Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Lab Work

Hello! So, although photos of pretty castles and things are more exciting, I should probably explain what I'm doing here in Copenhagen! I summed it up in my intro post, but I'm working at the Centre for Geogenetics, a large genetics group at the University of Copenhagen, with a special focus on ancient DNA. I'm specifically collaborating with Tom Gilbert, who focuses on human evolutionary history and domestication - he heads the Evogenetics group. His students/postdocs work on everything from grape domestication to human disease resistance to the introduction of sheep to Denmark. It's all really cool research, and I love hearing about what other people study here!

Ancient DNA doesn't actually have to be that old to qualify as "ancient" - DNA from something that has only been dead a few weeks is considered ancient, too! When DNA is no longer protected by cells (ie through decay, for example), it's very vulnerable to damage. This can cause breaks in the strand, or even changes in the base pairs (for example, it's common for Cs to end up as As thanks to chemical reactions!) Sunlight, water, and heat can be bad for DNA strands. Over time, the strands break down into smaller and smaller fragments, to the point where they're too short to tell you anything useful. So, when you're working with remains of some kind, remains from dark, dry and cold environments (or from permafrost) are much more likely to have DNA that is still long enough to be sequenced.
This is why, when you're working with ancient DNA, it helps to have a protective environment for it. Mostly, we're protecting our samples from ourselves. DNA from a skin cell or a strand of hair is in much better shape than DNA from ancient remains, and it's easy to "contaminate" our samples with our own DNA. This is a much bigger problem in human research, but can be problematic when you work with other animals, too. When working with ancient DNA, people often wear full body-suits, multiple layers of gloves, face masks, hair nets, and more. Here's how we generally look in our ancient lab at Illinois - it's a little hard to identify people sometimes!

Our lab setup at Illinois is pretty nice - we have an anteroom where we store our suits and get changed, and another room devoted to working with ancient DNA. It has special air filters to keep the air clean, and there are separate spaces for the three main tasks - drilling bone (to powder it up), extracting DNA (to get rid of all the other junk in the bone powder), and amplifying (to make more copies of the DNA). Here you can see all three of the stations (Thanks to Amanda, my labmate and skilled photographer!).

The labs here in Copenhagen are on another level completely. First, they have separate labs for human and animal/plant DNA. Second, the labs are not just one room but several - the door into the lab opens onto this hallway, with a long row of freezers. From there, depending on what stage of the process you're in, you go to different rooms. There's a room for drilling, as well as two separate rooms each for extractions and amplifications. Each room is outfitted with all the equipment you need, so you can work in your own space without worrying about getting in someone else's way. The room at the end of the hallway above is an amplification prep room, and the next picture is of the drilling room.
The white walls and obsessive focus on cleanliness (we bleach everything we use and there are UV lights that are turned on at night to help reduce contamination risks) makes it a little hard to work long hours in the lab. I think I'd go a little crazy without the radio - there's one in each room. I've found Europop to be a great motivator! But also, there are some nice places to hang out in right by the lab. When I have to wait for something to finish, it's nice to walk around in the Botanical Garden right by the lab or in the King's Garden across the street. Between the beautiful weather and the pretty greenery, it's a nice break from the ancient lab.

And my favorite foodie market, Torvehallerne, is only 5 minutes away! I think it's going to be hard to *not* get lunch from that pizza place every day, especially when it's so close. Luckily, there are lots of other foodie goodies to distract me. :) Next time, I hope to have some more sightseeing photos for you!

Thursday, July 17, 2014


It's been a crazy week so far! I hit the ground running in terms of research, so I've been in the ancient lab every day this week since Sunday. I have a lot to do, research-wise, but unfortunately the ancient lab is packed this week so I've just been fitting in time where I can. All lab scheduling is done via Google Calendar, and this is what this week looks like:

So my weekend will be spent in lab. It's not so bad - I'm excited to get started! Most of this week I've been training with Nathan, Hannes, and Inge on all of their protocols to be able to process my samples. After today, I will be trained on pretty much everything in the ancient lab and then my schedule is my own. I'm hoping to get a lot done this weekend - my goal is to front-load my work so I can spend my last few days enjoying the city.

Yesterday, though, I decided to take the afternoon off. There was no room on the calendar for me anyway, and it was a beautiful day outside! Because Denmark is rainy for most of the year, it's said that when the weather is nice everyone just takes off from work. I can see why! After three days of dreary drizzle-y weather, the sunshine and cool breeze was fantastic. I decided to go visit Christiansborg Castle, which is where the royal family still hosts most of their events.
On my way there, I found the shopping district! On my walks to lab every day, the streets and sidewalks are fairly empty, so I was surprised to see such big crowds of people. This is definitely the tourist area of town - most things are in English and there are people with cameras everywhere. Instead of heading to the castle directly, I wandered around the area first. There were lots of really neat buildings - I especially liked this church, with the copper spire. As it turns out, it's no longer a church, but has been converted into a contemporary art museum.

The castle is on its own little island, surrounded by these canals. There are canal tours that take you around the city - maybe I'll go on one one of these days!

The main attraction of the castle is the Reception Rooms - they are gorgeous. The rooms are still used for meetings, dinners and the annual New Year's Eve gala. I was really impressed by the beauty of the rooms and the level of detail, down to the mosaics in the walls and the carvings on the ceilings.

The main event, though, are these tapestries. They were made as a gift for the current Danish queen's fiftieth birthday, and were hung in the Great Hall in 2000. There are seventeen in all, and they illustrate the history of Denmark from the viking age to the present. They're incredibly intricate, but I think the part that's most astounding is the color. Here's an analogy for you: if traditional tapestries have 256 colors, these have millions. I could have stayed in that room for hours, just looking at all of the tapestries - there are huge coffee-table books that are dedicated to explaining every part of every tapestry.

And of course, we can't forget the throne room!
I also visited the ruins below the castle - there have been multiple iterations of the Christiansborg Castle, and this current iteration was built on the ruins of two previous castles. It was cool seeing how the style of the buildings changed over time, and you could see the old walls underneath the castle floor.

Christiansborg also has a high tower, and you can ride an elevator up to the top to see a great view of the city. I took lots of pictures up here, too.
I would say that my first (half-) day of sightseeing was a great success! Hopefully, the short break will be enough to keep me going through a weekend of work.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Adventures in Copenhagen

Hello! Although this blog originally began as a travel journal of sorts for my semester abroad in Japan, I thought I'd expand it to include my month-long research trip to Copenhagen. Here's a bit of background!

The Centre for Geogenetics is a world-renowned ancient DNA facility, and a ton of high-profile research papers dealing with ancient samples have come out of the lab. Here's an example, with a quote from the head of CGG, Eske Willerslev. CGG is home to multiple "research groups", each with a different focus. Thanks to my advisor's collaborations with Eske, I've gotten the opportunity to work with some ancient Siberian dogs, as well as learn some new techniques and get to see another ancient lab. I arrived on July 12th (ie yesterday), and will be living here until August 12th. In that time, I have a lot of research to do, but I hope to balance it with plenty of sightseeing. :)
My arrival was pretty uneventful - I flew to Copenhagen via Chicago and London. The total trip took about 17 hours, including a few long layovers. I did see something neat at the Chicago airport, though - pictures from IGB! The Institute for Genomic Biology is where the ancient lab is at the University of Illinois. There are a lot of really powerful microscopes at IGB, and so they made a gallery of some of the cool images that come out of the microscopy labs.

Saturday I mostly spent settling in - after finding my hotel, it was already 4 pm. It's an extended stay hotel, and they serve breakfast 7 days a week and dinner on weeknights. As much as I'd like to cook, it's so expensive to live in Copenhagen I figured that letting someone else handle my meals wouldn't be a bad idea. It's a little older, but really not bad. I have wi-fi, a hot shower and big windows, so I can't complain! My window overlooks a large courtyard with a lot of other apartments and hotel rooms - it feels like I'm an observer of a lot of other peoples' lives, which is an interesting feeling. There's no air conditioning, but that's really common in Denmark. So far, the temperature hasn't been above the mid-seventies, and it's supposed to stay that way through August! I never thought I'd say this, but I'm almost missing the Texas heat. Almost.
On Sunday I jump-started my trip by being trained in the ancient lab! I met Nathan, a post-doc in the lab group I'm working with, at 9:30, and we spent the rest of the day training. It's not quite as bad as it sounds - he took a very leisurely approach, so we spent probably less than half the time in lab. He and Randi, a graduate student at CGG, took me to lunch at a really cool foodie market at Norreport Station, which is one of the larger stations in Copenhagen. There, we had some amazing pizza (see above!). So far the food has been pretty good here, though I'm not sure I've had any authentic Danish meals yet.
Today, I'm meeting with Tom Gilbert, the head of the lab group and the owner of the Siberian dog samples, to figure out the plan for my stay. I think a lot of different people are involved, since the summer is a popular time to go on vacation! I've heard that when it's sunny, everyone just takes time off from work and goes on vacation because the sun comes out so rarely.
Hopefully I'll have some more sightseeing photos for you in the next few days. This last picture is of the park I cut through on my way to the lab - the Danish really believe in green spaces everywhere! :) Take care!

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Whew, we have lots of ground to cover today. :)Sunday was my last day of sightseeing in Singapore. Katie and I had pretty much worn ourselves out on the first 2 days so we decided to take it easy. Our first stop was the botanical gardens! They're huge, and mostly free. There were tons of families having picnics, and it's definitely a cool place to hang out. I love that Singapore has so many lush green areas to counteract the big city feel.
My favorite part of the garden was definitely the orchid garden. They were gorgeous! It was a little too hot for me to spend too much time enjoying them, but they were really pretty. I took tons of pictures!After the garden, we walked around in Orchard Road, a huge area known for its shopping (especially the ritzy variety). We saw a ton of designer shops along with a really cool art museum. Here's one of the sculptures inside...cute puppy!Our next stop was the Charlie Brown cafe! Apparently they're all over Asia...Peanuts characters are really popular there. The food was nothing to write home about, except for the crepes.They have little characters on them! I had the Charlie Brown one and Katie had the Lucy, but they also had Snoopy and Woodstock crepes. Adorable!

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful! We had a mac and cheese party with some of Katie's friends (which was excellent), and went swimming at the campus pool and went to bed early. XD

Monday I went to classes with Katie! She had 3, all of which I don't remember the names for. I first attended the class on physics applications to medical equipment - for example, the lecture when I was there was on radiation and the various machines used to dispense the treatment. We had a lovely talk during the break about the nuclear plants at Fukushima - it was nice to talk to someone who knew what was going on. XD Afterwards, we went to the opposite side of campus for lunch. Before that, though, we stopped by the school market. All of the buildings on campus are clustered into groups (science, arts, engineering, etc.) and are their own islands, kind of. You take the bus to get from cluster to cluster. And each cluster has a huge market! A bunch of people set up tables and sell things, usually clothes and jewelry. I found fork and spoon earrings. XDLunch was in the huge cafeteria in the arts building, more like a hawker center than anything else. I had Chinese food, which was okay. After that I went to Katie's Malay tutorial session. She had a Malay dialogue book which I borrowed from her to try and learn a bit, because the lesson didn't make any sense to me. I managed to learn "Apa khabar? Khabar baik" (How are you? I am well.), "Nama saya Kelsey" (My name is Kelsey), and the various greetings (Selamat siang, for example, is good afternoon). It was fun. :) Her last class of the day was about natural conservation of Singapore, and I must admit I wasn't a huge fan of the class - it was the same conservation stuff we always learn!
We had dinner in the canteen (ie cafeteria) in Katie's dorm, and I got to have pad thai! It was tasty. And afterwards we headed out to Clarke Quay, the area of Singapore known for its nightlife! The cab driver we had was a really odd guy...he talked to us about all sorts of things (but especially safety when crossing streets/exiting cabs and our boyfriends). XD Clarke Quay is gorgeous at night!We also went to a bar called The Clinic. All of the bars and clubs in Clarke Quay are themed. A lot of them are themed around foods - Indochinese, Mexican, Brazilian, Japanese, and more. But some are really quirky, like the Clinic. It has a medical theme! You sit in wheelchairs or on couches that look like medical beds and you can get drinks that come in "IV drips" and big syringes. We decided not to get any of those because they were super-expensive (there's a really high alcohol tax in Singapore, probably to discourage drinking), but I did get to try a Singapore Sling. We then just wandered around Clarke Quay some more before heading back home. It was a great last night!And Tuesday was probably the longest day of my life (no, really). I woke up at 3:30 to catch a cab at 4 am to get to the airport for my 6 am flight. I had my last fresh-squeezed juice and a quick breakfast before heading through security. Note the "Texas Chicken" sign. :) This state follows me everywhere! My flight from Singapore to Nagoya was fine - I watched a really silly Japanese comedy and chilled out on the plane. I had an hour and a half layover in Nagoya, where I picked up a few last-minute gifts as well as my last shaka-shaka chicken (T.T I'm going to miss that) for lunch. While waiting for my flight, I sat next to a really cute American family who had just adopted a little boy from Vietnam. They had a son about the same age, and they were getting along really well. :)

The flight from Nagoya to Minneapolis was not a very pleasant experience. I sat on the aisle (big mistake), with a woman and her young daughter sitting next to me. The daughter wanted to get up every hour or so. X.X Add that to an inability to sleep on planes and an hour and a half of solid turbulence and I was SO ready to get off that plane.

I was so excited when we landed in Minneapolis because I could text people again! I spent my 5-hour layover going through security (no big deal), eating at Chili's(my second lunch of the day!) and catching up with friends. When the plane took off out of Minneapolis, I was dead asleep. And then I arrived in Dallas at 8:30! (yes, still Tuesday).

I must admit, it was a little emotionally exhausting to arrive back in the states. When I got to baggage claim in Dallas and saw my parents, I almost burst into tears. Sort of silly, isn't it? During all of this mess of dealing with leaving early, I've teared up all of twice. And then, the waterworks turn on as soon as I get home. But, life is starting to get back to normal. My first day home I slept in until 2 and schlepped around the house, but I've done quite a bit since then! 2 weekends in College Station and quite a bit of time spent at home trying to get my summer plans squared away. So much to do now that I'm back!

So, with this last post I'm afraid the chronicle of my semester abroad has come to an end. I wish it could have lasted longer, but I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it! I like that I will have something to look back on to remember the trip by.

Your last language lesson of the blog is the word "sayonara". Everyone knows that word, right? If you ask anyone on the street what Japanese words they know, the first that come to mind will be "konnichiwa" and "sayonara". But "sayonara" has a more specialized meaning than goodbye. "Ja ne!" or "Ja ato de!" or "Ja, ashita ne!" (bye, see you later, and see you tomorrow respectively) are used on a day-to-day basis. Sayonara is a word used for more special occasions, in which you're saying goodbye to someone you may never see again (or will not see for a while, at least). So it's a much more formal saying. I'd say it's proper for this post, since it is my last!For those of you considering study abroad or even traveling in Japan (or elsewhere!), I highly recommend you go! Japan is an amazing place, full of really cool things and incredibly nice people. And my study abroad experience couldn't have been better, even with all of the "fun" we've dealt with lately. I've made so many good friends and had an awesome semester where I wasn't overloaded with work and had time to just relax. I feel like I've come back with a totally different perspective on life. So, JCMU, thank you! And to the rest of you, thanks for listening. :) I hope to see you soon!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Adventures in Singapore, part I

Hello from Singapore! It never ceases to amaze me just how different Singapore is from Japan – for one thing, the weather! Singapore is just south of the equator, so it’s hot all year long. Imagine leaving a country with highs in the low 50s and arriving at a country where the temperature is never much lower than 75. That’s one huge difference. Also, dealing with constant 94% humidity and a lack of air-conditioning almost everywhere (including my friend Katie’s dorm room) takes a bit of getting used to! There are distinct advantages to being in Singapore, though. My current favorite is the fruit juice! Fresh fruit can be had year-round here, so all of the juices are made fresh (ie, to-order). I had pineapple juice for breakfast yesterday morning and it was fantastic. It tastes so much better when it’s fresh. And fruit juice can be gotten everywhere! It’s awesome.

My flight to Singapore was pretty nice – I had an entire row to myself! I even got a bit of sleep, which was good because I landed around midnight Singapore time (1 AM Japan time!). So I did some catching up and went to bed as soon as we got to Katie’s dorm.

Speaking of which, it’s huge! It’s a 30-building complex, and there are other dorms, too! Somehow they still have trouble housing everyone that wants to go to the National University of Singapore (NUS). O.o

Where all have I been so far? A lot of places! We started yesterday morning with 3 of Katie’s friends and headed to Little India. Mainly, there were a lot of shopping spots and a lot of little restaurants. We started at Mustafa, an enormous shopping mall that has pretty much everything, from Western goods to Japanese snacks to gorgeous sari fabrics and Bollywood movies. Our next stop was lunch at an Indian chain fast food place. I ordered some sort of onion crepe thing called a dosai with naan, which was a little spicy but pretty good!

After a bit more shopping (and a stop for fruit juice!), Katie and I split off and headed for Chinatown (yep, we got the international experience yesterday!). Chinatown and Little India are similar in that they are both full of shops and places to eat. Chinatown is probably my favorite of the two, though, because it’s so pretty!

I also had ice kachang there, a common Singaporean treat! It’s very strange. Take jello, then add lychees, a weird Asian fruit, and red beans (ie the Japanese treat). Then top it with shaved ice, add 3 flavors of syrup and condensed milk, and then top it with canned corn. O.0 It’s really odd. XD I kinda liked it though!

Plus, there’s a temple there! We went inside – it’s a temple that houses one of Buddha’s teeth, as well as his sacred relics. The story goes that when Buddha’s body was cremated, instead of forming ashes crystals formed, signifying his purity. They have a lot of different relics (brain, heart, etc.) housed in one area and his tooth in another. The temple was so opulent and gorgeous! Really a cool place.

After the temple tour, we had dinner at one of the many little restaurant stalls. I had chicken and rice, a common dish and one of Singapore’s famous! It was delicious.

Afterwards, Katie took me to one of her favorite places in Singapore – Marina Bay. And after dark, I could see why! As you can see, it’s all lit up and gorgeous. The area is named after the Marina Bay Sands, the resort with what looks like a cruise ship on top. It also has a mall and a casino. XD Have some more pictures of the skyline!

My other favorite part of the area was the DNA bridge – it looks just like a double helix! And on the ground are little light-up letters that are (mostly) paired correctly! The DNA geek in me was a very happy camper. :3 The lookout points were hairpin loops, too! So very cool.

Today was no less busy! Our first stop was Clarke Quay, a festive area close to Marina Bay that’s full of bars and swanky restaurants. We started by taking a Hippo boat tour of the bay area. More pretty buildings. :)

Our next stop was the statue of Sir Raffles, founder of Singapore. Singapore is one of the few places that actually embraced the introduction of a foreign power. As an example, here’s the inscription on the statue. “On this historic site, Sir Thomas Stanford Raffles…first landed in Singapore, and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” XD

Next stop, the Asian Civilizations Museum. They just opened an African exhibit, and this weekend they were having an open house so we got in for free! They had a lot of cool stuff there; I love Asian sculptures from all of those cultures because they’re so beautiful and intricate.

For lunch, we ate at a hawker center. They’re really common in Singapore! They are basically a bunch of little food stalls all under one roof, surrounding tons of tables. You can go and pick out whatever you want and then eat it there. It’s like an enormous food court. I ended up cheating a bit and getting Italian food (instead of Singaporean), but I did get dragonfruit juice! Both were tasty.

After lunch, we went over to the Chinese gardens. They're huge, and really pretty. I liked getting to see the pagodas and such, and there was even a Zodiac statue garden.

The garden was cool, but Katie's favorite part was the turtle museum. Basically, a guy made a turtle rescue that is record-setting and has thousands of turtles! And you can feed them and touch them and all sorts of things. It's sort of silly, but that's okay.

Tonight for dinner I went out with a bunch of Katie's friends, and we had seafood! It was really a family-style dinner, so we ordered a bunch of plates of food and had a bit of everything. I had chili crab (a Singapore special), barbecue pork, steamed buns, and even stingray! It just tastes like flaky white fish. :) It was all delicious!

And now it's bedtime...we've been rushing around all day for the past 2 days so I need a rest. I hope your weekend is going well!