They’re still here: Poverty and disease in “America’s Playground”

This article was written as an enterprise piece for my Reporting and Writing class in Fall 2011. It documents the struggle of HIV infected women in Coney Island, and the organization that strives to help them.

They’re still here: Poverty and disease in “America’s Playground”
By Anne Cohen

Ibian DeSoto was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1991. At the time, she said, she was completely uninformed about the effects of the disease. “The doctor came in and said ‘You have AIDS’ and walked out,” she said.

Almost 20 years later, on the second floor of the Iglesia Pentacostal de Jesu Cristo, in Coney Island, roughly 40 people gathered to celebrate World AIDS Day with sandwiches, soda, and games. The Amethyst Women’s Project, a community non-profit organization that does crisis-intervention counseling and HIV testing, hosted the event. After mingling and greeting old friends, people sat down at the four tables covered in green plastic tableclothes. DeSoto, now a volunteer at Amethyst, got up to speak. “My name is Ibian DeSoto and I am living with HIV, not dying,” she said.

After her diagnosis, no counseling was offered. Depressed and confused, DeSoto was sent back home to care for her 9-year-old daughter. “I was afraid she was going to get sick from me,” she said. “I was telling people I had cancer, not AIDS. I was embarrassed.”

It got so bad that DeSoto started smoking crack. One day in 2002, as she was walking down Mermaid Avenue to score, Aida Leon, founder of the Amethyst Women’s Project, pulled up in her car. They spoke, and after some hesitation, DeSoto followed Leon to the Amethyst building, where she got referred to a rehab facility and got counseling.

DeSoto has now been a volunteer at the Amethyst Women’s Project for seven years. Her T-cell count is up, and the virus is undetectable in her system. “She’s my savior,” she said, referring to Leon.

In the last couple of years, Coney Island has undergone tremendous changes. Famous for its boardwalk and amusement parks that once attracted visitors from all over the world, the neighborhood fell into disrepair in the 1970s.

According to Cristobal Jacques of the New York City HIV Prevention Bureau, Coney Island is a hidden hotspot of HIV. This has to do with how the data is collected: the numbers are diluted by the surrounding data from other neighborhoods, meaning that the good data dilutes the more troubling numbers. “The rest of the city doesn’t even come close,” he says.

The Amethyst Women’s Project has recorded a 3.9% seropositivity – indicating the presence of antibodies to HIV- rate over the last six years of testing, a number that is extremely high for a population of only 100 093 (as of 2010).

“Coney Island has a serious epidemic in ratio, not raw numbers,” he said.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene estimated as of 2002 that 1.3-1.8% of the overall population of New York City was living with HIV/AIDS.

Over the last six years, the Amethyst Women’s project has tested 3,900 people for HIV and identified 150 new cases. All services are free; Amethyst only has two full time staff members, the rest are volunteers. They pay their expenses with grants by the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Daphne Foundation. In 2010, they had a budget of 302 000 dollars, 200 000 of which was devoted to peer outreach.

Though it is the only non-profit in the area offering counseling and HIV testing for free, its finances are dwindling. This means reprioritizing and finding creative ways to make things work.

The Amethyst Women’s Project received funding from the Center for Disease Control from 2004 to 2010. After the 2010 deadline, it reapplied for funding, but was denied, despite CDC recognition of its good work. As a result, professional, full-time staff were cut and Amethyst has had to rely on its volunteers.

To continue to provide HIV testing despite budget cuts, Amethyst partnered with Harlem United and the Foundation for Research on Sexually Transmitted Diseases, which sends one tester to the Amethyst building on Mermaid Avenue every Thursday. They also provide two additional people to work with the Amethyst Peers and go out into the community to raise awareness.

***

Leon decided to found Amethyst for personal reasons. “Every time I came down here it was to bury somebody who’d been killed by the virus.” This is her community; she grew up in Coney Island in the 1960s and 70s. “The more I came, the sadder I felt. There were no flowers, there were no people. They were scared that if they came, they might catch this disease.”

“When I came, she was in a box. A box!” As she told the story of her friend, who died from HIV after slowly wasting away, at the World AIDS Day lunch, Leon stopped, and gulped back a sob, unable to go on. Murmurs from the attendees of “It’s alright baby,” and “We love you Aida,” encouraged her to continue. “If it wasn’t that she had bones, she would have ceased to exist,” she finished.

After her best friend’s death, Leon decided something had to be done. She founded the Amethyst Women’s Project in 1999, and worked out of her brother’s garage until she could afford to rent a building in 2001.

Robyn Mandelbaum is a volunteer who has been with Amethyst since 1999. She remembers all too vividly what the neighborhood looked like then: there were prostitutes everwhere, dealers on every corner, and addicts nodding out in alleyways. She gestures towards the open window: “In ’99 you wouldn’t have been able to walk out here. In fact I had a hard time coming out here. The streets were different, they were raw,” she said. “So we came in here.”

“Here” is the small white building on Mermaid Avenue. As you walk in, you find yourself in the waiting room, a small square room with four black chairs. A bowl full of free condoms sits atop the reception desk.

There are six “peers” total; they raise awareness, give out condoms and pass out literature. Before starting, the peers undergo a 10-week training session to learn everything from public speaking to creating a PowerPoint presentation. Most are living with HIV or recovering from addiction; they know these issues from firsthand experience.

Over the last 10 years, Leon estimated that Amethyst has served over 20 000 people in the community. According to Melisa Garber, peer coordinator at Amethyst, roughly 8 to 10 people come get tested for HIV every week. Those who need it are referred out to detoxification and rehabilitation programs, medical clinics, halfway houses and shelters. Though the organization is geared towards treating women, they also offer testing to men.

According to Dominguez, women often bear the brunt of heterosexual HIV infection. This is consistent with the semi-annual surveillance report put out by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As of June 2010, only 7.3 percent of male cases were from heterosexual activity, compared to 48.1 percent of female cases. Furthermore, 22.1 percent of males living with HIV/AIDS resided in Brooklyn, as opposed to 30.3 percent of women.

Dominguez blames to two things: lack of information, and machismo. “Most of the women are not engaged in high risk heterosexual activity, or injection drug use. They are not sleeping around, they’re infected by their own partners,” he explained.

That was the case of Tracey Mackie. After living with her boyfriend for eight years, Mackie, 49, found out he had been HIV positive the whole time, and had not told her. She found out three years ago, after her boyfriend started getting so sick she had to bring him to the hospital. His family had known the whole time, and never told her.

“I felt hurt,” she said. “I felt like he didn’t trust me. I felt like he made up my mind on his own.” She has not seen him in three years, but still gets tested every six months. Though she keeps testing negative for HIV/AIDS, she is still afraid that it’s a matter of time before she turns up positive.

***

On the street in front of the Iglesia Pentacostal de Jesu Cristo, Emma Roberts, Harm Reduction Coordinator for the Foundation for Research on Sexually Transmitted Diseases, was signing up people for STD testing, while the After Hours Project, another partner of Amethyst’s, did HIV testing in the back of a van. 20 people got tested for HIV, 7 were screened for sexually transmitted infections, and 4 were screened for Hepatitis C.

Roberts believes that there are not nearly enough services in Coney Island for a population that it is need. According to her, the services provided by the local hospital and medical clinics have a bad reputation, or are not close enough for regular access.

“If you compare Coney Island to other parts of Brooklyn, they have nothing [social services] on their doorstep. They have to travel for most services. That involves a Metro-Card! And if you’re homeless…” Roberts said with indignation.

Coney Island is part of a larger phenomenon taking place all over Brooklyn, the borough with the highest rate of concurrent diagnosis – people finding out they have AIDS at the same time as they find out they are HIV positive. “People are getting into treatment late,” Jacques said. “One third of people tested don’t make it to treatment.”

This was the case for DeSoto. She found out she had AIDS at the same time she found out she was HIV positive, after coming into the hospital with what she later found out were opportunistic infections – deadly infections that take advantage of immuno-compromised patients.

But it is not only a proximity problem. The very message of awareness needs to evolve as target and risk populations change.

The strategies for HIV/AIDS awareness have changed since Leon founded Amethyst in 1999. Giving out condoms is no longer enough. According to Leon, AIDS awareness is a double-edged sword. Young people who have grown up knowing about the disease perceive it in a nonchalant way. The deadly epidemic no longer frightens them- it’s a foreign disease, relegated to the depths of Africa. “Today we have to really try to ensure that these kids understand that this is not an STD – it’s deadly,” she said. The Amethyst peers regularly give talks dealing with HIV/AIDS and domestic violence in local high schools and after school programs.

On the other end of the spectrum, Amethyst also deals with newly arrived immigrants from Latin America who lack information about HIV/AIDS. “We try to bring basic awareness, you know, like ‘You can’t get HIV because somebody coughed on you,’” she explained.

***

Ten years after moving into the building on Mermaid Avenue in 2001, Leon dreams of expanding the counseling services that Amethyst offers to the entire family unit. “I come from a place that says you treat a woman, you treat the community,” she said.

But the services needed have changed.

What started out as a project to give out condoms to sex workers hanging out on street corners has expanded into plans to offer onsite medical services. According to her, mental health has become a glaring issue. “We want to make this a one stop shop,” she said.

There is of course opposition. Amethyst would like to partner with Mermaid Medical, a local clinic that has rented space in a building further down Mermaid Avenue. The new building is in a heavily residential area. As a result, residents are worried that Amethyst Women’s Project setting up shop there would bring in undesirable elements; elements which, according to Leon, are already in their backyard. Charles Reichenthal, district manager for Community Board 13 was unavailable for comment after multiple attempts to reach him.

According to Roberts, the investment going in on the area has had mixed effects. Though it has created pockets of affluence, like Sea Gate, a closed community at the edge of Coney Island, it has also created tension between newcomers and low-income residents. “Residents are becoming very vocal about what they don’t want to see in Coney Island,” she said. For some, that includes the Amethyst Women’s Project, and the people they serve.

After speeches, and a screening of a short film called “Still Around”, Leon got up to introduce a slideshow of those in the community lost to HIV/AIDS since 1999. The lights dimmed, and silence fell on the previously chatty audience.

One after the other, the pictures appeared: men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, some smiling, some not. As the slideshow went on, people whispered the names of their friends and family in the darkness as they appeared on the screen. Noises of recognition could be heard amidst the sniffles of stifled tears. One woman whispered, “I forgot about him…Wow,” and buried her face in her hands.

As the lights came back on, people wiped their faces and stood, the smiles returning to their faces. Mandelbaum and DeSoto hugged. They were still here.

To kneel is to know

This article was written for a Covering Religion class, taught by Ari Goldman. The assignment was to capture a ritual moment in our beat. As I covered women’s religious orders, I decided to go to mass with the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary.

To kneel is to know
By Anne Cohen

Inside a small chapel on West 124th Street in Manhattan, the candles cast a warm glow on the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary as they prepare for morning mass by reciting their daily prayers. The lighted interior offers a stark contrast with the darkness just outside its doors. It is 6:45 in the morning and the sun has not yet risen.

Sister Roselyn, of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus (an affiliated order) closes her eyes as she prays. With the last words of the “Our Father,” Sister Roselyn begins to kneel for the next prayer.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with you.


As she lowers herself from the blue upholstered chair, Sister Roselyn bends first her left knee, then her right, her black leather clogs lodged neatly under her seat. Her spine is rigid as she adjusts to the new position.

Blessed are you among women,
And blessed is the fruit of your womb,
Jesus.


Sister Roselyn’s grey and black speckled wool skirt drapes over the kneeler. She closes her eyes and her face is serene; only her lips move, her reedy yet gentle voice blending with the chorus of prayer.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,

Out of the 15 sisters attending the service, only 11 are kneeling. The four eldest sisters remain seated, unable to keep up with the constant up and down dance. In the 1960s, there were more than 80 members. Now, they are down to 21. Their average age is 72.

Sister Roselyn clasps her hands as she kneels, her fingers massaging each other as her programs for the morning service hangs limply from the tips of her fingers.


Now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

The doorbell suddenly rings. It is the chaplain, come to say morning mass. Sister Roselyn pushes up on the chair in front of her, and stiffly rises, lifting first one knee, then the other. She then heads towards the door, her feet shuffling on the carpet.

The Oxford dictionary definition of the verb “genuflect” is: “to move your body into a lower position by bending one or both knees, as a sign of respect during worship in a Church.” The act of kneeling, or genuflecting, is so tied to the Christian service that the very word has taken on religious meaning. In the modern era , religion may be the only reason left to kneel; embellished bows to monarchs are a thing of the past. Bending one’s knee signifies reverence before God.

Though the practice of kneeling is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, it was not always a part of traditional prayer. In fact, Jews, and early Christians, prayed standing up. Kneeling was gradually introduced during in the West during the Middle Ages as a standard practice of prayer and was generally adopted.

Sister Roselyn, originally from Nigeria, has been a Handmaid of the Blessed Child Jesus for 26 years, 11 of which have been spent in New York. For her, kneeling is more than just a ritual; it means showing her devotion to her Lord. “It’s like the Reverend God humbles you,” she says. “To kneel is like saying to God: ‘I am your humble servant.’”

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In Park Slope, the Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo offers everything from challah covers to wigs.

This article was written as part of my Reporting and Writing class, taught by Ruth Padawer and Pam Frederick in the Fall of 2011. I covered the Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo, the first of its kind in New York, which offered more than just center pieces and cake.

In Park Slope, the Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo offers everything from challah covers to wigs.
By Anne Cohen

jewish wedding expo

Wigs for sale at the Big Fat Jewish Wedding Expo. Photo by Anne Cohen

At first glance, it could have been any wedding expo: Sleek-haired women with expertly done makeup, dressed in fashionable dresses and boots, walked from vendor to vendor, examining the wares; occasional men in suits lingered at the food tables, or greeted their friends; and of course, the usual array of dress, photography, makeup, tuxedo, pastry and centerpieces were on display.

But this was the Big Fat Jewish expo, held at Grand Prospect Hall in Park Slope on Tuesday, and its aim was to cater to Jews from the whole spectrum of religious observance.

On the right, Racheli Haimson sold selling wigs. Approximately 35 different styles — long, short, brown, auburn, bangs, straight, wavy,are displayed on shelves behind her. She and her husband, Dovi, run Galit Italia, a wholesale and retail company selling wigs made of European hair. Wigs range from $850 to more than $2000 . However, Haimson says that’s reasonable compared to what quality wigs normally sell for. They can go up to $5000.

“If you want beautiful hair, you’re going to need quality,” she said.

This is the first year for the Big Fat Jewish Wedding expo. When asked how he came up with the idea, Avi Werde, the organizer, laughed. “There’s a how and there’s a why,” he said.

At 24, wearing a custom-made black double-breasted suit and sneakers with orange laces, Werde, who is in his twenties, is constantly on the move, flitting from vendor to vendor, keeping things organized. He can’t walk two feet without someone clapping him on the back, greeting him with a hug, or frantically asking him questions about sound, lights, or layout.

Werde runs the Event Connection Source, a company that “creates events in areas where there’s a lack.” According to Werde, there was an empty space in the Jewish wedding industry, but a clear clientele. At first he had to track down vendors but he was quickly inundated with calls from people who wanted to participate in the event. “I got an incredibly positive response,” he said.

Though Werde refused to say how much each booth cost, he said the event paid for itself. He estimated that around 350-400 people attended the four hour expo, despite the pouring rain.

Across the room, the Ta Shma Orchestra is playing a song. Yoni Stokar, who plays the drums, is a young man with a full beard, peyes — the untrimmed sideburns of an Orthodox Jew — and shaggy brown hair under a yarmulke. The three person band, which includes guitar and bongos, plays at weddings, bar-mitzvahs and concerts. “Our style is kind of like New Age Shlomo Carlbach meets the Grateful Dead,” he said.

In front of a table covered with a shiny white tablecloth Mushka Marasow and Rachel Harlig are looking at wedding dresses — with long sleeves of course. Harlig is engaged, and she brought Maraskow, her cousin, to get an objective point of view.

For Harlig, this wedding expo is a wonderful, timesaving opportunity. “In New York, it’s a big schlep for everything,” she said. “Here it’s all in one place.”

Not all the attendees are prospective brides. Devorah Bukiet is already married, but, after hearing about the event from a friend/relative, decided to see what all the buzz was about.

“It’s nice to know what’s out there for siblings and friends,” she said.

Towards the end of the night, an announcer climbed on the stage at the back of the room. “Get ready for the fashion show,” he sung out. “This’ll change your life.”

As the spotlight shone onto the catwalk leading from the stage into the center of the room, the first model glided down in an ivory satin wedding gown with beaded lace applique.

After finally sitting down on one of the gold brocade chairs for a much-needed break, Werde glanced around the room smiled. “I’m very happy with the way things turned out,” he said. “And I’m even more excited for the next one!”

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There’s no place like home: Portrait of a lab

This article was written as part of my Science Journalism elective taught by Jonathan Weiner in Fall 2011. Our assignment was to go to a lab and write a feature story using narrative techniques and the ability to translate science for readers.

There’s no place like home: Portrait of a lab
By Anne Cohen

As the daughter of a scientist, there is something inherently comforting to me about walking into a lab. They all have that familiar smell of phenol and chloroform – dull with sharp undertones, and almost sweet. Dr. Stephen Goff’s lab is no different.

When you exit the elevator on the 13th floor in the Hammer Building of the Columbia Medical Center, early in the day, the white and grey diamond formica tiles lead the way down sinuous hallways, punctuated with quiet laboratories and equipment rooms.

The loud whirring of the generators and refrigerators are soothing in the silence of the morning. Ten o’clock is still too early for most; scientists keep peculiar hours. Inside one of the labs, sits Angela Eruzo, a post doctorate student who has been at the lab for a year. She laughs. “One of the few perks of the job is that you kind of make your own hours,” she says. “It’s very flexible but sometimes you feel like you’re never really off work.”

Each bench, or workstation, has the same layout: Long blue counter, white cabinets. Some drawers bear fraying, yellow labels with names like “Tools”, “Radioactivity supplies,” and “Cuvettes.” Some drawers have only the yellow imprint of labels long gone. Over the counters are 5 shelves that go almost up to the ceiling. These are filled with glass solution containers, electric generators, centrifuges, cables, binders, notebooks. There is no space to waste.

Eruzo peeks through the cluttered shelves at Gloria Arriagada, another post-doctorate student from Chile, hunched over her computer. “It’s great! Through the shelves you can spy on people,” she whispers.

There is no food or drink allowed at the benches; that’s what the lunchroom down the hall is for. Of course, exceptions are made: Arriagada slides open her desk drawer to reveal a bottle of water. “I need a coffee!” she says. “Do you want a coffee?” She leads me into the lunchroom, a small room with a couch, a table and six chairs. The back wall is stacked with old issues of Nature magazine.

Arriangada opens the fridge, which looks filled with the culinary version of what lies in the refrigerators in the equipment room – glass bottles, full of hoisin and soya sauce rather than cells and viruses. Arriangada washes her coffee mug, wipes it and sets it on the counter. She explains that there used to be a dish rack, but it was removed because people let their dishes lie around for too long. “It’s like living with many many roommates!” she says, rolling her eyes.

***

As far as second homes go, this one has a rather strange occupation, in definite contrast with the domestic environment. Goff’s lab focuses on retrovirus replication. This means that he and his colleagues look at the very basic aspects of how the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and leukemia viruses work and how they interact with viral proteins.

“We think of them as little machines,” Goff said.

A virus is a tiny infectious agent that can only replicate inside living cells. The virus itself is made up of three parts: molecules of viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) or deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA); a protein coat that surrounds these genes; and a layer of lipids that protects the virus outside of a cell.

In order to spread, viruses need to replicate. To do that, they need to enter the cell, and leave a little bit of themselves inside – DNA. Once the cells grow and multiply, so does the viral DNA inside them, allowing the virus to spread inside its host.

Goff and his colleagues are currently studying expressed RNA. RNA viruses are integrated into the host DNA. That altered DNA is then replicated and spreads. Cellular proteins play a big part in that process.

“We’ve come to understand that viruses make use of many many proteins. They borrow them, and subvert them,” Goff said.

Goff’s lab is a medium sized one: five graduate students, eight post-doctorate students.
He tries to keep it about half and half. Each student has a number of experiments and projects they are working on at one time; they juggle those assignments while writing papers.

“ The closest analogy is being a chef, being a cook,” Goff said.

If that is the case, then Goff is Mario Batalli. With scruffy white hair, a white beard, and youthful eyes, Goff casts a fatherly shadow over his lab. Goff was a graduate student in Paul Berg’s lab at Stanford University when they were studying recombinant DNA- DNA sequences that bring together genetic material from multiple sources in the mid-70s. He then did a post-doctorate degree in David Baltimore’s lab at MIT, where he started doing work on RNA retroviruses. He has been at Columbia University since 1981.

When I email him to ask to speak to him about the lab, he replies: “Why don’t I send you into the trenches.”

The “trenches” are two doors down the hall from Goff’s office.

Despite Eruzo’s playful enthusiasm, she is working on serious stuff. She, in collaboration with Jason Rodriguez, another lab colleague, is working to screen for cell protein implications on HIV replication. They are examining what kinds of conditions are needed to silence the proteins, then apply those conditions to the cells and see the effect they have on HIV replication. When the proteins are removed from the equation, their actual role becomes more clear.

“Just a bunch of questions,” Eruzo says. “What regions of protein are important? At what stage are they important? Why? Why?”

Eruzo sits at her bench, preparing for an experiment. She is working on a method to separate proteins based on size. Protein 131 has equal numbers of cells. If you add viral RNA, it quiets the protein expression, and after some time, stops it completely. Eruzo is testing how long it will take to completely quiet protein expression. This is called optimization.

“It smells like rotten eggs,” Eruzo says, as she stirs in the sample buffer. This will stop metabolic processes and denature the proteins.

The next step is to boil them to stop the cells from degrading any further.

Eruzo was born and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. “In the corner building on 4th Avenue,” she says. “You didn’t have to watch TV, there was always drama outside.”

She did her undergraduate degree at Brooklyn College, and then went to the University of Pittsburg for graduate school. After doing a post-doctorate degree at Mount Sinai in New York, she came to Goff’s lab.

Along with her everyday work, Eruzo juggles her own pet project: the Matrin 3 protein. She’s been working on it since graduate school.

The Matrin 3 protein is one of the twelve proteins that make up the matrix of the cell nucleus.

“It’s kind of like a skeleton for the nucleus,” Eruzo explains.

Other research has already found that what happens in the cell nucleus has an impact on HIV. Eruzo wants to figure out the other effects that this protein has on HIV.

***

Eruzo is concentrating as she scrapes the cells by stirring them quickly, then transfers the purple cell solution, the same color as her indigo gloves, into plastic test tubes.

Through the silence, the shuffling of feet as people bump into each other in the cramped space is interspersed with beeps from timers, and the occasional sigh.

When asked how to know when to stop scraping the cells, Eruzo giggles. “It’s not the most scientific method,” she says. “I just try to do it until I think all the cells are off.”

The point of all this prep is to create an electric wave. Eruzo takes out a glass rectangular container with an electrode on each side, and fills it with water. On each side, there are two green combs, with little wells in between the teeth. Eruzo meticulously loads in her samples into each well. Once the proteins have separated, she can use bands that turn various shades of blue to determine the protein standards.

Eruzo plugs in black and red cables —attached to the electrodes — into the electrophorysis power supply. Bubbles start to rise as the electricity flows through the container.

“And then we wait,” says Eruzo.

Eruzo’s long brown hair is tied in a braid while she works. Mornings are her favorite time in the lab, because there is no one around, and therefore no wait to use the equipment.

When I ask her what she finds comforting in a lab environment, she blushes. “It’s kind of corny but the hum of the culture hoods,” she replies.

Though the hours are long and it sometimes feel like she’s never away from her work, Eruzo says it’s worth it for the thrill. “ I guess you always feel a sense of urgency. It’s never really fast enough and if things are going badly you feel guilty for going away. There’s a really great surge of happiness when you do get a good result because it almost never happens,” she says, only half joking.

***

When I return to the lab two weeks later, it is late afternoon. The halls are still quiet, but inside the lab, there is a flurry of activity as people prepare their final experiments of the day.

I walk into the kitchen, where Sedef Onal, a graduate student from Turkey, is rummaging through the fridge. The whiteboard at the back of the room reads: “Today the maid took the day off. Clean your dirty dishes and put it away: plates, forks, knives, mugs, coffee grounds/cup.”

“I was going to smoke a cigarette, wanna come?” Onal asks. She leads me out of the building to the street behind, where she has her spot picked out. There is even a ledge so she can put down her coffee mug.

Onal is in her 3rd year as a graduate student and decided to join Goff’s lab a year and a half ago after a series of rotations graduate students go through many labs for a short period of time before deciding where to settle.

When I ask why she chose this particular lab, she looks around, and then replies: “ I’ve been doing biology for 10 years now and I have not dissected a single mouse and I’d like to keep it that way. I can do that here.”

Onal is looking at the interactions between two host proteins and the effect those genes have on HIV. Her preliminary data indicates that both those genes increase the HIV-1 exit stage- HIV can enter and exit cells through the cell membrane — but she allows that this could be due to an experimental artifact.

After finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of California Irvine in 2004, Onal returned to Turkey where she got a masters degree in bio-science and bio-engineering. She then worked at a hospital in clinical genetic diagnosis for two years, but found the work repetitive and boring. She wanted to get back to research, and so came back to the United States in 2009.

Today, Onal is using a plasmid —a DNA molecule that can replicate independently — that makes all viral proteins sufficient, so they can be expressed in cell, and then creates a virus-like particle that can butt out of the cell, which models the exit phase of HIV-1 infection. She will give that plasmid to cells with either one of the two genes that she is looking at, and then she does a control experiment with cells that do not have those genes to see what’s the difference in the HIV-1 proteins that are being produced and butting out.

To make sure that the positive effect she has already observed is correct, and that her genes are increasing the take-up of the DNA into the cell, she is using a plasmid that shouldn’t have any important role in the cell. This will allow her to see if her proteins will also raise the levels of the unrelated plasmid.

Onal spends the next 25 minutes flitting back and forth between the tissue culture room, where the cells are grown and stored, and a computer room where the data will be analyzed.

With dyed auburn hair, a black sweatshirt, and grey shorts over black tights, Onal looks more like a quirky college student than a scientist. Her favorite book is A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and she’s seen every episode of Firefly, a “space western” television series. But she is passionate about her work. Something about being in a lab just makes her tick. “It’s the excitment of being frustrated for months then getting a positive result. I like the puzzle of it I guess.”

Onal confides that her favorite time to work is at night. To make her point, she points to her coffee mug, which reads “Mornings aren’t magical.” When no one is around, she can go a little crazy. “When it’s quiet and there’s no one else I can blast the music and dance around the lab without looking weird,” she says.

Though Onal misses the lab — and the restless anxiety of research — when she’s away too long, there are exceptions. She smiles slyly and leans in conspiratorially: “Like last week I was in Cali and I didn’t miss the lab at all!”

As it gets later, some people start filtering out of the lab, either to go home, or to eat to fuel for a long night. The work goes on. As Stephen Goff says, “We’ve got more than enough to keep us all very busy for a long time.”

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Audio Slideshow: “Calm Before the Storm”

Reactions of people in Brighton Beach concerning Hurricane Irene and the evacuation on Saturday August 27th 2011.

Calm Before the Storm from Anne Cohen on Vimeo.

Audio Postcard – Monday Morning at Coney Island Beach

This was recorded on a Monday morning at Coney Island Beach between 9am and noon. Not many tourists, but lots of locals enjoying the sun and waves!

Monday Morning At Coney Island Beach

Photo Essay

This is a photo essay taken at the Downtown Auto on the corner of the Bowery and Great Jones Street

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