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In the lab

When I was in North Carolina, I got to stand next to liquid nitrogen.

Liquid nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen makes me think of Terminator 2. It was good to know that if the T1000 wandered by, I would be able to disable him long enough to scream and run away like a little girl. The liquid nitrogen is stored in my sister-in-law’s lab for reasons I don’t know, but probably has to do with fancy research techniques I know nothing about. Same thing goes for all these vials and bottles on the shelf.

Lab materials

We stopped by the lab because my sister-in-law needed to split some cells so she would have material to do her experiments. She studies inflammation pathways in cancer cells. That’s right, she’s helping to cure cancer, which pretty much makes everyone else’s job look insignificant in comparison. Here she is, kicking cancer’s ass, which involves stylish purple gloves and something that looks like a turkey baster.

Kicking cancer's ass

After she was done taking petri dishes in and out of an incubator, we walked past this chart of a cancer cell in the hallway.

This is a cancer cell

“This is actually a simplified version,” she said. That’s right, the chart with several dozen bubbles and lines and acronyms is actually a dumb-downed version of what goes on in a cancer cell. This is why she gets to put the letters “PhD” after her name, whereas I only get to put the letters “WTF.”

After my visit to the research lab, I had a better understanding of why we don’t have a cure for cancer yet. It turns out there are actually hundreds of different ways a cell can go wrong and become cancer. Hypothetically, if we had a drug for each type of cancer, cancer would be cured. Unfortunately we only have drugs for about 10 types of cancer. So, researchers are studying all these different bubbles and lines of the chart, and then discovering even more bubbles and lines while they’re at it, which will in turn have to be studied.

“That sounds like a lot of work,” I said.

“Yep,” she replied. Plus, she doesn’t spend all her time working on projects because she also has to work on writing grants to get funding to continue working on the projects. Still, it was cool to visit the place where research like this is actually happening.

Not only that, but she makes a tasty Chicken Parmesan too. Mmmm.

BTW, October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, so go buy some pink pretzels or something. (But also carefully research how much money from a product you purchase actually goes to breast cancer research, because if I don’t say it someone in the comments will.) Or just give the people your money directly. Or give it to my sister-in-law for her grant!

Chocolate & Vicodin: My Quest for Relief from the Headache that Wouldn't Go Away
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tjones • October 16, 2008 at 9:06 am

I loved this post. Last year I lost my father to brain cancer so please give a big THANK YOU to your sister n law for what she does, in hopes that our loved ones in the future will be cured.


Maggie • October 16, 2008 at 9:56 am

I feel your pain. My little brother got his PhD before I even decided to go back to grad school…

Also (and I realize you might ignore or delete this, but I thought I’d try), WRT your headache, have you tried addressing it through diet? I know that’s an absolute minefield for those of us who struggle with weight/food anyway, but going on an anti-headache/anti-inflammatory diet is the only thing that has solved my headaches (I had one almost every day for the past year and haven’t had a headache in three weeks now).

I literally eliminated EVERYTHING that is known to cause headaches (which left me with organic fruits and vegetables, brown rice, oats, and some spices/herbs). Boring food, but if it gets rid of your headache….

There are a bunch of headache prevention cookbooks out there (one literally by that name that I found a bunch of recipes in). I just went to the library and checked them all out.

Anyway, if you read this far and are willing to give it a go, I hope it helps.


s • October 16, 2008 at 10:01 am


i love everything about this post.


Amy • October 16, 2008 at 10:58 am

Liquid nitrogen is also good for making instant ice cream!


becky • October 16, 2008 at 11:12 am

Any scientific research is hard, I worked on a Alzheimer’s project. It is very time consuming and frustrating at times. Oh, the turkey baster is a pipette gun:)

Wonderful post as usual!


Inny • October 16, 2008 at 11:36 am

PQ, you made my day :) Nothing melts my nerdy heart faster than seeing pictures of a lab and people doing research on a blog. I agree with becky, research is tough, but personally I love it and want to do it for the rest of my life.

BTW, if you google “metabolic pathways” you will see some pathways of human metabolism that are as complicated as the cancer ones, which is probably one of the reasons obesity is not cured yet. Isn’t it amazing how complicated the body is.


Elizabeth • October 16, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Re: Pink Ribbon Overload

You might also want to take a look at Think Before You Pink: http://www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org/Pages/AboutTheCampaign.html


Zandria • October 16, 2008 at 12:40 pm

Kudos to your awesome sister-in-law! It certainly makes most other jobs seem pretty insignificant. :)


Deanna • October 16, 2008 at 12:43 pm

Wow, mucho thanks to your SIL – that’s like a really important job and instead of saying the snarky “it’s not like she’s curing cancer” – you can say the total opposite, love it!!


DonnaLynn • October 16, 2008 at 1:14 pm

What a neat experience that must have been!


Helen • October 16, 2008 at 1:34 pm

Great post PQ! I’ve always thought your brother was cool and now know he married cool too.

When my dh and I were on vacation this past June we met a young man who lost his mom to breast cancer. He had been doing cancer research in college. His research focused on the best way to deliver meds to cancer patients so they wouldn’t get sick – something about attaching the meds to a magnet and running it through the blood. (His mom died because she couldn’t stand the thought of facing another round of chemo.) His college grant ran out so he joined the Air Force to he could get his degree and continue his research because he promised his mom he would get a degree but wouldn’t go in debt to do it. At that moment we wished we were millionaires so we could fund his education. I hope someday to see his name in lights because of his research.


Susan • October 17, 2008 at 9:39 am

I’m a huge advocate of cancer research. My mom is a two time breast cancer survivor and my dad has survived colon and prostate cancer. Kudos to your sister-in-law for doing this to help everyone out there. And for everyone else out there, don’t forget to get your mammogram/colonoscopy, etc. They really do help save lives.


Jaime • October 17, 2008 at 1:27 pm

I work at a company that has the word laboratories in our name. the only thing i think is shouldnt she be wearing a lab coat when she was splitting the cells? looks too much like work to me….oh that thing that looks liek a turkey baser is a pipette. :) and she is working under the “hood” it has its own exhaust system. ok im going to stop being a nerd about this entry. :)


s • October 17, 2008 at 9:30 pm

@Jaime – i could be wrong (and probably am) but i worked in a cancer lab for a summer and i think a lot of times the point of working under the hood is to protect the cells themselves. the chemicals i used when i did cell culture were pretty safe. but the cells were very sensitive to microbes and stuff like that…


Inny • October 18, 2008 at 5:16 am

@s – Yeah, I think that’s true. The hood probably has a UV lamp inside. I worked with a hood like that once. I turned the UV lamp before I put the cells in the hood, so that the UV rays would kill everything inside and all the instruments and the media would be sterile.


auntie • October 18, 2008 at 1:31 pm

very cool post! i love it when funny and profoundly serious come together like that.


Andy Lee • October 20, 2008 at 8:20 am

So how do we reach you SIL?? Thanks for the post, you are a fun writer to read!


Charlie Hills • October 20, 2008 at 9:00 am

Did you see on Ellen what happens when you drop boiling water into twenty liters of liquid nitrogen? Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to get my hands on twenty liters of liquid nitrogen. :)


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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