The US is large ...

In general, the same transport methods as in Europe are used in the US. However, the train is rather unpopular; we were joking about a sign saying "please do not collect flowers during the ride" because the train goes so slow. The sign doesn't exist, of course... at least not yet ;)

People rather fly from A to B which causes many small towns to have an airport. For example, Santa Barbara has about 80000 citizens + 1 airport whereas Göttingen has about 125000 citizens + 0 airports and Oldenburg with about 180000 people is even larger ... and has no airport either! But I guess that's due to the larger distances people need to travel to in the US. The shortest distance from LA to NY is about 4000 km which is still longer than the distance Madrid-Moscow (about 3400 km). And the US is just one country and not the EU.

We could view the US as 50 different states, but if we're honest about the cultural differences between Wyoming and Utah, we won't find much. Instead, Colin Woodward (an award winning author and reporter) argues that there are 11 states which exhibit actual cultural differences. He clusters some states together differently (and even cuts some!) and characterizes them by their attitudes towards education, dominant political attitudes etc. For example, California ends up to be part of the "Left Coast" and the "The Far West" - which makes sense since the coastal part is liberal and has a revolutionary spirit (thus, "Left Coast"). Further away from the coast, we enter a partially very conservative area ("The Far West").

Now imagine you basically only have two political parties you can choose if you live between Madrid and Moscow ;) Some people say it's impossible to govern such a large country because it's just too large.


The secret of surface chemistry

One of my research projects is about the polymerization of the protein tubulin to microtubules, which are long, thin and stiff rods in our cells. They are important for cell transport, division and shape. Microtubules can grow and shrink in our cells; so far, most research papers look at microtubules with motor proteins or networks which are stabilized with taxol, which is a cancer medication and inhibits microtubule growth and shrinkage. (Cell death is triggered when the microtubules' dynamics are stopped, so taxol treated cancer cells die.)

Microtubule / tubulin relation (wikipedia). The monomers (tubulin) polymerize to form a microtubule.

During the last few weeks, we hoped to see microtubules being dynamic, but the tubulin (the monomers) were sticking together in large chunks. Now we carried out exactly the same procedure and coated the surface of the chamber, which contains the tubulin solution, with a polymer that does not bind to tubulin. Otherwise, the tubulin would be exposed to glass and in general, glass really likes proteins and they stick together. Thus, the effective concentration of tubulin in our solution would be lower than with coating since no proteins are absorbed by the polymers. 

And the polymer coating changed a lot! We're still looking at some chunks, but the rest is a nice and homogeneous microtubule network :)


Coming back

Spring break's over and everybody's coming back from a one-week-holiday. Oh, well, I asked some graduate students and most of them worked during the week and maybe took a day off around the weekend to travel. When I came back last night, I saw the spring break fence which will be gone tomorrow, hopefully:

The fence separating the students' village, Isla Vista, and the graduate student apartments (San Clemente).

I am not 100% sure about its purpose, since there are gaps where you just can cross the border from the "party village" Isla Vista to the graduate student apartments. However, the streets and bike paths were really quiet today, so I guess the party's over.

Another topic which is interesting to know about: During spring break, my bed room's lamp broke, so I submitted a work order request on our apartment webpage. Last time, maintenance workers came and fixed it within 24 h for free :) But I'd expect that in some way for a rent of about 1050$ per month. Nevertheless, I should mention that we had the same service in the student apartments in Göttingen for about 200$ per month...


Camera shopping

We've got a fancy high-quality camera in our lab which we use for fluorescent imaging (TIRF). The camera is cooled down to -80°C to lower thermal noise. However, when we track particles for my project we will work with higher light intensities which are not appropriate for the camera we use for the low intensity fluorescent imaging.

One of the images I took for bead tracking. The bright white spots are beads.

Thus, we decided to buy a new camera and suddenly I found out that there are a lot of companies which sell scientific cameras. I had no idea which criteria are important and where I should start searching, so I began talking to people who had bought cameras recently and that was unbelievable helpful!

So far, I have been interested in "normal" photography and I cared a lot about resolution, aperture width and imaging speed. Looking for scientific cameras is different, but I was still comparing resolution in terms of nanometer-per-pixel ratio and the number of frames per second (like 100 frames per second, unlike 0.5 or 1 second for touristic photos). In addition to that, the data transfer speed to the computer was important (plus: can we use USB 2.0 or 3.0?) and if we needed a frame grabber card (which is supporting the image transfer). Our computer is running the camera control software LabView which has to be compatible with the camera.

With this list of criteria, I found about six interesting cameras and we were able to find our "perfect" one - it arrived last week, yay!


Interactive learning

During my undergraduate in Germany, every student in my year got a "clicker" which is a small gadget that sends off your answer to a question from the professor to a receiver (usually the professor's laptop) and they get statistics about the students' answer to multiple choice questions, numeric questions etc. We used it sometimes and it was fun, because the clickers were new and exciting. Suddenly everybody had to answer questions, be awake and think for themselves. However, we were all a bit skeptical if that was the best method to learn something instead of the old approved, but sometimes rather monotonous blackboard-interaction.

The university I attend here has clickers as well! Recently, I attended a talk by a physics professor who's absolutely into this system and who has also recorded many video lectures, made useful clicker questions etc. During the talk he referred to several studies I found interesting:

1. In general, the "learning effect" seems to be higher for students who learned interactively (R. R. Hake, "American Journal of Physics", 1998). Hake made a pre- and a post-exams to test "both conceptual understanding and problem solving" in 62 introductory physics courses. He found out that with "interactive engagement" during classroom sessions the results with interactions were "well beyond that achieved by traditional methods". You can look up the statistics and it seems like that even the worst test average with the interactive learning was better than the best result for the traditional teaching!
(There have been more studies on this, showing that the average grades are apparently raised by a third of a grade, i.e. people went from a B to a B+ or 2.0 to a 1.7 - the Gaussian curve was shifted! [S. Freeman et al., PNAS, 2014].)

2. When we got the clickers, some students started forgetting them because we didn't need them all the time and so on. Or others were too lazy to answer etc. How to ensure that people bring their clicker and spend time discussing a problem?
The clicker gadgets can be registered individually and the professor can check which student is answering. On top of that, it can be recorded if the answer was correct or not, which could be part of the overall grade. But it turns out that students who were only assessed by their participation are more open to discussions, questions and less "efficiency oriented" as those who were examined by their vote. The students under pressure discussed less and just asked the one student who "usually knows the answer" and everybody copied it to earn a high score. That's part of the article "Technology talks: Clickers and grading incentive in the large lecture hall" by S. Willoughby and E. Gustafson in the American Journal of Physics, 2009.

There were more interesting points during the presentation (like the influence of interactive learning to students who switch fields or drop out of college!), but those were the ones which hit me the most. I think this all underlines that science lives from discussion and asking questions.


How we linearized the world

We had a fundamental insight yesterday: If you zoom in enough on nearly any kind of curve (excluding weird curves, like fractals) you'd end up with something that looks like a line. I called it the "linearization of everything" and I am convinced we should publish a Nature article about it ;) Before our discussion we had a look at a Nature paper written by people who work on the same stuff as we do (finding the cell outlines from microscope images). Some of their results look okay, but some images contain data which is just off! And it's in Nature - one of the most prestigious science journals worldwide...

Another research story: The software running on airplanes is "safe" in a way that the airplane can not crush if the hardware or outer circumstances cause it do to so. There's a mathematical proof for that! It formalizes the airplane code and shows that the airplane should not crush. However, the software running on ships is from the 1970s and one of my friends here wrote a modern Matlab code which will be tested on a real ship in about half a year :-) The program takes waves, weather, the entire navigation into account and could pilot the ship!


Wine in a box

I'm not a wine expert, but I am used to wine in bottles and that's what I mainly saw in grocery stores around here as well. But there's another way to store wine: the black box. So far, I have encountered the black box in lectures, when there's some differential equation and you don't know the solution, so people guess / pull the solution out of a black box and suddenly it's working out. Or you do some mathematical tricks (alternatively called the "..."-operator) and you arrive at your solution which can be abbreviated with a black box. But I am not too confident with those kind of operations. 

Thus, black boxes also pour out wine (remembering in vino veritas - and you also get the solution to your maths problem ;)). A similar apparatus can be used for coffee. I am just not convinced if that's good for the product in there. But it's probably safer than carrying a glass bottle around.

I should also mention that it's illegal in 26 states to "consume/possess alcohol in public", i.e. on sidewalks, in parks etc., but in restaurants it's okay. Well you're allowed to possess it, but cover it in some way. Therefore, brown bags became kind of famous for storing alcohol. I would suspect, that it's also a bit easier, less fragile and more practical to wrap a box than a bottle...


The US-American flag

If you're important or whatever you're doing is  important, it's marked with an American flag. All kind of things are printed with the flag on it: towels, bikinis, lighters, ...
Today I was impressed by this installation:

There's a flag at the tip of the tower crane on campus! There must have been somebody who has brought it there (it might have been pre-set, but I doubt that).

Thinking of my travel to New York and its  Museum of Modern Art, I remember a painting of the American flag:

It's not simply a painting and the Museum was not sure if they could accept it as "art", but after it passed several hands somebody finally gave it to the museum as a donation and they couldn't refuse it. However, there are only 48 stars in this flag and they are not diagonal, so we can assume it's art ;)


Spring break!

The current week is the last week of lectures, so they're going to be the final examinations (just finals if you're fancy) in the upcoming week and the spring quarter is about to start, but there's one magic week of break in between, called spring break which is famous to be the year's party season. I always thought it's one party and afterwards everybody is so exhausted that they need an actual break for a week...
... However, I received a campus e-mail that the warm-up is going to start at the first weekend of spring break. I had to re-scale the dimensions of spring-break I was thinking about, if the warm-up is already during the first two nights.

 "All laws are strictly enforced"-sign during Halloween last year.

The safety procedures seem to be similar to the Halloween-shutdown last year: There will be a no-guest-policy (no guests allowed in your apartment; no idea how they are going to check it), a huge fence across the street and check points whenever you want to enter the graduate student apartment complex.

Never mind, that graduate students probably won't party during spring break compared to the huge amount of nearly always celebrating undergraduates whose village starts opposite of the graduate apartments. The first best step to party-safety seemed to be to build a 6-feet-high fence around the graduate apartments!


How to belay

There are many different kinds of sports you can pick up at the UCSB recreation center, and one of them is indoor-climbing and bouldering, which is basically climbing without gear up to ca. 3 m in our climbing center.

Part of the climbing hall at UCSB.

You don't have to pass a test to start bouldering, but for belaying, i.e. to make sure that if your climbing partner lets go of the wall they don't fall. There's a strong rope which your partner who's climbing on the wall is tied to with a knot. The belaying person holds hold the rope. But since it would be nearly impossible to just hold somebody directly without any means if they fall, the rope passes several loops of a carabiner-like device. That one and a ground rope (which attaches you to the ground) are attached to your harness that has a belt above your hips an two leg loops.

I had to learn a couple of knots and the right "language" how to communicate while your partner's climbing. For example, before your partner starts climbing, they ask "On belay?" and as the belaying person you answer "Belay on!" when you're ready and so on.
You don't have to have a partner necessarily, because there are auto-belays which belay you in the same way.

An climbing is great!! You have to use your entire body, concentrate and think about the next movement you make. Safety is super important - if one knot is not tight or wrong you might fall 6 m in our hall...


We're getting closer!

I spent the last month on trying to make a nice homogeneous network of microtubules (and I did some other stuff as well), but it didn't really work until we switched some chemicals. So far, my protocol was made for single microtubules and not networks. We reconstructed a protocol from a paper which says how we can make networks now.

And it's fantastic if your experiment works after you spent a lot of time with it! We've nearly reproduced the image from literature :)

So I learned, that it's important to respect all details in an experiment (when to add what, why which chemical is used exactly and that we have to be careful with the temperature when it comes to proteins - all the mixing I do happens on ice which is not easy to carry out so that the tubulin can not polymerize to microtubules).



Today I realized how meditative lab work can be as well: I pipetted two times 81 small amounts of a DTT solution into Eppendorf tubes as the picture below shows. The actual amount was 5 microliters which can be pipetted with Eppendorf pipettes. These pipettes measure those tiny volumes astonishingly precisely! (as war as somebody told me down to 0.03 microl.!) For each tube you have to go back to your stock or temporary stock, load the pipette, get a new tube, unload the pipette, close the tube and repeat everything...

It's actually somehow fun and relaxing! After pipetting, I labeled all tubes... and I might have sore muscles tomorrow ;)