (18 total) around on a cart just outside the door because we had occupied every other flat surface in the room.

9:20 Isaac joined us (he has a new baby so he doesn’t have to be on time anymore) and we gave Jess the run down on what was about to happen… for the next 4.5 hours.  I anesthetized the first mouse, perfused the liver (a technique that requires straining your eyes to find and insert a needle into the portal vein, all the while hunching over an open mouse with an amazing crick in your neck and upper back, and cramping up your needle-holding hand while trying to remain very still), handed off the liver to Jess and the spleen and lymph nodes to Isaac.  All of these are smushed up into single-cell suspensions via being pushed through a mesh strainer or rubbed between two frosted (rough) glass slides.   The liver cells are spun down to get rid of the hepatocytes, and the lymphocytes in the supernatant are taken off into a new tube.  All of the cell suspensions get filtered and go into a huge tray of ice.  Isaac and i switched off between perfusing livers and processing the spleens and lymph nodes.  When Isaac perfuses, he can collect blood after he snips the portal vein, then cut and remove a lobe of the liver with one hand while he holds the perfusion catheter with the other.  So for all the mice Isaac perfused, i have blood and tissue samples as well as spleen, lymph node, and liver cells.  I have not yet learned how to perform such acrobatics.

This disassembly line (heh heh) went on until about 2pm accompanied by discussions of running, frisbee, babies  and the birthing process and how much pampers suck, Jess’s upcoming wedding, and how much PIs gossip.  And occasionally the experiment or techniques at hand.  When we had finished the 18th mouse, we cleaned up the aftermath, peeled off our now nasty gowns, gloves, and hairnets, wheeled the cart of cells to the elevator, and booked it to the lunch room for bagels and cream cheese.  It’s gross to get hungry while perfusing mouse livers, but it can’t be helped.  Isaac swears he’s found the perfect timing and dose of coffee in the morning to suppress his appetite but allow him to hold his hands still while dissecting mice.  I am always starving about 2 hours before we finish.

2:15ish   After bagels (very little conversation, mostly just furious chewing), i put more media in the spleen and lymph node tubes to keep my cells healthy  (apparently swimming in fetal bovine serum- blood without the cells- makes cells happy), and spun down my liver cells.  I got Katie to help me resuspend the pellets and layer cell separation gradients (kind of like making a black and tan, but with cells and buffer)- these get the crud out and leave me with lymphocytes that i can stain.  While those were spinning for half an hour, i began spinning down the lymph node and spleen cells and resuspending them in preparation for staining.  This takes a while because our two centrifuges only have enough buckets to hold 24 50mL tubes.   The liver gradients were done half way through, and i paused with the spleens and lymph nodes to carefully remove the lymphocyte layers from each gradient  (more eye strain and crick in the neck)  into other tubes to be washed.  Eventually everything got spun down, concentrated, resuspended in staining buffer.

4ish   Next i pipetted cells from each tube into a set of flow cytometer tubes, including a full second set of liver samples for a second staining panel.  Out came the antibodies and the antibody cocktails that i had so cleverly mixed up yesterday.  Each tube got a miniscule volume of antibody mix, which is a brilliant purple color from all of the different fluorophores in there.  Each single stained control got its tiny drop of antibody.  The CFSE (bright green dye that dilutes out as T cells become activated and proliferate) -stained control T cells that i had been culturing since last week came out of the incubator and went into a tube.  (The CFSE stain currently looks fantastic on the flow cytometer, i might add- a first for me.)  Once mixed, I put all of the flow tubes into the fridge for 20 minutes, ran into Isaac who made sure i was doing everything right- i wasn’t- corrected a few of the single stain controls, and then cleaned up my bench and the cart a bit.  And called the program manager back around 5 to tell her that i am unable to TA this fall quarter, no matter how behind on my grad school progress checkpoint list i may be… being a late bloomer  doesn’t bother me (here’s hoping i bloom!).  Also got a phone call from Nicky saying she and her teammates would not be staying at our house tonight… too bad, but now i don’t have to worry about the unsettling number of flies that have migrated from the chicken poop farm outside into the spare bedroom in the basement.

11ish Gah… my eyeballs hurt.  So close to being half way done with flow….!

7ish  Post-incubation in the fridge, i added more buffer to the cells and spun them down to wash excess antibody away,  pipetted off the extra liquid, forgot to resuspend the pellets in fixing buffer, and found Isaac to help me set up his amazing new 8 color T cell staining panel and 4 color B cell, liver antigen presenting cell panel on the flow cytometer.  Awesome.  Awesome possum, you might even say.

9ish  Phone call from David saying that Joakim and the visiting Swede Stefan are leaving the car parked near lab so that i can drive home.  Those boys are just so, so sweet.

11:30ish  Running samples.  After these next two i will stop to fill up the buffer tank and empty the waste tank, and eat some chocolate and go to the bathroom.

I may have just passed from the silly late night lab work mood into angry late night lab work mood.

rrrrrrrRRRRROOOOAAAAARRRRRRR!!!!  Need. Snack. Now.

12am Feeling better after hot chocolate and half bagel.  Contact lenses very blurry.

D’oh!  Failed to collect and stain enough cells from the lymph nodes to get good data.  Pause flow cytometer, stain all of the remaining cells at bottom of lymph node tubes.  Ah- this is how these experiments get so long…

1:45am  Alright!  Running the last 18 samples- new and improved lymph node lymphocytes!  Watch flow tubes carefully to catch when they get sucked dry by the machine.  Put next sample on. So close!

This is dumb.  Next time i will collect cells and stain them, then fix them in one long day, then run them on the flow cytometer the next day- still after hours so i don’t hog the machine, but after a night’s rest.

2:45am  hay-zoos christie.  I’m about to bash this machine in with a baseball bat.  It’s being so finicky and i only have 5 samples left!  5 samples!!!!!

3am   YESSSSS!  Last one!  VEEKTORY!

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I used to be a supporter of genetically engineered crops, especially so after researching Golden Rice (rice engineered to contain vitamin A) for a class project in college.  If we have the technology, why wouldn’t we want to make food more nutritious for populations that are suffering from malnutrition?  In the ‘Political Ecology of Food’ class i’m taking this quarter at UW, i was prepared to argue against all the GMO-bashers that genetic engineering is a pretty sweet technology and we can do some amazing and useful things with it, like prevent people from going blind due to vitamin A deficiency.  And, we’ve been breeding plants and effectively modifying their genes since the advent of agriculture- isolating genes in a laboratory and sticking them into new plants is just a faster (and way more expensive) method of breeding plants.   I finally watched ‘Food, Inc’ the other day, which talks a bit about Monsanto’s business practices, and tonight i watched ‘The Future of Food,’ an interview-style documentary about the dangers of GM crops.  The movie is fairly one-sided and hokey, but very interesting and informative.

GM crops “for good” like Golden Rice and cassava with extra protein may have problems themselves, but the main problems with GM technology comes in the form of crops engineered to produce pesticides or be resistant to herbicides by corporations in developed nations, and more importantly, how these crops are used and regulated.  The genes inserted into these crops may have harmful health effects (as of yet unknown) on people and animals that consume them, but that’s hardly the biggest reason to be wary of GM crops and the companies that produce them.

First, there are several ways to introduce a gene from one organism into another, but a commonly used method to determine whether the new gene has taken up residence in the host cell is to couple the gene of interest to a gene for antibiotic resistance.  The cells are then grown in the presence of the antibiotic, and only cells that have the gene of interest and the associated antibiotic resistance marker will survive.  The GM crops that result carry a gene for resistance against that particular antibiotic- not necessarily a problem, unless harmful bacteria get a hold of the gene.  This can happen quite easily; no special methods are needed to introduce foreign DNA to bacteria- they just scoop it up from the environment around them and begin using it to their advantage.  Potentially pathogenic bacteria may come across these genes in the digestive tracts of livestock or people that eat these GM crops.  Should these bacteria later cause a harmful infection, it will be impossible to treat the patient with those antibiotics.

Now, I should mention that there are other ways to recognize an inserted gene than antibiotic resistance- other reporter genes can be used as well, like green fluorescent protein or a gene for an enzyme that reacts with an added substrate to turn the cells containing the gene a different color.  I’ll have to take a closer look at how most GM crops are engineered- i’m hoping most of them are made without antibiotic resistance markers.  Also, many antibiotics used in laboratories are not front line antibiotics that infections would be treated with, due to expense, ease of use, or because non-laboratory strain bacteria are already resistant to them.  However, the fewer antibiotic-resistance genes that get spread around the world, the better- multi-drug resistant bacteria are already a serious problem in tuberculosis and hospital-acquired infections- we don’t need to make additional antibiotics ineffective.

Besides potential public health problems, companies that make genetically modified crops practice horrible, horrible business.  Monsanto makes both Roundup (an herbicide that kills pretty much anything green) and ‘Roundup Ready’ corn, soybean, and canola seeds that are resistant to Roundup.  This is a fairly ingenious business strategy in itself, but the company goes farther.  Farmers that buy Roundup Ready seed may not save seed from the resulting crops to plant their fields the next year- they must buy new seed.  Seed cleaning is a dying profession in which a person got paid to bring a “seed cleaner,” a big mechanical machine on a trailer, around to farms to prepare seeds from crops so that they could be planted the next season.  Because seed cleaning gives farmers a reason to save seed instead of buying GM seed, Monsanto has sued several seed cleaners for “anti-commerce.”  Ridiculous.  But there’s more.

Monsanto has patented the gene for Roundup resistance…OK, fine… but the courts have ruled that because they own the gene, they also own anything that contains the gene.  If a farmer’s crops are cross-pollinated by a neighbor’s GM crops, the progeny of those plants will contain the genetic modification, and if the seeds are saved and planted the next season, that farmer will be infringing on Monsanto’s patent.  The things is, there’s no possible way to prevent cross pollination from field to field.  When a farmer’s seed becomes contaminated, he’s fined or sued, and forcefully pressured into buying GM seed.  As the gene spreads across the US, will anyone able to buy/save/plant non-GM seed?  And the company has begun to push GM crops on farmers in developing countries- they’re having enough trouble as it is- they can’t afford to be screwed over by a giant corporation!

I could go on, and likely will in future posts, but for now i’ll end with a comment from my Political Ecology of Food class.  The professor mentioned a study in which cows were given a choice of GM corn or normal corn to eat.  The cows refused to touch the GM corn.  “It’s like they know that it’s different somehow…”  I think they refused to eat it because it’s drenched in Roundup!

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Stole this from Darrow, who probably won’t even know i’m referencing her in my blog because we’ve only met 1.5 times, but it’s too good to pass up.  Those piglets… sheesh.  Makes me want to get one (or a leaping goat!) for Inka to play with.  We could see whether the pig could be trained to do as many tricks as the dog!

The photos are part of a campaign against laws in several states that would prohibit taking photos or videos of farms. If you don’t know much about agriculture these laws might strike you as odd, but harmless. Due to my recent obsession with our food production system, these laws make my guts churn. We already have no idea what goes on in those dark chicken houses or giant racks of battery cages or livestock processing plants. It’s only thanks to a few stealthy workers or spies that we have an inkling of the awful conditions these poor critters deal with.  Here’s an example that will make you sick in an NYT article that talks a bit more about the proposed laws.

Don’t mean to go on a tirade- but it’s a tirade against meat production, not eating meat.  Happy animals just taste better, they’re more healthful to eat, and they cause less environmental damage.  My friends Alison and Kevin call this kind of meat “Oscar meat”, after pork they bought from a farm that came from an actual pig with a name.  I call it “friendly meat”.   Though… i will admit that i have never eaten any animal that i’ve raised and named.  Tried that with the chickens- the plan when we got chicks was to eat any that turned out to be roosters, since roosters aren’t allowed in the city.  But, when we found out Matilda was very likely a rooster, i promptly exited the room and burst into tears. I did not want to eat Matilda, and didn’t want anyone else to eat her either.  And i certainly didn’t want Imogene to be eaten when we found out she was a dude too- she was my favorite one!  (Sorry, i still remember them as girls.)  So, I learned that i could not eat my pet chickens, and they went to a farm in southern Washington to make babies with a nice woman’s flock of hens.  And i really miss Imogene.  Matilda was a bit scary.

Some people only like to eat meat from animals that they’ve killed themselves.  I’ve eaten fish that way, and did eat meat from two goats I saw being killed while i was in Mali.  Well, “saw” meaning that i fed the goats carrots for a couple days and protected them from harassing children while they waited in the courtyard for the holiday feast.  Then, i hid around the corner while their throats were slit and reemerged to help skin and take them apart.  Both were delicious.

Some people like to eat meat, but don’t like to think about the animals it comes from.  Melanie said she would dig up an article about that philosophy and send it to me, so more on that later.

In any case, those animals are durn cute, and deserve happy lives before they get et.

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I’m having a mid-PhD crisis.  All of a sudden, i want to be a farmer.  Instead of immunology, i want to study sustainable agriculture.  I’d rather be playing with dirt than with test tubes.  Should be discovering the mechanisms of T cell priming in the liver, instead i’m working out the mechanisms of composting chicken manure.  Instead of immunizing mice against malaria, i’d like to be inoculating my clover cover crop with mycorrhizal bacteria.  Rather be harvesting runner beans than lymphocytes.  Forget flow cytometry- what about nitrogen cycles?  Publish an article in Nature?  Nah, i’ll just share swiss chard and fresh eggs with my neighbors.


A yearning for the simple life?  I want to fill my days with tending the garden, walking the dog, cooking meals for family and friends, and watching the chickens from a lawn chair.  I want a cozy house on a sizable chunk of land with good southern exposure.  I want miniature dairy goats and a donkey named Guillome who will let the dog ride around on him. Essentially, i want to be the type of farmer who gets to sit in the sun munching on peas and admiring her garden more often than she worries about making a profit.  But i doubt that type of farmer exists- being a farmer is surely harder than graduate school or a career in biomedical research.   So perhaps i’m just lazy and am suffering from grass is greener on the other side syndrome.

A reaction against scientific experiments on animals?  I am an animal lover through and through- always have been- so why did i think i could complete a PhD project entirely built upon mouse experiments?  Did my passion for saving children in Africa from malaria infection blind me to the fact that i would have to kill a shit-ton of mice during 5 years of grad school?  I’m not ethically opposed to scientific research using animals- many important medical discoveries have come from animal studies.  For many diseases, they are the only way forward in the search for vaccines and therapies.  And though i believe in the importance of my research (finding the mechanisms of protective immunity against liver stage malaria infection in order to inform the design of an effective anti-malaria vaccine), and think it merits using animals more than, say, testing cosmetics or diet pills, it’s getting harder and harder to kill those mice.   My project is the envy of many of my colleagues, and is very academically interesting to me… but i’m losing motivation.  And perhaps this pushes my mind to wander toward greener pastures speckled with free-range chickens, frolicking goats, and rescued doggies.

Or just a change in interests?  It’s hard not to become fascinated by something when you really take a look at it.  And it’s hard not to become engaged and passionate about any issue facing the planet when you really start reading about it.  I know i’m putting myself at risk of sounding like an academic activist d-bag, but it seems like i can’t not become interested and passionate about any subject that crosses my field of vision.  I’ve got nerdy, bleeding-heart liberal ADD.  In elementary school i wanted to become a veterinarian (that shoulda told me i wasn’t cut out for mouse experiments) and since then, my interests have ranged from math and physics to American ethnic studies and civil rights, from infectious disease research to global health to international development, from women’s rights and education to economics to the environmental effects of agriculture.   I wouldn’t mind just being an “armchair expert” in these varied disciplines, except that i get so damned carried away and emotionally invested in every one of them, and each topic is more important and urgent than the last.  At first it was breaking the disease-poverty trap in sub-Saharan Africa, then it was investing in women’s education to spur international development, now it’s learning everything about organic and biodynamic agriculture and getting involved in outreach to help small organic farmers get a foothold and help industrial farmers make the transition to sustainable growing methods.  Each new focus is the key to saving the world… if i could only study it, become an expert in it, teach others, influence policy…

But then, that sounds like a lot of work…  when would i have time to garden?

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