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Well, that was cool.

Yesterday, we took a day trip into NYC to visit the Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer research center for what was actually a phenomenally interesting tour. It started with a bunch of presentations by various program heads about their particular research, including recent/ongoing projects as well as historical accomplishments. (Side note: one thing that is fabulous about this program, which I think most people don’t realize, is the fact that the important people themselves are giving us our tours. When we visited Stony Brook University, it was the head of the Chem department, not some grad student, who showed us around. I’ll talk a bit more about who, what, where going forward, but it blows my mind every time someone gets introduced to us. It is increasingly clear to me that this program isn’t just about providing an interesting educational opportunity for students potentially interested in nuclear and radiochemistry; it really is about finding for each of us the subset of nuclear/radio-/isotopic chemistry that fascinates us and giving us all the connections we need to really get into the field.)

At MSK, the head of radiological research came to talk to us; the director of the cyclotron took us around and answered all our questions; the head researcher brought us into the small animal lab and showed us every single imaging machine (even the brand new C-13 magnetic imager that hasn’t even been used in more than a dozen experiments yet).

On the one hand, MSK wasn’t all that exciting for me, because I’m not interested in cancer research. Nearly everything we got told about was the application of radioisotopes to diagnostic imaging and cancer treatments. That said, the tour of the cyclotron and the isotope production labs was awesome. This is where nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering, radiochemistry, and organic chemistry have all come together to create an incredible process. Radioactive nuclides are created in their cyclotron – mostly F-18 from enriched O-18 water. (Water with O-18, which is stable but rare, instead of the normally occurring O-16.) F-18 is used in a half dozen commonly used tracers, which are used by oncologists to find and track the growth of cancerous tumors in various imaging modalities. (PET, MR, etc.) Once the nuclide is produced, it gets sent to hot cubes, which are basically lead lined 3’x3′ hoods where the radioactive nuclide is isolated and the organic chemistry gets done to put the nuclide into the molecule. The thing is, since they’re so hot (radioactivity, not temperature), most of this work is done using robotics where possible or by operators controlling robotic arms. Once the molecule is made, it gets tested in quality control and then sent upstairs to the hospital and used. They’re currently working on obtaining FDA approval to make a certain F-18 compound that is used in approximately 50 images daily at MSK alone – once they have that approval, they anticipate making the compound and selling it to hospitals around NYC and up the eastern seaboard. The combination of research and business all to find, diagnose, and cure cancer is truly incredible. (MSK runs an annual profit upwards of $2b…) So I guess, while the actual medical application wasn’t all that interesting, the technology that underlies all of it (literally – the cyclotron and accompanying labs are all in the basement) was fascinating.

It was also amazing to recognize how much we’ve learned in just two weeks. I can only assume that a relatively constant level of complexity was maintained throughout their presentations, but when the presentation was about specific biological uptakes in cancer cells or the mechanisms of cancer in the (human or mouse) body, I had no idea what they were saying. BUT, when they talked about the processes of producing isotopes and using them to tag organic compounds, it felt like they were talking below us. Even though its only been a couple of weeks, I’ve got a pretty solid understanding of a wide base of nuclear and radiochemistry. I can’t wait for what the other three weeks of classes will hold.

Wait, Kathy! I thought this was a six week program? But only five weeks of classes? Huh?

This week – Week 3 – is all tours and experiences and guest lectures. First of all, Friday is July 3, which is a national holiday, so no class on Friday. Yesterday, we went to MSK. Today, we had two guest lectures given by two scientists who have worked here for 30+ years each. They are senior scientists working on the linear accelerator (BLIP – Brookhaven LINAC Isotope Producer) and the cyclotrons (technically, there are three…) They each talked about their respective machines: their histories, their construction, their functions, and the research they are currently being used for. This afternoon, we’ll be going on a tour of them. Unfortunately, BLIP is currently running, which means we’ll only get to see the outside and the control room, but if its anything like the time I toured ATLAS, it’ll still be really cool. And then we get to see the cyclotron too! Tomorrow, we’re heading out to Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant for a tour of that, which may very well be the one thing I was most excited when we got our six-week schedule on Day 1. Then, on Thursday, we’ve got a lecture from two professors at the University of Notre Dame about nuclear forensics; I know the same process can be used in geological dating, anthropological dating (mostly on ancient ceramics), crime analysis (for example, gunshot residue differs from one shot to the next) and “detonation materials” (bombs – you can tell who supplied the material based on its fingerprint). I’m excited about that one too, since a lot of these techniques, and the research into facilitating faster forensic analysis, is being used and funded by the IAEA.  And then next week we get back into hardcore classes with a professor from UNLV (I think…)

As we go into week three, I’m experiencing the 18-ish-day slump (whereby I get tired of being wherever I am somewhere in the middle of the third week). I’m a bit tired of living in a dorm again; tired of having to carry my shampoo to the shower every day and of having to carry my food from the mini-fridge in my room to the stovetop/microwave downstairs in the kitchen. As much as I love the people here with me, spending basically all day every day with them has made me a bit tired of them – some act young, some act out, sometimes I just want my space and my porch and my friends from school, or my farmer’s market and my street and my family. But I know it’ll pass; I’ve retreated into a book and I’m sure by the time I finish it I’ll be ready for another three weeks with ’em all.

For now, I’ve got a lab report and some research to finish up, not to mention a couple tours to go catch. More to come, I promise (I might even get around to our various trips into NYC on the weekends for fun…)

Bookshelves

I’ve always felt like bookshelves say something about their owners. The various English teachers for whom I’ve babysat always had bookshelves filled with classics; friends who are “closeted history buffs” almost always have a shelf or two devoted to historical fiction and historical non-fiction; many of my scienc-y friends have (no longer) surprising quantities of fantasy on their shelves.

I distinctly remember visiting a family friend about a week after they’d moved. Very little was unpacked – a few boxes of clothes, about half the kitchen, a box labeled “bathroom” half empty in the hall. The bookshelves were empty save three books – one she was clearly reading, one that was obviously his, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Now it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure that one out, but they were nonetheless surprised when they told me a few months later and I said “I know.” Even an almost-empty bookshelf says something about its owner.

But I’ve felt for the past few years that my bookshelf didn’t say much about me. I fly across the country and essentially displace myself and my life four or more times every year, and I have for the last four years. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret my choice to live on the East coast, but it does make having a personal library a bit more difficult. All through college, I’ve felt like my bookshelf was nothing more than evidence of that semester’s (or that year’s) courses. More than half of my shelf was usually textbook, or books required for classes. Sure, there have always been a few books that were there for fun, but they never meant much – they were there for convenience, or because I happened to be reading one the last time I got on a plane.

Today, my book collection is, naturally, limited since I’ll be in this location for exactly six weeks and one day. And yet, when I look at it, I can’t help but think it does say something about me.

IMG_2066

I’ve got two nuclear textbooks. (One chemistry, one physics) I’ve got a lab notebook and a chart of the nuclides handbook and the June edition of National Geographic. I’ve got a math book (Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem) and two policy books – Arguments that Count (about missile defense systems) and The Politics of Nuclear Energy (I think you can figure that one out…) To round it out, there are two books for fun – the beautiful and thought-invoking Invisible Cities and the somewhat horrifying House of Leaves.

I glanced at my bookshelf this morning, looking for my notebook, and something hit me. It was as if I was looking at someone else’s bookshelf. I read the person to whom it belonged as easily as I read the pregnant-but-not-sharing-yet-couple’s bookshelf years ago. This person was obviously passionate about nuclear science and nuclear energy, with a bit of time – but maybe not as much as they’d like – to read something else as well.

I glanced at my bookshelf and I realized who I am. Until this morning, I thought of nuclear energy as maybe just another phase. Like all my other passions, I’ve spent the last six months or so expecting to grow out of it. But the reality is that the more I learn and the more I study, the more questions I have and the more desperately I want their answers. The more I hear about where the reality of nuclear energy is, the more I want to fix the problems, and the more I worry that I’m a naive twenty-two year old with impractical hopes, the more I realize that my hopes aren’t that far off from the experts’.

I glanced at my bookshelf and I think I’ve found my future.

Day Two at “Nuclear Camp”

It’s been a long five days. I went backpacking with my not-so-little-anymore brother, made him hike 25+ miles in 2.5 days and I think he might want to kill me now. Pictures to come when my dad gets around to sending them to me.

Following those three days, I packed my life up (again) and flew across the country (again) to what my housemate/best friend/also-just-acquired-an-official-government-badge-Amelia calls “nuclear camp.” Aka six weeks, twelve undergrads, five professors, one national laboratory, and a lot of equations. Thus far, we’ve been given a nuclear chemistry textbook written by a Nobel Prize-winning chemist (he discovered ten elements, but that’s not what the Nobel was for), biked around Brookhaven National Lab’s campus, found the pool, and covered in under three hours what my Physics professor took a month and two homework assignments to teach last fall. (The semi-empirical mass formula, if anyone’s curious.)

The people here are really great, and it has been fun to nerd out about chemistry. Eleven of the twelve are majoring in Chemistry (Guess who’s the odd man out? You’re right! Me!) and every single one of us has a periodic table poster. Two brought theirs with them, three people have already worn chemistry-based shirts, everyone laughed about my Avogadro’s Number shirt, and one girl has a blanket with the periodic table on it. We all have similar tastes in books – sci-fi is an unsurprisingly popular genre, but so are the classics and eclectic books like When It’s a Jar and House of Leaves. A good number of us like watching sports, so I’ll have plenty of people to watch soccer with over the next 6 weeks, and we’ve all got distinctly different backgrounds, so we’ll have lots of cool discussions about all sorts of things over the next six weeks. It’s not unlike freshman year orientation all over again.

I passed my Rad Worker I test, which means I now know the difference between Radiation and High Radiation Areas (between 5 and 100 mrem/hr and >100 mrem/hr of radiation exposure) and I’m allowed to enter both types of area unescorted. Who knows how long the training lasts, but for now at least my friends can say they’re CPR-certified and I can say I’m certified by the US government to handle radioactive materials. Tomorrow we have a Benchtop Dispersibles class, which means… well… none of us know what that means. Check in again in fifteen hours; we’ll have updates.

In other news, we get to meet five different nuclear and radiochemistry professors from around the country, will be touring a nuclear power plant in a couple weeks, and generally expect to stuff our brains with lots of science. Then I’ll be back in Boston for a month before I start my very last semester (my very last class, really) of undergrad. Thenmight post pictures from graduation here on this blog. But probably not, let’s be real.

AS, MS, BS

It is almost 2:00am, I am sitting in the second library of the night (the first one closed, technically this one is closed too, but there are loopholes…), and I’m working diligently (well, minus this break to write this post) on a 15 page paper due tomorrow. Due today. Due in ten hours.

Technically, its just a rough draft. So it doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, it doesn’t need to be fully formed, it doesn’t even need to be a full 15 pages.

Thus far, I’ve written two of my three case studies, and haven’t even started my introduction or conclusion. I’ll probably leave my conclusion for the final draft, but if I don’t write an introduction, then I’ll need to write a literature review for the rough draft.

So I’ve basically got half the paper I intend to turn in tomorrow written. (Since yesterday, I might add.)

I’ve written 15 pages.

Technically, I’m done. Technically, I should be cutting what I’ve written thus far down, to make space for the aforementioned and as-yet unwritten intro/conclusion. Technically, my professor said 15 pages minimum.

When I was in middle school, we didn’t get normal grades. Instead of an A,B,C,D,F scale, we had AS, MS, BS: Above Standards, Meeting Standards, and Below Standards. Now, the teachers may or may not have explicitly mentioned this, but the standards were individual standards. Different students were held to different standards in different subjects; if you were strong in one subject but struggled in another, the school wanted to reward effort, not just knowledge.

It seems a bit intense, and certainly took a bit to get used to, but it truly was (and is) a great system. As a student, you learn to push yourself. You learn what truly great work looks like for you. You learn to have high expectations for yourself. You learn to meet, and even exceed them. After all, what is “Above Standards” other than doing better than anyone thought you could do?

15 pages. I’m not that proud of them. I can tell I wrote them in a day. I know that my writing is more cohesive than many of my classmates, that my thoughts are more nuanced, that my citations more thorough. But I’m not impressed. And, most importantly, I know that my professor has standards. Like anyone.

Teachers theoretically grade us all to the same standard, but we all know that isn’t *actually* true. Students joke that being a teacher’s pet makes life easier – he already likes you, so you don’t have to try as hard and he’ll likely grade you highly. But sometimes, a professor has a sliding scale of standards. Sometimes, she sees what you’re capable of, and pushes you to reach that edge. Combine that with the internalized desire to be better than I can be, (yes I realize the impossibility inherent in that statement) and all of a sudden it is 2:03 in the morning and you’re halfway through a rough draft of a paper that has already met the length expectation. Ooops.

See you tomorrow. Or is it today?

One Week’s Words

I’ve been taking the time to write down words this week that I either don’t know or can’t define. Yes, these are different. To not know a word is to need to look it up; context isn’t enough. For example, “novation” was in my readings this week. It means “the substitution of a new contract in place of an old one,” by the way. Words I can’t define are much more common, and much more frustrating. These are words I hear with some frequency, or words I know I’ve looked up before, or even words I sometimes use – only in the same context I’ve heard them, of course. And yet, somehow, I don’t know them. This week, this category included “exogenous” (external), “atavism” (recurrence, reversion), and “concomitant” (naturally associated).

I find it interesting to note that the decision to record novel vocabulary has been associated with an increased level of complexity in my daily speech, as evidenced by this sentence. It’s like the big words come out of a spigot – I can turn them up or down depending on context. For example, I used “magnanimous” in conversation with my professor (yes, that professor) and “ostensibly” while speaking to a good friend in Poli Sci. But I don’t talk like that at home, and I clearly don’t write like that here. (Do I?)

Sometimes I wonder if writing down all these words (and looking them up, and attempting to incorporate them into my vocabulary) is worth it? I’ve had conversations with a friend about the fact that she gets constantly called out by her housemates for using words that are too large; we sometimes wonder where the “egotistical line” is. But there were a few words in the 59 I wrote down this week that were worth it:

  • Obsequies: (not the same as obsequious) Plural of obsequy: funeral rite; usually used in plural. [Side note: I have NO IDEA why this was on my list – it came out of a political science/sociology reading, but I didn’t write down the page number, so I have been unable to find the original sentence. Regardless, the fact that funeral rites were mentioned in my reading is humorous to me.]
  • Exult: rejoice [intransitive]. Not to be confused with “exalt.” (to glorify something [transitive])
  • Sedulous: assiduous, diligent. Assiduous: sedulous, diligent. I’m serious. (Okay, I was judicious in paring down the definitions for these to make a point…) These words were on the same page in one of my readings; I don’t think I ever knew they were different words until that page.  The connotations, however, are different. Sedulous implies constant and unwavering commitment, persistence, while assiduous can be temporary, but no less intense.
  • Convolve: entwine. Not only a math term, although I did read it in a physics reading, so it probably hasn’t escaped the sciences. Yet.
  • Puerile: trivial, childish. I think that someone, somewhere in my past should be despised for having described me as puerile…

In case it wasn’t already clear, I like words. I like derivations. (The linguistic ones, and the computational ones to a lesser extent.) I listen to a podcast – A Way with Words – every so often that answers questions about the history of words and phrases, which is wonderful. I discuss etymology over breakfast, psychology over dinner, and nuclear physics over lunch. I’m a weird one.

[By the way, if you or someone you know is taking the SAT sometime soon, (baby brother, I’m looking at you!) or even the LSAT, they should probably read this post. Words in bold and words in italics are probably all on those crazy-long word lists kids are supposed to memorize in order to prove they’re “smart”.]

I am X, Therefore I say Y

I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors last night, who described some of her academic colleagues in a half-joking manner as “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y’.” The implication here, of course, is that some academics take a position early on in their careers and stick to it throughout. Interestingly, this is a conclusion I came to early in my Political Science education; while studying for my very first test, I realized that I didn’t actually need to know what a specific author said on each issue – if I knew how he approached any issue, I could work out for myself his probable stance on whatever issue(s) came up during the test. (This has served me well, both in grades and in sleep…) For some academics, the position they take is a new and unique one that eventually gets accepted by the wider community, and they become the famous academics we read in our introductory courses. The vast majority, however, don’t. They pick tangential positions that are neither new enough or bold enough to be interesting, which means they are both safe from significant push back and unlikely to be ground-breaking.

Of course, the politically cynical among us see the “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y'” idea as particularly prominent in political discourse. The particularly interesting thing about this is that academics and the most highly educated members of society not only engage in the same cognitive patterns that cause them to ignore countervailing information or narratives, but they actually engage in these patterns to a greater extent than the average American; highly educated people (like those that both teach the next generation and rule over it) are actually more likely to actively avoid information they don’t like – and thus remain ignorant of opposing arguments – than the public.

I asked my professor, “If you are ‘X,’ what is your ‘Y’?” She said she doesn’t have one, that she splits her time among many subjects and that she is actively seeking counter-narratives. In spite of the obvious self-serving nature of this comment, (She literally said “I’m the exception that proves the rule,” and though she said it with a smile, she wasn’t joking.) I’m inclined to believe her. Her research is fundamentally around the reality that factual information is biased, that history is just that – a story, and that literally every piece of information we collect in our lives is biased, either in the way it is presented or in the way it is interpreted. Considering that, I think it is likely she questions everything she reads, hears, and believes. Probably every day, all day.

I want to do that. I want to be the exception that proves the rule. I want to constantly question the information given to me, and I want to do that in an intelligent and non-threatening manner. If I go into academia, I don’t want to  have a “Y.” If I work for the government, or even in the private sector, I want to be the person who is constantly questioning assumptions and constantly pushing back, because even if that means I don’t fall nicely into a undergrad’s summary box, it means I’m likely to be making intelligent, accurate, and well-informed decisions.

Spring Break

It’s Sunday, which means that the weekend is quickly coming to a close and, more significantly, spring break is coming to a close. Spring break, what a term. It implies sunlight, warmth, parks, and maybe hints of summer just around the corner. Boston, needless to say, is none of these things. Okay, it is sunny today, but sunny in a deceptive, wind-rushing-at-your-face-and-pulling-scarves-away-from-your-neck-so-it-can-bite-into-your-still-pale-cheeks kind of way. But that’s okay! Because I didn’t do a normal spring break trip (once again…) and opted to go skiing instead.

My dad and I went to Vail, Colorado for four days of spring skiing, which basically just means temperatures the same as they are in Boston and about as much snow. (Have you heard? Boston is having a crazy winter and we broke the snow record! Oh, you already knew that? It’s been the trending news story across the nation for months? Oh.) Anyway, pictures:

Panorama #1 of Many

Panorama #2

We had an amazing time, skied an average of 17 runs and 20,000+ vertical feet everyday, and experienced all the snow types: ice in the mornings, slush in the afternoons, perfection somewhere in between, dust on crust one afternoon, three inches of powder the next morning…

We also ate amazing food, drank some great wine, met some really fun people on and off the slopes, and generally had a pretty fabulous winter break experience. (spring break. SPRING break. Sorry.)

Stayed silly, too.

Spring Skiing Selfie!

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