Friday, June 29, 2012

Healthcare is Pointy

Yesterday was either the day of the great unveiling or the beginning of the end, depending on your perspective.

This morning, however, I face my greatest fear. "I'll lay down, if you don't mind." She nodded, but I couldn't help feeling a little ridiculous. "It's just a TB test," Nurse REDACTED consoled me, "you'll be fi...." She stopped short, looking down at her chart. "Oh, no it's not. You need a tetanus booster too. I'll be right back."

As a child, my mom dreamed I would be an M.D. someday, as well-adjusted parents are often wont to do. It was around Middle School that it became clear to all parties concerned that my paralyzing fear of needles would not be outgrown, & her hopes would need adjusting. "Maybe he'll be a research scientist," she said somewhat hopefully to the nurse as I came-to in the doctor's office hallway, " know...something involving fewer pointy bits." I had passed out in the hallway five minutes after receiving my MMR, which the nurse assured her was in & of itself medically-interesting behavior, and thus a partial victory.

"I'm back!" Despite my hopes, Nurse REDACTED had not forgotten about me. I had been passing the time by staring down the EPIC logo on the computer monitor across the room. She began to prepare her wares. Starting to feel queasy, I searched for distraction more captivating than EPIC. A world of options immediately presented itself to me, so I said the first thing that came to mind: "why don't you explain Obamacare to me?"

Ok, reader(s). Allow me to come clean: before this morning, I didn't really understand Obamacare. It's possible that I still don't. I have wanted to understand, I have tried to inform myself, but, as I'm sure many of you know, it's nearly impossible to find non-partisan information on this. I've taken to lowering my standards, accepting any document that doesn't either sound like fan mail for our President, or read like the beginning of a rambling hand-scrawled manifesto on bringing 'merica back to its glory days. At this, too, I have failed.

I was surprised how excited Nurse REDACTED was to have been asked this question. She immediately launched into a well-reasoned overview of the ins & outs of Obamacare. She pulled up a chair, which confused me, because I thought she needed to inject me with things.
Me: Aren't you going to.... 
Nurse REDACTED: Oh, I'm done. 
Me: You're pretty good at your job. 
Nurse REDACTED: I know. & I think everyone else should be able to get good health care too.
To me, this is a hard view to disagree with. Yes, civil liberties. Yes, freedom & choice, but at the end of the day, shouldn't everyone have access to services that will keep them healthy? I think so. OHSU President Joe thinks so too, & he seems like a pretty smart guy.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't completely understand this issue, but, since that's not stopping anyone else in the media from having an opinion—I actually heard a pundit say that he was so upset over this step toward socialized medicine that he was going to move to Canada out of protest—I won't let it stop me. From what I'm hearing, people are mostly complaining about two things. One is the tax increase, which people always complain about, so it's not particularly interesting. &  second is the fact that the government is now telling us what we have to buy & this is new & bad. This confuses me, because I've always been under the impression that governments, by definition, are for telling their citizens what they can & can't do: "Buy car insurance, don't hit people, & pay us your taxes. Oh, & get health insurance."

 For the life of me, I don't understand why that last one is such a problem. It's more perplexing than a graduate student in the School of Medicine who is afraid of shots & doesn't understand the health care system. If you too fit this description, you should go to Student Health & get your shots informatively updated with Nurse REDACTED. She really knows her trade.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Every Week is Research Week

Signing up for a presentation at OHSU Research Week was, for me, a no-brainer. Having spent time in two of the most presentation-heavy graduate programs here at OHSU (Biomedical Informatics & Behavioral Neuroscience), I have given approximately infinitely many research talks since I began my journey as an OHSU graduate student back in 2005. These days, public speaking in front of an audience comes slightly easier to me than speaking one-on-one (sadly, my girlfriend won't let me build a lectern in her living room, though, to be fair, I haven't pressed the issue much). I've given terribly misguided research talks, like my controversial "Where is Western Blot?" & I've given some real crowd-pleasers too, like my oft-cited lecture, "The Circle of Willis & the Circle of Life." I know what it is to utterly fail in public, & what it's like to teach a group of people something new & interesting—not much surprises me up on stage these days.

But it was more than my proclivity for public address that made me want to participate in the OHSU Research Week festivities. See, here at OHSU we've got a bit of an obsession for themed weeks. I was reflecting on this today, which happens to fall during Integrity Week. Standing in my office area, decorating my department's Integrity Fern with the other Biomedical Informatics students, & having a second helping the traditional Integrity Spinach Salad, I wondered—should I organize a '_____ Week' Intervention Week? Heath Care Equality Week, Nurses Week, Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Week—the list does go on & on, to be sure.

The cynic in me says, "Yes. Enough is enough." & I can see his/my point: OHSU is, after all, a Research Institute—quite literally, every week is Research Week, at Oregon Health & Science University. I'm sure there isn't a single student or faculty person here who can remember a week in which they didn't learn or discover something they didn't already know. Okay, maybe the week I spent neck-high in atlases while researching my Where is Western Blot? talk didn't teach me anything of real use, but at least I was pushing the boundaries of my own knowledge, & isn't that the whole point? If every week is research week, why does any week need to be Research Week?

But then the non-cynic in me speaks up: "you're missing the point, cynical alter-ego. Of course it's good that we have themed weeks here at OHSU, & just because you're wearing a monocle doesn't mean people will take you more seriously." I can see his/my point as well: monocles might seem like a good idea, but they're terribly inconvenient. More importantly, Research Week, Diversity Week, Cover the Uninsured Week: these are all great events to have on the OHSU calendar. Since every week is research week, why not carve out a chunk of time to celebrate that fact? Why not come together as a campus to celebrate some of the discoveries we've made, some of what we've learned? Maybe there's a good reason, but I can't think of one. If anyone can, I'll give them my presentation slot during the Informatics session (Thursday at noon, in the Old Library Auditorium! Come hear me talk about my dissertation!), & they can give a presentation about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


"& sometimes language has to adapt," I continued. "I mean, Finnegan's Wake starts in the middle of a sentence, for example."

I was at a weekend gathering, playing devil's advocate at some English Majors who were taking issue with the fact that I'd just used "OMZ" in a sentence—a versatile surprise-signifying initialism of my own creation, standing for Oh My Zoo. The English had been rendered temporarily paralyzed with the implied equation of myself & Joyce. I used this to buy myself precious seconds to regroup my thoughts. To be honest, loyal readers, I was as mortified as they—sure, at the Joyce thing, but more-so at my inadvertent use of "internet slang" in verbal conversation. You see, since the days of my first cell phone, I've taken care to maintain the utmost grammatical and syntactic integrity in my texts, emails, & speech alike, but, lately, I've been slipping up.

Call it peer-pressure, or maybe just another sign that life moves too quickly these days, but I'm hereby officially changing my stance: language is the spotted owl of social mores, & it needs to adapt to the times, or risk getting eaten by the loggers. & I'll go one step further: I believe science should be leading this charge. & it has! Oh, how it has!

Case in point: I'm an ABD NLM fellow who originated in OHSU's BEHN, but now I'm in DMICE, located in the BICC. Mostly, I'm interested in using SVMs & kNNs to classify Neuroscience documents, which I study using various OOP languages, TSDoS (Figure 1). If you can decipher that sentence, you're probably either one of my collaborators, or an acronym savant. & yet, in my experience, such language is all too common in academic & mixed circles. I recently attended a talk by (redacted) in which, 20 minutes in, the presenter had yet to define a single one of (his/her) terms. Not wanting to seem out-of-the-know, I began to nod sagely at what I hoped were all the right pauses, until I looked around & saw that most of the audience seemed to be either playing Words with Friends*, or blogging about the merits of Obamaromneycare**. In mid-nod, I took a moment to think the worse of them, but then wondered—could they really be blamed?

When giving a scientific talk—even to a completely academic audience—it is imperative that the presenter assume their audience knows only what is included in their presentation material. Others might disagree, but I believe it is the responsibility of the presenter to either be willing to captivate their audience with excitement and intelligible education, or to call in sick. As Scientists, we're also spokespeople. Few have the first-hand understanding of our respective  research domains, and fewer still believe they would even want it. When communicating with our colleagues and the public, it is our job to ensure they're equipped with the tools to understand why our research matters at all! Outside of this, we risk becoming impenetrable containers of information—great, if someone needs a paper weight, but totally useless if they want to learn something new.


* Start a game with me! My screen name is "The Kyle Ambert".

** Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Recently, Apple revealed the blueprints for its headquarters 2.0. The doughnut-shaped behemoth is set to become the shiny/new worktime home of 12,000 programmers, researchers, executives, and their respective cats (I'm guessing), and promises to be a boon to the economy of Cupertino, California, where it is to be built. Reading about this at my OHSU workstation that I share with fourteen people, I am struck by the marked similarities between the present-day campuses (capai?) of Apple, Inc. & Oregon Health & Science University. Or was it someone's elbow...

Once upon a time, an impulsive railroad company purchased a plot of land in Portland, OR. "It's Portland," I imagine them reasoning, "how bad could it be?" One wonders why it took them thirty years to discover that the top of a hill is not a great place for a railroad. "But it is for a hospital!" I imagine the OHSU founding fathers cheering up the downcast railroad tycoons, "one single-lane road provides plenty of room for traffic and hurried ambulances alike! Or is it ambulai?"

And the rest, as they say, is history. Nearly 100 years after the start of our beloved Marquam Hill campus, we've managed to realize the impossible dream: a massive modern hospital that overlooks the pristine landscape that is Portland, Oregon. An intellectual Mount Olympus overlooking its domain and calling it good. A biomedical statue of liberty calling out with silent lips:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
Your adequately insured
Your non-smokers
But come by public transportation
Parking up here can be tricky

"Oh, Kyle," my faithful readers are likely to think, "you're being pretty dramatic and unrealistic. Look at the view! It's not that bad up here! " It's not that bad. Answer me this: deep down, aren't all OHSU employees afraid of the day when the Tram Operators realize they could fit way more morning commuters inside if they stacked them horizontally? I know I am. And the view up here is pretty fantastic, I agree. Myself and my fourteen desk-mates managed to get the top level of the bi-level cubicle, so if cubicle block D adjusts their computer monitor just right, we can almost make out one of the trees adjacent to the Library. But I digress. I come bearing solutions! An OHSU 2.0 for us all!

I submit Figure 1. Now, keep in mind that this is a bit of a rough draft, and our Behavioral Neuroscientists will need to train the pigeons to keep things afloat, but I think this could really be the space-giving solution we've all been looking for.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

OHSU Student Research Forum

I gave a poster at the OHSU Student Research Forum this year. The Office of Communications filmed it! Here: