Monday, March 16, 2009

Dog Soup and Fine Dining

It was Heather's birthday last weekend so I went down to Busan for a visit. Luckily I managed to schedule my experiments so they'd be running over the weekend.

Here's a two day old capsicum seedling growing in the greenhouse. Upon seeing this photo, any self-respecting plantologist would instantly recognise that this plant is a dicot. A dicot means that when the seed first germinates, two 'leaves' sprout out. Rice and most cereal crops are called monocots because they germinate with a single cotyledon. All of the plants in the world are categorised as either monocots or dicots. If you ever manage to find a plant that germinates with three cotyledons, I guess you could call it a tricot.

You would also be famous.

Every Wednesday I'm rostered on to go to the greenhouse and water the plants. Being the mildly-adventurous diner that I am, I went exploring last week to find a new place to eat. Tucked away in suburban Suwon, I found this small traditional Chinese restaurant. A lot of places like these are just extensions of people's houses.

I was the only person in the restaurant, and funnily enough the elderly couple that run the place spent a good five minutes trying to convince me to eat elsewhere. That pretty much convinced me to stay. Here's an excerpt from our conversation:

Lee: "Can I have lunch?"
Elderly Man: "You won't like our food. It's Chinese."
Elderly Woman: "Can you smell that? Smells funny doesn't it? There's Korean food next door."
Lee: "It's okay, I was once a Malaysian cook."
Elderly Woman: "Chinese is different to Malaysian..."
Elderly Man: "Students don't eat our food."

After sitting down and finally getting a menu (which had no Korean or English writing), the elderly woman recommended her specialty in the photo above: tofu noodles. The noodles themselves were made of dried tofu and the sauce was nice and tangy.

I'll be eating back there again next week.

Four times a year, the students from our floor of the building all get together and have dinner. Standing up in the photo is a student from the virology lab, about to propose a toast. Our floor of the building has labs that all focus on plant disease. There are the virologists, mycologists, nematologists, clinical plant pathologists and our lab, the plant bacteriologists. And upstairs are the entomologists.

Who knew that plants had so many diseases?

For some reason, the food at the university cafeteria is always a little different on Saturdays. It's usually a mixed-rice dish, which I suspect is due to there being leftovers from the week. The taste is fairly good though. Even though our lunch break only lasts 30 minutes, it's still something to look forward to.

Here's Chen Jing, showing the LKB readers the correct method for putting the vegetables on top of the rice. I was looking over Chen Jing's shoulder one day and on her computer bookmarks list, I saw my blog. Three cheers for Chen Jing!

This rather oddly shaped building near my place is a product of space constraints here. The reason it's so narrow is because land in front of the university is incredibly expensive, and the tightly packed neighbours of this building obviously didn't want to sell. I can't help but think that it looks like a Playstation 3.

On the roof of my koshiwon is an open area to hang laundry. Due to my timetable, I'm usually doing mine in the early morning or late at night. There's a pretty good view of the street below and it's good to have laundry as an excuse to mill around and watch the happenings below.

Last week I tried dog soup, of which Korea is somewhat notorious for. Dog meat is not very popular here at all, but it does have a niche market which is primarily composed of men who think it bestows some sort of masculine vigour upon them. I'd been meaning to try it for some time now, but never got around to it.
I had a minor moral dilemma before deciding to go into the restaurant, but my moral resolve was insufficient to outweigh my curiousity. I like dogs, but then again I also like horses and kangaroos. Now I've tried all three.
The taste of dog is pretty bland, which is why the recipes most often have a lot of flavouring added. It also has some quite fatty bits which I didn't find all that appetising. The texture and flavour are most similar to beef, but not as good. I'll be perfectly happy living my life without ever eating it again.

Here's a very large beaker in the lab with three litres of nutrient water for growing yeast. Often when we make solution like this, the powder takes a long time to dissolve. Normally it would take around 30 minutes of constant stirring with a spoon for it to be ready, but nobody wants to be standing around for that long. So what we do is drop a plastic covered bar magnet into it. The magnet turns when we put it on top of a machine that applies a spinning magnetic field to the base. In the photo you can see the little maelstrom being caused by it. The whirring and clinking of the machine in action is rather relaxing, I find.

Dry ice and liquid nitrogen are two things in the lab that I never seem to get bored of. Sometimes the enzymes that we order come packed with dry ice to keep them cool. If you mix that with some water, you get a cool mist in the sink. While the older lab members tend to roll their eyes at such silliness, you can always be sure to attract the inquisition of newer students. Chen Jing was fascinated.

If you add detergent and hot water, you get so many bubbles that it overflows onto the floor.

On Saturday it was Heather's birthday so I went down to Busan on Friday night. This was my first break from the lab and I've been pretty much flat-out since I began in Seoul. Seoul is nice, but Busan is still my favourite city. Even though I live near the mountains in Seoul, the air in Busan is noticeably fresher.

Anthony, being the nice guy that he is, paid for a hotel room for us right on the beachfront for Heather's birthday present. The room was about 20 times larger than my current accommodation. Thanks Ants.

This was the view out of our window. Anthony's apartment is in the building next door. Teaching English in Korea and having a view like this every morning is something worth considering.

On Saturday night we had dinner at The Kitchen up on Dalmaji hill. This is our favourite restaurant in Busan, and it's where Heather and I got engaged last year.

We had a special set menu for 'White Day', which occurs one month after Valentine's Day here. In Korea on Valentine's Day, the girls tend to give boys presents. Then on White Day, it's the boy's turn to give presents to the girls. Heather's birthday happens to be on White Day, which is convenient.

The first dish was an appetiser with a little egg omelet and some sort of creamy concoction in an egg shell. It was supposed to resemble one of the islands of Korea, although I can't remember which one. The base was made of pure blackened salt, but Jef and I thought it was edible. So after we took a bite of that, we had a rather unpleasant surprise. The rest of it was okay though.

Next was a crepe filled with minced crab. It was good, but the dried cherry tomato on top was more up my alley.

Heather had a different set course to me, and as usual her choice turned out to be more appetising than mine. Here's her stuffed lobster tail entree'.

I'd always pondered photos of dishes like this in magazines. The usage of oversized plates seems to me to be an unnecessary hassle to the dishwasher. But then again, I am a little dishwasher-centric in my restaurant thinking because I did it for 3 years. Dishwashing itself can be quite relaxing if you know how to enjoy it. I heard that the warm water helps to relieve stress.

Anyway, this dish was a subtley flavoured zucchini pate'.

Then came the fried fish and some sort of seafood ball. The greenery in the photo was an entire plant, roots and all. It was pretty good.

And the main course was steak. I myself am not a huge steak eater but this one was okay. Perhaps a little too fatty.

All in all the meal was nice, but I prefer the regular menu that they have here. It was about $60 per person which is quite different to my regular $3 school cafeteria dinners. Luckily for Heather and me, Daniel paid for us. If you're ever in Busan and are looking for some fine dining, try looking for 'The Kitchen' up on Dalmaji Hill. It's very close to the Vesta bath house.

They've developed a lot of the beach areas in Busan, including the Haeundae market. Now there's new paving there and every shop has a sign that matches. It looks nice, but I also liked the clamour and disorganisation of the old market.

This is the view that we woke up to on Sunday morning. If you're wanting to stay beachside in Busan, remember that Gwangali is usually less crowded and a little cheaper than Haeundae, but right next door.

For Sunday lunch we ate with Heather's family. I hadn't seen Ji-Ye for a good three months, so we had a lot of catching up to do. Ji-Ye is now perfectly aware that my Korean isn't very good, so she'll often stop in the middle of sentences and ask "Understand?"

I used to say 'no' a lot, but I've realised that her stopping to explain things in detail (which she's more than happy to do), often leaves me even more confused. So these days she'll just be rambling on about things in Korean, with me nodding.

Her language abilities have improved so much it makes me feel bad. But I'm still better at English. So there.

Heather's mother's birthday is one day after Heather's, so we had a cake to celebrate with her. She cooked a nice traditional Korean lunch for us, with tofu soup, grilled beef and a plethora of side dishes. In Korea, it's common to give parents money for their birthday. But it's also common for parents to give children money when they leave for a while. So I gave Heather's mother some money for her birthday, only to have it kindly returned with an extra $10 more when I left later that day.

Ji-Ye took this photo. She loves cameras.

And then it was time to head back to Seoul on the KTX. All of the economy class tickets were booked out, so I had to get a business class seat. I love it when that happens. Business class is around $10 more, but there's more leg room and better seats.

So yeah, happy birthday to my hunni and Heather's mother. Thanks Anthony for the room, thanks Daniel for the dinner and thanks to Jef and Niko for the company. I'll be back again someday.

See you next time!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

An Umbrella in the Laboratory

I've just entered my third month of the Ph.D here and getting into the swing of things. It takes around six months to a year in most labs until you can work completely independently. This is because there's a lot of know-how involved and the fine tuning of your methods really means the difference between an experiment working or failing. Some experiments take a few hours to do, but the more complex ones like a Yeast 2-Hybrid can take a couple of weeks in their entirety.

One feeling that you get used to pretty quickly is the one that comes after realising that you'll have to repeat a week's worth of work because you didn't get the results you were looking for. These troughs of feeling are compensated by the highs that you get when your experiments work nicely. When your experiments work, you feel like an invincible genius.
In the photo above, Chen Jing is cutting out a band of stained DNA with a razor blade. The gel that the DNA is sitting in is fluorescing pink. If you stain DNA with the right stuff, it becomes fluorescent under UV light. That's also why she's wearing the face shield, to protect her from skin damage.

On the left is Se-kyung and on the right is Hoon. Hoon is my senior in the lab and I have to learn a lot of methods from him. However, he is very 'traditional' in a Korean sense, which I would best describe as displaying a rigid adherence to a hierarchical social structure to every last detail. Korea in general does have a more formal system of etiquette and respect based on age, but Hoon is a little more intense than your average Korean. His demeanor as well as his large fingers (which can make the intricacies of scientific work difficult at times) leads me to believe he may have been historically misplaced and actually belongs to the age of gladiators.

We're learning to get along with each other as time goes by.

In the last photo you may have noticed Se-kyung with an umbrella. When I first saw this here I did find it amusing, but since taking this photo I've seen it enough times and also had to use it myself. When you need to take a photo of something scientific, you need to do it carefully. Everything in the frame has to be lined up and zoomed in to the same measurements, on a tripod and with an umbrella to shield against reflections.

Last week I attended a 2 day safety course with a lot of other new students. It was all in Korean, which meant I only understood about 5%, but it was interesting to observe the lecture room behaviour here. Korean students will often put their heads on the table during lectures and fall asleep (they even have a special verb for it: opdeurida). The lecturing professors, who I have to admit do appear boring even by lecturing professor standards, just continue on with the lecture like everyone's listening.

There was a test at the end, which was fairly straightforward. The content was a little silly at times, with such worthy safety advice as "If there is an unlabelled chemical on the bench, do not taste it" and "Don't store your lunch in the hazardous chemicals cabinet."
Safety education is vitally important to lab workers, but perhaps they also need to be testing us for common sense.

We do a fair bit of recycling here, which is good for the finances as well as the environment. I was mildly surprised to learn that they even recycle the toothpicks that we use to spot bacteria onto the petri dishes.
But I recently found out that this isn't done to save money. Do you know the two kinds of toothpicks that there are? The nice ones have pointed ends, while the cheaper ones are roughly cut and have a semi pointed end and a thicker one. The cheaper toothpicks are actually more useful to us, because the thicker end is a perfect size for scooping up a colony of bacteria, but the nice toothpicks are too pointy. In Korea they only sell the nice toothpicks, so the lab ordered some cheap toothpicks from overseas. Because they're not easy to come by here, we recycle them.

If you're thinking of a new business idea, try selling cheap toothpicks to Korean labs.

Earlier I mentioned one of the longer experiments called a Yeast 2-Hybrid. The theory behind it is fascinating and elegant, but getting it to work can be a nightmare. Basically it's a way to test if two different organic molecules interact with each other. Molecular interactions are behind almost every little thing that goes on in nature; from growing hair to producing acid in your stomach. By figuring out which molecules are interacting with each other, we can draw up a diagram and get an idea of what's happening in the bigger picture.
What a Yeast 2-Hybrid does is manipulate yeast cells so that they will live or die, depending on which molecules are interacting inside them. A good example of this is 'poison resistance', which is when the yeast can only survive poison if they have the correct interaction going on. In the photo above you can see that most of the yeast spots are nice and white, meaning that they survived. But there are two spots that are opaque, which means that they were unable to survive the poison. This tells us something about what is going on with the molecules that we are studying.

And in science, one experiment is never enough proof. What you need to do is repeat the experiment until you can convince your professor and the community that your results are meaningful. A good way to do this is to have experiments with different methods. If your experiments have different methods and use different stuff, but the results indicate the same conclusions, then you have a stronger basis for making a claim. This is why real scientists know that things like global warming and evolution are beyond reasonable doubt. These two 'theories' are supported through an immense range of scientific disciplines, from molecular mechanics to ecology and atmospherics. When such broad, independent and scientifically reliable sources all conclude the same thing, you can be confident that it's more trustworthy than someone who wrote a book saying it's all a big conspiracy.
Anyway, in the photo above is the same experiment but done with different chemicals. In the dish is essentially the same colonies of yeast, but they've been given chemicals that will turn blue if the result is positive. We can see that the same pattern emerges as in the previous photo, which gives us a more trustworthy result. Isn't life grand?

It was Se-kyung's birthday this week, so we celebrated with a cake and some Chinese food. Se-kyung is finishing up her master's degree this year. It's going to be Heather's birthday next week, so I'm probably heading back to Busan for the weekend.

Here's a fried fish cutlet lunch that I had a while ago. The serving sizes are actually quite good and just enough to fill you up without going overboard. If you want more though, you can go back to the counter and get refills for free. The price of this meal was only W2,500 (about $2.50 Australian!).

It was also graduation day recently. A whole lot of vendors came to the campus selling flowers, food and photography services. I look forward to the day when I graduate, but I guess I have a lot to learn before I can consider myself proficient in the field.

The professor took us out for a nice dinner last week too. We went to a traditional Korean barbecue place to welcome our newest lab member, Keonwoo. One day I'll hopefully get a photo of the professor to post here. He's one of the smartest people I've ever met and quite friendly, but I still haven't struck up the courage to snap a photo of him. Maybe one day when he's not looking, you'll get to see a photo of the back of his head.

I'm still on the waiting list for the dormitories and my old place expired. So Hong-sup organised some new accommodation for me at the New Zen koshiwon. These types of places are popular with students because they're cheap and usually conveniently located. Mine is 30 seconds away from the shuttle bus stop.

Koshiwons have shared facilities like kitchens and washing machines which give them a more communal atmosphere than regular lodgings, known as officetels.

And here's the reason why they're so cheap. My room has enough standing space for one, but not enough floor space to do push-ups on. But it helps to keep the place tidy at least. I have free internet and a little TV too. Some people live permanently in these sorts of places, and I'm sure I could live here for a year or so. It's not so good for having friends over though.

My room is one of the 'deluxe' rooms, which means I don't have to share my bathroom. The showerhead actually sprays over the whole bathroom area, including the toilet paper (which was an interesting discovery).

I packed all of my stuff from my previous place and carried it over. Instant noodles are the quintessential student food of our generation.

The view out the window isn't particularly spectacular, but sometimes I can see kids playing in the alley below. I stopped watching them after they discovered me leering down at them one day. I guess I'm not really a creepy old man, but there's no point in practising.

Maybe I should buy a periscope.

And one of the more comical things I found was this glow-in-the-dark exit sign above my door. Even in pure blindness, it would be difficult to not find your way out of the room.

The area I'm in, which is named after the university's subway stop, has a more suburban feel to it. Conveniences are everywhere and I don't have to walk far to find what I'm looking for.

On the weekend I found a Vietnamese beef noodle shop. These are popular in Korea, and the taste is fairly good. But in Australia, there's a large Vietnamese community, so the beef noodles back home are excellent.

Back to the lab again. These days I'm pulling 8:40am until midnight as hours on occasion, but there are others here that do it more regularly. I always was a workaholic, so it doesn't bother me much. I enjoy the freedom that I have in organising my own timetable.
The machine in the photo above is called an autoclave. Because we need most of our equipment sterile before we use it, most things are autoclaved regularly. This machine applies high pressure, steam and heat to whatever is put inside. The result is that no bacteria can survive, and even viruses are broken down. Many people don't know, but bacteria and viruses are about as different as fish and rocks. Well, maybe not fish and rocks. More like fish and water.
You can see that the lid of the machine kind of looks like a submarine hatch. That's because this kind of seal is the best design for high pressure environments.

And if you autoclave things the wrong way, this is what happens. In this photo, the plastic lids of the test tubes melted and fused onto the tubes themselves, as well as the rack. We had to throw these away.

In the last blog post, I told you how we can get foreign DNA into bacteria by simply giving them a heat shock. Another way to do it is with this machine in the photo. It's called an electroporator and what it does is apply a short zap of electricity to your bacteria. What you do is plop the bacteria into a special tube with metal sides and mix them with the DNA you're interested in. The electrical charge pierces the cells and carries the DNA in with it, because DNA is negatively charged. But it all happens so quickly that the holes in the bacteria seal up fast enough that some of them can survive.

Here's our newest Ph.D student, Keonwoo, helping me to prepare the electrocompetent cells. Keonwoo is a funny guy and we get along well. He smokes a lot of cigarettes and his voice sounds a little like Smegol, but he's very chilled. His English name is Keanu, due to the similar spelling, but I pointed out that this was because the spelling was wrong. According to the revised romanisation of Korean, his name should be spelled Geonwoo. So I sometimes call him Geanu Reeves.

The weather has been warming up nicely, but the other day we had precipitation that was a mix between snow and rain. I'm sure there's a proper name for it, but I called it Snain. When spring fully arrives, I hope to start jogging again.

That's all from me! See you next time.