The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Wild Rose Country November 6, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 8:37 am

Eleven years later, I’m back in Wild Rose Country, no longer so named on its license plates after a provincial political party co-opted it. It is as blue, flat and disorienting as I recall. On my first visit, I remember thinking that it would be reasonable to walk the ~8km from the Calgary airport to my destination, not realizing it was on a highway, also seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was December and snowing. I was proud of how many different transportation modalities my trip involved: car, ferry, three buses, plane, and I wanted to cap it off with walking.

Today, as I drive down two-lane highways that seem to be more sand and grit than actual road, Google tells me where to turn and when, always slightly too late for my liking. It makes me wish I had a co-pilot. How did people get around without smart phones and GPS? Eleven years ago I remember being cold and lost (misplaced?), having a street address but no map while coming to realize that all street names in the suburb started with the same prefix, and knocking on a random house door on a dark snowy evening to ask for directions. Years later, it made for a good story.

I check into the guest house where I’ll be staying and am greeted by one of the proprietors. He seems genuinely friendly and warm but not overly earnest. I like to think that my tendency towards the excessively earnest would be an adaptive feature in a small town, but the truth is I don’t know, and I’m here to find out. I wonder who stays in this guesthouse in a Northern Alberta town of 989. It advertises itself as being suitable for family reunions and quilting retreats among other activities. I imagine myself being here on a bit of a writing retreat, ‘writing’ having a nicer ring to it than ‘trying desperately to catch up on my CaRMS applications’.

The dry air has made me thirsty and in need of a snack. I pull out a saucer from the kitchen cupboard to slice an apple on, and notice something resembling muffin crumbs. I pull out another; same thing. I picture the previous guests as a group of older ladies with taking a break from quilting to enjoy tea and treats.

I turn to put the saucers in the dishwasher. Its door locking mechanism malfunction brings to mind a faraway friend with the same predicament. It seems that many things remind me of him these days. I’ve been wanting to tell him that I miss him for probably a year now. Snarky comments come more naturally. I wish I could tell him, I’m so aloof without it being a self-disproving point. Thinking of him elicits the familiar, frustrating brain fuzz of a thing left unfinished.

view from my window

 Look Through My Window ♪


On TransLink and Thin Privilege February 11, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 12:20 am

Earlier today, while waiting for the SeaBus to take me to family practice, an ad on the TV in the waiting room caught my eye.


It was one of the few times I’ve seen someone whose body resembles mine in an ad that wasn’t about plus-size clothing, and it was a lovely surprise.


I suspect it may not have caught most people’s attention–not for this reason, anyway–but if you’re used to seeing uplifting representations of people who look like you, your sensors may not be as attuned to detecting them as someone for whom they are rare occasions. (and yes, I’m aware that the underrepresentation and negative portrayals of women of colour across the board make my experience seem trivial in comparison, and it is. I also know that racism exacerbates fat-shaming and I’ve noticed that people will defend the persistence of both forms of discrimination using surprisingly similar arguments.)


I have a BMI of exactly 25; teetering precariously between overweight and ‘normal’, and many people don’t read me as fat (or so they tell me). But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been told implicitly by media and explicitly by family, that I should strive to be thinner. Although the label of “fat person” is rarely applied to me now that I live in Canada, the phobia of it is something I’ve both carried and tried to resist almost all my life including the present day.


Relevant to this discussion is my position on many axes of privilege, as a white, settler, university educated, cisgendered, straight-passing, able-bodied person. All of these reduce the likelihood that I will experience fat-shaming in the context in which I live, and increase the chances that I will have access to other sources of validation if I do. On the whole, being heavier-of-center has minimal impacts on my life today, and in general there are so many sources of joy and meaning in my life that don’t have thinness as a prerequisite, that these impacts are almost unnoticeable.




I can’t help but notice that I’m the largest person in most social groups I’m part of (and in my medical school class, among women, I’m in at least the 95th percentile when it comes to BMI). This is not the kind of statistical significance you get excited about.


I’m also not used to seeing young women who look like me in media, and it’s always a pleasant, memorable surprise when they do. You can try this out for yourself: flip open a magazine (it needn’t be about fashion) and count the number of images you see of women who aren’t, well, thin. I’m pretty attuned to being heavier than most successful women across a variety of occupations.


From time to time I’ll walk into a store and find out that the waist of their largest size pants would perhaps fit one of my thighs. Tall boots are a lost cause, though I do currently own a pair that must have had some kind of production error, because they actually fit pretty well.


Yet in spite of the grievances I just listed, I also realize that my relative position on the BMI spectrum means that thin privilege actually benefits me more than not. For example:


– People, including health care providers, don’t jump to the conclusion that I don’t value my own health, eat healthy food or get sufficient exercise based on my appearance.
– If I don’t manage to complete an assignment on time, my colleagues will not assume that it’s because people with bodies like mine are inherently lazy.
– Airline and bus seats are built to comfortably accommodate people like me; people don’t dread having to sit next to me (at least until I start talking to them!)
– I don’t receive unsolicited, disparaging comments on the amount or type of food I eat (most of the time)
– I don’t really worry about my body shape being an impediment to finding a partner (then again I’m still single, so who knows)


For me the impact of living in a society that puts enormous pressure on women to be thin has been subtle but persistent. I recognize that many people’s experiences with fatphobia and fat-shaming make mine pale in comparison and so I was uncertain whether it was appropriate for me to write about these topics at all. Part of the reason I did is I believe staying silent only serves the status quo. A society which is comfortable putting enormous amounts of pressure on women to be thin must also be made comfortable with the consequences of doing so. I also realize that people experience anti-fat stigma to very different extents (and, again, I realize mine has been just barely above the limit of detection and I would never talk over someone who has been affected to a greater degree), but the underlying reasons are often shared. Finally, while I can help amplify voices which I think need to be heard, all I can really write about is my own story, in the hopes that talking about my own vulnerabilities may find resonance with others in similar situations and contribute to a broader understanding that we are not alone.


If it was me October 31, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 10:32 pm

This week in med school, we learned about excitable membranes, ions critical for the transmission of nerve impulses across said membranes, and what happens when the homeostatic mechanisms that keep the concentrations of those ions in check are disrupted, as is the case with lethal injections containing potassium chloride.

We were a few minutes into discussing the mechanism by which an excess of potassium in the blood causes heart failure. I started to chime in with a few additional details explaining this phenomenon, when it hit me, mid-sentence, the absurdity of spending time poring over the molecular details of executing people, and not the incomprehensible human tragedy and horrifically racist underpinnings of capital punishment and the urgent need for its abolition. I wanted to talk about state-sanctioned executions as a direct descendant of state-sanctioned lynching an infinite amount more than the exact mechanism by which hyperkalemia takes the lives of people white supremacy never considered fully human in the first place. Not wanting to unleash a torrent of tears on my unsuspecting PBL classmates, I excused myself from the room. A few minutes later, we were back to more comfortable and “on-topic” discussions of neurons and potassium channels and anesthetic agents and medicine as usual, and my head was still spinning.

Sarah Kendzior once tweeted (I wish I could find the tweet) something to the tune of, “If it was you, you’d hope we were screaming for your release” as a call to action to journalists to mobilize for the freedom of three of their Al Jazeera colleagues, imprisoned in Egypt on false charges. The statement has haunted me ever since. I can’t shake the feeling that had I been born into different circumstances, it would have been me (consider that one in six Black men in the US have been incarcerated) – but since it isn’t, the power and privilege I do have comes with a responsibility to challenge structural racism and oppression in all its forms, and just as importantly, to create space for people directly affected to do the same.

The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. – Arundhati Roy


Photo from Flickr user Light Brigading, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 license).


a love letter to anti-colonial environmentalism October 6, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 10:43 pm

This post was sparked by a video on The Atlantic website, A Love Letter to America’s Wilderness, featuring a classic pairing of impressive nature shots and inspired quotes from white men environmentalists.

Would it be fair to say that ‘wilderness’ in North America is a colonial concept? I think it might be. This effusive nostalgia for wild spaces, which most define as free from human civilization, is uncomfortably close to the doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that most of NA was uninhabited before white settlers came along – the latter being an incredibly oppressive construct, not to mention historically inaccurate. Time and again, I’ve come across nature writers obsessed with protecting so-called wild lands, while completely overlooking the history and modern presence of Indigenous peoples whose lives and livelihoods are inextricably tied to them.

I bring this up because I think it’s past time we environmentalists recognize what Ellen Meloy termed ‘the lunatic hemorrhage of wild lands from the face of the planet’ to be a direct consequence of colonialism, and that our work to protect the natural landscapes we hold so close to our hearts needs to be led by the Indigenous people who have lived sustainably on them for millennia.

Armchair anthropologist analysis aside, there is some seriously gorgeous footage here.


Traditional territory of Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish People), Howe Sound, BC


7 days August 2, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 12:47 pm

In the midst of big life changes, upsetting world events, and few close friends physically around to process all these with, I’ve been very lonely.  The intensely competitive, openly self-serving, oblivious to the wider world aspects of academic science are soul-destroying when you don’t have kindred spirits close by.  Counting down the days until I get to see dear friends again- and kind of desperately hoping that medical school will offer more opportunities to meet others dedicated to amplifying voices of marginalized populations and advocating for structural change that broadens access to opportunity for all. 


Resolutions revised January 29, 2014

Filed under: grad school,life outside the lab,Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 10:21 pm

For the past year or so, maybe more, I have been admonishing myself nearly every day for waking up too late (my perceived ideal wake up time being 6-7am), even though I manage to get to work at a reasonable time (~9am) most days, barring exceptional circumstances, or if I have to come in early for a big experiment.  My brain has internalized the dogma of “productive people wake up early so in order to be productive I must do the same”, whereas my body has been utterly non-compliant.


I used to be an early morning person throughout my teenage and early adult years, but apparently am really not anymore.  Whatever amount of sleep I get, I find that waking up an hour early reduces my productivity by an amount >> 1h if I have to do any creative or intellectual work that day.  I feel irritable and sleep-deprived even if I got enough sleep (8h or more).  There is just no benefit to doing this on an elective basis.


So, instead of starting every day with a sense of failure, I am officially striking Resolution #6 (get to work by 8am every day) from my list, given that it only succeeded in making me feel miserable, while negatively impacting my productivity on the rare days when it was adhered to.  Making decent progress on the other resolutions, though, except #9 (piano) and #5 (pool/gym).  Really struggling with the latter- it’s difficult to work out when you have no energy, but think I would have lots more energy if I got more (high-intensity) exercise.  If anyone has suggestions on breaking this cycle, I’d love to hear them!


Ponderable December 13, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — excitablescientist @ 8:13 am

“How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?” -Kahlil Gibran