Science Writing Samples

My all-time least favorite day of school was always the second day of each year.  The first day was super exciting: meeting new people, catching up with old friends, seeing who’s changed over the summer. Even the actual school part wasn’t that bad. The teacher would walk in, make sure they could say everyone’s name right, and go over the rules of the class. An easy day for all. Then they’d give us our first assignment.

“For tomorrow’s class, I want you to come in prepared to share with the rest of us what you did for your summer vacation.” The instructions were given so matter-of-factly. Without concern for just how embarrassing it was for me to share that I did nothing. I grew up with 4 older siblings, three of whom were already in college; there wasn’t a lot of time, money, or desire for long family vacations.

On the second day of school I would have to watch and listen as each of my classmates got up and told tales of new experiences, distant lands and shared adventure. When it was my turn, I sheepishly told of my weekly trips to the park and about how my dogs ripped the support struts off my deck. By comparison, my life as a seven year old was pretty boring. Luckily, by 5th grade, we were too old for that assignment. In my mid-twenties, I got into Facebook and once again my life was compared in stark contrast to those of my peers. And I was left wanting.

Psychologists refer to it as the social comparison theory. The theory states that we determine our own social and personal worth based on how we stack up against others. This goes for attractiveness, wealth, employment, and whatever else others have that we want. Sure, a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses can be a good thing. It can motivate a person to dream, to set goals, and to use those goals as a carrot for their own success. However, should the carrot be too big, the result of all this want, all this unfilled desire in the face of other people’s perceived limitless happiness, is inevitably and predictably, sadness.

Facebook is now a ubiquitous part of our lives and there are a lot of benefits associated with it. At the click of a button, we can update our parents and friends on what’s going on with us, or let them know we like their stance on gay marriage. And, if it was only used for those purposes and we turned off the computer and walked away, it would fulfill. A 2010 study from Carnegie Mellon found that, when people engaged in direct interaction with others via Facebook—that is, posting on walls, messaging, or “liking” something—their feelings of bonding and general social capital increased, while their sense of loneliness decreased. But that’s not all we do on Facebook. In fact, the site is designed to keep us within its pages, to linger, to lurk.

Maria Konnikova, in a September article for the New Yorker, points out, “the world of constant connectivity and media, as embodied by Facebook, is the social network’s worst enemy.” The majority of time people spend on the site is spent passively browsing the pages of friends, acquaintances and the like. There, we see their wealth and, by comparison, our own relative poverty. John Johnides, a University of Michigan cognitive neuroscientist, put it like this in an NPR interview, “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.” It’s like that second day of school all over again, except every day, and that class of 30 is now everyone you’ve ever met and all their super cool friends.

The kneejerk response to this is, “Well if you did more, then you wouldn’t feel so jealous. Just get out more.” However, an interesting conclusion drawn by the University of Michigan study according to Jonides, is that the effects of Facebook are most pronounced for those who socialize the most ‘in real life.’ He says the folks who did the most direct, face-to-face socializing along with a healthy use of social media, were the ones who reported the most Facebook-related mood decline. At face value, this seems counter-intuitive. Obviously the people who experience the negative impact of Facebook, do so because they have nothing to share. More and more Facebook and other social media platforms are making the sharing of the experience, the reason for the experience itself.

A trip to Paris is not about doing new things or opening one’s horizons, it’s about taking pictures and posting them to the wall so others can see how cool your life is. Those who feel more of a pull to compete or to “win at life” are constantly driven to have those experiences that will make others jealous. When their experiences don’t measure up in spite of all their hard work — an inevitability in an arena of thousands — the result makes them feel even sadder. I had lame summers compared to those of my peers, but at least I could fall back on the excuse that I wasn’t really trying.

NPR’s program “All Tech Considered” asserts “the prescription for Facebook despair is less Facebook. Researchers found that face-to-face or phone interaction — those outmoded, analog ways of communication — had the opposite effect.” Actually interacting with people and getting out in the world, without the intention of sharing it later, makes people happy. The summers years ago, I really loved going to the park with my dogs and my family. And when those same dogs, fed up with being tied to the deck, pulled down the supports, I was proud. Some of the fondest memories I have of hanging out with my Dad and my two older brothers occurred when we had to spend a month rebuilding their handiwork.

I was perfectly content doing those things, even happy. It was time spent with my family, which by nature could only have real value to me. It wasn’t until I had to hold up those experiences to the experiences of others, that I wanted them to be something else. And it was only when I was mired in that desire that they became less than what I needed. Research is discovering Facebook is the second day of school but with a classroom of billions, and that many of us just can’t keep up.

How could we know? Telomeres.

Think of telomeres like the plastic things on the end of shoelaces, only for DNA. The telomere, like the aglet – name for the plastic thing at the end of shoelaces – is there to keep everything inside, and in control.

Each time DNA copies itself; the telomeres on the ends of the chromosomes get shorter. The shorter the telomere gets, the more likely this last replication will be the last replication ever.

It’s generally accepted that this process of telomere shortening is in some part, responsible for our aging. As more and more cells in our system fail to replicate correctly, our skin sags, our muscles ache, and it’s harder to remember things. Well not quite, but one thing leads to another.

Scientists have yet to figure out just how short the telomere can get before the cell can no longer function as it should. It’s fine to say telomeres shorten and we age, but finding that critical length which leads to bad things happening, is what’s required to stop or delay it. This is where telomere uncapping comes in.

Telomere uncapping is like when an aglet splits down the middle. The fabric of the shoelace spreads out becoming completely useless, difficult to handle. When a telomere comes uncapped, it doesn’t make that final protein loop, there’s nothing to hold it together. This could lead to a double stranded DNA break. Which in turn sets off series of events within the cell called the damage control pathway. The cell now has two choices; apoptosis, self-repair through suicide, or senescence, which is like being a building left to rot in space.

Dr. Anthony John Donato runs the Translational Vascular Physiology Lab out of the University of Utah School of Medicine. He has for a long time focused on making a strong correlation between telomere uncapping and cell senescence.

His lab obtained arterial cells from people who have part of their lymph nodes removed during procedures related to Melanoma. Using only the cells from those patients whose cancer had not metastasized – spread to other parts of the body – left him with 11 premenopausal women and 11 men of similar age group and 17 postmenopausal women with 35 older men.

While the mean length of telomere shortening between all groups where associative – young men and women had similar telomere length and relative shortening, and the older generation’s result were corollary as well – the rates of uncapping in arterial cells among women post menopause increased at a much higher rate than the men in their age group.

Dr. Donato believes this may contribute to why women, who are pretty much bulletproof to risk factors for heart disease pre menopause, “catch and surpass men in all-cause cardiovascular disease after menopause.” Their cardiovascular system simply “ages” faster. Isolating the cellular mechanism causing this difference could help in the synthesis of new drugs, or repurposing old ones to fight it, though Donato says we are more than a few steps away from any practical applications.

Prof. Thomas von Zglinicki is the Scientific Director of the Institute of Ageing at Newcastle University. According to his bio, he is one of the, “first to propose telomere length as a biomarker of ageing in humans.” He cautioned strongly that bubbly kept corked. His read of the study saw that other biomarkers, not uncapping were actually higher in the male group. He’d like to see this same study conducted on a bigger sample size, preferably with subjects who have had prior incidences of cardiovascular disease, to make the case stronger.

Dr. Donato proudly admits his lab took a novel approach. That said, he and his colleagues “were impressed by the differences,” as borne out in the study. He is aware of the limitations of the sample size and repeatedly cautioned any and all from jumping to any major conclusions. “More investigation is needed certainly,” he said, but the results of this experiment were encouraging enough to give direction to lab’s future research.

Non-Science Writing Samples

There are many faces to the city’s homeless and many of them can be seen at Xavier’s Church on W. 16th Street every Sunday. It’s a soup kitchen serving once a week when many of the city’s other support services are closed. Being one of the only options available, there’s a good sampling of the city’s struggling as they travel from all over to get a warm meal in climate controlled conditions.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group and direct service provider to the city’s most needy, “the number of homeless sleeping in municipal shelters is 82 percent higher than it was 10 years ago,” and, “has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression.”

That is only a count of the people who enter and leave shelters. The actual numbers may be even higher, as some of the city’s homeless never seek the help they need, and there is little in the way of a comprehensive count of those on the streets.

Some of those people, though, invariably wind up here at Xavier’s Church. The line stretches halfway down the block. Volunteer Victor Ellis points out his side is only half of the total and is for women, families, and/or the physically disabled. On the opposite side of the building is another line for the able-bodied.

According to Ellis, the lines have been shorter as of late, but earlier this summer he’s seen it stretch down two blocks. He expects, as the weather turns and it get colder, that there will be even more people.

Ellis is homeless himself, having lost his job in the biohazard remediation and removal trade five years ago. He has been living for the past three months at the Jack Ryan shelter in Chelsea. He’s clean, his clothes are clean, and he smokes whole cigarettes rather than butts retrieved from the street. He’s a little more put together than the people in line, though he shares housing with 199 other men just like them.

The similarity of his experiences with those in the line could be the reason he treats each person with respect and seems to take personal interest in making sure they know where they’re going and that they know how to get there. He volunteers once a week, he says, because “it makes [him] feel good to give back.”

And he’s been coming here helping out since early in the summer. “Anyone can do it,” he says. And he recommends that they do. “All they have to do is go in, go downstairs, and check with the directors. We can always use help,” he says.

John Romero is 53 and stands in Ellis’s line. He is in a bad way; he is schizophrenic and HIV positive, and is back on the streets because he recently went off of his meds. His upper teeth are mostly gone and the few remaining on his lower jaw shimmer gold with dental work. He is aware of his contributing role in his current circumstance. He’s eager to talk about how hard it is, and wants people to listen, but his voice cracks a little when asking for help. “What can [the public] do for me and people like me?” he asks. He says he used to drive trucks, both on the long haul and locally, andif he could, he’d work. He just can’t find the balance, can’t seem to stay on the horse.

Al, another man in Ellis’s line, has complaints about the system, specifically the shelter he’s been calling home. He is in his 60’s but doesn’t look a day over 40. He’s weighed down with a few bags over his shoulders and every once in a while a distracting blue light flashes from the Bluetooth headset wrapped around his neck. He’s homeless, but he’s connected; maybe the accessories are necessary for his work, which he described only in uselessly broad strokes.

To hear Al tell it, he’s one of 10 men out of close to 200 staying at the Bronx Works shelter, that could be considered sane. “They’re just picking people up off the street when it rains, or when it’s cold,” he says emphatically, as if the problem should be obvious, “they’re not checking or caring whether or not these people are crazy.” He doesn’t feel safe sharing the space with them.

He’s not saying they’re not as deserving of help as anyone else, but “the workers in the shelter aren’t paying attention.”  He gets clean sheets when he asks, and a hot meal when needed, but feels there’s a palpable danger, a contained chaos below the surface.  He’s worried, and the concern runs deep enough that he’s allowed the line to move past him in a couple of surges in order for him to get his point across.

“Something needs to be done, someone is going to get stabbed,” he said.

It seemed as if it had been a long time since someone had listened and recorded his complaints. But after he had spoken his piece, said his fill, Al blended back into his spot for a meal, taking his place as a face in the line.

It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina and the images of a flooded and devastated New Orleans inundated all the major networks. Five years since the BP Oil Spill threatened to pollute its coast. For many, aside from the hushed remembrances of college days spent on Bourbon St. succumbing to some of the less respectable customs of the city, this is what people think is all the city has to offer. As a result, the Crescent City seems a factory of mirth constantly teetering on the edge of despair. For those who don’t take the time to dig further, the city is a stark contrast of opposites lacking shades of grey and depth of meaning.  For the few lucky enough to live here, or even those who take the time to visit while maintaining a different mindset, today’s New Orleans is alarmingly vibrant, thumbing its nose at recent history. The place contains depth much greater than its loose reputation might

I was in New Orleans about six months after Katrina. Desolate is not a strong enough word. I could walk for hours along the broken and bent tracks of the iconic St. Charles Ave. Streetcar and not see a soul. At night, in the absence of a bright moon, I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. The city was notably dark. The streetlights were low on the list of priorities for repair. If the moon was full, its pale light caught and spread in the thick humid air as if held close to the ground by its weight. It hung there, glowing, undisturbed in the absence of cars. Beyond the lush, gnarled, and ancient oaks on either side of the street, the light cast a ghostly hue on Victorian mansions as it had for over a century. Their colors, a vibrant pastel during the day, morphed into undead versions of themselves in the eerie spotted white glow. I remember thinking, this is what the city must have been like in its golden age. The 1830’s–when it boasted the third highest population in America. These houses have stood since then, and many are still owned by the descendants of their builders. Back then, each night a lamplighter would make a slow route, bouncing in a carriage along the cobblestones of the Avenue to light the gas lamps. Standing in the darkness, I could almost see the carriage taking shape in the distance. The blackness was kind enough to cast form to my imagination. My fancy was made more vivid by a city that remains as it was when the lamplighter made the nightly rounds.  This is the inner beauty and mystique of New Orleans. It is fueled by the fierce pride of the locals, and occasionally setback by the circumstances of its geography, but the city grips onto its past unlike any other in America. When the fluidity of my situation gave me the opportunity to return to the crescent of the Mississippi, I was eager to once again walk its streets, to rediscover its past, and to see how far it had come since the recent disaster. As I walked from my apartment in the Garden District to ride on the renovated St. Charles Streetcar downriver to the French Quarter, I could tell this was not the forsaken city I had witnessed eight years ago.

St. Charles Ave. is wide and follows the bend of the Mississippi, which flows lazily southward for ten blocks. The cars travel on either side of and are half as wide as, the neutral ground (median) in the middle. This neutral ground is where the streetcars roll. I found a pole topped by a thin, vertical, school bus yellow sign with black pressed letters reading “Car Stop” and waited for my ride. They run frequently. I must have just missed one, because I was alone at the stop. While I waited, I noticed how different everything looked and felt. The once abandoned houses were now bustling with activity as people swung on porch swings and sipped what I hoped were Mint Juleps or lemonade. I thought I could hear the driving rhythms of a brass band carried on the air from a Second Line, a musical march that can erupt at any time or place anywhere in the city for no particular reason. The streetcars, like the city they serve, are never in a rush. The sidewalks are root jagged and therefore hard to navigate. Joggers, dog walkers, and pedestrians share the neutral ground among the rails. Each person who passed me waved or said hello. Being a Northerner accustomed to strangers avoiding, or even worse, running right into me as if I didn’t exist, it was nice to once again be in a city with a shared, inherited need to make everyone feel welcomed. I felt a rumble in the ground, heard a faint ding of a manual bell and looked down the bend of the crescent to see the telltale army green and the single incandescent light of an icon of New Orleans. No other single thing embodies the collective reverence New Orleanians have of their history than their streetcars. The St. Charles Streetcar Line has been running without fail since 1835, making it the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. The cars on this particular line are the same vehicles used since the 1920’s. With a grumble and screech of the brakes, one of these moving museums stopped, the glass doors folded open and the stairs spilled out. The inside is a testament to a simpler time, before liability laws and the need for constant distraction: the windows open, the seats are wood, there are no TV screens or digital advertisements, and the lights are exposed bulbs rather than tubes. Conductor’s controls are at the front and rear of the car and are accompanied by a leather stool. One side is occupied by the driver but the opposite is left open to the public for extra seating on especially packed rides. I paid my $1.25 and settled into a bench a few rows back. After the novelty of being able to stick my hand out the window of a public transit vehicle wore off, I was again overwhelmed with a feeling of this city’s unbreakable connection to the past. My grandfather could have ridden in this very same streetcar, in this very same

The French Quarter is the oldest part of New Orleans. In 1717 Jean-Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville, on assignment from the French Company of the Indies, founded the city here. He wrote in a letter to his superiors that “[These] are the best lands in the world,” and thought them high enough to be safe from the river’s annual flooding and hurricanes. The streetcar took me down St. Charles, around General Lee’s circle, through an alley abutted by two contemporary luxury hotels. It’s final stop dropping me off on the wide modern thoroughfare, Canal St. I picked my way through the bustle of cars and street merchants like those found in any metropolitan area and suddenly I felt I was back in time and across oceans. The buildings in the Quarter are, by an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution, under the constant supervision of the Vieux Carre Commission. This organization, its name derived from the original moniker of the area meaning “old square”, protects the area, which has buildings that date back to the early 1800’s and before. I walked along the cobblestone streets, stopping every once in a while to peer into the windows of the Quarter’s abundant art galleries and antique stores. All around me were ornate, elaborately decorated wrought iron galleries attached to colorful stucco one to two story homes. Their wooden hurricane shutters open to the fine weather. An eclectic mix of music filled the air, springing from the corner bars and buskers occupying each street. On Chartres, it was the twangy sounds of Bluegrass, on Royal St. there was a soulful Gospel singer, and Jazz could always be found in Jackson Square. The beautiful architecture in the Quarter is of Spanish origin, and not French as the name of the area suggests. The great fires of 1788 and 1794 destroyed most of the buildings. In 1763 Spain was awarded the colony through a complicated series of treaties and she rebuilt the Quarter in her own image.

As the Sun set and my journey through history came to an end, I decided to make my way to what I’ve always considered the center of New Orleans, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. The bar bears the name of a pirate/smuggler and local celebrity. There’s a theory he once owned the establishment. Built in 1772, it is one of the oldest structures in the city. It stakes a claim as the oldest continuously run bar in the country. One of few structures to escape the Great Fires, it is a cherished example of the a-frame roof and wood and brick facades typical of buildings occupying the Quarter from the earliest days of French rule. I was headed there for a Hurricane, a drink invented in New Orleans known for high alcohol content expertly masked in a fruity flavor. With night fast approaching, I figured I should clink glasses with a pirate in hopes of an experience I would relate to in hushed conversation in the future. After all, in spite of all its depth and meaning, this is still New Orleans.