doc w/ Pen

journalist + medical student + artist

Tag: winter

Understanding the umbrella

I quickly snapped this picture while walking to the hospital this morning.

In Chicago, where I spent most of my life, “winter” means having to dig your car out from a mountain of snow and bundling up against sub-zero windchills. In New York, I’ve seen people wearing down jackets and gloves when the temperature plummets to *gasp* 50 degrees. When I see these people, I chuckle to myself.

“Wimps,” I whisper under my breath. “They think this is cold?”

But finally, today, we got a real winter day in New York City. It’s been snowing for hours now, with several inches predicted. And it’s coming down pretty hard, even by this Chicagoan’s lofty standards.

For perhaps the third time this winter (not counting the days I spent with my family in Chicago over Christmas), I donned my long, down coat. For the first time this year, I tugged on my heavy snow boots. (And was reminded just how heavy they are.)

As I trudged down the slick sidewalk toward the hospital, I wondered how those people who wore parkas in 50-degree weather were doing. I hoped they were surviving. I thought about how ridiculous all this thick, winter garb looks on everyone, but how no one cares (or laughs) because we’re all just trying to stay warm.

In New York, some people attempt to fight the snow with an umbrella. I took this picture to prove it.

And then I saw the umbrella.

Yes, the umbrella. I’d forgotten about the umbrella.

Different cultures handle adversity in different ways. New York City definitely qualifies as a separate culture. It’s practically a foreign country. And as I was reminded today, some New Yorkers handle the adversity of blowing snow by shielding themselves with umbrellas.

When confronted with this fact, I did exactly what I’d told myself we don’t do in winter: laugh at how people were coping with the weather. It just looks so ridiculous. This is not rain, people! It’s not falling straight down. It’s not even falling sideways. In this wicked wind, it’s swirling and blowing in every possible direction. The only way to truly protect yourself from being pelted is to hail a taxi. And lord knows how rush hour traffic in Manhattan is when it snows.

This is the thing about New York, though. Walking these streets, you see a little bit of everything. Everything from a woman wearing a turkey stuffed animal on her head to a guy strolling down the sidewalk in shiny-cotton-candy-pink spandex to commuters hiding under umbrellas in the falling snow. Sometimes you’ll stare, laugh, or shake your head. Sometimes another person stares, laughs, or shakes their head at you, because they think you’re the weird one. Somehow the city survives on this invisible undercurrent of understanding that we’re all a little weird, all a little different, and that’s ok. It’s actually pretty cool. Even if you carry an umbrella in the snow.

Winter reflections

Looking out my mom's living room window this morning, through the frosted glass.

Looking out my mom’s living room window this morning, through the frosted glass.

My long-awaited winter break has arrived. And boy, is it winter here in Chicago. I’d avoided donning my down coat in New York until last Friday, when the temperature dipped to 18 degrees. I decided at that point, I could deny the cold weather no longer. Here, that denial is impossible. My iPhone weather widget tells me it’s 7 degrees this morning,  but feels like -7. That’s pretty damn cold, no matter how you spin it. Thankfully though, my internal Midwest thermostat seems intact, and I’m weathering the weather just fine, thank you very much.

Sarah and I were beyond excited about the alleged end of the frigid U.P. winter.

Sarah (on the right) and I were beyond excited about the alleged end of the frigid U.P. winter.

Flipping through an old family scrapbook this morning, I was reminded that even as a kid I had a high tolerance for cold. We lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a couple years when I was little. There, winter pretty much runs from October through April. Summer feels more like spring. But my sister Sarah and I had no trouble romping in the waves of Lake Michigan while my mom huddled in her jacket on the beach. One of the stories that my parents like to tell about our time in the U.P. was that in 1987, on the first day of spring, Sarah and I were so happy that winter was (supposedly) ending that we put on our bathing suits and ran outside, barefoot, yelling “It’s spring! It’s spring!” We did this in spite of the patchy snow still on the ground.

Looking back, that seems like such a crazy thing to do. Bare feet, bathing suits, and snow? Seriously? But then again, I think a lot of life is like that. In the midst of doing something, no matter how difficult, it seems completely natural. In retrospect though, you wonder how you survived. I wonder if that’s how I’ll feel about medical school. It’s certainly possible. There’s been plenty of craziness involved, and I’m only 3/8 through. But right now, medical school feels like the most natural thing to be doing. Just like running through our snowy lawn, barefoot and in my bathing suit, almost 30 years ago.

Flaky Science

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I talked about in my MD/PhD interview was my sense of awe with science – those moments where you realize, as Carl Sagan points out in the above quotation for example, that we are indeed made of starstuff. It started right when I began working in Prof. Richard Minshall’s lab at UIC, and hasn’t let up (thankfully). That feeling of wonder doesn’t only apply to medicine, though. And it gives me great joy to see other people – other scientists – getting down and nerdy.

My most recent foray into other realms of science: snowflakes. That’s right, those six-sided crystals that fall from the sky and make our commutes hell on earth. It all started when I was looking for a different type of wintry image for my desktop background. Search “winter” on Google Images and you’ll come up with a lot of images of fields and trees covered in snow. While these are fine images, I wanted something out of the ordinary. So I scrolled, and searched (other winter keywords), until I came up with this image:

Playdough? Claymation? Nope. Snowflakes under an electron microscope.

At first glance, it looks like playdough, or a frame from a claymation movie. Wikimedia (where I found the image) directed me to the photo’s source, the Electron Microscopy Unit Snow Page of the USDA. EM images of snowflakes? What a concept. Exploring the site further, I found an incredible, yet easy to understand, amount of information, including how these images were recorded (through Low Temperature Scanning Electron Microscopy). Another discovery was that scientists classify snowflakes into dozens of categories through a nomenclature system called the Magono and Lee Classification of Snow Crystals (Part 1 and Part 2). Examples (with images of course!) include the following:

After seeing all of these photos, reading all of the accompanying information, the thought that comes to my mind is: Snowflakes are made of starstuff, too.