Friday, February 26, 2016

How studying synthetic biology has improved my health

A curious thing has happened to me recently, which I would like to share with you, dear readers: over the past year, my study of synthetic biology has significantly improved my personal health. Now, don't worry, I'm not eating poorly tested experimental organisms to improve my gut microbiome or anything like that.  In actuality, the connection is much more indirect: my engagement with biology has simply led me to rediscover something that had fallen from awareness in the course of my modern life.

The story actually begins with the negative impact of science on my life, more specifically the effects of stress and frequent travel.  I am a person who has been overweight for much of my life, and not just by the terrible body-mass-index (BMI) measure that is typically used to judge such things.  At my height, BMI says that I should be carrying at most about 175 pounds, which is simply something that I do not believe.  My ancestry has gifted me with broad shoulders and a solid mass, and even at my skinniest adult weight, early in grad school when I was on a major health kick and running every day, I was just under 200 pounds and think that I was probably a bit too thin.  I am a person who relishes good food, however, and also tend to turn it for comfort, and by the time that I left MIT, I was up to 235 pounds and not so happy about it.

Then my scientific life intensified, and so did my stress and my amount of travel.  Travel is a killer, when it comes to weight, because travel means disrupted eating habits, restaurant dining, and free pastries, cookies, and other treats calling out tempting songs from the coffee breaks of every conference, every working meeting, and every program review.  Restaurants seem to soak everything, even every vegetable, in tasty fats, and I become bloated, weight climbing and energy falling.  As my career progresses, my stress and travel have both increased, and early last year I felt a shock of fear as I saw my weight brush up nearly to 260 pounds.  In that moment, I took a hard look at my sluggish feelings and fatigue, and I thought about my daughter, about the example I set for her and about the fact that I want to live a long, long life as her parent, and I decided that I would have to change my life.

It's been slow and hard and not without its setbacks, but I've been managing my weight much better. As always, there is no secret to it, just a consistent long-term increase of activity and a complementary decrease in my caloric intake.  For activity, my FitBit really helps me, because I am not the sort of person who does well with "heroic" gym time plans: my life is too variable and disrupted, and it works a lot better to just be adding a few more minutes walking here and there throughout the day, taking a circuitous route to get where I am walking, parking at the far end of the parking lot, etc.  For eating, I am a person for whom "eat less" is not a useful option, so I have focused instead on "eat lower caloric density" and have rediscovered in myself a love of many forms of vegetables: my snap peas, brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, carrots, etc. bring the strong tastes and umami satisfactions that can satisfy me and that fill my belly so that I need not suffer for my health.

But still, my travel remained my Achilles' heel, hurling great unhealthy caloric surges every few weeks: I could try to bring some vegetables with me, but without refrigeration I'd start to worry about their lifespan, and often it would take very little time for them to turn quite nasty.  And that's where having spent so much time thinking biologically over the past few years suddenly turned on a light in my mind and made me rediscover something that will no doubt be obvious to anyone who has spent time growing their own vegetables.

You see, vegetables, like us, prefer to live and thrive in a world of open air and oxygen. When we buy them, fresh vegetables are actually still quite alive, and in an open air environment they will try to stay that way for some time, resisting fermentation and rot, and continuing to fight the pathogens that would like to eat them.  My ancestors knew this well, when they stored their root vegetables in the cellar for the winter. When we package vegetables for storage in a refrigerator, though, we seal them in airtight bags, because in a refrigerator the cold slows down the metabolism of their cells and the biggest threat is not decay, but the dehydration of the refrigerator's cooling system.  Take them outside and leave them in their sealed package, though, and in the higher temperature and their enclosed state their respiration is inhibited, the water they emit begins to soak their environment, and they soon begin to spoil.

And so, my friends, once the problem had clearly reappeared within my sight, the solution was also obvious: before each trip, I open up every bag of vegetables, breaking their sterile seal.  The air comes in to help maintain their environment, and in return for this little bit of engineering of my vegetables, I find that they can nourish me in return for many more days.

Sufficiently happy vegetables and fruits, living on the desk in my hotel room.  The rubber bands do not fully close the openings, but keep the vegetables from falling out all over my bags when I travel.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Value of Lurkers

A little under a year ago, I went to a workshop on synthetic biology standards sponsored by the NIST Synthetic Biology Standards Consortium (and subsequently became a participant in said consortium myself). One of the things that was said at this workshop, which has stuck with me and been rattling around in my head ever since, is about the value of mailing list lurkers.

Lurkers, for anyone who doesn't know, are the people who are subscribed to a mailing list (or other community) but never (or almost never) post to it themselves.  In pretty much every online community that I have been a part of, scientific or otherwise, the lurkers tend to vastly outnumber the active participants, often by an order of magnitude or more.  If you are an active participant, it can feel quite frustrating sometimes, to have all of these people who are theoretically part of your community but do not seem to be contributing anything.  The bulk of the readily measurable "work" in many communities is typically done by a very small group of core participants, i.e., the ones who draft the standards documents, who update the websites, who organize articles for publication, etc.

That view, however, I have come to understand is actually a dangerous illusion.  The lurkers who only watch and rarely if ever speak have a very important role to play in a community, and especially in a community that is seeking to develop a consensus policies (such as scientific standards).  Those lurkers, you see, are a constituency, a user base, and a conduit to the larger intellectual world.  Here are some of the key functions that "inactive" community members perform that are not so visible, yet clearly critical to the success and survival of a community:
  • Speaking up when their interests are threatened: Many people in a community will not speak as long as they feel their interests are being sufficiently well represented by the people who are speaking.  They don't really care which of several plausible alternatives are being chosen, because they can work with any of them and they trust the de facto decision makers sufficiently. In this way, silence often does in fact represent consent.  It is for this reason that when somebody who does not usually participate speaks up to voice a concern, it is particularly important to pay attention to them, as they are likely to represent an important and largely silent constituency. Moreover, when they speak up, it is likely because something important is starting to go off the rails and the usual "speaking club" is too blinded in some way to notice this fact (else it would not be happening in the first place).  Unfortunately, it is also particularly easy for such voices to be squashed due to the very fact that they are not part of the usual "speaking club" and likely to be rebuffed due to their less facile and polished presentation of concerns.
  • Using the ideas and other products of the community: People generally don't sign up for a community unless they have at least some interest in what's going on in that community.  The people who are not speaking may not be creating much new content for the community, but they are often listening to it.  The thoughts and products of the community are with them still when they go elsewhere, to places in which they are in fact more active.  The silent members of the community, then, are actually most likely to be the conduits by which it actually can affect the outside world, since the more "productive" community members are investing their energy inside the community rather than outside of it.
  • Simply being aware of the community: Even if the more silent members of a community are not finding the community's content to be of use to them, they are at least aware that the community exists.  As such, they are still important representatives of the community to other outsiders who may have interest in it, and can help to connect those people to the community, facilitating community growth and mergers with other likeminded communities, as well as helping to prevent others from accidentally trying to reinvent the wheel.
Thus, not only are the quiet members of a community more than dead weight for the community to drag along, but those quiet members also serve functions that are both extremely important and also in many ways quite distinct from those of the louder members.  If you are an active member of a community, I urge you to embrace your lurkers, to value them, and to make it as safe as possible for them to speak up when they are motivated to: their words are likely to be the most important for you to hear.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Sexism on the Radio

Driving to school this morning, my three-year-old daughter made a very difficult request: she wanted to listen to "woman music" on the radio, i.e., music with a female vocalist.  I knew that this would be difficult, from long experience, and so the search itself has become a game, in which we classify each channel as it scans past: "Man music, advertising, advertising, man music, man music, only instruments, advertising, man music..." Eventually, after twice around the dial, we found a song, in which the singer was saying something about making a painting in which she and her man would be trapped in perfect bliss.  The point, however, is that it was remarkably hard to find, as it usually is.

To me, this is a perfect example of a third-wave feminist issue.  I am certain that there is no intentional conspiracy across the various broadcasters to deny female artists a spot on the radio.  Rather, I expect that this is more a case of market optimization, implicit bias, and apathy.  And that's the way in which I understand the three main "waves" of feminism: the first wave was obtaining legal personhood (e.g., voting, property rights), the second wave was removing other formal barriers to entry (e.g., opening up male-only jobs), and the third wave is noticing things and saying: "Hey, some things are still really gender-biased! What's going on?"

At this point, once you've noticed a strong gender-bias somewhere, there are three basic responses:
  1. Decide to ignore the issue.
  2. Look for a reason why it's "right" that something should be strongly gender-biased.
  3. Acknowledge the issue and try to figure out how to respond it.
Right now, the best I know how to do with the lack of women's voices on the radio is to call my daughter's attention to it and help her to become a critic of media, as well as enjoying the parts she likes.  At other times, we simply get our music from other sources, where we have more control of what we hear.  There's no one right solution in parenting, and it's an always shifting ground based on how your child is currently understanding their environment.  I'd prefer if the radio broadcasts could be changed, but I don't have leverage on that problem, and it's not where I'm going to choose to invest my energy right now---thus opening myself, of course, to criticism that I'm choosing to ignore the issue.

If the owners of radio stations chose to, however, reducing gender bias would be quite easy to do: there's lots of awesome female artists out there, just like there's lots of awesome male artists, and it would be pretty easy to simply adjust the playlists to be more balanced.  In fact, two genres already appear be quite balanced: evangelical and club/electronica.  It's strange to me that from such opposite ends of the political spectrum comes a balance, but there it is, as well as clear evidence that it need not be that hard to do. Right now, however, everywhere that I've encountered them, rock, country, alternative, metal, easy listening, and oldies all appear to be quite heavily male in their playlists.

And yet, and yet: still my daughter yearns to hear women's voices, and it's very hard for her to find them on the radio.