Wednesday, 27 January 2010

some ideas on how to throw a baby shower

a while ago, when two good friends of mine were pregnant, i threw them a babyshower. this is how i did it.

since it was a surprise party for the two pregnant ladies, the whole thing was quite relaxed, so no registering for expensive gifts or anything. everyone invited to the party simply brought a small gift along with them. the whole thing wasn't supposed to be tacky, but we had some tacky things just to have a laugh.

first of all, above is a picture of the invitation i sent. (i tried my best to make it look like my friends, but i am not a great cartoonist!)

the catering was quite easy, just tea and cakes. below is a picture of the pram-shaped cake i made. once you know a good sponge/biscuit recipe, it really is quite easy to make any kind of cake by simply cutting the sponge into shape. for chocolate flavoured cream, i simply melt a bar of chocolate (plus a little bit of sugar/vanilla extract) in a pot of whipping cream, chill it, and then whip it a few hours later. for raspberry/strawberry cream, blend the fruit along with some sugar/vanilla extract and then fold that into the whipped cream. so as you can see, the body of the pram was strawberry, the handle and roof chocolate flavoured, and the wheels kiwi.

while we were eating the cakes and having tea, the pregnant ladies could open the presents that the guests had brought. for entertainment after tea, i had organised a game/quiz. the guests divided up in teams of two people, and everyone got a little game-booklet (see below).

the baby-shower-game had several stations, all distributed throughout the house:
station 1 - guess how many jellybeans and chickpeas were filled into a baby bottle
station 2 - play "the price is right", i.e. guess the price of some baby items
station 3 - take a quiz with funny questions about baby-related things
station 4 - guess famous pregnant celebrities (see picture)
station 5 - guess grown-ups belonging to a series of cute baby pictures
each team would start at a different station, so that there would be no queues. when everyone was done, we re-convened in the living room to compare the results. as a prize, i had bought two gossip magazines. even though these prizes were meant as a joke, there was quite some discussion about the fair distribution of points to determine the winners!

all in all, this baby shower was great fun and i think the guests and my pregnant friends liked it. i definitely enjoyed planning it and hosting it, so i can only recommend it if you have any pregnant friends!!!!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

"WAS WOLLEN SIE" or the experiment "stick in hand"

during my undergraduate degree, my professor of organic chemistry was quite the character. he was an expert in the synthesis of squaric acids and also convinced that his discipline was the only true chemistry (hence he called any other chemistry "pressing buttons"). he was very old school, meaning that he was not very approachable and would normally greet you with the phrase "WAS WOLLEN SIE???" or "GEHEN SIE!!!" (i.e. "what do you want?" or "go away!"). if you wrote something in an exam that he did not like (for example superfluous explanations about reaction mechanisms), he'd take a thick marker pen and write "prose" across the page or even cross out the entire answer. he was famous for drawing "chaos-snakes" too, highlighting the point at which your answer had become too complicated and he would not read on any further. admittedly, his many quirks could be quite entertaining, but if you were on the receiving end of it, then it could become quite difficult.
one of his favourite stories was to tell us about the experiment "stick in hand", that every chemist has to perform at some point in his life. to say it more clearly, every lab chemist one day accidentally sticks some kind of glass item into their hand or other body parts, resulting in injury. in his eyes, this was essential chemistry.
i have to say that he certainly wasn't one of my favourite lecturers, so i never really think about him much any more. except from today, when for the first time, i performed the experiment "stick in hand"! i was simply putting a pipette aid onto the top of a glass pipette (those 30cm long ones for NMR tubes), and somehow it ended up jammed in between two fingers of my left hand. there wasn't much harm done, so the experiment was a full success... somewhere in chemistry-heaven where my professor is synthesising squaric acids for all eternity, someone is laughing in confidence that he is always right!!! ;-)

Friday, 22 January 2010

pogo, the somerville cat

pogo is our college principal fiona caldicott's cat. he's a beautiful black tomcat wearing a red collar with a little bell on it, so when it's very quiet you hear him approaching even before you see him. pogo is well known and loved amongst all college members, especially the porters who feed him every day. pogo even has his own facebook page with 179 friends! obviously, many people would really like to pet him when they see him strolling through his territory or sleeping at his favourite spot, the radiator in the green room. unfortunately though, pogo prefers to keep to himself, and he either ignores you or walks away when you approach him. when he's in a particularly bad mood, he's even been known to go after people and scratch them. so it's not surprising that you can consider yourself very lucky if pogo does allow you to play with him.

when my friend steve simon told me that pogo had once jumped onto his shoulders, i have to say i was a tiny bit jealous that he would like steve so much!!
after dinner today, i walked through the green room and saw pogo on this usual spot, the radiator. when he saw me, he jumped down and approached me. surprised about so much attention, i knelt down next to him and guess what: he jumped onto my back!
i feel so special after this event that i have to tell the world about it. i even have a picture as the ultimate proof!!!


Sunday, 17 January 2010

the new building of the oxford biochemistry department

(picture taken from here)

in 2008, the biochemistry department of oxford got a new building: a flashy £47 million construction highly praised and recently decorated with at least one architectural award. it is supposed to attract excellent researchers from all over the world, and inspire ground-breaking research among the workers with its open-plan design...

is this really true? here is the opinion of an oxford biochemistry post-doc:

the first thing i'd like to say: of course it's nice to work in a new building rather than an old one. old research buildings are often as ugly from the outside as they are from the inside, with labs cluttered with old equipment that's either broken or that people have forgotten how to use, and with office-shelves filled with previous workers' abandoned belongings collecting the dust of decades. our old building was exactly like this, absolutely not pretty to look at, with stained carpets, dirty windows and spiderwebs (sometimes even huge spiders). but i have to say, it was alright to work there. everything important was under one roof, labs and offices close together, bathrooms in close range, kettles, microwaves, sinks and water fountains in the offices and even a common room to get a bit further away from your desk. it was adequate for the work that we had to do. not beautiful, but practical.

now we work in "new biochemistry", which is not ugly in the least. it is an L-shaped building of 6 levels, two underground and 4 above, with a huge sky-lit atrium in the centre breaking through all floors. the different levels are connected through the main staircase which crosses the atrium, with the flights of stairs arranged irregularly, a bit like the revolving staircase of hogwart's school of witchcraft. through the atrium flies a flock of plastic birds on glass-fibre strings, semi-disturbing because some of them are siamese twins or look as if shot in mid-air, but still kind of nice to look at. around the atrium, the office spaces or "write-up areas" form little niches, filled each with six rows of a total of 24 desks and two rows of cupboards flanking them. here and there you find a PI (i.e. principal investigator's) office or admin areas. the labs are located on the outer side of the building, with all-glass fronts so that people walking past can watch us work or so that the workers can see some daylight. the outside of the building is decorated with coloured glass panels projecting out of the window-glass front. the inner side of the L is decorated with rorschach test pictures, i.e. ink stains whose interpretation gives information about the observer's psyche. (they could also be slices of animal brains or images of vulvas... i wonder what that says about my psyche! by the way, out of all these possibilities, the latter probably has the most to do with biochemistry....)

when i first set foot into the new building, i thought: how are we supposed to concentrate with our offices in the atrium? and how are we going to manage to work at such tiny desks?
unfortunately, these initial concerns were justified. it's so hard to concentrate!! we hear the lab phones of every single floor ringing through the atrium, including people's mobile phones (which also causes envy towards those who actually have reception). because we are cramped in so closely, we hear pretty much every word spoken in our write-up area. plus that of other people in the atrium! when people really need to concentrate on writing, reading or thinking, then it's not surprising that the atmosphere can get pretty tense.
even if it was completely silent in the atrium, the small size of the desks already makes working difficult. the desks are so small that you can't easily place your laptop and your labbook on the same desktop. i solved that problem by buying an imac, but even with the keyboard i struggle to place everything on the table. the desks are also so narrow that two people cannot easily sit next to each other in front of one computer, which is necessary when you show someone your data. the second person has to invade into the neighbour's deskspace, which can get annoying for them. there are not enough chairs either, so the extra person either has to stand up or take someone else's chair... you see the problem? depending on how stressed people are on any given day, people start arguing. we've really argued a lot more since we moved.

i once discussed the lack of space with our head of department. he simply replied: when you have to write a paper, you work form home anyway...
i'd say £47 million well spent!

of course there are many other things to talk about apart from the offices: the labs, the cafe, the artwork presented in the building, the general access to the building, other offices, communal areas... i think i'll mention those another day!

finally i just want to say that after a few months in the new building, the visual appeal of some of its features kind of grows on you. but this still does not compensate for the simple lack of practicality.

we often get groups of official visitors in new biochemistry (one time even the prime minister), who are shown around the atrium and lab areas. they admire the architecture and get an impression of how science works nowadays. sometimes the guests even take pictures of us at our desks from the staircases. working in this building every day, you start to feel like an extra in this presentation.
one major purpose of this new building must have been to project a certain image of science to the outside world. that has certainly worked. but getting on with your research kind of ended up in the background...

ps: related articles about new biochemistry and similar building trends in science you can find here, here and here.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

10 reasons why somerville is a great college

1. we have pogo ;-)

2. we have pogo ;-)

3. it is a very friendly place with friendly people

4. it is more progressive than other colleges

5. it has a good library

6. it is less authoritarian than other colleges

7. the food tastes good on most days (and it almost never tastes bad)

8. it has a good choir

9. the porters are nice

10. you can step onto the lawn

Thursday, 7 January 2010

oxford in the snow

since christmas, it has snowed pretty much anywhere in the uk, except here. two days ago, the snow finally arrived in oxford!!! above you can see what that looks like from the rooftop flat.

and here are a few snowmen i photographed on my way into work yesterday!

enjoy the snow-fun, and the free time at home if your buses aren't running. unfortunately i can walk into work!!! :-)

Friday, 1 January 2010

persian saying

the one who lives virtuously is honored, not envied.