Letter from the Trapstealers

Dear P,

When I was in preschool, I used to play a game called “Trapstealers”. My friend J and I would roam around looking for the trapstealers, who were evil, terrifying beings that stole and trapped. Brave children that we were, we took it as our personal responsibility to track them down. The trapstealers were wily, but they left clues for us to follow. J led the expeditions, while my job was to find and interpret the evidence they left behind. Sometimes they would write on leaves or send messages in the patterns of pebbles in the sandbox.

A small part of me still wonders about the trapstealers. If I see notes on the ground, I will pick them up and look at them. Yesterday, I found this:

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If the trapstealers were trying to prepare me for a zany interview, they succeeded. Here are my answers to these questions:

“Are you more of a hunter or a gatherer?”

The trapstealer story proves that I’m more of a gatherer.

“If you were a pizza deliveryman, how would you benefit from scissors?”

I’ve never delivered pizza, so this one is hard for me. Maybe if I were a pizza deliveryman gridlocked on the Atlanta interstate on January 28, 2014, I could have helped that woman deliver her baby. I could have used my scissors to cut the umbilical cord.

“Give me a time you faced a difficult situation and how you responded.”

I hate this question. Usually I deal with difficult situations by calling my mom and eating a gross amount of chocolate. Next.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

In five years, I’ll be twenty-five. If I continue on my current goal trajectory, I will be reading 100+ books a year, travelling all over the world, and completing Ironman races. I will be doing activities I like with people I like. These are the things I can (kind of) control. I don’t know about any other specifics; the future is too uncertain.

“Tell me what you know about this company.”

I know that you leave mysterious interviews on the ground so that curious bystanders can learn your secrets.

“Why do you want to work for this company?”

The scissor question is interesting.

“What is your biggest strength?”

I keep trying.

“What is your biggest weakness?”

My shyness.

“Tell me about a suggestion you made that was implemented.”

My freshman year, I wanted to start a group for autistic college students at UT and students interested in being their friends. I was very excited about this group and wrote out a long proposal, which I gave to a professor. She never got back to me and I didn’t realize I should email her again or continue to pester her until she paid attention to me (see the weakness answer). Yesterday, I received an email inviting me to exactly the group I suggested. I am happy it was implemented after all, even if I didn’t get to do it.

“Explain why we should hire you.”

You shouldn’t. I’m a weirdie who picks paper off the sidewalk.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Yes. Who are you? What company do you work for? What are you trying to do? Why did you leave this message for a stranger? What are you trapping? What are you stealing?

How would you answer these questions, P? I miss you loads. You look stunning in your fashion post.

Love,

E

Fashion

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“Fashion is one of the very few forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men. And I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s typically seen as shallow, trivial, and vain. It is the height of irony that women are valued for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental…and then are derided as shallow and vain for doing so. And it’s a subtle but definite form of sexism to take one of the few forms of expression where women have more freedom, and treat it as a form of expression that’s inherently superficial and trivial. Like it or not, fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. And I think tit gets treated as trivial because women get treated as trivial.”

Dear E,

For some reason when people asked me what I was doing over IAP I always felt a twinge of shame when saying that I worked for a fashion start up. The shame stemmed from the fashion part. It’s not like I thought anyone was judging me or anything, it just felt shallow, you know? I want to be a doctor and it doesn’t really line up with all my plans of saving babies in Africa and acing the MCATs and all the other things that pre-med students are expected to do.

As you know I love fashion. I absolutely love dressing up. Half of the fun of going out is getting all dolled up. I love buying cool unique pieces I don’t think other people would wear and then rocking them. I love creating outfits for myself and others and I love thinking up unusual but genius combinations of clothes. Fashion is an art, and I love being blown away. I love things that are wild and out there and I respect the women and men who wear them. On the same note I have a love for classic, timeless look and I truly do believe that fashion is a very important way of conversing.

When I slip on a pair of heels I am ten times more confident….and intimidating. When I put on my power suit, it actually does make me feel more powerful. When I wear cool backless shirts and bright yellow beaded halter tops and denim mini circle skirts I feel cooler and more interesting. And when I feel fucking awesome, I act the same way.

I hate that caring about clothes makes me “shallow” and I hate that people could even think about trivializing me for reading fashion magazines or working at a fashion start up or caring about what I wear.

I’m going to keep my art form thank you very much. I’m going to keep wearing lace crop tops and velvet bustiers and converse or whatever the heck else I’m in the mood for while I’m working towards my dreams. Put me in a box, I dare you.

So much love ❤

P

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Living Uncomfortably and Trying to Feel Comfortable About It

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) in The Descent of Man

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(Pic of us by our friend N. Check out more of his stuff here.)

Dear P,

I am currently reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. It is called Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and it is about how Abraham Lincoln mustered together all of his political rivals into a team. The reason everyone respects Abe so much today is because in the midst of the greatest conflict our country has ever faced he “refused to be provoked by petty grievances, to submit to jealousy, or to brood over perceived slights” (Goodwin). He listened to everyone, even people he didn’t like when they were passionately disagreeing with him.

This is unlike the elderly man I just observed in Starbucks for an hour. He kept talking to the young guy beside him. At first, I thought they were working together, but it quickly became apparent that they had never met before. The old man kept telling his young friend stories of his own brilliance. He told him how he had taken apart his father’s lawn mower when he was six and put it back together again. He talked about how he commented on his Facebook friend’s pictures if he thought they were inappropriate. He was insufferable and didn’t stop even when the (very patient) younger man told him that he had a test the next day. This man was so self-assured that he had lost his ability to listen to things he did not want to hear, or even consider there were things he did not know.

Abraham Lincoln was not so self-assured. He was wracked with uncertainty, grief, even, some historians argue, depression. This suffering was displayed masterfully in the movie “Lincoln”, which I highly recommend. Lincoln is not the only example of a great thinker who was forced to live closely with the uncertainty of the future. Darwin doubted his own work so much it took him twenty years, and the presence of a usurper to his theory, before he published. If you ever choose to read On the Origin of the Species, it is better to only read the first four chapters. After that, Darwin waffles and defends himself in example after example. He was not certain anyone would accept his theory.

No one can be certain of anything. Last week, I was reading the book The Science Writers’ Handbook. I was reading about how to pitch a story and I felt overwhelmed with the weight of uncertainty. What if my pitches didn’t work, not just in this field, but in every aspect of my life? What if I proved universally unmarketable? I started crying and called my mom. My mom is a wise woman, but she had nothing comforting to say. There is nothing to say. Life is uncertain.

It is intensely uncomfortable to live with this knowledge. It is nearly as uncomfortable as living with the only certainty-that all my friends, family, and eventually you, P, and I will die. However, it is only but constantly reminding myself of this uncertainty (and the certainty) that can internalize that I am not undefeatable, that it is important that I listen to others, that I must strive to be better every day. Because of the uncertainty, I appreciate every blessing I am given. In the age of positive thinking, it is important to consider this uncomfortable truth. The uncertainty of life helps me to live better, even if it is sometimes overwhelming.

Love,

E

A Man Stuck: Henry Molaison

Dear P,

Happy first week of school! I wanted to welcome in your new semester by sharing some cool science news.

Something exciting happened in the world of neuroscience last week. Scientists at the University of California in San Diego made a 3-D model of the brain of H. M., the late Henry Gustav Molaison.

In the field of brain science, interesting patients often become more famous than their researchers. This was the case with Phineas Gage, the man who had a railroad spike jammed up his head. Gage’s personality changed when his frontal lobes were severely damaged by the trauma. Oliver Sacks, one of my personal heroes, took advantage of how interesting it is to study brain issues through afflicted patients in his many books. My favorite of his stories, “An Anthropologist on Mars”, shows Temple Grandin, an doctor of animal science who now has a few books of her own. It is hard to create human laboratory experiments in neuroscience because no one seems to want to have their brain cut up while they’re still using it. These case studies have therefore been critical to growth in the field, especially before the widespread use of PET scans, MRI machines, CT scans, EEGs, and others that are being invented as I type.

The importance and fame of patient H. M. was no exception. H. M. was 27 in 1953 when he had surgery to remove two finger-sized pieces of brain, including his hippocampus. This procedure was supposed to provide relief from his extreme epilepsy. The surgery fixed his epilepsy and H. M. retained many aspects of his former identity, such as his former long-term memories, his motor skills, his passion for crossword puzzles, and his language and perception skills. Unfortunately, he lost his ability to form new explicit memories, as well as most of the memories from 1-2 years before his surgery. When he worked his crossword puzzles, he could accurately answer questions related to events before 1953, but he had trouble answering questions related to events after his surgery. H. M. is famous for eventually learning to add facts to his old, pre-amnesiac memories. For example, he was able to answer a crossword question about the Salk vaccine, which was invented in 1955, because he could remember when polio was a big deal. He could learn new facts as long as he had old connections he could anchor them to. He was also able to learn new motor and perceptual skills: he was able to learn how to trace an outline between two stars while watching his hand in the mirror (a hard task for almost anyone) (Carey, 2010). He helped scientists realize how many different forms of memory there are.

Scientists learned and continue to learn from H. M. In 1992, his brain was scanned under a MRI machine for the first time, revealing the extent of his 1953 surgery (Carey, 2008). The lesion was symmetrical, but less extensive than the surgeon had intended. Parts of the hippocampus appeared to still be intact, but other areas of the brain were damaged further than anyone had expected.

On December 2, 2008, H. M. died from respiratory failure in his nursing home in Connecticut. Scientists always remarked upon his generosity and patience, especially since he viewed them as strangers (Carey, 2008). His generosity continued even after his death. Last week, UC San Diego unveiled an unprecedented study in which H. M.’s brain was cut into 2,401 slices on a livestream, analyzed, and then re-built using the digital images (Annese et al, 2014).

There’s a very important pathway called the EC that connects the hippocampus to the rest of the brain. While H. M.’s hippocampus underwent much less damage than previously believed, the scientists at UC San Diego realized that his EC had been almost completely decimated (Annese et al, 2014). This explained his memory problems. In addition, there was damage to the amygdala and other cortexes (Annese et al, 2014). These may have been the cause of H. M.’s slightly dampened emotions and his trouble reporting pain, hunger, or thirst. The model also revealed cortical damage that was not related to the surgery. Scientists theorize that it was due to age and hypertension (Annese et al, 2014).

H. M.’s brain is going to continue to benefit the fields of memory, aging, and emotion for years to come. The 3-D model of his brain is the first in human history (Annese et al, 2014). It’s remarkable that H. M. was able to retain much of his former self and even start consolidating new facts. The resilience and complexity of the human brain never ceases to amaze me.

I hope you have a great weekend! Don’t forget how awesome the stuff that we study is! We are are such lucky people.

In the pursuit of wonder,

E

If you want to read more:

Annese, J., Schenker-Ahmed, N., Bartsch, H., Maechler, P., Sheh, C., Thomas, T., Kayano, J., & Ghatan, A. (2014). Postmortem examination of patient h.m.’s brain based on histological sectioning and digital 3d reconstruction. Nature, doi: 10.1038/ncomms4122

Carey, B. (2008). H. m., an unforgettable amnesiac, dies at 82. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/05/us/05hm.html?pagewanted=1

Carey, B. (2010). No memory, but he filled in the blanks. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/07/science/07memory.html?ref=health&_r=1&