The Train

I was sitting in the end seat of a different carriage in a different train at a different time of day than usual. I had opened my laptop and had a blur of data scrolling up the screen.
The doors from the station closed as the doors from the next carriage opened, and a young couple strode through, and sat quickly together in the two seats next to me, leaving one seat free. I did not look up.
She sighed heavily. The train sped up as it left the station. The young man jumped to his feet, crossed the carriage to the vacant seats opposite and sat there, swinging his feet up next to him so he could turn and look out the window. His hair was light brown and freshly cut in a strict mullet. A fresh crop of pimples shone on his forehead. I pretended I hadn’t looked up.
She sighed again and I could sense the tears behind the noise. Her head lowered and I felt the strain with which she was stopping herself from weeping. I typed a few keys and faked absorption in the numbers dancing before me, keeping my head down.
The train pulled into the next station and a few more passengers entered the space. None of them sat, most wandering off into the main carriage. The girl jumped to her feet and paced between the doors as if wanting to flee but unable to do so, as if invisibly tethered to the boy.
She sat again, sighed and clasped her hands in her lap. “I didn’t want this.” She said, “It’s not my fault”. “Whatever”, he answered, and I felt a rush of hate for him and that word, as careless and unfeeling as they both were.
The cold winter air contracted as the train aircon took over. He shifted on the seat and glanced at her. She kept her head down, her long dark hair hiding her face. He looked out the window again. She suddenly leaned towards me and I realised she was looking at the screen, reading the time in the menubar.
At the next stop, they quickly rose and exited, her ahead of him. I watched them on the platform as she placed one hand on her rounded belly and extended the other to him. To his credit, he took it and put his arm around her.
I hope the termination was quick and that she would recover quickly. I also hoped her future life would be without this particular boy.

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I am an AWSM psychic

Nostradamus has nothing on me.

Following is a collection of my bestest predictions, as tweeted this morning under the #notNostradamus hashtag.

Someone will says something slightly offensive and the media will blow it out of all proportion.

Today Tonight and ACA will have matching stories in the same week involving someone who runs away and slams a door.

Someone in the Opposition party will have a contrary view to someone in government.

This year, somewhere in the first world, a child will don a superhero suit and break a bone leaping off the garage roof.

Next year, at least one cat owner will get badly scratched trying to medicate their pet.

Next month, at dawn, a book reader will turn the light off and, realising it is still too dark, will turn it on again.

n 2012, at least one mother of teenagers will open the fridge and discover no leftovers and an empty milk carton.

In 2012, at least one showerer will don glasses to read whether the bottle in hand is shampoo or conditioner.

Next year, when school starts, a whole bunch of excited five year olds will put their new shoes on the wrong feet.

Within the next few months, in Canberra, a federal minister will have a microphone invade their personal space.

In the not-to-distant future, on a Monday, Tony Jones will say “I’ll take that as a comment.”

Posted in Australia, Family, Politics, Science | 2 Comments

Sarah – a rebel with paws

Sarah was a beautiful German shorthaired pointer, who came to us from a broken home. What we weren’t told was that she broke it.

Her mother, Mia, was an exceptionally well trained hunting dog, responding to hundreds of verbal and hand-signaled commands. She would sit still as a statue, looking at a piece of cheese placed on top of her fore paw, and not eat it until commanded to do so.  We would watch her, amazed, while behind our backs Sarah would meanwhile have climbed onto the table and  eaten the rest of the cheese block.

Mia and the rest of the hunting dogs were keep in a large dog run outside, with plenty of room but little people contact. Sarah lived there too, except she managed to escape numerous times to roam the countryside, terrorizing the neighbourhood chickens. Her owner finally gave up and locked her in a store room inside the house. My husband found her there and berated the owner, saying that this was no way to treat a working dog. The owner handed her over, saying “You don’t like it, you take her then.”

So Sarah came to live with us. At first she sat at our feet, shaking like a wet kitten. Eventually, she rubbed my legs, climbed onto my lap, curled into a ball and purred. This was a dog, not cat, I reminded myself.

Soon she relaxed a bit and explored her new semi-suburban home, taking less than a week to escape the yard by climbing onto the dog kennel and jumping the back fence. We moved the kennel. She jumped the verandah railing. We extended the height with chicken-wire. The next escape route was harder to trace but eventually a brush turkey strayed too close to the house and she couldn’t resist the chase even though we were watching. She bolted straight at the wrought iron railing on the front porch and shot straight through it with a quick shoulder then hip wiggle. I measured – no way should she have been able to fit that gap. We chicken-wired the rails, even those areas two metres above the ground.

The next attempt was amazing. [I will post a photo when I find and scan it]. She attempted to climb a wire fence, hooking her paws through the wire and inching her way to the top before falling back.

She did not forget her hunting background. I walked her often along the bush fire trails near our house. If unleashed, she would chase ‘roos unsuccessfully; they would bound effortlessly over her head with 3 metres clearance and disappear into the eucalypt haze. She would sit motionless in the scrub, waiting for another.  Her liver and white colouring made her impossible to see and she would not come when called. The leash stayed on.

One day, as we were crossing a little creek, a galah flew down and landed without fear a metre away. Sarah immediately pounced, grabbed, crunched and stood there proudly, with the dead bird’s beautiful pink and white wings trailing to the ground from either side of her mouth. I was horrified, even more so when I could not get her to let go of the bird. I did not know the command for release (which turned out to be “Release”….duh).  Sarah would not obey all the hunting commands anyway, not like her mother. The thought of walking back through the suburb with the glassy-eyed feathered carcase still lodged in the dog’s mouth was terrifying.

Eventually, risking loss of fingers and bird mite infestation, I wrestled it from her mouth and threw it into the dense undergrowth. On the way home, we passed a forlorn, hand-drawn sign on the side of the road “LOST. Pet Galah. Please Phone” followed by the phone number. I should have known; a wild bird would be more careful near dogs and people. I never rang the number. It was better that they think their pet is out there somewhere, enjoying a long and happy life in the bush.

Posted in Animals, Australia, Family | Leave a comment

There are builders nextdoor.

I’m on leave and there are builders on the once vacant lot next door.

Most builders work 7am to 3pm, so if you’re at work and they’re at home, it’s no big deal. However, I’ve been at home for a bit and the presence of the crew next door are starting to impact. In fact, I have my own personal symphony going on here.

Firstly, I have a dog. No one told Lacey she was a small English Cocker spaniel: she fancies herself more of a perimeter guard-defense-force type of rottweiler (see what I did there?). One of the construction workers only has to speak near the adjoining fence and she’ll take his ear off with acoustic ammunition.

Secondly, it’s a two storey construction necessitating a  forklift-on-a truck to lift pallets of building materials. For a suburban block you would think a bull horn to talk from the ground to the first storey wouldn’t be necessary. Nor is it, when the forklift operator appears to have one installed in his throat. I think he may be be in the running for the local town crier. Or maybe he thinks the bricklayers are deaf. Or he’s trying to out-volume Lacey. I’d label him a mezzanine-tenor.

Thirdly, these builders may be a bit on the lazy side. Evidently actually carrying building materials downstairs is far to slow; more effective is to drop brick offcuts and bits of four-B-two onto a piece of galvanized tin lying over a concrete pit. Think enormous bass drum, and you’ll get my drift.

Lastly, they have half of the cast of some amateur production of Tosca or Le Boheme on the crew with a slew of wannabe Carusos and Pavarottis practicing off pitch, syncopating with their nail guns and cement mixers.

I can’t wait to get back to work for some piece and quiet.

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Pain – does it measure up?

In medical research, we have a problem with studying physical pain. It is difficult to find a way of measuring it that is not subjective.

How do we measure how people feel pain? The most common way is by asking them. “Rate the pain you are feeling on a scale of 0 to 10, with 1 being no pain and 10 being severe pain or the worst pain you can imagine.” If asked to do this on a numbered line, it is called a visual analog scale or a VAS.

Unfortunately, our ability to rate pain is dependent on the pain we or those close to us have already felt, our “pain history” if you like. If we have had a devastating accident, given birth, been burnt badly or suffer a chronic illness, the pain scale will contract towards the low end accordingly (rather than inventing an 11 or 12, or, if it’s really bad, 1000).

As well as this problem of pain subjectivity, this fluidity of measurement introduces a second problem of a scale being ordinal but non-numerical, meaning a scale that is not really numbers, but just ordered categories named after numbers. Even though we have just said “0 to 10”, we may have just a legitimately said “Rate pain as none (=0), slight (=1), mild (=2), moderate (=3), severe (=4), very severe (=5), enormous (=6), kick-arse (=7), unbearable (=8), kill-me-now (=9) or worse than you could ever imagine (=10)”.

When working with these “numbers” we have to remember that they are not really numbers but names. We can’t manipulate these numbers the way we usually do. For example, 9 – 2 = 7 here would mean “If you take a kill-me-now pain level and drop two units, you have a kick-arse pain level”. The problem is the unit, or the distance between 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4 etc. We cannot define it, it doesn’t actually exist and it is not the same between each level as we have defined them nor the same between persons. The question “How much more pain would I have to feel before my pain was no longer severe and became very severe?” is unanswerable.

While doing my honours project in biochemistry at university, I was carefully rounding the ends of some glass rods using a blue Bunsen burner flame. I finished one end of a dozen or so, and then started to work on the other ends of the rods. Lapsing in concentration for a second, I picked up the rod I had just done, by the red hot end. The pain was so enormous that I could feel throbbing a foot away in a sphere around my hand*. I could not speak and it was with great effort that I did not scream, though I may have gasped a few particularly noxious words out loud. I had two fingers and a thumb in ice for a full two hours before I could bear these second degree burns without the numbing cold.

That is my pain level 9. On a personal conversational pain scale (of my own invention), this would be wild constant shrieking inside my head. And I only burnt the tips of two fingers and the thumb of one hand. I can imagine a 10 would be doing this to a greater skin surface area. It is interesting to note that third degree burns give less pain than second degree because the nerve endings are destroyed except at the margins, where the burns are not as deep. Severe burn patients are often kept in a coma for good reason.

In comparison, muscle pain 24 hours after finishing a marathon was a 3 (quiet talk, with shouting outburst of protest on movement or attempts to walk down stairs). Giving birth with no pain relief was a 5 (The pain is bad but it is cyclic and predictable, like having a one-sided conversation). Having a fallopian tube explode due to an ectopic pregnancy was a 6 (constant loud talking, bit panicky). A full-blown head-splitting migraine could reach an 8 (constant frightened screaming, no breaths).

We would like to do be able to measure the effects of new  treatments on osteoarthritis pain. Unfortunately, the error of pain measurement is as great or greater than any difference we are able to detect. So far, no physical measurement (range of motion, nervous potential, functional abilities) can replicate how we “feel”.

I would be interested in how you rate your pain on the above scale and whether you think burns cause the worst pain. Feel free to comment.

* planning another post about this – awareness of physical self.

Posted in Family, Health, Science | 1 Comment

Correspondence with Barry O’Farrell on #protectresearch

Dear Barry O’Farrell MP,

Thank you so much for your lovely letter. It is nice to know that the State Government is thinking of each and every NSW citizen paid by the government.  I did not understand all of it, but got the message that you think public service is underappreciated and needs its levels of integrity, impartiality, ability, accountability and leadership increased. I’m sure a Public Service Commission (PSC) will help.

As to you wanting to end to the culture of political blame and scape-goating, that’s a really noble desire and I hope you are able to begin to do this soon.

However, your NSW PSC will be useless to me as I am only paid through the NSW public service as a vehicle and am actually funded federally by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC).

As it appears the NH&MRC is about to have its budget slashed, I will probably be out of a job next year and hence either collecting unemployment benefits or moving overseas to work.

Or maybe you will need a Science Advisor on your new PSC? I will probably be available…

I have put more information about why we need to keep the NH&MRC budget intact on my blog here.

Good luck with the election. If and when you win, please increase the budget to the NSW Office for Science and Medical Research and fund some of us who do not get NH&MRC project grants for 2012.

I will make my decision closer to the election based on ANY state politician who comments on whether NSW will lose medical researchers due to NH&MRC budget cuts.

Finally, let me quote a NSW government website to you (

“Science and medical research play a vital role in the continued growth and better health of our community, environment and economy. From increased life expectancy and new treatments for disease, to technologies that change the way we live and work, to addressing environmental challenges – scientific research and the knowledge it generates affects us all.

The NSW Office for Science and Medical Research is part of Industry & Investment NSW and works with the scientific, health and medical research communities, the higher education sector and business to promote growth and innovation to achieve better economic, health and environmental outcomes for the people of NSW.

Its mission is to enhance research capacity within NSW and ensure that the research sector plays a key support role in implementing major policy objectives of the Government, outlined under the NSW State Plan, the Knowledge Statement (pdf), the Tertiary Education Plan (pdf) and the NSW Business Sector Growth Plan (pdf).

Major objectives are to:

  • build the State’s knowledge base to respond to challenges and opportunities within the research sector
  • ensure that the State’s R&D capabilities underpin State Plan priorities and implement the principles contained in the Knowledge Statement, the Tertiary Education Plan and the NSW Business Sector Growth Plan
  • promote national and international collaborations in science and medical research in NSW to attract increased investment to NSW
  • create strong linkages between the higher education sector, business and the community
  • optimise the effectiveness of the NSW Government’s investment in science and medical research and
  • identify new areas of science and medical research of relevance to NSW “

Will a NSW government led by you also have these objectives?

Yours sincerely,

Update – a reply via Twitter:

@barryofarrell (at 3:12pm, 24 Mar) “I’ve been in the Hunter & away from my email. We’ve announced a boost & renewed focus On medical research$20m_boost_medical_+research_140211.html

Me:  “Thx for your reply. Is that $20M boost over 10 years or all for this year? Not clear on website.”

@barryofarrell “over 4 years – ie extra $5 m each year”.

PS. If the rumours are true, the NH&MRC cuts will be $400M over 3 years. The $20M above was requested for infrastructure costs of the major NSW research institutes (Garvan, Kolling, etc), money that is not (and cannot) be included in project grant budgets. We need the federal government to NOT cut the NH&MRC budget so there are researchers left to make use of said infrastructure.

Posted in Australia, Health, Politics, Science | 2 Comments


I would like to do a post on this hashtag, #protectresearch, without sounding needy, whining and desperate but I’m not sure I can manage that. I’ll do my best.

I have been employed doing medical research continuously without a break for more than 25 years. Let’s just not go into how many more, shall we?

During that time, I have never had a contract that lasted longer than three years, yet have managed to stay in employment at the same place for all that time. When project money from the government or a philanthropic organization was not forthcoming, I used industry funds, under a commercial contract. This is a second choice because the control over the final resting place of the results obtained is the company’s, not the researchers’. It could end up as a publication but is equally likely to become a dusty report hidden in a filing cabinet at corporate headquarters, never to see the light of day.

My current grant, on treatment of tendon degeneration, finishes at the end of this year. There are a number of new project grants submitted to the National Health and Medical Research Committee (NH&MRC) from our laboratories for 2012 – 2014 and I hope they appeal to the review panels as much as they do to us. Regardless, the pot of money available will only fund, on average,  one in five of the project grants submitted from all over Australia. In a nutshell, I may not be employed after this year even if I spend more time writing grants and other requests for money (over and above the 10 weeks I have already spent this year).

Cutting the NH&MRC budget might sound fairly innocuous to some people. I know, it’s bothersome, so here are ten reasons why you should not be worried.

1) You are not employed by the healthcare industry or the medical faculty of a university;

2) You do not care for an invalid or elderly person;

3) You are completely healthy, have no close family members with a congenital abnormality, cancer, pulmonary disease, arthritis, asthma or diabetes and are happy with the treatments for disease we currently have available right now;

4) You are not a parent or if you keep your children wrapped in cotton wool and never allow them to wear superhero costumes or ride bikes;

5) You are not planning on having any more children, especially if you are over 35;

6) You don’t care how the government prioritizes money for health because there is no data to support any particular area of health concern;

7) You do not smoke, are not overweight, have perfect vision, good bone density, high arches and drink a maximum of one glass of alcohol per day;

8) You have never sustained an joint injury playing any sport and hence are not likely to get secondary osteoarthritis (like 100% of professional basketball players will within 5 years of retiring);

9) You believe you will not be in an accident (bike, car, plane, sport) or otherwise sustain any injury (sport, play, slip over, poke your eye out with a branch, tear your rotator cuff walking the dog (hey, I did…), cut your finger with a dirty knife etc);

10)You are not ageing (and good luck with that one).

Feel free to add to my list of reasons not to care about money being spent on medical research.

Do remember, we have some of the best and most successful researchers in the world, right here in Australia, right now, relying on these funds.

If you are concerned, please lobby your local member of the Federal government to oppose these cuts to the NH&MRC budget. There is more information here.

Posted in Australia, Family, Health, Politics, Science | 2 Comments

Thank you for caring for our country

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan cannot fail to impact us if we have any humanity.

We’ve seen a plethora of images of the devastation in Japan. Some of them are heart-rending and some of them are incomprehensible in their awesomeness and leave no emotional impact because we just overload.

We watch people shiver as they queue for food and we feel cold and hungry. We watch dramatic frantic rooftop rescues (as we did with our own floods) and feel elated. We see the ecstatic faces of drenched and filthy rescuers as they find another survivor and laugh with them. We see an abandoned pet dog place his paw on another prone dog and weep because it’s a small caring gesture in a sea of devastation and we wish we could be there to do the same. Sixteen thousand lost and missing is too enormous, too weighty and it short-circuits our hearts.

Most of us are feeling a bit stretched now on the donating front, after the last three months of disasters in our region alone. But we can still send RUOK messages to all those who may be in any way affected. An extra email costs us nothing but a little time, does not  move us physically out of our comfort zone and may give us an emotional release for some of the burden of caring.

I emailed an abstract to an organizer of a scientific meeting in Japan, whom I have never personally met, with a short note saying I was still planning on attending the meeting in October and asking if he and his family were okay. He replied, in part, “Thank you for sending your abstract and caring for our country. As you know, we had a terrible disaster that we’ve never experienced. However, I believe our country will be able to recover from the tragedy.

Stoic, indeed.

I shall now email every other Japanese researcher I have met whose address I have and ask RUOK. It’s the very least we can do.

Update 1 (19 May): Two more replies from Japan have arrived, both from areas in the south unaffected directly by recent events. So far, everyone is fine.

Update 2 (20 May): Yet another two replies arrived yesterday, one form the very north and one from the very south; everyone is healthy, not in danger and not personally impacted (except by some power shortages).

Posted in Asia, Health, Politics | Leave a comment

EXTRA! EXTRA! How do you read all about it?

No judgement calls here, just presenting the facts. And a pie chart.

Let’s imagine two fairly intelligent people who share a house. Let’s call them R1 and R2 ( to be totally non-ageist and non-sexist). Both these people like to keep up with world news, domestic affairs and politics, R1 leans towards science, literature and technology, R2 towards sport, gardening  and …well, more sport. Neither  is much interested in celebrities or gossip.

Here is the breakfast table this morning.

Immediately some other differences become apparent. R1 drinks coffee from a freebie mug; R2 drinks tea from a very nice cup and saucer. More obviously, perhaps, R1 reads news from electronic devices (which may or may not be fruit-branded) and R2 reads ALL the Sunday newspapers in their print form. Another obvious difference is that R1 seems to be multitasking and doing something other than ingesting news, maybe writing a manuscript, a grant or some other work-related task. R1 may or may not also be checking email, playing Words with Friends, tweeting and writing a blog post. On the fruit-branded phone (not in shot because it is being used to take the photo), R1 may also be messaging and sharing photos with immediate relatives. R2 is reading.

Here are some other differences.

Table space usage

Space required: R2 > R1.

Electricity required: R1 > R2 (But only just: R2 requires the light on; R1 doesn’t).

Recycling required at the end of the day: R2 > R1.

Distraction potential from information at hand: R1 > R2.

Need to wear a cardigan because it’s getting a bit chilly R2 > R1 (larger electronic device is generating quite a bit of warmth).

Amount of information available R2 = finite; R1 = virtually infinite

Time required to read said information R2 = 3 hours; R1 = whatever allocated, often too much.

Noise levels generated R1 > R2 (Stupid cooling fan).

Ability to read information outside areas of interest: R2 = R1 (proportionally speaking)

Ability to wrap vegetable peelings: R2 >>> R1

Weight of stuff to move to clear table R1 > R2 (but only just).

Ability to keep being informed in a blackout: R1 > R2. (R1 total of 3 + 10 + 11 = 24 hours worth of battery life; R2 until dark so 12 hours)

Potential for black print grubbiness on drawer handles, light switches and banister rails R2 >>> R1

Have I covered everything?

PS: R1 just read this blog to R2. R2 added…

Amount of information on participants: R1 >> R2

Amount of time wasting going on: R1 >> R2

Posted in Family, Science, Statistics | 2 Comments

Micro Art #2 Little artery

This is a very unusual image of a piece of synovium (the lining of the knee joint) cut through a blood vessel crossing the width of the section. It is stained with haematoxlin and eosin (the nuclei of the cells are purple) and was taken at x100 magnification.

We know that it is an arteriole (little artery) because it has a thickened wall. There are two arterioles in cross section in the top righthand corner of the image. For comparison, the double row of purple cells below the vessel is the cross section of a little vein. It has no thickened wall to maintain its shape so it has flattened so you can barely see the space within it. The little pink red blood cells (they have no nucleus) within the vessel allow us to gain some perspective – they are 8 micrometers across, so the blood vessel has a diameter of about 30 micrometers or 0.03 millimetres.

We have cut thousands of sections of this type of tissue and this was the only time we ever managed to cut a blood vessel like this.

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