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The definitive host: March 2010

The definitive host

de·fin·i·tive host (duh-fin'eh-tiv) n. 1) An organism where a parasite undergoes the adult and sexual stages of its reproductive cycle 2) Someone you go to for interesting stories and/or facts, and puts on one hell of a dinner party 3) This blog, devoted to science and other geeky subjects

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Taking Aim

This is a piece of personal journalism that I wrote for one of my classes, and I very much enjoyed writing it. So, I hope you enjoy reading it as well :)

A few years back, I decided to try something new.

When people say that, they will usually buy new clothes or shoes, or perhaps go to a different type of restaurant. Not me.

No, back when I worked the summer at Camp Wahanowin as the head of Nature, I decided to try something I had always dreamt of doing, but never had the chance. Something I had only seen in movies and read about in books.

I wanted to learn archery.

Something about the feel of an arrow in your hand, the weight of a quiver on your shoulders, and the sound of a bow as you released the arrow into the air enthralled me.

I was determined to learn.

So, at breakfast one day I approached the head of archery, Brandon, and asked if he had any free time this morning to give me a lesson. He looked at me for a moment, smiled a crooked smile, and told me to be there for second period.

After breakfast I walked towards the Nature building, which was a large outdoor paddock with a small shed where I kept all the animals. Or, as the kids began to affectionately call it, "Creepies and Cuddlies," due to the wide variety of creatures I had in my care. I fed and cleaned the cages of all the animals, everything from a chinchilla and rabbits to a ball python and tarantula.

Once done, I grabbed my water bottle, locked up the animal shed, and cut across the baseball field towards the other side of the camp, where archery was located.

Archery was by far the largest area in the camp, and was comprised of two large fields at its front and back, and a large wooden wall between the two, covered with hay.

In front of the hay were three large and pristine archery targets that had yet to be hit by arrows. Looking around, I noticed Brandon re-stringing a bow under a tent, listening to the soothing music of the Beatles.

After handing me the bow, Brandon grabbed a handful of arrows, placed them in a quiver, and walked towards an orange line spray-painted on the grass.

He then demonstrated the proper way to hold the bow, notch the arrow, and how far to draw back the string before releasing it.

"Aiming," said Brandon pointing at his near-perfect shot, "comes after learning how to shoot."

"How very Zen," I quipped, as I grabbed an arrow with yellow and orange feathers.

Imitating what Brandon did, and channelling my inner Robin Hood, I pulled back the
string, made sure my elbow was kept straight, and released.


I dropped the bow and looked at my left arm. My inside forearm was red and raw from the string of the bow hitting the exposed flesh. And even worse, my arrow had not even hit the target. It was a good six feet to the left.

Laughing, Brandon handed me a piece of leather with two straps.

"I forgot to give you an arm guard," he said with a wink, "to protect your non-draw back arm. But, you'll never make that mistake again, will you?"
Wincing, I strapped the piece of leather to my injured forearm, and tried it again.


Three feet.

"Take a breath before you fire, and exhale as you release the arrow," said Brandon, channeling his inner Yoda.

"Yes sensei," I chuckled.

Calming myself, I drew another arrow out of the quiver and notched it onto the string. Taking a breath, I drew it back and closed my right eye, focusing my left on the yellow bullseye.


I couldn't believe it; I had actually hit the target. It was the outer white rim, of course, and only worth one point, but nonetheless, there was a hole.

I continued to take more arrows from the quiver and fire them at the target, while Brandon fixed the various broken bows and arrows that were in a large pile inside the tent.

We continued with this routine over the next few weeks. My improvement was slow, but steady. Brandon would watch occasionally, giving me pointers here and there, but pretty well left me alone to hone my skill.

One day at Nature, while I was about to feed a rat to the ball python the campers lovingly named Mr. Squeeze, Brandon stopped by and told me some interesting news.

"There's going to be a councillor-only archery contest before camp ends," he said while staring at the snake dislocating its mouth to feed on the frozen rat. "You should enter, you've definitely improved."

"How long do I have to practice?" I said anxiously.

"About a week or so. You in?"

"Definitely," I said, smiling.

I decided to keep on practicing as hard as I could, and hope that I would do well.

I practiced whenever I could fit it in, whether it was dawn, lunchtime, or dusk. I was committed.

When the day of the competition finally came, for pure fun, I had gone to the drama department and was dressed in a rather appropriate costume: Robin Hood.

The competition proceeded in rounds like most do, and either by pure luck or sheer skill (I'm still not sure which), I ended up in the championship round. It was, hilariously, between different heads of camp programs: Swimming, archery, nature, canoeing and riflery.

We lined up in a row, pulled arrows from our quivers, and took aim at our own individual targets. The closest one to the bullseye would win.

I closed my right eye, took a deep breath while I pulled the string back, and released.


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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Not Your Average Microbe - A Review of SUPERBUG by Maryn McKenna

Based on my background, as well as my thesis, many people assume that I am an animal guy through and through. Granted, my thesis was on frog salinity tolerance, and I know quote a bit about a vast majority of animals – but that is not my only area of interest.

I took a microbiology course in 4th year, due in large part to my mother saying I would enjoy it and having a passive interest in how the so-called "lower organisms" worked.

Man, was I wrong.

I learned to love microbiology and learning about bacteria and viruses – how they work, how they kill, how they fight and how they die. It all interested me, and I soaked up all that information like a sponge.

If there would have been more microbiology courses at my university, I would have taken them and perhaps changed my thesis into something microbial. I still love learning about bacteria and viruses, and will take any opportunity to expand my existing knowledge base.

That is why I was thrilled to get an advanced copy of Maryn McKenna's new book SUPERBUG, coming out on March 23, 2010, which deals with the development of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

MRSA is what is known as a superbug, it is multiple-drug resistant and impressively deadly. It takes massive amounts of drugs with often serious side-effects to even have a chance of beating it.

MRSA - Courtesy of GiantMicrobes.com

While it was historically known as a disease that only occurred in hospitals in people that were already suffering from a weakened immune system – that is no longer the case. A new completely different strain has come up that affects people who have not had any contact with hospitals. It is known as community-acquired MRSA, and is surprisingly lethal.

McKenna's style is aptly suited to this type of book, as there is a lot of medical jargon that requires a deft hand to explain to people with little to no knowledge in that particular area. This is accomplished through what I can only describe as a massive amount of interviews and research with individuals who have been affected by MRSA.

This book raises a lot of issues regarding the sanitary procedures performed at hospitals, the over-prescription of antibiotics in both people and animals, and the sheer speed in which MRSA can adapt.

Reading this book may seem like some sort of scare tactic, and it is. But it is the sort of thing people NEED to hear.

And the best way to do this is to let the people whose lives have been affected speak for themselves, and McKenna realized this and only breaks away from a narrative for context. Simply put, it is a superbly written science book that reads like a novel.

I don't want to spoil any of the surprises lurking within the book, and there are many regarding the health care industry, misplaced government spending and agricultural practices that would shock you.

There are also parts of this book which may be difficult to read if you are squeamish, specifically where she describes the various symptoms that people infected with MRSA had to deal with. And, not all the people you meet throughout the book survive, as MRSA is an indiscriminate killer.

SUPERBUG is a very impressive book that has some very important lessons to teach us about microbial evolution, and the huge effect it can have on the human population.

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