Friday, November 21, 2008


I'm in the midst of a six-hour layover in Denver. My journey from Australia to Arkansas began 24 hours ago, and I still have five hours left. I'm beginning to feel a bit punchy as a result. Perhaps that explains why I've seen so many angry people in America today. Or, perhaps that's because the number of travellers has picked up in advance of next week's Thanksgiving holiday. Or, perhaps a lot of people aren't as happy about Obama winning as I thought. Or, perhaps Aussies are even more mellow than I realized.

I did manage to see my old friends, Tiffany and Dave, and their beautiful son, Ryan, for 30 minutes at a gate here, just before they boarded their flight. And I managed a garbled conversation with V. and Will back in Brisbane via Skype and free Wi-Fi, courtesy of the Denver airport. I also got to eat a bagel (Einstein Bros.) and a cinnamon roll from Cinnabon, and I'll be eating Mexican tonight for dinner (sorry, Mooselet!). Travelling isn't so bad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

International Contrast

I was looking through the news feed on my Facebook account this morning. It updates me about any changes to my Facebook friends' profiles in the past 24 hours. Among my FB friends are PhD students back in Atlanta and here in Brisbane. Over the weekend the temperatures dropped below freezing in Atlanta, whereas here the max was over 30 C (86 F). According to the Facebook news feed, graduate students in both places hosted an outdoor social event. 

In the picture below, you can see the UQ "post-grads" playing barefoot lawn bowls. Note that everyone is barefoot and several students are holding a drink while they bowl. I think this looks like a lot fun, especially as I'm an old ten-pin bowler from way back, but I haven't had a chance to try this yet.
In the next picture, you can see some GSU grad students celebrating "Fakesgiving," complete with a turkey and all the side dishes. I don't know the origin of this little feast, but I guess it's a way for them to have a Thanksgiving dinner together before they all leave town for the holiday. Such cold temperatures in Atlanta are pretty unusual this early in the season, but that didn't seem to deter anyone from eating their meal outside.

That reminds just a few days I'll be donning my own coat, hat, and scarf to face the chill of North America. Brrrrrrrr!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Vaccine Publicity Machine

Yesterday there was a big announcement from Professor Ian Frazer at the University of Queensland regarding his plans to begin clinical trials for a new vaccine that may help prevent some kinds of skin cancer. This is exciting news, especially in the country where the incidence of skin cancer is the highest in the world, and in a state (Queensland) that has highest number of reported melanomas. Scottish-born Professor Frazer is already a hero in Australia, having received numerous awards, including Australian of the Year in 2006 ("Ian embodies Australian know-how, determination and innovation"), for his work on the development of a vaccine to prevent papilloma virus infection, a vaccine more commonly known around the world as Gardasil. Human papilloma virus (HPV) infections cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer, which is the fifth leading cause of death of women worldwide. 

In the past 24 hours I have seen several news stories about Professor Frazer's announcement about the skin cancer vaccine. In these stories he has been referred to as the man "who developed the vaccine for cervical cancer," "the scientist who discovered the cure for cervical cancer", the "creator" of the HPV vaccine, and "the Australian scientist who pioneered the vaccine for cervical cancer." Here, on the UQ campus, it's hard not to see a photo of Professor Frazer somewhere, whether at a bus stop or in the latest glossy brochure heralding the university's achievements. Obviously, Australia is quite proud of Ian Frazer's accomplishments--as they should be. Gardasil is now available worldwide, with already over 16 million doses distributed just in the United States, as of June 30th of this year.

Just before we moved to Australia last year, I saw a story about the HPV vaccine in an American newspaper. It contained a brief history that featured the work of researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Rochester, but there was no mention of any research in Australia, except for the fact that it was one of 13 countries involved in the clinical trials of Gardasil. I ran a Google news archive search to see how often Frazer's name was mentioned in conjunction with Gardasil in the past three years.  After excluding Australian news sources, I could find only one or two entries.

So, why then is there nary a mention of the discoverer of the HPV vaccine outside of Australia? A 2006 article that appeared in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, titled "Who Invented the VLP Cervical Cancer Vaccines?" may provide some answers. It turns out that four institutions hold the patents for the Gardasil vaccine--the National Cancer Institute (in the U.S.), Georgetown, the University of Queensland, and the University of Rochester. And, according to the peer-reviewed literature, "the development of the VLP/L1 vaccine was an incremental process with multiple contributors." There were five key discoveries that led to the various institutions and researchers each claiming credit for the vaccine:
1991: Expression of the human papillomavirus L1 and L2 proteins together, but not L1 alone, resulted in the formation of small VLPs described as "incorrectly assembled arrays" of subunits (reported by Jian Zhou, Ian Frazer, and colleagues at Queensland; Virology).

1992: HPV L1 expression in mammalian cells led to an L1 in cells that was recognized by monoclonal antibodies that bind conformational epitopes; no VLPs were produced in this study but it was considered important because the ability of L1 to self-assemble into VLPs and produce neutralizing antibodies depends on the native conformation of L1, which involves conformational epitopes (reported by Shin-Je Ghim, A. Bennet Jenson, and Richard Schlegel of Georgetown; Virology).

1992: L1 from bovine papillomavirus type 1 self-assembled into morphologically correct VLPs that induced high levels of neutralizing antibodies in immunized animals (reported by Reinhard Kirnbauer, Doug Lowy, and John Schiller at NCI and colleagues; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

1993: L1 from HPV 11 self-assembled into VLPs, later shown to induce neutralizing antibodies (reported by Robert Rose at Rochester and colleagues; Journal of Virology).

1993: L1 from HPV 16, taken from lesions that had not progressed to cancer, self-assembled more efficiently than the HPV 16 L1 that researchers everywhere had been using; the old strain was shown to be a mutant, possibly because it had been isolated from a cancer (reported by Kirnbaueer, Lowy, and Schiller at NCI and colleagues; Journal of Virology).
Thus, the way the Australian media wants to paint the picture of Ian Frazer as being some sort of Aussie Jonas Salk is misleading. Big discoveries in medicine, and science in general, can rarely be attributed to one person any more. Many people work on different pieces of the puzzle. Apparently, such (international) teamwork makes it difficult, however, for journalists to tell the whole story.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Parking Ticket

When I was a student at the University of Iowa, I was terribly irresponsible about money. Among the many collectors who seemed to want a piece of me was Iowa City itself, due to my penchant for receiving parking tickets. I am proud to say, however, that I changed after leaving Iowa. In the 21 years since, I have received just two parking tickets (and never a moving violation). And one of those appeared on my windshield on the campus of the University of Queensland at 11:28 AM on May 19th, 2008.

I park at the university three days each week. This involves finding a place along Sir William MacGregor Drive, which runs along the river at the edge of campus. Parking permits are conveniently sold through little vending machines. You put in your $3 worth of coins and out comes a small receipt that you put on your dashboard. Of course, I do this all the time, but on the 19th of May, I put the receipt in my pocket and walked away. I came back to the car that day and found a little wispy slip of white paper under the wiper, which turned out to be a ticket for $30.

I put that wispy slip of paper in my pocket, fully intending to pay the ticket via the UQ website. But, I forgot about it. And, being that it was such a little slip of paper, it was later thrown away with all the other little receipts that we accumulate over the week. 

A few months passed, and I received a letter from UQ demanding that I now pay something like $60 for this delinquent parking ticket. Again, this notice was printed on such an insignificantly thin slice of paper (I've only seen paper this thin in Australia and Croatia) that it was soon lost in our piles of papers as well.  I should have gone to the UQ parking office and sorted it out then, but I forgot.

Now, nearly five months later, I have received a regular-sized envelope, with a letter printed on regular bond paper from the Queensland Government Department of Justice and Attorney-General, notifying me that I owed $97.50 for this original parking violation. It contained the following notice:
If you do not pay this order by the due date, a $84.00 enforcement fee may be added and the following enforcement action taken against you:
  • your driver licence could be suspended
  • your employer may be required to deduct a certain amount from your wage each month
  • your bank may be order to transfer money from your account to SPER (State Penalties Enforcement Registry)
  • an interest may be registered in your property or it may be seized and sold
  • a warrant could be issued for your arrest and imprisonment
Needless to say, I paid the fine today via the handy "BPAY" option.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tuckshop of the Year

tuckshop. n.  shop selling food and drinks, especially at school.

Here's another a group of Australian awards that I learned about this week--the 2008 Queensland Tuckshops of the Year.  Last weekend, at the 8th Annual Gala Dinner at the Broncos Leagues Club in Red Hill, Brisbane, one could pay $49-$59 a person (or $44 with a booking of 10 or more) to sit in semi-formal attire while the TOY awards were presented for Queensland Tuckshop of the Year, Central Region Tuckshop of the Year, Southern Region Tuckshop of the Year, Western Region Tuckshop of the Year, and Outstanding Achievement in Tuckshop Management. A friend of ours has volunteered at her daughters' school's tuckshop quite a bit, so we were happy to hear that their primary school, Ithaca Creek State, won the coveted Tuckshop of the Year trophy. Apparently, Ithaca Creek's tuckshop is noteworthy for its wide range of healthy food choices. Open on Tuesdays and Fridays, students can choose from a menu that includes sushi, pasta, vegie burgers, a bean trio or chicken caesar served layered in a crunch cup or wrap, berry yoghurt crunch, and a banana lickety stick.

As for me, I began a life-long love of meat pies at the tuckshop at our primary school in Wagga Wagga. I guess that's no longer considered a 'healthy' choice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We're Anti-Pool People

One of the perks of being married to someone who was trained in medicine is that you get to hear constantly about the health risks of various activities, including bad eating, drinking, and gun ownership. Recently, V. and I have been gently debating the risks of having a pool in the backyard of our future home. Despite the fact that residents of SE Queensland are a short drive from the ocean, and they repeatedly face water restrictions, they just love their backyard pools (this is easily confirmed when you fly over Brisbane). V., however, feels very strongly that we should never have a least until Will is an adult. Her certainty on this matter reminds me of a passage in Levitt's and Dubner's Freakonomics about the decision to send one's child to a house with guns or one with pools:
Consider the parents of an eight-year-old girl named, say, Molly. Her two best friends, Amy and Imani, each live nearby. Molly's parents know that Amy's parents keep a gun in their house, so they have forbidden Molly to play there. Instead, Molly spends a lot of time at Imani's house, which has a swimming pool in the backyard. Molly's parents feel good about having made such a smart choice to protect their daughter.

But according to the data, their choice isn't smart at all. In a given year, there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential pools in the United States. (In a country with 6 million pools, this means that roughly 550 children under the age of ten drown each year.) Meanwhile, there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns. (In a country with an estimated 200 million guns, this means that roughly 175 children under ten die each year from guns.) The likelihood of death by pool (1 in 11,000) versus death by gun (1 in 1 million-plus) isn't even close: Molly is roughly 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident at Imani's house than in gunplay at Amy's.
To further support my wife's brilliance, here are few more U.S. statistics that I found on a pool alarm website:
* Six people drown in U.S. pools every day. Many of these pools are public facilities staffed with certified professional lifeguards.  Centers for Disease Control

* Drowning is the 4th leading cause of accidental death in the United States, claiming 4,000 lives annually. Approximately one-third are children under the age of 14.  American Institute for Preventive Medicine

* Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death among children under the age of 15.  National Center for Health Statistics

* A child can drown in the time it takes to answer a phone.  U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

* 19% of drowning deaths involving children occur in public pools with certified lifeguards present.  Drowning Prevention Foundation

* A swimming pool is 14 times more likely than a motor vehicle to be involved in the death of a child age 4 and under.  Orange County California Fire Authority

* Children under five and adolescents between the ages of 15-24 have the highest drowning rates.  American Academy of Pediatrics

* For every child who drowns, four are hospitalized for near drowning.  American Academy of Pediatrics

* An estimated 5,000 children ages 14 and under are hospitalized due to near-drownings each year; 15 percent die in the hospital and as many as 20 percent suffer severe, permanent neurological disability.  Foundation for Aquatic Injury Prevention

* Of all preschoolers who drown, 70 percent are in the care of one or both parents at the time of the drowning and 75 percent are missing from sight for five minutes or less.  Orange County, CA, Fire Authority

* In 10 states - Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington - drowning surpasses all other causes of death to children age 14 and under. Orange County, CA, Fire Authority
Needless to say, I'm with V. on this one.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Deposit on the Future

V. and I are looking at some houses to rent today. Our son will start Prep (the equivalent of kindergarten in the U.S.) in two years, so we are also thinking about where he would go to primary school. It's a strange thing, planning for the future. We have no idea where we will be in 10 years, five years, or even two years from now. We might go back to the U.S. or end up staying here permanently. We don't really know. Yet, because we have a young child, we must consider some sort of vague plan. In fact, I just sent $375 to Brisbane Grammar School, a private school for boys that has a very good reputation, so that Will can be on the waiting list for the Year 6 class that will enter in 2017. Yes, that's more than eight years away, but we may already be too late to guarantee his admission! Of course, we are not at all certain that we will want him to go there or whether he would even want to attend it when he's older, but we didn't want to eliminate the chance of his going if we did decided in 2016 that it was the best option. 

But now it's time to figure out what we're going to have for lunch.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Catching Up

The last two weeks were, as you know, very busy for me. Because I didn't blog much about what was going on at the time, here's a brief recap:

I spent 24 hours in Newcastle, New South Wales. I went to the University of Newcastle to give a talk at the School of Psychology, and spent most of the rest of the time with two social psychologists who live there. I visited Newcastle once before, in 2001. It is the largest coal port in the world. At dinner at a wonderful restaurant along the harbour, my hosts and I watched large ships with Chinese flags lining up to fill their holds with Australian coal. Australia's economic boom in the past decade has been largely due to China being a hungry customer for its natural resources. Any downturn in China's economy will in turn have an impact here.

Last weekend we took an early Saturday morning ferry to Stradbroke Island, which is about 40 km due east of our home. I was attending a cognitive neuroscience workshop, made up of researchers at UQ, at the university's marine research station. Meanwhile, V. and Will spent the time over at Point Lookout with my colleagues' families. We stayed at a small resort that had a kitchen and washer/drier, etc. for two nights, and then left early Monday morning so that we could get back to work and Will could go to day care. What a great place! The beaches are huge, sandy, and beautiful. And they were nearly empty. The 40-minute ferry ride was easy for us and fun for Will. It's becoming increasingly clear why so many SE Queenslanders stay in the area during the holidays. We live in paradise!

In the midst of this traveling I was also marking (grading) thirteen 40+ page honours theses. In Australia the mark on an honours thesis has nearly the same importance as GRE scores in the U.S. At UQ a score of 80 or higher indicates the thesis is 'first-class,' which, as long as their coursework is also first-class, means that a psychology student can get a scholarship to become a Ph.D. student, or it could also mean that they are admitted to a clinical psychology program. Thus, I felt great pressure to be fair and accurate in my marks, as I was (partially) determining the future of the 13 students whom I was marking. Of those 13, my marking partner and I gave three a first-class designation.  

I had also scheduled to take my four honours students to dinner this week as a way to celebrate the intense year we had been through. Unfortunately, on the day before the dinner, the co-ordinator of the honours program announced that we could tell our students their final marks (by the way, supervisors do not mark their own students' theses). I had planned to tell my students the day after the dinner, so that we could enjoy our meal in peace, but that plan was disrupted when I began receiving email messages such as "my friend just found out her thesis mark, can you tell me mine?" I was able to hold off the announcement of those marks until the next day, much to the disappointment of a couple of my students. Then, I had the 'pleasant' task of giving the news the next day. Some were more disappointed than others, but no one ended up with an especially tragic mark.

On Thursday afternoon I received a call from the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.  My first thought when the caller identified herself was, "how did they find me?" It turned out that I wasn't in any trouble. Instead, the Consulate invited me to speak on Friday to a group of 30 Australian students who will be going to the U.S. for study abroad in January. I was asked to address certain points (e.g., the grading system, living on campus, the drinking age), but the students themselves asked questions that were more specific for the particular university they were going to (e.g., "can I list my friend as my preferred roommate?", "does it cost money to use the gym?").

Then, of course, the whole week was overshadowed by the election in the States. At work a large group of department staff and students spent several hours in one classroom watching the returns. I heard one Canadian grumble, "our election last month didn't receive this kind of attention." The other Canadian responded, "there was an election last month?" As I hinted in an earlier post, Australians are overjoyed with Obama's election. (Unlike some of my relatives, who think that Obama's secret socialist, Muslim-based, Black conspiracy will now ruin the country).

Now, as the temperature starts to go up, there's a short lull before I have to mark 250 exams next weekend. Right now we are trying to sort out whether we want to move to a house with a yard in a more suburban locale. 

Stay tuned.  

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Shopping List

I am flying to the U.S. in less than two weeks, so I am preparing a shopping list. Our fantasies of me wandering the aisles of Walgreens, Target, Baby Gap, the Apple Store, Kohls, or Borders ignore the reality of the greatly depreciated Australian dollar. Despite the depressing exchange rate, there are still plenty of things that are far cheaper or only available back in the States. Here's a preliminary list of things I'll be putting in my extra suitcase:
  • peanut butter (Jif or Skippy Extra Crunchy)
  • fabric dryer sheets (last year's supply is nearly exhausted)
  • clothes for Will
  • clothes for me (esp. shirts that can be put in the dryer)
  • Merrell shoes for V.
  • shoes for me
  • children's (and adult) vitamins
  • some recent novels (I haven't read a Grisham in a couple of years)
  • plastic bibs, forks, sippy cups and knives for Will
  • dental tape
  • a melon baller (?)
  • an EMS travel bag
  • a DVD boxed set of some old TV show (maybe)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Smile

What a wonderful moment.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Where Did I Put My Fascinator?

Australians are following two big races today. The first is the Melbourne Cup, which is the premier horse race of Australia ("the celebration that stops the nation"). In Melbourne this means a day off from work. For everyone else it can mean a very long lunch hour. Restaurants all over Brisbane have been for weeks advertising Melbourne Cup special events, including champagne and a chance to dress in fancy clothes. I just walked by a conference room in another building and saw it was full of people dressed up, eating a catered lunch, and watching the race on a big screen television. The women were even wearing fascinators. This race has far greater meaning for Australians than, say, the Kentucky Derby has for Americans. I heard someone explain this morning that an appreciation for the Melbourne Cup in Australia begins in the pre-school years. In fact, Will's day care was decked out with pictures of horses this morning. 

Interestingly, the other big race today that Australians are following is the U.S. election. It has almost overshadowed the Melbourne Cup in coverage. Several television stations will be devoting most of their broadcasts to the election returns all day tomorrow (starting at around 7 pm Eastern time in the U.S.). I have heard of many plans for parties, including one that will be taking place in the School of Psychology. Most Australians are eager to see Bush go. What's more, Obama is really popular here. I saw a morning news poll of viewers (not a scientific one, mind you) in which 89% of the callers said they would vote for Obama if they had the opportunity.

UPDATE: Well, it turns out that Viewed was this year's Melbourne Cup winner, and he won in a thrilling, photo finish. I am hoping that the other race today won't be as close...