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My crazy idea ==> reality!

I have been quiet on the blog for quite some time now. And with good reason (I think)….The last few months I have been working on a really fun but hopefully impactful new projectcrazy-idea-IBCeduc with the IBC Network, and today we finally unveiled it to the world. Those of you on my facebook or twitter have probably already seen the news, but in case you missed it tonight……well, we have built a pair of educational mobile apps for iOS and Android about IBC aimed at patients and even medical providers who are not experts in IBC treatment.

The app has a number of features including  a lot of written content (not found anywhere else online or in print), a link to our soon-to-be-started youtube channel, and probably most importantly clinical trial information for IBC patients. One thing I hear over and over again in the patient support groups I volunteer in is that when standard treatments stop working, they get told to “find a clinical trial” by their oncologist but not given any tools to do so. Perhaps if they are lucky, a broad class of drugs might be mentioned – e.g. immunotherapy, but little help on specifics, and definitely not help finding trials outside of the location the patient is currently being treated. Government databases exist with this information (clinicaltrials.gov), but it is not presented in a patient-friendly format, and just narrowing down the appropriate options can take many hours of intense work, at a challenging time in a woman’s life. This is the problem we seek to address with the app. The clinical trials currently uploaded to the app consist of all the IBC-focused ones currently enrolling in the US. Many more will be added over the coming months – including ones that may not be IBC-exclusive, but that will take IBC patients, and for which there is reasonable scientific/clinical rationale.

I am really excited that the project has come to fruition after 4 years. I first came up with this idea as I was walking around the poster session at the San Antonio breast cancer conference with Terry Arnold, the founder of the IBC Network in December 2011 – we had just met actually. She had asked me how to differentiate ourselves, or something along those lines…and like usual, I didn’t have an answer right away.  I barely knew the organization and the competitive landscape, never mind have been thinking about new ideas outside of science (remember I was at my first breast cancer-specific conference). But later on that day, I came up with the idea for an app and pitched it based on the fact that I knew IBC tended to affect younger women who tend to be more tech savvy, and I was not impressed with the quality of online information about IBC. With that brief conversation, the idea was created and just took a long while to become feasible. The biggest reason being app development is expensive – and for a non-profit with a main mission of funding research, we could not justify spending a high 5 figure sum of $ on an app.  We were lucky that our recently-hired web developer had a friend who builds apps for a living, and was wiling to build these for us as a favor, for a really reasonable price (a fraction of the quotes we had obtained from different sources). And then we got to work writing the content throughout the fall….

And so, the apps were born. If you are interested, please download the appropriate version for your phone and let me know what you think. We will make some changes/updates a few times a year, and I will be able to upload new content as time allows (for me!) since the app is driven by our wordpress site.

Apple  – Apple App Store
Google Play link – Google Play Store

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How social media led to my current research in IBC via twitter and blogging?

In my last post I discussed some of what drives my research and my overall goals. This post I wanted to take 1 step back and share my unusual story with how I got here starting with picking this postdoc. Usually how postdoc-seeking works is that 3-9 months before graduating (if you’re on the ball) or shortly after defending if you’re staying in your PhD lab for a while, you make a short list of PIs who you want to work for. You might have people in mind that you’ve met at a conference or followed their work for a while, or maybe your mentor has some recommendations, or maybe you’re just desperate to move to a city for personal/family reasons and you narrow it down that way. Regardless of how you attack it, you make a list, and then you generally go to PubMed and look at their work, and figure out what it is you want to do in the context of their work. Then you write emails to them with a carefully crafted CV and overview of what you would like to learn/accomplish and why you would be a good fit for their lab …and hope and wait for a response back inviting you to go interview….and if it’s a big famous PI, you might have your mentor call a few weeks later if you haven’t heard back….

Of course, like everything else in my educational background, I had to be the unusual one in my grad program….none of the above applied to me, since I had decided that my top postdoc choice would be in a new (at the time) translational training program at MD Anderson called TRIUMPH. The program not only would allow me to work in any of the program labs doing great clinically-relevant research, but the extra training experiences are unmatched anywhere else in the country. In learning about the program, I realized that I would not have to do the above research into the PIs ahead of time before applying to the program, since I would be accepted (or not) to the program as a whole and then spend the 1st month or so meeting with all the mentors to find a good match. Seemed like an easy decision to apply, especially given the pretty straightforward process.

March 2011-July 2011 = Crazy few months!

A lot happened in the few months between applying to TRIUMPH in March, getting accepted….and moving to Houston in July – lots of travel including 2 back-to-back conferences in 2 countries with entirely different posters, writing my 200+ page thesis in ~2.5 weeks, defending, graduation, big paper revisions …. etc….then literally a day after my defense (yes I have email PROOF), I get word of an upcoming fellowship opportunity through the Department of Defense that the TRIUMPH program director wants me to apply for.

The thing is….it just happens to be due ~3 weeks after graduation, and eeeek what do I even know about breast cancer??? * At first I think, “I need a break, I’ll pass this up this cycle” and “what about all the interviews I would be doing – isn’t this a big waste of time to limit myself to breast cancer” which I had thought (and still think) is a pretty crowded field compared to a few of the other tumor types I thought I might work in.

The counter arguments going through my head included “I do not want to look like a slacker before I even join the program if I refuse nicely to do it” and oh look at how much $ is involved if I did get it**. Eventually I talked myself into hanging out at my favorite Austin coffeeshops  and doing it since I’m a bit crazy and like grant writing anyway, and it would be good experience regardless of getting it….and if by chance I selected another lab but got an offer, I could turn it down (HAHA – such wishful thinking!) So I came down to Houston the next week, met with the director, looked over her grants and papers, and came up with a potential social-media-inspired project with a teeeeensy bit of preliminary data….wrote the whole thing in about 3 days (+ a weekend on the most repetitive attachments ever), got funded, and the rest is history. As an aside, for the 1st few years of grad school I was not that interested in academia because I thought I sucked at coming up with ideas for research….how times have changed now that I realize how much I like to write and think about science 😉

Social Media as Research Inspiration?

So now you’re thinking, how on earth did she get her research idea from twitter? Tweets are only 140 characters of inane updates on what people are eating or doing, right? NO NO NO!!!. You see, behind those little 140-character status updates is a person (usually!), and there is a huge range of twitter content. Indeed social-media savvy folks use twitter for productive purposes, and frequently they also have a website listed in their profile, as well as relevant key words so they can be contacted by like-minded folks.

It turns out that as an early adopter of most technology, I joined twitter in early 2008***. But after not really investing much effort into it, I didn’t really see the point, since I wasn’t getting a lot out of it. (This is still a common theme I hear when I try to convince my IRL friends about the benefits of twitter) Anyway…I ignored twitter for more than a year, maybe close to 2 years. I didn’t even log in. But then something made me try again more seriously to follow more people and engage in conversations to see if anything worthwhile would happen. In the early days, when my twitter handle was @flutesUD, I looked for interesting people to follow by doing searches for terms like “cancer”, “research”, “science” “flute”….One of these people that popped up in one of the general science-y searches was @whymommy, (Susan Niebur) who I credit with being the inspiration for my major research direction. However, had she not had a blog, I may or may not have actually followed her and certainly wouldn’t be studying IBC or likely even know what it is.

You see, Susan was an IBC patient who blogged not only about parenting and life at her blog but her journey with IBC. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that IBC is a rare, but highly aggressive form of breast cancer that unfortunately receives very little press either in the public media or even in the scientific literature – hence I had not even heard of it prior to coming upon Susan’s blog.

Over a couple of evenings I decided to read her entire blog archive to really understand it, and also followed all of the links on her really helpful IBC links page. Clearly because of the dearth of good quality information available at the time on the internet, Susan had a passion for providing educational content and outreach to fellow patients, and in my view did an outstanding job of this. Through exploring her blog and the other sites, I realized that not very much is known about the biology of this terrible disease that presents and behaves very different clinically from “regular” breast cancer. In addition since patients with this disease don’t have many therapeutic options beyond standard chemotherapy, mastectomy and hard-core radiation, I realized that something must be done to help patients such as Susan (who was fighting her first recurrence at that point)…and thought it might be a good niche to get into, given that I also followed the MDACC IBC clinic director on twitter (@teamoncology). After a few back-and-forward emails with Dr Ueno discussing my idea, I had him lined up to be my co-mentor on the grant to help with the clinical side of the project, and to establish feasibility of the work, since nobody else in my lab works on IBC.

To come full circle on this story, it saddens me greatly to say that last year this week, unfortunately Susan passed away after a tough battle with IBC recurrences (as is unfortunately still so common in this disease). I started this post back then as a tribute since I regretted never leaving any comments on her blog to let her know the impact of her posts, but embarrassingly the first draft was too unwieldy and needed a lot of pruning and focusing. In between all my long hours in the lab & program requirements, it got tossed aside (& lost on my stolen laptop). It’s fitting however a few days after a great twitter chat (#bcsm – on Monday nights) that I post my story to thank all the patient advocates and health bloggers for writing and sharing your stories on social media. Many of you might never know the real reach of your writings even long after you post them, but please keep on doing them as long as you are able to.

~~~

* This is known as imposters syndrome within academics. It’s pretty common.

** not that I would see any extra $$$ directly, but it does pay for more of my research than pretty much any other postdoctoral fellowship would, and allows me a few extra freedoms

*** Yup, nearly my 5 year twitter-versary on 3/16/13!

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A Cell/Molecular Biologist’s Guide to iPad Apps

I’ve had my iPad for a little over 2 months now and in spite of craziness revolving around moving across the state and settling in, and gazillions of meetings to select a lab (yes really gazillions!) I’ve had a chance to play around with my new toy a bit.  A certain friend of mine has been prodding me to write this post for a little while, and since this weekend has been relatively relaxing thought I’d go for it.  Here’s my fictional day using my iPad as much as possible.  The links are mostly to the iTunes app store pages for the mentioned apps.

Firstly, I turn on Pandora. I trust you’ve heard of this app so I’m not going to elaborate on its awesomeness.  My world is never quiet unless I’m asleep, whether I’m working on or playing. Unless I forget my headphones – then I’m not a happy camper at work.  Guess I should buy a backup pair for there.

Like most scientists (and most people in general nowadays), I start my day by checking my email on one of my iOS devices (iPhone or iPad).  Great, nothing urgent….now I move onto twitter.  I’ve tried most of the common apps, and because of my tweet consumption style of wanting to try to read everything, Hootsuite is my favorite since I can consistently scroll back the furthest, though interface-wise I much prefer the Twitter app.  Depending on time I may also check on Facebook and Google+ using these native apps.

Next I check my calendar to figure out what I need to do today…I keep my schedule in Apple’s calendar app on my iPhone, which can sync with iPad over Mobile Me. However it is not super reliable (an observation shared by some of my online buddies) so I have not turned on calendar sync lately, and rely on my phone which never really leaves my side anyway.

For my task list, I’ve tried a few apps and I’ve settled on the free-mium Remember the

Remember the Milk Icon

Remember the Milk Icon

Milk one since its simple but flexible (eg you can designate “Waiting for” tasks, can change the dates).  Its also available for every platform, and lots of plug-ins for your computer and online activities (gmail and such) – check out the full list here. You can also organize tasks around locations to avoid making multiple trips to places that are close proximity to each other when running errands for example.  Unfortunately to sync more than 1 device with the website requires you to go “pro” for $3/month or $25/year.  The icon is not THAT cute 😉

OK so now I know what I have to do today….so I’m likely working away either at the bench (or nowadays in the hood doing hours of cell culture!) or at my macbook pro doing these tasks.  I’m trying to get into the pattern of Mondays being a day to read – my auto Pubmed updates are set to arrive on Mondays and so now I’ll delve into reading methods. Speaking of Pubmed, Pubmed On Tap allows you to search Pubmed and read full-text of open access papers/email link to yourself for later.  Pretty useful for when you’re out and you just have to know something…

All the glamor journals (Science, Nature, Cell) have ok apps for browsing the latest tables of contents, however to get full-text its not very straightforward to use an institutional subscription currently.  But at least I can make a note of interesting sounding papers using SimpleNote, which syncs with Notational Velocity on my Mac so I can download the full-texts when I’m on the network or connected via VPN at home.  I actually have half a folder full of journal apps that include some field-specific apps (including AACR publications, my professional society and NEJM – where I aspire to publish a paper during my postdoc!)

For a quick break from work reading I might grab a coffee and check out the news on the New York Times or use Flipboard or Zite for a cool, personalized view of news in a magazine format.  But I try not to get too sucked in.

Back to reading….next I might check out my RSS feeds for my journals. On my iPhone I use Net News Wire as my RSS reader, but unfortunately the iPad version is $9.99.  I personally don’t rely on RSS that much to be worth spending that much on.  Reeder is widely thought to be the best RSS reader on the iPad (though News Rack is a worthy contender in a sizable minority), and for $5 I was willing to download it.  Not only can you read your feeds, but there are sharing options galore (including social media sites twitter and facebook, as well as Instapaper/ReadItLater/Readability and plain old email too).  Speaking of Instapaper – that is a must-buy app for me!  It allows you to save articles for later reading from your desktop/laptop or from your phone and it strips out all the distracting ads etc. and downloads for offline reading later, which for us wifi-only iPad users is great for passing the time on long flights without wifi or while cramped in coach.  As I’m reading I find an article with a useful table which I think I would like to access later, so I save it to Evernote, a great information manager app, and give it some useful tags so I can search for it later either on my computer or phone/iPad.

After all this reading I’m needing some social interaction, so I open up Words with Friends free and play some words. I’m not very good at it compared to some of my friends and my dad, but its still fun.  Then I might see if anyone is on gchat to chat using BeeJive (the iphone version, since the iPad version is $10!).  Oh bummer everyone else is working so I guilt myself back into working….

Suddenly I get a push notification that a webinar I signed up to view is starting in 10 minutes.  So I launch the GoToMeeting app, and go to my email to get the code…and soon enough I’m signed into the webinar, and maybe I eat my lunch while watching, since I gotta be always multi-tasking while eating.

After lunch I go into the lab and begin my benchwork for the day.  I open Safari and browse to my Biodata lab notebook (hopefully soon to be a real iPad app per the biodata team) and see that I have a few things to accomplish today. Firstly I have to set up some restriction digests for my latest cloning project.  But what enzymes and buffer do I need????  Promega comes to the rescue.  Out of all the science-specific apps I have downloaded, this is the most useful in my field (and no I’m not being paid by Promega to say this).  There are a variety of tools including converters, videos about lab procedures, written protocols and protocol info regarding many of their products including catalog numbers if you’re just preparing for your next experiments…..so lets say I find the perfect kit for my study, I just copy the catalog number, open my email application and shoot our lab manager a message with what I would like.  Easy peasy!  Next I realize I need to setup some PCR reactions so I get everything out to thaw, and double check my conditions using the “melting temperature for oligos” tool in Promega.  Next task accomplished.

The other useful laboratory science app I’ve found is Invitrogen’s Daily Calcs, which as it sounds is focused on calculations.  There is some overlap with the promega app here, but also there is a useful cell culture reference for newbies including useful numbers like surface areas, volume of media to use etc…(we all remember the first weeks of cell culture when we were super-anal about every detail).  There is also a useful molecular weight lookup if you know the formula of the chemical.  If only there was a way to also lookup by name.  There you go Sigma – take my idea, link it to your huge catalog and #win!

While my PCRs are running, I open the cool HHMI bulletin app to read some science outside of my field, since a too-narrowly focused scientist can miss interesting new connections.  I read an interesting epigenetics article, which discusses modifications I’m not familiar with so I open EMD Millipore’s cool Histone Map app to learn more,

Histone map

Example of information from Histone Map app

and end up sucked into this fascinating world of nuclear biology for the next half-hour.  Ooops – I’m never escaping lab today at this rate!  Still, at the end of this exploration, I have a few questions ….what do I do?  I use Wikipanion to see what Wikipedia has to say….then I quickly make a post on Quora (using Social Questions) and visit EpiExperts, a cool new scientific community for epigenetics peeps (I’ll do a post on this later) in Safari to post them as discussion items.

OK back to my day.  Digests are done, PCRs are coming along. I check on my cells…everything’s good.  So I go back to my desk and start studying my flash cards I made in Evernote Peek (covered previously here) for my test on Friday.  And soon enough my collaborator from Asia is Skyping me to discuss some cool new data, since it’s the beginning of his day now. At the end of our call, he asks me to sign a form for a grant he is about to submit, so I open iAnnotate PDF and using my stylus add my signature, save and send it back to him in 2 minutes. Quite a productive day I’m having 🙂

I guess its home time soon.  I wonder what I will make for dinner?  So I browse epicurious and AllRecipes for some quick ideas, and prop my iPad up in the kitchen so I can follow along..  Once I’ve cooked my dinner, I sit down and select a movie to watch on Netflix while I eat and wind-down.  Then it’s a quick email , twitter and Words with Friends session before bed, and hopefully I remember to set my alarm (in Apple’s clock app) on my phone before falling asleep. But before sleeping I remember to check my bank account to see if I got paid so here I come Bank of America app.

That’s all peeps.  I have mentioned a lot of apps, but as you’ve probably gathered by now, I use my iPad mainly for consumption tasks, so I don’t have a personal recommendation on work software such as to create Office documents.  GoodReader seems to be a good basic choice, or if I were needing something I’d download Documents to Go. My laptop goes almost everywhere with me so right now this isn’t a huge need.

What are your favorite iOS apps fellow scientists?

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