More Neuroscience Awesomeness and A Challenge for Librarians!

In my neuroscience class, we’ve now moved away from developmental neuroscience and into what I find way more interesting and the real reason I wanted to take the course: molecular neuroscience.  For the next three weeks, we’ll be learning how nerves communicate with each other.  Mostly this is through different channels that send stuff like ions and neurotransmitters in and out of cells.  We had a guest speaker who specializes in genetic neurological diseases, and she focused her talk specifically on what are called “channelopathies.”  That is, genetic diseases in which symptoms are caused by problems with these nerve channels.  Some of these problems are common – for example, many types of migraine are caused by channelopathies – but some are rare and super bizarre.

Here’s one of the rare and super bizarre ones the lecturer told us about: periodic paralysis is a condition in which the patient becomes temporarily but completely paralyzed, and then afterwards, they’re totally fine.  The paralysis can be brought on by all different kinds of things – stress, excitement, etc.  The lecturer told us about a really strange case of familial periodic paralysis that was found in a large family in Ireland.  Genetically, it’s autosomal dominant, meaning that if one parent has it, the children have a 50% chance of developing it.  So as one would expect, about half of this family is affected.  The trigger for this particular familial periodic paralysis is overeating.  The lecturer said “think of the gatherings this family must have.  They all get together and eat a big meal, and then half of them are paralyzed!”  Can you imagine, half of a family falling over paralyzed after dinner and then getting up and going home a few hours later like nothing ever happened?  Wouldn’t that make for some awkward family reunions?  Since the condition isn’t dangerous, I think it’s okay if we laugh a little bit at that image, right?  (Obviously familial periodic paralysis is not funny, and I’m definitely not making fun of it.  But don’t you have to admit that you’re wondering how different your family gatherings might have been had half of you been paralyzed for awhile after dinner?)

This family and their condition intrigued me so much that as soon as I got home, I went to PubMed to see if I could find the case in the literature (I really can’t help it…I’m a librarian), but my searching has turned up nothing so far.  Therefore I am challenging the medical librarians out there to find me a case report.  If you find it, you will win….I don’t know, honor and glory.  🙂  So to run down again, here’s what we know:

  • autosomal dominant
  • channelopathy (I think she said on the potassium ion channel, which would make sense because I found lots of cases of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis)
  • familial periodic paralysis
  • overeating
  • probably an Irish family (the lecturer did specify Irish, but as every librarian knows, people often misremember these kinds of details, so probably best not to rely on this particular piece of information)

Alright, go! 🙂

(And by the way, if no one finds this within a week, I’ll email the guest lecturer and ask, but let’s try to save me the embarrassment of having to compose that bizarre email, shall we?)

Ophelia, Before and After

I’ve been reading about Batman the Awesome Wheelchair Dog going to his new family.  He, like my dog Ophelia, is a Formosan Mountain Dog who came from Taiwan.  He broke his spine and lost the use of his back legs when he was hit by a car.  The driver left him for dead and he dragged himself into an alley until some people came by and helped him.  I don’t know for sure, because I’ve heard different versions of the story from different people, but I believe Ophelia was also hit by a car.  Compared to Batman, Ophelia was much luckier – she broke her femur and has a metal plate in her bone now, but she does great, and you’d never know.

Being with Ophelia every day, I don’t notice how far she’s come until I think back to what she was like when I first got her.  I will warn you, the image below is sort of graphic if you’re a dog lover.  Maybe it’s just because I’m her mom, that picture of poor Ophelia with her ribs sticking out and her tail between her legs and her ears in an unhappy, scared position just breaks my heart.


Poor Ophelia.  (BTW, anyone read Chinese?  I’d love to know what the caption says.)  But even though looking at that makes me really sad, I’m less sad when I think of how far she’s come.  She’s just the coolest, smartest, most awesome dog I’ve ever met (okay, maybe I’m biased).  She may have lived on the street and gone through terrible stuff before, but now she sleeps in bed with me, gets cheese on her kibble, and lounges about when she’s not busy chasing a ball or her Squirrelly.  So I will leave you with a happier picture of Ophelia now – this was taken when we were visiting my parents’ house at the holidays.  Isn’t that quite a difference in a year and a half?

ophelia on the bed

Talking the Talk: Why Research Informationists Should Go to Class!

On a recent evening, I found myself wondering about neurotransmitters (like you do).  I had sort of a vague idea of how they worked, but It occurred to me that, as the liaison librarian to the departments of all brain-y things at UCLA (neurology, neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, etc), I’d probably be doing myself a favor if I learned a little bit more about these areas.  Thus it was that I came to enroll in Neuroscience 101B, an undergrad course in developmental and molecular neuroscience – that is, how the nervous system is formed during gestation, and how neurotransmitters and other molecular signalling methods work in the adult.  I had to contact the professor to get special permission to join the course, and he said I was welcome to freely attend the lectures if I wanted (as it’s huge and they don’t take roll), but I could also officially enroll, which would require that I take the three exams and complete weekly, page-long critical responses to recent articles in the field.  I thought to myself, “if I just audit this class, things will get busy during the quarter like they always do, and I’ll stop going.  But if I actually enroll and have to earn a grade, I have real incentive to learn this.”  So I decided to actually enroll, and I’m so glad I did – I’m only two and a half weeks in, but I can already see how taking this class is going to be so helpful to me as a librarian and research informationist.  Already I have started to get some benefits:

  1. Learn their language.  A mere sampling of the words and phrases that have entered my vocabulary in just two and a half weeks: ligand, rostral/caudal, filopodia, membrane diffusible, notochord, presynaptic compartment.  No, I did not make any of that up, and yes, I can define all of it.  In short, I am learning to speak the language of neuroscience.
  2. Learn their experimental methods: Thanks to this class, I now know what two-photon microscopy is.  I know the exact procedure by which one creates a cranial window for imaging neurons via a craniotomy (don’t look it up.  Trust me. It involves dental adhesive and super glue and it’s not at all pleasant).  I can explain several different experimental methods for examining neuronal activity, as well as various reasons why one would want to examine neuronal activity in the first place. Understanding the how and why of the science makes such a huge difference in being able to understand the how and why of their research methods.  Obviously, for a research informationist, this is key.
  3. Learn the big names in the field.  Though I live in LA, I’m not one to name drop. 🙂  However, I will say this about neuroscience, in my experience of it: you are going to learn to recognize the people who did the big experiments (and it’s probably true of other fields as well).  For one thing, you can’t help but know them because there’s stuff named after them (see for example the Cajal-Retzius cell and the interstitial cell of Cajal, both named for an evidently reclusive Spanish Nobel prize winner who spent hours and hours of his life dyeing nerves to study them and thus ended up discovering tons of stuff).  But even when there’s not something named after the researcher, you still learn who did the experiment, and I get the feeling this kind of thing might even be on the exam.  I appreciate that about the field – credit where credit is due, right?  More importantly, it’s interesting to learn the big names who are currently doing research in the field, particularly when those big names happen to be on my campus and publishing in Nature and such.  When I hear those things in lecture, that is something I definitely file away for later.
  4. Learn about the department (and have them learn about me).  When I contacted the professor to ask to take the course and told him why, I have a feeling that was probably the first time he even knew he had a liaison librarian.  Now, not only do he and the other two class professors know I’m here, but they also know that I’m interested in what they do.  Plus, I’m learning all sorts of things about the department (such as the fact that they have TONS of seminars and lectures I’d never heard about) as well as things about the student experience, so I have more of a context in which to understand the kind of research assistance these students might need.
  5. Learn fantastic trivia for more interesting conversations.  Okay, not an entirely serious reason, but a nice side effect of the course.  For example, did you know that in a rat, each whisker is connected to a single neuron?  I assume the same is true for dogs, so now I like to bug Ophelia by touching a single whisker and wondering which neuron it’s setting off.  (I explained to her that it’s for science, but she still seems annoyed by it.)  Or how about that there are proteins and neurotransmitters with names like Sonic hedgehog, Dickkopf (means big head in German!), and Frizzled?

All of this is important to me because I love working with researchers and I feel like I can more legitimately sit at the table now, so to speak.  Obviously the knowledge I’m getting from one undergrad survey class is hardly enough to get me up to speed on something so complex as the nervous system, but at least now I feel like I understand all of those brain-y departments better, especially in terms of the research they’re conducting.

I do want to emphasize that I don’t think a degree in a science field is necessary for a research informationist or other librarian who is interested in working with clinical or basic science researchers.  Some of the best science/medical librarians I know have liberal arts degrees: political science, English, philosophy, etc.  Regardless of your educational background, though, I think the best science librarians are those who are able to learn how to adapt to the field and learn the language and culture of the science they work with.  Like different regions of the United States, each scientific field has their own dialect and “regional” traditions and practices.  If you don’t know how to operate in that language and tradition, you are pretty obviously an outsider.  But…if you want to slip in amongst them…it’s easy enough to do so if you have a little knowledge.  Taking a class is not necessarily for everyone.  I don’t know many adult professional people who would voluntarily spend their weekend studying for a neuroscience exam (I’m lame, I know, but look, I really want an A), but for those librarians who can manage it, I can’t speak highly enough of the experience.  Fortunately for those who are not quite as insane ambitious as I am, there are other ways of gaining knowledge too, like checking out Data Curation Profiles, going to open lectures and grand rounds, talking to researchers about their work, and, erm, reading Wikipedia.  🙂

Of course I say all this now, but I might be singing a different tune after my first exam this Monday. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go remind myself about the three different mechanisms by which synaptic topography is modeled in the developing nervous system.

Books to Take to the End of the World

Ridiculous librarian/nerd confession: Last night I added three books to my earthquake kit.  (In Los Angeles, you’re supposed to have things prepared and easy to get to in the event of an earthquake, like food, extra medication, rope, other survival-y kinds of things.)  These additions mean that my earthquake kit now contains a grand total of four items: the three books, and one box of Trader Joe’s “fiberful” chocolate chip granola bars.  I should probably work on this kit. 🙂  But in all honesty, I think my surviving a catastrophic event would hinge just as much on having good books to keep me going mentally as it would on having food to sustain me physically.

The inspiration for adding books to my earthquake kit came from two very interesting things I watched over the last couple days: the Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom and the AMC series Walking Dead.  The two couldn’t be more different – Moonrise Kingdom is a sweet and strange little romance and Walking Dead is like Lost except with zombies and more gore than I thought was possible to show on television.  However, both made me think about what books I’d want to take with me if I really thought I might lose everything else.  In Moonrise Kingdom, the girl brings books with her when she runs away with the boy.  In Walking Dead, a couple times they talk about how they would have brought more interesting books if they knew they were planning for the end of the world.  So in the spirit of being prepared for whatever eventuality, I’ve added to my very meager earthquake kit the three books I would take with me to the end of the world:

  1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: I read this novel during the same summer I was training for the marathon (2008), and finishing it felt like the book equivalent of running a marathon.  I spent longer reading this book than I’d ever spent reading any other book, yet I feel like I could read it a million more times and still not fully notice every little thing.  Honestly, I don’t feel like I could even explain the plot of the book without writing a short essay, and no one wants to read that.  David Foster Wallace is not for everybody, but I never get tired of reading him.  Such a shame about his death.
  2. The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks: I stumbled upon this book when I was somewhere between 13 and 15.  I’ve come back to it on and off very often over the years, and there is always a poem that perfectly expresses the very thing I’m feeling, and I better understand the poems the more I experience of life.  Rumi was a Sufi mystic in the 13th century, and his poetry explores such an interesting emotional range.  You can find many of his poems freely available online if you Google him, but this book also offers really good commentary from the translator, who is a scholar specializing in Rumi.
  3. Gray’s Anatomy: I know this is a very odd book to choose, but hear me out, as I do actually have some practical reasons for it.  I got it from the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble for $6.98 when I was in my early teens. I was really interested in working in medicine at the time (and I kind of have turned out doing that, in a way), so I thought this was something I ought to have.  Plus, $6.98!  I find anatomy so interesting, though I never exactly got around to just sitting and reading Gray’s cover to cover.  However, there’d be plenty of time for that in a catastrophic end-times scenario!  Also, I know this is sort of weird, but I love historical anatomical art.  For example, I’d love to own a phrenology head.  So to me this book is sort of a work of art in addition to a textbook.  Finally, practically speaking, it might be useful to have an anatomy book around during some apocalyptic event so that I can be the nerdy librarian hero character who is able to safely pull the arrow out of the leader character’s arm without nicking an artery or something.  (Failing that, I’ll be the eccentric librarian character who wears totally impractical shoes but has a kickass dog protecting her.)

So there you go.  In the event of a zombie apocalypse, major earthquake, giant meteor crash, or other catastrophe, now you know what I’ll be reading while I await rescue and/or the end of the world.