Monday, February 23, 2009

Macabre lab retreat

I admit I sort of threw in the word "macabre" to spice up the title, but it does vaguely apply by the end of the post. :)

So I had a busy weekend: all day Friday and Saturday I disported myself by the lovely bay you see pictured here. It's in Corona del Mar ("Crown of the Sea"), and you're looking at one of the views from the little red-roofed building below, which is a marine biology laboratory owned by Caltech, the college I work at. It's from here that a diver goes out regularly in the "research vessel" to fetch us fresh sea urchins.

Every year or so the members of my lab all head down here to talk about what we've been doing. It's always interesting to hear of others' results and new techniques, and during the coffee breaks we can step out the door onto the sand and enjoy the ocean. This year was especially good because there were 37 people participating, including former members and folks flying in from other states and countries. It was also good because I did not have to give a presentation. :)

For some reason every time my lab has a retreat, I get introspective. I suppose all the talks about what the lab is doing and where it's going make me think about what I'm doing and where I'm going, how long I've been working at Caltech and how long I might stay. On other retreats I've felt restless, but this time I was almost nostalgic. I'm glad after all that I'm still around after five years.

We had the inevitable moments during the talks when ego came to the fore. A few folks, provoked by contradiction, started trying to score points and show each other up. They must not realize how that comes off. What a counterproductive way to try to look smart, especially when someone older does it. Hasn't he outgrown that yet? I wondered when the usual person got angry. I think I could never marry a man with a bad temper, not because I couldn't handle being yelled at, but because I couldn't respect him.

(That reminds me of a statement I read once, though I don't know how true it is: "In an argument, women cry because they feel unloved, and men get angry because they feel disrespected.")

Anyway, one of the most interesting talks had nothing to do with our regular lab research. There's a professor among us who's just visiting to try out some things in sea urchins for a while. (I blogged about him once here.) I hadn't known before what his research is. It turns out that it has to do with birth defects. If I understood correctly, he's looking for a more effective way to test whether various medicines being developed will cause birth defects if taken by pregnant women.

The FDA requires new drugs to be tested in mammals before humans, but usually the mammals used for such studies are mice and rats. Problem: some drugs (like aspirin) cause birth defects in mice and rats but not humans, and other drugs (like thalidomide) cause birth defects in humans but not mice or rats. Monkeys would be a much more accurate test, but they're difficult to use for all sorts of reasons.

So this professor (let's call him Erik) is investigating the possibility of testing drugs at a molecular level rather than at the phenotypic level. If a mouse is born missing a leg, that's an obviously deformed phenotype. But a drug that causes no obvious deformity may still be messing with the gene interactions inside the mouse. If you could detect the messed-up molecular interactions, you'd know the new drug might be dangerous for humans even if it doesn't create two-headed mice.

But apparently all this is hard to test in mice, since mammals are complicated. Sea urchins are simpler and easy to work with and they still share a lot of genes with humans. And since Erik's looking for molecular changes and not phenotypic changes, it doesn't much matter that a sea urchin's anatomy is nothing like a human's. So Erik came to Caltech to expose sea urchin embryos to various weird drugs and see how that would throw things off, with a view to developing an informative way to test new drugs in sea urchins.

That's what the talk was about, assuming I didn't misinterpret him (I was tired). I think it's a fascinating idea. But it really didn't need the illustrations. Erik had enhanced his PowerPoint show with many dreadful pictures of newborns with birth defects. I had a split-second's warning: "Don't show us any gross pictures!" said our boss, and Erik's reaction indicated he was going to do just that, and I looked down just before he changed the slide. In peripheral vision I saw a baby, and I could tell that there was something severely wrong with his face. But I'm happy to say I've no idea what it was. I only know that the entire room reacted with loud cries of horror. And so on for the next six pictures or so. They weren't all in a row, either, but interspersed with some harmless slides of graphs, so every time Erik changed a slide I had to look down, just in case.

It's funny because Erik has a lugubrious expression, a bald head, staring deep-set eyes, a vulture-like neck, and a very quiet, slow manner about him. He is just the sort of person you'd imagine would gaze unblinkingly at sadly deformed babies. Well, someone's got to do it, and I'm glad it's him and not me-- may his research be useful!

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