October 2012

I now have two skeletons in my closet.

Well, most of two, anyway, and only one actually fits in the closet. I’ll have to do some rearranging before his buddy can join. While munching cookies and contemplating the storage situation, I found myself wondering what it says about your life & livelihood when you have to pack away dress clothes to accommodate your bone collection. The answer? Your life is badass!

On the possible downside, it will be dominated by Latin and bone jokes for the next four months. This is all in good fun, but does limit one’s social interactions to ~190 new best friends in the linguistic lazar house. Still, as the bonekeeper, I get to host tea parties with cookies and skeletal rearrangement! Any excuse for cookies is a good excuse.


Tomorrow marks our fourth medical exam this semester, this time in immunology. Naturally, this delicately balanced, devilishly complex field would be the one course in which we don’t have midterms; everything rests on the final examination. It’s infuriating, but logical when you consider that medical education now takes even fewer years than in the pre-genomic, pre-antibiotic, pre-molecular biological era. I think this is why our oath includes that clause about staying current in our field.

At any rate, I’m only griping because immunology is one of the coolest fields around, and is constantly changing. 20 lectures just can’t do it justice. Our professors do try to make the condensed material accessible, though, with quite entertaining results. So, for today’s study break, I thought I might share some of the explanations:

Concerning the differences between MHC Class I (how your cells present self molecules to the immune system) and MHC Class II (how special cells called Antigen Presenting Cells – or APCs – present extracellular molecules to the immune system):

  • It all boils down to Lindsay Lohan’s arrest record. Say you’re walking by a kindergarten, minding you own business,when you see a plastic baggie full of white powder sitting on the pavement. Now, if you’re incredibly naive, you pick the bag up and put it in your pocket, thinking that you’ll just throw it in the trash can down the street, but you forget. Congratulations! You are now an infected cell! Next day, a cop stops you for walking and chewing gum at the same time, and he makes you turn out your pockets. In there with your keys and your wallet and cell phone is the little white baggie. You say, “Gee, officer, that white bag isn’t mine, I just picked it up somewhere…” Guess how far that’s going to get you.
    Now, if you’d been an APC, you would have seen that bag on the pavement and immediately thought to yourself, Hmmm. I bet Lindsay Lohan’s been here. Don’t want any of these li’l tykes picking this up, so I’d better turn this in and get the cops to canvas the neighborhood. You double bag the suspicious evidence and flash your undercover MHC II license back at the station, so next time Lindsay shows her face, she’s toast. Case closed.
  • Of course, there’s more to MHC I and and MHC II than just where they get the peptides that they present. There are also different rules for how big the peptides can be. Think of it as New York versus San Francisco. MHC class II presents foreign peptides, and is a way of asking for help controlling a problem, so it’s pretty lenient. Pack a bunch a’ suspicious characters into a trolley car, let ’em dangle out the windows a bit, and then just shove ’em off towards Alcatraz. No worries. MHC I, on the other hand, tells the immune system whether you’re doing ok or have been infected by a virus, and the penalty for infection is death. Your cells are paranoid about what gets onto these things. It’s New York. It invented exact change. 8-10 amino acids or you don’t get on the bus.

Concerning immunoFAIL:

  • If the immune system worked perfectly all the time, we wouldn’t have doctors. Pathogens are pretty smart, too, especially HIV, which is able to hijack your helper-T cells and kill them to prevent activation of the killer-T cells, which could actually clear the infection. As we learned, the changes over time in this disease are kind of like replacing Eli Manning with Mark Sanchez.
  • HIV is a retrovirus, meaning that when it enters a cell, it back-transcribes itself into your very own genome. It’s pretty savvy, and has worked out that the best strategy is to build up a new army before busting out and invading more cells. So, it has to sequester a lot of its players inside the nucleus until it’s time for them to enter the cytoplasm. Think of the cytoplasm as an exclusive new club in the Seattle Space Needle. It has a fussy bouncer named Rev. Now, Bill Gates reaaaallly wants to get into this club, but as a young man his CRS nerd factor is just too high. He gets bounced like an olympic pingpong. However, a little later in life, he acquires RRE, which in this universe stands for gigantic piles of cash. This RRE bling is so thoroughly attractive that it outweighs the nerd factor, and the once disdainful Rev gloms onto Bill like a limpet and escorts him into the club for life.

And that, my friends, is how I will forever remember immunology.


There are some more fun anecdotes, but my study break is up, so they’ll have to wait for later.

By rights, I should be studying for immunology. I have been (just ask me how APCs relate to Lindsay Lohan’s arrest record), and I continue to scramble for Wednesday’s exam but this has been the first lovely weekend in an age, and I couldn’t sit it out. So, of course, I popped down to the botanical gardens. Man, was I in for a treat!

New York Botanical Adventure Garden

New York Botanical Adventure Garden

You see, what hadn’t sunk in was that out there in the real world people only get to see skeletons once a year. It’s a tremendous deal. While our institutions pride themselves on having buried grave robbing, as it were, the rest of the world digs it up each October. So, as I have been shuttered away in the library reading about bones and guts and gore, New York has actually been preparing for Halloween.

Spider in the Ivy

Spider in the Ivy

I must say, the city does this in style.

pumpkin bugs

Pumpkin Bugs

A number of the smaller installations are what the garden calls “funkins,” or carved foam pumpkin casts that allow the carvings to withstand a little more wear and tear from exuberant kids and, of course, the park’s intrepid squirrels. The funkins are convincingly realistic, and it took me a while to figure out how they were constructed. However, there’s just no fooling some people, and a brave few took the investigation into their own hands.

New York Breeds Skeptics

New York breeds skeptics

This being a botanical garden, many of the jack o’ lanterns were carved to have faces of leaves or flowers, but around the time that the scarecrow outcrop came along, so did more designs.

Sunshine jack o lantern

Sunfaced jack o’ lantern

This may have been set in the children’s garden, but the deeper we went, the more adults there seemed to be. Somehow it transitioned from a 1:4 adult to child ratio to more like 4:1. In retrospect, that should have tipped me off that we were approaching the real pumpkin wonders.

pumpkin zombie spider

Pumpkin Zombie Spider

Yesterday, kids got to help carve the legs for the monster spider, which sports 400lbs of thorax, jointed wood armatures for the legs, and an appropriately ghastly Frankenstein face. Today, however, it was all cordoned off. This did not go over well with the under-10 crowd, believe me. Still, there were some other pretty cool things to be gawked at, too.

Pumpkin Wow

Pumpkin Wow demonstration carving

pumpkin wow closeup

Pumpkin Wow: now in 3D!

Although the garden so far had lived up to the name of the Pumpkin Wow workshop, we had not yet reached the scene of this year’s masterpiece. Two days in, and it’s still under construction, but it takes pumpkin carving to a whole nother level.

Pumpkin Zombie

Pumpkin Zombie

Yes, the pants and entrails are all pumpkin, too. And that’s not all.

raise the...dead?

Pumpkin Horde

Apparently pumpkin zombie can raise a festive pumpkin horde. I bet they’re devils on the squash court.

I bet they're devils on the squash court

Pun’kin Heads

Honestly, halfway through my exam notes, I can identify a bit with the dopey franken-minion on the left.

You should see the workshop next door to this, where they had all of the different pumpkin varieties assembled to carve for the individual colors and textures used in this scene. Some of the squash were close to 2,000 lbs to start with, and all of the innards that they hollowed out to make them lanterns became the more people-looking innards of the sculpture. I can’t wait for the finished product!

This about concludes my study break allotment, so we’ll save the other photos from this outing for later. Tune in next week for your scheduled zombie update!*

*that means me, not the pumpkins, I’m afraid. Sorry to disappoint 🙂