Saturday, December 17, 2005

What I'm leaving....

I came across a few winter photos of Norway, while cleaning out my files....

Norway in the evening (about 4 pm).

A sunny day in Norway.

Local wildlife (Willow ptarmigan).

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Packing up and tossing out...

Regular readers... (do I actually have regular readers?) may have noticed the lack of serious blogging... and science blogging... recently. I'm in the process of moving from Norway, which means things are a bit chaotic right now. Hopefully things will 'straighten out' in a week or so.

Many years ago I travelled through the Orkney and Shetland Islands... I bypassed much of Scotland in a desire to go as far north as I could. I remember falling in love with the island culture and its mix of Scottish and Norwegian influences, the history that included everything from the Shetland Bus to stone age Skara Brae, and the many birds and seals that called the islands home. Standing at the northernmost tip of Unst, within sight of Muckle Flugga, I vowed to one day continue on to Norway....

... and now, years later, I'm leaving. Part of me doesn't want to go, and part of me is itching to move on to new horizons. I hope one day to return to these fjords, but I know deep down my track record of return visits is pretty dismal.

Then again, I did return this summer in the Shetlands, so maybe the call of the north will bring me back to Norway.

Until then, god Jul og godt Nyttår!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

...and an appendicularian in a pear tree...

In the spirit of the season, I give you the Christmas Oikopleura! No, he's not filled with holiday cheer, rather he's stuffed full of dsRed and nuclear localized GFP protein.... just like I plan to be stuffed full of pepperkake and aquavit over the next few weeks.

(and yes, GFP on a dsRed background should look yellow, but since red and yellow aren't Christmas colors I did a straight image overlay rather than combining the two images.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

The DIY veternarian

Since I'm on the subject of rodents....

One of the problems of owning exotic animals is that its hard to find a good veternarian. One of the problems of owning pet rats is that they are considered exotic animals. Don't ask me why... you would think an animal as well studied and used in so many research applications as the Norway rat would be a veternarians dream. Unfortunately, its more likely to become a pet owners nightmare.

The problem is that vet schools cover exotic animals as a specialization, and most vets that are going to specialize on exotic animals are going to be focusing on reptiles or birds, not rodents. Couple that with the general idea that 'small' animals are somewhat disposable and the unwillingness of many people to pay a vet bill that may be ten to twenty times what the rat cost in the first place and its not that surprising that most vets have very little experience with rats, whether at vet school or in general practice. As a result, most serious rat owners come to know more about rat medicine than their vets, to the point that some (including myself) have come into the vets office knowing exactly the problem and what treatment to take... the vet is just there to sign the prescription form.

When I first started keeping rats ten years ago, a sick rat meant having to phone several vets to find one willing to treat them, and having to take our chances on the vets experience and competance. Thanks to a proliferation of websites devoted to rat health, contact with serious rat owners (usually breeders), and my own research into the subject I usually have a good idea what is wrong with my pets, and can find recommendations for good rodent veternarians.

Probably the best vet I've dealt with is the teaching hospital at Kansas State University. The staff there have been able to save rats I was sure were past saving, and have always taken their responsibility seriously. Unfortunately the local vet clinic in Bergen hasn't been as impressive... I've had to deal with everything from surgery stitches being chewed out (good rat vets put the stitches internally or use metal stitches that can't be chewed) to being told that my rats distress wasn't sufficiently important to be dealt with (this on a weekend emergency call, with a rat that was had swallowed pen ink and was choking) to having a rat overdosed on anaesthetic. Fortunately the rats in each case have survived (although the last case was pretty touch-and-go), but the effect is to make me feel that if my rat is sick, I'm on my own.


The 'inspiration' for this post was my weekend ordeal with one of my rats... she fell sick on Saturday, and with no possibility of taking her to a vet on the weekend all I could do was wait and hope. This morning when I started this post she looked like she might be recovering, and I was just going to discuss some of the health problems rats face.

She died around lunchtime today, before I could get her to the vet.

The effect of ethics

I dislike animal research.

I fully appreciate the benefits of animal research, would not seek to ban it altogether, and understand that it is a necessary evil of modern society. On the other hand, many of the techniques are cruel and a fair percentage of research using animals isn't necessary. I personally have no desire to cause pain to animals (at least, not those with with backbones... I have fewer qualms when it comes to insects and other invertebrates, although there are certain animals within these groups I would be hesitant to experiment on) and having worked in animal research once, I'm well aware of the pain that can be inflicted even under the best animal welfare regulations.

The ethical stance that I've adopted has real world consequences for me as a biologist, and these are consequences I have accepted. Much of molecular biology, including the best paying jobs, involve research with mammals (mice in particular), and by refusing to work on mice, I have willingly and knowingly cut myself out from a large part of the job market.

I mention this because of the recent action by 4 Illinois pharmacists who refuse to dispense emergency contraception on the grounds that it violates their personal code of ethics. I understand codes of ethics, and I understand how they can place limitations on what a person can do, but I also understand that if you have a limiting code of ethics, you should not pursue a career where you are going to come into ethical conflict with the requirements of your job. If you cannot bring yourself to dispense certain pharmaceuticals (and it need not just be contraception... anti-depressants and vaccines can be just as controversial among certain segments of the population), you shouldn't take a job as a pharmacist.

Deep down, though, I can't help thinking that there is more politics than ethics in the air. The pharmacists in question are supported in their lawsuit against Walgreens by Americans United for Life, a well-heeled advocacy group that champions anti-choice causes. This has all the aroma of a deliberate test case against the recent Illinois law that prevents them from opting out of dispensing contraceptives. If they win their case, I have to wonder about the long term ramifications. Could I then get a high-paying job at a major pharmaceutical company and conveniently 'opt out' of any research that involved animals?

Makes me wonder if I should be supporting them.