Sunday, April 19, 2009

Science Park and a Wedding

After an initial flurry of motivation for lab work, I've since found the inevitable slow-down that occurs approximately 3 months after you start. The main ideas of science are always exciting to me, however the daily routine of mindless protocols is sure to wither away even the most ardent enthusiast. But I was expecting this to happen anyway. One thing I've learned in life thus far is that in order to get where you want, you often have to do a lot of things that you'd rather not do.

This paper in the photo above is Se-Kyung's. I saw it on her desk and decided to snap a photo of it to share. It's a DNA sequence that has been heavily annotated to a point where it resembles something rather artistic. DNA is the biological code for all living things, and like most forms of code, it looks like jibberish when you see it for the first time. However, with a modest amount of experience, the code will reveal all sorts of interesting information if you know what you're looking for. Once you know what the code means, you can change it for better or worse. This is what biotechnology is all about.

Spring is blooming in staggered outbursts, like some sort of fireworks show going on in slow motion. One species of tree will bloom all of a sudden during a week, and then as those blossoms begin to fade away, a different species will flower.
I guess the reason why trees do this is because there aren't enough insects to pollinate all of the trees at the same time.

Yowie recommended I buy a dSLR to use for the blog. While it would certainly tidy up the visual quagmire that Lee's Korea Blog has become, I long ago decided that higher end cameras are too bulky to carry around. Most of the photos I take are on the move, so I need something small that fits into my pocket. But my current Sony Cybershot W90 is still pretty good. It only cost me $200 and I've dropped it on numerous occasions. The macro shot in the photo above is a rather befitting example of its optical prowess, I contend.

As for the blossoms, Chen Jing and I usually only get to see them in the early mornings or late at night. We both live in the dormitories, so often on the way home Chen Jing will advise me to take a photo or two. But that will often lead me into a lengthy explanation on why things at night look much better to us than on camera. The image editing software in our minds is more finely tuned.

Hey look, it's Heather. Over the past two weeks she's visited twice, which is pretty good seeing as I've only been to Busan once since I arrived.

The Seoul National University campus is surrounded by public parklands and hiking trails. I'd have to say that it's the best looking university in Korea that I've seen. On the weekends, the public buses constantly unload a steady stream of city dwellers eager for a dose of nature.

Near the BK dormitory is Seoul Science Park. It reminds me a little of the old Investigator Science and Technology Centre in Adelaide, that I was crazy about in my youth. I wish they had more of these sorts of places around. Basically they're family friendly places with exhibits designed to entertain kids and foster an interest in science.

This long tube going down the hill is an echo tunnel. If you stick your head in the end and talk, you can hear your echo when it bounces back. It reminds me of that funny word 'echolalia' which means the constant repetition of phrases, usually done by kids as a way of processing thoughts or sometimes just for fun.

If someone is nagging you in the lab or workplace, why not try a little sarcastic echolalia to help lighten the mood?

"LEE, don't put the tube there."

"Leeee. don't. put. the. tube. therrrrre."

In the photo above, Heather is investigating the contents of a sky dome. If you put your head into one of these, it's all dark inside but there are little holes that let spots of light in. The holes are cut where the locations of the stars are at night, so you can see a map of the night sky.

For dinner we went out to Itaewon, which is the foreigner district of Seoul. Here you'll find a nice variety of foreign restaurants and bars including Australian, African and Middle Eastern. We ate at the MyThai restaurant which is very close to the Hard Rock Cafe.

The food was fairly good, although nothing spectacular. We had a red chicken curry and noodles which came out a little late, but the service from the waitering staff was excellent. We had a nice bottle of Chilean wine to wash it all down, because they had sold out of the Australian Wyndham's. Chilean wine is cheap in Korea, because there's an FTA between the two countries.
After that we went to Syd and Mel's Australian restaurant and had some wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce. I used to eat that a lot in Australia, not knowing that it was an Australian dish.

Sometimes I'll find places with funny English names in Korea, and when I do I'll try to remember to take a photo of them for you. The name of this kimbap restaurant in Nakseongdae is rather fun. I think it's supposed to be a mixture of potato and tomato.

One of Heather's friends got married on Sunday, so we went out to SungKyunKwang University to attend. The bride and groom opted to have a traditional Korean wedding, which are still very popular here.

The groom gets carried by helpers, and there's a different platform for the bride. The ceremony includes some announcements as well as bowing, washing hands and drinking from a ceremonial cup.

This guy is part of the wedding ceremony and his job is to read out the special marriage announcement. I think it was all in archaic Korean, which is why I couldn't understand any of it.

Here are the bride and groom looking very special. The bride actually recommended Heather to work at CDI a long time ago, which led to her employment. So I guess if that didn't happen, we wouldn't have met and wouldn't be together now. It's kind of funny when you think about things like that.

Next was a traditional samul-nori drum and dance performance. The hats have rods and long ribbons attached to them, which are spun around with a good amount of skill.

The weather was warm and the ceremony was especially nice under the large trees. I wouldn't mind having something similar for our wedding.

Then came the buffet lunch. I've been to a few weddings in my time, and as long as there's good food and alcohol, it's a good wedding.

Here's Heather enjoying the refreshments. We're going to get married sometime later this year, but haven't set the date yet. Weddings are too expensive.

After that we met Heather's brother in the Hyehwa district which is somewhat similar to PNU in Busan. We had a bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz with a mozarella salad at a cafe, which was nice. My Korean has improved a very slight amount, so now I'm able to butt into Heather and her brother's conversations more frequently. The presence of wine seems to increase the frequency of such interruptions.

Well I'm happy that the weather is warming up. I've also decided to spend a little less time in the lab and do other things on some nights. I think that if I spend way too much time doing experiments, it'll be less productive than doing all sorts of different things. Last week I went to Toastmasters, which is a speech presentation club. Hopefully I'll go again tomorrow night and get some photos for you.

See you next time!

Saturday, April 04, 2009

BK International House

There I was, minding my own business in my 2 X 3 metre koshiwon, when all of a sudden I find out that there's a vacancy for me at the BK International House. My new residence is located just outside the back gate of the university and I can walk to and from the lab now. Joy.

Of all the dormitories available to students at Seoul National University, BK International House is the most sought after. It has larger living quarters than the regular dorms and the rooms are better equipped. There are also no rules or inspections here which makes me feel more like a grown-up and less like an irresponsible grad student.

I moved in on a Saturday with the help of Keonwoo and Hong-Sup. Helping someone move house is a debt repayable in blood.

Now that I have a respectable kitchen, I guess I can emerge from my ramyeon binge and start eating fresh foods at home again. I was happy to have a gas range instead of an electric stove top. Gas stoves give you better control over temperature change.

My new bathroom has enough room to swing a cat in. My previous bathroom had barely enough room to dangle a guinea pig in. Technically, if I really wanted to save time in the mornings, I could probably have a shower at the same time as I'm on the toilet. It'd be like a full-body bidet.

Interesting thought.

And I also have my own washing machine now, which is much larger than I need. Washing machines in Korea tend to spin clothes a little funny, so I'll usually get my long sleeve shirts out in a tangled mess.
Most machines here also play a little melody when they've finished. Mine plays a rather comprehensive, but nameless tune that goes for about a minute. If I had to name the tune, I'd call it "The Simple Joys of 8-bit Music". I'm sure the machine is dying to express itself in more meaningful ways, but the company didn't endow it with a large enough vocabulary.

Here's the view from my balcony. I'm looking forward to the summer, so that I can sit here and ponder the nuances of molecular biology while sipping on something alcoholic.

I went for a walk into the nearby dormitories to have a look around. There's a restaurant, a bar and a convenience store within the buildings. For those who don't have their own washing machines, there's this shared facility in the basement.
When I was back in the koshiwon's shared laundry, some hapless newcomer to the field of laundrology had added an entire 2 kilogram box of laundry detergent to his wash cycle.

I would have taken a photo for the blog, but I think that would have been insensitive to his tattered laundry ego.

The weather has taken a while to warm up, but finally we're getting into the low teens (Celsius). I like Korea in the spring because the blossoms here are always nice.

We recently heard a rumour that a Quiznos shop had opened up on campus somewhere. Chen Jing and I went out searching for it on the shuttle bus. Sure enough, one had opened at the top of the hill.

Quiznos is very similar to Subway in Australia and it's about the only place here that sell proper sandwiches. The common Korean sandwich will often have mashed potato, coleslaw or some other misguided ingredient within. After two and a half years of muted sandwich dismay, a real sandwich is something to get excited about.

I had the Italian Classic™ on parmesan bread and it was good. It was so good that I bought a Coca Cola™ to go with it, and I rarely drink Coke™. I hope you appreciate my real ™ sign, because I had to do a Google™ search for it just then and it took me a little while to find. That's the kind of quality effort you can expect here on Lee's Korea Blog™.

There's a couple of nasty colds going around Korea at the moment and so it was a bit of a worry when Hong-Sup started sniffling in the lab last week. Before long, he had managed to inoculate most of us with his rather virulent strain of rhinovirus. Contrary to popular belief, very little of the medicines you get from the pharmacy have any effect on ridding the body of the common cold. The reason is because cold viruses mutate rapidly and its difficult to formulate a strategy against something that's always reinventing itself. Most of the medicines you'll get are knowingly prescribed as a placebo, or are designed to relieve the symptoms. In Korea, you can get all your little meal doses in specially sealed plastic things, and they look a little bit like lollies.
Incidentally I read about a recent study saying that if you sleep 8 hours or more per night rather than 7, you are three times more resistant to a cold infection.

In some of the taxis here now, they've installed little televisions on the head rests. This is usually in addition to the dashboard mounted television that will often be playing Korean drama. I think we'll eventually reach the day when there are more screens on earth than people.

Some of the lab members were interested in learning how to cook, so we got together last weekend and I showed them how to make carbonara spaghetti.
We'll probably get together every second week from now on and hopefully share some recipes. I was a cook at the Casuarina restaurant for seven years in Australia before I arrived here, but I've realised that cooking is a lot like language. If you don't practice often, it slowly slips away from you. My carbonara was pretty good though. Even Chen Jing liked it, and she doesn't like cream or cheese.

Here's Eun-Hae, Se-Kyong and Chen-Jing after we had everything ready. It was an enjoyable meal and we drank Australian wine (a Lindemans shiraz) while discussing lab politics. Talking about lab politics means talking about all of the annoying things that 'certain-others-not-present' do. And that certain 'others' is actually a singular, and the guy's name is Hoon.

There's no better therapy.

And Keonwoo and I found a pretty good sam-gyeop-sal (barbecue bacon) restaurant near the subway station. It's probably very unhealthy but it makes up for it with pure sizzling bacon-fat goodness.

In the same restaurant there's a self serve banchan (side-dish) bar with the quintessential 'kim-chi and derivatives' available. The sign above says that it's all free, but if you take more than you can eat, you have to pay a fine of 5,000 won.

See that circular speck at the bottom of my tube? That's a colony of Xanthomonas oryzae, which is the name of the bacteria that I'm working on. What our little friend Xanthomonas does is inject rice plants with a cocktail of poisons that make the plant very unhealthy. The plants will often wither up and die, sometimes laying waste to entire fields. It has these tiny little needles that it produces, which are pretty interesting in themselves. But my specific project is focused on how the poisons work once they're inside the plant.

I have a theory at the moment, but I'll tell you about it when I'm sure.

Gimme four years.

These days I walk home from the lab usually between 11pm and midnight. It's difficult to see here, but in the windows of the public area of the dormitory, there are always students up studying. Even late on Saturdays and Sundays.
I've also settled into a routine of extended work. A conservative estimate of my working hours would be around 80 per week. No kidding. But the style of work in the lab is fairly slow paced, because you're always waiting for something to finish growing/incubating/amplifying etc.

And to finish us off this time is a box sent to us by a lab equipment company. I find the label on the top amusing, but it also leaves me with further questions. Perhaps there may be more than one product in the box, if we're lucky? Or is it stating something more complex regarding the nature of zero? Is it possible to mail less than one of something? Would it be the same if they added "... but more than zero products in this box" or "3 minus 2 products in this box"?

Such occurrences add a light touch of sorely needed drama to my laboratory lifestyle.

See you next time!