Fraction Collector

I haven’t posted much about my builds- mostly because I’m swamped with work and family. But I can’t resist with this one.

Our flash chromatography system was acting up, and so the saying goes: necessity is the mother of invention. Rather than try to coax the equipment to keep eeking out 48 samples with the occasional hardware failure, I just decided to program my own system that could do exactly what I wanted. More sample collection capacity, more control, and more arduino!

I hijacked my XY plotter (purchased a few years ago to build a microbial biopointilism plotter), and coded a relatively simple XY coordinate grid that was based on a cheap test tube rack (Amazon/Ebay). In doing so, I now have 5 racks of 24 tubes, for a whopping 120 tubes at 50ml each. That’s a grand total of 6 liters of fractionation capacity. Oh yeah.

The plotter already had simple limit switches on the X+/X- and Y+/Y- planes, so I started out writing a simple “homing” sketch to get to (0,0) at the bottom left, then basically just placed the first tube rack under that first coordinate. The collector head will stay over the tube for a defined period of time, which is linearly proportional to the volume that we want to collect. Once that time is up, it moves a specified number of steps to the next tube. The spacing between the row of 8 tubes is constant, but then it needs to move to the next row like a typewriter- same movement between racks. The movement is actually pretty easy, and it only took some minor tweaking to get all of the tube racks aligned with the code.

Next I implemented a 12vdc pinch valve to be able to close the flow while the collector head moves between rows and racks. Tube to tube didn’t suffer any sample losses, so it only turns off the flow while zig-zagging from one row to the next.

I then made a custom 25-pin din cable end to plug into a masterflex digital peristaltic pump, and this allows us to remotely control the solvent flow on vs off. No need to change the flowrate, just keep it at a nice simple isocratic flow. (or one thing I am considering is altering the flowrate based on the column backpressure, so the fraction volume doesn’t tail off as pressure increases).

There is a serial interface with a computer, so the collector head can be steered manually, the valves and the pumps activated, etc.¬†The software/code is arduino-based, and I hosted it over on Github here. Please be kind, I’m a biochemist not a programmer. ūüėČ

Regarding the code… Right now it is only using a delay function to set the time for each sample. I have a draft program coded that uses the system clock to keep track of the fraction time, so the microprocessor can actually think and do other things- like pause, or modify the program while it is running. I’ll upload that when I get it working, but for now the delay is working well. Also I have considered abandoning the laptop and just using a LCD screen or some form of readout, with buttons or some human interface to control the robotic arm and program, but the serial interface is easy and convenient, and it works. Done is better than perfect!

Hardware involved:

  • Makeblock XY plotter kit- with electronics
  • BioChemValve Pinch valve, normally closed, 12vdc
  • A masterflex peristaltic pump and tubing
  • Chromatography column of your liking
  • Luer lock fittings for the pump tubing
  • Zipties to hold the tubing to the cables and the fraction head
  • 5vdc 2x Relay board (or suitable setup to control the pinch valve)
  • 25 pin din, male, solder cup adapter (or as needed for the pump interface)
  • rj11 6 wire data cables to tap into the MakeBlock Orion (Arduino) board
  • A 12vdc 2A power source for the pinch valve
  • And a laptop or computer with Arduino IDE installed on it

I have programmed our Tecan and have done some other small robotics projects in lab, but this is my first project that has become a workhorse of the lab. With my initial success, I’m now trying to hijack a $22 ebay robot kit for fraction collection.

The number of fraction collectors that one needs is always n+1…

-BZ

Orian Kendall Price

Orian playing his guitar in front of Whitney Hall, CSU Chico, ca 1999-2000.

There are people in your life that will change you, sometimes in ways that you never thought possible. Not teachers, per se, but people you encounter that are capable of opening up your mind to the possibilities in life, and in turn it changes your whole life view. One influential character in my own life was Orian Price.

I received news that Orian passed away in October of 2016, due to medical complications from a wing-suit accident (or something along those lines). Orian was the guy that we joked “wouldn’t make it past 40”, and unfortunately this half-baked prophecy came true. Predicting this tragedy years earlier didn’t make it any less heartbreaking when I heard the news.

On our VW adventure, somewhere between Chico and Newcastle.

I met Orian in 1999 in the dorms at Chico State. We were both on the third floor, and he lived two doors down the hall. He was a little odd, and it was clear very early that he did not play by the same rules as everyone else. He was smart, but combative. He was funny, but liked to make you feel uncomfortable. He was adventurous, but was compelled to constantly test his limits. He was an inspiration, but also a wild-card.

Late night boxing in the parking lot of Gateway Apartments, ca 2000-2001.

The two-headed nature of Orian was exciting, and he definitely kept you on your toes. It was an adventure just being friends with the guy. Just thinking that I earned his respect and met his high bar for friendship still brings a smile to my face.

The summer of 2001, a terrible year for hair. Joe was shipping out to the Army, I had my long hair, and Orian was going through a Brylcreem or straightener phase. Photo taken in Orian/Joe/Dave/Morgan’s apartment in Gateway.

It had been years since my last encounter with Orian, but his influence on my life is unmistakable. I think of him when I see Vans shoes or a Sector9 longboard, when I hear Ozma, see a VW bus, when I tear apart a computer, or whenever I think about my years at Chico. Not every day, but definitely every week.

Some of my best memories of Orian:

  • Driving his VW bus home from the dorms in 2000, so we could replace his oil cooler in my parent’s driveway before he drove down to Orange County.
  • Going shopping for groceries or things, and we would yell “Mom” to regroup with the other guys.
  • Going with him to my first punk concert, The Vandals, at the rose garden at Chico. Then seeing Ozma open for Weezer at the Crest in Sacramento with him.
  • Orian teaching me how to play Weezer on my guitar.
  • Orian gargling tequilla out of a coffee mug in my kitchen in the Gateway Apartments.
  • Orian pointing out that my salad was not healthy due to the dressing I put on it. So I followed his lead and stopped putting dressing on my salads. Hell, I still prefer a dry salad because of him.
  • Orian bringing a 3L plastic bottle of some “monkey tequilla” that he bought in Mexico, and then slipping some into a cowboy’s beer bong when I lived in Davis.
  • Orian bought a carton of Marlboro Red “Cowboy Killer’s” and taught himself to smoke, just so he could feel addiction.
  • Orian would yell at smokers, “Cancer cures smoking”.
  • I was up late with Orian and a couple of friends, and we decided it was a great idea to see the sunrise on the top of Mount Lassen. We pulled it off, and I still vividly remember the picturesque landscape (and the bitter cold!).
  • Abalone diving with Orian in Sonoma County, then shenanigans with the guts and a certain neighbor’s BBQ.
  • The days when Orian would just take off on his KLR650, and come back late at night after spending the day in the Black Desert of Nevada. No cell phone service, didn’t tell anyone. Just went.
  • Skateboarding down Nord Avenue, drunk, in the middle of the night.
  • Orian answered my phone when an ex-girlfriend of mine was calling to pester me, and Orian said to her, “You make my ears hurt.”
  • My sister thought Orian and I were heathens for not attending church, so she coordinated her pastor to talk with us. He bought us pizza, and the three of us debated the existence of god over a pepperoni pizza in the old Normal Street¬†Woodstock’s. Needless to say, none of our minds were not changed that night.
  • Making prank calls with the digital voice assistant in the beta version of Windows 2000 from Joe’s dad.

Details about his accident were scant, but there was an outpouring from his local hang gliding community on  the Sylmar Hang Glider Association forum.  His passing was over a year ago, but I still feel compelled to write up something and try to share my memories of him. His memory is still very much alive in me, and I am certain that he influenced many others in his adventures through life.

I wish that I could live my life with half as much passion and disregard for the rules as Orian did.  He lived outside of the box, and I am grateful to have experienced his perspective and tenaciousness in my most formative years. For this, I will miss him greatly. Thanks for the memories Orian.

—-

I need to dig through my old box of prints, but these are a few of the pictures I posted to Facebook after learning of his passing.

The VW adventure, summer 2000. The empty mini-keg of Beck’s prominently displayed in on the dash.
Orian and Morgen in Wagner’s apartment, Davis CA, Picnic Day 2003. The date of the Monkey Tequilla incident.
Moving out of the dorms, Summer 2000.
Orian standing on his bus. Probably just because. ca 2000-2001, Gateway Apartments.

Crohn’s and Colitis

I recently went to an event hosted by the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation (CCF)’s Northern California chapter. The event was an educational symposium for patients and families with IBD, and I was impressed with the CCF organization as well as the amazing community of patients and caregivers. I want to thank Kayla Kraich for all of her hard work organizing such a nice and welcoming event.

I went to the CCF event to learn more about IBD, and specifically biologic treatments for IBD, their benefits, as well as their limitations. Our startup is developing a new small-molecule treatment of IBD, so I would like to stay on top of the standard of care and see what else is going on in the field.

I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down, and waited for the talks to start. The people sitting around me all looked like happy and healthy adults leading vibrant lives. The guy in front of me looked about my age, well dressed, clean-cut, and maybe a touch sciencey. I thought, hey, maybe he is another researcher? The first talk focused on biologics for IBD, when they are indicated, pros and cons, etc. At the end of the talk the MD invited up a panel of patients to talk about their experience with biologics. The man in front of me stood up and joined the patient panel. When he shared his story of battling IBD since he was 15, it was eye-opening. I have heard that IBD is one of the most disruptive diseases that can be largely hidden from the outside world.

At the first break, the woman sitting next to me introduced herself. Right after her name, she launched into her history with ulcerative colitis, her multiple surgeries, and how she ultimately tamed her disease with a balance of diet and medications. At the end of her quick life story, she then said, “what about you Brandon?”

I have to admit that I felt like a poser. I don’t have IBD. I haven’t had multiple surgeries. I haven’t seen numerous doctors, received infusions of antibodies, worried about infections from a suppressed immune system. I haven’t struggled to knock down GI flares with steroids, and then dealing with their crazy side effects. Nor have I endured the never-ending visits to the bathroom (a metric for ulcerative colitis activity is the number of daily bowel movements, with the highest tier being anything over 10 times a day).

I told her that I’m just a researcher, but we are working on IBD and have a new drug that we are rapidly advancing to the clinic. She put me at ease with her genuine appreciation for my research, and although I felt insignificant and like I didn’t belong, she welcomed me to the event and wished me the best of luck in our work.

At this point, I may have drank a couple cups of coffee trying to remain alert and sharp during the morning talks, so I made my first trip to the men’s room.

What I encountered in the men’s room was subtle at first, but after recounting the experience and putting it into context with the diseases of the colon, it started to make sense. On my first trip to the men’s room I noticed a number of people coming and going, but the notable interaction was with someone who introduced himself while walking from the urinal to the sinks. The man was very extroverted, and the tone and content of the conversation could have taken place in any setting. Only this time, it was in the men’s room. And that level of forward communication in the men’s room seemed a little odd to me.

Back to the talks, the next speaker gave a nice overview of IBD (the MD and I overlapped as undergrads at UC Davis- go Ags!). After this second talk, my bladder was losing the battle to the coffee and water I was drinking, so I made my second trip to the men’s room. This trip, there was another very genuine introduction and discussion that started in the bathroom. I chatted, and eventually made my way back to the conference room, and didn’t think much of it.

After the talks I headed home, and during the drive I reflected on the great talks and on my interactions with the amazing members of the CCF community. And of course those very genuine interactions that I had in the men’s room…

And then it hit me.

For a patient population that uses the restroom so much, the CCF community is very, very comfortable in the bathroom. Especially at an event filled with fellow patients, doctors, and caregivers, and when it is hard to tell who has what disease, everyone wearing a CCF nametag must seem like an ally. I laughed out loud when I put it together. And then the realization actually felt heavy on my face and my chest. There was a lifelong struggle that was underneath the interactions with the people in the bathroom. I have now attended two CCF events, at which the first item of business was telling everyone the location of the bathrooms. My gastrointestinal health is something I have always taken for granted, but I am now looking at it with a new perspective.

The more that I learn about Crohn’s and Colitis, it just kills me to think of what IBD sufferers are going through. As we are so preoccupied with the pharmacology and interactions of our drug compounds in lab, we don’t often think about of these complications that IBD patients suffer daily. I am extremely grateful for how welcoming and open the CCF community has been with me. It leaves me feeling hungry for our upcoming clinical trials, and it reaffirms that IBD is a worthy cause that I am grateful to be working on.

-BZ

The Grind

It’s a grind. Grinding it out. The startup grind.

Why does it have to be such a grind?

I’m currently reading Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, and it is a great storytelling about the early days and business foundation at Pixar animation studios. I was disturbed by Ed’s recounting of the overlap between their second and third movies, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2. It seems that story and production issues required the team to grind out long hours, 7 days a week, for a period of over 6 months. The climax of the story is that Pixar employees were working so hard and so focused on the project, that one morning an employee was supposed to drop his child off at daycare, only to forget and leave the kid in the back seat of the car. The wife also worked at Pixar, so she dropped by her husband’s desk a few hours later and asked “How was dropoff?”, only for the two of them to rush furiously out to the hot car to revive their unconscious child. Fortunately the child survived.

The story resonated with me, as I’m in another period of long days and working on weekends.

Why do we do this to ourselves and to our employees?  Is it the manic personalities of artists, scientists, and creative types?  Is it the culture of startups? Is it the notion of grinding it out in the short term for long term gains? Pay now, play later?

This topic has come up multiple times in the past week on my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. It also reminds me of an article¬†Dan Lyons wrote for the New York Times about “hustle” in Silicon Valley.

It is clear there is a problem. But what are possible solutions?

If there is a tremendous amount of work volume and a hard deadline, why overburden employees rather than bring on additional help? In a startup, and definitely in science, there are squishy deadlines and moving targets. It can be hard to justify staffing up if the finish line is constantly in question. But for Pixar it seemed like there was a hard deadline, and they had just experience tremendous success with Toy Story 1. What gives Ed?

Another way to confront the grind is reigning in over-workers. I have seen multiple articles about strictly adhering to a 9 to 5, or maintaining reasonable hours and prioritizing balance. The common theme is that employees are better rested and more “balanced” and thus will be better workers for the time they are at work. It sounds so simple in theory, but in practice when it is 5:15pm and there is still a mountain of work to do (and you have a crazy work ethic), it is hard to leave things unfinished. It is also hard to leave when your team is still there and working. This is not borne out of one-upsmanship, but more because of team/staff solidarity and wanting to support the team and the bigger mission.

Another option is to leave the startup world entirely, and retreat to a big established incumbent. But that would mean giving up the richness and breadth of experience that comes with a role at a startup.

If Ed Catmull at a fledgling Pixar couldn’t figure out how to prevent the grind, then I can’t feel too bad for struggling with it myself.

Grind on.

Biohacking


I have an opinion piece on Biohacking in the Innovation Edition of¬†Comstock’s Magazine. As a scientist, I like things to be referenced and annotated, so here is my effort to support the claims and information included in the piece.

  • Good intro to garage¬† biohacking with Josiah Zayner : Link
  • Article on Liz Parrish and her telomere self-experiment: Link
  • Article on Brian Hanley and his personal gene therapy work: Link
  • Article in Outside Magazine on Josiah Zayner with the FBI interview and comment: Link
  • Self-administration of a HIV therapy on a home couch, while live-streaming on Facebook: Link
  • Companies are offering RFID implant chips to their employees: Link
  • The Open Discovery Institute, aka The Odin, DIY Bacterial Gene Engineering CRISPR Kit: Link
  • Makerspaces that offer science classes and lab equipment for community based projects:
    Oakland, Counter Culture Labs
    Seattle, Sound Bio
    New York, Genspace
    Los Angeles, The Lab
    A more complete list can be found over at DIYbio.org
  • Article on the rising cost of prescription drugs: Link
  • An article on biohackers responding to the rising price of the EpiPen: Link
  • The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective that is behind the EpiPencil, Daraprim synthesis, and is currently working on an at-home mini chemical reactor. Link
  • A project to combat the high price of insulin: Link
  • The Sacramento startup and science scene:
    Hackerlab
    UC Davis Venture Catalyst
    HM Clause / UC Davis Life Science Innovation Center
    Inventopia

As for a biohacking scene in Sacramento, there are currently two good resources for fledgling biotechs to get shared lab space with the HM Clause Innovation center and Inventopia, both linked above. But for hacking together ideas, teaching classes, or playing with DNA, Eric Ullrich over at Hackerlab has expressed interest in facilitating biohacking classes and even setup of some wet lab space. There is definitely energy around the idea in Sacramento, but it has yet to reach critical mass. The opinion piece in Comstock’s was intended to share the topic of biohacking with the broader business community in our region, but also to send up a flare to any other scientists that are interested in getting something going.

So if you are interested in setting up local biohacking meetings or joining up for some projects, shoot me an email over at biohacksac.org. Let’s make something happen!

-BZ

Death Valley to White Mountain 2017

I like to surround myself with people who push me. I also like friends that make me want to be a better person. Recently I had the chance to join an adventure that would surely push me, and I would be surrounded by good friends. And if we pulled it off, it would be a memorable trip…

The idea:¬†To ride a bike from the lowest point in California, to the highest peak that you could ride a bike. Starting from -285′ below sea level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, and riding to 14,252′ at the top of White Mountain some 210 miles away. It would be a total elevation change of 14,537′ with a total ascent of over 22,000′. On top of that, the best window to make the summit called for doing the ride in under 24 hours, or we would be coming down the mountain in the dark. The plan was ambitious to say the least, but my friend Jeremy was up for the task. Having recently completed the Death Ride and a Double Century in 100+F heat, if anyone could do it then he could. At 190 pounds, I’m not a stellar climber on the bike. But I was excited to join the adventure to support him however possible.

Planning: September was the optimal month for the trip, as the high temperatures in Death Valley were bearable, but it is also before the snows begin on White Mountain. We picked a date that we were both available, and put it on the calendar. I rounded up an old buddy that was my wheelman during grad school,knowing that he is always up for a challenge. I also convinced my new colleague that it would be an epic weekend of bikes and the beautiful Eastern Sierras.

As the date approached we closely watched the weather. The high temperature in Death Valley was only 100F, which was pleasant compared to the 120F just a few weeks earlier. And despite a chance of some flurries on the mountain, the weather looked solid. We borrowed a Sprinter van / RV to act as the sag wagon for most of the trip, and I set up my Sportwagen with 4 bike racks to get us up the gravel road to the summit gate, and back again.

The date arrived, and we were off.

Our start in Badwater was uneventful, and the heat wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. I rode with Jeremy for the first 17 miles, as we snapped a number of selfies and took in the beautiful landscape of Death Valley.

We started around 6:00PM, and what happened in the next 12 hours was somewhat of a blur. For the flat sections, Dave and I traded off accompanying Jeremy for mental and physical support. Tyrel hopped on his mountain bike and rode with Jeremy for a questionable descent in the middle of the night.

Lights, cameras, action! Descending the big hill in Death Valley in the middle of the night.

Otherwise we tried rotating through the riding, driving, and sleeping duties as best we could. I recall driving ahead of the riders into Independence, CA, where I found a place to park that they could see the van. Then I was sleeping in the front seat of the sprinter van, only to be woken up by the voices of Jeremy and Dave. In a total brain fog, I hurriedly gathered my cycling helmet and gear and got on my bike for the next leg. Riding through the night was brutal, but quite an experience.

At a casino truckstop just before sunrise. Somewhere between Keeler and Big Pine CA.

As we rode the 80 relatively flat miles from Keeler to Big Pine, a headwind seemed to keep our speedometers at 14mph. We kept thinking that “this was supposed to be the easy section!”, but we soldiered on. Once we hit Big Pine, we picked up the second car and headed into the hills. Jeremy rode solo up into the hills, and we leapfrogged with the cars to try and give him aid stations and support along the way.

The views from White Mountain were spectacular.

In seemingly no time at all, we made it to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, or the end of the pavement on our journey. Jeremy had rocketed up the hills, a sign that he was feeling good and pushing on. At this point there was 18 miles of a dirt/gravel road, and then the final 7 miles beyond the gate and up to the summit. Tyrel only has a mountain bike, so having only done the big mid-night descent, he had fresh legs and was ready to ride.

Dave doing his best photographer impersonation while we waited for Jeremy and Tyrel to climb the hills.

The 18 miles of dirt road was challenging, and the 20 hours of riding was taking a toll on Jeremy. We kept offering food and beverage options to him, but it was clear that he was struggling to eat enough. We pushed on, and eventually made it to the gate.

Link: An amazing view from one of the ridges leading up to the White Mountain summit.

Energized by being only 7 miles away from the summit, we had to give it a shot. For the final summit push, all four of us would ride our mountain bikes up the rough and rocky trail. Having to leave the car behind at the gate, we also had to be self-sufficient with our food, water, winter clothing, emergency supplies, and lights for possibly descending in the dark. I bundled up, threw on my backback of gear, and we headed up the mountain.

Jeremy and Tyrel were riding surprisingly well, and they were up around the corner from Dave and I. When we turned the corner, we saw Jeremy on the ground and just knew that something wasn’t right. He was falling apart, and to use the athlete’s term, he had “bonked.” I tried getting him some food, anything that sounded good to him. A fig bar and some gatorade. I was hoping that he just needed a pick-me-up and we could continue on. After a few minutes it seemed to be working, and we decided to walk our bikes up to the next level spot up the trail. We had come so far, and the summit was so close, but we all knew that it wasn’t worth risking our safety or our lives for the trip.

The question that decided our fate:¬†“If you push to the top, are you going to be able to make it back down?” ¬†Any answer other than yes was not acceptable. After a hesitation, we decided to turn back.¬† We took pictures, we shook hands, hugged, and cried. It had been such a long journey with very little sleep, we were looking forward to getting off the mountain in the daylight and getting a good meal.

Calling it with 1500′ to go. Taking pictures and saying goodbye to the summit.

Getting off the mountain ended up being a shenanigan with the Sportwagen, loaded up with four guys, bikes, gear, and a really terrible road. The poor clearance was one issue, but the road was so terrible that it was rocking the bikes on the top of the car so badly that we broke t-slot bolt and a couple of bikes came loose. This made the drive back to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest parking lot quite sketchy and memorable…

We will go back. Maybe not for a solo attempt, but definitely for a team relay event where we all contribute to the early miles, and then all ride together to the summit. I started out not knowing anything about White Mountain, and now I have an intense desire to go back and finish what we started.

-BZ

You are what you read


A 45 minute commute in each direction can be a major time sink each day. I have gone through a number of phases, first using the time to listen to the news. That got repetitive in a hurry and was a huge downer. Then I tried using the time to make calls, for both work and personal items- but I ended up needing a little more time to decompress before reaching home. Over the last couple of years I have settled into a nice routine of listening to audio books on my commute, and I wish I had discovered them sooner.

I’m not sure if it counts as “reading” from the literal sense of the word, but “listening” doesn’t have the same ring to it. I subscribe to Audible, so I get one audio book per month. I tend to supplement with additional credits every now and then, so I’m averaging a book every few weeks. With two young kids, working at a startup and a 1.5 hour total commute, and also trying to fit in exercise, I’m happy to be reading anything at all!

I love the smell of old books. The plant is like a visitor to a mausoleum…

I keep track of what I have been reading over on¬†My Bookshelf. I know there are apps/services like Good Reads, or other places to keep track and share books on social media. I think that is great for people that want to share with their friends and family, but I see my bookshelf as an extension of my education, so I proudly display my books as a mark of what I’m reading with the broader public. “You are what you read”, said Oscar Wilde (attributed).

I tend to gravitate towards business and science, but there are some clear deviations in my list. I am always looking for good books to liven my commute, so if you have a good recommendation, please share!

-BZ

Cannabis sativa

I work on cannabis.

As a PhD biochemist and former cancer researcher, it feels a little dirty to admit. But let me explain…

I love plants. My favorite plant is Sarcodes sanguinea, a native of the high Sierras that is a brilliant red hue because it lost it’s chlorophyll and parasitizes fungi for food:

A fabulous Sarcodes seen while riding my cyclocross bike on the East side of Lake Davis before the Lost and Found Gravel Grinder, June 2017.

I planted lemon, lime, fig, pomegranate, olive, pear, and apple trees in my back yard. I also have a rockin’ garden, and I love teaching my kids where their food comes from:

My main garden in full force, June 2017.

I also have a soft spot for interesting plant chemistries. While at U.C. Davis I worked with antioxidants produced from broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables. I have worked with the biochemical pathways producing the stevia sweetener, and contrast that with working on the genetics of noxious plants that are toxic to humans.

I am an ¬†endurance athlete, and I like to cycle or trail run for hours. Mostly from the health benefits, but I do enjoy the endorphin rush from an epic workout. I’m generally risk-averse, and I’m an Eagle Scout in most senses of the stereotype.

But I work on cannabis. Or more specifically, cannabinoids that originate from the cannabis plant.

Cannabis sativa. Pot. Weed. Marijuana. Ganja. Reefer. (Insert your favorite slang here). Yeah, that cannabis.

It is weird to me how some people think that I am part of a counter-culture movement full of pot-smoking hippies (or whatever the equivalent is for the millenial generation – pot smoking, avocado-toast-eating, millenials?). In actuality, we are a bunch of over-educated, lab-coat clad nerds, drinking coffee and geeking out about the amazing chemistry of cannabinoids and the corresponding human cannabinoid receptor system.

Nerds!!!

As Alexander Shulgin wrote in PiHKAL, “Among the drugs that are currently illegal, I have chosen not to use marijuana, as I feel the light-headed intoxication, and benign alteration of consciousness does not adequately compensate for an uncomfortable feeling that I am wasting time.”

None of us partake in cannabis for recreational or medicinal uses, and whenever a question on human use comes up- we are forced to consult Google to learn about typical usage and exposures. I personally, and our startup are fully compliant with all state and federal regulations, and we have all necessary approvals to perform our research. When it comes down to it, we are just doing science. Some plant biochemistry, some mammalian receptor biology. But our work could have an impact on inflammatory bowel disorders, colon cancer, and some other potential applications that could be pretty damn cool.

A friend from grad school was concerned that by researching cannabis, I may be a marked scientist- unable to rejoin the ranks of the normal scientists hard at work on cancer, neurobiology, and other respectable areas of study. I completely disagree. What I have found is that the cannabinoid and cannabinoid-receptor research field has been stifled by undue regulatory pressure for so many years, so instead of being a dead-end for science, it is ripe for discovery.

Pharmacological uses of non-psychotropic cannabinoids

The cannabinoid receptor is the most abundant G-protein coupled receptor in the brain, hence, people get really high with THC exposure (an agonist). CBD on the other hand is an inverse-agonist, so it has somewhat of an opposite effect on our receptors and doesn’t get people “high”. It is on the fast-track to be approved for treatment of specific epilepsy subtypes, is in multiple clinical studies for schizophrenia, and has tremendous potential as an anti-inflammatory. So the pharmaceutical applications are real, and have even been vetted by the Food and Drug Administration.

Cannabinoid receptors are also found throughout the body, and to use the “lock and key” analogy for enzymes- we have discovered locked doors throughout the body- now we just need to figure out the keys, and what doors we can open with this new knowledge. The therapeutic ¬†potential for cannabinoids is unmistakable. I look forward to seeing what doors we can open with our work.

-BZ

Paella!

I fell in love with paella on my honeymoon in Barcelona. Eating fresh seafood on the coast or eating a mixta style further inland, the versatility of the dish and ability to improvise with ingredients is fun and artful. And of course the beautiful presentation of the delicious shrimp, chorizo, chicken, calimari, mussels, clams, all placed neatly in a bed of golden saffron rice is both functionally and aesthetically beautiful! My wife gave me a paella pan a couple years ago, and we have been experimenting ever since. First paella was on the stove. Then multiple paellas on the charcoal BBQ. Some temperamental charcoal caused one paella to burn on the bottom and remain undercooked on top, so my wife got me a 2-ring propane burner that would accommodate our 40cm and our 55cm paella pans. Since receiving the burner, making paella has been far more predictable and enjoyable. I have been meaning to document one of my paella recipes, and finally I took the time to carefully measure and keep track of my steps. In addition with sharing my recipe, I now have a grocery list for future paellas!

20170121_190511

20170121 paella for 4 (with plenty of leftovers!):
Based on the mixta paella recipe in La Paella

In Stockpot:
1lb clams simmered 30′ in 5c h2o

In saute pan:
0.5lb mussels simmered 5′ in .33c h2o

In 55cm pan over medium burner:
Olive oil as needed
1lb boneless chicken thighs, fat trimmed, salt and peppered, par cooked and set aside.

1 onion diced
1 red pepper diced – cook down with onion
14.5oz can diced roasted tomatoes
11oz chorizo sliced
3c paella rice (Matiz black label)
0.5tsp sweet pimenton, 0.5t spicy pimenton
0.5t saffron
1.5c peas
5c stock from simmered clams
0.33c stock from mussels
3c chicken stock
20 ish shrimp, quick sear on one side, placed around edge in rice/broth
.4lb squid cut to rings, quick fry and placed across the top

Cook until rice is done, cover with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

A few notes:
The 55cm pan can handle way more volume than this, but I would rather go low on the big pan than overload the smaller pan. Also I sparingly add mussels. I prefer the clams, shrimp, and the Spanish chorizo, but that’s just my taste. And don’t drink too many beers or rioja while making la paella- that can complicate things in a hurry!

-BZ

Best Biochemists in Movies

I don’t know of many movies that actually portray a biochemist, but there are a handful out there. In most of them, the biochemist is somewhat dorky, but either hardens up and uses a gun, or gets thrown in prison for embezzlement and lying to the FBI. These are my personal favorites:

1. Nicolas Cage as Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock.

Stanley Goodspeed

“Listen, I’m just a bio-chemist. Most of the time I work in a glass jar and lead a very uneventful life. I drive a Volvo. A beige one. But what I’m dealing with here, is one of the deadliest substances the earth has ever known so whaddaya say you cut me some friggin’ slack?”

My personal favorite, especially the quote about biochemists being boring and driving beige volvos.

2. Matt Damon as Marc Whitacre in The Informant.

Marc Whitacre

“Archer Daniels Midland. Most people have never head of us, but chances are, they’ve never had a meal we’re not a part of. Just read the side of the package. That’s us. Now ADM is taking dextrose from the corn and turning it into an amino acid called lysine. It’s all very scientific, but if you’re a stockholder, all that matters is corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other.”

A quirky movie about the real life Marc Whitacre (Nutritional Biochemistry PhD) who exposed price fixing at ADM, but also got caught embezzling from the company and thrown in prison. After serving 8 years, Whitacre is now out and serving as COO of a company in California.

I love his inner monologue. It reminds me of my own inner monologue…

3. Rachel Weisz as Marta Shearing in the Bourne Legacy.

Marta Shearing

“Well, if you’re going to reprogram human genetic material, you need a delivery system, and nothing works better than virus. It’s like a suitcase.”

Dr. Marta Shearing is a biochemist involved in hacking Jason Bourne’s metabolism, requiring him and the other covert operatives¬†to take a special nutrient pill or their body will shut down. ¬†A built in self-destruct of sorts. Thinking about this approach in real life- knock out a gene involved in a core metabolic pathway, and then supplement the final metabolite of that pathway.¬†Feasible on the surface,¬†and a virus would be the best way to do it. Hmm…