Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Pet Python Tried To Swallow Me!

Not really.  And this is not a post about snakes (which I've written about elsewhere). 

This post is for those of you who conduct fieldwork and spend lots of time outdoors--as well as those who like to bask in the sun--by the pool, ocean, or backyard (hopefully, no one is foolish enough to go to tanning salons).

On Wednesday, I had my third basal cell carcinoma removed--this one from my upper lip (technically, the philtrum-that area between the nose and the pigmented border of the mouth). The previous ones were on my forehead and hand.

These are slow-growing lesions that are readily cured with surgery. I've also had dozens of pre-cancerous lesions burned off with liquid nitrogen.

I'm fair-skinned--freckles, auburn hair and therefore more vulnerable than most to skin cancer.  Growing up, I avoided the sun due to my sensitivity.  I could be burned to a crisp in 30 minutes at mid-day in mid-summer without any skin protection.  I can thank my father for my skin type.  My mother and her mother both had very dark skin that tanned readily.  During family outings to the beach, they were lying all day in their swimsuits in the direct sun, while my father and I were usually huddled in the shade somewhere.

Although I now always use a total sunblock and wear protective clothing while outdoors, I did slip up on occasion when I was younger.  I can recall a few times that I managed to get a moderate to severe sunburn--especially in the days before good sunscreens. However, that was enough, apparently, to set the stage for later skin cancers--little time-bombs that would pop up decades later. 

This lesion was very innocuous-- a scaly patch (about this size: o) just below my nose that would not go away.  Most people would have ignored it until it became an ulcerated crater.  However, having experienced other such tiny lesions that turned out to be cancerous, I suspected it was a problem.  The tip-off was that it bothered me--I was always aware of it even though it was almost invisible (even when I pointed it out to people, they couldn't see it). 

So, I made an appointment with my dermatologist.  I had several other spots that I wanted checked--mostly on the backs of my hands.  He glanced at those and said, "We'll burn them off."  Then I pointed to my lip.  He took a close look through a magnifying glass and said, "Biopsy".  The nurse shot my lip up with lidocaine, and the doctor shaved off the suspect patch.  I got the call a few days later--basal cell carcinoma.  Please make an appointment to have the area surgically excised at your earliest convenience, which turned out to be the day before Thanksgiving.

Most people would be shocked at how much tissue is taken in the procedure.  However, it's necessary to get a good margin of healthy tissue to ensure that there is no recurrence (which you definitely want to avoid).  For my lesion, the elliptical incision was 1.4 cm in length and about 0.5 cm wide at the center, running vertically between nose and lip margin. The surgery was done under local anesthetic, and the incision closed with about six stitches. I was in and out of the doctor's office in 30 minutes.

Later that day, I looked like I had been in a fist fight and gotten a fat lip.  I left the dermatologist's office thinking of good stories to make up about my appearance..."If you think this is bad, you should see the other guy...".  Ironically, the evening of the surgery, Avatar was showing on cable.  I was amused at the character in the movie (the brutal Colonel Quaritch) who had chosen not to have plastic surgery to repair the impressive scars on his head, instead saying, "I kinda like it. Reminds me every day what's out there [referring to Pandora's jungle]."  Hmm.  He has a point there. 

Scars, in fact, seem to enhance a man's overall masculinity.  In Quaritch's case, his scars say it all: "Don't mess with me. I'm a bad dude."  It's a classic way for a male character (usually the bad guy) to be visually depicted as a very macho type who will be hard to kill.  Quaritch calls attention to his scar under the guise of explaining to the new recruit (Jake Sully) how dangerous Pandora is.  However, it's clear that he's proud of his wounds...they affirm his macho image.  They are apparently the result of an attack by a vicious animal, which left a triple slash across his scalp and onto the side of his face.  He keeps his hair short, so the scars can't be missed.

The entire scene is a classic set-up between the hero (Sully) and antagonist (Quaritch). Sully's character has also suffered a major war wound, which has unfortunately left him paralyzed from the waist down and with pitifully-atrophied legs.  Definitely not a macho look. 

At the end of their initial meeting, Quaritch magnanimously assures Sully that he will make sure he "gets his legs back...his real legs", if he helps Quaritch subdue the indigenous people of Pandora.

It's interesting how he disparages the avatar "drivers" while strutting around in an "Ampsuit", a heavily armored robot suit that mechanically increases the driver's size, strength, and firepower. Quaritch also disparages the scientific program, "The avatar program is a joke -- buncha limpdick scientists."  Quaritch especially despises the lead scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who runs the avatar program and who is unafraid to confront Quaritch and his greedy corporate employer (shades of Ripley!).

If you read my earlier posts on stereotypes of female scientists, you'll recognize that Augustine is a cross between the "male woman scientist" and "the lonely heroine".  The movie amusingly tries to portray how devoted Augustine is in a scene in which she is dying (from a gunshot wound inflicted by Quaritch) and is being carried by Jake Sully's avatar to a place sacred to the Na'vi (and usually off limits to scientists).  Augustine, upon being told where she is, says wistfully, "I should take some samples."  Now that's dedication....

The whole movie is, of course, an (adolescent) male fantasy....a paraplegic (i.e., powerless) guy gets a new and much better body, wins the girl, is accepted into a new society, beats up a lot of "bad guys" (especially his main adversary, although technically it is his Na'vi girlfriend who finally nails Quaritch), and eventually becomes leader of a new world...and during it all gets to fly around on a colorful dragon steed.  How much better can a guy's life get? 

Another famous "scar scene" is in the movie "Jaws" when Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) compare their "war wounds".  In this classic scene, the two protagonists go through a male bonding ritual during a drinking interlude on their shark-hunting trip. Who's got the most impressive scar? Hooper shows his scar from an encounter with a thresher shark.  Quint shows his wound from a bull shark.  Chief Brody, who's feeling left out, surreptitiously looks down at his appendectomy scar....   
Hooper, however, thinking he's got the trump card, points to his chest, "Mary Ellen Moffat...broke my heart."

The scene concludes with Quint telling about his experience on the USS Indianapolis:  

"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.  Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer....."

Quint is the clear winner in that contest. 

If I were a guy, I suppose I would be thinking up a good story about how I got my scar.
  • Bar fight--got a broken bottle right in the mouth.  Ouch!  
  • Fishing buddy snagged me in the mouth. Double-ouch!
  • Terrorist bombing...a piece of shrapnel hit me. 
  • My pet python tried to swallow me. 
  • Hang-gliding in the Andes and was attacked by a condor.

But being a woman, I'm thinking that scars are not so great for the feminine image.  However, I usually don't scar badly, so I'm hoping this one will fade quickly--as the others have done. If not...well, I may have to use one of the above stories.  I'm leaning toward the condor attack.....

Photo Credits: NASA (image of the sun), Twentieth Century Fox (modified still image from Avatar), Universal Studios (modified still image from Jaws)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blast from the Past

I just watched the new HBO documentary about Fran Lebowitz by Martin Scorsese.

For those of you who are thinking, "Who's Fran Lebowitz?", here's a short bio.  Lebowitz is a New York intellectual who is best known for her witty, sardonic commentary about American life.  She's a 60 year old Jewish lesbian who got her start writing for Andy Warhol (the magazine, Interview) back in the 60s.  Although she published two successful books in the late 70s/early 80s, she's since suffered from writer's block and has only produced short pieces for magazines (she's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair).  She refers to her problem as a "writer's blockade" due to its severity.  In the documentary, she says that her blockade was in many ways like the Vietnam War.  Her block lasted for years (like the war), and she doesn't know how she got into it or how to get out of it.

To make a living, she gives lectures at colleges around the country.  The documentary has several clips from these lectures as well as a lengthy, unscripted interview with her at her favorite hang-out in New York.  After one university lecture, a (very young) student asks her if she agrees with how she is often characterized as a modern-day Dorothy Parker and if so, is Parker someone she strives to emulate?  She replies that, first, she's heartened by the fact that someone so young has even heard of Dorothy Parker and second, that she's happy to be considered a modern-day "anything". She says she's not big on, like, emulating. 

She's asked by the interviewer if she believes in luck.  Her answer is yes and that one of the biggest pieces of luck is gender.  She says, "Here's what a big piece of luck it [gender] is. Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States.... failed."

At a lecture, she's asked what are the innate differences between men and women.  Her answer is, without a moment's hesitation, "testosterone". She points out that testosterone is not "learned".  If it were, we could study up on it.  She says that testosterone "gives people, men, who have it, an advantage. Because it is what makes men aggressive." Men don't want others (women) to have power because then they (men) have to give up their power, and they don't want to.  She goes on to talk about how having babies puts women at a disadvantage.  Her point is that women become fascinated with their babies to the detriment of their careers. On the other hand, babies don't hold a similar fascination for men, so the impact on them is different. She claims that modern men who are heavily involved in child care are just following a fad; that it's not biological.

I imagine many people would disagree with Lebowitz on these (and other) points, but her objective is to shock people out of their comfort zone and make them examine their beliefs.

The interviews and other bits with Lebowitz are intercut in the documentary with clips of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison and other writers/intellectuals of the day (there's one clip in which Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi").  There's also a short clip of Lebowitz in an acting role as Judge Janice Goldberg on the TV show, Law and Order.  I mention this because I used to watch Law and Order and remember the character, but never recognized Lebowitz.

Anyway, the documentary is entertaining.  Lebowitz is an interesting character.  She seems totally comfortable and confident in front of an audience.  She loves to talk--the more people listening, the better.  I saw little difference between her speaking her mind to one or two people vs. hundreds of people.  She is a master at one-liners and scathing comebacks.  Once, she was heckled by a frat boy at a lecture in New Orleans.  Her hair had gotten frizzy from the humidity, and the guy yelled out, "Who does your hair?" She shot back, "Why, do you want to meet him?".  

The title of the documentary is "Public Speaking".  You can see a trailer here.

Image Credit: Image modified from a portrait photo by Christopher Felver (for more of his portraits and art, see

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mangling Science

A researcher recently spoke out about the way the media have mangled the science being done on the Gulf oil spill.

Dr. Christopher Reddy of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution describes his experiences with reporters and how they skewed information to tell a story unintended by the scientists.

He co-authored a paper published in Science (August) that reported the existence of a subsurface plume of oil in the Gulf.  The media were naturally interested in their findings and sought interviews with Reddy and members of his team.  However, the science story got turned into a soap opera when reporters tried to make more out of the disagreements between the findings of different groups of researchers.

Reddy especially took issue with reporters who interpreted his team's findings as challenging the Obama administration's (NOAA) report on how much oil remains in the Gulf.  His essay posted on CNN Opinion describes how his work should not be taken as evidence for or against the government's or other researchers' findings, but an incremental piece of a scientific puzzle that may take years to ultimately solve.  He draws a nice comparison with the Exxon Valdez spill, which took many years and dozens of studies before a complete oil budget was finalized and accepted by the scientific community. 

The description of his experiences with reporters is not unusual.  I've also been interviewed about the spill and potential impacts to the environment--and other issues in the past.  Some reporters get it right and some don't.  In some cases, what I see in the newspaper bears no resemblance to what I said.  Part of it is a lack of understanding by the reporter (and sometimes can be the scientist's fault for not explaining scientific points well).  Some colleagues doing research on the oil spill have stopped talking to reporters altogether because they have been repeatedly misquoted or because the information they provided was deliberately misinterpreted.

I've talked about this conundrum in past posts (see science communication) and why I think it's important to talk to the media--even if there are mistakes on occasion.  If the media cannot get a scientist for their information, they'll turn to people who are less qualified and who may have some agenda to push.

Anyway, it's unusual to see a scientist bothering to correct inappropriate/inaccurate reports made by the media.      

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Coping Skills

In the last post, I mentioned a new website called CareerWISE, which was just launched by an NSF-supported group.  It provides resources for women in STEM fields to cope with the interpersonal challenges we face.  We receive extensive technical training, but often do not get any formal help in developing other critical skills required to succeed in a science career.

CareerWISE website provides strategies, training, and informative videos (of successful women) to assist us in coping with challenges. On the front page is a great interactive problem-solving exercise, which guides you through four steps in solving whatever issue is bothering you: Assess the problem, Specify the outcome (you want), Strategize, and Execute and evaluate.

Another option offered is LearnSkills--a page with dozens of guides to learning about yourself and skills to address specific issues that arise.

A third option is HerStories--videos of interviews with dozens of female scientists (by discipline) talking about their experiences and coping skills: lack of female role models, pros and cons of an international advisor, the upside to children prior to a tenure-track job....

This is a rich resource for women--particularly targeting women currently in Ph.D. programs. The idea is to help women develop these critical skills at a crucial point in their science training.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.  Both male and female students and post-docs can benefit from these resources.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


….is defined as the capacity of a system to return to its original state after being disturbed (e.g., stretched, bent, compressed, moved).  For humans, a more specific definition is the ability to recover readily from adversity or setbacks.

I’m taking a break from the discussion of the Blue Ocean Strategy to mention a new program that researchers at Arizona State University have designed.  It’s called CareerWISE and will be an online resource that offers personal resilience training for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. This program is designed to enhance skills in coping with personal and interpersonal challenges that women face in working toward graduate degrees and developing careers in STEM fields.  It is specifically designed to address the loss of women from science and engineering doctoral programs.
The new website is scheduled to be launched on November 4 at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Va. NSF funded research on psychology and behaviors of women while pursuing careers in STEM.  The website is a product of this research.
Some of the features to be offered on the website:
-Multi-media, web-based training using both text and video examples from interviews, focus groups, and the literature.
-Hundreds of HerStory clips from video interviews with women who have successfully navigated the sometimes treacherous waters of graduate school in various STEM fields
You can sign up to attend NSF’s public briefing for the release of the CareerWISE website here.
The briefing will include an introduction by Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF Asst. Dir., followed by a demonstration of the CareerWISE website.
Location: NSF headquarters, 4201 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA, Stafford 1, Room 110
When: Nov. 4, 2010, 4:30-6:00 pm EDT