Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hamster Roshambo

With my guts being uncooperative of late, I've been reading up on various studies. Oh, who are we kidding, that's something I do for fun anyway. I'm following @DearSarah on twitter because she's a good aggregator of technical and feminist references. One led me down a habitrail of issues in using rodents for medical testing.

Mild Warning: If animal testing is anathema to you, you may not want to proceed on general principle. But I won't be talking about truly icky stuff, rather one point is about how to improve conditions.

The reasons for testing medical treatments on non-humans are compelling: fast turnaround, many samples, controllable conditions, and fair warning, ala the mine canary, of imminent harm. We can all agree that conditions for test animals should be humane above a certain threshold. We can agree that the number of tests should be minimized, especially if there are alternate assessments - aka testing is not done frivolously. Assuming that to be true, I don't have a problem with most of it even though I have a particular fondness for hamsters. /Disclaimer

I have given animal testing some thought. I don't like that they're generally in barren cages, because bored rodents are not healthy rodents, and a lot of medical testing assumes the controls are healthy. So why don't they all have wheels, at a minimum? Ever since I read the hamster blog about the guy who hooked up a rotation meter to his hamster's wheel and recorded wheel spins per day over the life of the hamster, I've wondered why they don't do that with all lab rodents who run in wheels. It would also be a way to check on whether or not your fountain-of-youth medicine really is extending their quality of life - will the hamsters on your supplement run longer as adults than the controls? Will your hamster have off days? Will there be earlier spikes or longer depressions in activity? And you get this just from them being in their cages.

This article, I think from Discover, was talking about problems with mouse models of disease and how things can improve. What I hadn't known/realized/retained was that medical research used to be dominated by rats. They're pretty intelligent and can entertain themselves pushing levers and running mazes. But all the research these days seems to be on mice, so what gives?

The "knockout mice" revolution happened. Scientists figured out a way to drop genes out of mice then breed them true. They're excellent to find out what a particular gene does/doesn't do and whether or not your drug will fix it. Rats resisted the knockout technique until very recently. So for the last 10 or so years, mice dominated the research. But it's emerging that all the tests that had been so painstakingly developed for testing rats... might not be so great for testing mice who don't much like pushing levers or bright lights in white mazes. Reasons for not changing techniques, I assume,include: some people - even scientists - assume rats and mice are much the same being long tailed rodents. Established testing has support in the way of developed instructions and supplies. Uniformity of testing methods makes findings replicable, and interpretation less sketchy. However, if you're testing for, say, stress, your mouse is already above baseline doing these non-preferred things, so you might not realize as much of a distinction between control and experiment as you should. And your tests kinda show that mice are dumb, but maybe they're just balky, or you're not playing to their strengths.

Enter some scientists who've thought about these things. It's actually pretty fascinating. One lady from the breeding facility can talk all day about interpreting their emotions from their interaction with their bedding - Supplied a compressed cotton pad, happy, healthy mice will shred it and make a nest. Some of their knockouts didn't get that memo and sleep on it like a tatami mat, or hide under it in some fashion. And they haven't even gotten to the testing yet! Yet another in-the-cage passive test.

One researcher gave some thought to what mice prefer to do that is different than rats. They're not big on visuals, but they like smelling things. So he buried treats in sand that had been mixed with various spices. Turns out that mice can learn that treats are in cardamom but not cinnamon, or cinnamon but not pepper (for instance). So cdm>cnn>pp right? So cdm>pp, right? Wrong... Like rock-paper-scissors, this tricky scientist made pepper beat cardamom. And mice can learn this! (I do wonder how well they'd do with rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock...) It's tricky enough that the test can be used to see if they get confused or not, without unduly stressing them out. I'm just really entertained by the fact that somewhere out there, knockout mice are playing roshambo. For science.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Did not see that coming

A semiconductor manufacturing facility, called a fab, takes teams of people to run. The operators move the product from place to place and make the machines go. But before they do that, the process engineers like me have to create a process that runs and devise some way of knowing at any given moment whether or not it should be run. Before that, the equipment engineer makes sure it's safe to turn the tool on and set up according to spec for general use. Before that, the facilities group makes sure there's power and water, gas, and a floor that will support the the tool. Before that... get the picture? There are more people involved, but primarily it's production, process and equipment once things get going. Any problem gets kicked back to process and equipment and when it's a challenging problem, the process and equipment engineer usually work together to solve the problem. Or when we need it to do something new, we work together to make it do what we need it to do.

Our fab has a dozen process engineers, of which I am one, each responsible for a subset of process steps. We also have about 10 equipment engineers. We work together all the time. Just yesterday, my equipment engineer and I met to hash out some action items for one of my toolsets, established some priorities, and from that devise a plan of action to beat my balky tool into submission. There's just one hitch.

My equipment engineer died suddenly this morning.

This was very unexpected and has hit the office pretty hard. He died before coming into work and I have no details. I feel a little outside of it all emotionally because while he's my direct counterpart, we've been struggling to build relationship since we both got reassigned to work with each other. He's a nice guy but we didn't really connect...yet. That meeting yesterday was also an attempt to build rapport. And now we won't. My boss, however, has worked with him for years and years, and has a friendly relationship that includes regular lunches and the like. He's pretty devastated. I'm a little worried that my lack of overt grieving will be seen as callous disregard. I really hope not. But this isn't a death that makes me rethink the direction of my life or think I'm next on the list, and I actually got a large amount of work done today. I like to think it's partly because I was motivated to make sure his toolsets don't go to hell. Because he surely won't.