3

Cell Ethics Tango

Hey look! I actually finished a book!

**Originally published 1/31, republished 2/5**

It managed to take me until this past weekend, but I actually finished 2 books this weekend, bringing my January total up to…five! The one I’m going to review here is the critically acclaimed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

This book, part scientific history and part family history, tells the story of the long-unknown Henrietta Lacks, whose immortal, biology-defying cells held the answers to treating and curing many diseases, and are still alive today, sixty years after her death.

The science-y part goes like this: In 1951, a woman called Henrietta Lacks, of Turner’s Station, South Baltimore, Maryland, passed away from a cancerous tumor. A procedure was done before her death by her doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital, George Gey, to preserve some of the cells from the tumor, in hopes they could be kept alive after her death long enough to study them and use them for some lab testing. Gey was astonished to find that not only did the cells keep living, but they kept multiplying at an alarming rate, so much so that he couldn’t keep them all in his lab. Henrietta Lacks’s cells, known as HeLa, were soon distributed to labs around the country and beyond for further study and experiments, with a lab built in Alabama for the sole purpose of studying them. As far as what HeLa stood for, or who HeLa was, Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek kept quiet, only revealing that HeLa was a woman, and not denying rumors that her name was “Helen Lane” or “Helen Larson,” but definitely not admitting that she was African-American; segregation and Jim Crow laws were still rampant, especially in the Southern United States, and views on African-Americans were not favorable. Even a hospital as renowned as Johns Hopkins kept people like Henrietta in a “colored” ward away from white patients. In time, HeLa became the strongest cell line in the world, contributing to cancer research, flying on NASA’s space shuttles, and all the while, passed around freely within the scientific community. And through it all, Henrietta’s surviving family members didn’t see a cent, and lived in poverty without health insurance despite their late mother’s pivotal contribution to modern science.

The family story part, in my opinion, is more interesting. Much like Henrietta’s cells, it’s divided into two parts: “Life” (pre-1950, during Henrietta’s life), and “Death” (in the 2000s, from the start of Rebecca Skloot’s research). In life, we learn what there is to learn about the hazy details of Henrietta’s short and sad life. Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920 in Clover, Virginia. Her family was among the poorest of the poor in their community, and quite inbred, causing major health problems. Henrietta herself perpetuated that cycle by marrying and having children with her first cousin, David “Day” Lacks. Together, they had three sons – Lawrence, David Jr. “Sonny,” and Joseph “Zakariyya” – and two daughters, Elsie, who was born disabled and died in a Maryland mental institution as a teenager, and Deborah, who managed to break the cycle, receive some education, and eventually become the co-protagonist of Skloot’s book. After the birth of her fifth child, Joseph, she fell ill with cancer caused by a nasty bout of syphilis and, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, died in 1951. Fast forward fifty years to the “Death” chapter, where Washington-based writer Rebecca Skloot develops an interest in Lacks and attempts to contact the surviving family members. Eventually, she gets ahold of Deborah Lacks. Initially, Deborah is tickled at the idea of a book about her mother’s life, especially since she wants to know more about her, having few memories of her own, but eventually becomes suspicious of Rebecca and wary of the idea. Over a period of several years, Rebecca becomes acquainted and even friends with Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family, gaining their trust little by little and helping them go through the necessary steps to unravel the mystery of what happened to their mother/grandmother/sister/aunt, figure out what exactly her cells were capable of, and attempt to make peace with Johns Hopkins and the scientific community at large, who they find deceptive and distrustful, all because of a piece of paper the functionally illiterate Henrietta signed which gave the hospital all the rights to her cells. Some things end up getting resolved nicely, but there are still many question marks left in this continually evolving story.

This book brings up so many emotions. You feel shame for the plight of this woman, the lack of care for her life and death, and the consequences her family faced. You feel anger at the scientific community, yet you feel proud in the fact that you’re learning all of these previously hidden facts and secrets that deserve to see the light. You cheer whenever Deborah has an epiphany – from learning that her mother has not, in fact, been cloned, to finding a photo of her sister Elsie,, to learning how to use the Internet – and get frustrated whenever Deborah relapses into her suspicious ways, or when Rebecca hits a wall in her research. The issues it brings up are myriad and essential – what are the biomedical ethics involved here? What type of responsibility did Gey, Kubicek, and Johns Hopkins Hospital have to the family? Would it have been different if Henrietta were a literate, well-off Caucasian woman? What improvements could be made for the deplorable quality of life for people like Henrietta and Deborah? And can the Lacks family ever truly find peace, be repaid, forgive and be forgiven – and how?

Even if non-fiction or science isn’t your thing, this book is incredibly worthwhile. It shows that inside every human body, there is a soul to discover, and around every human soul, there is a body that deserves to be given a chance.

In salad-related news, the blades on my Sharper Image vegetable chopper broke off. I’m glad I picked out all the metal from my salad before eating it. Oh well, back to the cutting board.

10

Life on Mars?

This morning, I read something on Facebook about a shortlist of people going to Mars, so, naturally, I had to spend the rest of my morning on the couch in my pajamas searching for more information from the Internet.

And apparently…it’s true.

Founded by Dutch scientists Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielders, The Mars One project is devoted to starting the colonization of Mars. According to their website, they are planning to send teams of four humans up to Mars in 2024 – as in nine years from now – to establish a settlement and…hang out doing scientific experiments, I guess? They are also going to host a reality TV show on these future astronauts as they undergo training (because reality TV makes things more legit). And anyone can apply – well, just about anyone, provided they are between 18 and 60, are in a certain height range, have a sound body and mind, speak English and/or another common language, and are willing to send themselves on what just might be a suicide mission, never to see the light of day (literally) on Earth again.

A quarter-million people applied, and today the list was whittled down to 100 of them – 50 men, 50 women – and released to the public. According to Space.com (and many other news sites), 39 are from the Americas (33 from the USA), 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, 7 from Africa, and 7 from Oceania, and they range in age from 19 to 60. Most have advanced degrees in a field relating to astrophysics, which would probably be a good thing to have.

So, just who are these 100 people?

Mars One has all of their profiles. They seem like a motley bunch, from what little info there is on them so far on a poorly-designed website that looks more like Myspace than anything else. Maybe it’s just my computer that makes it load so slowly, but it doesn’t seem to have all that much information on them. Needless to say, I am thoroughly interested in just who will be our planet’s representatives to Mars, and because I’m a nice person, I went through all 100 profiles so you don’t have to, and have assembled my dream team of space cadets. Well, that’s not really that fair to say because most of them seem like fairly normal, well-adjusted people with an actual interest in going into space. Basically, these people are the ones to watch out for, and the ones whom I’d enjoy hanging out with for the rest of my years on this earth  life. (Ha, see what I did there?)

  • Electra, 37, AustraliaWith a name like Electra, how could you not want to send this woman to space? She describes herself as an agriculturist, dental surgeon, and geoscientist, and her interests include pole dancing, silkworms, and cats. I would pick her so we could have food, good teeth, and some quality entertainment.
  • Christopher, 43, USA. He is also interested in food, and specifically, making the first omelet on Mars. I enjoy breakfast foods. He’s a keeper.
  • Josh, 29, AustraliaOf all the people listed, he’s the one I could see myself being friends with in real life. He’s a comedian (hopefully a good one; there are only so many times a joke can still be funny in outer space) and he plays the ukulele, so maybe he could teach me how to and we could be the first Martian band.
  • Maggie, 24, UK. A PhD student in astrophysics at Birmingham, and among the younger ones on the list. Her choice of photo makes her look a little like Sailor Moon, so she’s got that down. She is also interested in possibly having the first baby on Mars, despite radiation affecting fertility, but hey, a girl can dream, right? (Well, actually, they’re all dreaming). But she seems adorable and fun, plus she’s a geocacher, so that right there would make us instant friends, and we could amuse each other by having treasure hunts all around the Red Planet.
  • Maggie, 30, USA. This Maggie, among other things, makes high-end costumes and has a business selling the largest zippers in the world. I am not quite sure what that means or why we need them, but I would love to hear Zipper Girl explain it to me. The only thing is, I would not want her to be on the same mission as the other Maggie. After thirty minutes of their mission-mates calling their name, turning around and going “what” at the same time would get old and annoying. Plus, wouldn’t it suck to have to be known as “Maggie L.” on Earth, kind of like the multiple Ashleys on this season of The Bachelor?
  • Kenya, 36, USA. She is a world traveler, a blogger, and seems like an overall nice person. She reminds me a lot of my friend Monica back in Houston whom I miss very very much, motherly and caring yet fun and agreeable. Call me what you want, but having a mom figure in space might be helpful, especially in reminding me to tighten the strap on my oxygen tank when going out for a walk and putting on a scarf and hat, for heaven’s sake, because it’s cold out there and we only have so much aspirin.
  • Etsuko, 50, Japan. Etsuko wants to open the first sushi bar on Mars. This is all you need to know about Etsuko.

Finally, there’s the question…would I ever go to Mars? There are some positives, like never having to worry about debt or taxes or running into people from high school. However, there’s only a limited amount of things like food and medical supplies and, oh yeah, oxygen in space, which would make things difficult. Not to mention the loneliness…wouldn’t it suck if all of a sudden (or over time) everyone in your group died, and you were pretty much alone for all of eternity? Plus, there’s no Starbucks, Kohl’s, or Target on Mars yet, so I’d probably kill for a caramel macchiato, and all my Kohl’s cash would expire.

Oh well.

At least maybe we could find some actual interplanetary competition for the Miss Universe pageant.

 

0

Limited Brain Capacity

I think I’ve uncovered the secret to how I’m surviving these days.

Or at least an excuse for forgetting/slacking on things.

I’m going with…Limited Brain Capacity.

Someone, somewhere, said that we only use about ten percent of our brains on a daily basis. Someone somewhere else called that person a big fat liar. I say that they’re both wrong.

These days, my brain feels kind of like an iPhone. Once you have so many apps, photos, videos, songs, etc. on an iPhone, it gives you that “memory almost full, delete some stuff” message. For me, that’s how I’m getting by.

For instance, lines. Last week’s rehearsals were pretty disastrous and I totally blanked on lines, several times. So much so that I was given the option to do the whole show on book. The day of open dress (Wednesday) I took my car to get it fixed, and in the two hours I was given to wait for it, I basically blocked out everything from my mind – state capitals, shopping lists, possibly even the names and ages of all my cousins – and just focused on sweeping out those megabytes of info and sweeping in the lines. Effectively making me a line-bot, or in layman’s terms, an actor. By the time I got to rehearsal that night, I was feeling confident. I did a quick line-thru spit-back thing with Marc, and we managed to get almost all the way through the play with me messing up only a handful of times; and by messing up, I mean completely losing focus, not merely getting words transposed, which happens sometimes to the best of actors. Kat asked me how confident I felt in doing it off book, and I answered affirmatively, and that night I managed not to screw up too badly. Before the next night’s performance, I hadn’t had much time to look over the script, and at two points got completely stymied – not enough to slow down the whole show, but so much so that I needed some saving. Friday afternoon I had a bit of time to look over lines, and that night I believe I gave my best performance, only screwing up a line or two in scene three. There was also another factor that was keeping me on my toes, but that’s for a later post. Saturday night kind of got lazy, with one of my (very few) line flubs causing a whole page of scene one to be skipped, but other than that, a near-perfect acts two and three.

Since then, I’ve not thought much about my lines, but I’ve been extremely careful in managing where exactly my brain is, given that we’ve got a pick-up rehearsal scheduled for Wednesday and three more performances until we close on Saturday night. After that, I will be free to forget. But not until then.

Due to Thanksgiving travel and general play fatigue, I’ve been missing both of my regularly scheduled dance activities, kabuki and ballroom. Ballroom’s kind of a lost cause for me this semester – I’ve resigned to saving it for next semester – but kabuki, one of the things I thought I was doing pretty well in, has become a victim of my Limited Brain Capacity. Seeing as that I’m auditing the class, I can really pick and choose exactly what I want to do. I’ve chosen to do no written work at all, seeing as I don’t have the extremely hard-to-acquire out-of-print textbook, and only focus on studying the performance and improving my own. The final will consist of:

  1. Sword cadence
  2. Fan dance
  3. Bannai
  4. Combat sequence
  5. Monologue (Sukeroku or Agemaki)

The easiest thing for me to remember is Bannai, since it’s basically a short monologue with gestures. I was present in class for the majority of the sword fighting and fan dancing, so I’ve retained most of those. I did miss a few classes where some new moves were added. Today I did the fan dance and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten. Like, even some of the beginning moves, the easier ones, and the sword cadence as well. For the combat sequence, I learned everything up to the final two moves, but since there’s an odd number of students and I’m the only auditor, I’ve been sitting out. The professor, however, told me that if I want to try for the final, I’ve got my pick of partners. Depending on how many people want to go twice, I might be very popular. However, I haven’t practiced it for a while so my memories of the combat routine may have fallen out of my brain along with the rest of the fan dance. As far as the monologues – I’m not even going to try. Lines for the play plus Bannai plus…all the other academic and non-academic stuff I have to remember and use on a daily basis have pretty much caused me to defer any other new information up to the Cloud.

Speaking of academics…

I have finished all assignments for one of my classes, and have blocked it out of my mind completely. For American Drama, all I have left is a final exam, so other than leafing through the plays for the past few weeks, all knowledge from that course has been shifted to the Cloud as well. This leaves me with Cruelty, for which I have one paper due Thursday (which should be in my mind but is not as I have not yet started) and Restoration, for which I have turned in my first draft, so until I get it back tomorrow with comments, is out of my mind. Other things like laundry, eating, cleaning, bathing, reading for pleasure – these familiar fuzzy thoughts are re-materializing, if only for a short while before Cruelty-Restoration-my lines for the play come back to me from the Cloud.

If this isn’t making any sense to you anymore, that makes two of us.

Basically, my point here is that my brain can only take in so much new information at a time, especially info that must be memorized and performed. That’s one of the reasons I don’t miss acting – more on that later.

But in the long run…what does this mean for my brain? Is my ten percent drying up? Am I using more of my brain? Or are my brain cells just having a massive orgy and reproducing at lightning speed?

Because my brain is a curious creature, it went and Google Searched “limited brain capacity finals week.” The first hits were scholarly articles, which I would love to read but my brain does not want to. Next stop on the crazy brain train: Wikipedia. Looking for an simple yet concrete answer, I stumbled upon Baddeley’s model of working memory.

In short, these two guys Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch came up with a system of how our short-term memory works. This model, created in 1974 and amended in 2000, consists of three main areas of focus:

  1. The central executive is the portion of the short term memory that organizes all of the trains of thought; it’s literally the depot. It’s the center in the brain responsible for multi-tasking. Mine is working very hard at the moment, the “notes” function thinking about all the work I have to do and the fact that I have three washer loads that need to hit the dryer and that I need to put on pants and shoes before I can go to the laundry room to do that, as well as playing an mp3 in my brain for a soundtrack (currently, that fan dance song from kabuki class), the video/camera/photos/facetime registering all the colors and symbols on the computer screen, and somehow, through all this, my motor skills, enabling me to type at a relatively rapid speed to put words on the screen without constantly needing to look at my fingers for guidance. Effectively, we’re all multi-taskers by nature.
  2. The phonological loop takes in and interprets sounds and words, so that we may repeat them back. Right now there isn’t any background music or noise, so mine’s got a respite, but reciting lines over and over and hearing them cued to me every night acts sort of like a “voice control” function in the brain. At least that’s how I’m interpreting this concept at the moment.
  3. The visuospatial sketchpad allows us to navigate through our lives, literally. It’s why we don’t have to concentrate so hard on walking, because it can draw internal maps so that we can take advantage of the first two elements of the short-term memory while doing a task such as walking, and not running into walls or tripping and falling over. (sidenote – eight finger knuckle crunch at this moment – this must mean it’s getting serious). This allows me to navigate my apartment, the theatre building, and the stage. At the same time, it helps me go through my blocking, both for the play and for the kabuki dances. This area, my “maps” function, exerts itself pretty heavily these days, with a need for knowing floor patterns essential to my survival as an actor and a kabuki performer.

So what does all this mean?

Basically, I’m not a lunatic. I do have issues to figure out and I’m navigating them to the best of my ability, but as far as me putting things on shelves in my mind, it’s totally appropriate. Right now, my brain is working overtime, but relief will come soon, in the form of tasks and obligations being finished.

But I can’t think about that point in the future too much, lest I drop my internal iPhone in Olestra, causing a need to visit the always helpful-but-not-helpful Apple store and unexpected fluid leakage.

…well that got graphic very quickly.

Eew.