Saturday, June 15, 2013

Every wing needs an anchor, every anchor needs a wing

Last month my best friend from Toronto came to visit me in Vancouver. We always have a ton of fun together, as we tend to push each other to extremes. Luckily, one of us is *usually* more rational at any given time, such that we strike a ‘fun’ balance and avoid dire police arrest...permanent physical injury...or brain damage, perhaps (though signs of the latter two outcomes are arguable). Given that we hadn’t seen each other in two months, however, we feared that our mutual overexcitement may make our radical tendencies consume us both simultaneously. We therefore hypothesized that this particular trip might indeed end in death. Being the astute, contemplative scientists we are, we decided that we were willing to take the risk.



We began the trip by getting tattoos together. We wanted to avoid the commonality of getting matching tattoos, so we pondered heavily on original ideas. A few minutes later we came up with a brilliant decision that we were certain we’d be happy with for the rest of our lives: an anchor and a wing; symbols of our ability to balance each other’s extremes. It was perfect. But wait, who would be the anchor and who would be the wing?! As I brooded back and forth, Mauricio barely breathed before exclaiming: ‘OBVIOUSLY you are the wing! You fly wayyy more than I do.” I wasn’t sure whether that was a compliment or an insult, but I liked the idea of a wing better so I went with it.

To keep with the spontenaiety of our relationship, I planned absolutely nothing for his visit (besides tattoos). The only thing I suggested was going up to my island for most of the trip, where all sorts of shenanigans would naturally unfold. The most riveting part of our times together is that while we know we will do crazy (or stupid?) things, we never, ever can predict what they will be. Take the excursion to go clam digging for example. Yes, clam digging. Anyone that has gone clam digging knows that it’s a pretty benign process. You go to a beach at low tide and dig into the sand with a shovel to get clams. It’s pretty comparable to digging for worms in your garden. For some reason, however, I find clam digging wildly exciting. I would do it all day long if it weren’t for the changing tides (why am I a wing again?!). This was therefore something I insisted we do on one of the first days of our trip.

The best place to find clams is at an expansive beach right across the inlet, a few km away. Not too far – but still, a motor boat is *usually* required to get there (*meaning ALWAYS*). We owned an old, rickety aluminum boat that had probably been tied up on the ramp of our dock for the last ten years, and naturally decided this would be a great opportunity to test its sails. After managing to carry it down to the dock and carefully placing it in the water, it began furiously filling with water. Stressed and confused, we flailed around trying to find the source of the leak, only resulting in more water infiltrating our sinking ship. Finally, after searching for the source of the leak for what seemed like hours, we noted a giant gaping hole in the back. No wonder it was tilting backwards! (How many PhDs does it take to find a giant hole? TWSS? Too far?) This hole was clearly an intended feature of the boat and not a puncture caused by flying shrapnel or some other incident likely to occur on the dangerous shores of the Sunshine Coast. We reverted back to our sharp science skills and hypothesized that there must be a plug that was meant to fill the hole, and that the hole was supposed to be there to drain it when pulled to land. Genial! Mauricio ran into the tool shed and began rummaging haphazardly through my father’s old toolkits. Suddenly he yelled “I think I’ve got it” and came running back with a battered piece of rubber that looked like it was about 100 years old. “That’s probably it,” I answered. Sure enough it was a near-perfect fit, as would be expected from its worn-out state.

Our not-so-trusty boat

Things were starting to come together. The boat was in the water and it was no longer sinking! What success. Now all we had to do was attach the motor. My father liked to brag about the robustness of our great motor, given that it had roared us across the ocean without a glitch for the past 40 years. How promising that seemed. Unfortunately, while we managed to attach it to the boat, we were unable to start it despite many fierce attempts. We choked it, pulled it, pumped it, and choked it again, but to no avail. My father’s words of advice over the telephone were particularly helpful: “It’s a great motor, it should work. If I were there I could fix it.” Despite his profound words of wisdom, we admitted defeat after half an hour of continuous attempts. There was no way this motor was starting. The stream of gas leaking into the water every time we tried to start it was not encouraging either. Then Mauricio came up with a (self-proclaimed) brilliant solution: “I know, let’s paddle across!” I rolled my eyes before he could even finish his sentence. “There is no way we can paddle across!” I exclaimed. “First of all, it is very windy. Second, it would take us hours. Third, we would miss low tide. And fourth, are you stupid?” I couldn’t help but be a bitch about it. Still, Mauricio insisted: “It will be an adventure! I think we can do it. And if not we can chill in the middle of the ocean and have a rave.” At this point I realized there was no way I was going to pull him back to sanity so I stopped arguing. I figured if we tried and failed it would teach him a lesson and I would come out as a brilliant prophesizer and knower of all. So, we packed up our essentials - vodka, cider, candy and life jackets – and were on our way.

It did not take long before we started floating at a 90 degree angle to the direction we were paddling. The waves were strong and no matter how hard we tried, we could not move in a straight line. I began to get very frustrated. Still, Mauricio paddled on, the beads of sweat beginning to cover his face. I stopped paddling. It was useless. A few minutes later, Mauricio paused. “Yeah, we are not going forwards eh?” Yet another astute observation! “Nope, not quite.” I tried to restrain myself from erupting into a flow of curses. When he finally concurred that we had better go back to the island, we discovered that we could not go backwards either. Sideways seemed to be the direction of the day. Luckily, we saw a beach in the direction of the current and decided to let ourselves get swept to the distant shore, where we could wait for the winds to die down. Images of us stranded on a beach surrounded by coyotes and black bears began to taunt me. Hopefully they weren’t candy and vodka addicts like me? When we got closer to the beach, however, we saw a dock on its left-hand side. I began to get excited: “NON-PRIMAL LIFE!” I exclaimed. I immediately retracted my statement when I saw the man standing on the dock. His long, scraggly hair billowed wildly over his sun-scorched face; his head was hunched over and eyes squinted intently like a coyote eyeing its prey; his body motionless as he seized up our approaching craft.This man seemed pretty primal. Finally, he yelled to us: “Are you OK?” “NOOOO!!!” I screamed back desperately. I am pretty sure I didn’t even need to yell, as our flailing hands and paddles were a definite sign that we were in trouble. He cleared a space for us to dock.

When we pulled up to the dock we informed the old man that our motor wasn’t working and we were swept away to sea from our island about a km away. He chuckled. Did we really look that pathetic? He told us to get out of the boat and sit on his balcony while he checked out our motor. We were halfway up the ramp when we heard the motor roar to life. We turned around to see him sitting by a smoking, rattling – and fully functional – motor. How the hell did he do that?! Mauricio and I exchanged knowing glances. We should stay in science.

Despite a now functioning motor, he was smart enough to realize that we weren’t to be trusted driving it back to the island. Instead, he invited us to stay for the afternoon and offered to tow us back when the winds died down. We were incredibly grateful. So grateful, in fact, that we decided to offer him our most prized possessions: vodka, candy and cider. He seemed to think these were perfectly normal accessories for a clam digging trip and accepted a cider without hesitation. “It’s a little early for my 5 o’clock beer, but I suppose I can make an exception!” he told us as he was already halfway through guzzling back his first cider. “This stuff is SO tasty! WOW!” He bubbled happily. We spent the next three hours chatting and drinking, and learned about the extraordinary life of Chris Gray: a grandfather of twelve whose life and work is maintaining this little cabin. Not only did he build the place himself, but generates his own electricity with a water wheel and makes his own beer. (No wonder the cider tasted so yummy?!) He excitedly showed us around, pointing out the new solar panels he was going to put up. I mentioned something about us seeing them from the hot tub on our island, to which he responded “Oh I am building a hot tub too! It’s going to be fantastic.” I was pretty impressed by this so asked to see the work in progress. He showed us a hole in the ground and what looked to be a bathtub beside it. “It’s kind of a two-person tub, but good enough for me!” I couldn’t help but smile. It was heartwarming and eye-opening to see someone in this day-and-age, in Canada, living so contentedly in such a self-sustainable manner.

Kind Mr. Gray towing us home

We were getting pretty comfortable in Mr. Gray’s humble abode but we clearly liked him more than he liked us, since as soon as 6 o’clock rolled around he jumped up and said “Alright, time to tow you kids back!” We sadly retreated to his boat. Upon our return to the island, however, I was still plagued with a desire to obtain my beloved clams. I decided to investigate the small beach at the opposite end of our cabin and was ecstatic to find a gold mine of clams. Mauricio watched in amusement as I spent the next two hours amassing clam after clam for our dinner. He came to the conclusion that if I did not become a professor I would likely get equal enjoyment out of becoming a clam digger.

Professional clam digger at work

Quite excited to eat my clams


After what turned out to be an awesome day, we had a wonderful dinner of barbecued clams. And while things turned out OK, I still insist that we could have had a close encounter with death on the dangerous seas if we were not lucky enough that the current was moving toward our saviour Chris Gray. And while I have a wing tattoed to myself now, I am pretty sure I was the anchor that day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Life of Coolis

I just came across an autobiography I wrote in high school. Not only does it recount my past in a hilariously blunt fashion, but prophecizes an interesting future. I couldn't resist but share this with those who know me. In the end, I learned that while you never can guess what the future may hold, some things never change; i.e. cancer, zebra and pink. #Jane 

...that, and PhDs 'take a long time.'

Once upon a time there lived a girl born on the 20th of December, 1984, in Grace Hospital. At the age of seven months she bellowed her first word, which her parents would then hear for the next nine years as an answer to any question: “NO!” Five months after this she marched up onto her feet and took her first steps, yelling: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”all the way back to the floor.

Soon enough this girl became aware of another creature lingering around her: it was her brother, an aspiring fireman.  Although he was shy, kind, reserved and four years older than her, this girl showed no respect; she yelled at him and hit him whenever she pleased, for no apparent reason. His dream to be a fireman was perhaps a reflection of the fact that he wished to protect people from dangerous people like his sister...

Her frequent outbursts also had an effect on her teachers at school. She began kindergarden at the age of four, where she managed to upset all of her teachers by insisting on doing the exact opposite of what she was asked to do; this, in her parents’ eyes, an improvement on her usual answer of “NO!”

After her brother set part of her family’s house on fire, a fire that this brave fireman did not manage to put out despite his fierce attempts at blowing on it, her family moved to a new house near Jericho.

She started to take ballet and piano lessons to alleviate the stress of her company from her parents. This was something that she grew to like very much, and through dancing she discovered  a new way to express her feelings.

In grade four her parents decided to take her and her brother to Paris, France, to go to school, in the hopes of improving her attitude. Sure enough, her mean and strict teachers put her in her place after only six months, and upon returning to Canada she was a changed girl.

At school she met a girl who was to become her best friend for the rest of her life. Although Shandyce moved to another school the year after they met, they still kept in touch.

In grade six she took a trip with her school to Quebec, where she stayed with French correspondents. This trip enlightened her even more than her trip to France about other cultures. Soon she wanted to travel everywhere.

In grade seven she got braces to fix the wide gap in between her two front teeth. During the summer she went to camp Elphinstone where she became very homesick; it was the first time she had been away from her parents for a long period of time.

In grade eight she got a dog and a cat, Hershey and Hazel, to whom she grew very fond of and very close to. However, two years later her dog was hit by a car and almost killed, which caused her much grief.

In the summer of grade nine she got her first job as a lab assistant at UBC. She also did many ballet camps in the summer which improved her ballet skills. This was very important as she was a serious dancer and continued to dance for the rest of her life. In grade nine she also started to take jazz and modern.

Her brother graduated from Kitsilano Secondary School and sadly did not become a fireman, but went into sciences instead. The fire he set in his old house clearly made a very strong mark on him; he must have come to the harsh realization that a fire can not be put out by blowing on it.

In grade ten she went on a trip to France with her school where she stayed with French correspondents once again. Upon her return she was awarded with top scholar, the information technology award and the drama award at the awards ceremony in June of 2000.

At the end of grade eleven she went on a trip to Cuba with the school. She also participated in an opera performance, where she danced for the audience during the intermissions.

She graduated from Kitsilano Secondary School, managing to get on the Principal’s List nine out of twelve times. From there she went straight to Princeton on scholarship. She focused mainly on sciences such as chemistry, biology, physics, math and calculus, but also took English and literature.

As well as doing to school she continued to dance ballet, mainly to keep in shape. She also joined many groups and got herself involved in the social life at Princeton. After completing three years of university, she decided to go travelling around the world.

The countries she visited included Africa, Australia, Brazil, Greece, England, Italy, Russia, Switzerland and France. She picked up on many languages along the way. Her parents, being very nice people, paid for her trip. (The one instance where she did not respond: “NO!”?!)

She then completed with Vancouver Marathon which she had been training for for many years. Her time was three hours and twenty minutes.

Upon her return to University she had much more knowledge of the world, which helped her complete her fourth and final year of University. She took two years and got her masters in physics. She then went to Harvard to get a PhD in physics, which took her quite a long time.

During her time at Princeton she met a very smart man who was fun and very sensible. She fell deeply in love with him and him with her; they were clearly meant for each other. However, when she went to Harvard they were separated for some time. However, he surprised her by coming to the United States to tell her that he was offered a job as a professor at the University of British Columbia. After receiving her PhD she joined him in Canada where they were married, her 27 and him 28.

She became a very successful scientist, although she got tired of physics and started to study gene therapy. After many years she came up with the cure for cancer. She became world famous and saved many lives.

Because her husband’s job as a professor, they went to conferences together all across the world. They had two kids, a boy and a girl. They bought a summer home in Australia and went there every summer with their kids to relax. Sometimes she brought her brother and his wife, both successful computer scientists. She also owned a pink jaguar with zebra interior.

The end.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

From granny jogging to slogging (or something worth blogging)

After obtaining negative results from every diagnostic test performed on my shin, including x-ray, bonescan, ultrasound, compartment syndrome testing and MRI, I decided to do what every athlete is told NOT to do: stop listening to my body. Instead of obsessing over the tightness and discomfort I felt in my shin, I decided to ignore it. Well, I didn’t really decide this, rather my genius physiotherapist Greg Lehman told me to, and since I do whatever he tells me, I simply obeyed his orders.

Greg trying to desensitize the brain in my shin

This does not mean I woke up one morning and ran 40k, a la old G.I. Jane. Rather, I coined a new form of running, one I like to call ‘granny jogging.’ Granny jogs can range anywhere from 10s to 10min, and are basically a non-equivalent to running, except that you are somewhat going through the motions. You do not even have to be outside to do granny jogs. You can do them down the hallway of your building, or in the comfort of your own home, even if you live in a box! That’s right folks, hopping up and down on the spot is considered a granny jog. You can granny jog at work, in your office, around a table, probably under a table if you tried hard enough. In short: granny jogs are what you do to convince yourself you are back running but really aren’t. One may think that granny jogs might not be as rewarding as a run, but let me tell you, after a year off running granny jogs will blow your mind.

Stretching after a granny jog (in jeans!) while waiting in line for brunch

The purpose of the granny jogs were to get my legs used to the running motion again. After so much time off I needed to completely re-familiarize my body with the concept of running. I also had to gradually train my shin to adapt to running again without it firing alarm signals to my brain, thinking that I was going to re-injure the area. That’s right people, apparently my shin developed a brain (or perhaps this is just known as nerves...) and had become hypersensitive to any potential threat that was similar to the one that originally caused my acute injury. Ultimately, I had become so preoccupied by the feelings in my leg that they became out of line with any actual damage in the tissue. Again, this is only what I was told. This actually all sounded ridiculous to me. I am a scientist for crying out loud! I wanted tests, data, EVIDENCE to account for my symptoms! It drove me nuts that there was nothing tangible to explain what I was feeling, and I began to think I really was going crazy. So when Greg told me a-matter-of-factly to stop thinking about it, very gradually start running, and stop talking about my feelings (sniff sniff) I realized this was the most logical thing to do.

If you granny jog in your clubbing outfit men will stop to tie your shoes, it's pretty awesome

During my first few weeks of granny jogs, the shin flared up constantly and it took every ounce of faith in the program for me not to think I was making things worse. It wasn’t until about a month later that I realized that the feelings may be dissipating. The process was so gradual that I don’t even remember at what point I completely stopped feeling my shin. But I did. When I realized the huge changes I felt in a matter of months, I was ecstatic. By the fall I was running consistently between 40-60k and reached the point where it was the other parts of my body – hip, achilles, knee, ankle, toe , pinky finger – pretty much everything - that began to hurt because they also weren’t used to the pounding of running. My mind had become so warped, however, that I was happy when I had to take two weeks off due to achilles tendonitis. “It’s a legit injury!” I exclaimed, “You can SEE the inflammation, you can treat it with RICE, and it will get better in a couple weeks!” I was thrilled that instead of some voodoo in my shin I finally had an injury that I knew how to deal with.

Despite having to take a few weeks off in October and in December due to some (gloriously treatable) injuries, I have now been running relatively consistently since July and am averaging about 80-90km/week. I am just trying to build my base and only do workouts when I feel like it. Although I hopped into workouts with the Angels in December, it’s too easy to get sucked into going harder and doing more in a group situation. So for the moment I have my fun doing tempos on my own or chasing down the Ninja group I coach during their hill workouts. I am not sure of any race plans in the Spring yet, but I have no doubt those plans will come naturally once I feel the speed coming back to my legs. For now, it’s still a bit of a slog, but at least I’ve graduated from the granny jog?!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The re-birth of shoeless coolis

My mom loves to tell the story of the day I was born, amidst a massive blizzard in Vancouver.  My parents weren’t worried so much about making it to the hospital in time as they were about making it there alive; their cab swerved through the icy streets and the driver strained to see the road through the pelleting snow. She considers my birth day a prophecy of my wild and stubborn nature that starkly contrasted the shy and quiet demeanour of my summer-borne older brother. I didn’t think much of this until two weeks ago, when I defended my PhD during one of the worst snowstorms in Ontario in recent years. In retrospect, nothing could have been more fitting: shoeless coolis was re-born, amidst another snowstorm.

Finishing my PhD was - and will always be - the hardest marathon I will ever have to run. There were times where I hit walls so hard that I stopped and questioned if I could go on. The number of highs and lows made me a complete unstable mess at so many points in time. The despair I often felt in research was compounded with the biggest personal loss I’ve faced and the worst physical injury I’ve succumbed to, both in my last two years of study: I got married and got divorced within months of each other; then I tore a tendon in my shin, losing the other love (and only outlet) in my life. There were times I felt so completely worthless I didn’t see the point of continuing on with my PhD, which was often just another source of stress and guilt. 6 months ago I was the closest I’ve ever been to quitting. That’s when my supervisor said, point blank: “Jane, you are at mile 20. You are not at the finish yet, but you are close. The last six miles are not going to be easy. So gather your strength, come back, and finish this race.”

He was right. The last 6 miles are terrible people! Why did I think mile 20 sounded encouraging?! True to the delirium of the last six miles of a marathon, the last 6 months have been a complete blur. I have trouble remembering many parts of it; working insane hours to finish experiments, writing my thesis in a matter of weeks in which 4am bedtimes became the norm, perfecting a manuscript over 30 emails a day with my supervisor, and having far less time to prepare for my defense than I had ever imagined. Suddenly the day was here. The day before was a weird day. I felt like I was in the twilight zone, I was dizzy and did not know what to do with myself. I don’t think it was just nerves, since I was also seriously sleep-deprived, something I would warn against being before a defense. That day I went to lab and tried to talk to people, seeing them speak but really thinking about which PP2A B subunits were originally found to bind KSR-1 and what their alternate names were; sporadically looking up the most remote detail of my thesis just in case I would get asked about it; and obsessively going over figures in my head. Then going to a luncheon for my external examiner and trying to feign aloofness when he asked ‘So how does it work in Canada, are we supposed to challenge you tomorrow until you fall to your knees and cry? Can we pellet you with questions at the public oral as well? What is your thesis about again?’ Oh wow.

Then the snow started. When you are in the twilight zone you do not pay attention to the weather channel. Unfortunately my parents were supposed to fly in from Vancouver late that night and my brother was coming in from Halifax. Luckily (or not?!) my external examiner was already in Toronto, but who knows what other members of my committee may be travelling. I went to coach the Ninjas that night, attempting to continue my day of apparent normalcy. There was something strangely peaceful about watching them do 800m repeats through mounds of snow and running through the white downtown streets. I got home and lay on the snow, looking up into the sky and trying to grasp how close I was to the end. I snapped out of it after several minutes, however, when I started to recognize the symptoms of superficial frostbite and realized that there were still ways I could screw up my defense (I’m sorry I've lost use of my fingers, I will not be able to draw that on the board for you). I went to bed.

I got up at 5am and got myself ready to trudge through the piles of snow to my defense. I was on autopilot, not thinking about what was really happening, if my family had arrived, or if anyone would show up to the exam. I texted my brother 30min before my exam and he informed me that my parents had arrived and they were all heading over too. 9:30am rolled around and suddenly I looked up and the room was full. The exam committee, my entire lab, people I knew from other labs, my family, friends of family, they were all there. I choked back tears. I couldn’t get emotional before this thing got started! After a heartfelt introduction by my supervisor, I knew I had better turn robo-Jane back on or my defense would become a crying gushy mess. The next two hours were another blur, apparently I somehow gave my presentation and survived my external's attempts to make me cry for reasons other than joy and gratitude, and it was suddenly over. My six examining professors congratulated me and quickly left the room, leaving me in the middle of Princess Margaret Hospital alone and with no phone reception. I had no idea where anyone was, but I didn’t care. It was done. That was it! I was free! Could this really be happening? I did a little dance, and then another. There were several dances after that. Then I smiled. That smile has not left my face.

So there ya have it folks, (Dr.) shoeless coolis has been re-born amidst another snowstorm. I cannot remember ever being so relieved and happy in my life. I have talked about the tough times during my PhD, but I have also experienced some of the best times of my life and met the most incredible people here. I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. And it is these people and experiences that have made every moment of sorrow, pain and despair completely and absolut(ly) worth it. I am sure no one here wants to read my thesis, but I have to post the most important part of it, the acknowledgments. There are others (who know who they are) who have been there for me and shared experiences with me that I will never forget, and I thank you also.

Next up: my running update (which I promise to be less cheese balls)!


First and foremost, I would like to thank my amazing family for their unwavering support and encouragement throughout my degree. My father, who not only inspires me with his science, but whose compassion and sense of fun I admire and strive to emulate. My mother, one of the strongest, most brilliant women I know: thank you for being not just a mother to me in the last 6 years but also one of my best friends. My brother Jepray, you have been a tremendous source of comfort, positivity and wisdom and I thank you for always being there for me.
To my supervisor, Rob. You made it about more than science. You are the one who taught me how to run marathons. You taught me that the work you put in is the work you get out; that strength and endurance takes time and patience and cannot be forced; that the lows are worth the highs; that there are no shortcuts; that it’s not how fast you can sprint but how well you can push to the very end. Most importantly, you taught me never to give up until you’re there. Not many people can teach such hard lessons while expressing so much love, compassion and understanding, but you did. Thank you.

Thank you to my committee members, Jane and Dr. Medin. I appreciate the time you took to oversee my project and improve my research with your excellent advice and encouragement.

Thank you to my dear collaborators, Nikolina Radulovich and Dr. Ming Tsao, for your help and guidance with my animal and immunohistochemical studies.

Dedi. You gave meaning to the word ‘Dedidit’ and together, we did it J. You are a remarkable scientist but an even more amazing person and friend. Thank you for always putting things in perspective and for making science fun.

Thanks Dedi, one of the most amazing and kind people I have ever met

Mauricio and Tim, my BFFs OMG. Mauricio, it is largely because of you that I was able to run Rob’s marathons. Thank you for being a constant source of support and fun during the last six years. You have made the difficult times bearable and the good times unbelievable.

To all the members of the Rottapel lab for putting up with me and all my Western blots. Thank you for your encouragement and sense of humor – it is you guys that made coming to lab every day worth it, successful experiment or not. Also, thank you to the ladies from the Kislinger lab, especially Lusia, for either keeping me sane in the office or making the choice to go insane with me.

Thanks Lusia for always knowing how to get me through the rough days!

To my training partners and running friends, the Angels. Thank you for constantly reminding me that there’s more to life than the lab (and for inspiring me to run real marathons). Nic, DocZ, MamaK and Jebs, thank you for your patience, wisdom and guidance in all aspects of life.

To the others along the way that have inspired and encouraged me – Delilah (a.k.a. Topicoolis) and my beautiful cousin Sarika – you are two of the most important people in my life and it’s been so comforting knowing you were always there for me. You have each helped me in such different but crucial ways and I can’t thank you enough.

My beautiful cousin and beautiful friend, forever

Finally, I absolutely have to thank Goose for keeping me going during the last six years. You taught me to relax, gave me the energy to keep going and were always there when I needed you. Cheers.