Saturday, November 5, 2011

Deconstructing your Thanksgiving plate

If you LOVE Thanksgiving, and it's your favorite holiday, and you enjoy the cornucopia of fruit and vegetables and the mouth-watering turkey, then STOP reading this now.  For the brave souls willing to subject their plates to deconstruction and sacrifice their appetites for the meager food for thought, carry on.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, some of us are already watching the weekly circulars and planning the holiday menu in our heads. What will be on your plate this year?  The traditional mashed potatoes, stuffing, creamed corn, butternut squash, cranberry sauce and, of course, turkey, perhaps? While this tradition seems unchanging in our eyes, as we look forward to bubbie's disintegrating holiday turkey recipe card, I assure you that much has changed since 1621 when the Plymouth Pilgrims broke bread with the Native Americans in gratitude for the year's harvest.  In fact, while the plate looks similar between now and 20 years ago, the components of these plates are as different as can be. Your plate today most likely contain sweet corn which is about 6x as sweet as the variety that the Pilgrims ate, starchier potato that has less sugar and water content, a virus-resistant squash, a giant turkey with abnormally big breast and scrawny extremities, and cranberries from cans - for some.

Sorry to disappoint you, but as a scientist, I generally do not have a problem with genetically modified crops.  After all, I've done cloning, and genetically engineered virus DNAs in the pursuit of understanding how we can come up with better therapeutics.  As a given, I believe that biotechnology has a place in agriculture and, ergo, on my plate.  Against a declining land area available for crops and livestock, biotechnology has increased the yield of produce, improved nutritional quality of food and reduced crop losses. Where I grew up, the farmers are the ones who beg for help with with the institution of genetic engineering as typhoons, bugs and diseases bombard their crops. And while backyard farming is ideal for folks who have green thumbs to match their yards, the truth remains that biotechnology helps feed the nearly 7 billion people in this world, 3 billion of whom are micronutrient malnourished. I can understand the consumer skepticism, for, while genetically modified plants are beneficial to farmers, it is not necessarily so for consumers. But science has plowed through. For one, crops have been biofortified with beta-carotene to address the vitamin A deficiency in developing countries, saving children from the threat of blindness and premature death. 

          But, you see, my real beef is with the bird. With most Americans preferring white meat over dark meat, industry has called upon science's aid to selectively breed big breasted birds and poultry diet engineered to promote breast growth.  Mind you, the pop-up timer is not genetically encoded. Today's turkeys are so different that if Ben Franklin was alive, he would be wondering what we did to the "respectable Bird" that he knew. We’ve created Franken-bird! These industry-bred turkeys have unusually large breasts, which look like round bowling balls, so disproportionate with their bodies that they cannot stand, walk or mate.  They just sit in their barn, they breed by artificial insemination, and with clipped beaks, they eat, eat, eat!  While free-range heritage turkeys take about 28 week to mature, their Super-sized, abnormally fast-growing cousins reach the slaughterhouse in just 12 weeks. Now, don't you wish you stopped reading when I warned you?

            I am grateful that my religion require that animals must be killed with respect and compassion. But I can carry this further, by caring how the meat is raised which is part of teaching kindness to animals.  So, on Thanksgiving, I might pay a bit more for Kosher free-range turkey. If not, there's always Tofurkey, and pile on another serving of the transgenic squash and silently give thanks for its resistance to the squash mosaic virus.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Farewell to the Space Shuttle Era

by silvermom

Thank you Mr. Kennedy, for guiding the way to the moon.  Even if a rivalry with the Soviet Union brought those three Americans aboard Apollo 11 to the Sea of Tranquility, the lunar landing was a feat like no other.   It opened the gates for space and lunar travel.  Perhaps most significantly, it opened our minds to the science grazing ground beyond our own.  On Thursday, July 20th, we welcomed home Atlantis. Like its namesake in the sea, Atlantis will be still forever: as a museum piece at the Kennedy space center.

I was never into rockets, planes, or asteroids as a kid, but I did romanticize the heavens.  The stars and the moon were twinkling, shiny things to wish upon and be dazzled by.  When I was four or five years old, I decided that the moon is a hole that God peered through to watch me sleep.  No science there, no religion even, just a kid's fantastic imagination.

I'm no rocket scientist, but it doesn't take one to be in awe of the grandeur of vast outer space.  The question "is there life on Mars?" barely scrapes the surface. What is life? Is it based on DNA as we define here on earth: four nucleobases in Watson-Crick pairs dangling from sugary phosphate backbones? Do we measure it by oxygen needs and water consumption? What if other life forms thrive on sustenance alien to earth?  As we peel back the question, layer by incredible layer, we are just beginning to understand how much we don't know. And our collective sense of marvel increases exponentially.

With the end of the American space shuttle era, I wonder what's in the future for NASA.  Will our children remember this year as the end of the organization that took the fiction out of science fiction? Will their history books talk about how it yielded to the power of Washington's ever reddening ledger?  Sure, there were flaws to the shuttle program.  I would be remiss not to mention the immense tragedies of the Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.  But there are these success stories:  the Hubble Space Telescope launched from Discovery gives us a glimpse of other galaxies, the unimaginable beauty of the aurora around Saturn's magnetic pole, and the revelation of a stellar nursery where new stars are born; the International Space Station which harbors a laboratory in space! Perhaps most amazing is that the Space Station is International, a collaboration of five space-faring countries. Its construction and maintenance is as much a marvel of diplomacy as technology.

The people who had flown on the shuttle came from many backgrounds, races, and nationalities. NASA records that 369 individuals had flown on the five shuttles, and that the shuttles carried astronauts from 16 different countries.  And there above earth, this diverse and intelligent group worked together speaking a language common to them – Space science.  In fact, there were actually Jews in Space! Although, I seriously doubt that these Jewish astronauts took their cue from Mel Brooks when they decided to bring their Torah and Mezuzah to space.  My favorite story is of astronaut David Wolf who went on a mission during Hannukah.  Since he couldn’t light his hannukiah in such a combustible environment, he brought and spun his dreidel in space instead.  Now that’s taking advantage of zero gravity!
No, I don't believe that Atlantis’ “wheels stop” marks the end of NASA. Budget permitting, a rocket will launch again.  But unfortunately, the economic reality of our times has grounded the shuttle that, for my generation at least, will always be the image of space travel.  In order to build new spaceships that can go farther and deeper in space, the shuttle program is sadly forfeited.  Until the completion of Orion, planned for 2016, the government will use private companies to ferry cargo into space, and possibly take a shot at space tourism - an off-putting idea if you ask me, but that's another story.

I don't know if I will live to see the discovery of new species in foreign universe, perhaps living in toxic-to-human fumes, but here's to hoping for better times ahead so that my daughter might witness it.  In a few years, I will take her to the planetarium, show her the beautiful pictures taken by the Hubble, and perhaps visit the taxidermized Atlantis in Florida.  Who knows? She might even become a rocket scientist when she grows up.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Planes and babies do mix!

by silvermom

Last weekend, with my husband away on a business trip, I traveled with my 10 month old to visit my best friend and her family.  While the flight from DC to Rhode Island is a short one, about an hour, I was concerned with how my baby will take to flying. So I meticulously packed, unpacked then repacked all the essentials again 1 week before the flight to make sure that I've got everything down pat. Taking a cue from a friend who had blogged about the must-haves for infant travels, I decided to write down what worked and what didn't after we got back so that I can refer to this post for future travels and maybe I'll be able to help other anxious first time parents like myself.

For starters, I was contemplating between taking the baby Bjorn or the umbrella stroller or both. I was bent not to check in any bags, so a carryon backpack was a given.  However, I was facing a conundrum on how to hold the baby, hoist everything up, and fold either the Bjorn or the stroller or both onto the security checkpoint belt - and singlehandedly unload and rebuckle everything after.  After much deliberation, I decided on the umbrella stroller alone, which worked with minimal (but still existent) pain.  While the stroller required 2 hands to close, it was very brief, so I was able to hold the baby in my arms and closed the stroller all at once. On other times, some wonderful volunteers willingly helped us out.  But the choice of stroller over Bjorn was a good one.  The baby and I were comfortable and I was even able to feed her solids with free hands to wipe her gooey face.

As far as backpacks go, I am so happy that, with the exceptions of a few paint stains, my "backpacking" backpack from REI was in great shape. It has withstood the outdoor elements, and now, the munchikin element too. It's ultra lightweight and has many pockets to compartmentalize her stuff and my stuff.  Because it had a hipbelt and a chestbelt, it was secured on me even as I held the baby in my arms. Also, the hipbelt features two zippered pockets where I placed the digital camera and some change that I could access without taking the bag off me.  My favorite part, however, is the top pocket.  It is so big that I was able to stuff multiple toys, snacks, books, bib, wash cloth, etc. on it which I could easily access from under the seat and while holding my baby. If only it had external pockets to hold water (or milk) bottles, then it would be perfect!

So, which toys were musts or busts? 

1) Labeling tape - When I read infant travel tips online, I was a little bit skeptical with the masking tape suggestion. As it turned out, it was actually the biggest hit of all.  I brought a bright yellow labeling tape from my office, tore little sections and stuck them to the back of the food tray or on my arms.  The baby had a grand old time trying to peel each one of them, and when it stuck to her fingers, she waved and waved, wondering why this piece of paper is not falling off - or I assumed as much. When she got tired of that, I slipped the roll of tape on my finger and let her try to take it off.  

2) Comb - After the tape, we moved on to her clean comb, which she alternated between bending and putting in her mouth. I expected no less, so I made sure it was clean.

3) Old MacDonald hand puppet board book - Between looking at the book, cooing at the animals and chewing on my dressed up fingers, this toy/book was a winner.  She was so excited as I bobbed the animals up and down, and have their synthetic furs tickle her nose. 

4) Stacking cups - Even though they didn't take much space in the bag, I decided to bring the smallest 2 cups because I was so afraid that she'd lose them.  And we almost did! She absolutely loves banging her cups together, but she's also at the "Oops, I dropped them again...and again...and again" stage.  So, she managed to drop them inside the plane.  Until motherhood, I never knew how truly flexible I can be.  And then, she managed to drop them again...and again at each restaurant we went to.  Simply put, we played fetch. And I probably won't be bringing those cups again...and again until she outgrows this phase.

5) The reliable Mr. Toutou - Mr. Toutou is more than a toy, he is a "pacimal" friend.  Look him up for your next baby shower.

6) Vtech song books - While these books are fun off the plane, my baby didn't really enjoy them on the ride.  First, the hum of the engine is louder than the book. Second, it was surprisingly big and unweildy in a limited 3x3 feet of space.

One last tip, don't forget to ask for an empty row at the last minute.  I knew that the flight was full when I checked in, but I was determined to have a little bit more space if there's any available to give my baby a little bit more "wiggle" room.  So, just before boarding, I approached the flight attendant by the gate explaining my concern that it was my baby's first flight and I didn't know how she'd do.  I was really trying to consider the comfort of whoever will be sitting next to us should baby T uncharacteristically throws a fit.  Surely enough, something opened up, and we were pleasantly moved to an empty row. This happened on our way to and from our destination.  As it turned out, my baby did amazingly well during the flight both ways and the experience was such a great and memorable one. She certainly took to traveling with flying colors! 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Life is a circus, Charlie Brown

by silvermom 

I remember looking in the mirror in my 3rd trimester of pregnancy and seeing my huge self in a bright green dress.  All I could think of was how I resembled a circus tent, and the baby inside me, doing some complicated acrobatic turns, only made it much more comical.  It never occurred to me, that this show was just about to begin, and that I’m the biggest draw of all - to an audience of one.

By 3 months old, she was already laughing even though still without sound.  I found out that she cracked up even more when I made funny faces, and all other non-flattering faces in between. Step right up, folks! The clown’s been sent in, apparently.  The way I see it, better me than her.  I resent it when people ask, “what tricks has she learned?” My response has always been the same: “She’s not a performing monkey. I, on the other hand, have lots of them up my sleeve.” Only, this show is exclusive. 

I have never really seen myself as a comic.  I didn’t have a whit of timing for jokes, and they always fall flat in whatever language I tell them.  So, for someone who would not pay to see slapstick comedy, I am embarrassed to admit that I resort to it fairly regularly. 

My show has a rather extensive and ever-changing repertoire. I do pirouettes, juggle alphabet blocks, with vegetables on the side, and sing in operatic voice.  She never disappoints. I always get a giggle. I don't even have to bathe in pink dye. I know I’m having a great night when she starts thumping her legs on the floor, clamoring for more.  I resort to magic acts, doing three-cup monte with her stacking cups, and hiding Ogbert the octopus in one of them.  She squeals at the final reveal.

Now, my biggest, and perhaps the only admirer of my comic genius, is 9 months old.  The fanaticism has been sown, and her eyes light up as soon as The Entertainer walks in the door.  She starts hooting, er… cooing.  And the show begins.

The sun has set, the little tummy has been fed. I’m done with my spiels, ending with the um, not-so-fat lady singing Iggle-Piggle.  As always, I brought down the house.  She’s in dreamland land now; the circus has to close for the night.  And the best part is, I get to do it again tomorrow. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pac-mecium: The game of life?

by silvermom (June 2011)

        The golden age of electronics is here, and science is embracing it with open arms.  The whole world, or at least the whole Internet, is in our pockets.  And with the star walk application, a guide to the night sky on our gadgets, we can navigate our way to the heavens.
But the endless possibilities for science in a console are not limited by cyberspace or outer space. Physicist Ingmar Riedel-Kruse and his team developed a game called Pac-mecium that is hitting the virtual world.  Only, the game is not as virtual as it seems. Pac-mecium is pacman with a twist: a paramecium assumes the game’s starring role. Players direct the protozoan’s movement inside a fluid chamber by changing the polarity of an applied electric field. The live image is projected in real time to a computer screen wherein the fluid chamber is superimposed with a Pac-Man game board.  Players guide the paramecium to eat virtual yeast cells and avoid a big yellow fish.  The game even keeps score!  Better yet, single-cell gamers are not limited to munching Pac-dots.  In addition to Pac-mecium, there is biotic pinball and pond pong.  Take your pick.
       All of the science enthusiasts that I know needed to have their jaws collected from the floor after hearing about these biotic games.  But the general public irately wags their pointer fingers, raising an ethical debate.  Are we scientists playing g-d by controlling the movement of these unicellular organisms?
A quick review of elementary biology will tell you that paramecia are akin to amoebas.  They cannot see, taste, touch, or hear. Although they respond to signals, and discriminate between brightness levels, they neither have a brain nor a heart. They can move and eat and reproduce by splitting themselves in half.

     The biotic game engineers went beyond the norms of virtual reality games by incorporating living cells.  They see the games as educational tools that can further knowledge in biomedicines and biotechnology.  But the negative public feedback counters that science has yet to determine the limit of sensory perception and information processing in living organisms. Detractors are concerned that the paramecia may have consciousness despite almost a hundred year’s worth of research to the contrary.
In my opinion the idea of biotic games, while clearly a good start, is wasted on the paramecium.  Pac-mecium is a good teaching tool, likely to elicit questions from young minds regarding life forms that are invisible to the naked eyes.   But it is the logical next step that gets me excited.  Using live imaging techniques to track bacteria and viruses, scientists might pique the curiosity of the young and get them interested in the complex pathways of the cells and infection, how viruses usurp the cell’s energy storage, and perhaps even inspire new paradigms in preventing infectious diseases.  Maybe invent a new game dropping drug bombs, angry bird-style, on fluorescent viruses and watch them disappear. 100 points per virion! But unlike directing the paramecia that move senselessly around, the objective would be to block infection and kill the pathogens.  Or would that be unethical too?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mother Earth!

Pour tu mon bebe, le monde.

Even though I only have one baby to think about, I owe it to her and her future babies (should she choose to have them), as well as all her future friends and grandchildren to think about their…. future, what else? It may sound trite, but being earth day today, here are a few Earth-saving tips to remind me, and hopefully, infect you with! Ah, the good virus!  I certainly hope I am contagious!

  • Skip the burger.  If you’re a meat-itarian, skip it even one day per week.  Studies have shown that meat production contributes to about 20% of greenhouse gases worldwide from the livestock industry.  Check out this website: or simply google meat and greenhouse.  Whether you believe the articles or not, skipping meat and eating your veggies is also the healthier option.
  • Buy in bulk. Hello, Costco!  Tamar and I absolutely love going to Costco. She likes to people watch and I like their cheese selection.  Buying in bulk, although a shock to the wallet, decreases packaging waste and the trips (hence, $4/gal gas) to the store.  I don’t know about you, but every time our Brita pitcher angrily blinks at me, I can unflappably reach in the pantry for a new filter. And speaking of filters….
  • Clean your dryer vents and air filters. This can easily lower your electricity usage, and your breathing clearer.  Good for your health, good for the pocket and good for the environment. Need I say more?
  • Recycle. Reuse cloth bags. I love that DC now charges $0.25 for bags.  I think that we need to go back in the days where Filipinos used bayong.  Whatever happened tobalik-bayong project, anyway?   Using reusable bags just make sense.   I say let’s make bayong fashionable again (was it ever?).
And make use of those recycling bins! Recycle, recycle, recycle. My greatest buy ever (so far?) for Tamar is a Four Seasons of Pooh frames, which we got from a silent auction.  It is wonderful not only because it is Pooh, but because for a time it was hanging at our friends’, Alan & Will, son’s room, and hence recycled, and I can tell Tamar about its sentimental history in the future.  And as a bonus, the auction was a fundraising event.

  • End the junk mails, save the trees. Poor trees! Do you know that all the junks we’re getting amounts to approximately 100M trees worth of bulk mail per year?  BUT, we can do something about it.  Consider:

  1. Calling the senders and asking them to take you off their list.
  2. Or use
  3. And consider making donations to on your next occasion, or no occasion at all!

  • Hand-me-downs are smart.  Every time people would comment on Tamar’s toys, clothes, etc, I have no problem acknowledging if they were handed down. Some of the clothes that she inherited are sooooo beautiful! From cute cottons to silk dresses, I am ever grateful to our friends who were so thoughtful and kind to think about us.  I would like to give a shoutout to wonderful friends Bianca Bass, Lia Bass, Jemy Gutierrez-Amos and Khrisna Alcantara Alvarez.

What’s also fun is rummaging through my sister’s closet and “borrowing” her clothes for a while.  We do this (me more than her) regularly when we visit each other, that it’s kind of a bonding event for us.  And I get to walk away with a whole new stylish wardrobe.  Thanks sis! See you (and your closet) in July!

  • Swap parties are fun.  I went to my first ever swap party, hosted by good friend Michelle Hilburn, when I was in my first trimester. I got to meet new people, and it made me feel good that some of my nice clothes which, for one reason or another, had to go will be used by these friendly women.  I also got maternity dresses that would have otherwise cost me an arm and a leg.  The best part? It was 100% fun for the cost of… wait for it…. 0 dollars. And the better than best part?? We donated the left over clothes to charity.  So, consider one of these parties for your spring cleaning, and send me an Evite, will you?

And for you, my dearest Tamar, the world.