October 2009 Archives


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I went back to the doctor because I couldn't breathe and kept having falling-down shaking coughing fits. She checked my lungs, gave me steroids (prednisone), nasal spray, heavy-duty cough stuff, and reluctant clearance to fly tomorrow.

I'm really nervous about traveling when I am this sick, but as long as I don't end up in an Italian hospital with pneumonia, this should be a great trip!

I don't know that I've actually explained what I'm doing, so please forgive the haste: basically, we're taking on-site measurements of a mosaic and wall paintings in the Herculaneum and a medieval chapel in Urbino, using the NMR-MOUSE, portable XRF, micro-Raman, and FT-IR spectrometers and a colorimeter. What that means in lay terms is that we're using analytical chemistry instruments and techniques to study the materials and state of degradation of really awesome art stuff, then reporting that information to conservators to guide their courses of treatment and preservation.

In summation: awesome, amazing, dream-come-true stuff.

I'll be away until November 9th, and it's practically certain that this blog's template will fall apart and go to hell while I'm away. So, sorry about that, but I'll see you in 3 weeks!

Dexy's Midnight Runner

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I'm not sure why my body is so susceptible to bronchitis, but it is. Pretty much without fail, I will have congestion, gooey nose, and sneezing one day, then a hacking, bronchial cough the very next. Perhaps my throat and airways are very smooth? (I suspect this is its own topic.)

Anyway, in another marvelous bout of poor timing, I am sick. Again. And really badly sick. Again.

But this time, I have health insurance! Ta-da!!!

(I needed health insurance to be allowed on this Italy trip, and since I paid for it, I realized I could in factgo to the doctor and like, use my insurance to receive health care.)

Saturday found me shivering in an exam room, describing the same symptoms I've had a million times. I emphasized over and over that my main concern is that I am going to be flying to Italy in a few days and would very much like to avoid a barking, awful cough through all that. Also, I need to be able to hit the ground running and be a useful worker while in Italy, so I needed to get better right away, immediately if possible.

My doctor (who is a really lovely vaguely French woman - I believe she is from Belgium?) prescribed Biaxin, so that I would not be so vilely contagious and so that I could cough up slightly less disgusting fluorescent green stuff. Then she said I was to take a high dose of guaifenesin, an expectorant. That made perfect sense, I thought, and I knew that was one of the main ingredients in Robitussin DM, which is what I usually take when I have bronchitis.

But then she threw me for a craftily-accented loop, "You must not take any kind of cough suppressant, though. Only the expectorant." She added, "and do not try to be a lady - you must cough productively and bring all that green stuff up. Green stuff up, green stuff out." (She was using my very technical terms here.)

I thought this was an interesting and uncomfortable-sounding idea, and in response to my involuntarily-raised eyebrow, she explained, "If you suppress your cough, you could develop pneumonia, and I don't think you want to experiment with that in Italy."

I was appropriately scared and followed her instructions, buying expectorant pills instead of the DM upon which I generally rely. And then I spent the next two days coughing so much, so violently, and so unproductively that I was certain my frontal bone was going to detach from the rest of my skull and allow my higher level cognitive functions to drip down my face along with so many gallons of gooey stuff. I have never, in all my life, experienced such unbelievable pain at the mere act of coughing. I mean, like,everything hurts, every time.

More alarmingly, I found I couldn't breathe. Like, at all. I spent quite a few hours coughing, struggling to get some air after coughing, and in turn starting another bout of coughing. If I walked to another room, I got so winded I was dizzy and had to sit down gasping for air, as if I'd just sprinted 800 meters (let's talk about my level of physical fitness another time).

Finally, when even my teeth hurt and I was sure I was going to drop dead if I coughed anymore, I decided to disregard my doctor's highly-educated anti-suppressant mandate and took Robitussin DM (which thank goodness, I had not finished the last time I was so recently sick, and found glowing like a beacon of hope and promise that life could go on, in the medicine cabinet). No real surprise, but it has helped dramatically. I am not coughing every few seconds, my chest aches, but not in that burning, oh-God-this-is-it kind of way, and I can get real, oxygenated air to my lungs.

Even though I'm pretty sure that dextromethorphan is supposed to make you drowsy, I tend to metabolize it like speed. My brain gets all keyed up, and I think wildly tangential racing thoughts. (Side note - I'm kind of chuffed that I know what a dextrorotatory enantiomer is, and that I pretty clearly understand all the chemistry in the dexy wikipedia entry.)

But for now the thought which is resounding triumphantly through my brain is that Taking Robitussin was the Greatest Idea I've Ever Had, EVER.

(Also, I really hope I don't develop pneumonia.)

Worlds converging

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As I mentioned, I spent this weekend in Hartford, CT at the Northeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society, and it was a really fascinating and great time.

I presented my poster, and people seemed to respond very well. I spoke at length with professors from Trinity (of all places) who had chaired the session my boss presented at (her talk, btw, was excellent and made me newly excited for our work). Everyone was so warm and friendly and genuinely excited about our research, so it was a wonderful experience.

My labmate presented a project using unilateral NMR, and I did not envy the task of explaining that technique! NMR is hard to explain for PhD-toting physicists, but Daria held her own and got people really interested in those projects as well.

I came out of the conference 1 million percent certain that going forward in chemistry is the right decision, and I'm going to start application procedures (for a BS first, then the PhD) as soon as I get back from Italy. Oh, and umm, wrap up grad school at Pratt too.

It was lovely to spend a few days in Hartford at this time of year as well - we got to see my very dear friends Dan and Emily (of course I didn't take pictures - why, Vic, why??). It was such a treat to catch up and laugh with them. It looks like I'm going to be spending a bit more time in Hartford in November too (heeeee!).

I have a handful of photos in a NERM 09 set - check them out if you would like to see presenter hands and suit-wearing!

Glorious nerdistry

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Over the past few months, I've modified my educational trajectory from a PhD in Art Conservation to a PhD in Chemistry. This decision was a long time coming, but it was solidified when I attended theAmerican Institute of Conservation conference in Los Angeles in May and realized that all the talks I truly found fascinating were presented by PhDs in chemistry or physics, and the talks which fell a little short or felt like cursory glimpses at much larger and more interesting studies... were presented by conservators with the exact degree I wanted to pursue.

Despite the enormous challenge of my organic chemistry class this summer (or in some way, probably because of it), I changed my "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up" answer from "art conservator" to "art conservation scientist," a subtle, but incredibly significant change (which yeah, involves a heck of a lot more education and... math).

At work, I've been pushing myself further in this direction, and to that end I submitted a poster abstract to the American Chemical Society's Northeast Regional Meeting (NERM), which will be held this week in Hartford, CT. And, umm, it got accepted!

(Would fireworks be gratuitous here? Probably.)

So I am presenting Handheld X-Ray Fluorescence Studies of Italian Wall Paintings, which details projects conducted in Volterra, Cavriglia, and the Herculaneum, Italy, using a handheld XRF spectrometer to analyze the surface elemental composition of wall paintings and mosaics. To say I am ridiculously excited would be a tremendous understatement.

I joke with one of my labmates that sometimes I feel like that episode of American Dad! where Francine goes on a cruise and becomes a surgeon, complete with a white lab coat and stuffed teddy bear named Dr Bearington. In reality, we're practicing what that labmate calls "immersion chemistry," similar to taking a plane to France for an immersion language - we are dropped in the middle and need to learn all the chemistry surrounding what we're doing as we go.

(These pictures, btw, were from earlier this summer when our group was filmed for a documentary.)

I'll know for sure after I attend this conference this week, but something about all this just... fits. That's a pretty incredible feeling.

Die Zauberflöte

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Last night my mom and I started this season's opera subscription at the Met with a wonderful performance of Die Zauberflöte. The last time I saw this opera performed was at the Bushnell in Hartford, where it was set in space. The three ladies in service of the Queen of the Night were dressed in midriff-baring silver space costumes with white go-go boots and gigantic plastic space helmets.

There is a playful, exotic sense to the score and, according to my program, "Egypt was traditionally regarded as the legendary birthplace of the Masonic fraternity, whose symbols and rituals populate this opera. Some productions include Egyptian motifs as an exotic nod to this idea, but many others opt for a more generalized mythic ambience to convey the otherworldliness that the score and overall tone of the work call for." This production was fantastic in every sense, with glowing Masonic symbols decorating the backdrop and scattered about, a gigantic Stargate-looking rotating glass and steel set that served as portal to hell, ritual space, temple doorway, and so on.

Julie Taymor made spectacular use of Kabuki elements and puppetry, with Tamino dressed as a white-faced warrior, the big serpent slayed in the first scene resembling a Chinese dragon dance, and the bird-catcher Papageno surrounded by floating, flapping bird puppets and kites. One of the funniest scenes included food dangled from invisible cords above Papageno's head, a feast of lobster, fruit, and jiggly pasta seeming to float around him, as if he'd conjured it from his imagination, then wrestled to get it loose.

Apart from the staging and costumes, the music itself was tremendous. It is Mozart, after all, so that is to be expected, but there were many charming passages that gave a sense of levity and surprise to even the most apparently traditional scenes. I mean, there was a glockenspiel. The Queen of the Night's famous "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" aria was perhaps the most beautiful soprano singing I've ever heard. Erika Miklosa nailed the technical aspects, but also brought an emotional profundity to the rage-filled and furious text ("Hell's vengeance boils in my heart, death and despair flame about me!"). Kathleen Kim, who played the sweet young Papagena, also did a fantastic job, and I loved the tone of her voice as well as the delightful duet with Papageno, "Pa-pa-pa-pagena! Pa-pa-pa-pageno!"

Before the opera my mom and I also had a wonderful dinner at a Greek place called Dafni Taverna, on 42nd St between 8th & 9th. We shared a saganaki appetizer of baked cheeses with warm pita and we each had maroulosalata (mixed green and herb) salads. My mom had the Pastichio, which was a lasagna-like layered dish of pasta and beef with a heavenly béchamel sauce. I had a few bites of hers, and it was so good I wanted to cry - even the green beans on the side were this strange kind of perfection. I had Keftedakia, which was like Greek meatballs in a rich tomato sauce over egg noodles. It was also really delicious, but I think my mom chose the better dish between us. We were both so full that we couldn't possibly eat dessert, but my mom joked that the next time we go there, we'll have to fast for 2 days and then eat all the baklava we want.

It was a wonderful start to the season and the first of what I'm sure will be many great opera dates!

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