Monthly Archives: December 2011

Awesome video of platelet formation

Reposted from Google+


Holy cow this is awesome — this shows how platelets are formed as a megakaryocyte cell breaks up! My brother Andrew saw this in class recently, he showed me just now as we happened to be chatting about blood cell lineages. I think this should have more than 3500 views, so feel free to pass around!

I am a Ball bearing

Reposted from Google+


Another personal post, but one I’ll make fully public: I’m pregnant! (I don’t yet have any children, so this is a first.) I’m due July 2nd. I’m struck by how such an event is simultaneously extremely normal and yet extremely important. Given the mundane nature of it, you’re of course welcome to skip the remainder of my post.

There’s a number of general knowledge things I didn’t realize about this process beforehand that I may as well note here, for those who are not yet already quite familiar with it all.

  1. A very faint line on a pregnancy test is a positive result. Unless you’re messing around waiting for the test to dry out and form an evaporation line, the only way that line got there is you have some hCG hormone — and pretty much the only way you’d have that is being pregnant or are taking a drug with hCG in it (which your doctor would presumably tell you about).
  2. Traditionally people aren’t public about this until around the end of the first trimester (12 weeks), when the risk of miscarriage has passed. Miscarriage rates are around 15-20% (even higher rates if people monitor hCG from blood rather than urine, where you can detect the pregnancy earlier). This means the expecting individual has almost certainly known about the pregnancy for a while before making the announcement public (in my case since around Oct 25) — I’ve gotten some questions like “did you tell your parents?” (my parents have known for many weeks now) or “was your alcohol avoidance the last two months preemptive?” (no, my weird behavior was because I knew I was pregnant).
  3. The “weeks” people measure includes two weeks before the embryo is fertilized! As a biologist this is really weird! That’s because before people monitored ovulation, they had to date things from the last menstrual period (“LMP” in ob/gyn lingo land). On top of it, implantation takes around another week after fertilization, so it’s physically impossible to detect pregnancy until around 3-4 weeks. The urine test works at about 4 weeks (2 weeks post ovulation).
  4. Morning sickness is, of course, a misnomer. It occurs any time and as far as I can tell there aren’t any particular triggers (making me not a fan of the “protect from toxins” theory). And of course, it usually fades around 12 weeks, just when you’re finally public and able to whine to people about it! Ah well.
  5. Oh yeah, the egg is only fertile about a day. The sperm is fertile for a couple days. So monitoring ovulation isn’t that great for timing things, because you could be too late.
  6. I was doing basal body temperature anyway to try to detect ovulation (see personal bits later). To get this method to work, I had to do it the same time every day (as noted by others). It did work for me, but that’s a small sample size.
  7. They can pinpoint your due date quite accurately by measuring the size of the embryo. This is pretty cool! In my case they predicted exactly the date I predicted based on my ovulation monitoring — July 2nd.

And then the personal bits. We had been trying for a while — at first merely tentatively (went off birth control) then gradually became more serious about it. There was a major issue though — my periods were far apart, usually a couple months. I then went for a stretch of 6 months without a period this spring/summer. Ovulating 2-4 times a year is a bit of a problem for any attempts to get pregnant.

As my periods had been far apart in high school, and because I’ve always struggled with my weight, I was pretty sure this was “polycystic ovarian syndrome” (a diagnosis more of symptoms than cause; as I understand it the name refers to the build up of unovulated eggs, forming lumps on the ovary). PCOS is a common hormonal issue with various contributing aspects, one of which is weight. (It surprises me how many people don’t know that a female being overweight/obese is a major cause of low fertility.) I scheduled an appointment with my GP, then an OB, and in the meantime made a strong effort to lose a bit more weight over the summer (from a BMI of 31 to 29.5). After the weight loss my periods came back (although still around 6-8 weeks apart) — although if they hadn’t, it’s still extremely treatable with a drug injection that induces ovulation. So this is why I was monitoring my ovulation, because I was otherwise totally in the dark regarding the timing (measuring from “LMP” doesn’t work for me).

This is the first grandchild for both of our parents (I have three siblings, Chris has one), so it’s also an exciting first for the families.

Sample tube papooses

Reposted from Google+


Thursday night I stayed late with Pete and helped him unpack and scan in two plates worth of returned saliva kits (192 packages) for the ongoing saliva collections in the Harvard Personal Genome Project. In any set this large, you’ll find several interesting unique incidents — some troubling, others heart-warming.

This is a photo of the latter case — a participant carefully stitched the included absorbant pads to create adorable snug coats for both of the sample tubes! Also included was a great letter. The amount of concern participants have for their kits encourages me to continue working hard, even though we’re already terribly overworked as it is.

But please — don’t worry about doing anything like this — you don’t need to put extra work into it, the kits are cheap and fairly robust. Also, despite the project title, we don’t have the resources to give each kit much personal attention, unpacking is an assembly line. Including a letter or any other item is very likely to be missed, as we cut the whole package in half and extract the tubes. We might cut your letter in half, or won’t notice it at the bottom — the letters we did find might have been missed if it weren’t for something else about the unpackaging (like these sample tube papooses) prompting us to look more closely. Send us email instead, or a separate letter! :-)

Things that aren’t so cool: failing to claim your kit, overfilling the tubes to the brim rather than the clearly marked fill line, and… random included items that make us wonder if you’re sending us anthrax (I’m sure it was harmless…)!

2011: Donating 6% for our 6th anniversary

It’s been a full year since I last posted here. I’m posting here again because I’ve joined Mako’s Iron Blogger, and the set-up I had for using my Google+ posts is now broken. So I’m reposting my latest Google+ post, which happens to be exactly the same topic as my last post a year ago.


As we have done the past two years, Chris and I are donating to various causes for our wedding anniversary: 6% of our pre-tax income for 6 years of marriage (next year it should be 7%, etc.). We announce it publicly hoping to prompt others to make similar efforts to give more — and to give effectively. Our anniversary was actually October 29, but our choices were delayed as we waited for GiveWell’s recommendations on effective charity organizations (which were released Tuesday Nov 29th). Our choices are split 50/50, below is my planned breakdown:

40% to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF): This is one of GiveWell’s two top recommendations this year. AMF distributes insecticide-treated nets for protecting against malaria infection. GiveWell estimates the cost per life saved is just under $2,000 — malaria is not usually fatal, so this means a fair amount of disability due to illness is also being prevented.

40% to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI): This is the other of GiveWell’s two top recommendations. SCI assists in the treatment of neglected tropical diseases in Africa, in particular schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths (both parasitic worm diseases). While the diseases SCI treats are not generally fatal, they create a large burden of chronic illness and disability. I believe reducing this burden is important to creating lasting change in developing countries as a healthier population is more able to contribute to and improve society. GiveWell estimates overall cost per treatment is around 50 to 80 cents, depending on how conservative estimates are.

8% to GiveWell itself. GiveWell continues to guide our giving by doing extensive research on the effectiveness of charity organizations. This is not a trivial issue: oversight can be quite sloppy and the incentives of competing for donations can push organizations to advertise ridiculously optimistic numbers. “For just $1 you could save a life!” fails to capture the statistical reality that a life is saved by that particular $1 only a tiny fraction of the time. A realistic and honest accounting of overall effectiveness is needed for charitable giving (even the most effective charities, by GiveWell’s estimates, achieve a cost-per-life-saved in the $500-$1000 range).

The remainder of my giving is targeting organizations which affect the society around me, rather than direct poverty relief. I think these organizations benefit society in a more general and long term manner — it is less measurable, but hopefully these make important differences in my society and the world, in the long run.

4% to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Technology is increasingly able to surveil and restrict individuals in targetted and invisible fashions that can leave most of society unaware of the consequences. In addition, I believe the recent Occupy movements are addressing an important issue in our society: the deepening gap of income and social inequality. Technological progress will only support this concentration of wealth in a few individuals as we become more and more able to automate and crowdsource tasks, reducing the number of individuals employed to accomplish them (even highly professional tasks!). I hope the ACLU represents an organization that will protect individual freedoms and protect grassroots civil movements like Occupy.

4% to WBUR (Boston public radio): Public radio’s news is how I shape my understanding of the world and has led me to the awarenesses I have now. I am optimistic: I believe simply hearing broad and balanced reporting (and I do believe it is usually fairly balanced) about the world and events will lead others to think responsibly about how to help others and benefit society.

4% to Wikipedia: In keeping with that theme — that simple knowledge is part of the power to create change — I support Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s local effect is obvious, we all use it in our daily lives. It also serves as another form of reporting, instantly updating in response to current events. Globally, I see it as potentially the single cheapest way to disseminate knowledge to the developing world. For now I trust that individuals will find ways to access the internet and Wikipedia’s store of knowledge, and I support Wikipedia itself for being that repository.

Why we give: Our giving began after reading Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. Each year we increase that amount — while projections for our pattern may seem unrealistically large in the distant future, for now we trust ourselves to get used to it (not unlike the apocryphal frog in a pot). Peter Singer himself began giving 10% of his income in graduate school (a notoriously low income lifestyle) and now gives 25% (note that he has raised three children with his wife Renata while doing this). Giving so much all at once is too much to expect of anybody, but we hope that by committing a little more each year we grow closer to such an ideal.