Friday, November 14, 2014

Kubki Ferrari or A Brief Ode to Andrzej*

As you may remember from biology class, biological females have variation in hormones across the menstrual cycle.  The exact length of the hormone cycle and the levels of hormones vary between women** and across an individual woman’s life.  How this variation in circulating hormones might affect other physiological systems and ultimately health outcomes is a complex and understudied area.  A major part of our research projects is that we are interested in how hormones and biomarkers vary for women across the menstrual cycle.  This means we need daily measures of hormones from each woman who participates in our studies.  For our current project based in Poland, we ask each woman to collect urine each morning.

In the past, the best way for us to collect, store, and ship these samples back to our lab would be for the women to use a normal 4 oz (188 mL) urine collection cup.  This is just like the kind you might use at your doctor’s office.

It is important for the urine to be frozen right away, and using this type of cup really fills up a woman’s freezer! After one full menstrual cycle, our research participants could have 20-36+ small cups of urine in her freezer, with a total volume of 2-3 liters!  That can be a problem, especially in the smaller freezers that are more common in the region in which we work.

Fixing the freezer space problem

Our first idea was that we could collect the cups periodically from each woman and aliquot some into smaller containers using a standard plastic pipette.  This would take a lot of time for us, because we would be walking to their houses or the local clinic, thawing the samples, aliquoting, and refreezing.  Let’s not even discuss how we were trying to figure out if there was clinic space for the aliquoting or if we would have to do this on the dining room table at our field site residence!!!

Problem Solver

Then our field site manager/coordinator/hero Andrzej Galbarczyk enters the scene and argues that we should use some fancy new urine collection cups.  As we Americans scoff at the idea over Skype, Andrzej insists that the cost is not much higher, the process will be easier, and he can order them to be shipped directly to the field site for us.  Katie admits, it was that last part that sold her on the idea.  She couldn’t figure out how we would fit 15 x 30 urine cups + 15 x 30 pipettes + 15 x 30 x 3 small tubes into the checked luggage for the trip to Poland.  We needed to bring a lot of shoes and clothing to be prepared for walking up and down the mountains in a variety of weather conditions.
The fancy new collection cups.
That’s how we recall being talked into the new urine collection system.  The urine cups have a fancy little lid that screw on securely (after you fill it), which then allows you to use vacuum tubes to take aliquots of urine from the cup.  Vacuum tubes are commonly used in the US for blood collection.  You may have seen your phlebotomist use them the last time you had to have blood drawn at the doctor’s office.  Our vacuum tubes for urine have a special yellow top to help distinguish the contents.
Our fearless leaders: Kate Clancy and Andrzej Galbarczyk testing the urine cups with apple juice.
Equipment testing

Of course, before we could ask our research participants to use these fancy cups, we had to test them ourselves.  This is also when we nicknamed our urine cups.  Fieldwork + jetlag does funny things to your mind.  To test our urine cups, we bought some Polish apple juice (gotta support the local economy!), filled the cups, and then filled up some vacuum tubes.
Look at the unusually high level of wonder and awe reflected in the face of our field site leader!
These fancy urine cups were thus dubbed “kubki Ferrari”, or “little Ferrari cups” since they were so fancy and from a company based out of Italy.  Everyone who visited the field site over the summer got a chance to either try the cups for themselves (with apple juice) or see a demonstration.  One lucky soul even had the opportunity to use our test-frozen sample tube to reduce inflammation on a foot injury.
Our test to verify that the tubes would freeze without breaking.  Full of sok jabłkowy (apple juice).
In conclusion, this method of urine collection and aliquoting was awesome, and we would not have discovered it if not for Andzrej.  For that we say: Thank you Andrzej for ensuring we did not have to play with urine on the same table from which we ate our meals.

*   Reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle title formats
** We are using the colloquial gendered term “women” instead of the biological term “female”.  We understand that there is huge diversity in how people may identify their gender.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

10 Things to Know Before you Go: Poland Fieldwork Edition, Part 1

1.  Talk to a local (Part 1)

Before you go, get in contact with someone who will be at the site or who has been there before. They will be able to tell you what to bring far better than this list.  Additionally, it will be nice for you to see a friendly face who is expecting you and knows you will need some help. 

Ludwik, one of the Polish graduate students who supervised the field site, is setting a bad example.  Petting the cows is NOT recommended here.

2.  Learn polite phrases in the local language

If you haven't studied the local language before heading to a new place, learn some of the easier phrases. In Poland, a simple "Dziękuję" (thank you) goes a long way. That being said, if possible, you should try to learn the whole language.

3.   Google translate only works when you have internet access. Consider bringing a phrase-book or a dictionary

Mary downloaded the Google translate app. She was excited because you could talk into the phone, it would translate the words, and say the translation for you. Then Katie pointed out that we don’t have 24-hour wi-fi access. The app has come in handy, but, generally, don’t plan to rely on something that needs the internet to work.
Katie at the bus stop after successfully asking a woman (in Polish!) for help finding a bus. 

4.   Hitchhiker's Guide is right - always bring a towel

And not just a washcloth - Mary learned that the hard way.  We also recommend bringing two water bottles and some trust-worthy zip-lock baggies. This is especially true if you want the zip-locks to be waterproof and/or leak-proof.

5.  Know what your shower situation will be like

 In other words, you won't be able to take 30 minute perfectly lukewarm showers. You should probably be mentally prepared and know how to pare down your standard grooming routine to something more field-appropriate.

6. Have money

European ATM's do not always take U.S. credit or debit cards.  Have cash as a back-up.  Some machines will eat your card. Some merchants will not accept credit cards, including some small hotels. 

7.  Always save your receipts

Even if you aren't saving your receipts for a grant report or reimbursements, it is a good idea to document and save receipts. This gives you an idea of how much you are spending in order to prepare for the next year. It's also helpful if you share any costs with others at the site to be able to track spending. It also helps you track the amount of cookies and cheese you are eating.
Katie picking black currants at our house with our landlady (who didn’t want to be in the photo without doing her hair). We used these for a delicious snack after walking around all day.  No receipts for this!

8.  You will walk (a lot)

You will need to eat more to make up for that.  You should bring at least 2 pairs of walking shoes, and prepared for one of them to get disgustingly wet and muddy.
Katie and Mary walking home at the end of a day of fieldwork.  Technically, walking home from the sklep (shop) after a day of fieldwork.

9.   Look up the weather, and adjust your backpack (and shoes, clothes, etc.) appropriately

For example, it rains here a lot. Mary's backpack is not waterproof (this is another reason to have trustworthy waterproof baggies).
Katie and Mary after running home from fieldwork in the pouring rain. 

10.   Be prepared, but there is no need to be over-prepared

Know if you will have access to a store, and if you can buy essentials at your field site.  You may find you need things you couldn't anticipate, so have the luggage space and the budget to add to your supplies if needed.  For example, Katie found she needed to buy new pants after losing weight from all the walking.
Mary’s suitcase fits a stadiometer, a scale, lots of Oragene® Discover saliva kits, Whatman® Omniswabs, Eppendorf® tubes, and all her clothes (plus lots of socks).  No towel, though

While much of this is common sense, it can be easy to forget these basics when you are in the whirlwind of preparations for heading into the field.  Never underestimate the power of politeness, the utility of common sense, and the value of clean socks and underwear after a long rainy day in the mountains.