The ramblings of a working, knitting, writing wife and mother.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Welcome to Caltech

So my niece sent us a drawing of herself with the instruction to take her to our places of employment and show her around. My actual job is kind of dull, but the people I work with are all sorts of interesting. So interesting in fact that whenever anyone comes for a visit and we're thinking of things we want them to experience while they are here, a visit to Caltech is in the top three (there is also a turtle / koi pond on the grounds - it's not all microscopes and bacteria around here).

Here's what Danyelle saw when she came to visit.

Behold the impressive Broad center, where science is happening.

Science is fun and interesting, but the first thing you need to do before you enter a lab is learn about lab safety! Always wear proper shoes, clothes, and sometimes even goggles and lab coats. Also, know where the first aid kit is and know how to use the emergency shower station in case you spill something on yourself that you need to wash off in a hurry.

Our biology lab specializes in taking the best pictures in the world of some of the smallest living organisms. Some of our favorite things to take pictures of are Caulobacter crescentus bacteria (a cousin of e. coli), mycoplasma pneumoniae (the bug that causes pneumonia), and the HIV virus.

Before we can take pictures, first we have to grow our bacteria in tubes. You can grow bacteria in just about anything. We use liquid solutions called media. Some of our solutions even have gold added to them! It only takes a few hours for bacteria to grow, so you can start a solution in the morning and take pictures of it after lunch! Once you have a nice group of cells to image, you need to place them on a slide or a grid so they can go into the microscope. Our lab uses both - a wet slide for light microscopy (the kind you're probably used to)

or a copper grid to put into our special, big electron microscope.

Since a drop of media can contain thousands and thousands of bacteria to take pictures of, we only need a tiny bit for each slide or grid. To help us, we use a special tool to pipette small amounts. It works just the same as a straw.

When your grids all have bacteria on them, it's time to take them to the basement where the electron microscope has its own special room to help protect it from movement and sound. Because when you're taking pictures of very small things, it helps to be as still as possible.


Taking pictures of things with an electron microscope is tricky because when you beam electrons on your bacteria, it makes them fall apart after a short time. And trying to figure out the structure of a bacteria after it falls apart is like trying to figure out how a watch works by looking at one that's been smashed by a hammer! Right, not very helpful. Scientists try to get around this issue by mixing their samples with special chemicals, embedding them in plastic, or freezing them.

Our lab uses a method called plunge freezing to create our samples. We use a machine called a Vitrobot to freeze our bacteria. Freezing protects the bacteria from the electrons and keeps them looking almost exactly the same as when they were swimming around in the media, but you have to freeze your samples very, very quickly in order to create clear, see-through ice. Freezing things too slowly will create crystals, and crystals will make for bad images just like having static on your television set will disrupt the picture. We drop our bacteria grids in a mixture of liquid nitrogen and ethane so they freeze instantly.

After they are frozen, the grids have to stay frozen solid. If they warm up even a little bit, the ice can make crystals. So we put the frozen grids in a cryo-holder (it's like a thermos filled with liquid nitrogen) until they are ready to put in the microscope.

The next step is to put the grid into the vacuum of the microscope and take your images. Our microscope is hooked to a series of computers that save the pictures you take. We also do a special technique called a tilt-series where you take a whole bunch of pictures of one bacterium at different angles.

After you take all the pictures you want to, the last step is to analyze your data - or look closely at the pictures you took. For a tilt-series, this last step is called reconstruction. It's where you take all the pictures and stack them on top of each other to create what we call a tomogram. Remember that gold we put into the solution? Under the microscope, that gold shows up as large black beads that we can use as markers when we are stacking images. This gives us a complete 3-dimensional image of our bacterium - a real break-through for seeing new things and figuring out how things work!

Here's an example of how a tomogram is put together to form a 3D picture and how it helps us learn about bacteria cells.


Thanks for taking a trip to our microscopy lab at Caltech today. I hope you learned a lot!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Happy Anniversary - 100 Random Facts about my Husband

Today is our ninth anniversary, and in honor of that, I'm posting 100 Facts About my daring and darling husband, Richard. He's a cutie and I love him completely.

100 Random Facts About My Husband

1. He has two emotions that he recognizes – anger and calm.
2. He has a complete lack of empathy, but he has come a long way and knows when to ask for clues.
3. He has way too many hobbies: shooting, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, wrestling, reading, hiking, gardening, water sports, rock climbing, fishing, on and on.
4. He started working when he was thirteen and hasn’t stopped since.
5. He had a febrile seizure when he was two and was officially dead when he arrived at the hospital. (Obviously, he came back, but wow, good job psyching out your mother.)
6. He is so afraid of spiders that even talking about one will break him out in goose pimples.
7. He hates tomatoes so much that he doesn’t even want ketchup on the table.
8. He served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and gets teased for this a lot.
9. He was born in Waycross, Georgia.
10. His best companion for fourteen years was a yellow lab, Husky mix named Cocoa.
11. He is a professional driver and is licensed to drive anything with wheels except an airplane and a passenger bus.
12. His greatest wish is to live off the grid in Alaska or Montana.
13. He used to watch the Man from Snowy River every single day.
14. He loves instrumental music.
15. He cannot spell, but he can write beautifully.
16. He reads quickly and devours thriller books by the dozen.
17. He loves to have his back scratched and isn’t quite satisfied until he is bleeding in more than one place.
18. He does not know his own strength or realize his own worth.
19. He gets loopy on medication. Once, when hospitalized for a kidney stone, while I was buttoning up his pajama top and telling him I was going to go get the car, he informed me that he was not going anywhere with me because his wife was coming to get him. When I left the room and came back, he told me that he knew I was coming and that “someone” wanted him to go somewhere. He claims I should just be grateful he knew he was married.
20. He is protective and loyal.
21. He is slow to make decisions, needing to do extensive research about brands, read reviews, etc. even if he’s just purchasing a toaster.
22. He loves to haggle and make deals.
23. He has a very fine hat collection and loves to dress up in old-fashioned clothes.
24. He is part Cherokee Indian.
25. He has an accent. People often think he is European and ask me where he’s from. I have to explain constantly that he is the result of a Georgia born father and a Montana raised mother.
26. When he talks to, listens to, or watches people with a Southern accent, he will adopt it for hours.
27. He hates people to baby him when he’s sick and would rather be left totally alone.
28. He once killed and ate a robin while he was roughing it in the wilderness. He does not recommend it.
29. He is pragmatic – just like MacGyver.
30. Before we were married, he would disappear into the wilderness quite often for weeks at a time just to be alone.
31. When I met him, he had forty-two girls’ numbers in his cell phone who all wanted to be his girlfriend.
32. He tried to pretend that he didn’t like me, even to himself.
33. He got slightly misty-eyed on our wedding day, but he only sheds tears on the days when I bring one of his children into the world.
34. He never does things in halves.
35. He is charismatic. People do things for him that they wouldn’t do for anyone else.
36. He has a permanent retainer on his front top and bottom teeth.
37. On our first date, he took me to the mall and bought me $120 worth of classy clothes because he liked to see me in them and he had been saving up to do it for months.
38. He is a member of the National Ski Patrol.
39. He once filmed for a movie while skiing backwards down a mountain.
40. The sight of blood does not bother him in the least – or anything else gory for that matter.
41. An aptitude testing center told him that the best job he could have would be a fighter pilot.
42. He can exert 160 pounds of pressure by bringing his non-dominant hand into a fist.
43. He does not hold still while he sleeps.
44. He hates doing dishes, and hates it even more when dishes are left in the sink to soak.
45. His favorite season is winter, but he lives in a state that doesn’t have one.
46. He has perfect pitch. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Perfect Pitch.
47. Richard has been the sound editor for lots of movies, but none of them are ones you would know about.
48. Richard has also been a voice actor for the anime series Ah My Buddha. He voices the principal of the high school along with a few other minor characters. How did he get the job? He was just there at the right minute.
49. He has broken most of his fingers.
50. He’s also broken his foot and has trouble with certain shoes. Probably because he didn’t use the crutches as long as he was supposed to.
51. When riding his horse, she threw him into a tree, and he rode her around for another two hours with cracked ribs.
52. When I met him, the calluses on his hands were so thick that it was hard for him to feel how hot or cold something was.
53. He can grow a pretty awesome beard and mustache.
54. He never misses a shot with his .45 rifle.
55. He would rather be an hour early than a minute late.
56. The first of my birthdays we celebrated as friends, he took me out for a Jamba Juice and then we went back to his place to drywall his basement.
57. He had a “testing routine” for all his would-be girlfriends to see if they would be worth the effort of building a relationship with. I passed.
58. His nickname is Ducky and even his mother calls him that.
59. He tries every summer to consume his own body weight in fried squash.
60. If unsupervised, he will drink a gallon of whole milk every day.
61. He does not play video games or computer games.
62. I had to make a hard argument for him to buy a cell phone.
63. He is left-handed.
64. He tells people that he’s six feet tall, but he’s not. He’s 5 feet 11.5 inches.
65. He’s a tease. An incessant one.
66. He loves to read colonial American writing. The syntax and passion really move him.
67. He loves James Bond movies.
68. He can fix absolutely anything.
69. He likes to vacuum (which is good, because I don’t).
70. He is so secure in his masculinity that he doesn’t have trouble tossing feminine products into his cart while whistling, and he owns a pink phone.
71. That man can rock the color red so hard it’s difficult to take him out without him getting fawned over by every female we see. I’m surprised he hasn’t been kidnapped.
72. People are usually slightly surprised to discover that he married someone like me. What can I say? Opposites attract! It's because he is good at bringing out the best in people and working with their strengths. He's a good leader, but he doesn't like it.
73. He has a faulty sense of relative time, mostly in the realm of goals. At one time in our marriage, he really thought he could put up a fence around our six-acre lot in a weekend.
74. There are a lot of days where he’s working so hard that he forgets to eat. This drives me insane.
75. He can play the harmonica.
76. He was once mistaken in an LA restaurant for Quenton Tarantino.
77. He’s also been mistaken, on more than one occasion, for Johnny Depp.
78. He is a volunteer on the world-famous Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team. He loves it.
79. He takes interest in my interest. I can give him a Knit Picks catalogue and not say a word to him. He can then flip through it, and in ninety seconds, say things like, “You’d love to make that. And that in a different color. You like that but would never knit it. That’s a no. You’d love to have some of that, but you know you have too much already.” And his commentary will be one hundred percent accurate.
80. Every time I say I can’t do something because I don’t know how, he’ll return, “But you can LEARN!”
81. When startled, his response is to attack. I learned this the hard way early on and have never, ever tried to shock him or scare him since. (He went for my windpipe.)
82. Even though he served a mission, he mysteriously does not know how to cook. Though he can grill barbecued chicken legs like nobody’s business.
83. His idea of cooking is to put parsley . . . in everything.
84. Every once in a while, I will come home to a candlelit bath, storm soundtrack, and darkness while he takes the kids away and comes home with dinner. I love these days, and I love that they don’t happen often enough to not be special.
85. He likes to kidnap me for our anniversary. He’s spirited me away to Las Vegas and San Diego. Once we crashed someone’s ballroom dancing group dressed to the nines. The group were so thrilled that they rearranged their whole schedule to cater to us.
86. He’s actually quite good at listening, but he looks like he isn’t paying any attention at all.
87. He looks like he isn’t paying attention because he is one of those rare people who can think three steps ahead and focus on more than one thing at a time.
88. His fast thinking means that when I spell things for him, three letters at a time, in a rhythm, it grates his nerves. He doesn’t want the rhythm. He wants me to just give him the letters. Reversely, when he spells things for me or tells me phone numbers, I have to have him repeat it several times because he goes too fast.
89. He is an amateur ham radio operator (and made me get my license too). He gets a kick out of messing with his radio. His call sign is KK6EJJ.
90. He’s so intelligent that he knows exactly how to be incompetent enough to get me to do things for him.
91. But he will change diapers. I think we’ve changed equal numbers.
92. We are not equal on number of baths we’ve given the children. He almost always gives them their baths.
93. He doesn’t know what to do with newborns, and while he loves our kids very much, he enjoys them more when they can interact with him.
94. He is fearless. He can jump off cliffs, out of helicopters, and even (get this) give speeches in public without getting nervous. He’s not set up the way other people are.
95. He’s not very good at relaxing. He prefers movement and learning and doing something.
96. However, he will watch youtube videos for hours at a time if you get him going on something (i.e. pranking).
97. He is devoted. I have never once worried, ever, that he was bored with me or wanted someone else. And for someone with low self-esteem like me, that’s really saying something about his fidelity.
98. He has a hard time with closed-minded people, false people, or arrogance.
99. If he promises something and shakes your hand, that’s a blood oath, and he will be true to his word, no matter what.
100. He really is my favorite. Always. I love you, darling.