This week’s issue of the journal Science features a story on the largest man-made wavemaker just engineered by a Dutch research facility in Delft, a small city which our group visited in April: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/350/6256/21.full?utm_campaign=email-sci-ntw

The Delta Flume, a water-filled trough that will produce waves as high as 4.5 meters, will be used to study threats to coastal areas and to devise new systems for protecting these areas. Since so much of the Netherlands lies below sea level, there’s a real need for innovative approaches to managing all that water.

The Dutch are absolute masters of technology.

To test or not to test

An essay I wrote about deciding whether to test for BRCA and meeting Dr. Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 in 1990, was just published in Cancer Todayhttp://www.cancertoday-digital.org/cancertoday/fall_2015?sub_id=Rc5itCAteDQ7&pg=22#pg22

Before meeting Dr. King in person, I watched Decoding Annie Parker. Actress Helen Hunt plays King and tells the interesting story about how King uncovered the genetic cause of some breast and ovarian cancers. It’s an emotional film, but definitely one worth checking out.

On a related note, Mary-Claire was pleased by Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her character!

Meeting Father Robert

Since traveling to the Netherlands, I’ve been working on a story about sustainable burials–approaches to leaving the world in the most eco-efficient way. The story is nearing completion, and I’ll be submitting it to an editor who has expressed interest in publishing the piece next week. Fingers crossed.

In the process of researching and composing the story, I came across a long-lost relative who was rumored (among members of my family) to have been buried in a less than conventional way in the early 1970s. Father Robert Donovan, my great-great uncle, was a Benedictine priest who taught English and religion at St. Bede Academy in Peru, Illinois, and served at parishes in Florida and California, in addition to Illinois.

Benedictines take a vow of poverty, and their funeral rites, I’ve learned, reflect this vow. I’ll leave the details for the article (which I hope I’ll be able to post soon on my blog), but I can say that following the trail of facts about Father Robert’s life and death has been an amazing experience.

Over the course of a few months, I’ve shared long conversations with my dad about his memories of Father Robert. Emails with members of the Donovan clan, people I’ve known all my life but never collaborated with in quite this way. A phone call to the current abbot at St. Bede’s, who knew Father Robert personally and provided some colorful stories about him. An interview with my parish priest, Father Thomas Kelly, who offered a perspective on funeral rites in the Catholic Church in Ireland as well as the United States.

It’s been a journey, and well worth the effort to meet Father Robert.

The big three

My brother has been released from prison.

In Pennsylvania, where Joe’s been an inmate for the past several months, the words “jail” and “prison” are interchangeable, unlike in the rest of the country where a “prison” refers to a facility where people are sent once they’ve been convicted of a crime and sentenced to a significant period of time behind bars. Despite the slew of charges against him, Joe was released a little over a week ago.

The phone calls have begun.

Two from case workers at the rehab facility where he is currently residing. One from Joe saying that he is in rehab and he loves us. He reportedly told one of the case workers that he hoped to come to my house to recuperate once they let him out of rehab. I told the case worker that Joe wasn’t allowed to come here.

When I begin to feel guilty about turning Joe away, I have to remember the three reasons why I can’t let him back into my life.

He is an addict.

He is a criminal.

He is abusive.

For these reasons, I can’t allow Joe to enter my house or to be around my children. Still, it hurts.

New digs

Edwina has moved.

The rent for her old apartment, the only residence she’d ever called her own, went up and she couldn’t make the payments. Plus, once management at the place shifted, Edwina discovered that not much got fixed. As a case in point, she spent much of the summer without a front window after the wind shattered the glass during a particularly forceful storm.

Last week, Edwina and I decided to meet up. She wanted me to see her place and catch up on things since the last time we’d seen each other.

I had an hour or so between a scheduled appointment and the time I hit carpool to pick up the girls from school, so I checked out my Google map directions and headed off towards Edwina’s new digs.

But the closer I got to my destination, the more out of place I felt. Block after block revealed dilapidated buildings, abandoned cars, street dwellers hanging out on corners and propped up against store fronts and benches in the middle of the afternoon. Perhaps my discomfort stemmed from an unclear sense of direction–I’d never been in this particular part of Birmingham before–but whatever the reason, my gut told me to turn around and head back towards my own side of town.

When I got home following carpool, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. My friend had moved to what seemed like a more dangerous area because she had no choice. Shouldn’t I be willing to move outside my comfort zone for an hour to pay her a visit? I’d never turned away from Edwina before, not because of a decision she’d made that I disagreed with or because I didn’t completely understand her perspective on something. What made this situation any different?

I was scared. Driving through Edwina’s new neighborhood, I felt like I stood out. I was dressed up for work, driving a car that looked newer and in better condition than any other means of transport I saw in the area. I hadn’t come across another white person as I drove block to block looking for Edwina’s address. Despite years of knowing Edwina, her family and her friends, I didn’t feel safe in her new surroundings. And I felt terrible for admitting that I felt the way I did because of what I saw when I looked out my car window.

Edwina and I did meet up the next day when she stopped by my office. We chatted for a while and then she headed for home when I told her it was time for me to leave for class.

Ignorance is bliss?

A story in today’s New York Times caught my eye: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/24/opinion/the-case-for-teaching-ignorance.html?emc=edit_th_20150824&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0

The author claims that overstating the certainty of knowledge is a problem. When we convey the message that we know everything there is to know about just about anything–climate change, the common cold, characterization in Winnie the Pooh–we’re apt to 1) be wrong, and 2) ignore the questions yet to be asked and answers yet to be given. Curiosity, Jamie Homes claims, is fueled by uncertainty.

I run into the discussion of what scientific understandings are more and less certain every semester when I teach a writing class to college freshman enrolled in UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program. While many students have learned to appreciate those ideas that are backed by stacks and stacks of evidence, fewer are eager to share the complexities that confound researchers.

It’s my task as a teacher to encourage students to view research gaps, questions, and puzzles as opportunities to keep on looking. As I tell my students, that’s where the fun lies.

First days

Today marks my oldest’s last first day of high school and my youngest’s first first day of high school. As I snapped their picture this morning, I wondered (like most parents, I imagine) how we got to this point so quickly.


I sometimes tell new moms who express disbelief that my daughters are so grown up that once the girls started school, time seemed to move at record speed. Perhaps it’s because my husband and I are both academics and we measure our time largely around semesters. Or, maybe it feels the same for every parent.

While I’m waxing nostalgic, I want to gush a tad, too. Despite the many questions and uncertainties Bruce and I have faced as parents, I’m proud to say that my daughters are wonderful people–smart, funny, and kind. I couldn’t ask for more.