Sunday, April 30, 2017

Louisiana Books to Prisoners

April community service hours: 14
Spring Semester total community service hours: 30

2016-2017 Academic year total community service hours: 80

I recently saw a documentary about the Louisiana criminal justice system, and it made me want to help those who fell on the wrong side. Louisiana has an exceptionally large prison population, exceptionally cruel prisons, and many offenders are there for non-violent crimes. Everyone should have something to read, even the violent ones. So, I spent my last two weekends with the Louisiana books to prisoners program.

I was hoping to visit a chain gang, or walk through a tier of prison cells. However, my duties at this volunteer job were just much less harrowing.

There is an efficient system of work flow that starts with picking up one of the letters requesting books. No jailhouse confessions, or coded messages here. The letters were each just a list of three book categories. I was a little disappointed that nobody requested a pharmacology text or any type of science book. They usually just wanted some fiction books or mystery novels. The next step is to head over to the book shelves. The donated and used books are organized into categories. There are books on food, art, and geography, but most of them are suspense novels. That worked because that is what the prisoners want. So after selecting three books, the titles and destination get written on an "invoice form." Then the books and form are rubber-banded together and placed in a que where the shipping labels are printed.

Once that is done, the next step was to wrap the three books with the invoice, and then apply the shipping label. The "wrapping paper" is actually cut brown paper grocery bags. They are surprising tough, and recycling is always good. So that is how they are shipped... three books, rubber banded together, wrapped in grocery bag paper, and then taped closed with a shipping label stuck to the outside. The only other task was haul in boxes of donated books, unpack them, and sort them onto the appropriate shelves. I gravitated toward that last part because it was more physical.

I repeated the above processes over and over... for over three hours straight, on both days of two weekends. I would not want to work a job like this, but it feels good to think that I contributed to this effort that allows the prisoners some relief from their situation, to escape from behind the prison walls, into the pages of a book.

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Environmental Pharm soil sample collection

April community service hours: 
Spring Semester total community service hours
2016-2017 Academic year total community service hours:

Community Service Hours from this activity: 1
Total Hours for Spring Semester 17
2016-2017 Academic year total community service hours: 67

Environmental Pharmacology has been an interesting course. Dr. McLachlan has a lot of knowlege and enthusiasm for the subject. He has made us all aware of the multiple and extensive environmental estrogens that we are exposed to. 

One of the course lecturers, Professor Howard Mielke studies lead levels in soil around the New Orleans area, and we were invited to assist with his project. 

The assignment was to go out and collect three soil samples from a children's play area. I went to a small playground near downtown and collected my samples. 

During the class time, Dr. Mielke used a portable device to scan and detect lead levels from a few of the samples. My samples tested very low, and he hypothesized that the soil I collected was placed at the playground during a recent rebuilding project. 

This is are some pictures of the location I chose, and the three sampled spots.

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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Past the NBME Shelf Exam

      We're still waiting on scores, so my evaluation of this experience my change retroactively depending the result.
      It was interesting to look back at the early material. Concepts that seemed foreign when we started, now seem like common sense. I feel confident about the shelf exam. However, I know that I missed a few easy ones. They came to me in the few minutes after the exam had ended. Now the correct answers are stuck in my head forever. Hopefully I'll get to put them to use on another exam in the near future.
      I recently started doing research with a local biotech company. At my application interview, the team spoke about some drugs that they were investigating. I knew what those drugs were, so I could follow and participate in the conversation. I would not have been able to do that a year ago.
      That test definitely was the climax of this program, but we still have some coursework ahead of  us. Endocrine pharmacology started out slow, but is finally getting into some hard science. This week we discussed the impact of stress on neural networks involved in memory formation. That may be something to consider when using sypathomimetics or anxiolytics. Advances in pharmacology and cardio biology are moving away from clinical medicine in into areas of mechanistic research. Cell control mechanisms also focuses on chemical mechanisms. It is interesting observe how this shift affects my classmates. The scores on our recent cellular control exam were particular demonstrative of the different backgrounds and approaches the current students take to pharmacology. Some of the top students in Med Pharm, received the lowest scores in cell control. That was surprising because those topics seemed central to understanding how drugs work. However, I think some of those students tend to focus on clinical presentations and less on cellular mechanisms.
      Environmental pharmacology has been a difficult test of endurance for me due to the two hours of lecture back to back. I think sitting through lectures is something students have started to move away from and instead shift to newer mediums. I am really looking forward to our upcoming hands-on environmental project. I know that will grab my attention more.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Tornado disaster relief with Red Cross…/red-cross-responds-to-new-orl…/8730091

Volunteer hours for this activity: 16
Total volunteer hours this semester: 16

On February 7th, 2017 an EF-3 tornado struck the New Orleans area. On February 10th, and 11th, I volunteered with the Red Cross.

Some of the heaviest property damage occurred in New Orleans East, so that is where they sent me with a truck full of rakes and shovels. A full-time volunteer drove, while I hung out in the back. We traveled down the streets where we could see the most debris. When we spotted people outside working to clean up the mess, we would ask them if they wanted a rake and a shovel. Every time, they said yes, and eagerly came to grab one of each.

The tornado produced some interesting patterns of damage. One house would be leveled, while the house next door was untouched. I saw a lot of the lucky people assisting their less lucky neighbors. A few families already had lumber delivered and were starting to rebuild.

I got to meet a lot of New Orleans residents. They all seemed to be in good moods despite the unfortunate event. It seemed like they had all been through this before, and knew what to do.

Working with the Red Cross was an interesting experience. The operation is unique and it is managed so differently than anywhere else I have worked. The workers had a sense of calm, and confidence that appeared to be rooted in the knowledge that they were doing good work. The main manager was driven and attentive. However, the atmosphere lacked the organization and sense of urgency that is universal in competitive businesses.

There were things that I would do differently if I were king. For example, I think it was an unnecessary impedance for us to have each resident sign a form before getting getting their rake and shovel. I also think it would have been OK to let them pick up one for their neighbors instead of being so strict (I broke that rule several times). There was also way too much sitting around the office before we embarked to the location.

There is always room for improvement in any organization. I really respect and admire the Red Cross, and their work. I had a good time, I hope I made a small positive contribution by doing the manual labor of passing out equipment. I also gained some understanding of the strong sense of community that the New Orleans residents share.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Idle Hands

Total number of service hours completed in November: 0
Total number of hours completed this semester: 50+

Since my service hours are complete, I'll use this months post to reflect on my experience in the Pharm masters program.

The course administrators have been perfectly adequate. I started the semester with some frustration and disappointment. I was hoping to jump into lab work. I read up on some of the projects I wanted to be involved with. I spoke with a professor and we agreed that I would start working after the second exam. However, when I returned at that time, with my shiny new lab coat ready to go,  he informed me that he had unexpectedly taken on two undergrads and no longer had a spot for me. (UNDERGRADS?!?)

Since that rejection, I've been spending the majority of my time working at my restaurant job. I realize there are plenty of other research opportunities and I'll try to got in somewhere for next semester and the following summer.

So far, I have put less effort into the course materials than I would have liked, and I will take some steps to remedy that next semester. I am really hoping to finish strong this fall with a good score on the last exam. My biggest obstacle has been an internal resistance to the concept of lectures. I struggle to see the relevance or importance of listening to a professor talk through material that is covered in so many books and online videos. So far, my only test preparation has been skimming through the corresponding chapters of a pharmacology text book the night before the exams. The results have been okay, but here is plenty of room for improvement especially since the test questions are drawn from lecture materials. We are currently in the gastrointestinal block, which is a good review of some previously covered drugs. There is also no GI section in my text book, so this will be an interesting exam.

As I move forward, I'm going to try to silence my rebellious nature, and instead just trust the process.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All done.

     The Science Fair is completed. I put in around 50 hours this semester in Dr. Loftus' biology classes. This feels like a good stopping point. It was an experience.
      Every one of my visits was pretty similar. I would walk around field questions, and ask a few  in attempts to keep the students on task. Toward the end of the class period, I would work with a student or two who had fallen behind on assignments.
      The assignments were easy for them. Nitrogen cycles, food webs and even the evolution of antibiotic resistance are concepts they can grasp rapidly. We could bust through those assignments and get the kid caught up pretty quickly.
      I had the advantage of only seeing them once a week, and I never had to hand out detentions or grade reductions. However, I'm convinced that the usual angry lectures and punishments are counterproductive for motivating a child. From my limited, outside perspective, it seems that even at the high school level students benefit from having someone say, "Let's get it done now. Let's try to get an A." That little bit of initiative seemed to be helpful.
      By far, the most significant impression that I will take away from my volunteer experience this semester is from observing the selflessness of the teachers and the mammoth effort that they put into their work each day for such little recognition and reward. 


Sunday, October 2, 2016


I've put in another month of weekly volunteering in the biology class at SciHigh. I'd like to get some photos, The class is fast paced and busy, so the photo opps can be difficult to make time for, but I'll work on it. I'm posting a picture of the visitor name tags that I get at most of my visits (although sometimes they are out of them.)

I enjoy working with the students, and I hope I have made at least a small positive contribution. The students are all memorable, but the most striking part of this experience has been the amount of energy and dedication that Dr. Loftus puts into his classroom. The lesson plan is always packed with thought-out, thoroughly prepared activities. His work-ethic, and polished teaching ability enable him to keep the students engaged in the material.

This month, the students continued to learn about food webs and nutrient cycles. They are also working on their projects for the upcoming science fair.

Dr. Loftus intentionally allows the students lots of freedom on these projects. I make rounds to each group and try to provide a tiny bit of direction amidst the chaos. I've been able to streamline some of their procedures with little things like making one large master mix of reagents and then distributing an aliquot to each reaction vessel instead of mixing them all individually.

My most defined duty has been to work one-on-one with students who have fallen behind on their project deadlines. We sit down in the library and outline quick and easy experiments that are structured around the ideas they provide. The difficulty is I am only there once a week, so there is little time to clarify, follow-up, or troubleshoot. I turn them loose, and then they are on their own to complete the project. I hope they are having fun, and I am looking forward to seeing what they present at the fair.

24 hours of volunteer work completed.