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All People Be Happy

What do you feel will lead to a world where All People Can Be Happy, and what contribution will you make?

Everybody’s voice matters, and I believe by listening to each person’s voice, we create an environment of support that fosters individual and community growth. I currently tutor with the East African Community Services, where I visit the homes of refugee families to tutor their children. I value this opportunity to help people who are at a disadvantage improve their lives through education. Below, I’m tutoring Jeanine from Tanzania in reading and writing. Watch her progression of drawings!


1.  Jeanine’s drawing of my name the first time we met.


2.  Jeanine’s most recent drawing.  Notice the spelling!


3.  Here is Jeanine, now working on her cursive!


Learn more about the All People Be Happy Foundation here.

Science Friday: Upgrade your grey matter, cause one day it may matter

MRI brain scans of 5 to 25 year olds show that brain density decreases over that time period. Seems backwards, right?  Think of the trimming of the adolescent brain as the trimming of the monster HBO package that my parents bought when they first set up cable. Eventually they had to pick out which channels they didn’t use and get rid of them to reduce expenses. Similarly the developing brain contains many more brain cells (tv channels) than any person uses. So the unused brain cells are removed to reduce expenses on your body. The decrease in brain density seen in MRI scans is due to the death of unused brain cells.  It’s use ‘em or lose ‘em.
The pruning of unused neurons happens mainly in the brain’s gray matter during adolescence. The thought patterns used during adolescence are crucial to long-term personality, as the circuitry carries over into adulthood — it’s more than habits, it’s hard-wiring. This finding places an even greater weight on understanding and combating addiction, anti-social behavior, and depression in teens.  The most highly hit areas are in the forebrain, which is responsible for reasoning, logic, and decision-making. It’s not using this logic to get good SAT scores that concerns me, but rather having a solid foundation with which to make informed decisions and take solid risks. This is why we need to invest in research. Education is not like a car — it never depreciates.

Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man.


I’m an adoring fan of J.D. Salinger’s stories with the Glass family. They are filled with intricately quirky images about love and identity and how the two can conflict, especially in the young. They are my reminder that humans have an often unmet capacity to love. “Franny and Zooey” is my favorite, but as “Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters” is due back at the library next week, I’ve copied a few quotes that caught my attention before I return it. “Franny and Zooey” has more in common with “Raise High the Roof Beam” than the characters. It features haikus, seemingly nonsensical statements and ramblings (perhaps influenced by Zen), and the Hindu belief Vedanta, which holds that human nature is divine, and that the aim of human life is to realize that human nature is divine.

Here are some quotes to savor~

“There is evidently one rather terrible hallmark common to all persons who look for God, and apparently with enormous success, in the queerest imaginable places — e.g. in radio announcers, in newspapers, in taxicabs with crooked meters, literally everywhere. (My brother for the record had a distracting habit most of his adult life of investigating loaded ashtrays with his index finger, clearing all the cigarette ends to the sides — smiling from ear to ear as he did it — as if he expected to see Christ himself curled up cherubically in the middle, and he never looked disappointed.)”

“Seymour once said that all we do our wholes lives is go from one little piece of Holy Ground to the next.”

“A line exists in Kafka’s diaries — one of many of his, really — that could easily usher in the Chinese New Year: ‘The young girl who only because she was walking arm-in-arm with her sweetheart looked quietly around.'”

“I found out a good many years back about my general reader; that is to say, you, I’m afraid. You’re a great bird-lover….You’re someone who took up birds in the first place because they fired your imagination; they fascinated you because they seemed of all created beings the nearest to pure spirit — those little creatures with normal temperature of 125 degrees. ‘That goldcrest, with a stomach no bigger than a bean, flies across the North Sea!'”


“I was an egregiously charming, able fellow, and it was at once a marked and curiously unimportant reflection on anyone’s taste if he thought otherwise.”

“Even in the dark I could sense that she felt the usual estrangement from me when I don’t automatically love what she loves…I mentioned to her R.H. Blythe’s definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it… And she sat stirring her drink and feeling unclose to me. She worries over the way her love for me comes and goes, appears, and disappears. She doubts its reality simply because it isn’t steadily pleasurable.”

“S. was, in the usual tiresome terminology, an Attractive Ugly Man. (It’s a very suspect tag in any event, most commonly used by certain womanfolk, real or imaginary, to justify their perhaps too singular attraction to spectacularly sweet-wailing demons or, somewhat less categorically, badly brought up swans.)”

“Please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((()))).”

“I dread saying anything to you tonight, dear old Buddy, except the trite. Please follow your heart, win or lose….Keep me up until five only because all of your stars are out, and for no other reason…Were you busy writing your heart out?”


me, somewhere along the california coast

Mr. and Mrs. Lighthouse *June 9*

  Lighthouse Love

lighthouse love

This Week’s Whimsy: On the power of brainstorming

By me

Science Friday: Prions

Ribbon representation of a protein in its normal (left) and prion (right) forms

Ribbon representations of a protein in its normal (left) and prion (right) forms

Humans long believed that disease was caused by witchcraft, the moon, or the humors. In 1890 Robert Koch postulated that infectious disease is caused not by evil eyes or evil woman, but by microorganisms that live in our water and homes. For the next eighty years, biologists held that infectious disease is caused by the spread of nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) in the form of viruses or single-celled organisms that contain DNA as their genetic material, such as bacteria like streptococcus. In 1960 the infectious disease paradigm was again smashed when a biologist and a mathematician proposed that DNA isn’t the only offender — protein can also act as an infectious agent. Their idea is revolutionary in more than one way — proteins are the building blocks of life, but they do not contain the information for life, so how can a protein, without any instructions, spread disease?

Just like your hand needs a certain conformation to undertake a task, such as picking up a teacup, so must a protein take a specific conformation to perform its task in the cell. Sometimes though, like a hand with a broken finger that can’t pick up a teacup, a protein “breaks”  by becoming misfolded and is no longer helpful to the cell — it cannot do its task. Even worse, it can hurt the cell. These deleterious infectious misfolded proteins, called prions, propagate not by creating more of themselves de novo such as the case with replicating viruses or spreading bacteria, but instead convert healthy protein in the cell to the misfolded and harmful form. Misfolded proteins expose unstable surfaces to the cell, and to minimize that instability, will convert and aggregate with other proteins like itself. These aggregations themselves are harmful, and they are the current explanation for Alzheimer’s Disease, although that link remains tenuous.

Now you might ask, “How does a protein become misfolded in the first place?” No one knows for sure, but once a protein misfolds, its unstable state is literally infectious. Prions are responsible for Mad Cow Disease, Crutzfield-Jackob Disease, Scrapie, Kuru, among others. Scientists are taking several approaches to study prions diseases. One such approach is the model organism approach, where an animal (or worm, fungus, fly) is used in environmental and genetic studies for which we can’t use humans — plus model organisms tend to be simpler than humans, so using model organisms is like learning addition before moving on to algebra.

Recently one of my favorite biologists Eric Kandel postulated that some prions may occur naturally in the body, where they to help the body function normally. Our brain cells have billions of connections, and part of what makes us unique (and helps us learn) is the strength and identity of these connections. One brain cell talks chemically to multitudes of others, and each of these connections is distinct. But how are these connections, called synapses, made distinct? One hypothesis is that the protein composition at each synapse is unique. However, molecules diffuse to areas of lower concentration, thus destroying the heterogeneity of synapses. A possible solution: prions — prions accumulate into non-diffusable aggregates, thereby maintaining unique synapses, allowing memory, personality and unique, beautiful snowflakes.

On a personal note, I used to work in a lipids (e.g. fatty acids) lab that studies membrane structure, and my Nobel Prize-winning idea was infectious lipids. Believe me, they’re out there. Making us sick. Making us fat. Tasting delicious.

Finally, a cautionary reminder: Prions, prions everywhere and not a brain to eat!


Science Friday: What separates us from the chimps?

karate chimp

What separates us from the chimps? For starters, that we are formulating such a question (big brains), voicing the question (speech), and investigating its answer using computers (tool manipulation).

99% of our DNA is identical to chimp DNA (in sequence, let’s not forget epigenetics and post-transcriptional control, the up-and-coming underdogs of biology). Your first thoughts might be that key genetic differences underly appearance (e.g. standing upright) and memory (e.g. remembering an entire spoken language). But researchers in several groups across the U.S. found much more.

Genes undergoing positive selection change more rapidly than those undergoing random (neither-beneficial nor harmful) mutations. So by comparing genomes across several species, scientists identified human genes highly divergent from chimp. The functions of these genes are not fully understood, as always is the case with science.

List of key genes identified:

1. Gene that is turned on during development, the product of which (called a protein) helps to sculpt the thumb from the rest of the hand. This gene helps to explain humans’ increased dexterity over chimps, and thereby the construction of more complex tools and the manipulation of the external world. (Can a chimp tie a shoe-lace? Doubtful.)

2. Two genes in diet: one that breaks down lactose and one that aids with starch digestion in the mouth. A flexible diet means a flexible lifestyle. Nature favors the flexible.

3. Gene involved in the production of speech, on the anatomical level. As an analogy, the violin can’t make music without strings (its anatomy), we can’t say words without our speech anatomy (certain bones and things, I won’t go into details). This one interests me particularly. When I think of language, I think of advanced mental faculty. I think of writing poetry that elevates the soul and composing song that crushes our proverbial fragile frames, not the height of the hyoid bone. Fascinates me to bits.

Science Friday: Jellyfish

“Sea Jellies”: all photos opensource


Chrysaora quinquecirrha

Jellyfish have no specialized circulatory, digestive, or central nervous systems, yet they are one of the most successful creatures on Earth as measured by biomass. Some are cannibals; some have fatal stings; some are immortal; some glow in the dark; some are bigger than blue whales; some have gender (male or female); they are all awesome to look at.

Some are larger than blue whales.


Cyanea capillata: Called the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish

I always thought the blue whale was the largest ocean-dweller but not so! (It is the largest mammal.) Lion’s Mane Jellyfish that have washed up on beaches are around 120 feet long, the length of three school buses. This jellyfish lives in the cold, boreal waters of the Arctic, which is pretty cool ;)

Some are immortal.


Life cycle of Turritopsis nutricula

The life cycle of a normal non-immortal jellyfish is complicated, but basically they exist as polyps, which reproduce asexually by budding, and then as medussa, tiny jellyfish that swim away from the polyp, and then as the larger bell-shaped sexually mature form. Turritopsis nutricula are able to revert to the polyp stage after becoming sexually mature, through a process known as transdifferentiation. Transdifferentiation is rare in biology; it’s when a differentiated stem cell takes a fate outside its established path. Basically it would be like a hair cell becoming a red blood cell, instead of a stem cell becoming a red blood cell. Transdifferentiation sounds risky and biologically pricey to me, but perhaps in evolution, great risks reap great rewards: Immortality!


In groups they are called blooms, swarms, or smacks.


A smack of jellyfish.

They are smacking into each other so to speak. This shot was taken in a aquarium, which are often backlit to highlight the jellyfishs’ loveliness.


Some glow in the dark.


Jellyfish proteins in a petri dish: Green Florescent Protein (GFP) etc.

GFP was originally isolated from Aequorea victoria and is now a common biological tool that researchers use to study cell shape and protein localization and function. The GFP gene has been modified to emit different color light, including red (RFP), yellow (YFP), cyan (CFP), magenta (MFP), and more — see beautiful beach scene above! In 2008 GFP won the Nobel Prize.


They are all awesome to look at.


Mediterranean Jellyfish


Palau Jellyfish


Flower Hat Jellyfish


Mr. and Mrs. Lighthouse *December 25*