Thursday, April 30, 2009

For those of you who can't deal with big long posts like the last one...'s a nice short tidbit.

So when you call tech support for an American company, you very frequently get a person in India, right?

Oddly enough, when you call support for getting a visa to go to India? You get an American. Apparently India outsources its visa processing to an American company. Bizarre.

On Sapolsky, and living in interesting times

Went to a talk by Robert Sapolsky yesterday; really fascinating stuff. He studies, among many, many other things, stress in wild populations of Olive Baboons. Kelly has a nice summary of the neuroscience here, so I'll be lazy and focus on the parts that I found most interesting: the primatology. Sapolsky has been studying hormone fluctuations in Kenyan Olive Baboons for decades. He compares hormonal indicators stress levels at baseline to those after certain kinds of stress.

The punchline is that olive baboons, like humans, exhibit maladaptive hormonal responses to social stress. Basically, these hormonal responses (glucocorticoids) release as part of a stereotypical flight or fight response to stress. This response ramps up your ability to flee if a lion is about to eat you, for example. But, as Sapolsky put it yesterday, if you're stressed because need to run away from a predator, your body sends energy to your thighs. Great. But if you're stressed because you're a baboon who's trying to form fragile alliances....your body sends energy to your thighs. If you're stressed because you're on a blind date....your body sends energy to your thighs. Not quite so helpful in these contexts. What's more, your body does this with hormones that can negatively impact your stress levels long term.

If you're a low-ranking olive baboon, your situation is especially bleak: your life is super-stressful, since everyone can beat on you, and your body is constantly throwing stress hormones at your brain over things it doesn't need too. This means you're constantly reinforcing your stress response, creating a "learned helplessness" very like human depression. The happiest (and often highest ranking) baboons are the ones that know what actual stress is, minimize their stress at other times, use coping behaviors (apparently grooming is as good as smacking someone else around), and take control of stressful situations.

It seemed particularly appropriate to me that this talk was being given right now. It's an "ancient chinese curse" kind of year, in a lot of ways: we live in interesting times. When people talk about the Great Depression and WWII, they talk about the way these things affected entire generations, and built a sort of shared identity based on responding to hardship. In some ways, I suppose that respoding was empowering, but to me it still sounds a bit like being a low ranking baboon. I think it's fairly likely that things like the recession, climate change, and maybe swine flu might create a shared identity for my generation, and the notion of solidarity is appealing, but I dislike the lack of control that goes with it.

That sort of thing is a lot of the reason I do the sort of research I do. I like the notion that no matter what generation I belonged to, the things I do in my life are interesting, and that's something I took control over. You don't become a primatologist because of things happeneing to you, which fosters a fascinating work environment. I was talking with a fellow primatology grad student and we realized if we were to catch some fatal disease tomorrow, we wouldn't look back and think we hadn't done anything.

People like that make for a great work environment, even if we all probably sat through that talk thinking about how similar to the life of that low ranking baboon things can be sometimes, and maybe have been lately. Either way, at least some of my times are interesting because I wanted them that way.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dog domestication & traveling the world

Part of why this blog is called "Travels with Darwin" is because Ryan and I are evolutionary biologists. The other part is that we have a dog named Darwin, and we travel most when we're doing stuff related to dog DNA collection.

So how do you actually wind up getting your job to send you to a dozen countries in two months? Apparently, you work for the Village Dog Project. The description of the project is below:
Understanding the evolution and domestication in dogs requires genetic analysis of a global and diverse panel of non-breed-affiliated village dogs. With a network of worldwide and Cornell-affiliated collaborators, we plan to gather dog samples from remote villages, establish a genetic archive containing DNA and phenotypic information from these dogs, carry out genetic analyses on these samples, and develop computational methods for analyzing this dataset. In particular, we are interested in understanding the location, timing, and demographic conditions underlying domestication; the genetic changes involved in the transition of wolf to dog; the relationship between these village dogs and the breed dogs; and the effect that historical forces have shaped village dog diversity.
How we wound up with this gig is a story for another time. Basically, there just are remarkably few people willing to travel through every part of the third world at the fastest rate possible, collecting dog DNA and permits for dog DNA under the most bizarre conditions you can imagine.

I've collected DNA out of the backs of 4 x 4s, using a centrifuge that plugs into a car lighter, spinning down samples in cabs, at night in the middle of a tiny Namibian village, on 3 hours sleep, for 14 hours a day, translating through two people and four languages, with the assistance of the one ten year old in a village who knows where the dogs hide, while being called a witch because the dogs don't run away from me....

You get the idea. Wouldn't you want to spend your summer doing that?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


If you're one of my friends who's been reading the previous blog I had at this address, this is likely not the site you've been expecting. Instead of leaving my old blog sitting and stagnating and turning into a mommy blog (I just can't do it), I decided to start a new blog.

Ryan and I keep having adventures, and so one of the things I've wanted to do for a while is start actually telling some of our stories. We're also going to be having quite a few adventures this summer traveling around doing dog project collection, and so many of those should wind up on here as well.

For now, I have plans for this blog. I'm going to try to write at least every other day, but we'll see how it goes. The itinerary for this summer is:

Papua New Guinea