Monday, July 20, 2009
Unfortunately, a light appears at the end of the tunnel
Salut tout le monde! (Hello everyone!)
With less than 2 weeks of work left, I am starting to realize the brevity of my stay here in Switzerland. I come to this point with mixed emotions, as I miss the people from home (not to mention sharing a time zone with them) but am so loving my time here. The people in the lab are so helpful, nice, diverse, fascinating, and overall great to work with. I think, though, that I will return home with absolutely no regrets. I have pursued this experience, both the science and the travel, with no holds barred.
I realize at this point that I have not said much about my research since I first introduced myself, so I'll take this opportunity to explain. I said before that my work would include UV-induced DNA damage responses. In layman's terms, UV radiation (among many other things) can damage a cell's basic instructions for life, i.e. its DNA. Depending on how these instructions are altered by UV radiation, the cell can make poor decisions that lead to tumors. Cells don't normally figure out that they're damaged until they're about ready to divide and replace themselves. At that point, they are faced with two options, they can either fix the damage or kill themselves (called apoptosis). Inside the cell there are a lot of voices to be heard, and the decision between repair and death is made by committee. I work specifically on one voice in the crowd (a protein called PIDD) that we have reason to believe is quite important, and I get to figure out who its friends are. PIDD's friends influence his decision, so it is important to figure out who he talks to and when in order to understand or control the overall fate of the cell.
Given that, I do a number of different things in the lab to figure this out. One thing I've done much of is irradiating cells in something that looks like a microwave, then seeing how PIDD and his friends react to the change. I also do something called an IP (for immunoprecipitation), meaning that
I break cells open and figure out which friends PIDD is stuck to (and thus talking to) currently. You can see these proteins via something called a western blot, where you put protein into a jelly-like matrix and use electrical force to move the proteins through it. Imagine an adult and a child trying to get through one of those playhouses at McDonald's with all the tubes...the child is
going to go faster because he is smaller and less restricted by the size of the maze. Same goes with proteins, the smaller proteins move faster than the big ones. You can't really see anything yet, because proteins aren't visible to the naked eye (or even under microscopes). Instead, we transfer the gel's protein (using electricity again, but in a different direction) to something easier to work with that proteins love to stick to, which looks a lot like glossy paper. Then we subject this paper to a solution containing antibodies (just like those in our immune system) that sticks only to the protein you're looking for (for example, the antibody recognizes PIDD). You still can't see the protein, so you use another antibody that sticks to the first one. Sounding silly yet? Not really, because the 2nd antibody helps you see where your protein is. The 2nd antibody has something attached to it that will glow in the dark if you put the right chemicals on it, so we basically add the chemical to our protein-containing paper and place x-ray film over it in the dark room. Voila, you get dark bands on the film corresponding to the presence of your protein. And this is how we biologists see things that one can't really see with modern science, at least this is one of the easier ways!
After a week of work, I went out with some other ThinkSwiss Researchers and their friends to the Festival de la Cite in Lausanne. Every year the city puts on this grand event with manycultural and musical expositions. There is food and drink galore, served at one of many temporary carts around the Cathedral in the old town. The Cathedral just shines at night in the green and purple lights they use to illuminate the tower (Picture 2). I had some excellent African food, thanks to the number of African immigrants from French-speaking nations. There was also plenty of Asian and European specialties, all of which looked delicious as well. One of the most interesting Swiss traditions is this rock-stacking, whereby a highly skilled man puts one oddly-shaped stone on top of the other, creating a very stable, but unstable-looking, tower of rocks (Picture 1). It was a great night, and I only wish I had enjoyed more nights of the great food and atmosphere there!
So on to the traveling! I went to Zermatt the weekend before last, a beautiful little valley town beneath the Matterhorn. This is one case in which the Disneyland version is not moremagical. I went with Ishita, her roommate Nasreen, and Nasreen's friend Ifsa. Other than the obvious natural beauty, Zermatt is quite different than other places I've visited in Switzerland. It's incredibly "touristy", and amazingly popular with Japanese tourists whom I have not seen in my previous travels. The town is car-free, and even though I'm told you can drive to the town (although most people take the panoramic train), you would get immediately stopped and fined. They do have buses and small shuttles that run for free throughout the town, as well as some horse-drawn carriages. The four of us girls, however, opted first for a tandem paraglide (Picture 3, taken from the air, me and the Matterhorn). This was a first for all of us, and although a little expensive (150 CHF), it was worth every last cent! After coming down from a "high", both literal and emotional, we finished off our day with a trip to the Gornergrat (Picture 4). This viewpoint (about 3100 m) is reachable by cogwheel train and provides a great view of the Matterhorn (4478 m) and the town below. After coming back down, we strolled down the main street of Zermatt and along the river that flows right through the center of town (Picture 5). This was one of my favorite trips during my time here, but there was more to come the next day!
Although I had mentioned Interlaken as my Sunday plan, we were just too tired after Zermatt to do another active day. We instead decided on the city of Basel, a fascinating, cosmopolitan city situated on the border with both France and Germany. The town itself is full of history, and is the home of the Basilisk, a mythical monster of the Basel fountains and now one of the city's symbols. Walking through the city brings many sights, and like every other Swiss city, it too is cut through by a river (the Rhine in this case). Although it's not excessively touristy, it is very user-friendly, as the city has 5 distinct "walking tours" of old town marked out. You get a map at the tourist center (how I will miss the ever-helpful Swiss tourist centers) that shows 5 walking paths through the center of town each symbolized by the head of a famous Basler and a color. All walks start from city hall (the Rathaus) and are marked out with the head and color of the trail. One of the neatest things about Basel was the Tinguely Fountain (Picture 6), a large, shallow pool containing iron machines that just move water around in awesome ways. After walking through the city, seeing the bright-red Rathaus (Picture 7) and the historic Munster (cathedral), we walked through a park and into Germany. All we did was cross a creek, and we were standing in a wheat field in another country. It is so very unusual for me to pass over a border without any formality, but here it's an every-day occurrence!
This past weekend was also a whirlwind of amazing travel. I spent Saturday in beautiful Lucerne, the "gateway to central Switzerland". It sits at the foot of the Alps and right on picturesque Lake Lucerne. It is home to the "once-oldest" and oldest bridges in Switzerland, the Kappelbrucke (Picture 8) and Spruerbrucke, respectively. The Kappelbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, was built in the 14th century and is made entirely of wood. Attached to that bridge is the Wasserturm (water tower), the symbol of Lucerne and a prison/torture chamber/treasury during early city history. The Kappelbrucke was partially destroyed in the fire of 1993, so the Spruerbrucke (built in the early 15th century) then became the oldest. It is a similar style, but by the crowds on the bridge, you know the Kappelbrucke is still everyone's favorite. The old town is completely pedestrian, so you can wander through the streets freely and visit one of the many shops in the town. Lucerne is also home to the breathtaking "Dying Lion" Monument in memory of the Swiss guards that died in the Tuilleries during the French Revolution (Picture 9). Lucerne is home to many other natural wonders, like the glacier garden (a tourist attraction where you can see marks in natural rock from receded glaciers) and the mountains (notably Titlis and Pilatus). There was more to do here than time to do it in, but I would definitely go back to this beautiful city on the lake.
Sunday, however, was one of the best days in the entirety of my stay. Nasreen and I went up to the Jungfraujoch, the so-called "Top of Europe" (Picture 10). At 3454 meters, it is the highest cogwheel train station in Europe and is home to a famous glacier and ice palace (Picture 11). It's a 2+ hour train ride from Interlaken to the top, so our entire trip to Jungfraujoch from Lausanne was more than 4 hours. It is also one of the more expensive trains in Switzerland, but again, it was worth every cent. Up at the top, you stare over beautiful mountaintops covered in eternal snow and glaciers that stretch to the far distant peaks. You can even walk along the glacier and admire the below-freezing temperature at the top (it was -3.5 C when we went). The ice palace is really an unforgettable experience, as you walk through these tunnels made only of ice (you're even walking on an ice floor) and passing by many ice sculptures. This was probably also home to the most diverse set of tourists I've seen yet, with many Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, and European tourists. The number of languages and cultures walking around the top of this mountain just made the experience that much more interesting.
So I think that's all for now, and I've only one more weekend to go. I'm trying to enjoy every last minute of this experience, as there are so many things I'm going to miss. Hopefully I will be able to visit wine country this week or weekend, and then I have decisions to make about where to go this Saturday. Au revoir!