August 30, 2008

I'll gladly pay you Wednesday for some strontium today.

On Friday, I headed over to the geosciences department to learn how to load my samples into the mass spectrometer from a graduate student. She more or less flew through the procedure and then left me alone to figure it out and do the rest of the samples myself. As I understand it (and I don't really understand a lot of it - I need to figure out real terms for these things), what I was doing was loading the sample onto a filament. I rehydrated the dried strontium with small drops of H3PO3 and TaCL5 (tantalum - I had to look it up), sucked it up into a tiny itty bitty pipette, and dropped it onto the filament, letting it burn off, which I guess stuck the sample to the filament. Then, using pliers, I put the filament upside-down into what's called a turret - a wheel that lets you load up to 20 filaments that are screwed into it. So we ended up loading 19 of my Romans, with the remaining slot taken up by the strontium standard.

At this point, an undergrad showed up and learned how to change out the turret. This involved first depressurizing the chamber in the mass spec and then changing out the liquid nitrogen. But since he'd never done this before, he wasn't all that careful and liquid nitrogen started fuming and then spilling out of the funnel, separating into little beads and skittering across the floor. So that was pretty cool, actually. It was almost like mercury rolling around. I watched the turret change for a while, but since it would take hours to vacuum down the chamber, I headed off.

Although my 19 samples ran on the machine this morning, not every sample works the first time. Theoretically, there is some sample left in the little beaker that can be added to a new filament if the first round bombs. The remaining 16 samples that I did will be run on Monday, and I was told to expect results by Wednesday. I'm pretty excited. Even if I only get 20 good results, it's still 20 more than I had. And they'll be available in time for me to write this all up in an abstract for the AAPAs. Now if only I could think of a topic for my SAA abstract, I'd be set.

August 23, 2008

My Eternal Flame

I boarded my flight from Manchester and found a little old lady occupying the window seat next to my aisle seat. She was dressed like any little old lady, except she was wearing Birkenstocks - with pantyhose. We made pleasant conversation as we settled in, listened to the safety demonstration (she read the safety card carefully), and took off. No, I wasn't really in England on holiday, more of a business trip. Yes, she'd been to the U.S. once before, to Orlando about 20 years ago. I didn't ask her what she did, since she seemed to be about 70. (Turns out, she was only 63 and had recently retired from teaching ESL in Manchester.) I asked where she was headed in the U.S., and she said, "New Castle." "Uhm... in the U.K.? Newcastle-upon-Tyne?" "No," she said, "New Castle, Delaware." "Oh, do you have family there?" I asked, thinking that was a really random destination for someone going overseas. "No, I'm going to meet some people from a church. I've never met them in person before." I replied with simply, "Oh, interesting," not really caring to ask any more about her church.

While they rebooted the in-flight entertainment system (yo, wtf, US Air - it never works the first time), we chatted some more, since I hadn't had coffee and was too tired to do work. Her name, she said, was Christine, and she was delighted that we had nearly the same name. The meal came (thankfully, with a load of caffeine), and we both tucked in. After a few mouthsful, Christine turned to me and said, "May I ask you, have you experienced eternal life?" Christ on a cracker, I thought, I can't get away from this woman because it's a full flight and I have a tray table of food in front of me, and now she's gonna try to convert me. I said no and hastily added that I'm an anthropologist and, as such, am very interested in religion. I've studied numerous world religions, cultures, and languages, and I think people around the world approach problems in different ways. She started to say something, so I continued by explaining that my mother was raised Russian Orthodox and never felt connected to the religion and that my dad searched for spirituality throughout much of his adult life. Fortunately for me, this seemed to satisfy her, because she only shook her head slightly and said, "You should have a relationship with religion, not just an observation." "Right," I said. "So what do you think of this cobbler? Do they call it cobbler in the U.K.?"

I never did ask which brand of churchiness she was hawking (maybe Episcopal? what is it that all the non-Catholics in Britain are?), but she was reading "The Victorious Walk" (which you too can buy here for as little as 4 cents!).

So yeah, it's been two weeks of non-stop crazy, weird, or downright strange people. I hope the flight from Philly to Raleigh is less insane.

August 21, 2008

We're Famous!

Today's Telegraph & Argus has an article (with pictures) of the palaeopath class. They shooed us out of the lab the other day to take a few pictures of bones and people. In the print edition, there is a pic of some of my fellow students looking at bones, but in the online version, there are two pics of two of the instructors. Anyway, read all about us here!

August 16, 2008

Still Cold and Wet

Well, week one of the palaeopath short course is over. It's pretty brutal being a student again, honestly. We have 8- and sometimes 10-hour days of lecture, lab, and more lecture, broken up with coffee/tea breaks and the ineviteable samosa/chicken tikka lunch (and, of course, a curry dinner). Most of the lectures have been quite good - we've heard from the likes of palaeopath superstars like Charlotte Roberts and Don Orter, but also from the up-and-comers. I've introduced myself to some cool people who seem interested in my work. Despite the fact that I find histology hideously boring and tried so hard to keep awake that day, for the most part I am learning a lot. Lab practicals are good too - after lectures about leprosy, TB, syphilis, dental disease, etc., we get to look at the same stuff in lab, playing with the bone, turning it over, taking pictures of it, which is so much more useful than looking at 2D pictures in textbooks. The lab staff also go through the trouble of putting out the whole skeleton where available, so that you can see the distribution of lesions rather than just isolated bones.

By the end of each day, I'm pretty well exhausted. So it's curry and then bed, sometimes with a bit of editing thrown in (to fund my European clothes buying habit). Today was a lot nicer than I thought it would be - 65 and mostly sunny. I headed to Leeds and shopped until I was exhausted (5 hours - I have no stamina anymore). The city was quiet and clean, and there really were far more shops in the city center (mostly on the pedestrian quarter) than I could go into.

Random things I saw today:
  • Tiny cart selling jacket potatoes (baked potatoes) on the side of the road. Who eats take-away baked potatoes?
  • Tiny cobbler's cart. You could get your shoes fixed, in the middle of the piazza. Or whatever they're called here.
  • A Chinese place called "Yuk Buffet." Couldn't whip out the camera fast enough.
  • A carwash whose mascot was Spongebob. Bet that's not licensed!
  • Cinder toffee. Even with a recipe, I still have no idea what it is. The nice girl at the sweet shop told me it was made with sugar, baking soda, and vinegar.
I am getting better at looking right before crossing the street and thus haven't been killed yet. But I saw this woman in a car today, talking out the window to a man standing in the street. And I was confused as to how she moved the car from the passenger's seat - for a split second, until I remembered they drive funny here. Oh, and I rode two double-decker buses today. Both times on the top, both times in the front. Scary as shit.

August 11, 2008

Damp and Sleepy

My first night in England went well (after an uncomfortable plane ride and the requisite 24 hours with no sleep). The Ivy Guest House may not look like much and the floors may creak, but the bed was comfy and there was actually an extra blanket for poor southern me. (Seriously, a 30+ degree drop in temperature is not affecting me well.) The bathroom is shared, but I had no problem showering and getting ready before breakfast opened at 7am. I got the vegetarian breakfast - I'll have to take a picture tomorrow, because it consisted of: a sunny-side-up egg, 2 slices of wheat toast, a hashbrown, sauteed mushrooms, two canned (er, tinned - guess this is England) Roma tomatoes, this odd fried stick of carrots and peas, and baked beans. Yup. Baked beans. For breakfast. I tried the ginger preserves on my toast, which was quite a good choice. Maybe tomorrow I'll go for the Marmite. *shudder* And I still haven't tried HP, which appears to be somewhere halfway between ketchup and A1 sauce.

August 8, 2008

From Manchester to Liverpool

I'm headed off to England tomorrow morning, to an area of the country where the adjectival forms of certain proper nouns bear no relation to normal English. (Maybe there's more of a linguistic connection between pool and puddle than I thought...) There's wireless access at the Uni of Bradford, so I can bore everyone with stories from pathology class. I'm pretty psyched to see horrible Old World diseases and crazy Industrial-Revolution-caused vitamin deficiencies.

If anyone wants a souvenir, comment away. Just remember, the exchange rate sucks and I'll be in the north of England, not London. I can get Beatles and Brontë paraphernalia and wander around the Yorkshire Dales (who knew that Wensleydale wasn't just a cheese?) but not "Mind the Gap" tourist schlock or, sadly, anything from Harrod's. (And now I really, really want to see this in Liverpool.)

August 6, 2008

Simmer Down Now

I'm not sure if it's ok to take a camera into the isotope lab, so I haven't reported on my goings-on over the past couple weeks. After finishing up the micromilling of 30 teeth, I needed to do strontium columns this week before leaving for England. Strontium columns are actually like tiny plastic funnels with a tiny little filter at the bottom. They rest in a plastic tab that sits on top of a waste beaker. All this means that they're really easy to spill if you don't watch yourself. So this is the really chemistry-intensive part. By that, I mean the part where you have to put a certain number of drops of various molar nitric acid into the little funnels. And wait. And do it again. And wait. At the end, what happens is that the resin (held into the funnel by the filter) magically makes any water that passes through it able to collect strontium - and only strontium. Then you have a beaker with about 500 microliters of water-n-strontium. Drop in some phosphoric acid, and it's time to boil it down.

Here's where it gets kind of crazy. The idea of strontium in solution is easy enough for me to accept. But then you have to simmer the water off. It takes about 8 hours (although some were done in 4 because of their placement on the hot plate), and then you get this. See that little tiny dot at the bottom of the little tiny beaker (fakely mocked-up since I don't have a real pic)? That's strontium. About 5 micrograms of it. A tiny brown dot, about the size of the head of a pin.

Eventually, these little Roman pinheads will get loaded into the mass spectrometer, and at some point I'll get a bunch of numbers for the strontium levels in my samples. I'm not entirely sure how these numbers get interpreted, but at the very least I can compare the 33 human samples with the 2 animal samples and - I hope - be able to tell if those 33 people were immigrants or not. But I won't know until someone switches the mass spec from neodymium back to strontium.

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