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.
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