The Science of Saving a Life

Christmas is over, a New Year has begun, and I am busy as hell.

I actually had this whole week off, and I was intending to spend it in the beautiful new library, obsessively preparing for this coming semester, which I have been told is to be brutal. Lee and I spent last week down south celebrating the holidays with my family and a week of quiet library time seemed the ideal way to preface the coming academic onslaught.

It was not to be.

The internet at large will forgive me sparing the gory details, and to those reading this that know me- everyone is going to be ok! But my “quiet” week has been a whirlwind of crowded last-minute flights, doctors, ICUs, surgeries, lots of uncertainty, and more body fluids than I think safe to discuss.

Peritoneal fluid mixed with bile, baby. Oh yeah.

So I’m in Seattle. In a hospital that’s not mine, a strange reversal from confident healthcare professional to exhausted and wide-eyed family member.

This is going somewhere, I swear. On Monday, I start my first real Med Tech class. I certainly didn’t expect to be starting it from a cot in the corner of an ICU room, but life comes at you fast, kids.

People ask me a lot why I chose to study medical laboratory science. It’s something most folks haven’t even heard of, never considered, but nonetheless might save their life someday. In fact, since doctors base something like 80% of their diagnostic and treatment decisions on information from the laboratory, there’s a pretty good chance that the lab will save their life, and yours, at some point.

Pasteur and Koch’s work with microorganisms and the germ theory of disease may have brought medicine into the modern age, but I firmly believe that it is the medical laboratory and the ability it grants to not just detect but quantify hidden properties of the body that will keep us there.

Your blood is like a book written about you, and the lab is the only place that can crack it open and read it. Your blood can tell us if you’re at risk for heart attack. It can tell us if you’re having a heart attack. It can tell us if you have an infection, if you’re anemic, if you have ovarian cancer, if you had a stroke, what your blood sugar has been for the last three months, if you lifted too many weights at the gym yesterday, and so on and so forth. New advances in genetic testing are even allowing us to take a peek inside your DNA for clues about everything from tailored medication dosage to risk of autoimmune disease.

So, it’s important. It’s exciting and fascinating and it matters. I don’t have the patience or the innate compassion to be a nurse. I don’t want to give up my life to become a doctor. But you can bet when you’re sick I’ll be there help, saving your life with science.

Post Script 1:  If you’re interested in learning more about lab science, the American Association of Clinical Chemistry publishes a great peer-reviewed resource called Lab Tests Online which provides detailed information on most laboratory tests as well as a variety of lab-related topics. Of particular interest: Inside the Lab.

Cinnamaldehyde and “The Look”

I went to the grocery store today to grab some whole spices for our laboratory project. I don’t usually buy my spices whole because I found it intimidating, but I think I want to try it next time because the chemicals that give spices their flavors are quite volatile and tend to evaporate or degrade while ground spices are sitting on the shelves.

So I’m at the checkstand with my little baggies of cinnamon and cloves, sandwiched between an off-islander buying what must be at least 40 pounds of assorted meats and a harried looking woman with a cartload of things that only barely qualify as “food”. The checker gives me a smile then looks down at what I’m buying.

“Oh this is cool. What is it?”

It’s cinnamon. Cinnamon, people. I get frustrated sometimes by the mental disconnect in this country that surrounds food. People don’t even know what real food is anymore.

I don’t say that, of course.

“It’s cinnamon, the spice. It’s for my chemistry class.”

She raises an eyebrow. “It smells nice.”

“Yes, that’s cinnamaldehyde, it’s a volatile organic compound that we’re studying…”

Then I see it. It’s the look- that vacant glazed-over look that I seem to inspire in people the world over. You’d think I was from Mars the way people stare at me like deer in the headlights.

“…well, anyway it’s for class.”

She says nothing but returns to smiling and scans my little bulk bags of spices then places them in the plastic shopping bags.

“Wait, wait, I don’t need a bag. I mean, they’re already in bags…”

She just gives me The Look.




I made spice cupcakes with maple cream cheese frosting for Halloween (I didn’t get to snap a pic, but use your imagination!) and I have leftover frosting. All this talk about cinnamon has got me in the mood for cinnamon rolls, plus Lee has asked for cinnamon rolls for his birthday, and it’s coming up so I have to to a test run!

I am going to try this recipe: Best Gluten Free Cinnamon Buns by Jeanine from The Baking Beauties. I will report back with the verdict! The recipe seems solid, but working with GF dough can sometimes be a challenge.

Fisher’s Universal Indicator

Today in my organic chemistry class, after all of the glassware had been cleaned and people started to trickle out, we got to playing with some universal indicator and made this.

It’s not food coloring- the same pigment is used in each of these, Fisher’s Universal Indicator is a combination of pigments which change color depending on the pH of the solution. From left to right, the solutions go from quite acidic to very basic. At a neutral pH as in pure water, Fisher’s Indicator is green.

It was a lot more work than you might expect- the reagent expired in 1993 (thank you, public education!) and many tears were shed- mostly mine. We used varying combinations of HCl, NaOH, distilled water, and our slightly acidic tap water.

The purple is kind of lame. We tried to get a better purple by shoveling solid pure lye* into the mix but no avail. You can only do so much when your reagent has been expired for almost two decades.

chemistry rainbow

*Remember kids, do NOT try this at home.