Sunday, August 23, 2015

Saying "Yes" To Gnotobiotics!

In case you weren't aware, "gnotobiotics" is pronounced as "NO-TOE-biotics."  So now you've learned something, maybe!

What's gnotobiotics, and why am I saying yes to it?

Back story: recently I decided that it's time for me to seek out greener pastures, career-wise.  I like my little husbandry position just fine and I love my supervisor to death, but at the end of the day, I've grown as much as I can hope to, and I'm very much over-qualified.  The last time I applied for a job it didn't end well; I was given an offer lower than what I currently make.

But I can't sit around in my underpants forever, writing Avengers/GotG crossovers, and subjecting my poor readers to them, so I decided to give the job seeking thing another go.

It's never a good thing when fandoms cross.

The thing that prompted me was an interesting post on /r/biology about, what else, gnotobiotics and the gut-brain axis.  Gnotobiotics means "known microbes."  Your body, as you probably are aware, isn't just made up for "you" cells, but also of tons of little other cells that help you out.  (Incidentally, termites have symbiotic, prokaryotic parasites that live in their guts and help them digest the wood when they chew through your porch.)

How many microbes do you have?  Roughly ten times more microbial cells than "self" cells.  You are mostly microbe.  The microbes play a key role not only in what you can digest, but also in how you develop, how you act, and your general perceptions and reactions to your environment.  They're kind of a big deal.  Studies on the "gut-brain axis" are very, very big right now in the science world.

For more information, go read this book here.

So a "gnotobiotic" animal is one in which we know what microbes inhabit its gut.  Everyone has different microbes, and they cultivate our gastrointestinal track over our lifetimes.  Because we all live in filthy, filthy environments, there's no telling what types of bacteria reside within us.  To get a gnotobiotic animal, you start with a sterile animal (called "axenic," -xenic meaning foreign and the a- prefix meaning without; these animals have no foreign microbes inside them) and then you introduce it to the bacteria you want it to have.  So if you have Mouse A, with Bacteria A, and Mouse B, with Bacteria B, and Mouse C, with no bacteria, and you notice that Mouse B can eat carrots without getting diarrhea and that Mice A and C can't, you can conclude that Bacteria B within Mouse B is helping Mouse B eat carrots somehow.  And if Mouse A is a total asshole but Mouse B and Mouse C aren't, you can conclude that Bacteria A might have some affect on aggression; perhaps Bacteria A influences the mouse's body to ramp up testosterone production.  Or perhaps Mouse A is simply an asshole.  We don't know, which is why we're studying this.

To search for jobs, I went to a few university and hospital websites and typed in the word "mouse."  Not very inspired, I know.  I just wanted to see what was out there, and I knew I wanted to keep working with rodent models.

Lo and behold, UCLA had a single opening for a researcher, and that opening was... get ready for it... in a brand-spanking-new, first-of-its-kind, state-of-the-art gnotobiotics lab.

And then I asked how much it paid and HR just mailed me back this picture.

I applied and got a call back.  The PI (aka the primary investigator; the lab boss) and I had a great chat but she expressed concern that I don't have much experience of benchwork (doing things like pipetting fluids and looking into microscopes).  I replied with an eloquent argument that basically boiled down to, "Yeah, but, this work is so interesting.  I'm really enthusiastic.  C'mon.  Just give me a chance."

I assumed that was the end of it, but a few days later she called and invited me to come tour the lab.  Joy!

On Saturday morning, Andrew asked if I'd like him to accompany me to UCLA. I said yes because I wasn't sure how easy it would be to find parking. He drove me to UCLA's campus and dropped me off. After parking, he went looking for the building I was in to wait in the lobby.

Meanwhile, I had found the building and the PI, who had locked her keys in the lab. We ended up conducting the interview outside. The campus was nearly empty and while we were talking, suddenly, Andrew appeared. He was actually heading toward us, but when he realized it was us, he changed course. Instinctively, I waved to him.

The PI paused, and then asked, "Do you know him?"

Sudden embarrassment washed over me. Oh God, I thought, How silly and childish will I look if I say that's my boyfriend?

I heard myself saying, "Yes, he's a lab manager at Cedars-Sinai."  (Important note: he actually is.)

"Oh! Do you collaborate with Cedars-Sinai?"

"Yes, we've got some mice from them in quarantine right now."

I couldn't believe how smoothly I'd managed to save a potentially devastating situation.  (Important note: without lying.  I'm not going to lie at a job interview.  Thank God Andy's a lab manager and not a musician, or I would have looked like a real chump.)

The PI told me at the end of the interview she'd like to offer me the position, so now I'm just waiting on an e-mail from HR.  I should start sometime in late September or early October.  My duties include setting up isolators, giving mice C-sections, doing fecal assays, and monitoring the colony for contamination.  Also, she's going to be sending me to the AALAS National Convention in November!  Woot!  I felt like we really clicked and I can't begin to describe how eager and excited I am to have a real influence on research being done, to contribute to the scientific community, and to feel like my work matters.  This might also be the first step on the road to my getting my Master's degree. 

For more information, here's her old website.

And here's a TED Talk she gave on her work, which I'm sure even the scientifically illiterate among you will agree is fascinating.  AND I'M GOING TO BE A PART OF IT!!

And now, for those who come here for my fiction, here is my latest and greatest work, inspired by the writing prompt, "An ancient evil awakens; a modern evil doesn't like competition."

 A Modern Curse

The door to room 309 opened slowly, casting a soft beam of fluorescent light on its occupants. Mark Horowitz, age 89, lay sleeping on the hospital bed, his heart monitor beeping out a steady tattoo.
The man who entered room 309 was not a doctor, but might have been a patient. He was gaunt and bony. His skin had a grey, waxy appearance. His teeth were too widely spaced and appeared too loose to be healthy; his eyes were rheumy and slightly yellow. His nails were too long. His hair, black, was greasy, thinning. His breath rattled in his chest, and from every pore came a sickly sweet smell that was reminiscent of rotting things. He was not wearing a patient's gown, however. He was wearing a neatly tailored pinstripe suit.

"Hey gramps."

The man in the suit stopped by Mark Horowitz's bed and noticed, for the first time, a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in jeans; his t-shirt was well-worn but clean. He had blond hair held into a stubby mohawk with gel. His chin had a few lightly colored hairs, and it was clear he was attempting, and failing at, a beard. His face was an open, honest one; he looked like a guy who might be on the football team but wasn't the star quarterback. A handsome (if forgettable) fellow.
"Hello," said the man in the pinstripe suit in a gravely voice. This prompted a wet, hacking cough. He grabbed one of the hospital bed's guard rails to steady himself. His hands shook.

The young man didn't even watch. His attention had been diverted to the phone in his hands, where he was playing Candy Crush.

"So you're Pestilence, huh?"

"H-how... did you know?" asked the man in the suit between coughs. Shakily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He offered it to the younger man, but he waved it away.

"I've heard about you, from Famine. I'm Disconnection. But they all call me Dis."

"A pleasure," gasped Pestilence, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Yeah, yeah. Sorry you wasted your time but he's going to be okay."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mark." Disconnection twisted in the chair so that his legs dangled over the armrest. He tilted back his head, holding his phone over his face. The screen illuminated his blond goatee, or what was supposed to be a goatee. His fingers texted rapidly as he spoke. "The doctors are going to get him a liver transplant so the cirrhosis is probably not going to get him. Sorry to disappoint you."

"They're curing him?" asked Pestilence, dumbfounded. "But... the pneumonia..."

"Antibiotics. Hey, do you have FaceBook?"

Pestilence looked down at Mark. He didn't look 89. He looked much younger, and his face was peaceful.

Pestilence looked up at Dis. "But where are his grandkids? They weren't vaccinated. They're supposed to be here, catching the measles."

"Sorry bro. They're not coming. Aiden's got a raid and Mackenzie is a mod for Advice Animals, so they're sort of busy."

"But he's dying."

"No he's not. Do you see Death here? Nope. Because the doctors took care of it. Modern medicine, man. It's something else. Hey, do you play Candy Crush?"

Pestilence shook his head. "I don't have a cell phone."

Dis looked up briefly in surprise. "For real? Oh man. Well... uh, good for you, I guess."

Pestilence reached out and touched Mark's face. His brow furrowed in his sleep, and the heart monitor began beeping more rapidly. In an instant, the door flew open and a nurse rushed in. She pushed Pestilence out of the way without a second thought and bent over Mark to check on him.

Mark's eyes fluttered open. "Sheila?" he gasped.

"You're okay," said the nurse, patting his chest. "It's just me. You're just fine. We're taking good care of you."

"Where's Sheila?"

"She went home, Mr. Horowitz. She'll be back first thing tomorrow, though, I'm sure."

Mark reached up weakly. "Could you stay with me?"

Disconnection grinned at Pestilence and wiggled his eyebrows. The nurse's pager began beeping. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked it, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Horowitz. I'm a bit busy right now, but I'll come back shortly." She began texting on her phone, and walked out of the room with her eyes focused on the screen.

Pestilence and Disconnection looked at each other.

"It's incredible, isn't it? People." Disconnection paused to take a selfie. "You bring them war, famine, floods, plagues, whatever, and somehow, they always find the silver lining. They unite and they grow stronger. They feed off each other. But then, you give them access to information, and it all falls apart. Knowledge is power, and power is corrupting. Humans love information, and they love stimulation. They crave amusement. Their natural curiosity is all-consuming, and they poison themselves with it. Give them access to the media, to each other, and everything good about them evaporates in a cloud of liking and sharing and inflating their sorry little egos for some virtual validation. You shrink their world, and you shrink their very souls. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it easy?"

Pestilence took a few shaky steps back. "You... you're a monster. That's not how we do this. That's not how we do any of this! We're supposed to cause them hardship, not... not turn them against each other!"

Disconnection stood, his face illuminated by the screen of his phone, his grin manic in the electronic glow. "Wanna know a secret?" he whispered.

Pestilence shook his head, rooted to the ground, unable to run. Disconnection took a few steps toward him, his phone beeping softly over Mark's heart monitor, and spoke anyway.

"...I'm really good at Flappy Bird."

The Fifth Horseman has spoken.


  1. I read this in the car on my cell phone with my parents sitting next to me.

  2. Bad? Apropos? Hey, I was entertained. That's what matters, right?

    1. Sorry. My reply was ridiculously vague. But I don't type much on my phone. My point was that you'd written a story about how technology was making people more distant and I read it on my phone while my parents were next to me. So I was noting the irony of the situation and the aptness of your story. If my previous response didn't make sense, I hope that that does. And again, huge congrats. You deserve it.

      I don't know if I've ever been so proud that one of my friends is going to be doing fecal assays. ;-)

  3. Big congrats, btw. I should have said that first.