Posted in sqt

{sqt} – honoring God as a lab tech in academia

My church emphasizes the idea that “all of life is all for Jesus” – by which they mean that, as the Apostle Paul wrote, whatever we do can and should be done in and for God, no matter how mundane or humble or uncomfortable the task might be on its own merits. Every profession has purpose or nobility when done to serve other people, for the good of the community of humankind, and we can be encouraged to work with excellence when we see that purpose in our own life. So I’ve been thinking about my paid work as a molecular biology and bioinformatics research specialist, and how that job (and I through it) can bring glory to God.


  1. What I Do: For the last 9.5 years I’ve worked as a technician in a genetic sequencing core facility in academia – meaning, we handle DNA and RNA samples from researchers and get them the sequence data that they need to determine the results of their experiments. We don’t come up with our own experiments, or have our own research; instead, we support the research of a lot of other labs at the university, around the state, and even around the world. The specifics of the job are pretty technical, and there’s a wide variety of sequencing applications we provide, but that’s the gist of it.
  2. Learning About Creation: Some of the research we support is what is often called basic science: people who love the natural world delving deeper into its complexities, for the sheer joy of accumulating knowledge. Because all of God’s creation reflects His image and gives Him praise, learning more about that creation can help us see that image and attune our ears to that praise. How intricate and involved every aspect of life is, down to the unknown archaea in acid lakes or the countless insect species hidden in the rainforest! How varied and multicolored is the fabric of life, all woven for the beauty and wonder of itself and its Creator, in patterns we are only beginning to understand! How unfathomable must be the scientific mind and artistic eye that made all this!
  3. The History Of Creation: I know certain Christians really struggle with the theory of evolution, but to me it is so beautiful that God would have given His creation a built-in mechanism to change and adapt to a mutable world, and to equip them to fulfill His desire in Genesis for His creation to spread throughout the whole world, with all of its different ecological niches. If biological information were not stored in the sequences of DNA and RNA the way it is, with its propensity for the propagation of small yet biologically significant errors, evolution may not have been possible, and mass extinction would have been the result instead. A lot of the research we support examines ancient DNA, or patterns of related DNA sequence from different species, letting us see the graceful flexibility of life responding to adversity as its Creator equipped it to do.
  4. Harnessing Creation: Finally, a significant amount of the research we are involved in touches on issues that directly affect people – experiments examining how exposure to different chemicals and medicines influence our bodies’ microbiomes, or which genes spur the growth of tumors, or which genes are signals that a particular drug may be effective against a particular cancer or disease. Here we can honor God by supporting research that serves people, that is striving to make a better world and work for the flourishing of humanity.
  5. Accuracy and Attention To Detail: The researchers who use our facility trust us to handle their samples and their data with accuracy, honesty, and thoroughness. If I cut corners I can jeopardize an entire experiment. If I use analytic software to skew the data when I’m processing it to return to the researcher, I can derail or delay scientific understanding just to get a good-looking short-term result. So if I’m going to honor God with my work, I need to do my best whenever I’m handling samples: I need to ensure that everything is documented and tracked accurately, I need to pay attention to the details of a protocol or the results of a QC test, and I need to be upfront about admitting mistakes so that they aren’t perpetuated.
  6. Efficiency: Science, in academia at any rate, is carried out on the taxpayers’ dime. We survive on government grants! If I am wasteful with the resources we have, that affects the funding available for other projects (not to mention it is definitely not sustainable. The plastic and biohazard waste we generate normally is already depressing, without adding more due to inefficiency!) So here I can honor God by being a good steward of the resources we have and honoring the trust our community gives us by awarding us the funding (or that researchers give us by choosing our facility for their sequencing work).
  7. Expertise: Most of the researchers who use our core are not experts in sequencing. It is just a part of their scientific journey. So they rely on us to help them decide on the parameters that will give them the statistic power they need to get meaningful data, and they often rely on us to help them prepare their samples and understand their data. I can honor God as I work with them by being helpful, patient, and informative; by communicating respectfully with them; and by not taking advantage of their ignorance. It can be frustrating when a researcher asks for details about an experiment we completed five years ago or changes their mind about their experiment just as we’re about to get started on it after weeks of planning, but it’s also a chance to show them love and become a servant, to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum today and Kelly has some beautiful thoughts on disability and the passing of a member of her parish in addition to her regular humor, so I encourage you to visit! I’d also love to hear any thoughts you have about your own vocations and how they can be lived out in and for God.

Posted in learning together

learning together: a "3R's" treasure hunt

Rondel really enjoys looking for treasure (thing-finding in the tradition of Pippi Longstocking, where almost anything can be considered treasure), and as I pondered what to do with our morning (unexpectedly open since Aubade had too bad of a cold to handle the hike we’d planned), I thought he might enjoy following a series of clues to find a treasure at the end.

Because there is always some way to incorporate math, reading, and handwriting into life’s activities (please take that with some humor!), I decided that each clue would be a numerical cipher but that the numbers in the encoded message would have to be determined by calculating a series of math problems. I made short messages like “under the desk” and “lego box”, converted them to series of numbers using a key, and then came up with arithmetic problems at Rondel’s level. He started out with the key and the first clue, which led him to the second clue, then to the third, and all the way to the treasure after six clues in total (probably about 50 math problems all together, which is a lot more than he’d normally do otherwise!). In addition to the math, he got a lot of handwriting practice in from writing down the numerical answer to each problem as well as the corresponding letter value from the cipher, and then even got to do a bit of reading to put all those letters together for each clue.

Above are two examples of keys and clues – the orange set was for Limerick and the red set was for Rondel. Changing the key values to larger numbers would let you create even more difficult math problems without needing to alter the method of encryption. Limerick kept commenting on how the problems corresponding to the letter “A” – where the answer was 1 – were too easy, and a different key value would have eliminated that issue.

Rondel did a whole treasure hunt, despite the difficulty of focusing with two younger siblings running around at high volume and also being very interested in everything he was doing and not giving him any quiet or space! I was really impressed with his determination and motivation, because nothing about this was easy for him but he didn’t give up.

Rondel sitting at the kitchen table with sound-reduction headphones, writing out the answer to one of his clues.
The sound-reduction headphones were a huge help! I could see him relax and focus more easily the instant he put them on.

Limerick wasn’t interested at first, because he isn’t all that into finding treasure, but he like the idea of following a path of math clues so I made a set for him later and he finished his as well! He does not like to write or draw often so pulling him into an activity where he writes this much is a rare and pleasant thing (I think he couldn’t resist the math).

Limerick standing by the kitchen table writing on his clues

One thing I did notice from the activity was that both boys have legibility issues, and I’m going to have to find a way to work with them on pen grip and letter formation that hopefully doesn’t result in daily fights. Rondel’s letters in particular are like people, each with their own personality and opinions, and they dance around the page and swing by their toes and jump on each other’s heads and sometimes sword fight – and they are highly offended by the idea that they should arrange themselves in a neat orderly line! So if you have any ideas or suggestions I would love to hear them.

Posted in musings

insecurities

I realized today that being a good parent involves recognizing my own insecurities about my worth – the aspects of myself from which I feel my own value as a person comes – and not raising my children out of that place of fear.

For me – painfully shy, socially awkward, often feeling out of place or more like an observer than a participant, never quite fitting in – it was in my intelligence that I found an opportunity to shine, a way to attract positive attention from both adults and peers, and a role to play in my social network. Failing at something academic (with a very broad definition of that term that may include “not being perfect” or “not being the best”) was ridiculously hard for me to cope with, and the thought of losing my intelligence to brain injury or dementia is still one of my greatest fears. While I honestly enjoy and excel at intellectual pursuits, making it so central to my sense of self-worth left me feeling inadequate and incomplete, wanting to be seen and valued and loved for more than just my intelligence, to belong in a community for more holistic reasons. That was one thing that I loved about my husband Paul from the beginning: that he saw and loved the entirety of who I am, and didn’t make my intelligence the most important part of who I was to him.

Now, as my children enter the school years, I am noticing some of those same insecurities about my own intellectual “failings” resurfacing in a new form – how some part of me wants to push, and push, and push my kids towards academic success; how inside, I start feeling panicky because Aubade is three now and doesn’t know all her letters yet and can’t count past four; how I second-guess our educational choices multiple times every day because if I don’t choose the absolute best thing they are going to be less than what they could be, less than intellectually and academically perfect.

And it’s just as ridiculous and overblown now that it’s about my children as it was when it was just about me.

Academic success is a good thing, but it’s not the only or even the most important thing needed to have a good life, or a happy life, or a successful life. Character matters more, for goodness and meaningful purpose; emotional intelligence and relationships matter more, for happiness; and self-awareness, ambition, drive, and persistence matter more for success. Still more important than all of these is faith. Seek first the kingdom of God, Jesus says, and all these things which you need, which fill your heart with worry, will be given to you. For intelligence can be lost, and happiness can turn to sadness, and success can collapse in an instant – but God will never lose or forsake His children, those who love Him and are called by His name. It is His perfect love, after all, that casts out fear, that gives us value unconditionally, and that makes us whole.

Posted in recipes

shelled green bean soup

When our green bean plants were mass-producing this fall, I missed harvesting a significant number of them at their peak (before I learned how much I loved roasted green beans, and before I knew how much the boys would enjoy eating the frozen green beans). They slowly aged on the vines, getting fatter, tougher, and yellower; some began to dry out, their formerly green shells first turning brown, then becoming thin and brittle.

I harvested a big bowl of the completely dried pods, and ended up with about two cups worth of dry seed to use for my next planting. But I really didn’t need any more seeds to plant (I already had far more than I could use, to be honest), and I didn’t want to wait for the remaining green beans to dry out on the vines. So, I harvested all the yellow-brown pods that were in various stages in between moist green and dry brown, and shelled them. The seeds were large and firm, not yet polished and pebbly like their more mature counterparts, and they looked like any other white bean – so I decided I would use them accordingly.

Bowl half full with white shelled green beans – these may be the hard dry ones instead of the more tender shelly beans but they look about the same. And you could make this soup with the dry ones – you’d just have to simmer them longer.

I simmered the beans until they were creamy and tender, then added diced butternut squash sautéed with fresh rosemary in bacon grease, threw in a couple handfuls of chopped arugula at the end, and adjusted the flavor with red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and cayenne. The sweetness of the squash, the earthy bitterness of the greens, the creamy nuttiness of the beans – they all melded together to make a soup both satisfying and filling. And just as good as the taste was the knowledge that all those things – the beans, the squash, the arugula, and the rosemary – were grown in my own garden, that I was using the bounty of the land and not letting even the random old green beans go to waste.

(No pictures of the soup, unfortunately, because I ate it all :P)

Posted in book lists, book review, sqt

{sqt} – library haul!

We finally made it to the library this week and stumbled upon some pretty good books – a mix of classics and new finds that I’m looking forward to reading. So for the quick takes link-up today at This Ain’t the Lyceum I thought I’d share what we found 🙂

cover of The Mitten by Jan Brett
The Mitten, by Jan Brett

It’s hard to go wrong with Jan Brett books, in my experience – her stories are humorous and the extra details woven into the side panels of her illustrations add so much to the (already excellent) written words. This book has quickly become one of the boys’ favorites; not only have they been asking me to read it over and over again, but Limerick has also spent time reading it on his own and aloud to me with just a little help. In this story, the forest animals (getting steadily larger) all find a place to snuggle inside the mitten Nicki’s grandmother made for him, until finally even the bear wants to join in!

cover for A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams
A Chair For My Mother, Vera B. Williams

This is a new book for me, told from the point of view of a little girl who lives with her grandmother and her hard-working mother. There is poverty and loss here – her mother works long hours and comes home worn out, and the three of them lost everything in a home fire (which is why they are looking for a good chair now) – but there is also community, and hope, and love, and happiness. I laughed when the grandma said she feels like Goldilocks when they are trying to find the perfect chair, and I love the picture at the end of the mother sitting in the new chair with her littler girl snuggled up asleep on her lap. It’s just a beautiful picture of life and family.

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco’s autobiographical picture book about her struggle with dyslexia is definitely not a new book for me, but it is for my kids. Rondel especially was deeply affected by the bullying portrayed in the book, by Trisha’s close relationship with her grandmother, and by the encouragement and help she was finally given by her teacher Mr. Falker. It’s a hard book to read, because of the emotional pain involved, and I’m always in tears at the end, but it so hopeful to see the difference one person’s commitment and care can make in someone else’s life.

cover art of Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Most people are probably familiar with The Rainbow Fish, the story of the fish who was so special and beautiful that he became arrogant and selfish and ends up having to give away his shimmery scales to make up for his rudeness and find friendship. It’s honestly not one of my favorite books, because I don’t like the pressure put on Rainbow Fish to give away something uniquely his – he could have said no in a much gentler and kinder way, true, but he still should be allowed to say no without losing his relationships with the other fish. Generosity is a good and beautiful thing when it comes from authenticity; bribing other people to like you by giving things to them is not so beautiful. But maybe I’m just looking at it too cynically.

The Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni
The Extraordinary Egg, by Leo Lionni

Ok, I picked this one up on our way out of the library and I haven’t had a chance to read it with the kids (or on my own) yet! But I’m looking forward to it 🙂 We read our first Lionni picture book around Christmas, and I was impressed by the emotional depth of the book (and the illustrations are lovely), so I’ve been wanting to explore more by the author. Given that Rondel’s favorite animal is the alligator, this one seems particularly apropos and I’m excited to read it to him.

Mix It Up cover art
Mix It Up by Hevre Tullet

My mom gave the kids Tullet’s book Press Here for Christmas, along with its companion, the Draw Here activity book (which I saved for them to open on Epiphany). While they all enjoyed the book, Limerick really fell in love with it – he’ll read the books to himself, re-draw the illustrations on the iPad as he tells himself the story, spend hours doing the drawing activities, and even recreate the story with our brain flake building toys! So when I saw this book at the library I knew I had to grab it, and Limerick loved it as well. I’ve read it to him and let him do the shaking, mixing, etc. – and he’s read it to me and had me follow the instructions 🙂 I need to buy more paint, as ours is about empty, and then I’d love to go through this book with all the sensory texture and messiness of real paint!

cover art for My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett

After we finished reading The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, I started looking for other chapter books to read that would be a step above the beginning readers but not too long or complex for a six year old to enjoy. I came across this book on several lists and decided it was worth a try since it’s about dragons and animals (Rondel’s favorites, still) and available at the library 🙂 Although it’s a classic, I’ve never read it, so I’m looking forward to discovering a new great story with the kids.

As a bonus, I found a copy of Jean Vanier’s Becoming Human for myself. I’m hoping to write a lot more about this book after I read it, as well as more about Vanier himself and the L’Arche communities he founded for mentally and intellectually disabled adults, because I haven’t encountered a more hopeful, loving, and godly approach to disability than what I’m starting to discover in his philosophy and work – but I need to learn a lot more before I can really dive into it here.

What books are you reading or looking forward to reading, with kids or on your own? I’d love to hear your thoughts about anything good you’ve been reading lately!

Posted in musings, quotes

star of the sea

“Eärendil saw now no hope left in the lands of Middle-Earth, and he turned again in despair and came not home, but sought back once more to Valinor with Ellington at his side. He stood now most often at the prow of Vingilot, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow, and ever its light grew greater as they drew into the West. And the wise have said that it was by reason of that holy jewel that they came in time to waters that no vessels save those of the Teleri had known; and they came to the Enchanted Isles and escaped their enchantment; and they came to the Shadowy Seas and passed their shadows, and they looked upon Tol Eressëa the Lonely aisle, but tarried not; and at last they cast anchor in the Bay of Eldamar, and the Teleri saw the coming of that ship and they were amazed, gazing from afar upon the light of the Silmaril, and it was very great. Then Eärendil, first of living Men, landed on the immortal shores.” – J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Eärendil’s guiding light, the Silmaril, eventually becomes a star giving hope to the people of Middle Earth: it is that star that Sam Gamgee looks up to see from the crooked paths of Mordor, whose light helps him to remember that there are good and beautiful things higher and deeper and longer-lasting than the present evil and suffering. It is the light of that star that resides in Galdriel’s phial – a light, she says, for when all other lights go out, a light that gives Frodo the courage and strength to oppose the giant spider Shelob in her lair.

But it is this story, where it guides Eärendil through all the obstacles in his way to the “immortal shores” of his forbidden destination (forbidden because of the evil of Men and Elves), that comes to mind whenever I hear the phrase “star of the sea” (which I have been a lot, as it appears in the Marian antiphon for the season). Like the Silmaril, Mary can be a light leading us always to her Son, bringing us to His life, reminding us of His presence to give us hope. She is not the giver of life, nor the way through the obstacles, but she guides us to the One who is.

Posted in book review

{book review} lithium: a doctor, a drug, and a breakthrough

book cover for Lithium; pastel rainbow letters over a black-and-white image of a scientist at a microscope
Title: Lithium: A Drug, A Doctor, and A Breakthrough
Author: Walter A. Brown
Date of Publication: August 2019
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lithium, as its subtitle suggests, tells three interwoven stories: that of the life of John Cade, the doctor who discovered lithium’s most important medical use; that of lithium itself from its first discovery as an element to its recognition as both a drug and a toxin; and that of lithium’s bumpy road to acceptance through research trials, scientists’ feuds, and governmental wariness.

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