Titanium isn’t quite as cool as adamantium, but I’ll take it.

My new titanium ankle!


As cool as my x-rays have been, I strongly recommend against breaking your leg. Zero stars.

But if it happens to you, just know that it’s not all bad. I even wrote up a silly Buzzfeed article to keep up the spirits of anyone else this might happen to.

And here’s an Imgur album I made when I got tired of explaining how I managed to break my leg so thoroughly. Just a warning that there’s some graphic staples in there.

Bodies are gross and weird and awesome and I’m glad mine is finally getting back to normal.

I had a dream I had to re-do my qualifying exam for my outside proposal.

But this time, I had to present the detailed plot of the Sci-Fi novel in which my experiment was going to be employed, and defend both the actual science proposal AND the believability and creativity of the story arc.

In my struggle to get to the exam location, I dreamed parts of the plot for my novel:

Someone pulled a level, and behind all the Bruns lab chemicals, there was a stairway down to a hidden chamber featuring a giant, 12 foot across spider carcass. (Remember this spider. The spider returns to the plot in a bit.)

I express concern at the giant alien spider, but more importantly, I am starving. At my lab desk, I am hurriedly eating food before the test starts across the street, but I just got out of teaching Biology of Fungi and the students had soooo many questions that day, and I’m running late. The exam “room” is actually an outdoors gaited park, which still manages to have a projector. To my horror, random academics keep wandering into my exam “room,” seating themselves, and chiming in with questions.

I can’t remember who the 4th member of my committee is. I answer all the other strangers’ questions very politely and thoroughly, just in case they are the mysterious 4th committee member.

Also, all the fungi samples from the teaching lab are in the weird park space, and Biology of Fungi students are still coming up and asking me questions like whether this lichen is crustose or squamulose. Sometimes the other academics chime in, too. I barely have room for my laptop because there are pieces of wood covered in fungi everywhere. This talk of the specimens ropes in some known committee members, and buys me some time while I continue to shove food in my starving face.

Eventually, someone that may or may not be on my committee asks me to get on with describing the plot. I divulge:

On a strange planet, decomposition has stopped. Or maybe it never was, but in any case, it’s a problem now: Bodies are piling up.

Protagonist is one of the few scientifically minded people on the planet, and has an idea to jumpstart decomposition, involving plants and fungi.

But no one will listen to Protagonist. Instead, they bring giant bombs down into the hidden space behind the Bruns lab chemical cabinet, and attempt to explode the giant spider carcass.

The bombs don’t work. The spider is still very much intact, and people are getting increasingly worried because this chamber with the spider is a long underground chamber that continues for many miles into the wilderness, and our Enemies might get to the spider. This is to be avoided at all costs, for reasons that were never fully explained in my dream, but hinted they involve necromancy. If the bad guys get all our bodies, they can turn them against us!

Giant alien spiders are no joke!

So then Protagonist starts explaining their grand ideas to study fungi to aid decomposition, except my outside proposal was about testing the function of mating type loci in Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi, which has nothing to do with decomp, so Dream Me switched to talking about a paper I’m an author on, using AMF to help plants cope with nanoparticle pollution. This paper isn’t about decomp either, but I apparently haven’t actually prepared any materials to talk about decomposition.

Someone really wanted to know why, of all metal oxide nanoparticles, we chose to study zinc oxide nanoparticles , and I couldn’t give them any good reasons why.

Once upon a time at Harvard, I was working on a review of the Death Cap mushroom for the journal Mycologia, when I got distracted for half a year and wrote this popular science article for Slate instead.

Look at all those shares! I'm a bona fide science journalist now!

Look at all those shares! I’m a bona fide science journalist now!

Since starting my new grad program at Berkeley, I’ve picked this project back up and am slowly making progress.

My new problem is that I just can’t get over how poetic some of the early papers are that talk about this deadly mushroom.

And because the topic of mushroom poisonings is so gruesome, there are choice phrases that would make seriously awesome metal song titles. If you need inspiration, here’s a list of sinister phrases taken verbatim from some of the early 1900s papers. Just send me the mp3 when you finish your metal masterpiece. I want to hear it.

– Death Will Surely Follow

– Devoid of Color

– Objectionable to the Taste

– This Most Deadly Species

– Derangement of the System

– The List of Victims

– Queer Traditions and Superstitions

– As Men Grow Bolder

– Paralyzed in Great Numbers

– Severely Alone

– Usually Viewed With Suspicion

– Said to Produce Hilarity

– Uniformly Fatal to Swine

– The Results of their Mistakes


In many ways, Harry Potter had a pretty brutal life. He was orphaned, had abusive foster parents, and a spooky nose-less dude with a huge-ass snake tried to kill him all the time. Harry Potter had to fight hard for years against tough odds, and that’s metal.

Harry and the Potters. Source: www.Boston.com

Harry and the Potters. Source: www.Boston.com

And though being a scientist is also metal, the transitive property doesn’t work here. Though there is an entire genre of rock music dedicated to the Harry Potter universe, doing science isn’t like the Harry Potter universe, at least in one critical way I want to write about today.

In the Wizarding world, if you possess magic powers but were born to non-Wizard parents, you can expect the following: once you come of age, an owl will fly all up in your house to deliver a letter announcing you are a wizard. Pack your bags, because you’re headed to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to start your official training.

In both grad programs I’ve attended, and from reading many a grad student forum on the internet, I see a lot of students make the same mistake I did. I waited a long time for an Owl to bring me my Science Acceptance letter, but my letter never came.

For years before grad school, I contributed to quality research, all the time waiting for some sort of external confirmation that I was finally ready to be a scientist, that I had enough skills and experience to be Worthy. Worthy for what? Mostly worthy to be an author.

I spent many work hours—literaly hundreds, for some—on projects that became peer reviewed publications, in PNAS, Ecology, PLOS ONEEcosphere, Bioscience, Biological Conservation, more PLOS ONE, even Nature. My name is listed in the acknowledgments of several of these quality papers, but I’m not an author on a single one.

Now, I could launch into a long tirade about the differences between Ecology and Molecular Biology in terms of how much work warrants authorship. If I’d spent as many hours collecting data as I did for these ecology projects while working for molecular biology labs, I probably would have been assigned authorship on most in a heartbeat, but that’s a cultural difference between fields and a topic I’ll elaborate on in another post. This isn’t some epic, albeit ridiculously passive aggressive, attempt to call out people I worked under for not giving me enough credit.

The point I want to make here is that, because I suffered from serious imposter syndrome, I never actually fought to be an author on any of these projects, and that fault is entirely my own.

If I wanted to be an author, I should have told the people that brought me on the project, and asked point-blank what they felt I needed to do to be worthy of authorship. Instead, I toiled away for countless hours in the lab or field, meticulously producing metric ass-loads of beautiful data. Then I handed over all that beautiful data and stepped away, because I didn’t feel like I was “Worthy” enough to analyze it or contribute anything meaningful to the manuscript.

Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, badass Lady Scientist Extraoridinaire! Source: www.badassdigest.com

Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, badass Lady Scientist Extraordinaire! If you haven’t watched the Thor movies already, you should! Source: www.badassdigest.com

At some point shortly into starting grad school the first time (see here for more details), something finally clicked in my head. I know things about stuff. I have skills! I can design experiments and keep track of data and make smart decisions on the fly when protocols don’t go entirely according to plan.

Though I didn’t start out with all the biological knowledge, per se, that I have now, I had most of the skills that make a good scientist from the very beginning. If I’d been more assertive and had more self confidence, I could have been an author as an undergrad! Hell, if Natalie Portman can publish a peer-reviewed paper as an undergrad, I could have, too. (But actually, serious props to Natalie Portman. She’s a bona fide scientist, a great actress, and is doing quality work for young women in STEM fields, too!).

So to all you young scientists out there, I hope this post can be your Owl.

Believe me when I say: you are already a scientist. If you keep at it, you will learn more, and you will learn from mistakes you make, and yes, you will become a better scientist. But that doesn’t mean you are not already a scientist. Even if you aren’t consciously aware that you are a scientist, it’s still true.

Or, to misquote the immortal words of Harry Potter’s old friend, Hagrid: “You’re a scientist, Harry.”

Go get ’em.

How do you take a mundane family festival and turn it metal?

The whole festival was HUUUGE. This is just one of the main exhibition halls.

The whole festival was HUUUGE. This is just one of five main exhibition halls.

Just add science.

Last spring, I was lucky enough to participate in the United States Science and Engineering festival in Washington DC. I traveled there with Harvard’s Microbial Science Initiative, running a booth about the helpful microbes that help make a lot of our food. We were a huge hit, and I don’t think our success was entirely due to all the lovable microbe plushies we gave away.

The statue in our fancy hotel is confused about how to be a microscope slide. The proportions were just all wrong!

The statue in our fancy hotel (thanks, Harvard!) was confused about how to be microscope slides. The proportions were just all wrong!

I’d never been involved in an event that large before, and I was a little nervous on the road trip down from Boston, worrying about how everything would go down. I was made more nervous by the awful little stretch of road that is the New Jersey Turnpike. It’s not only a grey, vapid eyesore, but is riddled with anti-science billboards condemning everything from vaccines to evolution.

Needless to say, by the time we reached Washington DC we all felt we had a serious task in front of us.

The team! This picture probably taken by the guys with drones across the hall from us that were constantly crashing their drones into things.

The team! This picture probably taken by the guys with drones across the hall from us that were constantly crashing their drones into things.

Luckily, we had a really great exhibit. We had prepared two dozen jars with various foods inside, all of which were made  with the help of bacteria, fungi, or both. The top of the jar showed a fancy microscope image of the bug(s) involved, and on the bottom was a label with the name of the bug and the food. Kids (and the occasional curious adult!) had to guess things like whether or nor the bug was a bacterium or a fungus, which food is the national dish of Korea, which of the fancy cheeses comes from a specific region in France, etc. We varied the questions depending on factors like the kid’s age and how much they already knew about microbes, and gave away giant microbe plushies for correct answers and/or just old-fashioned curiousness.

Here’s an adorable munchkin taking a guess at a jar. I’m pretty sure that, because of me, she’s going to grow up to be a hardcore microbiologist and figure out biofuels or something. Photo: AK

Some of the things I took away from this experience include:

Alicia and I mix some dough for the bread race! Photo: MSI? Maybe AK?

Alicia and I mix dough for the bread race! In a race between regular bread and sourdough bread, you either win or you… make slightly less carbon dioxide to fill the glove. The sour taste in sourdough comes from bacteria! 😀 Photo: MSI/AK

– Kids can be adorable, especially when they’re nerding out about science.

– Very few people know that yeasts are fungi (!).

–  Few people think that not all microbes cause disease(!), let alone that a lot of microbes can be good for us(!!).

– Few people believed that I’m actually a grad student(!) and that I really honestly am not in high school (sigh). Really.

– A distinct memory of the lady that said “But you’re all so cute to be scientists! …At Harvard?!” And asked if she could take our pictures to document that cute Harvard scientists really exist. We said Yes, of course.


I saw Bill Nye give a talk! Here’s a crappy picture of him from my phone!

He’s really up on that stage, I swear.

I saw “Mrs Frizzle!”

For a nominal fee, you could take your picture taken with her, or you could just creep on other peoples' photos for free, like I did.

For a nominal fee, you could have your picture taken with her, or you could just mooch off other peoples’ photos for free, like I did.

We hauled around so many free flyers for teachers that we broke the cart! At least it broke on the last trip!

We hauled around so many free flyers for teachers that we broke the cart! At least it broke on the last trip!

I now know a LOT of trivia about foods that are microbially fermented, which pretty much makes me the life of every party. And I like to think we all got really good at explaining some pretty abstract concepts to the wee ones, too.

The most challenging moments were when really, really little kids asked me questions, because I had to rack my brain for analogies that a three year old could grasp. There was one young boy that was super curious about how all the microbes had such different shapes. After likening cocci to grapes and rods to hot dogs, I pointed at a jar of chain-forming lactic acid bacteria, explaining, “And when these bacteria make a new bacteria, they stay really close to each other, like a family.”

I saw a light bulb go off in his head. Success! I felt I had successfully explained a component of microbial physiology to a toddler, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. “You mean like they’re holding hands and singing songs?!” he clarified.

“…Yes.” I agreed. “Just like that.”



by Metal Chick in Grad School

I had an incredibly fun weekend with a friend visiting from Seattle, and have basically been partying all weekend.

I’m pretty behind on sleep, and had to wake up early this Monday morning to complete a rather pointless assignment for a writing class. It felt pretty brutal.

…But not as brutal as this snake, the venom of which apparently makes you bleed out of every orifice *until you die.* If that’s not metal, I don’t know what is.

A male boomslang, Dispholidus typus. William Warby/Wikimedia

A male boomslang, Dispholidus typus. Photo: William Warby/Wikimedia


Full story over at Scientific American.

Once I nearly suffocated because I wanted to see this dude wearing a KFC chicken bucket on his head play fancy guitar.

Guns N’ Roses will always be one of my favorite bands. I grew up on Guns and Roses – my mom rode bitch in the Chosen Few, the largest US biker gang after the Hell’s Angels. And if you are remotely affiliated with a biker gang, you figuratively eat Guns N’ Roses for breakfast. And after you settle down to raise a family, you figuratively feed Guns N’ Roses to your children, apparently.

I didn’t have the chance to see the original G&R myself, but guitar virtuoso Brian Patrick Carroll (aka Buckethead) went on tour with them from 2000 to 2004 and did the original music serious justice. Music experts herald Buckethead as one of the most talented electric guitarists of our time, and I was super excited when my friend Robert invited me along to see Buckethead do his solo act live.Buckethead

The night of the show we got to the venue, Neumos, a little early. We waited until well past the time the show was supposed to start, when someone finally made an announcement that the tour bus had been in an accident. Luckily everybody was OK, but the show was going to be delayed for even longer while a new vehicle was acquired.

Meanwhile, someone on staff thought it was a good idea to let some young woman inexplicably wearing a *cow costume* with an acoustic guitar attempt to please the crowd for a while. Cow Lady admitted straight off the bat that she was no guitar expert, and had in fact only recently begun actually *learning* how to play the guitar.

She was incredibly brave, but also incredibly terrible at playing guitar.

Cow Lady knew no more than three chords. The guy that got famous covering La Bamba got away with only playing three chords, but to a crowd of people excited to see Buckethead completely wow us with his profound guitar knowledge and ability to do amazing things with said instrument, such an act is simply not OK. Cow Lady did not please the crowd. Cow Lady made the crowd Angry.

She finally stopped, and then we all stood around getting increasingly antsy.  An hour or so later, the guy who was actually scheduled to open for Buckethead got on stage.

Thankfully, this guy actually knew what he was doing.  Opening Act Guy did admittedly interesting things with a looper pedal, but as Robert said, Opening Act Guy was still “somehow extremely unlikable.” After six or seven songs, he got off the stage and we waited some more.

But then Opening Act Guy did something more unforgivable than Cow Lady. He came back on stage and re-played some of the SAME SONGS HE HAD JUST PLAYED.

At this point the crowd was LIVID. That is like first rule of concerts! You don’t repeat songs! He was more or less Booed off the stage and into oblivion.

Finally after another hour or so, past midnight at this point, Buckethead finally entered the stage all in a rush and *immediately* began wowing us with his amazing guitar skills. With his music, Buckethead took the fuel of five hours of anticipation, let down, anger, and frustration and ignited a fire in the minds of those gathered.

The crowd lost its collective shit and became violent.

Now, I’ve seen violent mosh pits before. Take the time I saw Nile: the mosh pit was so violent and unpredictable that one of my friends, fearing for his life, turned around to leave and was promptly punched in the face, breaking his glasses.

No, the scariest part about the Buckethead mosh pit is that everyone was pressing So. Hard. Forward that tiny people like me were perma-plastered against the sweaty backs of the people in front of us, unable to breathe.

When you can’t breathe, it doesn’t take long before the panic sets in and you become convinced you will perish while a man wearing a creepy mask and fried chicken bucket serenades your ignoble death. Periodically, I was able to get my hands in front of myself and push back to gasp in a mouthful of air, but I half-suffocated for some time. Days, it felt like. It was probably more like five or ten minutes, but however long it was, my oxygen levels depleted to worryingly low levels.

Eventually, the people in the back of crowd stopped feeling the need to pulverize the people in the front of the crowd into Mashed People and released their death grip. I was able to flee to the back of the room, and proceeded to lean against the back wall so no one could sneak up on me.

Buckethead did play some really amazing guitar. The guy knows how to shred, and even did some pop and lock breakdancing with Nunchucks. I had forgotten about that tidbit – Robert had to remind me.

My near-death aside, boy did Buckethead put on a good show. 100% would see again.

I want a Heavy Metal Music Chelator to exist.

From Wikipedia: “The chelate effect describes the enhanced affinity of chelating ligands for a metal ion compared to the affinity of a collection of similar nonchelating (monodentate) ligands for the same metal.”

In other words, chelators bond to the metal atoms in various compounds and keep them from doing things.

How cool would it be if there was an app that could take heavy metal music and take all the heaviness and brutality out of it?

Until someone that’s not in grad school has time to turn this dream into reality, I’d settle for this lady doing more piano covers of different types of metal. Maybe a little Obituary before their concert here next month?!

Hopefully none of them end up in coffins before I get to risk my life in their mosh pit. Photo credit this awesomely ridiculous website: http://gunshyassassin.com/news/obituary-sign-with-relapse-records/

Obituary. Hopefully none of them permanently end up in coffins before I get to risk my life in their mosh pit. The image is from their 2008 Best Of album, photo credit this awesomely ridiculous website: http://gunshyassassin.com/news/obituary-sign-with-relapse-records/


Grad school for me didn’t exactly go according to plan.

It started out as awesome as grad school gets, really. I was accepted to all my top favorite schools, with guaranteed full funding. I had the luxury and privilege of getting to choose from a number of rockstar advisers, but finally picked the school I did to work with one truly badass mycologist and the awesome people she brings into her lab.

Our grad office featured a Mycorrhizae Powered Winter Season Tree!

I even entered my first year at Harvard with a National Science Foundation Gradate Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards a grad student can win.

I loved grad school. My adviser was the perfect combination of hands-off and motivational/guiding, plus she’s one of those generous people with amazing work-life balance that all the grad students want to be like. All my labmates were crazy smart, fun and encouraging. The science in the lab was interesting and broad, ranging from social scientists examining how people relate to mushrooms to physicists studying spore dispersal. My cohort of fellow first-years was equally full of fantastic and dedicated people. I took a great class on paleobotany from Curiosity Rover scientist Andy Knoll and got to explore Harvard’s amazing plant fossil collections.

That first summer, I was starting some really awesome research with the Death Cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, when one of the most brutal things that can possibly happen to an academic happened.

My adviser was denied tenure.

This came as a total shock to almost everyone involved. Our department had unanimously voted to keep her, but ultimately, the decision came down from the university’s president. There is no good reason why she was denied tenure, either. She had loads of high-quality publications, plenty of grant money, lots of news coverage, and is extremely well respected among fellow mycologists. There was such a campus-wide uproar, one other associate professor in our department quit shortly after, not wanting to go through the same crapshoot process.

But my favorite example of how ludicrous the President’s decision was is that at the same time some Harvard Higher Ups decided my adviser wasn’t a good fit for the school, other Harvard Higher Ups bestowed her with Harvard’s most prestigious teaching award, and a big pile of money to go with it. Clearly having stellar teachers can’t be that important to Harvard, but I will save the trash-talking for the emphatic letter I’m slowly writing to the Chronicle.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

So, back to me. In a year, my adviser would turn into a Cinderella-like Adviser Pumpkin and leave the school, and there was no one else there I wanted as my main adviser. She didn’t know which school she was moving to yet, so simply following her was not on the table.

It was utterly, thoroughly devastating. But as my ever-optimistic adviser would say, no one died. We weren’t living in a war zone. Yes, we were going to have to disperse and close up shop, but it turns out it really wasn’t the end of the world.

One year into my PhD program, I applied to grad school. Again.

Meanwhile, I switched my research focus back to the model system I worked in as a lab manager at UW and threw together a Master’s sized project so I could at least put the big H on my resume.

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don't even KNOW

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don’t even KNOW

And here’s the craziest part: it all worked out really, really well. I probably wouldn’t have done the experiment I did if my adviser hadn’t been denied tenure, and I discovered some really interesting things about how fungal pathogens cope with capsaicin. Lo and behold, my findings were even statistically significant! I’m still working on tidying up the paper for submission, but we’re aiming for a pretty solid journal. I’m excited.

I was accepted to all three schools I applied to, and again had the luxury of choosing where I wanted to go. I’m now at Berkeley, in the very same lab where my old adviser developed the Death Cap system. I can easily continue the Death Cap work I started at Harvard, plus there are more nearby field sites for collecting mushrooms. The school even threw another two year fellowship at me, so, with all three years of my GRF stipend to spend still, I have *literally* more funding than I can spend in the next four years.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

I’m super happy with my new choice. Everyone is awesome – in my lab, and in the rest of the department. There is a lot more inter-departmental communication and collaboration here than at Harvard, too. Plus I much prefer the weather here over Boston, and I get to live with old friends from Seattle in a swank house with a lemon tree in the backyard.

My old adviser is also sitting pretty, and has a bunch of job offers from great schools. No matter which school she picks to settle down in, she’ll keep doing awesome science.

Life goes on.

Last week during Orientation, the other grad students here taught me how to play Flip Cup! My team never lost. They called me the Chosen One.


The popularity of mushroom cocktails is rising faster than Iron Maiden’s album Number of the Beast rode the music charts in 1982.

My badass undergrad assistant sent me this link recently, which documents how mushroom cocktails are rapidly becoming crowd-pleasers across the US. And, as Maiden’s album was somewhat controversial here for its religious lyrics, the idea of adding fungus to one’s booze puts a few people on edge.  Naturally, I had to try a few.

This last weekend while I was in NYC to visit a friend, I met up with Paul Adams for a Mushroom Themed Bar Crawl. Paul was a restaurant reviewer for years prior to landing the sweet gig of Senior Editor of Popular Science‘s website. He knew a great first place to start our epic tasting journey.

We met up at Booker and Dax, a pretty swanky bar in the Lower East Side.  This is the place to go if you’re not shy about jumping straight into the circle pit of mushroom flavor. The ‘Champion Justino’ is like drinking liquid shiitake: cognac, chocolate molé bitters, shiitake mushroom elixir, and two drops of saline. The saline makes the flavor really pop, like just the right amount of gain on a guitar track. I highly recommend it.

Next we hit up the speak-easy-esque Experimental Cocktail Club and settled in at the bar. Their featured mushroom drink was called ‘Take is Going Back to Japan.’ Despite the awkward name, the drink was pretty tasty: shittake infused scotch, cocoa nibs infused maple syrup, sherry, and black walnut bitters.

Because mushrooms have such a savory, umami taste, most mushroom cocktails are paired with sweeter flavors like chocolate. Just like pairing metal music with basically anything else, mushrooms and chocolate can be a pretty killer combination. The ‘Take’ is a good drink for someone that wants to try a mushroom-inspired cocktail but doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with the taste of decomposers.

Our third and final stop for the night was Neta, a high-end sushi bar a bit further west. Props to Neta for being the only place we found to use truffles instead of shiitakes.  The ‘Ki No Kawa’ was cognac gently infused with black truffles, gin, créme de cacao and molé bitters. I just wish they’d been less gentle with their infusion – the drink smelled strongly of truffles but the taste was fairly mild. It was still a great combination of flavors.

Overall, Booker and Dax get the Full Devil Horn Salute for  embracing the taste of mushrooms. The bartenders also put on a good show, chilling their glasses with liquid nitrogen, and even using N2 to flash freeze herbs and spices for some of their drinks. They answered all my 1001 questions and clearly knew their stuff. I would definitely order the ‘Champion Justino’ again.

The next time I go on a Culinary Adventure I might have to try the next fungi-inspired fine dining ingredient: lichen from the stomachs of freshly slaughtered reindeer.

So. Brutal.