My name is Karen, and I’m a FIRbee

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It’s true. As the esteemed course coordinator Mario Ascoli stated on Saturday night during the closing banquet at the 2013 Frontiers in Reproduction Symposium, “once a FIRbee, always a FIRbee. It’s an addiction and you’ll keep coming back.”

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I spent the end of last week reuniting with some of my fellow FIRbee 2007 classmates at the annual FIR symposium. The FIR course is not for the faint of heart. It’s a 6-week intensive course centered around reproductive biology held at the Marine Biological Laboratories in Wood’s Hole, MA.  When I was a student in the course 6 years ago, it seriously changed my professional life.  As an obsessive task-master during my post-doc fellowship, the thought of being away and stopping all lab work for 6 weeks was nerve wracking. But the ideas and motivation that I came back with, if anything, easily gave me back that time and then some. Professionally-speaking, the course was invaluable. The organizers bring in experts in the field to speak to a group of 20 students and you have their undivided attention. There’s no lab, employees or emails to distract them. They eat with you in the dining hall, and socialize with you until the wee hours of the morning. Then they get to go home and re-coup, while you get to wake up and repeat with the next expert. By the end of the 6 weeks my contact list grew, and in a profession that can be propelled by who you know, those networking opportunities are priceless.

 

The symposium topics are broad, covering many areas of Reproductive Biology. This year the invited speakers were many of my scientific idols.  Rudy Jaenisch talked about his ground-breaking work on stem cells and reprogramming, Teresa Woodruff brought the audience to tears recounting a story of offering a cancer patient fertility preservation, David Albertini enlightened us with the history and current understanding of ovarian/oocyte biology, and Kevin Sinclair discussed the importance of parental diet in making gametes and embryos. Interspersed in these keynote talks were short talks from each 2013 FIRbee and from the alumni that came back. This was my second alum appearance, and as always, it’s not only a blast but it reaffirms my opinion that the opportunities that FIR has afforded me are vast. I’m already looking forward to my return and passing along this experience to my students.

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Reese’s Pieces anyone?

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Our department recently purchased a used confocal to balance my lab’s growing demands for scope time with other users schedules. We thought it was a great deal, until we found out about the required air system renovations to keep the system cool. Of course, that was after purchase and set up of the instrument….nearly 6 months ago! Well, the workers have invaded and lined the hallways with plastic. We all suddenly feel like we’re staring in the 2013 version of ET.

Plastic sheet lining my office door

Plastic sheet lining my office door

Plastic tunnel down the hall

Plastic tunnel down the hall

 

Keeping my eye on the prize, I’m trying my best to not be bothered by the noise outside of my office, the awkward access to my printer and mini-fridge or the disturbance to my tech and student’s desks. Worst of all, our chair has to vacate her office for 2 days, abandon the cell culture room and her lab doesn’t even do microscopy. I hope this scope takes some bad-ass images!

Hat Trick

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Meetings and grant writing have been gobbling up most of my days; the last 2 weeks have flown by in a blur. Despite all the bad RU press these days, we did have some exciting and positive things happening on the student side of the lab. Two of my newest students won fellowships to work in the lab this summer. Rutgers has several mechanisms to support undergraduate research. One student will be supported through the Aresty Summer Research Program and the other through the Douglas STEM program. Welcome Jake and Dhara, we’re excited to have you here this summer!

Perhaps my most proud news happened at the William Paterson University Undergraduate Research Symposium. My student worked very hard on a poster to present in the Cell and Molecular Biology section of the symposium. I thought her poster was particularly nice, but clearly the judges did too. She won 1st in her category and the judges told me afterwards that they were impressed with her science and her presentation. I’m certainly a proud lab mom these days!

Me and Amanda at her award winning poster.

Me and Amanda at her award winning poster.

Amanda accepting her prize.

Amanda accepting her prize.

 

 

YO Government! Throw me a bone!

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I was a bit down yesterday. I got a notice that my Searle Scholar application wasn’t chosen for funding. I knew it was a long shot but by the time you write the application and think about the science, you get excited about the ideas. They’re awesome and I was really proud of them. But, not awesome enough, I suppose. I’ll get over it. Luckily, you get lots of training in how to handle disappointment in science, but it’s never fun.

But, today…Forget the Pope, have people forgotten about Sequestration? Apparently my favorite morning news program has (hello Today show– a scary, screaming mirror- now THAT’S news—WTF?) Anyway, unless our government gets their shit together we’re going into serious cutback mode. Everybody knows this. But does everyone know that this really impacts science. Funding at NIH is already too tight. These cutbacks will make it ridiculous. I thought this article in Biotechniques got to the point nicely, especially of how the cutbacks will really hurt new investigators like myself. I can only hope that when I submit my R01 in the fall, that the thumb twiddling is over. Otherwise, I’m starting a list of alternative careers now!

On a science high

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Several new, exciting things going on today.

I presented a seminar for the Animal Sciences department here at RU and my colleagues over on Cook Campus seemed to enjoy it. I got really positive feedback and a few new ideas. I’m always really grateful to have the opportunity to share my work and promote the lab. It’s one of the more enjoyable parts of being a scientist, for me. And, it was so nice to see friendly colleagues’ faces in the audience. Thank you friends!

I also just submitted 2 abstracts for the SSR annual conference. It’s the first time that I’ve submitted abstracts on my own. And, honestly I felt kinda naked without that “senior PI” name as a co-author. I’m the one with the final say of what we submit. I’m sure I’ll get used to it in time, but it really felt strange. But, I’m super-excited that we actually have enough data to present 2 stories. We’ve come a long way in a year!

I received an email earlier this week from the teaching institute that I attended last June. Our groups’ “teachable tidbit” which was designed around female meiosis was selected as one that was high enough quality to be included in the National Academies archive of active teaching units. What a honor; I’m so proud of us! With a little more work (sigh,…) Group 5’s female meiosis strip sequence activity will be available for any classroom to use.

I’m glad it’s the end of the week and that I can end it on a high note!

A few announcements

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A few snippets that I want to announce:

1. I am giving a seminar on campus for the Animal Sciences Department. If you’re local and are interested in finding out more about what we do, please come! It’s open to all. I’m testing out some new data that we hope to present this summer and write up for publication soon. I hope it goes over well!

2. If you are a rising RU sophomore, there’s opportunity for a paid summer research experience in my lab through the Aresty Center. Please apply! The deadline for submissions is March 6th.

3. Check out my latest publication in Journal of Cell Science. It was a collaboration with Marco Conti’s group at UCSF.

Happy B-day Darwin

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Yesterday was Charles Darwin’s birthday. He would have been 204 years old. (Coincidently, it was also Abe Lincoln’s 204th birthday—wow, what are the odds!) Because we are a genetics department and modern genetics wouldn’t be what it is today without his work, we hold a “Darwin Day” celebration every year.

David Axelrod introduces Johanna Schoen.

David Axelrod introduces Johanna Schoen.

This year we invited Rutgers own Dr. Johanna Schoen to speak. Johanna is a professor in the history department. She told us a story about her research into the eugenics and sterilization program in the US that started in the early 1900’s and lasted until the 1970’s. About 63,000 people in the US were surgically sterilized during this time. She particularly focused on the program in North Carolina and has published a book and newspaper series on the topic. I found it fascinating, yet appalling. I had no idea this existed.

To give you the quick rundown: For most of the 1900’s at least 30 states had sterilization programs. People who were institutionalized and that were found “unfit” or too “feebleminded” to be parents were recommended for sterilization. This was thought to better our population by preventing the “unfit” from passing their “unfit” genes to the next generation. Johanna focused on the NC program for a number of reasons, but one of them was because it was a program where the person did not have to be in an institution and a social worker could recommend the procedure. Anyone with an IQ of 70 or below qualified. In NC, 7,000 were sterilized, and 84% of them were female. About a third of these were women under the age of 21. The youngest was 9 years old. Most were poor and it appears that there was a strong correlation with receiving government aid and the likelihood that the mother or daughters in the family would be recommended. Often-time incest was involved- the young women were thought to be promiscuous, because they were pregnant (albeit by a family member). This program (and all the others) was law on the books. The politicians thought they were helping build a better society and “fighting against social ilks.” Sounds a bit Hitler-esk, don’t you think? This was the US, it was an active program in NC until 1974!  Wild, sad, and tragic. I’m teaching an ethics and genetics course in the fall, and this will definitely be a topic.

We had a discussion about what we do today, and what we will think is ludicrous in 40 years. One of her colleagues thought of how we treat the environment and the doubters out there that don’t think that everything we do affects our biology and the world. I’m betting that’s spot-on. BPA or phthalates anyone?

Johanna cuts the Darwin cake.

Johanna cuts the Darwin cake.

Interesting discussions in the LSB atrium after lunch and cake.

Interesting discussions in the LSB atrium after lunch and cake.

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