Cheap is good, almost free is better!

Working in a research environment definitely changes your perspective on the meaning of “cheap” and “expensive”. If paying £194 to go to a festival seems like a lot of money, then consider that you need to pay at least half more to buy an antibody. “Cheap” purchases include most things under, say, £200. And I don’t even want to think about how much money gets spent on consumables like pipets and petridishes. If you want to really do something, you need to buy equipment like microscopes or PCR meters and you can probably buy a car with the same amount of money. Or a jet. Needless to say then, that conducting scientific research is quite an expensive endeavour and it’s no bit surprise that a lot of time goes into applying for grants.

Does it really have to be this expensive though?

The simple answer is: probably.

The fun answer, however, is NO!

I’ll give you an example (and let’s pretend to ignore the fact that I’m too lazy to find another example): easy-to-make, affordable, microscopy lenses. It is quite similar to the water drop hack, which is even cheaper than the method I am going to purpose, but not quite as versatile. I am talking about a lens made out of PDMS.

Bear with me, I am going to explain.

The idea was published last year. It makes use of polydimethylsiloxane (also known as PDMS), which is a elastomer used commonly for making microfluidic devices. The elastomer is made by mixing to reagents together and exposed to heat to allow it to polymerise and form a stable, flexible, clear, rubbery bit of stuff.

An example of a microfluidic device made of PDMS (as a result of a quick google search).

As it is clear and has a high refractive index, making a droplet-shaped bit of this PDMS might very well be used as a lens in combination with a smartphone. And it is cheap, a 1.1 kg bottle of this PDMS might cost a little bit (around £100, but I have already that this is cheap in scientific consumables terms), but you can make so many lenses out of this, it results in about £0,05 per lens. Cheap huh.

So yesterday evening, we spent some time trying to make some of these lenses, which worked quite well. It is very easy to make (we are going to try this as an outreach workshop) and it is also absolutely cool. From just a few hours of messing around – and it is quite a sticky substance to work with – with cover slips, the PDMS, a syringe and a lamp to provide the heat, we made quite some lenses and took quite some pictures.

Wait, I’ll give you another example (it isn’t really though): so using these lenses, you can make a simple (and cheap!) optical trap. An optical trap uses a laser to trap, for example, a bead*. This can be used to measure the viscosity of fluids, measure forces involved in cellular processes (protein folding, motor proteins, adhesion, cytosol viscosity, motility forces, …) or to play a game of tetris. It’s quite a cool technique, and now you can save on costs by making your own lens! (I’m sure the paper will be accessible soon.)

Anyway, this is just to say that research doesn’t always have to be expensive. And obviously it was already fun, but it can be even more fun (who knew)?

The result of mucking around. Top left: a PDMS drip lens. Top right and bottom left: pixels from some text on a paper. Bottom right: some of my finger print lines.
Another example: the fabric of my watch. Left is taken in macro mode without the lens (even a bit out of focus), right is with the PDMS lens.
Another example: the fabric of my watch. Left is taken in macro mode without the lens (even a bit out of focus), right is with the PDMS lens.

We live in exciting times. Nostalgia-drenched movies are out now or being released soon. Our childhood hero is returning in the form of theatre. Certain fantasy characters might have actually existed**. Advances that we could only dream of (or write Sci-Fi novels about) seem within reach. And new awesome ways are being developed to make science cheap and accessible for anyone.

Finally, I’ll end with a teaser:

We are currently setting up an outreach project bringing these things together:

But I enjoy the far away things too! (source)

And it’s already been so much fun! Learn more on twitter or wait until I dedicate a post on the subject (sometime I will!)


*Yes, this is in no way an adequate explanation of optical trapping. I could say it uses “magic” to trap beads, though I’m sure you won’t believe me.

** Yes, I just rushed over multiple topics that I not-so-secretly wanted to mention in one way or another.

Never say biologists don’t have a sense of humour!

Sometimes, when reading a biology paper, I have to refrain myself from bursting out laughing. Biologists, and more specifically geneticist, come up with the most ridiculous names for genes. Not that I’m complaining, it brightens up even the most boring of papers (though sadly not all names are funny). Here’s a (very!) small selection as an example of biologists’ sense of humour:

  • Really Interesting New Gene (RING)
    The lack of inspiration for naming this gene is in itself quite funny.
  • Sonic Hedgehog
    This was the first funny one I’d come in contact with; at first I just thought I misunderstood the speaker. But it’s a real gene, that when mutated causes fly embryos to be covered with spike-like structures, and thus look like a hedgehog. It also gives the fly supersonic powers.
  • Don Juan
    A gene present in sperm cells of male fruit flies. It makes them extremely sexy.
  • Dissatisfaction
    A gene involved in many aspects of sexual behaviour, apparently not the very useful ones.
  • I’m not dead yet (Indy)
    In reference to a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when mutated this gene causes an increase in the lifespan of fruit flies. The flies live forever unless swatted.
  • Van Gogh
    In zebrafish, a mutation of Van Gogh results in tiny ears – wait, fish have ears? In fruit flies, a mutation of this gene causes the wings to develop a wing pattern that apparently looks like Starry Night.
  • Tinman
    A mutation in Tinman in mouse embryo results in no heart and the desire to feel love.
  • Casanova
    The result of this gene mutation in zebrafish is that they are born with two hearts, making it a incorrigible womanizer.
  • Spock
    So zebrafish really do have ears, though with a mutation in the Spock gene they end up being pear-shaped. And possibly slightly pointy. It is unsure if the mutated fish are also confused by human emotions, though it is reasonable to believe that most fish probably are.
  • Callipyge
    Sir Mix-a-lot would just love this one. A mutation in this gene results in sheep developing very large hind ends, or “beautiful buttocks” (callipyge in greek), and increased twerking abilities. You got buns, hun!
  • Dracula
    When zebrafish with this mutation are exposed to light, the fish die due to their blood cells bursting (yuck). You probably can kill them by running a wooden stake (or toothpick) through their heart as well.
  • Brainiac
    Fruit flies with this mutation have increased development of brain cells, causing them to realise that a closed window is not an exit.
  • Cheap date
    Give a few drops of alcohol to flies with this mutation and they’ll appear drunk. I’m not sure how many drops it takes to get a wild type fly drunk, but apparently Cheap Date flies are more sensitive to alcohol. They’ll probably be okay with eating some cheap garbage left overs as well, further reducing costs of a date.
  • Ken and Barbie
    Flies with this mutation lack external genitalia. They also have unreasonably small waists and plastic hair dos.
  • Halloween Genes (including disembodied, spook, spookier, shadow, shade, shroud and phantom)
    Mutations in Halloween genes cause flies to grow scary, abnormal exoskeletons, giving them instant status as spiderman nemeses.

A few more honourable mentions: Armadillo, Bagpipe, Bag or marbles, Grunge and Teashirt (fly), Jelly Belly, Seven up, Snafu, Wishful Thinking, Slamdance, Slowpoke, Smaug, Stardust, Grim and Reaper, Shaven Baby, Kryptonite and Superman, and Swiss cheese. If I ever discover a gene (very slim chance), I will do my best to come up with something original, but with all that out there, it will be a challenge.

Extra note: Not only biologists have a sense of humour. There is a theory in physics called “The Hairy Ball Theorem”. Don’t worry, it’s about not being able to brush coconuts (What?). And I’m sure there are more examples out there.

There is something marvellous about returning home at the end of a long trip…

… just as there is something inherently bittersweet about leaving a place that you ended up calling home.

A real Basilisk running from somewhere. Or running towards something. Or maybe both.

Reporting live, from Schiphol airport. (Note: most of this post was drafted in Basel airport, if you want the correct info).

I actually enjoy travelling, I find it calming to be at the airport ages in advance, sitting down with an overpriced coffee and a book. I just purchased Game of Thrones, beware I will become one of those “I’ve read the book”-snobs. Wait, I already was one of those, just not for GoT.

It’s not the first time I’m leaving a place. I have spent two months in Switzerland, and for the past two weeks people have been asking me if I am happy to be going back to Dundee. And like those other times when I was leaving a home, the answer is: “I don’t know, a bit I guess.” Of course I’m happy be going back. It won’t be 30 degrees in Scotland (seriously, I’m not cut out for warm weather, and I sincerely disliked getting searched at security after carrying my heavy bag around and feeling a bit sweaty). I will be back in my own room, in my own bed, back with my friends.

But then on the other hand, I’ve had a wonderful two months. I’ve made a lot of friends in Basel. And it had started to feel like home.

I have learned a lot, mostly about handling stress and deadlines, about how things work in another lab, how to assertive about what you need and when you need it. I have met the most wonderful people. I have met up with friends that I hadn’t seen for months, or years even. I’ve travelled around, I’ve gotten a tan and seen a lot of sun (I know I live in the “Sunniest city of Scotland” but I think this was the most summer I will see this year). In short it was a superb experience. But suddenly it was already time to go, just when I got the hang of how to conduct my experiments, and just when I started to figure out where all the cool spots in the city were.

Maybe, two months was just too short.

One of the last nights I spent like a local Baslerin. With a beer by the riverside. I didn't swim in the river like everyone else, but I did get my feet wet!
One of the last nights I spent like a local Baslerin. With a beer by the riverside. I didn’t swim in the river like everyone else, but I did get my feet wet!

So I am a bit sad to go. There are things I will miss. But I’m glad to be going back as well, get back to the other aspects of my project, not having to attend meetings over Skype (quite often I just miss half the conversation, if Skype even holds up for the whole time). Have an after work beer in Duke’s. You know, back to the normal things.

Bye Basel. I promise I will be back.

View from the top of the Münster in Basel.
View from the top of the Münster in Basel.
Quasimodo's friends were there too!
Quasimodo’s friends were there too!
Basilisk fountains all over Basel. I will miss these dragon-winged chickens.
Basilisk fountains all over Basel. I will miss these dragon-winged chickens.

*Title slightly adjusted from a Lemony Snicket quote about returning home and tuna fish. The more you know.