Thursday, December 18, 2008

True Story: Happened to a Lecturer of a Lecturer of Mine

According to one first year chemistry lecturer who shall remain nameless (both to protect his identity and to avoid admitting I never knew the man's name) the discovery of phosphorus was a perverse and twisted affair.

It seems that the scientist in question inadvertently manufactured phosphorus by filling a bath tub with urine and leaving it to evaporate off for several weeks. He observed 2 notable properties for the resultant substance:

1 - It glows in the dark
2 - It causes a painful itching rash when applied to the genitalia.

Needless to say our interest in Chemistry shot up dramatically that week as we all attempted to imagine the kind of exhibitionist crackpot who thought it was a good idea to publish papers about the luminous excretion-derived chemicals he rubbed into his privates.

So was it true? or just a cautionary tale designed to stop us from running around naked in the labs?

Well at least there was a bathtub of urine involved.

by Jonathan Usmar

Science Fashion Tragedies Part II: Safety Goggles

Yesterday I was broadening my mind by reading stuff on the webby-net. One particularly mind-broadening web site that delighted me, dear readers, was one addressing those aspects of sartorial elegance that had allowed particular individuals to, as we would say in the biological sciences, "find a mate".

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but when I clicked through to this site, I thought I saw a sentence indicating that only the author "and the hottest scientists" are currently addressing this topic. Well, my little lab-rats, that's the clarion call of battle! Clearly another edition of Science Fashion Tragedies was called for.

The topic today addresses one item of science attire that currently guarantees the wearer exclusion from the afore-mentioned website: safety glasses. Let me elaborate...

In a wonderful example of research discovering the obvious, a small study here at the University of Sydney found that that science students (the male ones anyway) were more likely to be virgins that those in other schools. It's clear why: the poor bastards have to wear laboratory safety glasses. This particular form of sin against aesthetics is not only outstandingly ugly, it's uncomfortable too, resulting in an expression of pained distraction on the victim that is, unfortunately, about as far from a tempting "come hither" as possible.

So, my darling virgin science boys, what should you wear instead? Don't worry, there are options! While I'll grudgingly admit that some of them may be just a smidgen more expensive than, say, the free ones you get in class, it's important to remember that style often requires sacrifices.

Option 1:

These hot retro motorcycle goggles will get you noticed in all the right ways. Not only are these babies hot-looking, they're comfortable for hours. Everyone knows that bad girls and boys ride motorcycles, and who would have known that style like this is only US$23.95? Fake it 'til you make it, I say.

Of course, as a motorcycle rider, I don't exactly have to fake it...

Option 2:

Well, I never said I wouldn't mine the motorcycle vein for all it's worth. Option 1 is hot, but these are smoking! You'll make people's pants fall off with these ones! Not surprisingly, they're more expensive: about 70 GBP. But it would be worth the investment... oh yes.

Option 3:

This is the ticket if you're more surfy than motor enthusiast. Remember darlings, tint "reduces eye fatigue"! If you can't pull with these babies on, I'm not sure I can help you. For an investment of only about $40, they're your one way ticket to lovin', and they're Australian too.

So, having single-handedly solved one science fashion problem, and hopefully cleared up that nasty rash of virginity in the sciences, I'm signing off for this year. Have a wonderful Christmas!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Answers to questions you never thought to ask #2

This was brought on by a revelation from one of the postgrads, who claims that he has a friend who is allergic to fresh fruit and vegetables. Yes, large-hive-inducing allergic. Weird (and unfortunate). This of course leads on to the obvious question:

Can you be allergic to water?

Apparently yes. It's called aquagenous urticaria. And it sounds rather unpleasant. Contact of water with mucous membranes and skin causes outbreaks of painful sores due to a histamine reaction. It can be acquired, or you can be born with it, but thankfully it is an extremely rare condition (less than 30 people worldwide have been diagnosed).


Mammoth task achieved with a little help from ebay

Seeing as the header of this blog is a picture of a mammoth, we thought we'd better cover the sequencing of the woolly mammoth genome, published last month in Nature. Clearly one obstacle to sequencing the genome of an extinct animal is obtaining a nice DNA sample. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University overcame this problem in an unusual way- by trawling ebay for hair samples (see picture).

The $130, 10-g hair samples were taken from two Siberian mammoths frozen in the permafrost 20 000 and 60 000 years ago, and used to generate nucleic DNA sequence. This was compared to the previously sequenced mitochondrial genome to yield information about extant elephants. "Our data suggest that mammoths and modern-day elephants separated around six million years ago, about the same time that humans and chimpanzees separated" said Webb Miller, one of the project leaders. The project could also provide insight into characteristics such as the mammoth's adaptation to extreme cold.

Some readers may remember recent research in which a team took a single Tasmanian Tiger gene and inserted it into a mouse embryo, where it was expressed. This raises the possiblity of one day resurrecting extinct animals like the woolly mammoth using their genome sequence. However, given that the mammoth genome is thought to contain about 20 000 genes, we can expect it to be many years before these beasts are thundering across the permafrost again. In this event, presumably the price of mammoth hair on ebay will also drop dramatically.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Answers to questions you never thought to ask

And now for another semi-regular segment, inspired by Gareth Keenan (The Office), who famously wondered not if he'd be able to kill a tiger armed only with a biro, but instead "Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?". Some readers may know that one of the Eds has a penchant for asking similarly bizarro hypothetical questions, including this corker this week, so we've decided to try and answer them, and any others that you can think up, using a bit of science...

Answers to questions you never thought to ask #1

How long would it take to cook a roast inside a nuclear reactor?

Apparently this is a strange question to ask.

Firstly, I guess I need to know how hot it gets inside a nuclear reactor, which is surprisingly difficult to google (am now hoping that I'm not being electronically monitored because I am searching for all things nuclear!). Anyway, apparently in a Generation IV nuclear reactor, which has uranium fuel dissolved in circulating coolant, the coolant temperature is 510-1000oC.

I am now starting to think that our biggest problem in this hypothetical Sunday dinner conundrum is going to be the choice of cooking vessel, but perhaps we can tackle that problem later. I tryto find some sort of calculator or an equation with cooking time as a function of weight and temperature, but apparently cooks don't have a need to know how to cook at this temperature and the charts I find describe cooking times at boringly low temps. Even Jamie Oliver doesn't have an answer for me.

Looks like it's over to finding some sort of graph to extrapolate from but google fails me here too. The USDA states that the internal temperature of a roast of any size should reach 62.8oC... surely I can work something out from this, but no, that would require a knowledge of the heat-exchange of beef and there is no way I can do those calculations. Hmm. Looks like it's time to turn to every PhD student's last resort (we can cite Wikipedia in our theses, right?), an actual scientific paper. Argh! I am confronted by many very scary-looking equations and maths never was my strong point.

After an hour and a half, I have to consider myself beat. Incredibly, it looks like no-one has ever tried to cook a roast inside a nuclear reactor. However, from my research, I can still disclose the following helpful hint: if you really want to get a roast done quickly, perhaps try a brick kiln (900-1000oC)- it would be just as quick and I would guess far less dangerous than using a nuclear reactor, and you probably have less chance of being arrested in the process...

Have resolved never to ask ridiculous hypothetical questions again.


Parvo puppy

I come downstairs to get something, I can't remember what. J my nurse is crouched over a puppy lying on the floor.

I work with J regularly on a Saturday. She's a top nurse who is currently undertaking a critical care course. She genuinely cares for the animals and takes initiative, especially when critical care cases come in. She's very capable of dripping, bleeding and xraying. This means I am happy to trust her looking after these cases. On a busy Saturday, when both vets are booked out, this is essential.

"I'm not happy with this puppy" she says, "She's really flat and has a temperature of 40 and a heart rate of 240"

"What puppy is this?" I say, there were no puppies in hospital this morning and I've not admitted any.

"She's a stray, just come in" says J, crouching over a prostrate blonde puppy lying on her side. She looks like a labrador, or a staffy, about 12 weeks old and ever so cute. Or she would be, if she didn't look so ill.

I take one look at the puppy, grab a glove and stick a finger up its bum. The rectum feels hot and my finger quests around a large cavern instead of a tightish passage. Sure enough the rectum is chockful of liquid. The puppy barely notices but does manage to sit up and then let fly an enormous stream of bloody diarrhoea.

"It's parvo" I say, surer of this than anything else I've seen that day. "We need a faecal parvo test done right now. This entire area needs to be triple bleached, now!" I yell out to the vet student to grab a towel, the lethal cocktail of diarrhoea and virus is spreading around the hospital floor. Parvo can be very stable in the environment and a serious risk in a veterinary hospital.

"Puppy in isolation straight away, parvo test then I'll have to call the boss"

Parvo is bad news. It's a very serious virus which causes severe vomiting and bloody diarrhoea in puppies. It is often fatal and there isn't much we can do beyond supporting the puppies with intravenous fluids, pain relief and some antibiotics for secondary infections. More heroics, like plasma transfusions, help a lot, but are very expensive. Even a mild case of parvo without these would be $500+. We want to help this puppy, and as a stray, we are obliged to give first aid, but the definition of first aid is blurry. In this case, it definitely could include euthanasia. Parvo is dangerous for the hospital and expensive for us to treat gratis, given we don't know whether this puppy will even be rehomed.

The irony here is that a vaccination or two in this puppy's life would most probably have avoided the problem. It is almost certain, in my mind, that the unvaccinated puppy started to get ill and so was turfed out on the street. People who won't even pay for a series of puppy vaccinations, won't pay for any treatment. Fortunately for her, someone found her and brought her in promptly. I worry about the rest of the litter, this could be the first of a whole batch.

The parvo test is positive. I speak to my boss on the phone who gives me permission to begin basic treatment - drips and antibiotics. One of the other nurses has rung the council. The pound will not take the puppy, even if we manage to pull her through as she is an infection risk to other dogs. I can understand this, even if it is hard. This then makes it an almost impossible situation - puppy may end up being euthanased on Monday when the pound opens anyway unless the practice decides to keep her and rehome her themselves. Although we rehome kittens, puppies are much more work, and need much more attention, so are rarely rehomed through the clinic. Fortunately one of the rangers has said he might take her, although he is worried about the cost. I decide to ignore this, I'm just working on today, I can't worry about Monday until later. And she is a stray, so her treatment is our responsibility, not his.

I manage to get away from the maelstrom upstairs and set up the medication and drip lines for the pup. I have to get everything ready because we will be working in isolation with barrier nursing. This means we have to wear special aprons, disposable gloves, use dedicated equipment and foot bath whenever we enter the area. We don't want to be walking back and forth between this area and the main hospital.

I grab half-used bags of fluids which other animals no longer need. At least puppy can have these without costing the hospital anything.

J and I get the puppy out to set up her drip. She is curled up on a half-towel in the isolation cage looking miserable. Fortunately her blood pressure is not too bad and I manage to get a catheter into her vein. We check her haematocrit and blood protein which are both markedly elevated indicating her severe dehydration. Her paws are starting to go cold as she goes into shock.

I set the fluid rate high to treat this, give her antibiotics and pain relief and leave her to it. We disinfect ourselves the best we can, spraying our arms and legs. I am now the "no puppies" vet for the day. I won't be seeing or treating any littlies for the rest of the day, only this one.

Later in the evening I set up all the medications before going in to check her again. I've left her until last as I want to leave the hospital straight away without looking at any other dogs to decrease infection risk. We have one very large 50 kg dog crammed into a tiny cage in the main hospital to keep him further away from this area. He has an unknown vaccination history, and when I called the owner to clarify, he wasn't sure if he'd ever received his "shots". This owner is not wealthy and we've only ever seen the dog to trim his nails, so it is possible he hasn't even had a course as a puppy meaning he is at risk of parvo, even as a four year old.

Puppy has vomitted and there is a large pool of something - probably very liquid diarrhoea in the cage. She is lying partially in it, but does seem brighter and manages to wag her tail when I talk to her. I adjust her medication to put her onto a constant rate infusion of antivomiting medication. I stroke her and speak softly. She is just a baby. I'm rewarded with a few weary tail flaps. Then I repeat her pain relief, clean her cage out, give her another 1/2 towel and leave her to it. We've done our best, she is getting "first aid" of the same standard as a paying client (I've slipped in a few extras, like pain relief, antinausea meds and potassium in the drip. The boss didn't ok these but won't be upset, she's a good boss). Now it's up to puppy - she will live or die in this first battle, even before she's found someone to really love and look after her.

I rang today. Puppy is better, no vomiting, diarrhoea only. The ranger looks like he might take her. I knew that if she was alive and better Monday, she wouldn't be euthanased. She is just too cute. Perhaps, getting parvo and being thrown on the street was the best thing for her in the end.

**update on the update**
Puppy did go to the pound in the end, but has been recruited from there to become a working dog – assistance, or sniffer dog or something similar. She was picked out as being exceptionally bright compared with the others and was recruited. This means she will get top-notch training, exceptional veterinary care and will have a great interactive life. Eventually when she can’t work anymore, she will be retired, usually with her handler. A dog couldn’t ask for a better life.

By Jo Griffith; Illustration by Quintin Lau

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Profile: Izmira (Mira) Farhana Mohd Ismail

I was born... months after the first International Islamic Games held in Izmir, Turkey. It was quite a historical event and my parents decided to name me after the beautiful city... hence Izmira!

At school I... was very timid and quiet, I became talkative when I joined the debate team in University

My first relationship was... with my highschool sweetheart at 14, whom I am now happily married to :)

Friends say I'm... cheeky

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... a very glamorous TV host with my own talk show on prime time

At the moment I'm reading... ' Barking' by my favourite comic fantasy writer Tom Holt

My worst job was... none really. I've worked once as a chemist sales assistant and I loved every minute of it!

At the moment I'm... sequencing the ovine CLN6 gene to find disease-causing mutation/s

... which is interesting because... finding the mutation will not only help our affected sheep with Batten/NCL disease but also provide helpful information for children with a comparable human form of the disease.


Friday, December 5, 2008

Profile: Michael Bertoldo

Mysteriously nicknamed 'Big Bad' for reasons unknown to the Eds, this second year PhD student has been busy jetting off around the globe in his quest to improve the reproductive performance of sows during seasonal infertility.

I was born... 1/1/1984

Friends say I'm... a d**k

If I wasn't me I'd like to be... dunno

At the moment I'm reading... The Costello Memoirs

My worst job was... Kitchen Hand

At the moment I'm... procrastinating

... which is interesting because... right now you probably are too!


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Across the ditch... dutch... dtch?

As requested by the bakeoff crew... oh yes, and don't watch it if you're offended by the word "sht".


A slice of the action at the Camden bakeoff

On Wednesday a cake competition was held in the Shute building- a new excuse to eat cake and bake cake for those so inclined! The morning was very successful as members of the Shute building rallied in the tea room to sample the 14 cakes, slices, muffins and biscuits created by some of the very finest cooks in the Vet faculty. Each baked good was judged on its appearance, texture and flavour by anyone willing to taste test and contribute a gold coin donation to charity. Sophie Hoft won a prize for best dressed cake - a beautifully decorated yummy mocha fudge meringue cake. Meg Donahoo's lemon yoghurt cake was judged the people's choice award. A good time was had by all and few leftovers remained. $52 was raised for charity.

Ed's note: This blog entry was Meg's prize (punishment?) for winning.

Bakeoffs are abounding in the Vet Faculty at the moment. If you are in the city on Thursdays, come around to level 6 of Gunn or 'India' in the J.D. Stewart building and join in. Next week- Emily Wong will wow us with a yet-to-be-named delicacy!

by Meg Donahoo

Monday, December 1, 2008

Get your hands off my chloroplasts

A kleptomaniac sea-slug brutally assaults a plant, assimilating parts of it into its own body to become a hybrid plant-animal intent on world domination. Sounds like science fiction, right?

Well, ok, I made up the world domination part. But the rest is true- see the video below! Thanks to Jerry for tipping us off about this.