We are Improbable Miracles

You might be asking, “Where’s the RNA’s involvement?” Well, no one is really sure yet. It is accepted that RNA predated DNA. However, scientists have been unable to synthesize RNA in conditions similar to the hypothesized environment of early Earth. One interesting theory that came out of our inability to synthesize RNA  is that there was a pre-RNA, an intermediary between life beginning and the presence of RNA.

RNA has a role in abiogenesis, but RNA is not responsible for the origination of life. RNA is responsible for the evolution of life, however. It is the theory of the RNA World. The rationale behind this theory is that RNA is capable of being a genetic information storage molecule, and a catalytic compound. The ability of RNA to act as a catalyst is, perhaps, one of the most exciting discoveries in the field of abiogenesis. The rationale for this is that in order for RNA to be synthesized, the components have to be joined together. This is infinitely more challenging if this process has to be done without any catalytic support. In addition, the process of replication requires catalytic energy. So, it was determined that RNA could be an ideal first molecule due to the ability to preform vital functions (evolution and replication) on its own, independent of other molecules.

However, the idea of the RNA World as the first prebiotic system of life has been replaced with a predecessor of the RNA World, aptly named the pre-RNA World. This theory came about with the discovery of molecules such as pyransosyl RNA (pRNA), threose nucleic acid (TNA), and peptide nucleic acid (PNA). These molecules are structurally similar to RNA, but simpler. The implications of these simpler molecules as predecessors of RNA is that the potential precursors would be easier to synthesize than RNA in an abiotic world.

When hypothesizing the conditions of the early Earth, four elements are thought to be dominant – methane (giving the carbon necessary for life), ammonia (giving the nitrogen necessary for life), hydrogen gas, and water. Life is thought to begin with the correct mixture of these gases as well as a “life spark.” What is interesting is that, as validated by multiple scientists, the probability of the correct combination of gases combining with the proper “life spark” is practically nil.

We all know we are stardust. But did we know we are also improbable miracles?



On Migritude

I have finished my final paper (mostly). There are no unread books in the pile on my desk – all of them contain copious penciled-in notes. This afternoon, I will flee into Colorado’s vastness, once again, to confront whatever anticipated bad weather awaits me with some kind of joy. Soon those of us who have collected to look deeply at poetry, to carefully investigate the world, to reconsider ourselves, will scatter again. The approaching change feels sudden, abrupt, too soon. Yet to move and grow is natural; this class has been an experience of change, a moment of growth.

Our study of Shailja Patel’s Migritude, then, is remarkably appropriate as we move in a multitude of directions from this central place of study. Patel’s engaging book is simultaneously a transcript of her one-woman show and an anthology of her explorations of herself. It is a political statement, a study of race and acceptance, and a magnificent work of art. Her blackness is unique among those we’ve studied; she is a Kenyan of Indian heritage who has lived in Britain and America. Yet none of this makes her any less black. Indeed, her “migritude” is a play on the earlier ideological negritude movement; it allows Patel to simultaneously identify as black and as almost identity-less, a member of a group of people whose very roots lie in their rootlessness.

This apparent contradiction was not an unusual encounter. We proceeded to read Ezekiel Mphahlele’s essay “Voices in the Whirlwind,” which presents (helpfully) a plethora of arguments about black poetry. The unfortunate aspect of this abundance of arguments is that many of them seem to contradict one another. Perhaps, though, this confusion is a fundamental part of black poetry.

Michelle said this morning, after we had read the poems we created to mimic the voices of those we studied (which also managed to reveal an array of ridiculously incredible word-workers with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to rub shoulders for the last three weeks), that she hoped the class had managed to confuse us further about the meanings of the words in its title. I am not meant, I think, in the end, to understand the meaning of the word “black” or of “poetry,” and even worse, I don’t think I will ever be able to define black poetry. Luckily, though, the point is not to define. The point is to learn and grow and change and move, and in that, I think, I have succeeded.


p.s. I discovered a few more photos from Baca. They’re not particularly fitting, here, but they’re lovely. Many thanks to the most fabulous Michelle Decker, for the photos and for everything else.

Baca at Dusk The Mountains

Buzzword: Fun, Nina: Out.

We have come to the end of my journey at EyeWire. I plan to venture into the office every so often in the coming months, but I will no longer have an official schedule.

So let us reflect



on the experience. First off, I am so glad I had the opportunity to involve myself in such a project. Shout out to the Keller Family Venture grant, as well as the universe for helping me make this possible. I learned about neuroscience, but I also learned about the ways I interact with the working world. I think this experience makes me fear my future less- leaving school and beginning outside life seems more achievable now that I have a better taste for it. In my future career path I am going to assign myself more deadlines. I am going to request more feedback from my coworkers, and I’m going to request it specifically. I am going to put my ideas out on the table more often, and I am going to take full advantage of “grace-periods” at the beginning of my jobs where I know nothing and am allowed to ask everyone questions about everything.


I’m also going to add as much enthusiasm and fun to every job I encounter. Enthusiasm makes everything more fantastic and I think it’s productive too. Everyone wants to be a part of your project when the project is fun, and everyone who can’t be a part of it will want to here about it. Speaking of fun, I will leave you with some fun:

Yesterday we decorated the new office we are renting. Here are printed out versions of badges you can win in game. They now grace the walls of WeWork!

Yesterday we decorated the new office we are renting. Here are printed out versions of badges you can win in game. They now grace the walls of WeWork!

We plank daily at 3:30 with our office neighbors! I thought it would be fun to try a group push up for extra athleticism :)

We plank daily at 3:30 with our office neighbors! I thought it would be fun to try a group push up for extra athleticism :)


On Humiliation and Being Humble

There is a certain stillness that settles in the air in this fragment of mountainous desert where I have almost surprisingly found myself for the last three days. In this temporary escape to the Baca campus I have a sense of being contained in some dusty snow globe, mysteriously separate from the familiar. But I am not contained; the sky is vaster, the mountains rise up sharply from the yellow plain to reach broadly upwards. To the south and west, the land extends endlessly. In the midst of these immensities, I am small. I am small and humble in the silence of vastness, captured as I walk slowly against the wind on a dusty road in this singular moment. It is precisely the place to submerge oneself in poetry, in this physical manifestation of the instant-occupying lyric.

We encountered newness not only in geographical location but in the words we studied. As we continued moving forward in time, we met artists of prison cells and protest in writing and music. Wole Soyinka of Nigeria wrote of his imprisonment, both in prose and poetry, in books smuggled to him during his detainment. He described the humiliation of imprisonment as an emotion of dignity in that it creates an environment of solidarity and suggests a previous and consistent uprightness and dedication to a cause or mentality. We explored other poetries of prisons that depicted the struggles of entrapment and brief glimmers of hopefulness. In Robert Johnson, legendary singer of blues, we looked closely at the relationships between white and black music, notably the capitalization of black music by white people and other similar appropriations of black culture for primarily white gain.

The song “Strange Fruit” and a podcast considering it further forced us to examine racism in the northern parts of the United States and how whiteness creates value – the photograph of inspiration for the song is immediately shocking not only because of its explicit interest in two hanging black bodies but also because of the grinning white faces beneath them. “Going to Meet the Man,” the story of a lynching, was disturbing. It incited discussion regarding the sexualization of blackness and the dialectic of simultaneous desire and disgust for other bodies. We considered Bob Dylan and “Hurricane” – both the song and the film – to investigate our perceptions of who can write black poetry.

In light of this, I think I’ve decided that perhaps a definition of black poetry does not exist. It is ambiguous, defined by each moment that chooses to take on blackness and poetry simultaneously. I am humbled and delighted in every instant that I learn and change. I am also humbled by the world that both contains and frees me. I’m not sure that I have Soyinka’s humility – in fact, I’m quite sure that I don’t – but it remains humbling to engage with his dignity.

The Sangre de Cristo range near the Baca campus

A Potpourri of Posts

Hello people of BlockFeatures! I come to you from the land of 50 degrees, at last we have Spring in Boston! Today’s post will be heavily illustrated with photos!

EyeWire neurons are pictured on the title page of every chapter in this new neuroscience textbook! So cool- this is the book that both CC and MIT use

EyeWire neurons are pictured on the title page of every chapter in this new neuroscience textbook! So cool- this is the book that both CC and MIT use for their introductory neuro courses.


This is another set of EyeWire neurons used in the textbook. Shown is a synapse, and though synapses often connect the part of the cell called the "axon" to a different cell's "dendrite", here we see one cell's dendrite connected to another cells dendrite. If you look closely you'll see that the labels are incorrect... so they must have arbitrarily decided which projection they thought was the axon. Interesting methods Mr.Mark F. Bear... (Animation by Alex Norton)

This is another animation of EyeWire neurons used in the textbook. Shown is a synapse, and though synapses often connect one cell’s “axon” branch to a different cell’s “dendrite” branch, here we see synapse where both of the connecting branches are dendrites. If you look closely you’ll see that the labels are incorrect… so they must have arbitrarily decided which projection they thought was the axon. Interesting methods Mr. Mark F. Bear… (Animation by Alex Norton)

Will brought his 3D doodler to work so I tried to make a bistratified neuron. I like to think of myself as 3D-Cajal, but you can call me Al for short.

Will brought his 3D doodler to work so I tried to make a bistratified neuron (3D printed neuron for reference). I like to think of myself as 3D-Cajal, but you can call me Al for short.


After my 3D doodle of a neuron, I 3D doodled a strawberry... or did I?

After my 3D doodle of a neuron, I 3D doodled a strawberry… or did I?



Moving on from 3D doodling, I’m going to present you with two photos from the common space at WeWork, the coworking office space that EyeWire HQ calls home.

WeWork is super young and hip. They, like google, hope you will combine your workspace with your playspace. Readily available complementary cornhole and beer are two ways WeWork carries out their mission.

WeWork is super young and hip. They, like Google, hope you will combine your workspace with your playspace. Readily available complementary cornhole and beer are two ways WeWork carries out their mission.


And you know, WeWork carries out their mission well. Here is Michael Murney enjoying some WeWork amenities.

And you know, WeWork carries out their mission well. Here is Michael Murney enjoying some WeWork amenities after hours.




















I think I would enjoy falling for one of these coworking space schemes after college. If I can combine my workspace with my playspace then everyone wins. You can get more hours out of me if you treat me well, sure, why not? How is my internship going, you ask? Good. I’m working on some science blog posts for the website, I’ll link to them when they’re up. My time at EyeWire is winding down. It’s sad but I think I’ve done most of what I can there. I’m excited that I have been able to experience a different culture while so close to home. The culture of biotech and the culture of EyeWire that is. We will end this blog post with a section I like to call

Professional Lessons from the Office:

The best way to both make an impression and learn at work is when a project outside of your assigned area is lacking manpower. Volunteer to help out with these projects and you’re a shoo in for those jobs in the future. -Will and Chris

Concerning grants: Ask for money and you’ll get advice, ask for advice and you’ll get money. -Various venture capitalists

RNA Evolution and Abiogenesis

Have you ever wondered about how life began? How we evolved from inorganic substances to fully functional, adaptable, evolved beings? I think, in a sense, we all have. I think we all look up at the stars and wonder how we did it. Wonder what percentage of our bodies is star-dust, wondered how connected we are to the world.

This is the topic for my Independent Study this block. There are many theories concerning how life originated from inorganic substances like ammonia and methane, but not much is accepted as fact. This is mostly due to the fact that the Earth today is very different than the ancient Earth, when life began.

Abiogenesis is the theory that biological life started from inorganic substances. There has been progress in this field. For example, the famous Miller-Urey experiment attempted to recreate the early Earth environment. They did so in a test tube, using various chemicals and procedures designed to recreate an early environment. What they found was astonishing. In the test tube, they found 10 of the amino acids necessary for life. Amino acids have two orientations, right-handed or left-handed. The amino acids synthesized in the Miller-Urey experiment were in produced in equal quantities; while, in reality amino acids are almost all right-handed.

There is still some work to be done, but the task of discovering life’s origins is definitely an enticing one.  Stay curious, potential answers to come.


On Change

We have moved away from the epic. No – we’ve abandoned it. We’ve left Son-Jara in Africa to leap forward in time and spread ourselves across the continent and the ocean. In only three days, we have changed.

More precisely, maybe, I have changed. Or the poems have changed. Or everything has changed; the moody skies seem somehow more reminiscent of spring than the summer-like sunshine of the weekend. In any case, our literary window has broadened to include colonialism in Africa, that vast and unpleasant (to use the most mild word applicable here) thing that roughly coincided with slavery and oppression in the Americas. To continue with uncouth generalizations, the political and theoretical freedoms of blacks on both continents were achieved with arguable success in somewhat similar eras, resulting in altogether new poetic possibilities.

A study on the legendary Shaka (or Chaka, depending on who you ask) and his varying permutations throughout time led us violently into an investigation of perhaps earlier white engagements with South Africa. We read of nostalgia and repression and God in 19th century Africa and looked closely at the imitation of European poetry and form. To read these mimicries begs questions: can oppression be discussed in the language of the oppressor? Is there a certain power in copying form but twisting words to contradict the very creator of the arrangement?

As we traveled closer yet to ourselves in time we encountered America and the Harlem Renaissance in conjunction with the concept of negritude, which found its origins in a collection of African writers (mostly) in France and describes a literary and ideological movement of, in exceptionally brief summary, black pride. We read Léon Damas and Helene Johnson, Léopolde Senghor (who was the first president of Senegal, in addition to being a prolific writer) and Langston Hughes. They approach freedom and its absence in their works, speak of ancestry and of a future but they all recognize and embrace their blackness in the light of the lingering effects of imperialism and colonialism.

Aimé Césaire’s play, “A Tempest,” looks, too, at the remnants of colonialism that lingered still in the 1960s and which, truthfully, continue to drift almost unrecognized through our lives today. So while it may seem that we have changed, that in the last three days we have moved into and through and out of imperialism, perhaps we haven’t really changed and I haven’t really changed (much) and, in the end, even this abnormally cloudy weather still carries us forward towards more seasons, the same as always.

On Defining Poetry

Earl Miner writes in his book, Comparative Poetics, that “…the lyric [is] literature of radical presence.” He goes on to explain that the lyric is accomplished through the intensification of moments, rather than the passage from one moment to the next (as in narrative literature). I take this to mean that, essentially, poetry is the broadening of instants, the stretching of seconds into explanations and understandings. Or something along those lines.

Fortunately for my fresh-from-spring-break-brain, we didn’t begin here, in the depths of a philosophical and almost-mind-boggling discussion about the nature of poetry. We began, instead, in poetry itself, exploring an anthology of black poetry that has collected writings from across time and space. We read about the possibility of the evolution of ancient Greece out of Egypt and read Egyptian love poetry. We delved briefly into the biblical Song of Songs and looked closely at the perception of gender (particularly the fascinating mirroring of relationships between men and women and those between people and God).

The Epic of Son-Jara drew us further into an older Africa as the week progressed. The story is told by griots, maintainers of an oral storytelling and history-keeping tradition in West Africa. To read this text in English, translated from a version of the epic told to an audience, is to witness a story almost completely different than the “original” one. This is not to mention the absence of a truly original story, given the nature of a fluid and necessarily changeable oral tale. This reading challenged my concepts of poetry and storytelling by conflicting with more traditional western notions of lyric and verse, which adhere, at the very least, to static written form. Here arose Miner’s claim about the nature of poetry, allowing it to exist more as the accomplishment of making an audience feel or understand something instead of as a collection of words strung together in a specific, intentional way.

The story also allowed us to discuss reading the poetry of those who are not white males through the lens of their non-white-maleness. In other words, we often read the poetry of white males as universal truths, while the words of any minority are read with regard to their “otherness.” We further explored the diminishing nature of looking at African epic tales as cultural “artifacts” or “expression” rather than poetry, and sought the universal messages in the epic.

This epic tale has sent us into a cloudless weekend (in the wake of a damp, midweek, midday snowstorm). The bluebird sky anticipates us. I’ll be reading this weekend’s poems in the already-green grass in this early springtime sunshine. And while I’m still not sure entirely what poetry is, or what blackness entails, or where exactly black poetry lives in the spectrum of literature (nor am I sure that I’ll ever know), I’m certainly a few steps closer.

An Independent Study

Seventh Block at Colorado College brings with it Spring, and Independent Study. Spring has sprung. Flowers are blooming, the weather is simply lovely. The wind blows almost lazily, and the sun beating down on your head is delightful. As you walk along the sidewalks, you see intramural softball, pick-up soccer, hammocks, croquet, and campus golf. Others are reading, sunning, studying, chatting. The nights bring similar weather. Spring at Colorado College is one of my favorite times. You begin to see the colorful, wacky, wonderful CC flair adorning students. Sundresses and birkenstocks are in, uggs are out.

The official course title for this block is Independent Study in Biochemistry: RNA Evolution and Abiogenesis.  Abiogenesis is the theory that life began on Earth without any biological precursors. My task this block is to research the role of RNA in the origin of life. I am a week in and I have a detailed outline, have used several sources, and am feeling confident.   The hardest challenge I have encountered so far is self-motivation. I am not in class, I do not have a syllabus telling me what is due when. It is all discretionary. My discretion. I make my own hours, I make my own deadlines, I am tasked with motivating myself.

This is the hardest part, but also the most rewarding. As a senior, being put in charge of my own education (even if only for a block) is highly rewarding, highly appreciated, and exciting. I am excited to push myself out of my  comfort zones, and I am excited about this opportunity. This Independent Study will not only be a study of RNA, but also of myself.


I’m “Digging” EyeWire (See First Photo For Evidence)

Last week the Great Office of EyeWire had another visitor from the Colorado College Neuroscience department.

Michael Murney in virtual reality. Picture by William Silversmith, friendly mocking by Nina Friedman

Michael Murney in virtual reality. Picture by William Silversmith, friendly mocking by Nina Friedman

Here, Michael is having his first virtual reality experience using the Oculus DK. He is suspended in a neuronal circuit in the retina, so all he sees is neurons in space. When he turns his head to the right, he appears to have turned his head to the right in the virtual world, and he sees the neurons from a different angle. These are neurons traced in EyeWire. I had done this earlier, and was super excited to show it off!

Currently I am working on in-game trivia for EyeWire. I am creating questions for players to answer in the chatroom, and players will receive points if they are correct. Some of my questions are about neuroscience, and some are theme based according to competitions. The most recent competition I wrote for was Cryptozoology themed. Here’s a sample of in-game trivia, where a bot named “inquizator” presents the questions:

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 7.12.36 PM

I’m learning tons from the Wikipedia bottomless holes I get to travel down when looking for trivia questions. I’m still learning the most just from being in the office. I think a lot of my learning is unconscious, but I am also thinking about the little things that EyeWire does that I hope my future employer also does. I am also still picking up tech vocab and such. Stay tuned for a post about silly happenings in the commonspace, aka Nina essentially presenting you with a wework ad.