Genetically identifying nematodes with a portable lab

I’m so happy my first first-author scientific paper (which you can find here, if you’re up for the challenge) is published! Here’s a summary of what I have been doing these last four years, beautifully illustrated by my friend Rachel Glover.

The bottom line is that we combined a portable molecular biology lab, the Bento Lab, with a portable DNA sequencer, the MinION. With these two techniques combined we can now genetically identify nematodes all over the world, even in remote field sites.

Im my paper I looked at the DNA of nematodes, microscopically small worms. DNA is made up of letters, and the combinations of these letters create codons (like words) and genes (like sentences). Nematodes are common parasites of humans, great apes and other animals, they are a crucial component of soil ecosystems and are abundant in marine environments. Many researchers are interested in learning which species of nematodes are present in different environments.

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Mortal fear

I fear death. So, there it is, in black and white. It’s not incomprehensible that I’m afraid of death. My father passed away when I was 14 and only recently I found out what the real impact was of that event. I think most of the world’s population fears death, but we don’t talk about it much. For a lot of people death is abstract, elusive. Even for a believer like me. Don’t get me wrong, my faith was and is a great source of comfort in times of death. And yet I am and remain a human being, one with a broken heart of a father who is missed.

At the same time, my father’s death taught me many valuable things. The most important is how precious our time is. I have a personal aversion to people who say, “I’m going to go all-out, work hard, make a lot of money in the coming years so I can retire early. Then I can enjoy my hard work and relax”. Because in my experience, what if you don’t make it? What if you die before you reach retirement age? Like my father, who was 55 when he died. That’s why I have an aversion to a “I’ll enjoy life when I’m retired”-attitude. Because I know from experience that you’re not sure you’re gonna make it to retirement. That’s why it’s better to live today as if every day matters.

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Reaching for the moon

Recently I finally watched Apollo 11, the direct cinema documentary about mankind’s first steps on the moon. So many things about the moon landing fell into place while watching the documentary, like how ‘the Eagle has landed’ was simply a statement to describe that the landing of the vehicle called ‘the Eagle’ was successful. I had always thought this was some kind of fancy NASA code used to describe their successes, but alas, they were simply stating facts.

A lunar eclipse over Okambara Elephant Lodge, Namibia

There were other lessons I learned from this documentary too. Like, how the landing on the moon is a perfect metaphor for life. (Don’t take my words to literal when I say something is perfect, I tend to exaggerate this kind of point.) The documentary uses original footage shot, and audio recorded, by NASA in 1969 to show the different steps it took from roughly 3,5 hours before lift-off until the moment they (spoiler alert) landed safely back on planet Earth. And the documentary made me realise I never before considered the astronauts’ home journey.

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Love is…

“I was thinking about love. I was thinking about how difficult it is for us to find and to maintain the love that we all yearn for. And it dawned on me that I think a big part of the problem is that we misdefine love. I think the real paradigm for love is: gardener, flower. The gardener wants the flower to be what the flower is designed to be, not what the gardener wants the flower to be. You want the flower to bloom and to blossom and to become what God designed it to be. You’re not demanding that it become what you need it to be, for your ego. Anything other than all of your gifts, wide-open, giving, nourishing this flower into their greatness, is not love.”

Will Smith

The above quote described Will Smiths perspective on love. A friend forwarded me the video, which I watched multiple times in order to transcribe it. But how often don’t I find myself attempting to change the people around me and try to persuade them to do things the way I think they should be done? But… is that fair to the people around me? Isn’t it my job to ultimately be the best partner, friend and family member I can be and allow the people around me to blossom into the beautiful flowers they’re designed to be?

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Grateful to be vulnerable

Grateful to be vulnerable. That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Vulnerability is not something that we often celebrate. And I think that’s a shame. Why do we sometimes experience a mental block? Do we realise that when we let fear guide us, we’re keeping ourselves away from luck?

Bréne Brown has been a massive inspiration for me in this regard, partly because she’s – like me – a scientist. She specialised in research into human shame. She writes in the book ’The gifts of imperfection’: “Joy and gratitude can be very vulnerable and intense experiences. We are an anxious people and many of us have very little tolerance for vulnerability. Our anxiety and fear can manifest as scarcity. We think to ourselves:

  • I’m not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won’t last.
  • Acknowledging how grateful I am is an invitation for disaster.
  • I’d rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop.”
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What are you so afraid of?

Last week was the anniversary of my dads death. He passed away at the age of 55, when I was 14 years old. A few years ago I started processing my delayed grief, which is commonly caused by the inability to process the loss of a parent at a young age. During my grieving process I worked towards the day that I would be alive without my dad longer than I’ve lived with him. That day was 10 February 2018, and as an end point of the grieving process I spent a weekend in Ireland to commemorate that day.

I’ve travelled quite a bit, and I’m hardly really nervous or anxious. How incredibly different was it while I was preparing for this trip. I was procrastinating on, nay, more resisting, packing my bag. I was utterly and completely afraid of what The Day would be like. So I was trying to find ways in which I could avoid The Day. I wasn’t looking for ways to simply avoid the trip. I hoped that by postponing packing my bag, I could actually prevent The Day from coming.

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A little bit of loofah

My lovely housemates spoilt me on my last birthday. They organised a little treasure hunt through our house, having me scout for my presents one after another. Little clue here, little clue there, funky cool presents found. 

One of their presents was a little box with delicious Lush bath oil melts. It came in a fun(ky) little black egg box, four beautiful pieces. One of my housemates recommended me to try the black one first. At the same time as releasing its sweet scents,  the bath oil turned the hot bath water into a murky, turbid liquid. Little did I know the little melt was called ‘Demons’, to take ‘a dip on the dark side’. 

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Counting steps

When I was in Namibia I was following around baboons in a desert landscape. We followed them all day, from sunrise to sunset. And even though I loved the experience, it wasn’t always easy.

It was the African winter, which meant near freezing night temperatures while you’re sleeping in your tent. Then there were the early rises, before sunset (maybe around 5AM), to make sure we’d get to the troop in time. That required a physically hard walk, which was especially daunting if the baboons were on a far away sleeping cliff. There was the carrying around five litres of water to stay properly hydrated during the long warm days. And only then there was the actual follow of the troop during the day, wherever they went.

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