2015
09.08

Four years with nothing new!

Holy cow!

I just realized I haven’t posted to this blog in four whole years! As you might imagine, a great deal has happened in that time. To quickly catch you up, here are “Five Major Things I Did in Four Years” (in rough chronological order and no particular ranking in importance):

1) I’ve done a lot of traveling both at home and abroad (India, Australia, New Zealand, UAE, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Michigan, Kentucky, California, Washington, DC)

2) I finally earned my PhD at the University of Chicago!! With the support and love from family and friends, I defended my thesis on December 2, 2013.

3) I spent an entire year (all of 2014) “funemployed” where I kept busy helping the family redecorate parts of the house, working out and biking around Cary, NC, doing yardwork, tutoring some folks, and applying for jobs.

4) I was awarded the Mirzayan Fellowship from the National Academy of Sciences (more on that in another post) and served as a fellow at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) from Jan 20-Apr 10, 2015. I stayed on at the IOM as a research associate until August 2015 after which

5) I started a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship!!! Becoming an “S&TP” fellow with AAAS has been a cherished goal of mine for years and I’m simply thrilled it’s finally happening. More on the process it took to get here soon, and certainly more details on how it’s going!

Other notable/awesome things that have happened to the people in my life: my brother married a beautiful and wonderful woman, Chrissy Meyer, that I’m proud to call my sister-in-law; my sister got a sweet and increasingly challenging gig as a cardiac nurse at a Raleigh hospital; my best friend joined Dow Chemical and is rising in the ranks there; my grad school roommates have done one or more of the following, a) gotten married, b) had a kid, and c) entered/completed residency (congrats to all of them!!).

Since I’m embarking on a new adventure as a AAAS S&TP Fellow in the State Department, I hope to update this site more regularly over the coming year. Expect personal/political musings, unsolicited advice re: policy fellowships, travel, and DC, pictures, and more.

Stay tuned!

~Sapana

2011
11.15

It ain’t how it’s broke, it’s how you fix it

The 2012 United States of America presidential election is still 12 months away but insanity that is the campaign process has already been in motion for months. Over the past several weeks, the GOP hopefuls have been holding a string of debates on the “big” issues like the economy, foreign policy, social issues, etc. In a now infamous-flub-and-possibly-campaign-ending moment, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas  forgot the third of three government departments he would shut down if he were elected president.

As head-slapping and brain-aching a moment it was to see a possible candidate for the most powerful position in the world mess up a key policy point so badly, it at least led me to find what I think is a pretty good analogy for what the GOP/Tea Party’s approach is to solving our country’s many problems.

Say you’re driving to work and suddenly your car sputters and quits running:

Oh no! Well, this isn’t good. After screaming some choice imprecations, let’s try to figure out why the car broke down. There are several possibilities, among them:

A) Something totally unexpected found its way in there and messed something important up (dead mouse, toy your kid accidentally dropped in while you were cleaning out the leaves that got stuck under the hood)

B) A key system was defective all along and it wasn’t until you hit that huge pothole that it got shaken loose and finally took down the whole engine

C) An internal combustion engine is a complicated piece of machinery with many working parts that needs regular maintenance to work properly and reliably, and years of neglect and ignored warnings (damn those “check engine” lights) led what was a perfectly good system to ultimately break down

As you can guess, I’ve ordered those possibilities from least likely to most likely. Given these possibilities and what we know of mechanics, let’s now try to find a good strategy of fixing the car so we can get to work and earn the money that supports our family. We can:

A) Call up your insurance company and have them tow the car to the nearest body shop (they’re all the same, right?) where a team of mechanics starts working on it. They say one day, then three, then a week, then finally just say you’re better off buying a new car since they have no idea what’s wrong with yours except that it just won’t start. If they had another couple of months or maybe ten more guys they could solve it, but for now you’re just better off moving on.

B) Since there was clearly one or more key things inherently defective in the engine, start ripping out the things you think shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You’re no automobile mechanic, but common sense tells you the thing is just too damn big with several unnecessary parts and if you can just get rid of enough (or all) of them, the car will start running again.

C) Recognizing your car’s engine is one complex piece of work and accepting the possibility that any number of systems could be damaged to various degrees, you avoid any drastic measures and first call your insurance company to explain the problem. You’ve found a mechanic you trust so you instruct the tow company to take your car to “your guy.” You give him time to look over the car carefully and describe any warning signs you might have noticed before the breakdown. He finally diagnoses the problem, recommends some parts that need replacing, and cleans others that just needed some maintenance. You know your car may not run perfectly again immediately, but trust that the mechanic’s work is good enough such that it’s not likely your car will totally break down any time soon. You also schedule check-up appointments and set reminders for yourself so you don’t neglect it so badly in the future.

Enough of an analogy for you?

Every time I hear the GOP hopefuls-

(I can’t call those clowns contenders: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were contenders. They were two titans of near equal merit in which either would have been an excellent candidate for the presidency.)

-argue that cutting this or cutting that (taxes, Department of Energy, etc) is the way to fix our country’s problems, I think of this car. The US economy, US government, US social structure, US everything are complicated systems built of many interlocking parts intricately and inextricably linked to their global counterparts. Yes, there is wasteful spending that needs to be cut off, there are archaic bureaucracies that need streamlining to face 21st century challenges, and there are other parts of government which could probably be shuttered altogether without much damage to the whole. But to work under the assumption, the illusion, that our economy is struggling and our world dominion weakening simply because our taxes are too high, we have too many regulatory safeguards in place, or that our government is just “too big” is, in a word, ludicrous.

What our country needs is sound policy, not soundbite policy. These GOP contestants want to campaign in poetry and govern in 140-character tweets. The United States of America needs a president who actually understands we live in an incredibly complex world and has the humility to realize he or she does not have all the answers or knowledge to govern in this world alone. It is a damn shame the GOP has failed to promote anyone who even approaches the standard the American people deserve.

2011
10.01

Open Street 2011

Today one of Chicago’s finest and most famous streets, State Street, was closed to vehicular traffic for several blocks from 10 am-5pm. This venture was called “Open Street” and was a rare opportunity to walk down a street seldom closed down to vehicles.

Here are some of the amusing and entertaining things I saw:

2011
07.30

Chicago “Bucket List”

This Labor Day in September will mark the end of four full years of my time in Chicago. It’s hard to believe that so much time has already passed. I could have earned another entire undergraduate degree in the time I’ve spent in graduate school!

After four years, I do feel more like a “Chicagoan” than I thought I would. I’m starting to follow more of the local politics and culture, and feel a true distinction from the tourists I see visiting in droves every summer. I look at them and think of how grand a city Chicago must seem after coming from presumably more provincial environs. Is that a bit of city snobbery? Sure, but if you lived steps away from the most visited site in all of Illinois (Navy Pier), could see one of the country’s most famous buildings from your bedroom window (the Willis Sears Tower), and your daily commute involved riding down Michigan and State Streets and Chicago’s famous Lakeshore Drive, you would feel that most every visitor you saw must come from a more provincial place.

And yet, the byline to my blog is “the perpetual tourist” for a reason. While I feel at home in Chicago, I still see it as a city I need to explore and experience more. As such, I’ve drawn up a list of “25 Things to Do in Chicago Before I Graduate.” In no particular order, here they are:

1) Eat at a restaurant and visit a shop in every one of Chicago’s neighborhoods
2) Paddle a kayak on the Chicago River
3) Go swimming/scuba diving in Lake Michigan
4) Visit all the city’s museums
5) Eat pizza from all the famous places
6) Visit the most interesting/famous bars in the city
7) Get drinks at The Terrace at the Trump
8 ) See a show at the Green Mill jazz club
9) Dance at Summer Dance
10) Go to a show at Ravinia
11) Attend at least one day of Lollapalooza
12) Go to a Sox, Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears game
13) Walk on the Skydeck at the Sear’s Tower
14) Walk from Hyde Park to downtown
15) Bike to Evanston from downtown
16) Ride every CTA train line
17) Participate in at least one 5k
18) Visit Six Flags Great America
19) Take a Segway tour
20) Eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant (ex. Alinea, Spiaggia’s, etc)
21) Get a Chicago Public library card
22) See at least one day of the “Air and Water Show”
23) Dress in a costume and wander about the city wearing it in the summer
24) Witness the Kuviasungnerk/Kangeiko sunrise session
25) Visit at least five local breweries (ex. Goose Island, Half Acre, etc)

As always, fun things are made more fun with friends/family, so if you plan on visiting Chicago, you can help me work on this list!

2011
04.26

Awakenings

It’s April 26th and I haven’t posted since last December. So much for keeping to the New Year’s resolution of posting to my blog on a regular basis. O.o.

Maybe it’s because of I’m jealous of relatives residing in warmer climes (read: anywhere but Chicago), but I feel as though this my fourth winter in Chicago has been especially long and arduous. It started with a rapid temperature drop shortly before Thanksgiving 2010 and continued through the Blizzaster of February that included a bout of thundersnow and created apocalyptic scenes on the city’s famous Lakeshore Drive. Winter is far too slowly melting into spring. Compared to historic records, Chicago has seen a marked drop in the level of sunshine (nearly half the sunny hours it normally receives) and a considerable dearth of warm days (only two days reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit since January 1st).

Am I bitter? Not really. It was 8 degrees when I set foot in Chicago for my recruitment weekend in February 2007 and I had no illusions about Chicago’s climate. I have a naturally high capacitance for patience but nearly two weeks of below average April temperatures and a cool and rainy start to May is finally breaking down my mettle.

(non sequitor: I was once part of a conductivity test and the lady passing low-level current through us exclaimed that I was quite the resistor. That may explain a lot).

On the bright side, there is abundant evidence that spring is surely on its way. The tulips planted along Michigan Ave are almost ready to open their buds, green is returning with a quiet fervor to trees in Hyde Park, and birdsong once more greets my ears as I walk around campus. Hibernation is nearly over; spring is on its way.

My research project is also awakening and I’ve been a virtual flurry of analytic activity for the past several weeks. I’ve grown more confident in my coding abilities (though I still rely on Google to help me do silly things like grab a header from a file) and my understanding of how to interpret my data. I’ll eventually post my code here so that it may be of use to others doing GWA studies.

This week will also see some big changes in the lives of two people near and dear to my heart. First, I was lucky and proud to attend the thesis defense of a best friend of nearly 12 years, the newly minted Dr. Kevin James Henderson. He did a fine (though rather fast) job of talking through his thesis presentation and I was pleased to understand about 90% of it. I guess it took five years of explaining triblock copolymers before I could pronounce “polymethyl methacrylate” without hesitation. I expect great things of Dr. Henderson when he continues his polymer work at Dow Chemical outside Philadelphia.

Second, my dear sister Sachi is going to graduate from nursing school this weekend. The kindest and gentlest of the Vora triplets is officially entering a vocation perfect for her. As someone who patiently kept peace between two opinionated and stubborn siblings (and occasionally hot-tempered parents) for over two decades, I’m sure Sachi can handle anything her patients throw at her. Literally. She has the reflexes of a cat from her days of Frisbee playing and soccer goal tending. Though one day (hopefully next year) I’ll be the first “Dr” in our family, it will always be Sachi who can actually help people with their ills and complaints. She earned “top student” honors for her brains and will earn the love and respect of her patients for simply being who she is: a loving, caring, compassionate person who is and will always be the best sister in the world.

Congratulations to my dear friends on your accomplishments!!

2010
12.07

7 December 2010

Dear Congressional Republicans,

I am your worst nightmare.

I am a woman who supports a woman’s right to choose, who believes in equal pay for equal work, who demands swift and appropriate justice for sexual crimes and domestic abuse (regardless of the victim’s gender), and who supports woman occupying non-traditional roles in the household, the workplace, and the community at large.

I am an intellectual who believes a good education is as much a fundamental right as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that our leaders should embrace intelligent peers instead of promoting sycophants.

I am the daughter of immigrants with a funny name and who hopes to live in a more diverse and honestly multicultural country.

I am an atheist, a humanist, a proponent of the separation of church and state, and am tolerant of other people’s beliefs except when they try to impose them on me.

I am a scientist who knows evolution is true, supports stem cell research, alternative energy research, environment-protecting legislation (yes, global warming is real), and that expert panels and not untrained lobbyists should determine science-related legislation.

I voted for Barack Hussein Obama and do not for a single moment regret that decision.

I believe that America’s true might lies in its prosperity and peaceful policies rather than the size and use of its military arsenal.

I am a willing tax-payer who wants taxes to be levied proportional to income (that, yes, rich people should pay more taxes than poor people), who demands an end to corporate tax loopholes and other tax evasion policies that will bankrupt the government.

I advocate for universal health-care because a healthy nation is a happier, stronger, more prosperous nation.

I support gay rights including the rights for gay people to be themselves, love openly, legally, and live free from persecution in every state in this Union.

I believe in tighter gun laws because while people do kill people, the guns certainly help and it is far, far too easy for them to land in the wrong hands in this country.

Lastly,

I am a proud American, and YOU DO NOT SPEAK FOR ME.

~Sapana Vora

Woman, intellectual, daughter of immigrants, atheist, scientist, Barack Hussein Obama supporter, peace-lover, tax-payer, health-care advocate, gay rights supporter, gun law supporter, American.

2010
11.17

Ice Cream

I recently decided to spoil myself and bought an ice cream maker. A food blog I follow, Annie’s Eats, kept taunting me with delicious-looking ice creams and sorbets. I wanted to expand my recipe horizon, and a colleague recommended A Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz. So far every recipe I’ve tried from his book has turned out wonderfully, and I can’t wait to try the more exotic flavors (Szechuan peppercorn, green tea, etc). Between the blog, the book, and a Rachel Ray recipe (gasp, I know) I’ve made: Guinness Chocolate, strawberry, White Russian, and milk chocolate ice creams, along with mango and then raspberry sorbets.

2010
11.13

Neha Bhooshan, PhD

Yesterday my friend and roommate, Neha Bhooshan, successfully defended her dissertation in Medical Physics at the University of Chicago. The title of her research is “Advanced Computer-Aided Diagnosis and Prognosis for Breast MRI.” It’s very smart and very complicated stuff. Having been awarded one “Dr.” title, Neha’s now working toward getting her second “Dr.” title, this time as an MD. I’m so proud of her and know her many friends and family members are too. Congratulations Neha!!! (er, Dr. Bhooshan)

The last few months, weeks, and days of a dissertation project are usually quite stressful and trying for the student. The emotional and physical costs of the final push are also shared by family and friends of the student. It’s hard to see someone you care about be a nervous wreck for days on end and undergo the ups and downs of relationships with advisors and thesis committee members. It’s especially hard when you know there isn’t much you can do to help in terms of the project at hand. What family and friends can do is provide a supportive and caring environment in many ways: cook warm meals and make enough for leftovers, give the occasional hug or words of encouragement, bake special treats for late-night work sessions, and, perhaps most importantly, be patient. Listen to the rants and show empathy, not sympathy. Pity is a salve that wears off all too quickly and can make the sufferer feel worse about themselves, not better.

As difficult as the last few months have been for Neha, they have been more than a little trying for me too. Neha is a sweet, smart, and fun girl. That Neha all but disappeared thanks to constant revisions, excessive demands, and unnecessary delinquencies on the part of certain professors. Happily for all, the Neha I, and her friends and family, adore is back now. I think coming home to this yesterday helped:

Her favorite drink is the White Russian, so I wanted to make treats that captured the essence of that drink. She, like all normal people, also loves chocolate. The cake is a rich, moist Guinness chocolate cake (the same cake in the Guinness&Bailey’s cupcake recipe) covered in Kahlua cream cheese icing (homemade, of course), and topped with mini chocolate chips and dark chocolate-covered espresso beans. The ice cream is a “White Russian” ice cream which is essentially a rich vanilla custard based mixed with vodka and Kahlua liqueur. The Kahlua didn’t pop out as much in the ice cream as I would have liked, so what we have instead is a very rich, deliciously creamy vanilla ice cream. Not that that’s a bad thing at all. Mix it with some Kahlua and you’re good to go!

Making the ice cream and cake took some planning and subterfuge to accomplish. I had to wake up early Thursday morning to make the custard as soon as she left for school (so that it could chill enough to freeze the next day), and then “go to dinner” that night at my friend Kevin’s place across the river in order to borrow his kitchen to bake the cake and make the frosting. Friday morning, the day of the defense, I had to wait until she left again in order to freeze the ice cream and decorate the cake. All this meant I came into work a bit late, but with my advisor on in-patient service and nearly all of my week’s work already done, I didn’t feel too guilty.

Her joyous and downright gleeful reaction to the desserts was just what I was going for. I’m happy to have my roomie back, and thrilled she’s done with her thesis. Congrats again Neha!!

2010
11.10

Pomegranates

As a woman of Indian descent who grew up in Texas and North Carolina (a.k.a “the South”), I am genetically and environmentally conditioned against cold weather. My skin dries up and itches like crazy, even after bathing. The cold air makes my nose runny even when I’m not in the least bit ill. The sun disappears for days and the melanin in my skin protests its absence.

But there is a bright side to winter beyond weak sunlight reflecting on snow: winter fruits.

Almost paradoxically, the cold, bleak season comes with an abundance of tropical, colorful fruits that I absolutely adore. Clementines, navel oranges, and prettiest of all: pomegranates.

Pomegranate seeds

These seeds are like sweet, sweet rubies.

Although slicing into a pomegranate feels vaguely disturbing, like I’ve killed something living (all that red juice oozes out and pools on my cutting board), the treasure inside is like a newly discovered cavern studded with gems. I’m spelunking in my kitchen.

A trick I learned for mining the seeds: Fill a medium sized bowl halfway with cool, clean water. Wash and carefully slice the pomegranate into quarters and place them into the bowl (careful: the juice will squirt out as you cut into seeds, so don’t wear anything white!). With your fingers, pry the seeds out, separating the white gauzy stuff from the seeds. Full, juicy seeds are relatively dense and will sink to the bottom of the bowl. The white stuff and empty seeds will float to the top where they can be easily skimmed off or poured out. Once all the debris is taken out, carefully pour out the water or pour the whole bowl into a mesh strainer to catch the seeds. You know have clean, cool, delicious pomegranate seeds to enjoy!

2010
07.24

Dr. Janet D. Rowley

Every university has its share of legends. Some may be sports related, like John Wooden of UCLA or Coach Dean Smith of my alma mater, UNC. Some are famous politicians (the Ivy League can lay claim to nearly every American president). And some legends are scientists.

My current school, the University of Chicago, is most famous for two people: Milton Friedman and Enrico Fermi. Both were Nobel Prize-winners and made legends of their respective departments. Friedman, one of the most recognizable names in economics,  is best known today for his conservative capitalism and founding the “Chicago School of Economics.” Fermi, a physicist, is perhaps best remembered for his work in building the atomic bomb (a statue on campus commemorates the first successful nuclear chain reaction).  The UoC boasts more Nobel Prize winners than any other university in the world. The legend I write of now, and arguably the UoC’s most famous living scientist  has received many awards and honors, but not the Nobel Prize……..yet.

Dr. Janet D. Rowley, affectionately called by some colleagues the “Grand Dame of The University of Chicago,” is one of the world’s foremost experts in the field of cancer cytogenetics. As a cancer biologist at the Univ. of Chicago, I was taught early on about Dr. Rowley’s major breakthrough in identifying the cause of a deadly form of  leukemia, CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia). Look up “BCR-ABL” or the “Philadelphia chromosome” and you’re sure to see her name somewhere. Her discovery in the early 1970s that a translocation, in essence the breaking apart and rejoining of pieces of different chromosomes, caused cancer (instead of being merely symptomatic), was revolutionary. In the nearly 40 years since her groundbreaking work, Dr. Rowley has hardly rested on her laurels. She continues to lead the field of cancer cytogenetics and is even branching into newer, untried fields such as cancer stem cells and microRNAs.

Dr. Rowley with Dr. Timothy McKeithan, in 1973 (©Univ. of Chicago)

For her accomplishments, Dr. Rowley has received numerous awards and honors, including most recently the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. Obama, the Lasker Award from Pres. Clinton  (medicine’s most prestigious award and considered one step below the Nobel Prize), the American Association for Cancer Research’s Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

In addition to her brilliant mind, Dr. Rowley is also beloved for her down-to-earth demeanor and charming quirks. To speak with her is to speak with a legend, but you wouldn’t immediately guess her legendary status. For one, despite her 80+ years, she continues to ride her bike around Hyde Park and campus.

During my first two and a half years at the university, I remained content to admire Dr. Rowley from afar save a few brief encounters. Since this May, however, I’ve interacted with her much more and have managed to draw her attention in a way I never expected. It started with our annual Biomedical Cluster retreat. I was volunteered to the student committee by my PI and worked with faculty organizers and fellow students to plan the day. One of our duties was to choose a keynote speaker (essentially the highlight of the meeting). Several names were nominated, including Dr. Rowley’s by myself and others. She was the popular choice of both students and faculty, and the task was soon assigned to the student committee of formally inviting her. Knowing her somewhat better than the other students, I volunteered to take charge of the invite. After agonizing for a couple of days over the language (how to be deferential without being obsequious or sycophantic is a bit of a challenge!), I finally finished it, got everyone’s signatures, and delivered it in person.

She skimmed over the letter, looked at the date, and then did something which absolutely charmed me. She pulled out a little black diary, flipped to May 10, saw that the date was open, and penciled me in. My name was formally entered into our university’s most famous scientist personal diary. It made me  giddy. Prior to the retreat, she stopped by my office to ask me about the kind of presentation she should give. My friend Kate said that I had a special visitor, and when I saw Dr. Rowley at the door I literally sprang out of my seat in surprise at the unexpected honor. Here was Dr. Janet Rowley asking me, a mere student, for advice. I spoke my mind and she incorporated those comments into her presentation. I also made sure I introduced her at the retreat and had my picture taken with her afterward.

On July 14th I was schedule to present at our cancer biology journal club. It was my first journal club presentation and happened to fall on Bastille Day, so I had to reference that somehow. According, I chose a paper looking at recurrent chromosomal abnormalities in multiple myeloma (a “liquid tumor” disease but not one I know a whole lot about), by a French group. At a seminar prior to my presentation, Dr. Rowley told me she noticed I was scheduled to present shortly and that she would do her best to attend. I told I’d be thrilled if she came but that she didn’t need to, as few faculty ever attend journal club.

Sure enough, a few minutes before I started she walked in. In my three years at the university I have never seen Dr. Rowley at a journal club. I couldn’t help but feel such pride at getting that kind of attention from her. Turns out it was good for me scientifically that she was there. She is one of the world’s experts on recurrent chromosomal abnormalities and when someone asked a question about them, I answered on my own and had the pleasure of asking for her opinion as well. Not a bad way to end my first journal club!