Equestrian Biochemist Heads to D.C.

I haven’t had the opportunity to touch base recently, but I wanted to take a minute to check in. A few updates about what’s been going on:

1. I submitted my dissertation to my committee (it’s 200 pages, this is apparently a popular question)

2. I scheduled my final examination (April 14th)

3. I successfully ordered my “Commencement Regalia” from the UK Bookstore during a SEC Tournament Game. Go CATS!

4. I interviewed for and landed my dream job as a Science Policy Fellow at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, MD (D.C. Area)

5. I got a new puppy: Her Ladyship Chloe Noelle Spaulding of the Irish Setter Ranch

So, the new job means that I am moving to Washington, D.C. very soon. This also means that the hunt for a boarding facility and trainer for Garth pony has begun. Due to extreme cold, dissertation induced depression, and complete lack of time, Garth pony got to take off the last couple months from training. At first, this seemed like a horrible idea, but after about two weeks, everything changed about him. He stopped jigging going to and from his stall. He patiently came to the gate when he was called in from the field. He completely stopped trashing his stall at night. I’ve climbed on his back twice since his sabbatical began and each time he was a complete dream. Kind, willing, forward, and soft to the hand. I am so happy to I got to give him this time off, and I am eager to start training again now that Spring has arrived.

I have been looking for trainers in the D.C. area and have found some facilities at which I want to look.

The first thing that has shocked me about preparing for this move is that human housing costs A LOT MORE MONEY, but horse housing and training is VERY REASONABLE compared to Lexington! It seems that the area has such a wealth of highly qualified trainers that there is great competition in the market. (Win-Win for Garth Pony and myself!)

I’ll be following up with more blogs on all these subjects in the future and the whirlwind that is about to be my move to Maryland. Go CATS!


So where does cancer come from?

I stopped by the sandwich shop at the Cancer Center today to grab my favorite Italian panini and a Cherry Coke Zero from the same tiny Filipino lady I have been purchasing them from for the last 4 1/2 years. As I was paying my bill, I mentioned to her that I was going to be defending my dissertation in April and after that I would graduate. She was delighted for me and told me as much. She asked what I was working on for my dissertation and what my degree was in. I explained to her that I work on trying to understand why some people become resistant to a certain type of chemotherapy and my degree would be in Biochemistry. Another woman who works in the little sandwich shop walked over and joined our chat.

She told me that her mother, father, and brother had each died of cancer: womb, brain, and lung, respectively (her words).

She asked me why I hadn’t found a cure for cancer yet. I tried to explain to her that as our understanding of cancer increases we realize that cancer is not one disease but an entire constellation of diseases that progress in similar ways but with unique molecular features. I tried to explain to her that we may never “cure” cancer but we will slowly chip away at cancer types and subtypes. We’ve already found therapies that can put some cancers at bay for years and even permanently, while other types persist, progress, and prevail. As I stumbled around my words and tried to give her an answer that would leave her both enlightened about the cancer research enterprise and hopeful about her own future, I realized that I probably wasn’t giving her the answer she was looking for.

Never one to shy from a challenge, I conveyed the importance of a healthy lifestyle (exercise, nutrition), the irrefutable effect of family history (the genetic factor), and that sometimes it’s just bad luck  who gets cancer (mutations).  Suddenly becoming very aware that I was leading a primer on the basics of cancer in the sandwich shop of the Markey Cancer Center with medical doctors and nurses and patients intently listening, I started to grab my sandwich and edge towards the door. As I was making my escape, my sandwich lady asked me, almost sheepishly, “where does cancer come from?”

This woman literally works in the Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky, and I was the first person she ever felt comfortable enough to ask this question to? Embarrassed or not, I walked back over to the sandwich counter and spent a few minutes with her. I explained to her that sometimes maybe just one or two cells in the body decide to grow when they are not supposed to. They grow and grow until they make a tumor, and when a few cells in that tumor decide they don’t like being part of that tumor anymore… they leave. They crawl away and find a new place in the body to grow, and it’s when they “metastasize” that it becomes really hard to fight them.

I’ve spent the last few months writing my dissertation, a book chapter review article, and a first author manuscript for a peer reviewed journal. I’ve written lengthy interest statements for jobs I want, and cover letters for jobs I may never get. I’ve given seminars, lab meetings, journal clubs. But today, I took the time to really talk to someone about what I do and why it matters to me and to them and to all of us. Climbing down from the ivory tower of academics seems like a terrifying descent, but what’s the point of investing in all this education if you can’t take the time to share it with someone? The next time my favorite sandwich lady wants to talk about science in the sandwich shop, y’all better pull up a chair, crack open your Cherry Coke Zero with me, and get ready for a biochemistry breakdown.

My horse is a total boss

I want to give a special shout out to the Garth pony today. In between frigid morning temps, dissertation overload, and shifting focus to surviving Princess Half Marathon next month, I haven’t ridden the G Pony for a week or two ( I actually lost track). This particular winter morning was well above my personally determined cut off of 20 degrees and I didn’t have any life or death deadlines on the dissertation, so I pulled on three layers of running tights below my breeches and I saddled up shaggy, sassy, winter pony face. By the time I chiseled off the layer of winter mud crusted all over him and combed out the cockleburs, he looked a proper dressage horse again.

Much to my surprise, he was a complete and total rock star. We schooled through the entire new 2nd level test three. He had no terrorist pony moments. He was a complete and total delight. We even schooled a few very enthusiastic flying changes. So here’s to the 11 year old horse who knows his job, loves his owner, loves his life more, and can take time off and come back sound, happy, and ready to roll. You are one in a million and I thank the universe for sending you to me (and my mom for buying you for me) every single day.

Applications and Revisions

Writing a dissertation and applying for science policy fellowships at the same time can leave you feeling a little bipolar as a graduate student…

I spend the entire day writing. I work on my dissertation for a while, take a break, work on fellowship applications, coffee time, etc., etc. In addition to the observation that it’s boring to just sit and write about one subject for endless hours on end, I feel like inter mixing them helps you to pass the day with out feeling too good or too bad about yourself.

Every time I submit my dissertation to my mentor, I admittedly receive it back with a glowing note that says “Wonderful effort,” or “The manuscript is blooming like a beautiful flower.” (Yes, my mentor really writes things like that, she’s Greek.) Unfortunately and not surprisingly, it is also dripping in red pen. Suggestions like: “Expand your discussion of the crystal structure of the Androgen Receptor” and “Do you really think the 10 pages I told you to write about the crystal structure of the Androgen Receptor are necessary?” Every time I sit down to work on this mammoth document, I feel sad, fairly bad about myself, and usually a little overwhelmed. Time to switch it up…

I grab a fresh cup of coffee and open up one of my fellowship applications. I get to write about the future and what I hope to accomplish. I get to think about things like science policy, communicating scientific concepts, and the importance of STEM education. I get to write about my great qualities in my letters of interest and highlight my achievements as I repeatedly revise my resume. By the time, I assemble my application packets with letters of recommendation in tow, I feel pretty darn excellent about myself, the future, the world.

…Beep Beep…. New Email.


I have more dissertation revisions for you ready in my office. Please come get them ASAP. Also, I thought of 27 more experiments we could do before you graduate. Let’s discuss.


Greek Boss Lady

I am not done with my dissertation… yet

I was absolutely flabbergasted when I walked into the Markey Cancer Center this morning and with an absolute seriousness the medical coder on my floor asked me “Are you done with your dissertation, yet?”

After flying into a rage in which I told him I would never speak to him if he ever dared to ask me that question again, I have tried to collect myself to proceed with my work for the day. Cell culture, taking care of immune system deficient mice, trying to write as many pages of my dissertation as possible, new draft of paper to be submitted first of the year, ordering lab supplies, cleaning up after my lab mates, keeping up with science policy updates, taking care of my husband, horse, dogs, cookie baking, laundry, Christmas present wrapping… head desk. No, I am not done with my dissertation yet.

Caution: If you ask me “Are you done with your dissertation yet?” I will likely scream at you like I just did to the medical coder in Markey. Feel free to ask me “How is your dissertation coming along?” “Is writing your dissertation as challenging as you thought it would be?” or my personal favorite “What is your wine to pages of dissertation per day ratio?”

I am really trying my very best to get my dissertation done, I promise. I am writing 6-7 hours per day, but I still have to fit in all the other things I need to accomplish. Being a wife, daughter, PhD student, equestian, biochemist, dog mom, and maid is a challenge. It’s hard to remember which direction I am headed in all the time, but I’m doing my best and I’m making a lot of progress. So for now, that has to be enough because I am going to finish that dissertation, and when I do, I’m going to slam that behemoth thing down on the medical coder’s desk and say “I’m done, now!” Ok, that’s not true, I totally won’t do that. But be certain, that I will imagine doing that. I’m gonna imagine it so hard.

Garth Pony Can’t Jump


Almost 12 years ago now, I was anxiously awaiting the birth of my horse. We’d bred his lovely mother Azotica to the Friesian stallion Loki in hopes of getting another stunning hunter type sport horse like his older brother Manly (SRC Silver Destiny). Fast forward. Garth was born, grew to be an adorable 3 year old, was started and progressing in his training to the point we started introducing poles on the ground and baby cross rails. Hunter dreams dancing in my head, my horse sucked at jumping. He’d smash every pole on the ground and demolish every little teenie tiny fence we approached. My horse was literally the Wreck it Ralph of over fences. Finally, my trainer counseled me that 1. I had to stop trying to teach Garth to jump because quite frankly she couldn’t afford the cost of replacing all the jumps all the time and 2. Perhaps he would be happier doing something more suited to his conformation and talents. We hung up our Hunter dreams and have since moved on to Dressage where he’s had lots of success.

So recently in my genius mind, it seemed totally logical to introduce some cavaletti and small cross rails to work on cross training with my Dressage horse. He’d been extremely burned out from the fall show season that couldn’t really have gone much worse, so on Tuesday I thought I’d dust off my two point skills and see if mixing things up would be fun for him.

I laid out trot poles in the arena and he quickly mastered and bored of that. I rode him to the outdoor arena where he boldly scoffed at the sight of all the jumps. I jumped off and adjusted the height of all the jumps to what I perceived to be a reasonable effort for a complete novice of a horse. Jumping back on, Garth took off trotting in a beautiful hunter frame reminiscent of his talented Hunter siblings. I was pumped.

More trot poles? No problem.

Half a cross rail? Sure.

The whole cross rail? Yeah, maybe.

Itty bitty baby vertical? Nope, well ok, nope, YES! I’m going for it. Smash. Dirt. Scrambling. Trotting hurriedly away.

Basically, as we approached the vertical Garth decided that he recalled his youth and that he still in fact hated jumping. Then at the last second he changed his mind and decided to go for it, instead of really jumping he just knocked over the whole thing with both front feet at the same time. Then having knocked an entire jump forward he landed back on the smashed jump and planted his face on the ground for support, hopped back up and ran for the heavens. Through this entire comedy, I am really not helping whatsoever because I am laughing so hard I can barely get it together.

For good measure, I put the jump back together except as a cross rail and we trot over it again just to be clear that he has nothing to fear and he obediently does so, but after that we made our way back to the Dressage ring. All the while, I could hear my first trainer’s words echoing in my ears “We can find him something else to do besides jumping. Something he’s good at.”

We can’t all be good at everything. Sometimes you really have absolutely no talent in a certain area. Garth Pony can’t jump and that is apparently NEVER going to change. As far as cross-training is concerned, we’re going to stick with Trail Riding, trot poles, and cross rails for now because I can’t handle that much hilarity in my life on a regular basis. Also, I need to stop at Lowe’s later to replace the pieces of a destroyed jump this weekend.

Sucking doesn’t suck so bad when it’s free

I spent the past weekend putting all the finishing touches on Garth’s new stall. With the help of my husbeast, we put up hooks to store and dry winter blankets, screw eyes for the buckets and corner feeder, hung a dry erase board with schedule and contact information,  and ironed out all those little odds and ends that must be taken care of in horse life. Garth worked fantastically on Saturday and got Sunday off.

Today was the first bad day Garth and I have had in a few months. To say he was a challenge today is definitely an understatement, but I learned some lessons. Let’s discuss…

1. Sucking doesn’t suck so bad when it’s free. There is nothing new or groundbreaking about the fact that my horse HATES Mondays. If he’s going to be a jerk faced pony terrorist, it’s going to happen on Monday. There’s a level of anxiety and determination that goes with feeling like you are wasting your trainer’s time, your time, and to be honest your lesson money when your horse just plain old decides to veto the plan for the day. Today, the grump pony came out of the stall: he threw his head in the air, he grabbed the bit and took off, instead of picking up the canter he absolutely insisted I had requested trot half pass. All the while, I rode around with a smile on my face calmly and fairly applying corrections that I have so deeply ingrained in my psyche and muscle memory they nary require a thought, thinking to myself “This is free.” No pressure. No expectation that something will be accomplished today. Just working through our issues.

2. No one is coming to rescue me. The other thing that hit me square in the face was the realization that I needed to turn on aforementioned psyche and allow it to flow through into my body. I was just sitting there atop the fire breathing dragon as he trotted around the arena with his head straight up to the sky wondering when someone was going to tell me what to do.

Light bulb. No one is coming, idiot. Figure it out.

I have a terrible habit of robot riding. Whatever the trainer said to do, I did. Clearly, it is time to turn the brain back on.

3. Trust your instincts.  For at least a year if not more, I have observed that Garth pony is much easier to work through his back into an appropriate connection if we warm up briefly in posting trot then move to canter work. After we have done almost all the canter work for the day, we return to collected trot. This sequelae of riding is not instinctual for everyone, but for us it works. When life hands you angry pony, stick to the plan. We worked briefly in the posting trot… very briefly. Garth can be a bit challenging to control when he’s mad and trotting. We moved to the canter work. Asking for increased relaxation in the neck and back, building collection, and occasionally having a brief “Seriously now, you cannot bolt around the ring like that” moment.  Trusting my instincts on how to work my horse through his issues allowed me to “get him” by the end of the ride. He rewarded me with a really spectacular medium trot and I could feel  (and see in the mirrors) his hind feet snapping up underneath himself.

So let’s all raise a toast to the days when everything goes wrong, and the only thing that goes right is your reaction to it, because after all, tomorrow is Tuesday and the probability of terrorist pony goes down by at least 50%.

A Knight in White Lab Coat

I’ve been wrapping up my last experiments for the paper I have been working on lately. One experiment that I needed required the use of  flow cytometry (“flow”). This is really a very basic experiment and the original use of flow. You treat your cells with whatever agent you’re interested in, in my case a chemotherapeutic drug. Then you use a DNA binding dye to allow you to determine how much DNA is in cells. In my case, I expected their to be 2-6 times as much DNA inside the cells I treated, compared to normal because of the way this chemotherapy affects cells.

(Figure: from AbCam)

We have a really great core facility here at the University of Kentucky that specializes in flow and I have been annoyingly emailing back and forth to get protocols, ask advice, and prepare for my experiment. Finally, the cells were ready, the reagents had all arrived, and I was ready to perform the experiment. I followed my protocol to perfection, everything was going great, scientific euphoria was within my grasp and on the final step the wheels came off. The last step in the protocol was to utilize a cell strainer to strain the cells. I sat the strainer on top of the conical tubes, I gently pipetted my cell solution up and down, and then I transferred the solution to the strainer. I watched. I waited. The cell solution sat on top of the strainer. It stared blankly back at me indifferent to the amount of work I had put into collecting and preparing it. I tapped the strainer. I whacked the strainer. I tried pipeting the solution THROUGH the strainer. Nope. Time was ticking by and my appointment with the core facility had already started 15 minutes earlier. I called the core scientist and begged for more advice. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hi there, this is Sarah. I am supposed to be there right now for my appointment, I am so sorry I am late but I can’t get the cell solution through the cell strainer. (This should be read with fear and panic in your voice)”

Core Scientist: “OH! SLAM it on the table. That happens all the time.”

Me: “Really? Are you sure?”

Core Scientist:”Yep, slam it.”

I hung up the phone and walked determinedly back to the bench. I picked up the first sample and looked at it in my hand.  I slammed it. Suddenly, the earth shifted, the heavens parted and the cell solution slipped silently through the strainer. I worked down the line of samples eagerly slamming each one down on the counter, then flipping the strainers off, capping the samples, grabbed my ice bucket  and ran out the lab door.

I sprinted across the Hospital to the room that housed the Flow Core facility. I was only 20 minutes late for my appointment and surely they could run four little samples for me before I ran out of time. I busted through the door triumphantly slamming my samples down on a desk only to realize that I was not in the Flow Core but inside some man’s office.

He looked at me, clearly very confused, and asked “May I help you?”

I started to explain to him that I was trying to get to the Flow Cytometry core facility, I was late for my appointment, and that the Exchange system stated it was located in this room. He kindly explained that it USED to be in that room but it had relocated quite some time ago, but he was not sure to what room. I snatched my ice bucket full of samples from his desk, and took off running back through the hospital to my lab.

Bounding through the door of my own lab, I went to my computer found the correct room number and took off again back across the hospital. As I skidded to a halt outside the Flow Core, I swallowed my pride and stepped inside. There were ten minutes left of my appointment. I explained my ridiculous series of events and the core scientist took pity on me. She told me she’d help me until the next appointment arrived, but then she had to stop. She worked quickly and had the machine set up to run my samples in only a few moments, when another scientist walked through the door with a slew of samples. My heart sank as we had yet to run a single sample for my experiment. At that moment, a Post Doc who was only in the Flow facility to observe and learn about another more sophisticated machine walked over and offered to run my samples for me. After briefly conferring, the Flow Scientist agreed that the Post Doc could run my samples if he wanted, and he agreed. He spent time showing me how the machine worked, how to read the settings and data readouts, and even showed me a funny poem about Flow Cytometry. We ran the samples and despite the calamity of the last hour, my data looked really great. The pilot experiment gave me really important information that I was able to use to design a full scale experiment.

After all that hullabaloo, I forgot to ask the Post Doc his name. So for now, I am just thankful for that Knight in a White Lab Coat who snatched my experiment back from the brink of utter failure and I’ll just wait for an opportunity to pay it forward.