Saturday, May 31, 2008

Welcome, new readers!

I learned yesterday via CNN that a tribe of Amazonian natives never before contacted by the outside world has been spotted and photographed by passengers in a small airplane flying over their thatched-hut community. The survival of this village is threatened by expansion of the a burgeoning illegal logging industry.

The indigenous Brazilians, mostly painted orange (one seemed to be painted gray) seem to have interpreted the flyover as a potential threat, brandishing bows and arrows, spears, and what appeared to be giant spit ball shooters at their aerial observers.

For better or for worse, I suspect that these tribesmen and tribeswomen will soon be exposed to the technology and advancements of the so-called "developed world". And, when they are introduced to the likes of the Chick Fil A chicken sandwich, underwear, Lost on ABC, Cedar Point roller coasters, the wheel, surely there will be no turning back to their old way of life (they'll have to tune in each week to see if the Losties finally get off the island). And, before long, they will certainly stumble across this great world wide web of communication I like to call the Bloggernet.

My goal is to make this blog as interesting and accessible for as wide an audience as possible, including the previously uncontacted. Because, beneath our clothing or protective gourds, we're all people with similar hopes and fears, frustrations and dreams. We all want to be loved. We all have the same experience of trying to pick the quickest line at the grocery store and having to wait as the customer ahead of us with eight items or less waits for a price check on their Kikkoman Soy Sauce or fruitlessly searches their purse or wallet for coupons they just know they couldn't have left at home. We've all had that dream of showing up for class on the day of the final exam naked (or gourdless) and having forgotten to study.

Orange-painted spear-wielding aborigines, may I be the first to officially welcome you to the blogosphere! I hope you'll find the Land of Yajeev to be your online home away from home! Please check out the archives for older posts and feel free to leave your comments whenever you feel so moved.

photos by Funai-Frente de Protecao Etno-Ambiental Envira via Reuters via

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Teacher's Pet

Last week, I began teaching a 6-week microbiology course at one of our local community colleges. This is the first course that I am in charge of from beginning to end. The lectures, the labs, the assignments, the quizzes (bwa ha ha!) , the exams (double bwa ha ha!!)... all mine. The class meets just two days a week from 8:45 am until 3:30 pm. It's a grueling day for student and teacher alike.

I know it's asking a lot of my students to learn all of the material normally presented over the course of an entire three-to-four-month semester in six weeks. It may be asking even more of me to plan, create, and teach such a course. I have literally spent almost every waking (non-eating) moment in the past week writing lectures and quizzes and exams and lab outlines (which explains the recent dearth of fresh bloggage and chattage)... And, don't tell my boss (or my students!), but even though I am a yeast microbiologist by trade, I have never taken a microbiology course in all my days. So, I am learning with my pupils.

Teaching at a community college presents some special challenges. As one professor kindly stated, "Our students are the bottom 50% of the bottom 50%." Which is to say the bottom 25%. As it turns out, this is not entirely true. The ability and motivation range of my students is huge, and I am already impressed by the dedication of some of my students who have faced a great deal of life challenges in their few years. Some have strongly disadvantaged backgrounds, in terms of material upbringing and education ("My favorite part of today's lecture was the part about DNA," one student told me enthusiastically. "Because I haven't ever heard of it before.")

Per my wife's recommendation, on the first day of class, I had my students fill out a "student interest form" with questions like:

Why are you taking this course?
What topics in microbiology are you interested in?
What other biology classes have you taken?
What other time commitments will you have over the next 6 weeks?
What grade do you plan to achieve in this course?
What are your interests and hobbies?
Below please give any other information that you feel would be important or helpful for me to know as your instructor.

None of my students answered the first question by writing, "To satisfy an enduring passion for microbes." Most answers were along the lines of, "Because I have to."

Most of my students (including the one who had never heard of DNA) are aspiring nurses completing a pre-nursing Associates Degree, and this is their final required biology course at the community college. A few are students from local colleges and universities fulfilling a core requirement for their particular undergraduate degree programs or picking up a course which they hope will help them get into medical school. Most at least hope for success in this class-- nearly all wrote "A" or "B" in response to the question, "What grade do you plan to achieve in this course?"

I could tell from the very first hour that one student, however, was special. His reply to the anticipated grade question: "C is for continue."

When asked to provide any other information that might be helpful to me as an instructor, two students informed me that English is not their first language. This is certainly helpful for me as an instructor. Others told me about their time commitments and potential conflicts (like picking their kids up after school or working at the Olive Garden). A couple told me that they struggle to learn but would try their hardest (one has admirably lived up to his commitment thus far, the other I doubt ever truly intended to).

My special student, Mr. C is for Continue, wrote the following helpful information (/warning/threat): "Here at Local Community College our instructors get evaluations from their students EVERY [triple underlined] semester!"

So I better be on my very best behavior.

A few minutes into class on the second day, Mr. C is for Continue announced, unsolicited, that there was no way he was going to remain in class after the final exam on the last day of school (which was still five weeks away), assuming, unjustifiably, that I would (a) suspend my attendance policy on the last day of school and (b) give the exam first thing in the morning.

Taking notes has become tiresome for Mr. C is for Continue (I lecture from PowerPoint slides that I have printed out for my students with blanks for them to fill in--usually a few words per slide), so I am now being tape-recorded for posterity and Mr. C is for Continue's study purposes.

By the third day of class (yesterday), Mr. C is for Continue had begun participating and asking questions. And his performance on the first two quizzes (yes, I give quizzes every single day, can you believe it?!) are surpassing even his expectations (B is for Better than a C?). (To those who fear I am a pushover, I have a handful of quiz grades to establish otherwise.)

Tomorrow is the first exam or, as one of my college professors would call it, the semester's first celebration of knowledge. I am looking forward to it. My students are not. I am offering extra credit for students who will write a poem about microorganisms.

Maybe I am a sadist, but I love writing quizzes and exams. I don't write trick questions, but I do amuse myself by including funny options in multiple choice questions.

Here are a few of my favorites for your self-testing pleasure:

1. How long have microorganisms been on this planet?
a. 3.5 billion years
b. 3.5 million years
c. 350,000 years
d. since Tuesday when this class began

2. Which of the following is NOT a member of Eukarya?
a. Algae
b. Fungi
c. Humans
d. Protozoa
e. Actually, all of the above are members of Eukarya, but thanks for asking.

3. Who is credited with initiating a trend towards aseptic technique in a clinical setting?
a. Ernst Abbé
b. Anton van Leeuwenhoek
c. Joseph Lister
d. Robert Koch
e. Carl von Linnaeus
f. Professor Yajeev

4. Who is credited with initiating a trend toward aseptic technique in the lab for this class?
a. Ernst Abbé
b. Anton van Leeuwenhoek
c. Joseph Lister
d. Robert Koch
e. Carl von Linnaeus
f. Professor Yajeev
(That was supposed to be an easy one, but a few of my students failed to see the humor in it.)

Here are a few from the True or False section:

5. Aseptic technique is so outdated. It’s not as if I should treat every microorganism in the microbiology lab as if it were a pathogen. Please.

6. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is alive.

7. The agent that causes Mad Cow Disease is alive.

8. I am alive. The “I” in this sentence is the test-taker reading it, not the professor writing it.

Don't worry, though. There are plenty (and I do mean plenty) of other questions that are not funny, ironic, or cutesy. However, as promised, tomorrow's exam concludes as follow:

Please write a poem about some thing(s) you learned in this class. The poem does not have to rhyme. The poem must be at least 5 lines long. You must use at least 4 names or words specifically associated with this class to receive credit. Please underline those words. While all scientific facts included should be accurate, the poem does not have to be completely scientific in nature—it can represent the innermost thoughts and feelings you’ve always had or have just developed for some topic microbiological in nature but have been afraid to express—until now. Your instructor will provide you with extra paper, should you find it necessary.

If any of my readers feel so inspired, feel free to compose your own ode to bacteria in the comments section or email them to me at landofyajeev @ hotmail . com

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sliding Scale of Celebrity Doppelgangerness (or is it a slippery slope?)

It just might be the fact that I've lost about 35 pounds: I have noticed a shift in the celebrity comparisons I have received in recent months. In the past, I have been likened to esteemed filmmaker Michael Francis Moore (particularly when I donned baseball cap and flannel shirt). Lately, however, on multiple occasions, I have been made aware of a resemblance to another charming leading man: the Superbad Seth Rogen.

I consider this a move in a positive direction and an incentive to keep losing weight (I can't wait to see who's next on this spectrum of Hollywood lookalikes).

In related news, the wife took me to my favorite wing establishment (obliquely referenced here) for all-you-can-eat wings to celebrate my recent graduation. It is with mixed emotion that I report to you that I consumed only 7 Thai R Garlic wings, 5 Parmesan Pepper wings, 6 Arizona Ranch wings, 5 Cajun wings, and 1 Barbecue wing for a paltry grand total of (drum-roll please...) 24 chicken wings. Pathetic. At the height of my career, I once consumed 72 chicken wings on all-you-can-eat night (which pales in comparison to the 100+ wing my buddy Jordan had eaten that same night). This time, 24 was all I can eat--a three-fold reduction in wing capacity. For additional perspective, the wife only consumed 6 Louisiana Licker chicken wings and 5 onion rings (it's hard for me not to snicker as I type that).

Finally, for those who are so inclined, may I recommend to you the free eatings and drinkings at your local fast food establishments.

Today, May 15, 2008, Dunkin Donuts is offering free Iced Coffee from 10:00 am until 10:00 pm. No strings attached. However, just try to walk out without buying a donut. Or two.

Also, today, McDonald's is promoting its new Southern-style chicken sandwich. It can be yours for free... as long as you purchase a medium or large beverage.

This collective free goodness has earned the fast food industry as a collective unit an Honorable Mention in the ongoing Land of Yajeev Best Free Stuff competition.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Living the dream...

...and it's a not a good one.

Yesterday I shared with you my horrific nightmare, in which I accidentally purchased a Dell computer instead of a Mac PowerBook.

Computer Karma got the best of me today, however, as I spent two futile hours attempting to perform what was supposed to be the straightforward task of converting my dissertation from a Microsoft Word document to a PDF file (without losing any of the formatting, bookmarks, or links). My department's Mac Information Technology professional and I attempted to use three different Mac computers and countless combinations of older and newer Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat versions to effect the .doc-to-.pdf transition.

After over two hours of fruitless labor (and a discouraging email from the Electronic Theses and Dissertations help desk), we threw our arms up in surrender. I conceded defeat, swallowed my pride, and took my dissertation to the computer lab-- where I used a brand new (and yet still strikingly sluggish and decidedly non-multitasking) Dell Computer to successfully complete the task.

Dude, I am still a Mac snob.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Apple of my eye

I knew that I preferred Mac computers over PC's, but I didn't realize the extent to which I had become an actual Mac snob until I woke up this morning in a cold sweat from a nightmare in which I had accidentally purchased a Dell (dude!) instead of a new MacBook Pro.

When I realized what I had done, I desperately (and unsuccessfully) pleaded with the computer salesman (who happened to be a member of the Best Buy Geek Squad (they're so cool)) to allow me to return the Dell. He kept trying to tell me how great the Dell laptop I had just bought was, but he was saying things like "It's got a huge 10-gig hard drive" and "It has a floppy disc drive instead of a clunkier CD/DVD drive", "The battery will let you work for up to 30 minutes without being plugged in", "Newer Dells only crash once every two or three days of use, although current models like yours haven't been around long enough to generate good reliability statistics".

The giant storeroom began to spin, and I pounded my fists on the counter in front of me. "Nooooooo!" I screamed. The scream must have been intense enough to nudge me into consciousness. My eyes popped open and I glanced around the room without moving. It took me a moment to realize I had been dreaming.

I rolled over and reached over the side of the mattress to feel for the laptop nestled under my bed. My fingers caressed the cool, frosted metallic surface of my trusty 2005 15-inch PowerBook G4.

All was right with the world.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Tell me, Brother, can you quantify?

Last night, Little Brother and I spoke on the phone to catch up with each other's impressions of the most recent installments of three of our mutual loves: Lost (the sci-fi drama about hapless plane-wreck survivors stranded on a desert island), Survivor (the reality series about hapless game show contestants stranded on a desert island), and Gilligan's Island (the TV Land comedy about hapless three-hour-tourists stranded on a desert island).

(OK, not Gilligan's Island.)

In order to demonstrate to each other that we are both still serious fans of Lost and Survivor, at some point during the course of these exchanges, the conversation inevitably degenerates into some semblance of the following dialogue (which has been abridged for readability):

Little Bro: Are you liking Lost?

Yajeev: I like it.

Little Bro: Do you love it?

Yajeev: Yeah, I love it.

Little Bro: How much do you love it?

I love it a lot.

Little Bro: Yeah, but how much?

Yajeev: How can I quantify it?

Little Bro:
Well, who's your favorite character right now?

Yajeev: Sawyer's probably my favorite character, but Michael Emerson is my favorite actor on the show.

Little Bro: How much do you love Sawyer?

Yajeev: Yeah, he's great, Bro.

Little Bro: How great are the things he says?

Yajeev: They're the best. I loved when he warned Locke about harming "just one curly hair on Hurley's head."

Little Bro: That was the best! How much did you love that line?

Yajeev: I just told you: it was a great line.

Little Bro: Yeah, but how much did you love it?

Yajeev: A lot. I loved it a lot. How can I answer these questions?!

A few minutes later, the conversation turned to our favorite contestants on past seasons of Survivor.

Little Bro: How much did you love Frank in Survivor: Africa?

Yajeev: He was great.

Little Bro: Yeah, but how much did you love him?

Yajeev: Brother, I loved him a lot.

Little Bro: How much?

Yajeev (searching for some frame of reference): I love Frank as a Survivor contestant almost as much as I love Lost as a show.

Little Bro: Right. (pause) How much is that?

Yajeev: Uhhhh...

Little Bro: Wait--let me ask you this. How much did you love how he didn't know the meaning of the word "brunch"?

Little Bro proceeded to recount verbatim the conversations that took place during a Survivor episode he'd seen only once, on its original airdate in late 2001.

Yajeev: Yeah, that was great.

Little Bro:
How great?

And so on.

This conversation has made it clear that when it comes to how much I like something, I have no clear method of quantitation, which makes my descriptions of the degree of like/love I maintain for a given television show or character or Survivor contestant vague and devoid of real meaning.

By contrast, most important traits can be quantifiably determined and so communicated. The piquancy of a chicken wing drenched in Louisiana Lickers sauce (my poultry coating of choice) can be conveyed in Scoville Heat Units (SHU) (Louisiana Lickers wings are a zippy 1,220 SHU on a scale of 16,000,000). Likewise, when I visit the doctor tomorrow and step on the scales, I hope to weigh in at about a slug (not this kind of slug) less than I did four months ago. Similarly, when I wish to express to someone how much of the enzyme invertase a given yeast culture secretes under conditions of glucose scarcity, I can give a near exact value: 4o0 milli-units of invertase per 1 milliliter of cells at an optical density of 1.0 in light of 600 nanometer wavelength (mU/OD).

Towards the end of being able to specifically delineate the degree to which a person, place, or thing is liked, I hereby propose a new unit of fondness: The philiac.

Of course, before this term can be introduced to the public lexicon, the scale must be calibrated. In order for this new unit of fondness to be useful, we need to be clear on what a philiac is.

Below are a list of things and people that I like to varying degrees and their corresponding philiac values.

The wife: 1,000,000 philiacs = 1 megaphiliac (1 Mp)
Coffee: 50,000 philiacs = 50 kilophiliacs (50 kp)
Watson Steve: 10,000 philiacs = 1 kilophiliac (10 kp)
LOST: 1000 philiacs = 1 kilophiliac (1 kp)
Frank on Survivor: Africa: 950 philiacs (950 p)
Monte Cello's pepperoni pizza: 800 philiacs (800 p)
Pittsburgh Steelers: 700 philiacs (750 p)
Yeast genetics and biochemistry: 500 philiacs (100 p)
Minnesota Twins: 350 philiacs (350 p)
Tomato soup: 50 philiacs (50 p)
Mowing the lawn: 20 philiacs (20 p)
Clipping my fingernails: 1 philiac (1 p)
Walking uphill half a mile: 0.1 philiacs = 100 milliphiliacs (500 mp)
Removing splinters: 0.03 philiacs = 30 milliphiliacs (50 mp)
Gram staining bacterial isolates: 0.005 philiacs = 5 milliphiliacs (5 mp)
Preparing radioactive waste for removal: 0.00005 philiacs = 50 microphiliacs (50 μp)
Using gas station restrooms: 0.000001 philiacs = 1 microphiliac (1 μp)

I know that I am not the first to attempt to generate a numerical rating system. However, the advantage of the philiac is that, by virtue of its nearly limitless span, the philiac allows a far-greater range and much higher resolution than do the more commonly used five-star or two-thumb systems-- consider, for example, the trillion-fold difference in likedness of the wife (1 megaphiliac) with that of using gas station restrooms (1 microphiliac).

It is the hope of this bloggist that the philiac will facilitate and enhance communication among those who love to rate and rank.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Caveat Emptor: Land of Yajeev Blogxposé

I take no pleasure in what I am about to tell you, but the truth (even (/especially) scandalous truth) must be told. At the risk of being mistaken for Hard Copy or A Current Affair, I present to you one of the more troubling scandals the blogosphere/ onlineauctionosphere has seen in recent memory.

Several months ago, I brought to your attention a unique investment opportunity. eBay user lazyjoecox put up for auction the extra hour he gained in last fall's time change. Below is the pitch he used to lure unsuspecting bidders:

Ready for an amazing deal!!!! I am putting an hour of my life up for sale. As you know, this weekend time changes and an hour is gained. Instead of using my extra hour for fun and festivities, I am willing to sell it to you. Once I receive payment, I will mail you a certificate which certifies that YOU now own my hour. As you can tell from my picture, my time is very valuable. Don't worry if purchase is made after the time change, because I will not be using my hour. I am saving it for you!!!! Good luck bidding!!! Use wisely.

Despite my efforts to own lazyjoecox, if only for an hour, I lost the auction fair and square. Or so I thought.

The Land of Yajeev has learned (via a trusted, independent source*) that the auction was a hoax. Sad, but true: lazyjoecox's fiancée was the "highest bidder" and would have been no matter what the highest bid was--she would always outbid the leading offer. Moreover, no transaction ever actually took place! No money changed hands, no certificate was mailed (as had been advertised) or even created, and there is no evidence that this extra hour was transferred from lazyjoecox's possession.

Remarkably, lazyjoecox boasts an impeccable member feedback profile, with a 100% positive feedback rating! I wouldn't be surprised, though, if each of the supposedly independent eBay members with whom he has transacted was actually his fiancée with a different online pseudonym. "chucknbecky", "baldguy0722", and "empire_liquidators", might actually be noms de plume of the future Mrs. lazyjoecox.

To what end was this deception concocted? What heartless man would execute such vainglorious chicanery? Who would offer 60 minutes of himself to the neediest, highest bidding soul only to cling even more tightly to his supposedly superfluous moments?

Why would someone do this? There was no monetary gain (unless he, by his faux magnanimity, endeared himself to bidders of future auctions). I see no likelier explanation than this: he did this because he could. To display (if only to himself) the power that he holds over the mass of groundlings huddled together, clamoring at his feet just for his one extra hour. An hour which, like a mirage, at first shimmered, but then disappeared the closer one was to it.

I am troubled.

* lazyjoecox

Thursday, May 1, 2008

(Mostly) civil defense

His first question was funny.

My advisor had slipped my father (a marketing consultant, not a biochemist) a piece of paper with a query that he should pose during the question period of my dissertation defense.

"Have you considered a possible role for the yeast 14-3-3 proteins as regulators of the phosphorylation event you've discussed today?" he asked, having no comprehension of the words that were coming out of his mouth.

"That's a very interesting question, Dad," I responded. "In fact, I have considered such a role for these proteins, as you might have known this had you been paying attention during the conclusion of my presentation." He had of course been paying attention--he'd videotaped my every word and gesture for posterity. The language barrier, however, for the uninitiated can be intense, as every other word in such a presentation tends unavoidably toward the jargonish. Phrases like "altered sensitivity to an adenine analog", "half-time of dephosphorylation in the absence of de novo phosphate addition" and "multimerization of heterotrimers into higher-order structures" can be overwhelming even to a scientist working in a different subfield.

The audience laughed at our little exchange, certainly not a typical Ph.D. defense Q & A. I prepared to take other (legitimate) questions, but he continued with a new line of interrogation, this time of his own invention, asking about the naming conventions of yeast genes: "Why are your words sometimes in capitals and other times in lower case?"

I laughed politely and asked, "Are there any other questions?" I asked, attempting to restore some semblance of post-presentation normalcy.

"And, sometimes, you have them in italics!" he added, enthusiastically, to scattered chuckles in the audience. It was clear from his exuberance that my dad was in fact proud of me. It was also clear that he'd never been to a biochemistry dissertation defense before (most haven't).

Fortunately, my dissertation committee was (nearly) as supportive as my father. In the closed-door portion of the exam (no proud fathers allowed), the committee members asked a few obligatory questions to ensure that I was capable of sustaining scientific conversation. Four of the five members were willing to accept my dissertation without revision. The fifth member I had run into at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game two nights prior.

"Shouldn't you be studying?" she had asked me at the home plate entrance to PNC Park in front of the Honus Wagner statue.

"Shouldn't you be reading my dissertation?" I retorted, feigning confidence. Touché.

"It's on my things-to-do list--I'll read it by Monday," she promised.

She lived up to her word--and then some. In fact, she read the document more thoroughly than the other committee members and was equipped with a list of questions and concerns. "Why didn't you include a discussion of the connection between XYZ enzyme and the subject of your work?" she asked.

"Well," I began, attempting to craft a careful response, "There was one paper written that connects these two in the manner to which you elude. It was written by a research group in Wisconsin, but as far as I know, there hasn't been any additional significant work corroborating this linkage."

"There is one other paper," she responded.

"I'm not aware of it," I replied.

"I wrote it."

My advisor and I responded, simultaneously: "You did?!"

She did.

Fortunately, despite my oversight, she and the other committee members were willing to sign off on my magnum opus, asking for minimal adjustments (two to three additional paragraphs). Forms were signed and handshakes exchanged, and the deed was done: I had passed my final exam.

Bonus feature for today's blog entry:

Pictured at left is one artist's rendering (mine) of the heterotrimeric enzyme that is the subject of my dissertation research. For the sake of the pseudoanonymity I manage to maintain on the blog, I have replaced the protein names with their generic designations: alpha, beta, and gamma.