Monday, March 30, 2009

Race day

Yesterday was my half marathon, the third half that I've run.  It went really really well.  I beat my previous best time by two minutes, despite a very hilly course.  1:57:48.

Today my legs are aching pleasantly.

Tomorrow a light run.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Weeknight recipe #1: Everything but the kitchen sink pasta

So here is a great weeknight dish.  The recipe makes enough for 2 hungry adults and one starving toddler, with leftovers for lunch the next day.  It may seem weird to use beans with pasta, but believe me, it's delicious.  And my little Bean loves beans.

Figure 1.  Ingredients, lovingly displayed.  All quantities are -ish.

-2 oz of thickly sliced pancetta, chopped
-1 medium onion, chopped
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
-1 can crushed tomatoes
-1/2 cup basil leaves thinly sliced, stems reserved
-1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
-about 1 tsp fennel seeds
-about 1 tsp dried rosemary, crumbled
-about 1 tsp kosher salt
-optional: 1/4-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
-2 cups spinach leaves
-1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
-1 lb pasta (large shells worked nicely)
-fresh ricotta cheese (1 Tbsp per serving)

Serve with:
salad (or for toddlers, cherry tomatoes and cucumber)
asparagus, grilled or broiled
bread for sopping

All right, let's get started.

First, dump your pancetta into a pan over medium heat.  Cook that (fancy, salty Italian) bacon until it starts to brown on the edges and the pan is nice and greasy (see Fig 2).

Figure 2.  Mmm, bacon.

Next add your bell pepper, onion and garlic to the hot greasy pan and cook about 6 minutes until the onion looks brown and caramel-ly.

Figure 3.  Nothing says lovin' like onions cooked in bacon grease.

Optional step:  At this point, if you've got a bottle of white wine laying around, definitely deglaze the pan with the white wine, pour a glass for yourself and then continue.

Next up, add your tomatoes, spices and reserved basil stems.  (The basil stems should impart a bit of basil-y goodness to your sauce as they simmer, but should be removed before the next steps.)  Now, while the sauce is simmering (for about 20 minutes or so), sit on the floor of your kitchen and read a book with the kiddo(s).  Or have a conversation with your spouse.  It's totally up to you.  DO NOT read a Nature paper.  It will totally kill the mood.

Figure 4.  A steamy pot of goodness.

Okay, once the sauce is nice and simmered, remove the basil stems, add your spinach and white beans.  Let the spinach wilt (~2 min).  Sauce is, as the say in France, le done.

When your pasta is ready, dump your sauce over the top and stir in the parmesan.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Figure 5.   Tomatoes, bell pepper, spinach, beans... all add up to a well-rounded sauce.  But you'd better believe I'm adding two kinds of cheese.

Putting it all together:  Top your pasta with a generous dollop of fresh ricotta, the shredded basil, add your grilled asparagus and bread, and TA-DA!

Figure 6.  Plated for grownups.

Figure 7.  Plated for kiddos.

Figure 8.  A saucy little Bean enjoying her "big" asparagus.

The case against breastfeeding(?)

My dear friend Ruchi passed along this article about breastfeeding to me and wanted to hear what I had to say about it. The main thesis of the article is that despite the claims of breastfeeding advocates such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, parenting know-it-all Dr. Sears, and La Leche League, the evidence that breastfeeding actually reduces the rates of childhood obesity, allergies, and illness, increases IQ, and promotes mother-child bonding and attachment is far from definitive.

[The medical literature] shows that breast-feeding is probably, maybe, a little better; but it is far from the stampede of evidence that Sears describes. More like tiny, unsure baby steps: two forward, two back, with much meandering and bumping into walls. A couple of studies will show fewer allergies, and then the next one will turn up no difference. Same with mother-infant bonding, IQ, leukemia, cholesterol, diabetes. Even where consensus is mounting, the meta studies—reviews of existing studies—consistently complain about biases, missing evidence, and other major flaws in study design. “The studies do not demonstrate a universal phenomenon, in which one method is superior to another in all instances.

The author goes on to discuss the fundamental problem inherent in most human studies: that in order to perform the study ethically, you can not randomize participants into breast-feeding and non-breastfeeding groups. And because of that, scientists are always chasing their tails, trying to control for factors which could confound the results (things like age of the mother, income level, number of siblings in the household). It's not surprising then that studies are often conflicting... some studies show that breastfeeding is beneficial in one area or another, other studies show no difference between breastfeeding and formula. The author notes:

The IQ studies run into the central problem of breast-feeding research: it is impossible to separate a mother’s decision to breast-feed—and everything that goes along with it—from the breast-feeding itself...

My decision to breastfeed had little to do with whether or not there was "proof" in the literature. My decision to breastfeed was based on the idea of breastmilk as a whole food, while formula is more of a synthetic food. I think of breastmilk as YEPD and formula as SC. I know my yeast grow a hell of a lot better on the rich, complex mixture of yeast extract and peptone than they do on synthetic amino acids and ammonium sulfate. I find the complexity of breastmilk reassuring... I mean there was a time when we didn't recognize that Iodine was an essential trace element. I really don't expect that we have identified all of the essential components of newborn nutrition that promote optimum growth and development.

That being said, I think that the benefits of breastfeeding are relatively small (when compared to the contributions of things like genetic makeup, family income, parent's education level, etc). And this is why observational studies like the ones the author discusses have such a hard time proving any significant benefit.

The author's main point, which she obscures with her rather bitter and unfriendly tone, is that the small benefits that breastfeeding may (and I would argue likely) provide don't justify the (sometimes militant) pro-breastfeeding culture. And I couldn't agree more. There has to be a balance between providing women with the cultural and practical support that promotes breastfeeding, and one which does not demonize women who, for any number of reasons choose not to breastfeed.

And, somewhat off topic:

Given what we know so far, it seems reasonable to put breast-feeding’s health benefits on the plus side of the ledger and other things—modesty, independence, career, sanity—on the minus side, and then tally them up and make a decision.

I actually found this sentence a little offensive. Just because this author finds breastfeeding miserable doesn't mean that everyone does, and I resent the way she presents breastfeeding as nothing but minuses. Yes, breastfeeding can be challenging, demanding, tiring, but it is also immensely rewarding. I wouldn't trade my time nursing Bean for anything.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

2 days of clean

The past week has been a little nuts. Husband is quite literally burning the midnight oil… he’s doing an experiment that runs 24 hours a day for 6 days. He brings the microscope home with him at night and sets it up in our bedroom, then has a timer set to wake him every 2 hours to attend to it. Thankfully this little experiment in misery should finish today. I am so tired, it’s like having a newborn all over again.

On top of the experiment from hell, we are also hosting our parenting group for dinner tonight, and tomorrow Husband’s mother arrives for a visit. And last but not least, my race is in 10 days, so I’m in the heaviest week of my training schedule. Phew.

Each night, after I get Bean fed, read and off to bed, I’ve been baking, cooking and scouring the house (with much help from Husband). I keep a pretty clean house in general, but whenever we have an out-of-town guest or host a dinner, I’m absolutely neurotic about getting the house clean. All the little things that you don’t clean every day (like, say, scouring the little grease pans on the stove) and all of the big cleaning chores (like, say, washing the curtains and bleaching the grout of the kitchen counters) are suddenly staring me in the face.

I have this very visceral memory that is always in the back of my mind whenever guests are coming over. One time, in grad school, I went to a Thursday night poker game at another students house. When I went to the bathroom, I was literally assaulted by the mounds of pubes covering the bathroom floor. It was kinda disgusting, just the sheer volume of pubes. So I perched rather gingerly and did my business.

I always have images of that bathroom in my head when guests are coming to my place. What mess have I become inured to that is screaming to my guests that I am actually a slob? And so I overcompensate. I clean like a deranged lunatic.

But, at least my house is spotless for once. That’ll last for about 2 days, I should think.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Mother of All Recipes Carnival

All right guys and dolls, for several weeks now I've been pondering hosting a cooking smackdown here in the blogosphere. My inspiration is this: there are a lot of domestic and laboratory gods and goddesses here on the internets. You aren't just bringing home the bacon, you're fryin' it up and serving it hot for your spouses and kids.

I personally cook 6-7 nights a week, and it's essentially all from scratch. I admit that I'm not making my own pasta or making my own butter (like some amazing mothers I know), but I'm not serving up hamburger helper either. I'm servin' up nutritious, homemade, well-balanced meals every night. But a girl needs more than just her standby recipes, and I need food that's hot and fast (like yours truly).

Your challenge, dear readers, is to decide on your favorite homemade, nutritious, and preferably toddler friendly weeknight meal. Leave a comment here on this post when your recipe is up, and I will post it as a carnival (along with my own submission) on Wednesday, April 1st.

Pictures highly encouraged. Especially pictures of your toddler slathered from head to toe in your submission.

All right, you have your marching orders. Now give me something hot and tasty. Werd.

ETA: Being a parent is not required for participation in this carnival, I simply encourage recipes for a busy weeknight. If you have your own blog, please post a link to your recipe in the comments. I'll compile the carnival for April 1st. If you don't have a blog, leave the recipe in the comments, and I will post it here on MOAS.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The generation of lost post docs

With the economy in such dire straights, it’s been a terrible year to be finishing a post-doc. Post-docs that have done incredible work, who at any other time would have excellent job prospects, are finding themselves without a single interview invitation. Many universities have canceled their job searches. Other universities that are continuing their searches are rumored to be less likely to hire a candidate, and even if they do hire someone will likely offer less generous start up packages to new hires.

I can’t help but wonder if this will be the generation of lost post-docs. Husband is certainly worried about his job search this fall. A few years ago I would have said that he would be a shoe-in for a position somewhere, but in this economy no one is.

Will academia lose out on the scientists who are currently (or will soon be) out there in this toxic job market? Where will we all find jobs if academia isn’t hiring and biotech is laying people off left and right?

I feel like we’re all dressed up with no place to go.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Interview Meme

Bean-mom has tagged me for the interview meme. And although my response is quite belated, here goes...

1. Several months ago, you wrote that you were exploring alternative career options in science and had taken on some contract work (in science writing, I think?) Could you give us an update on how that's going?

In short, not that great. I take do a little bit of editing/writing contract work last year as a way to broaden my CV and explore some alternative career work, but I haven’t had much time to do any further exploration. Somehow between a postdoc, raising a toddler, and dealing with the legal fallout from our household troubles I haven’t had much time for extracurricular activities. Which is sad, but now that life is settling down a bit I might have a bit of a chance to get back to that in the coming year. And I’m open to suggestions!

2. What is the latest cutest thing that Bean is doing?

Um, Bean is awesome right now. She is BIG on pretend play which is so much fun. She crawls around roaring and pretending to be an ocelot. She is caring for her stuffed animals, feeding them and putting them to bed. She has recently been acting out the story line for Goodnight Gorilla, first freeing all of her animal magnets from the “zoo” (aka the refrigerator), then pretending she’s Zookeeper Bean and returning each of the animals to the “zoo”. She has started singing songs with a tune now, and she will initiate songs that she’s learned at school, teaching them to us. She tells us bits and pieces about her day at school, who she played with or what work she did. She wants to do everything “by self”. Whether it’s walking up the stairs or putting on her pants or clicking into her car seat, everything is by herself. And we’ve just had our first unprompted “I love you”s. Um, best episode ever.

3. If you'd never taken college biology, what do you think you'd be doing now?

I truly have no idea. In high school I planned to study literature. In fact, I was registered as a lit major until my junior year at Hippie U. But my freshman year I decided I wanted to be a physical therapist. Hippie U didn’t offer a physical therapy degree, so I started taking the premed classes instead. I ADORED my science classes, and excelled at them. After my sophomore year I was offered a summer research internship, and the rest is history.

So had I never taken college biology, I might be a librarian. I might be a physical therapist. Or I might be a pastry chef and own my own bakery (that’s my other secret second career). But lots of days I daydream about becoming a nurse. So yeah, I have no idea.

4. What is your favorite vacation?

I have only taken a handful of trips in my life that were to do something other than attend a wedding or see family. The most vacation-y vacation I’ve ever taken was when Husband and I took our honeymoon in Spain for 10 days. It was a-freakin-mazing. It was hot and lovely and we wandered around visiting lovely old mosques and walking on cobblestone streets and hiking and visiting olive farms and just generally doing what we wanted when we wanted. It was fantastic.
My requirements for my next vacation: someplace warm and sunny where I can lay around and get tan and have a beer at 2:00 in the afternoon because I feel like it. Doesn’t that sound just lovely? (In case you’re wondering, they’re predicting more snow to hit Dissertation City this weekend. Sigh.)

5. Would you ever consider relocating to the Midwest?

I consider it a very likely possibility. Husband is planning to submit one paper in the next couple of weeks and another paper in a couple of months. And then this fall he’ll (finally) be applying for tenure track positions. So chances are pretty good that we’re relocating, and furthermore that we’ll have little say on where we’re relocating to. Sometimes it breaks my heart because I miss my family in CA so much, but I try to look at the positives. We’ll get to explore a new place, hopefully live someplace more affordable than either California or Dissertation City, and hopefully settle in for the long haul. So I’m looking forward to the move, wherever we land.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Sometimes my bench is clean. Sometimes my desk is clear. These events appear to be mutually exclusive.

I'm not dead yet

Wow, have I been remiss! I can’t believe it’s been a month since I last posted… Between training for my race, simultaneously potty training and weaning my toddler, jury duty, car troubles, a weeklong visit from my very best grad school friends, and wrangling with some awkward lab politics that I can’t get into, it has been an incredibly busy month!

The briefest of brief updates: I’m doing fine, great actually. My project kinda has me frustrated right now, but I’m through the “is this ever going to work?” phase and into the “I will clone this motherf***er if I have to ligate the phosphate backbone myself” phase. That’s usually more productive.

Husband has been burning the midnight oil. We have an incubator set up in our dining room and a microscope on the desk in the bedroom so that he can make it home for family dinner and then get back to work once Bean is off to sleep. One of my dear friends mocked us deservedly for our home lab setup, but one of my friends used to bring her western blotting supplies home with her at night, so surely a microscope can’t be that bizarre.

My training is going fairly well. I’m logging about 35 miles a week right now, and several of those runs are quite hilly. But I haven’t been keeping as strong a training pace as I’d like because my shin splints are back and I’m trying to avoid a full-blown injury. I’ve come to accept that I may not finish this race under 2 hours, and I’m only mildly annoyed by that. I figure if I can just make it to race day and complete it without injury, I’ll have done pretty well. Although I’m secretly hoping for some race day adrenaline that pushes me to finish in 1:59:00. But we’ll see.

Bean is, indeed, potty training right now. She’s using the potty around 4 times a day right now, to much praise from her doting parents, but I’m hard pressed to see how we will go from potty as novelty to full-time potty use. I have to do a bit more reading I guess.

And this week I officially weaned the Bean. She’s done pretty well with the transition. She’s still asking to nurse at our usual times, but doesn’t seem too upset at my explanation that the “milk is all gone.” I, on the other hand, have been in terrible pain all week and hope that my body gets the message soon that there will be no more nursing.

In my next post, I will (finally) respond to the Bean-mom’s interview meme. But for now, there’s a 0.8% gel with my name all over it.