Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tango and samba

Howdy folks!
Long time no post. Ok, ok, I admit it, I was too lazy to write a proper post… But I have great news! I started my experiments in the lab, and so far I managed not to screw up entirely the whole thing! Let’s see what the results will be…

For those who want to know, I’ll explain briefly what my research is about. Those who are not interested may skip to the following paragraph, and go directly to the reason why I named this post Tango and Samba. Well, I’m working with Dictyostelium discoideum, which is a cellular slime mold, also called social amoeba. Why social? This interesting little bugger has a somewhat complex life cycle. It undergoes vegetative growth living independently in soil and god knows where else, predating on innocent wandering bacteria. When it starves, however, this microbial lone wolf starts to emit signals of cyclic AMP (don’t ask me what THAT is), and cells start to aggregate and form a slug that actually moves towards better conditions, ie, towards light and away from ammonia. When these conditions are reached, they form fruiting bodies, with 20 % of the cells in the aggregate forming a sterile stalk and the other 80% or so, forming spores which are held aloft by the stalk in structures called sorus. Now, my biologist friends, you already see the point here, don’t you? It’s all very fine to die in the stalk and not go on to the next generation if all cells in the aggregate are in fact of the same clone (remember they divide several times, so cells aggregating may all be the same, essentially). But what if the cells in the aggregate come from different clones? They would be dying to help others that may not be related to them. And in fact the joining of different clones in an aggregate (technically determined “chimaerism”) is possible! And different clones co-occur in nature, although chimaeric fruiting bodies have not been reported in nature, because they are quite difficult to get, sensitive little things they are. Also, cheating has been reported with lab strains. This means that some clones actually work their way to become preferentially spores rather than stalk, leaving the other clone to do the dirty work of dying in the stalk. So, what I’m doing is seeing in what way the relatedness between cells in an aggregate influences the success of these cheater strategies, and I hope to see that increasing levels of relatedness will decrease the success of cheaters. How I’m going to manipulate relatedness exactly is enough for another post. I’ll tell you when I know if it works… Because Dicty doesn’t have a sexual stage… So I can’t simply cross them, so we’re going about it in another way, which I’m not sure it will work. Anyway…

Tango!!!!!! I’m having tango lessons. I never really was a tango person, but a friend of Clea’s is giving tango lessons for free for some people, and all we have to do is pay for the space, which ends up being 1.5 dollars each! Bargain!!! Heel goedkoop!!! Therefore, I’m there, to learn how to tango… Against my expectations I really like it. I thought it would be very complicated from the start, because I had already once tried tango, and it seemed extremely complicated, and a good way to end up with a twisted foot and your face in the floor. But she started from the very beginning. We learned that tango is a matter of balance between two people. It seems as the dancers are actually pushing each other, but no, it’s all a matter of each dancer leaning forward and putting his weight slightly in the upper part of the body, but never so much that he or she loses his balance if the other person moves away. This way the woman feels where the man is going to move, and when, and moves along with him, predicting his steps. Isn’t it beautiful?? It’s hard to actually give up on looking at my feet, but that’s rule number one, in any dance. Never ever ever EVER look at your feet, or your partner’s feet. A good analogy is that when I first started driving I always had to look at the gear to see if I was putting the correct one. Soon I realized that only made it easier for me to crash against a tree. Same for dancing!! The tango lessons are also a nice place to meet other people, and it’s always fun to watch the others making a fool of themselves in these very early stages of learning a dance… Ehehe. Of course, I also make a fool of myself, but at that moment I’m not watching. J
Speaking of learning new dances, I am also going to start learning belly dancing. Again, it’s a friend of Clea’s who is giving lessons for free. I heard she is quite good, so I will see how it goes. At least it will give me a good excuse to shake my booty!

Samba!!!! I don’t think I mentioned it here before, but there is a Brazilian teacher here at Rice University. She teaches Portuguese (now, now, Portuguese people out there, don’t frown… I know what y’all thought just right now!!), and she is an extremely nice person. She is the typical Brazilian that we, Portuguese, now from the soap operas. Very friendly, very cheerful, charming and pretty! Also she has a strong faith in God and communicates directly with Santa Marta. Ehehehe, this actually reminds me of a LOT of soap opera characters. But she is a very sweet person, she has 3 daughters and her husband is American, but they all speak perfect Portuguese. They suffer from the immigrant syndrome, though. Their conversations are half English, half Portuguese, although they are fluent in both. I’ve seen this so many times in Portuguese emigrated in France, spending their summer holidays in Portugal, that it has become a joke. “Michel, tu vas tomber!!! Nao te disse que ias cair, meu idiota?!” But I see it now as a sign of a very difficult struggle… People really try to cling to their own cultural identity but it’s difficult because slowly the culture of the country where you are also becomes your own… and then you’re this cultural hybrid that no one really understands except for other freaks like you. Really!! It’s a pain. I’m already a Portuguese-Dutch hybrid, in fact… Some people in Portugal already think I have a not-so-Portuguese attitude, but for the Dutch I’ll never have a totally Dutch attitude. Argh… Anyway! This teacher organizes a weekly lunch for Portuguese speakers at Rice and this Sunday she invited us all to her house that is where Judas lost his boots (direct translation from Portuguese, you shouldn’t miss these expressions, they are the best…), to have brazilian “feijoada”. That’s black beans with all sorts of meat, cabbage, rice, farofa (no translation found), etc… Yummiiiii, in summary. The food was really great, and it reminded me of home, because we eat a lot of brazilian food in Portugal. I got the chance to speak my language and try to convince all the Brazilians there that Portugal was a beautiful country. The people in general are all really nice, and maybe I will ask one day that they teach me how to dance samba properly, since my way is just a cheap imitation. But I think you have to be born in Brazil to have samba in your blood. Ah, Brazil, Brazil… So I leave you with the group photo of the lunch (many people, so I won’t tell you who all of them are, even I don’t know!!), and with a song by Chico Buarque, for me simply the best songwriter ever! This song celebrates a special event in Portugal (the revolution on 25th April 1974) and wishes for a connection between the 2 countries, for a breath of rosemary to travel across the ocean…


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happee Valenteen's Dae

In the US, Valentine's Day is very important. I really start getting sick of all the heart shaped things around me, and all the pink and red stuff glowing, glittering, blinking out of every window shop. I never really got the hang of this day, for reasons better left unexplained, so I'll do my best at trying to think what would be my Valentine's Day message, if I had a Valentine... (Buaaaaahhaaaaaaahaaaaaaaaa). I think this is what it would be like. ;)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

What d’ya know?

Houston may actually be a fun place to be. I just found out this weekend where to dance salsa, no entry charged. Goodness gracious. And I thought I would die stupid here. Turns out I may even learn some moves!
Anyway, last Friday I went to dance salsa with Clea, another italian girl who works in my lab. It was great fun! We thought there would be a salsa party, but it turns out that the party was only on Saturday. Ooooohhh. But there was a band playing… With 6 musicians!! And… they played really well!!!!!! First song: Me libere (I wanted to be able to put a mini-player so you could listen to it, but no luck there... I hope I can do it in the future). Last song: Rebelion. Weeee, I was in heaven, transported back to the company of my Colombian fellows in Groningen, shaking what my momma gave me at Hemingway’s! And I was reminded of my dearest friend Saletinha. Especially because the guy who was singing was extremely cute and I thought she would appreciate the style. And also because salsa and Saleta will always be associated in my mind! : )
The crowd there was mainly Latin Americans. Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia were all represented there. So it was a very nice atmosphere, and no one would stay sitting down shaking their feet, because no respectful Latino lets a woman sitting down when it’s obvious she feels like dancing! I’m also getting familiar with Spanglish, the strange combination of English and Spanish words, in current conversations. “Oye, people, vamos, don’t be shy!” On Saturday, Clea challenged me again to go to the same place, finally to the salsa party. Logically, the band playing was much worse, and the music was not as nice as on Friday. The singer (a different guy) was even cuter, though.
Well, we had a lot a fun, plus 2 Coronas and a Margarita, so next day I was rewarded with a major headache. Life cannot be perfect.
I am writing this at a café called Salento, a really nice place with free wireless internet, jazz music playing, students around me silently typing in their laptops or pouring over books, so, all in all, a very cool place to spend a Sunday afternoon. It’s also really close to my place, in the heart of Rice Village, which is more or less the “chique” shopping area, a bit like Sunset Boulevard for LA (come on, you all saw Pretty Woman, don’t deny it!). Yeah, I live close by, ain’t I lucky??? No, because I’m a shoppaholic. It’s like Diego Maradona living close to a cocaine plantation. Bad, very bad. And everything faaaaar too expensive.
Well, this is it for today, now I’m going back home and meet my Italian neighbours for a walk and maybe dinner later. So hasta la vista, folks!!

PS – the sun keeps on shining here… I was told this was the best time of the year, because in Summer it is too damn hot. I leave you with a picture of me in front of Lovett Hall, a building here at Rice University. The University is old... around 80 years old... Ok, nothing compared to Lisbon University nor Groningen University... it is still a baby compared to those ancient homes of Knowledge and Science (pompous background music sounding...). But do not neglect the power of youth... As Dumbledore wisely says to Harry in HP and the HBP.
Code speaking. Reference to fictitious characters to validate arguments... Yeah, Potter-mania goes on.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Born to be wild! Or not?…

Ya, of, ya… as my friend Maya would say. It’s been 3 weeks already since I arrived here, going on 4.... I have to admit that adapting to Texas has been somehow easier than my adaptation to the Netherlands was. The house, though simple, at the lack of a better word, is already my house. The lab, although still mysterious, is already my lab, and the university campus, although truly American from head to toe is already my university campus. Probably because it is my second “adaptation”, and I am no longer the crybaby I was when I went to Groningen. Or maybe things are just easier, here. However, I have made some serious thinking about the reasons why I keep postponing my establishment somewhere, for good. Now the two things that occupy my mind constantly are my project, finding a PhD and… sorry, the THREE things that occupy my mind are my project, finding a PhD and Harry Potter. Hehehe. For those who know me, they already have realized that this is a serious situation, because every time I turn to Harry Potter as a scapegoat, it’s because my head is fuming…
The important thing to realize here is… whether Snape is really the bad guy!! No, just kidding, the important thing to realize is… what do I really want. This is complicated to ascertain, and in fact I have good reasons to believe I came all the away from across the Atlantic to find out what I want, which is kind of stupid. Sitting in my comfortable U-shaped couch in Groningen, or in my living room with my 2 cats in Oeiras, I would have figured out what I want, all the same. I just had to ask Myself. But Myself is always very evasive, the little bitch… Anyway. Just to say that although adaptation is going more or less smoothly, my head wanders to my two homes, and my heart wishes I would stop confusing dreams, which are nice to have and sometimes to follow, with its desires, which are much more important for happiness and peace of mind. Very deep, I know. And don’t get me started on Harry Potter.
Last weekend I finally got the chance to see some of the nature outside Houston. My supervisors are teaching a bird lab, and told me to come along if I wanted. Food, transportation and entrance in the Brazos State Park for free! Yiipiii! Minor drawback, I had to get up at 6 AM. And I’m not a birder… But anyway, I have done enough of these fieldtrips to know they are usually very interesting, even for the Common Backpack Walker. Ehehe. This was a joke that probably no non-birder or non-biologist will get, but helas…
And I wasn’t wrong! The park in itself is not breathtaking, but it has some untouched gallery forest, along the Brazos River, and several ponds, marsh-like kind of landscape, well, the usual of these bird areas… The day awoke submersed in deep fog, and I thought I would have done better in staying in bed, but when we got to the first spot, it took us only 15 minutes to see at least 20 different species… Weee! And at 9h30 it was already 20 degrees Celsius and the sun was shining.

Brazos entrance.JPG

My enthusiasm was even greater when I saw a sign saying: caution – alligators in the area. But I really thought it would be one of those signs that were there just to prevent people from going into the water, that I wouldn’t be fortunate enough to see one… But there they were, looking as pacient as only a species that is a living fossil could look. We didn’t get to see the big crocky snatching its jaws at any bird though… Too bad, but anyway, the birds were really nice. We saw loads of different ducks, herons, egrets, warblers, flycatchers, kingfishers, snipers, killdeers, titmice, cormorants, kestrels, even vultures and very very far away some pelicans flying in the horizon…






The temperature rose to 28 degrees and I think it must have reached 30 somewhere in the afternoon. Ahhhh, January in Texas…
Now, if I were a proper birder I would provide the scientific and common names of all the species I saw, but boring you to death is not my goal, although I may be accomplishing it anyway, and I don’t remember the names of all the species anymore. So you’ll just have to appreciate the pictures and say “uuuhhh, look at the pretty birdy”.
And by the way, I’d like to thank everyone for their warm comments. Some of you I haven’t seen in quite some time, but the hope to meet you again never dies, believe me. See y’all later, alligator! :)