Happy Midsummer!

Midsummer pole. Some say it's a fertility symbol. Go figure.

Midsummer pole. Some say it’s a fertility symbol. Go figure.

Today is the one day of the year I wish I was in Sweden, because on the second to last Friday of June Sweden celebrates Midsummer’s Eve — one of the most important celebrations for us Swedes. What we are actually celebrating is rather unclear, but (as explained here) the why is usually less important than the how.

Ironically, this is the fourth Midsummer in a row I spend abroad, and this time the distance from a Swedish midsummer is further than ever. Not only am I not going to organize any sort of Midsummer celebration this year — something I’ve done the past two years in Switzerland with my friend Kristina — but I am also spending this Midsummer in the southern hemisphere1, so if anything I should be celebrating midwinter.

Anyway, Happy Midsummer to all my friends and family! And remember: a midsummer is not complete without a horrible hangover the following day.

1. I have actually spent one more Midsummer in the southern hemisphere, further away from Sweden than Buenos Aires, namely in New Zealand in 2006. However, that time me and four other Swedes organized a Midsummer party for everyone, so I still reckon this year further away from a Swedish midsummer.

Ice-cold evidence

Following my previous two posts, and this blog post by Cornucopia (in Swedish), I feel it is time that global warming also gets some space on my blog. After all, it has been (and still is) one of my biggest concerns for our future1.

Just as in my post about yeast, I think global warming is best explained in pictures. Worldwide melting of glaciers and the ice sheets in Antarctica has been preached before, but a single photo can be more convincing than even the most well-written article. Here follows an entire gallery of such photos. There isn’t really that much to comment, but the photos speak for themselves:

http://www.snowaddiction.org/2014/06/photos-from-alaska-then-and-now-this-is-a-get-ready-to-be-shocked-when-you-see-what-it-looks-like-now.html

If one still cannot believe that this is reality, that this is happening right now, one can also watch the documentary Chasing Ice from 2012. It doesn’t get much more obvious than this.

Otherwise one can also remain in the denial stage of the Kübler-Ross model2 and blame global warming on natural fluctuations. For my part, I have probably already moved to the acceptance stage, and am convinced that there isn’t anymore anything we can do to reverse this disaster.

1. I say our future, because I don’t think we are in any way threatening life on earth as a whole. To planet earth, whatever we humans do during our time here, and however long we end up “ruling” this planet, our total impact will be a piss in the ocean. We are an insignificant parenthesis in the course of the planet’s history. Global warming is worrying only from a completely self-centered perspective. Species have come and gone before, and the mass-extinction we are currently causing is nothing compared to what some of the extraterrestrial impacts with our planet have caused in the past.

2. The five stages of the Kübler-Ross model are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Giving hope

A lot has been said about Barack Obama, and it’s difficult to know what to believe. But one thing that is indisputable is his excellence when it comes to giving speeches. The Swedish prime minister doesn’t have even a fraction of Obama’s charisma.

In this 30-minute speech Obama communicates both hope and motivation, despite talking about arguably the most difficult challenge we humans may ever have faced – stopping the climate change.

This is what I do… for now

Although my blog might make me sound like a failed hobby psychologist on an extended vacation in Argentina, what I really am is a biologist. Or at least that’s what I should be titling myself after my adventure down here is over.

I have been very sparse with explanations of what I actually do here; “working in the lab” is a very vague and unspecific description, and although some may know that I’m working with yeast, science is probably not the first thing that comes to their minds when they hear yeast.

Not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of yeast.

Not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of yeast.

But obviously my seven years of studies have not turned me into a baker, nor a beer brewer1. I wish I could say that I’ve learned something more useful than that, but that would be bending the meaning of usefulness a lot.

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, so to save me some typing, let me get visual for a second. This is yeast:

Baker's yeast.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells: Excellent baking, brewing, and research companions.

Each of these spheres — more specifically yeast cells — is around 3-4 microns (3-4×10-6 m) in diameter. That is around one fiftieth (1/50) of the diameter of a normal human hair. They don’t swim, they don’t walk, they don’t wiggle, and certainly don’t talk. But they have a huge appetite for sugar, and they are exceptionally good at converting these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This is why they are so popular in bread and beer making. But they are also invaluable for biological research, and have (together with for example fruit flies, roundworms, mice, enteric bacteria, zebrafish, and thale cresses) over the years taught us a great deal about biology. Also the biology of our own, human cells.

Less significant for research as a whole (I will get back to this soon), but more significant for this blog post: yeast is also key players of my master’s thesis, and are supposed to help me finally graduate from seven long — but admittedly also fun — years of university studies.

So why am I working with yeast, if I’m not using them for baking bread, nor brewing beer?

Without digging too deep into the details2, I simply use them as biological factories for testing biological ideas. I could just as well be using other cell types (for example from the organisms I listed earlier), but since my boss has a special liking for yeast, it is his model organism of choice.

More specifically: using genetic engineering techniques I modify the cells (i.e., I create GMOs), and then analyze them to see if they behave as expected or not. But since these cells seem to be doing nothing more than consume sugar, produce alcohol, and divide, a logical question would be what type of behavior I could possibly be looking for.

In my project, I modify the cells so that they can produce glowing molecules. By introducing genes derived from deep-sea organisms such as glowing jellyfish, I give my yeast cells the ability to glow as well. With a bit more sophisticated engineering, I can also control exactly when the cells are supposed to glow, and — to some extent — in which color(s). However, we are not talking a laser show here, and in yeast this light cannot even be seen (and especially not measured) with the naked eye. I therefore take help from a fluorescence microscope, and can expect to see something like this:

Yeast laser show.

Not quite as vibrant and exciting as an Ibiza DJ night club.

During a single experiment, I may take hundreds of images like these, capturing tens of thousands of cells. I then use sophisticated computer software (which I have not developed myself), to try to measure the intensity of light these cells produce.

Thus, a big part of my days in the lab are dedicated to working with a fluorescence microscope, taking hour-long series of images to see how the intensity of the light (fluorescence) in the cells change over time, and whether that makes sense with my predictions.

And that’s it! That’s what I do! For now…

Because it is easy to see why a career in cell biology might at some point lead to an existential crisis. Not so much for the size of the cells, or their lack of movement — one can always switch to a different cell type or organism if size or movement is what matters to you. But even during my relatively short time in biological research, I have been asking myself if what I am doing is really making the most out of my potential — as a researcher, as an educated individual, and as a human contributing to the world.

Have I spent a good part of my life studying at university level in five different countries, living off tax payer’s money, only to sit and study the intensity of light in yeast cells using a fluorescence microscopy? Or could I perhaps do something more efficient with my time, that would return a bit more value to the world? Not that science is easy; it can be incredibly challenging. But capturing images of (yeast) cells with a semi-automatic fluorescence microscope may not require seven years of education — but that is actually what I am spending most of my time doing.

Also, although I do find the learning and investigation aspects of research and science incredibly interesting, I am not very convinced that I could spend a good part of my life alone in a dark room with a fluorescence microscope and radio FM4 as my only companions. I am interested in studying science, but not necessarily performing it.

Working at the microscope, with FM4 and cell fluorescence to brighten up my day.

Working at the microscope, with FM4 and cell fluorescence to brighten up my day.

But then, of course… what would I like to do instead? And would I really enjoy that other job more? The grass is always greener on the other side, and I have met few people in my life who are still happy with their jobs, once they have become routine.

I guess I am just another Generation Y yuppie.

1. … although it is not uncommon that yeast scientists switch to a career in beer brewing once they get fed up with science.

2. That would take a lot more text than a 1000-word blog post, and you would most likely still not get the idea — biologist or not.

Through the thick and thin

Yesterday, reality eventually caught up with me. With the arrival of an inevitable message, a couple of fantastic months have finally come to an end. The upcoming weeks I will be facing some changes in my daily life life here in BsAs, and I will from time to time unfortunately be feeling pretty low. But I did have it coming; and since the message was expected to arrive at some point, I was relatively prepared for it. And luckily, hard times never last forever. Or as this lovely Swedish idiom phrases is:

Efter regn kommer solsken)

(Literally: After rain comes sunshine)

On the bright side of things, this will free a lot of my time for doing things that I have been setting aside lately. My morning workout, for example, updating my blog… and my Spanish studies!1 And with a public holiday lurking around the corner next Friday, I am tempted to finally make the weekend trip up to the Iguazu falls that I have been longing for for so long.

In other words: good things do come to an end, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be replaced by something else. And when the clouds finally roll by and the sun comes back, the rain will dry quickly.

1. Yes, you read that right. I am not planning on working more.

Good morning BsAs!

image

Buena vista from the antisocial club

My posting has been lagging behind this week and I will try to make up for that the upcoming week. In the meantime I’ll try to bribe my readers with another of these awesome views, taken at 8:15 this morning.
Good morning!