Thursday, January 31, 2008

Update on Kenya. Worse news every day.

Another friend of mine who is still in touch with friends in Kenya sent along a report today, this one from Eldoret, a town in the Rift Valley that's had a lot of violence. He writes:

As Wasike describes it, towns throughout significant swaths of Kenya are barely recognizable. Most shops have been looted and few businesses remain open (and those that are open barely have any wares to sell). Many businesses and homes have been set ablaze and are either now in ashes or smoldering. Crops have been razed, livestock slaughtered, and as the press has covered, people murdered (roughly 800, to date). Transportation is virtually at a stand-still. The latter has repercussions throughout East and Central Africa as Kenya is the main artery connecting the entire region to its ports in Mombasa.

Wasike talks about the politically organized gangs of machete-wielding young men looking for people from "opposing" tribes to intimidate, injure or kill. For better or worse, those targets are dwindling as most people living as a minority tribe have vacated back to their tribal strong-holds. I'm not sure what the international press is reporting, but my friend is hearing a statistic of about 1/2 million such internally displaced persons.

At the moment there are still basic utilities in the towns and cities. But there is concern that things could take a drastic turn for the worse if that situation changes. Most significantly, people are looking to the current talks in Ethiopia, mediated by the UN and African Union, as the last best chance to quickly end the chaos and restore order. However, people are simultaneously worried that more political assassinations (there have been 2 in the past 48 hours) would more-or-less permanently derail such progress and put a stop to any meaningful political dialog.

I asked Wasike what people imagine might happen if these talks fail. He said that the most-discussed solution is that the Kenyan army would come in to restore order and impose a timeline for another election, once things have calmed down. However, he acknowledged that it's not clear if the army is unified enough to withstand the pressure of soldiers to side with their ethnic brethren. (Soldiers would be under tremendous pressure from their tribal members not to point their rifles at them, for example.) To date I have not read anything about such a military solution in the international press.

In spite of all that has transpired and the highly uncertain future he and his fellow Kenyans are facing, Wasike manages to comport himself with a tremendous sense of hope and optimism, and amazingly, manages to inject levity into our conversations.

But maybe the current situation in Kenya can most simply be conveyed by this. Wasike, a 42 year-old father of three and self-acknowledged non-religious person, has begun saying prayers and has asked others to offer their prayers for him and his fellow Kenyans.

I'm praying.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Coming out for a candidate

A disclosure. I fell for Barack Obama pretty early. I first read about him in the New Yorker in May of 2004, when he was running for Senate. (For those who, like me, have received "The Complete New Yorker" on DVD - a much appreciated but sadly underused Christmas gift - it's the May 31st issue, page 32.) I'm the son of an immigrant father and an American mother. I'm someone who tends to buy into grandiose, if vaguely defined and sort of naive, ideas about how the greatest thing about the U.S. is the fact that we're a nation of immigrants. I'm a sucker for "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breath free". I'm also a sucker for the idea of being able to find a common humanity in everyone, regardless of background, something that struck the reporter, William Finnegan, who wrote the New Yorker piece, about Obama's Senate campaign then and strikes me about his presidential campaign now. (I'm looking over the New Yorker article now for a particular quote that will make my point, but there are too many. The article's a better advertisement for Obama than his campaign website is.)

So, I didn't have far to fall. Obama's father was even from a part of Kenya very close to where I served. Then came the speech at the Democratic convention in 2004, which made me cry. When podcasts came to iTunes, one of the first I subscribed to was his, which was great - sensible, hopeful, modest, direct. (It hasn't been updated since he declared for president.) His Iowa speech choked me up, as did the New Hampshire speech.

I don't know if making some chemistry professor cry for the possibility of what his country could do right (and out of sadness for what it's done wrong) is a sufficient qualification for the presidency, but it's enough for me for now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Undergraduate research

Over the past week or so, I've been up and down about a major component of my job - having undergraduates participate in my research.

The project that I spend most of my research energy on involves understanding how a particular enzyme recognizes its macromolecular substrate, a transfer RNA, rather than any of the similar molecules present in the cell. The methods that I use to gain this understanding are fairly traditional for biochemists. I make guesses about which parts of the enzyme or parts of the tRNA are involved in specific interactions. I use the tools of recombinant DNA technology to mutate or remove those parts, and then I find out whether or not the enzyme can still recognize the tRNA. If it doesn't, my guess was right, if it does, the guess was wrong. In principle, these changes are simple to make and to test, but the process can be tedious and many of the reagents we use are expensive. The quantities of material we work with are also very small. A milligram of enzyme or tRNA is considered "tons". Like most biochemists, I've accumulated a freezer full of very small test tubes, each containing a couple of drops of water in which some precious DNA or RNA or protein is dissolved. These tubes are labeled with codes that are for the most part cryptic to anyone who hasn't worked in my lab.

Undergraduates who work in my lab are part of the big project. They make and test the mutant tRNAs or proteins, and in many cases design new mutants. This is the usual way it's done in chemistry labs at small colleges - students are a central part of the professor's major research project. Some of my colleagues in other departments, for example mathematicians or theoretical physicists, can design separate projects for students while maintaining their own primary projects. That model is far harder to implement with hands on projects that require expensive reagents and access to a relatively small number of instruments.

Okay, enough background. Here's how the last week has gone.

Stage 1: Undergraduate research stinks!

Much of my current sabbatical leave has been spent getting things to work in the lab that did not work for my research students over the course of the last couple of summers. For the most part (knock on wood!) that's now done. Two things have been frustrating about this process. One is that some of the major problems have been due to simple mislabeling - tubes that were labeled as containing one piece of DNA or RNA, in fact contained something that was similar enough, but not what I wanted. The lesson for the future is simple enough - Trust but verify.

The second frustration is more fundamental and troubling. I'm simply more able to troubleshoot technical problems in the lab when I'm doing the work with my own hands. Having a student tell me what she did or show me a picture of a gel or a set of results simply doesn't engage my ability to walk through the experiment and figure out what could have gone wrong as much as doing it myself does. While there are certainly ways to work on this, which would be good for both the students and for moving the research forward, it's hard not to think that everything would be easier if I just did all the experiments myself.

Stage 2: It's good for them, even if it stinks for you.

Sandra Laursen, a chemist who has become an expert on science education, visited our campus this week and gave a talk about work she's been involved in exploring the benefits to students of undergraduate research. The take home lessons for me were that what students gain most from doing research has nothing to do with whether or not the project moves forward. What they gain is an understanding of their temperament, their ability to deal with failure and frustration, and a sense of what it feels like to be a scientist. In other words, they gain confidence from being treated like colleagues, which is really what they are. All of this I knew, of course, but the reminder came at an appropriate time.

Stage 3: God, do I ever love to work with undergraduates on my research!

This week I've been talking to (You can call it interviewing if you'd like.) students who are applying for summer research positions. I've talked to at least 12 and will have at most 3 or 4 positions this summer. Choosing will be so difficult. Some of these kids have had research experience elsewhere already and would come up to speed in the lab very quickly. Others are just so wonderfully earnest. But mostly, it's just a thrill to talk about science with these students. And not just some vague, out there, Science with a capital S, but my science, the questions that I've been obsessed with for years, the cool little details that made me choose the project in the first place.

What I get out of the deal then, isn't at all a set of worker bees who turn my ideas into results. That part I could probably do better on my own. What I get out of the deal is a group of people who share my passion for the problem, who can remind me, mostly just by listening and asking questions and getting excited themselves, why doing science - not just studying science, but doing it - is so much fun.

Cute? More like dorky....

Several ex--students sent this to me.
Me, I think it's cute. Maybe that makes me dorky...

Monday, January 21, 2008


Last night I read this article in the New York Times about the continuing violence.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya from 1989-1991. Around the time that I was leaving, one party rule, then under Daniel arap Moi, was being seriously challenged, perhaps for the first time since independence. Moi's response was to claim that Kenyans in particular and Africans in general weren't ready for multi-party rule, that tribal allegiances were too strong, and that parties would end up aligning themselves on tribal lines. A series of violent raids, probably orchestrated or supported by Moi's government, suddenly occurred in the Rift Valley, mainly Kalenjin (Moi's tribe) and Maasai attacking Kikuyu. Moi pointed to these raids as evidence that the country needed his despotic rule to hold it together.

The Times article indicates that much of the recent post-election violence is similarly well organized, though this time not by the government, but by "local tribal chiefs" with possible involvement of the opposition.

Today I received an email from a fellow returned volunteer, forwarding a message from a friend in Kenya that must be making the rounds. It's a list of "10 REASONS WHY I LOVE KENYA", including
• I am sure Kenya must be the only country in the world where 95,000 votes are realized in constituencies with only 70,000 registered voters.


• Kenya is surely a country with a transport network that is simply unpredictable and just can't be explained. Sample this – results from Wajir, Funyula, Budalangi, Isiolo, and Lodwar [all remote spots in the semi-desert north of the country] take a just day to reach KICC Nairobi, yet results from Kiambaa (just past Muthaiga-Kiambu [just outside Nairobi]) take more than three consecutive days being transported to Nairobi.

So I'm torn. The election was probably stolen in a vicious and somewhat obvious way. (At least have butterfly ballots!) The way in which the police and army have put down post-election protests has been brutal. See this video if you can stomach it. Yet at least some of the anti-Kibaki opposition consists of organized killers, the same people who worked against democracy and multi-party government in the first place. It feels like Moi's prophesy of tribal divisions came true, which makes me sick to my stomach.


Since I'm feeling like I need a spot to put my stuff, and since buying a bigger house isn't really an option, here we are.

I think I saw George Carlin's take on stuff when I was in high school. I found this version on YouTube.

It's stuck with me. Enjoy, whoever you are.

About Me

I'm a biochemist at a small college.