Friday, April 25, 2014

Respect the Chickens

It's very nice and fluffy to be thinking about which vet schools I might apply to, but there's some poultry nutrition research projects to be conducted between now and then.

Because of my accelerated time line (a master's degree in 14-16 months is not impossible but it will be damned hard work), we need to start our first experiment in May, the second in late June.

So the first group of 120 chicks, just 1 day old, will be arriving in about two and a half weeks.

Animal experiments are much more highly regulated than they used to be, and I think that's a Good Thing. Not only do we need to consider the conditions in which they will be raised, both in the lab and in production settings, but we need to treat the animals as humanely as possible, even up to that final step, euthanasia. Sacrifice. Some of the chickens are going to be killed so that we can collect specific samples from their innards.

Well, let's be honest--all the chickens will be killed. But only some of them by us.

Perhaps you didn't know, but the chicken meat you buy in the store, no matter what form it is in, comes from strains of chickens known as broilers. There are other strains, layers, that produce eggs. These different strains have been exquisitely manipulated (through the usual indirect selection processes, not via direct genetic modification) to perform these functions. Broilers are typically slaughtered and turned into packaged products at 42 days of age. Yep--6 weeks old.

(Don't feel bad for the chickens. Cows and dogs have been equally, heavily modified by human needs and whims.)

At the end of each of our experiments, the chickens that we don't sacrifice ourselves for analysis will be sold to local poultry processors. I was surprised to learn today that there is quite some competition amongst the processors to purchase the remaining birds--but after all, they lived a pretty good life, were monitored daily, were fed carefully crafted diets designed to maximize their performance (which in the case of broilers is to grow very large breasts) and that turns into profit for the processors.

I am not a vegetarian. I have flirted with it on and off for years, and in fact I prepare vegetarian meals a couple of times a week, mainly because I quite like tofu and steamed veg and beans and rice and other yummy and nutritious things, and those things are rather cheap and easy to prepare (how hard is it to boil up a pot of beans?). And while I no longer eat beef, I regularly eat chicken and pork and eggs.

I asked my advisor if she is a vegetarian, given that she's been conducting poultry nutrition experiments for 20 years. She laughed and said, no, not at all! She eats eggs and chicken both.

There are certainly moral arguments for not eating animals. There are also compelling arguments for embracing our core omnivore--that's the condition that our biochemistry evolved to support.

I don't want to lose sight of the purpose of the experiments, nor lose sight of the fact that we are using these organisms for a purpose in which they have no say, no influence.

We need to make sure that we do it right. Do it humanely. Do it respectfully.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Selecting a Vet School

The shared online application for all US vet schools opens in early June. The deadline for completing it is 1 October. Successful applicants will start their studies in Fall 2015. It's a laborious process all around--for the applicants, for the admissions committees of the schools. Check out the VMCAS website to get an idea...

There is a handful of Canadian, UK, and European universities whose vet programs have been accredited by the AVMA, so degrees earned at those schools are acceptable for use here in the US (assuming you pass your board exam). These schools also use the VMCAS application. Not all of them are open to US applicants, however. Utrecht, for example, requires fluency in Dutch. They will accept US applicants but how many of those are going to be fluent in Dutch?

Out of the 29 vet schools in the US plus the dozen or so international schools, I certainly seem to have a lot of choices. When I go through the VMCAS process, I have to specify which schools I want to send the application information to. Of course there is a cost for each one you select (around $100). And some schools have supplemental application materials that you have to complete by the same deadline. So you need to have made some decisions before you begin the application process.

It should be no surprise to you to learn that not all programs are the same. The "glamour" of Big Name U on your diploma is not really all that important once you get into the workplace. Paying more doesn't mean you get more.

I've been tossing around some criteria in my head for some time that I could use to select schools at which I think I could be happy and successful. Some things are straightforward: tuition, class size, how many seats go to residents versus non-residents, how many applications total are received and how many offers are made (potential success rate). Others are less obvious: location. Others are subjective: curriculum, or rather, do I get excited about the possibilities when I read through a school's DVM curriculum? Is the school's website informative and useful?

Being the anal type, I made a spread sheet. Color coded, ranked, calculated success percentages, costs of living in that particular location, notes on curriculum.

I eliminated quite a few schools on the basis of tuition (Minnesota charges more than $54,000 per year to out-of-state students), class size (more than 250 enter each year at Purdue), and location (I wouldn't live or go to school in Florida, Alabama, or Mississippi if you gave me a free ride on tuition and a million dollars).

Other schools that looked good with respect to class size or tuition dropped in my ranking because their curriculum wasn't inspiring me. It's kind of hard to evaluate that right now--I'm still not sure what kind of vet I want to be. But believe me, once you start putting those things side-by-side, differences do become obvious.

I've managed to whittle my short list down to six schools. I'd like to narrow that further to just four by the time I begin the VMCAS.

You'll notice that residency was not one of my criteria. It originally was, of course, but I'm not entirely sure what state I am a legal resident of. Certainly not Oregon. But the vet schools in the two states concerned fell to the bottom of my ranking so it became a moot point.

I am hoping that you, my five loyal readers, might be able to provide me some new insights based on personal knowledge of the schools or at least the geographic areas of the schools on my short list.

In no order, they are: OSU, University of Wisconsin, Cornell, Tufts, North Carolina State, and University of Illinois. All over the map, literally, in terms of location and program.

Friday, April 18, 2014

That Was Unexpected

I'm sure the vast host of regular readers (all five of you) will recall my posts on the Louis-Black-channeling professor I had last term.

He's a professor in the same department that I am now in. And his lab is next to the lab of my advisor. A face-to-face was inevitable, as you can predict.

But the circumstances--well, all of the labs along this particular corridor have key-entry doors but are alarmed so that you have to enter a code into a keypad after you open the door. I sort of *forgot* the code the first time I tried to enter and set off the alarm.

No, those words don't really do justice to the aural assault that ensued when I failed to enter the proper disarm code. It was early in the morning so I ran to the department office first. The secretary called campus police but they declined to get involved ("fix it yourselves, dumbasses" [a paraphrase, of course]). By the time she and I headed back down to the lab, my advisor and this Louis-Black-channeling professor were standing in the hallway, but the shrieking sirens had stopped.

I could not hesitate--I had to own up to this snafu immediately and with full admission that I had done a very stupid thing.

With the alarm disarmed, we all trooped into the group office space. The L-B-c prof looked hard at me and said, you were in my class last term. I said, Yes, I was. My name is lilspotteddog.

Keep in mind that I had not exchanged a single word with this professor in person, but I had emailed him several times with questions. But like most of us herd-beast humans who like our routines and rituals, I sat in the same seat every day. So he instantly joined name to face.

He asked me what I thought of the course.

Despite my hyperbolic rants here, my thoughts on the course had become...moderated...with time. So I answered him truthfully but professionally. I won't bore you with that. Our conversation spiraled out from there to teaching young people (I carved out my own credibility by letting him know exactly under what conditions I had acquired significant experience with that, since penis-measuring is of great interest to this guy). We commiserated about how young people are ill-prepared to take responsibility for their learning, about how their internet-shoe-buying during class was a real distraction to those around them, etc. He said that he found it difficult to teach the same class year after year to such unmotivated students. Then he said this: But every day, I could look over to you sitting in the same place and see your interest and engagement and I found it inspiring. It helped me to keep going.

Not much in this world strikes me speechless.

All I could think was, this is a nearly perfect example of irony.

Reply Hazy Try Again*

In preparation for my thesis research project that begins in mid-May (Really? Mid-May? Who set that impossible schedule? Oh, I did....), I am learning about the following topics:
  • growth and development of poultry, specifically broilers (those are the ones we eat; the ones that lay eggs are different)
  • design of animal nutrition feeding trials that answer the proposed hypotheses and minimize sources of error
  • statistical analysis of data collected during animal feeding trials
  • humane care of animals used in scientific research, including humane euthanasia methods
  • laboratory techniques for analyzing animal tissue, feed, and excreta (yep, I'll be collecting and analyzing chicken shit)
  • design of experimental diets and formulation of animal rations
  • lipid biochemistry (this is actually fascinating stuff)
Whew. Good thing I am a quick study. I'm learning the new "codes" and plunging deep into the literature. I've bookmarked the university library's links for online access to scintillating journals such as "World's Poultry Science Journal" and "Journal of Nutrition". One of my textbooks is "Scott's Nutrition of the Chicken", 4th edition. Laugh all you must. Work it out of your system now.

Vet school? Still on the agenda. The online application opens in June. Could I end up being a poultry vet, working for some soulless agriconglomocomplex in Iowa? It's possible--the starting salaries are nearly triple what an entry-level clinician makes (the clinician is the vet that looks after your Fluffy and Spot). That takes some of the sting out of the cost of vet school, to be sure.

I learned something the other day that really made me sit back and think: most vets go into clinical work, and by far, the majority of those into clinical work with small animals, because they want to address the health of the individual animal. In contrast, production vets are concerned about the health of the group (flock, herd, etc.), not any one individual in particular. Seems obvious, right? But I had not actually considered this in such explicit terms. Unlike many of my peers, I am apparently comfortable with the herd health concept. This doesn't rule out a clinical career but it suggests that I need to remain as open as possible to these other paths. 


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Damp Butts and Parking Lots

Springtime in Oregon. Everything is bursting open. It’s a botanical orgy out there. It’s been raining off and on for several days--perfect for the new flowers I planted around the house and the grass seed I put down in the back yard. I hope the weather won’t turn out like last year: it stopped raining in early May and didn’t rain again until the fall. I kind of like the rain.

Good thing because I’m going to be spending more time in it.

Some backstory is needed, of course.

After a good bit of hand-wringing, the university announced that a new parking permit policy will go into effect over the summer. Currently, students pay a flat rate, $195 for the three main terms, a bit more to include the summer term. There are specific lots designated for students scattered within and around campus. Parking is a bit of a free-for-all activity and the lots closest to campus fill quickly in the mornings. But there are always plenty of spaces in what you might call the second-tier lots. Third-tier lots are often mostly empty no matter what time of day. I have never had problems finding a parking space. Still, there is a constant whine from students who just can’t seem to find a parking space. The translation is, they can’t find one 100 feet from their classroom five minutes before their class is scheduled to start. Thus I am not sure there was ever a “parking problem” in the first place. There is a laziness problem, to be sure. A lack of planning problem, perhaps (a condition endemic to being 20 years old, I’m afraid).

Nonetheless, the university decided that there was a problem and that as a solution, they will start charging different rates for different lots. You buy a hangtag for rate 2 and you can only park in rate 2 lots. The rate they will charge for the lots closest to the center of campus will be twice the current rate! Way to put a price on that laziness!

I sometimes use the close lots when I come back to campus in the afternoons. I won’t be able to do that anymore, so this new policy will affect me a little. But since I most often park on the edge of campus and ride my bike to class, I will end up saving money since the cost of parking permits for the lots I use will be decreasing under the new system!

One of the minor hazards of riding in the rain is that the butt of my pants stays damp all day long because I can never dry the bike seat off completely. Still, if you dress with some forethought, you can stay warm and mostly dry even when you have to get out in the rain every hour or so (my feet are still loving my new shoes!).

It seems like a pretty good deal to me: I'll save a bit of money and get some healthy exercise. Rain or shine!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Another Ridiculous Rant

This definitely falls in the category of "white man's burden" but I just spent, no, make that wasted, over two hours trying to get my laptop back into working order. 

See, I thought that I'd get smart and install some spiffy bibliography management software to help me manage the growing set of PDFs of published papers on poultry and animal nutrition that I am accumulating. I researched the options, then went to the Apple Store in the campus bookstore yesterday to see what kind of academic discount I could get on the gold standard of such software, EndNote. Unfortunately, I was blinded by the seemingly excellent price of an older version of EndNote--about USD 50, which was in the ballpark of some of the other packages out there. I bought it. I had to fiddle around with the installation since I have a Macbook Air which is solid state with no spinning parts of any kind (like a giant flash drive), which means it has no DVD drive. But I got EndNote installed at last. I spent an hour today getting it set up with a small set of references, enough to test formatting and other functionalies.

All seemed to be going well! My advisor Dr. Ch thought it was quite impressive that I would use software to manage PDF literature files.

Then this evening I decided to get a homework assignment out of the way. I fired up MS Word (I bought the student package of Office 2011 when I got my new laptop)...and Word wouldn't start. The dreaded spinning rainbow pizza, but no Word. 

After several increasingly angry hard shutdowns, I started doing some research on the problem. 

Turns out the seductively priced version of EndNote that I bought is not compatible with MS Office 2011 (the version of the iOS that I am running has also been implicated).

Bitch, you do not mess with my MS Office functions! I blasted that fucking EndNote software into 1 and 0 oblivion.

Word is now working fine. I purchased an upgrade for the EndNote software that is two levels up from my original version--for another USD 100! Suddenly that gold standard bibliography management package is looking gold-plated in cost too. To get it functioning again, I will have to re-install the old version then install the upgrade. But those are tasks for tomorrow as my frustration level is pretty high right now.

Now some of you clever computer types might be shaking your heads and saying, lilspotteddog, lilspotteddog, why are you using that evil MS Office? And I understand, I really do. Microsoft is evil. But I am using it because of compatibility and portability. The blessed trinity of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel are widely used in academia even though most of the operating systems are Apple. I would rather focus on content than fight formatting and version and extension problems with every file sharing event. On top of that, I am a power user of Excel and PowerPoint, which means I can really get a lot out of those programs quickly. And although this is a weak argument, I've been using MS Office for decades now. Wah, I don't want to learn how to use new software unless it does something that the holy trinity does not.

But I feel much better now that I've gotten this little rant off my chest. The rest of my Friday evening will go smoothly now. I'll take a break, go outside and throw tennis balls for the dogs (even Harry, although I roll the ball along the ground no more than 10 feet for him; no catching balls in the air for the old man). Then I'll get that homework assignment done. In Word. As I planned to do hours ago.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Learning a New Language

I developed a valuable skill during my time as a research scientist working on geological projects from all over the world. Within a matter of weeks of starting each new project, within days if pressed, I needed to learn geological formation names, lithologies, depositional environments, georeference points from the present and the past to place the geological events in time and short, a new subvocabulary suited to that project. I call it a subvocabulary because it fit into my existing geoscientific language. I didn't need to relearn how deltas formed, but I did have to learn that there was a delta in this particular basin at this location at this time fed by this river bringing in these kinds of sediments.

This skill was extremely helpful when I was developing introductory training courses at Aramco. I was able to integrate and even expand upon the knowledge of the geological history of the Arabian plate, incorporate that into training materials, and deliver it with some expectation of success to the new geologists.

This kind of learning isn't done in a vacuum. I had colleagues to bounce ideas off of, I was provided or obtained for myself the literature that I needed to learn the framework of each project. But I also developed my own methods for organizing and displaying the information that allowed me to learn a lot of things in a short period of time. It looks like magic but it's really just a lot of hard work.

I'm putting that skill to use again as I learn an entirely new language, that of animal nutrition in general and poultry in particular. A year ago, reading a passage like this would have had my eyes rolling back into my head within seconds:
The increase in the level of PL ALA was accompanied by significant increases in levels of the major n-3 LCPUFA, EFA, DPA, and DHA (all P < 0.001) with the highest level of n-3 LCPUFA observed at the highest level of dietary ALA.
I kept it short to spare you. 

It's just another code, isn't it? I can draw on what I've learned in the past year to break it down thusly: 
LCPUFA or long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, specifically those with a carbon-carbon double bond located 3 links from one end (they are considered "healthy" fatty acids) are synthesized inside our bodies (chickens and humans, for example) from a shorter fatty acid called ALA or alpha-linolenic acid. Neither humans nor chickens can make this shorter precursor molecule; we have to consume it in our diets. The P variable refers to the results of a statistical test of the significance of the amounts of the longer fatty acids that the chickens made in their livers; simply making "more" isn't a robust observation. We have to ask, did the chickens make more than would be predicted from various measures of mean or average or expected performance? In this case, the chickens did make statistically greater amounts of the longer fatty acids when they consumed more of the precursor molecule in their diets.
Is this my fourth language, after English, geology, and French, a distant third? Maybe it is an expansion of a language I already know, one that we could simply call science. 

Either way, I am confronted with a familiar task: organizing a jargon, figuring out its sometimes arcane but hopefully mostly logical rules and standards, and internalizing it so that I can begin to use it.

I'm doing this masters project on a very short timeline, although that too isn't unfamiliar territory. Good thing I have a few magic tricks I can use!

Monday, April 07, 2014

Not Spoiled, No

Harry's been unusually cuddly the past few days. Of course I oblige him. Last night while I was reading a paper for class, I lifted him up into the recliner with me. I arranged a fleece blanket so that he was laying on nice warm fleece and I could flip the long end over and completely cover him. He settled down right away with a big terrier sigh and fell asleep. Dinner, two play games--he'd had a busy evening.

That coveted spot by my side is normally occupied by Mimi. She jumped up in my lap but that was clearly a second-best solution. She was such a squirmy worm, twisting and turning and shoving her butt in my face, that I was relieved when she jumped down and curled up in the dog bed on the sofa across the room.

She proceeded to give me one hell of a stink-eye glare for the next hour! She was seriously pissed. I had to laugh at her histrionic pouting. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Happy Pills

About a month ago I started taking a vitamin D supplement, specifically cholecalciferol which is the form of the vitamin your body would make if you applied sunlight to the raw materials. In other words, taking this particular form of vitamin D provides me with the product of the sunlight step without having access to sunlight. It's a little more complicated than that but since this is not a true science blog, I won't get into it in any more detail than that.

I have been aware for some time of the general medical consensus that many adults are deficient in vitamin D (although there are plenty of experts who say that even if this is true, vitamin D supplementation is unnecessary). My diet contains foods such as salmon and eggs (I eat a lot of eggs) that contain vitamin D, but it is hard to get enough solely through diet.

Vitamin D is a hormone with a critical role in a number of metabolic pathways. It is involved in some immune system activities, for example. It also modulates calcium pathways associated with bone health. It has been used to treat mood disorders (that may also be related to calcium regulation since calcium is important in nerve signaling). This is just the tip of the iceberg for vitamin D.

I just learned today that people who take vitamin D supplements often report increased energy levels. I didn't experience an energy boost, but within two days of starting the supplement, I noticed that my sleep cycles were more stable. I have suffered with severe insomnia for decades. Like many insomniacs, I obsess over this problem, which of course makes it worse. But it also means that I am sensitive to very small changes in my sleep patterns.

I have no problem falling asleep but struggle to remain asleep after the first couple of hours. It doesn't help that I am a very light sleeper. After I started the supplement, I noticed that I was sleeping more soundly for longer periods, and that when (not if) I did wake up, I was able to go back to sleep relatively quickly (I still sometimes lie awake for a couple of hours but those events are becoming less common). I also noticed that I don't feel drowsy during the day. That suggests two things, not exclusive: that the sleep that I am getting is more effective, and that I may in fact be getting a slight energy boost from it.

Please take note that I report my experience only as an anecdote. An anecdote does not prove anything. JimBob's Big Website o' Factoids is stuffed full of far more entertaining stories than mine. That still doesn't make them true.

Therefore I encourage you to learn more by googling sets of terms such as "vitamin D metabolic pathways" and "vitamin D supplementation". There you can find reasonably accessible, peer-reviewed, properly conducted scientific studies on the effects and value of taking additional vitamin D.

But while I have your attention, I'll still make a plug. Since vitamin D is one of the molecules that your body sheds if you consume or manufacture it in excess, it won't hurt you to give it a try. It isn't an expensive supplement. Your bones, brain, and immune system will very likely thank you.