Mid-December – Everything is Right on Time

My graduate program in Science, Technology and Society has gone from making observations about the contingency of scientific work and need for more reflection in tech development (light) to darker and more abstract theories about what it means to be human, the political use of scientific knowledge and creeping boundary between empowerment and control. This is I think very Viennese in a way, superficial and then deeply psychological. Particularly through always on/always with us technologies like physical activity trackers, but also genetic testing and the gradual replacement of the self with data. I’m working on a paper now dealing with the metaphor of genetic “code” and what it means when we forget the biochemistry and work behind the translation.

This is somewhat related to my thesis about genome editing. The thesis will analyze two reports, looking at how promises and social challenges of tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are presented, and how the reports guide the direction of R&D and governance.

Just as class was wrapping up for the year, Nana and Grandpapa arrived, hooray! We got a tree and decorated it, something that *SHOCKED* our friends, because in Austria they don’t decorate the tree until Christmas Eve.

Saturday we went to the Christmas markets at Rathaus, Maria Theresa Platz and Karlsplatz – we bought a new tree topper, called a “Spitz”

By 4 o’clock its dark out, and the lights make everything magical. It was hard to leave, especially when one quick ride on the self-powered scrap metal train turned into a 30’minute wait (queuing Austrian style is a contact sport) and an amazing 30 lap ride. Not even 6 and those girls either tricked or charmed the operator into letting them stay on. We couldn’t say goodbye so we brought our friends home and Duke cooked a delicious spontaneous pasta dinner for Allison’s best friend and everyone else.

Sunday we made a day trip to Bratislava,

the markets there are also wonderful and I enjoyed the cozy cafes and charming streets. Even the bus stop was cozy and charming!

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Post- Thanksgiving Dark Days

An old note from November— posting from the train.

Grad school is in full swing with the ups and downs of deadlines and revelations about life. More stressful is trying to find the balance between discipline and comfort for two little people ruled by their emotions.

The Christmas markets are already open and we met friends last Sunday for a lovely, but cold and dark afternoon, they have a manger with pigs, goats and sheep – the highlight was a tiny baby, but he belongs to my friend. Allison enjoyed playing in the hay and a rollercoaster you have to pedal yourself.

We also cooked a delicious Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a Turkey that barely fit in our European oven.

Meanwhile, advertisements for Black Friday Sales range between describing it anthropologically as an American tradition or a historical study of internet shopping.

Der „Black Friday Sale“ ist ein in den USA traditioneller Einkaufstag mit vielen Aktionen und gilt als Startschuss für das Weihnachtsgeschäft.

Mittlerweile ist der Black Friday nicht mehr nur ein US-amerikanisches Phänomen. Denn durch die Zeiten des Internethandels, in denen viele Leute bei den großen multinationalen Versandhäusern einkaufen, greift der Black Friday immer mehr um sich und erreicht damit auch Europa. In Deutschland bot erstmals Apple im Jahr 2006 die aus den USA bekannten Rabatte auch in den deutschen Stores an. Seit dem folgen immer mehr Händler Apples Beispiel und starten auch hierzulande am Black Friday mit dem Weihnachtsgeschäft und besonderen Preisnachlässen.

Someone else ran an ad that Black Friday was Darth Vadar’s Birthday. It’s all a bit silly, since there is no Thanksgiving. A darker Austrian tradition is the Perchtenlauf- Devils Run- when St Nicholas’s evil sidekick, Krampus runs amok stealing bad children on Dec 5. It might be more fun to see a combination of the two dark days while the days are also significantly shorter and darker.

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If CRISPR will bring us a better world, what kind of world will it be and who gets to decide? 

CRISPR Symposium

I participated in the International Symposium: Editing Genomes with CRISPR, last week in Vienna, where questions about genome editing where paramount. I had great conversations with a student from medical informatics, a policy leader from the council of europe, the PI of a cancer research group and Sheila Jasanoff herself. Sheila Jasanoff has pioneered an approach to looking at science and technology that asks: What is the purpose? Who will be hurt? Who benefits? How can we know?

The idea was not to answer the questions, but to approach CRISPR technology from a position of humility. Although the organizers did not seek to form any kind of consensus, here are some ideas which seemed to gain traction:

what world?

not a world in which a few corporations control all the seeds, promising tastier, higher yielding crops with fewer chemicals and water, while delivering the same or worse and ruining or making dependent small and medium farms.

not a world in which patents and ethical licensing guide the direction, use and cost of research and applications enabled by genome editing
not a world in which a few people enhance the genome of their children (we can’t use offspring here).

not a world with inconsistent inflexible national regulations nor a world without regulations, nor a world where consensus is desired and sought.

yes a world where anyone can join the discussion about how genome editing technologies should be used.

yes a world where cancer is finally understood

yes a world where we better understand the complex interactions of invasive species and disease vectors in the ecosystem and have more options to effect changes in these populations.
—–

Scientists explained the limitations of CRISPR (works best with a single gene, has better success with eliminating sequences than adding), and how it wouldn’t affect the gene pool of humans, per se. We also discussed how the medical treatment via CRISPR of an individual might affect others, such as children they might have (germline changes), the acceptance and accommodation of disability and chronic disease in general, the relationship of a parent to a child, the disparity between people/places with access to advanced medical treatment and without(social justice), the ability to prevent or regulate applications in other jurisdictions (medical tourism, law lag).

We didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t want to come to any conclusions on these points- but they are interesting questions.

The conversation continued this week at the 20th anniversary conference celebrating the OVIEDO convention, where many other interesting aspects of emerging medicine and human dignity were debated, including privacy, childrens’ rights, aging, and neural enhancement against a backdrop of procedure and pluralism (the formal term for agreeing to disagree) all coming back to human rights. In contrast to the meeting in Vienna, there were significantly more lawyers. There was a challenge to the germline ban coming from the UK, where mitochondrial transfer, aka nuclear transfer to avoid mitochondria problems, aka 3 parent babies is underway, but would not be allowed were the UK to be a signatory of the OVIEDO convention.

 

 

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New Semester – New Thesis

Austrian universities are back in session today, and I’m relieved at the start of a new school year. I’m entering my second year as a master’s student at the University of Vienna in the Department of Science, Technology and Society.  I took advantage of a new program to start my thesis early and submitted a proposal back in June for a case study of a very interesting project that developed both a new mouse containing human gene receptors and a mutated version of the MERS virus in order to study MERS (a deadly virus closely related to SARS).  Both the virus and the techniques they were using were so new that there wasn’t any regulation or guidance – so I thought I would look at how the existing governance structures handled these anomalies.  From the beginning I struggled with being a graduate student instead of a grants administrator. Despite the security clearance and position of public trust, I really hadn’t realized how much of the information I had as a grants manager is completely unavailable to the general public.  I struggled with how to introduce myself and also how to convince others just how interesting this case is. The same afternoon I received illuminating feedback from my advisor, I also received notice that none of the records I was seeking were considered public, thanks to a new law in 2014.  There can be no public discussion when the details remain in the dark.  https://unc.nextrequest.com/requests/17-431.  Despite the beautiful fall weather, a dark cloud settled on the way home from the Almabtrieb and stuck around for the week, aided by two very sick little kids.  I barely escaped the house this morning thanks to TV, nureflex and two fantastic and brave classmates.

View from the NIG rooftop

 

After relating my reservations and asking a few very good questions I was overjoyed when my advisor casually laid out the basics of a new thesis plan.  I’ll be comparing the international responses on the ethics of genome editing, most likely from the US, UK, and Germany.  This work will tie in with the International Symposium on Editing Genomes with CRISPR hosted by the University of Vienna happening this month and I’m very excited to get started.

 

Links:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24623/human-genome-editing-science-ethics-and-governance

https://nuffieldbioethics.org/project/genome-editing/ethical-review-published-september-2016

http://www.leopoldina.org/de/publikationen/detailansicht/publication/ethische-und-rechtliche-beurteilung-des-genome-editing-in-der-forschung-an-humanen-zellen-2017/

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Beautiful Bovines

In the fall cows come down from the high mountain pastures before the big snows come. In Tirol Almabtrieb is a big occasion: the cows are decorated and paraded through town. Long before the cows come into sight the sound we heard clanging cowbells. They came in groups of 5-6 about five minutes apart, and then at the end there were a lot of cows and herders almost running. 
Tirol is actually very far away from Vienna. We choose Kufstein because you could leave Vienna in the morning and reach the festival before the cows got there on a fast train. Actually I’m keenly aware of this right now as I take slow trains back to Kufstein from Salzburg to fetch our suitcase. Even though we realized within 3 minutes of boarding, it will take me 2.5 hours to get back to where we started. Then I get to travel home again! We stayed overnight although most of the visitors seemed to disappear by 5. That meant we had this morning to explore the fortress. Unlike Salzburg, Kufstein was besieged and changed hands several times. I think it’s the first time a castle has been so proud of the aggressors- the rolling cannons that pummeled the original owners into surrender are celebrated: Purlepaus and Weckauf. We even ate in a restaurant named for the cannon. 


Actually we tried some pretty weird new foods – a fried dough pocket filled with a kind of rotting cheese, a different shaped fried dough filled with creamed spinach and a fried dough bowl heaped with sauerkraut “Kiachl.” They were also wrapping frankfurter hot dogs in dough and frying them, but once you’ve had a corn dog, I don’t think you’d go back to that. 


The town of Kufstein is charming if a little touristy, one thing I found fascinating was how much of the tourism was automated. The museum of sewing machines was a single room with a button to push that started a bizarre dialogue while spotlighting different sewing machines. The lift to the fortress was controlled by a ticket reader and button and otherwise unmanned.

In any case I’m on a mission to recover a suitcase full of lederhosen, dirndls and schnapps. We couldn’t possibly leave that behind even though we had to leave those beautiful cows. 

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Wild Weekends

Back in Vienna and everything is familiar. The rhythm of kindergarten mornings, one child or the other crying about breakfast, getting dressed, passing the good luck piggies museum formal greetings in German and a handshake with a teacher. Agreeing to a slow ease into the new schedule,I pick them up early, we are all watching the clock. Which all means real weekends again. 


We kicked off the weekend with the Buskers festival -street performers from around the world. I enjoyed watching breakdancing and all one man circus. 
The next day we drove to the Castle Grimmenstein, a powerful family in crusading times, exiled when the Hapsburg came to power. The man running/restoring the castle had his last name changed to Grimmenstein, becoming the first in centuries. He’s fixing the lower castle up for his own wedding next August, so House Grimmenstein may rise again. Coming down from the castle we took one of those shortcuts that turns out to be longer and more arduous than you ever could have imagined. Luckily there were ripe blackberries in season. In the afternoon we went to a birthday party at a small ski resort used for mountain biking in the summer. The kids don’t really know how to ride bikes and fell down a lot, but everyone had a good time anyway. 

​The next day we travelled to Eggenburg for the renaissance festival and enjoyed the jousting tournament, roasted meat and medieval marching band. 

After the wild weekend we had another normal week followed by weekend festivals, first the Josefstädterstrasse Street Festival in our neighborhood and then a trip back to Znoijmo for the Vinobrani, a wine festival and medieval parade. 


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Oslo

Many of the friends we’ve made in Vienna are travelers like us, they are here temporarily and many have already left. The silver lining is that we get to visit! We arrived spontaneously in Oslo, Norway before our friends had even unpacked their boxes. We had an extra element of surprise because our flight landed early and we caught a bus two hours before we were supposed to. We even had time to meet the bus driver’s girlfriend in the Philippines over skype. The bus was fast and had built in car seats. After a snack of sardine paste on 25-grain bread we went to the Norwegian kindergarten to pick up the kids. Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it. Little blonds riding tricycles down a muddy hill in the rain, running up and asking incomprehensible questions. Tired children lounge in a glass room, both inside and outside at the same time. Inside children chop vegetables in an open kitchen. Clouds hang from the high ceilings and little treasures fill windows in the floor. There is a book about boogers on display. There are fifty pairs of galoshes and a special room where babies are crawling over soft obstacles. There are helpful teachers at every turn and it is not chaotic but by design. The kids were happy to see each other. At first it’s a normal play date, they don’t really realize we’re staying the whole weekend and seem to forget we live in another land. 


We had a great time exploring Oslo together. I rode the tiger of Olso. We climbed around on top of the opera, ate fish stew, fish cakes, fish and chips, and troll cookies. We went to a park filled with statues of naked people. Lots of people expressed disappointment that we did these things instead of exploring the fjords and nature of Norway, but we didn’t have a boat and we had a great time anyway. We ate at a posh fish restaurant in an upscale condo building on the water. 


On Saturday we went to a children’s festival in the fortress, where we learned about building log cabins, kayaking, and waiting in lines. Norwegians eat their Frankfurter hotdogs in thin pancake wraps instead of buns. This is strange. 


Sunday was Museums day, we started at the nobel peace center, took a ferry to the FRAM polar exploration museum, peeked at the Kon Tiki and visited Viking Ships. We finished the day at the folk museum, which is a large park filled with historic farmhouses, churches and other buildings. The word work on the Stave church is beautiful, the warm delicious fire roasted lefsa a delightful treat and the sound of the alpine horn, well, interesting. 
If we go back we’ll head straight to nature – in the dark with skis strapped to our feet and backpacks stuffed with canned fish and chocolate for a true Norwegian experience. Actually I really loved Oslo and I think our friends are very lucky to have such a cool place to call home. 

 

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