The Path to Pristine: Forest Park Forever and My Long-Ago “Litter Letter.”

articles, Letters to Editors
Randy Rosenbaum and Walt Jaschek in the Forest Park Boathouse. With every visit, we marvel at this park’s transformation. And are grateful for it.

Happy Earth Day from Forest Park in St. Louis. Today the park is a jewel – Randy and I walked 8 miles of it Saturday – and it delighted in every way: flowers exploding, clear water flowing, not a single piece of litter in sight.

It’s hard to remember it wasn’t always that way.

When I was a young man of 25, the park was sadly neglected and terribly trashed. So much so, I wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch dripping in youthful dismay over its disarray. The letter was published on September 12, 1980, under the headline “Man’s Idiot Marks,” which was me quoting singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright. Here’s the letter.

I moved from St. Louis for a few years, and when I returned in the mid-80s, I learned that a nonprofit conservancy called Forest Park Forever had been formed to restore the park to its glory.

Looking back today at their incredible, transformative work, it’s safe to say they have. Much kudos to them now and, well… forever.

Forest Park, St. Louis. Art Hill looking toward the Art Museum, Earth Day, 2019.
The saints come marching in. Blooms reach to greet Louis IX of France, namesake of St. Louis.

What Walt Jaschek Believes. (And Doesn’t Believe.)

articles, Content Writing, Opinion Pieces, Walt a Life

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Part One: What I Believe. 

Originally published as the editorial in Slightly Bent Comics #1.

I BELIEVE in music, I BELIEVE in love. But not necessarily in that order.

I BELIEVE for every drop of rain that falls, one is leaking into my basement.

I BELIEVE before the end of time, the title of every pop song ever released will also be used as the title of a movie.

I BELIEVE civilization reached a peak with the invention of the prescription swimming goggles.

I BELIEVE on of the best titles ever for a comic book is “Mysterious Suspense” (Charlton, 1968), because mysterious suspense is truly the best kind of suspense.

I BELIEVE in the universal, healing power of sarcasm.

I BELIEVE George Reeves (TV’s Superman of the 1950s) was a great actor. So you can synchronize your aesthetic tastes to mine right now, as long as you know mine are correct.

I BELIEVE it’s not what you can do, it’s what you can repeat.

I BELIEVE it’s not what you can do, it’s what you can repeat.

I BELIEVE it would be inappropriate to foist my vegetarian beliefs on others, so if you want to slaughter sentient mammals just to have a heart-clogging bacon-burger, I will give you no grief.

I BELIEVE the glass is half empty and half full. We call this reality.

But I BELIEVE the half-full part is a lot more fun.

I BELIEVE being alive is a caper. We’ve stolen existences from the vaults of the Carbon-Based-Life-Form Bank & Trust and zipped off in the getaway car of biology. I’m giddy about it.

But then, I BELIEVE exuberance should be the default emotion for human beings. We should all snap back to it when not otherwise engaged, like when, you know: working.

I BELIEVE those who can find exuberance in their work are lucky dogs.

Or other lucky domestic pets of your choosing.

blog-blackshirt-disbelieving

Part 2: What I Don’t Believe

Originally published as the editorial in Slightly Bent Comics #2.

I DON’T BELIEVE I caught your name. I’m Walt.

I DON’T BELIEVE everything I read, which is odd, because I do believe everything I smell.

I DON’T BELIEVE in ghosts, except for Capser, ’cause he’s friendly. In fact, I say this with authority: he’s the friendliest ghost in town.

I DON’T BELIEVE my personal life is anybody’s business but my own, except for maybe a few close friends, family and oh yeah, “The E True Hollywood Story.”

I DON’T BELIEVE in fairy tales. I mean: a pig? Who can make a “house” of straw? A “house” that gets, like, blown down? By a wolf? Yeah, right. Who do they take us for?

I DON’T BELIEVE how good you look! Are those new glasses? And you’ve lost weight! HOW? You must tell me! Treadmill?

I DON’T BELIEVE you should write checks in grocery store lines, unless you don’t have cash or credit cards, and if you don’t have cash or credit cards, please, don’t go grocery shopping.

I DON’T BELIEVE there’s anything more beautiful than a sunset, except for a sunset in the background of a Victoria’s Secrets catalog photo.

I DON’T BELIEVE in government conspiracies. Conspiracies require competence and coordination.

I DON’T BELIEVE you ignore that whole “Wag the Dog” thing, though.

I DON’T BELIEVE in not believing.

I DON’T BELIEVE in spreading bad Karma, hatred, intolerance, paranoia, gossip or flu germs.

I DON’T BELIEVE you paid attention all this time.

But I’m glad you did.

Walt Jaschek means that.

 

“Ginseng: a Virtual Drugstore.” Interview with Dr. Laura Murphy by Walt Jaschek

articles, Content Writing, Ezines, Reporting, Science

This story about the many benefits of the man-root called ginseng was one of a series of articles on modern breakthroughs in science I wrote for a Sigma-Aldrich ezine reaching clients in scientific research. I came away with a real appreciation for ginseng.  True fact: I take it every day myself now. 

ginseng

It has no lighted parking, no drive-through pharmacy and no giant displays of shampoo, but make no mistake: ginseng is a drugstore.

“A virtual drugstore,” clarifies Laura Murphy, PhD, Associate Professor of Physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Medicine. Dr. Murphy’s research lab has released a series of groundbreaking findings relating ginseng to the slower growth of cancer cells.

“Ginseng has 30 different ginsenocides, supponent glycosides, polysaccharides, plus fiber and protein,” says Dr. Murphy. “There are 50 different compounds that affect the body, all through unique mechanisms. Working with ginseng is complex and challenging.”

Tan and gnarled, ginseng root has a forked shape, resembling human legs – hence its original Chinese name renshen, or “man root.” Central to Eastern medicine for 4,000 years for its many alleged healing properties, the chemically rich Panex quinquefolius is now under the microscope in labs throughout the world – notably in Dr. Murphy’s own.

But her recent news-making headlines about ginseng started years ago with another herb altogether. “In the 90s, we started doing research on the neuroendocrine effects of cannabinoids,” says Dr. Murphy, editor of a book on the subject. “We were treating animals with marijuana and looking at effects on male copulatory behavior.” (Side note: They have an inhibitory effect.)

“In putting together that cannabinoids paper, we saw that ginseng was anecdotally reported to stimulate libido. We extended the project to include it and I couldn’t believe the results. We did it two more times, same results.”

Newly intrigued by ginseng, Dr. Murphy tightened her focus on the science of the storied root. She learned Asian researchers were doing most of the recent clinical work, and most of that was about ginseng’s effectiveness in treating cancer cells. “It made me wonder if the discussed cancer-affecting qualities could be confirmed in the research lab.”

An endocrinologist, Dr. Murphy began her lab’s project with a supply of human breast cancer cells grown for researchers. When she and her students treated some of these cells with an American ginseng extract, they found this: the higher the doses, the slower the cancer cells grew. With a high enough dose, they could actually stop the cells from growing.

“It was consistent and repetitive,” says Dr. Murphy. “A very clean result.”

With similar findings came increased funding: from the university, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute, the Penny Severns Fund, and the National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine. The work expanded quickly.

“We wanted to see if we could get the same results in an animal as we got in a Petri dish, and we did. It was the first time an effect in animals has been document,” Dr. Murphy says.

Next up for her lab: studies on the relationship between ginseng and chemotherapy. “We submitted a grant proposal to the NCI that would involve us looking at ginseng’s chemo-preventive effects. Can ginsengs be used concurrent with chemotherapy drugs?”

In all her with with ginseng and cancer, Dr. Murphy cites a challenge within a challenge: molecular pathway management. “As the ginsenocides and polysaccharides act on the cancer cell, a lot of pathways are affected. We use Panorama arrays from Sigma-Aldrich. It provides a system which deals with signal transduction pathways, cell signaling and apotois. The Panorama arrays are quite specific to the pathways we’re looking for.”

As our interview was concluding, we just had to know: does Dr. Murphy herself take ginseng?

“Yes. I make a tea from the raw root,” she says, laughing. “I like the taste of it and believe in its restorative properties. I believe if you’re a healthy person, it’s good for you, and if you’re unhealthy, it will make you better.”

Ah. If only a real drugstore made it that easy!

Article by Walt Jaschek

“DNA Breakthrough Over Dinner.” Interview with Dr. Peggy Farnham by Walt Jaschek

articles, Content Writing, Ezines, Science

This 2011 article — an attempt to make dry but important DNA research accessible and even info-taining — was the first in a series of “content marketing” articles I wrote for a Sigma-Aldrich eZine targeting clients into scientific research. These took a sleeves-rolled-up “lean in” attitude about untangling the complex science here: I thought the results were successful.

family-dinner-yum

“Would you people pleeeeeeeease quit talking about work?”

You can almost hear teenage Emily Nicolet of Davis, California, beseeching her parents across the dinner table.

Her mother, Peggy Farnham, PhD, Associate Director of Genomics at the University of California-Davis, says it’s not an uncommon plea. Dr. Farnham and her husband, Charles M. Nicolet, PhD, are also colleagues: Dr. Nicolet is Manger of the DNA Technologies and Gene Expression Core Facilities at UC-D, and both of Emily’s parents are distinguished for their groundbreaking work at the institution’s Genome Center. Conversations between them can quickly turn molecular.

At one such dinner in 2006, Dr. Farnham was the one complaining. She remembers criticizing the quality of data her lab was getting from the then-existing techniques of amplifying DNA from chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) samples for hybridization to a genomic tiling array (ChIP-chip assays.) One technique – linker-mediated PCR (LMPCR) – was providing too great a signal-to-noise ratio. Another, pooling 50 replicated ChIP samples, was not feasible for multiple genome-wide analyses.

Between bites, her husband offered a suggestion. “Have you considered trying one of the WGA amplification methods they’re using in the lab performing Comparative Genomic Hybridizations? Somebody over there just gave me a pamphlet.” Dr. Nicolet handed it over.

Dr. Farnham saw the potential immediately. “Nobody’s tried this on ChIP-chip assays,” she recalls saying. “Let’s do it!”

It was probably about that time daughter Emily lobbed her mid-meal protest.

But the dinner dialogue proved an important catalyst.

Today the Farnham Laboratory at UC-D, a leader in genome-wide characterization of transcription factor binding sites and chromatin modifications, has abandoned the LMPCR and pooling methods and has completely switched over to the WGA technique for its research, getting what Dr. Farnham calls “really quite amazing” data from increasingly smaller cell samples.

“This level of amplification is critical to having enough material to put on the arrays,” Dr. Farnham says. “Using WGA, we just did a whole genome tiling of 38 arrays, going through every base in the genome, looking for a particular factor, and the data is really beautiful. We’ve done 200 arrays in the last six months and it works just as well for any of the factors we’ve tried.”

Miniaturization – getting more from less – is the trajectory of DNA research, Dr. Farnham says. The possible applications are many, but are particularly relevant to the future of medical science, where the ability to extract more sophisticated information on defects and disease from even the smallest biopsy could lead to more evolved diagnosis and cures.

It was in 2004 that Drs. Farnham and Nicolet and their daughter Emily moved to Davis from Madison, Wisconsin, where Dr. Farnham was professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin. “We all had great friends and colleagues there, but this was a chance to do something new and different at the Genome Center. It’s exciting to be part of a group thinking on this scale. Everybody has these great, genome-wide assays to talk about. The energy is high and the opportunity for collaborations is fantastic.”

In fact, Dr. Farnham’s most recent scientific paper, the latest of many published findings released this year by the Farnham Laboratory, has a collaborative twist. One of the co-authors of Comparison of Sample Preparation Methods for ChIP-chip Assays is also her frequent dinner companion and husband, Dr. Nicolet. “This is our first paper together,” Dr. Farnham says of the work, which compares three ChIP sample preparation methods differing in background noise and reproducibility of binding site identification.

And to think: this influential Farnham/Nicolet collaboration crystallized with that seemingly innocuous “Have-you-considered?” conversation in their dining room months prior. The incident supports this simple, three-part conclusion:

Some scientific advances occur over years.

Some, over decades.

And some, over dinner.

Walt Jaschek, writer