Swimming through Week 2

Last week, we went on two exciting excursions in class. We first visited a local river – the Arkansas, down in Pueblo. Again donning our waders and looking awesome, we took measurements and talked about stream dynamics. It was a cold, rainy day, which made sticking your arms in to grab pebbles fairly unpleasant.

From the data collected that day, we compared different sections of stream for their gross primary production to community respiration ratios. Many hours were spent grappling with Excel, and I’m reasonably sure that everyone in the class found different answers.

On Thursday, we went to the CC Cabin with the Geomorphology class! It was a funny field trip in more ways than one – we had class in a stream, on a porch, and in a thunderstorm.


Paige notices me taking a picture while everyone else settles in for a porch lecture at the CC cabin.

With the Geomorph students, we discussed how fires affect streams and landscapes. We explored the burn scar from the 2002 Hayman Fire near Woodland Park, an area that still has ongoing repercussions from the fire which affect water flows and geomorphology. We looked at sediment transport, old stream channels, alluvial fans, and a place where you could see the black charcoal layer of soil underneath new deposits of sediment from erosion and flooding. We spent time discussing nutrient response to fires, deciding how certain features were made, calculating past stream discharge and power, and the future for the area.


Our class, with the Geomorphology class, learning in a stream!


The top of an alluvial fan in the Hayman burn scar, where water from large precipitation events created this streambed.

It was an incredible place to be, since fires in Colorado are a prevalent issue and the effects on the sediment transport and fluvial systems will continue for years in every burned landscape.


Crossing the stream, led by Natalie.


Splashing into Week 1

Natalie waves instead of recording data!

Natalie waves instead of recording data!

It’s block 32 for me at CC, and I am surprisingly glad to spend it taking Water! Water is a notoriously difficult Environmental Science class, but thus far has been better than expected.

Last week, we went on a field trip to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs! Never did I ever expect that CC would put me up in cabin with hot springs access for three days – but we had a great time. There was a good amount of work involved, but we also got to soak for several hours every night and hang out in cabins and cook delicious meals together.

What we were technically doing was taking measurements of Chalk Creek. Each day we put on our waders and got in the creek, measuring width, depth, elevation of surrounding land, stream velocity, and size of pebbles. From the data we collected, we were able to calculate how much water is flowing through the stream each second now, when it floods a few feet, and when it floods dramatically. Using historical data from a probe downstream, we found an approximation for how often a certain grassy area would be flooded (my answer was every 2.6 million years – a little large but I think I did the math right!).


Betsie, myself, and Darren get ready to do some major stream measurements at Chalk Creek!

Our two professors, Miro and Becca, took time on the trip to get us thinking about ways to look at different streams and assess them for habitat health. We performed experiments to measure flux of nutrients or other things that might be floating in your stream. One afternoon we collected detritus from the streambed and tallied all the macroinvertebrates that were found – far more than I expected!


Miro’s classroom – lecturing about flux dynamics from a stream.

Smiling Through The Apocalypse: The Beginning of the End (Times)

“Oh yeah, I’ll be there. But, what are we going to do?” I asked David Hendrickson, my 4-year academic adviser, sometime during 7th block as we wrapped up a meeting spent knee deep in deciphering a coherent direction to take my big senior tutorial paper.  “To be honest, I’m not sure I want to spend my last block at CC thinking about how the world is going to end.” I admitted.  “Well, that’s the point.  The class is meant to give you an idea of how to survive and thrive – find happiness even – in the face of grave doom.  Also, there will be golf.”  What a fitting metaphor for graduation.

Smiling through the apocalypse is one of two Senior Year Experiences (SYEs) in the political science department.  The some 25 students who filtered through the door on the first day made all made it here one way or another through the Video Dance Party of New Student Orientation 2011, the farewell of Dick Celeste and Jill Tiefenthaler’s inaugural ball.  As a collective of 4th years we’ve branched out covered a lot of ground both literally and metaphorically.  We’ve studied abroad from Tanzania to Switzerland, conducted research from observing nematode neurons in the CC lab to interviewing Tibetan refugees surrounded by the stupas of Nepal.  We’ve tackled tough thesis in Math, Economics, Biology, Political Science and more and then block breaked all across Colorado back country.   We’ve served on student government, started new clubs, been leaders in Greek life, and spent countless hours training as DI, DIII, Club and yes, intramural athletes – champions even.  The past four years of various majors, extracurricular, adventures, passions, and interests have brought us all back through this door to end our CC careers smiling through the apocalypse.

The first few days of class constituted just that.  We begin with some proper-mindset-inducing songs and movie trailer.  (for class favorites see: “Naked Men Who Want Your Clothes: Arnold; Choosing the correct response” “The Winans:  Question Is” and “Planetary Hook-Ups: When World’s Collide”).  Admittedly, more giggles (or general awe at 1950′s special effects) than terror ensued as we explored apocalypse fear of days past.   Though perhaps the recent phenomenon of Y2K, 2012 Mayan prophesied doom day, and the myriad of world ending blockbusters of the last decade all might represent a spike in apocalyptic pop culture these days, amusements aside, it is clear that sentiments of the end times have always been with us.  Whether it’s the revelations of ancient prophets or the warnings of Robert Heilbroner lamenting “the ubiquitous use of drugs, the extreme sexual relaxation,” and “the defiantly unconventional modes of dress” of our parents’ renegade generation, apocalypse has been with us through the ages.

With the solidarity of historical hysteria established, and the syllabus (available here for inspection – and definitely worth a look) passed out and explained we now embark on diving in to the nuances of 21st century doom.   This block will takes us through everything from pandemics to natural resource crises, drought and famine to nuclear Armageddon and global financial collapse.  Will human ingenuity save the day and see the human race stretch across the universe to thrive for millennium?  Are we doomed to a slow and painful extinction on an war torn Earth we’ve made uninhabitable for ourselves? our kids? our grand-kids?  Big questions to ponder in our last month as undergraduates intellectually adventuring between the great walls of Palmer Hall.  With, of course, a few outside fitness days and night time class get-togethers to keep it all in perspective.  Because, after all, as we learned day 1 we’re all in this together.  Until, you know, it ends.

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.