STAR Week #1: Vulnerability, Friends, and Harry Potter

May 25th, 2015

In the previous week, I have learned many new lab techniques. I have learned how to cast a polyacrylamide gel, how to calibrate a real-time PCR machine, and how to split a population of cells into several new populations. All of these techniques are integral to vascular research – truly, they are the foundation. As I shadowed my mentors and learned these skills, however, I realized that there is a much deeper principle holding each of the laboratory processes together. It was only today that I realized what it is.

The conclusion I came to is this: you cannot expect to succeed in research unless you are willing to be vulnerable. This is an unstated truth that I am beginning to understand as I dive deeper into the world of biomedical research. There are many points in the experimental process where you can make an error. Therefore, there is an expectation that you will make an error (apprehension), and an outcome should you make the error (guilt). Both emotions make us feel vulnerable.

The importance of vulnerability is that it motivates us to connect and to share our feelings with others. Communicating errors or apprehensions about laboratory techniques is absolutely crucial. This leads us to an important consideration: questions must not only be asked when one is curious, but also when one is vulnerable. The challenge therein becomes one of inertia – asking the question requires pushing past boundaries of self-doubt and understanding that you cannot learn unless you are instructed.

My mentor told me even before the program started that I should always ask questions. Truly, the scientific method (of which we all intrinsically subscribe to) is based on the principle of inquiry. Ask, and you cannot be wrong. Asking when vulnerable and communicating my thoughts clearly are two skills that I did not set out to learn, but that I am learning as part of the research process.

While research is the main focus of the STAR program, the secondary focus is to build a community among like-minded and highly motivated students of science. I can say, without doubt, that I have made some of the most wonderful friends within the past week. All of us come from vastly different regions and backgrounds, and represent a wide spectrum of talents and personalities. My roommate, Kevin Assoumou, has been an absolute joy.


Kevin, Rema, and Bekah goofing off on the way to the lake.

The STAR group (myself included) have bonded incredibly well. We have gone out for dinners (and prepared them in the dorm), traveled to parks and lakes, and have spent hours watching films within the comfort of our residence hall. The selections have been a hodgepodge, from Saw to Harry Potter, the latter of which has been an important connection for all of us. We have played volleyball, gotten sunburned (my poor feet), and gotten into trouble interesting situations! The feeling of community that I have with my fellow STARs is enormous.

The first week has been promising, and I am happy to call Augusta home (if only for the next eight weeks). Next week, I will post a lengthier entry with more detail re: lab experience. I will be beginning my experiments this week and will have more to report then.

Now, time for bed. Goodnight!


We are the Church – Nadia Bolz-Weber

Nadia Bolz-Weber, a powerfully-spoken Lutheran minister, writer, and speaker in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series, participated in a student-led interview on-campus on the 5th of March. Bolz-Weber’s journey to Hickory had been a tumultuous one, but she arrived in time for a thoughtful and provocative discussion. The conversation took many directions, touching on grace, sexuality, and repentance. I will summarize two of these discussions below.

For example, a student asked about her disposition to curse and highlighted the widely held social notion that ministers should not swear. Bolz-Weber replied in her characteristic thoughtful way, describing her swearing as part of who she is. To quote, she said, “[clergy] should not try to be people they are not,” continuing with, “I will not curate a version of myself. I will not be nice – I will be kind, but I will not be nice.”

This demonstrates the level of self-awareness and self-compassion that Bolz-Weber has achieved through her ministry. Her ability to recognize specific aspects of herself that may not fit in with social norms provides her with unambiguous evidence to her frailty as a human being, which we must all strive to identify. These weaknesses are not inherently bad, as she implies above, but part of our intrinsic “selves”, and we must recognize them in order to foster our compassion.

Earlier in the discussion, Bolz-Weber responded to the quote “Love the sinner, hate the sin” in reference to gay men and women. Her response: total bullshit. She described her experience with a website called “The Nines” which is a collection of videos in which pastors speak about their views on a variety of issues. Bolz-Weber was frustrated with the “heroic inclusiveness” of certain speakers that peripherally accepted gays. She made a video giving her gay church members an opportunity to speak about their personal connection to the church. Bolz-Weber’s summary of the experience was this:

Sex does not equal humanity. We are whole people, but we seem to want to submit to a purity code. There is only us – we are the church.

Though the talk did not concentrate on her writing, Bolz-Weber did describe the experience of using an extended reference in her recent work. She used a story from John 3:20, in which Mary Magdalene mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Using an extended reference such as this has inspired me to seek opportunities to use metaphorical narratives to provide a foundation for my writing. I have always been fascinated by how mythology has served as the skeleton for many famous works, and serves to inform the reader of an underlying meaning and how it connects to the actual topic.

Bolz-Weber spent a meaningful afternoon at Lenoir-Rhyne. From what I have heard from friends, her evening talk was even more stimulating. I look forward to reading her works more extensively in the future.

Hedgehog: A Call to Engage

The Irish poet Paul Muldoon was scheduled to speak as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writer Series, but due to the winter weather was not able to attend. In the meantime, I have read an illustrative poem of his titled Hedgehog, from Muldoon’s collection Poems 1968-1998. The metaphor of the “secretive” hedgehog is slowly revealing itself to me, but resonates with me.

The poem compares (and contrasts) two seemingly unrelated creatures, the snail and the hedgehog. The only common characteristic linking them is their ability to retreat within themselves (due to predatory stimulation). The differences, therein, stem from the reaction of the two creatures when the threat has passed – the snail, fearlessly, comes out of his shell, but the hedgehog does not. Muldoon describes this by writing that the “hedgehog gives nothing//Away, keeping itself to itself” (lines 13-14), despite the coaxing of the snail.

This provoked images of the “Savage” John in the novel Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), who retreats to a lighthouse on the outskirts of the utopian civilization, fearing the approach of the civilized world. There is a sense of sitting behind a twice locked door in Muldoon’s stanzas – as if the hedgehog cannot hear the snail, or is so petrified that he cannot respond. We do not know why the hedgehog cannot respond, but can only assume that there is an impediment to his engagement with the snail.

Muldoon likens the hedgehog to Christ in the final stanza: “We forget the god//under his crown of thorns” (lines 17-18). This choice of imagery may explain the hedgehog’s “impediment”. There is a perception that he has born a heavy burden, and cannot give any more. Perhaps the hedgehog feels under-appreciated or unloved. Perhaps he feels guilt (snails are a staple of the hedgehog’s diet). Paul Muldoon’s language creates ambiguity toward the hedgehog’s motive. This is a metaphor for human interaction (I would presuppose), and serves to define how disengagement is essentially keeping secrets from those around us, even though they would enjoy for us to confide in them.

In conclusion, I am not entirely sure what Muldoon is trying to accomplish by implying that the snail may be a proverbial “John”. I believe it is a message to the readers to engage with those around us, even if they are part of a group that we do not identify with. We must recognize that in essence we are all the same. We can all retreat into ourselves, but we must be willing to come out. I would like to revisit this poem in the future.

As a final note, Hedgehog has stimulated me to incorporate extended metaphors into my own poetry. These metaphors keep the reader thinking about the connections between the poem and reality, and may serve to clarify a real-life mechanism that they have not considered before. This may be the description of a fable, but I believe that this poem serves a similar purpose.

Enter: Ann Putman, Confessions to Realism


Katherine Howe, author of Conversions, and visiting writer-in-residence during the 2014-2015 LRU Visiting Writers Series season. Image source:

This setting exposition begins the novel “Conversions”, written by Katherine Howe, the visiting writer-in-residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University. It is immediately obvious that we are being transported to a world of mystery and uncertainty – Salem. This excerpt begins in a perpetual fog as we see Ann Putman, Jr. (named only as “Ann”) visiting Reverend Green to make a confession. Howe writes in the genre of creative non-fiction in which true stories (in this case, a real exchange between a suspected “witch” and a pastor in Salem) are reinvented in an imaginative and figurative format that appeals to the reader much like a fictional story.

Howe, who is herself related to “witches” of Salem, employs all of the tools of fiction in her portrayal of Ann during a very confusing time in our history. Figurative language is used extensively throughout the excerpt in question. Paragraphs 12, 13, and 14 in particular read like an engaging short story as we are told about the qualities of the setting in great detail, even down to the cat curling up in the sun:

The patch of sunlight on the floor is so bright, I have to squint. A long stretch of shadow, and a cat wraps around the doorjamb and flattens himself out in the sunshine with a yawn. He rolls on his back, batting at ghosts.

– Katherine Howe, Conversions, 2014.

The level of detail is rich, and in addition, Howe develops the historical figures of Ann Putnam, Goody Green, Reverend Green, the infant, (and in some capacities, the cat), in a similar way that characters are developed in fiction. She accomplishes this by writing in a first-person voice, which allows us to understand the emotional affect and predicament of Ann, our narrator. We are endeared to her situation, and we therefore understand her reluctance to confess to Reverend Green, who is portrayed as dominant, sitting atop a high chair, looking down on her with ink-stained teeth.

The emotion is especially heightened by this passage:

‘Come now, Ann,’ the Reverend coaxes me from within his study…I’d like to sit, my feet are so tired…’There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ But there is. There is everything to be afraid of.

– Katherine Howe, Conversions, 2014.

There is great skill evident in Howe’s craft. Her ability to transform what would otherwise be a passage from history textbook or an academic essay on the tribulations of Ann Putnam into an engaging, flowing piece of narrative literature is inspiring. We are drawn into a world that did indeed exist three-hundred and nine years ago, but we are drawn not as spectators, but as the character Ann Putnam herself. This is the sign of literary mastery.

Jesmyn Ward: Speak of Humans, Raw and Unbridled

The most indefatigable, persistent quality of every writer is his or her craft. It is the soul that nourishes a piece of narrative literature; and instantly identifiable beacon that directs us into the mind of the writer. Jesmyn Ward, (an invaluable piece of the present Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Visiting Writer series), has developed a craft that is engaging and that speaks on a deeply human frequency.

It is immediately obvious that Ward is an incredible storyteller. In an excerpt from her work Salvage the Bones, Ward describes the story of a rural family observing their dog, China, give birth. Ward uses language that engages the senses; mostly tactile and visual imagery. This can often be very raw language, as when the narrator describes the gory affair of the birth of her brother Junior, and the maternal labor of China. This serves to emphasize her brilliant craft. Birth and death are phenomena that we all experience. We can relate and empathize with her narrative.

Portrait of Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones (2011).

This creates engagement with the story. Ward slowly reveals more about the family members (of which I especially enjoy her description of Randall, who reminds me of myself). She develops the characters within a short time, and we feel a deep connection to their stories, and wish to know more about their trials.

We learn of one trial in which all of the characters introduced thus far play a role in: China’s birthing. It is here that we see an intersection between past and present, which rich diction and the deeply human and intrinsically familiar narrative style characteristic of Ward’s craft. We see the perspective of all ages and their respective temperaments (with the father occupying the traditional role, banging a hammer in a practical and necessary way).

Ward’s craft is wholesome and detailed with the reader in mind. We see into a world and are invited to share in the experiences it relates. This idea has spoken to me as a writer. I find that true engagement with a text stems from a familiarity not necessarily with the ideas presented but with the language used. Ward has inspired me to remember my audience, and to respect their experiences as well as mine.

Dreams, Death, and Determination


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“Mom, wake up. You are about to have a heart attack. A bad one. Your aorta is going to rupture. Get up so that I can tell you how much I love you before you… You have to use the bathroom? Okay, but please hurry. You are supposed to be in your bed when it happens. Hurry, hurry. Back into your room. Do you feel pain? Yes? Lay down. Lay down and rest. It is almost over.”

This dream shook me awake in the middle of the night. After gaining my ground in reality, I fell into a shallow and uncomfortable sleep until I awoke at 9:30 this morning. Since her death over three weeks ago, my mother has been the subject of many of my dreams. They are always clear and lucid, and her voice and personality are captured perfectly. The only thing that’s missing is her presence in reality; in the waking world. I woke up to this sobering realization early this morning, and it is this realization that I will wake up to for many mornings to come.

My beautiful mother

A portrait of my mother, Norma, from 1982.

The day of my mother’s death did not transpire like the dream that I have related above. I was not in her room when it happened, and I did not have as much foresight about her heart attack. I believe that the dream captures what I would have desired to happen; to let her know what was going to take place and to comfort her until the very last second. I was in an adjacent room when my brother discovered her. I was not prepared, and I had not told her I loved her since the night before.

Alas…she is gone, and I cannot bring her back. Like any person who grieves, I have regrets about her death. Many of them were visualized in my dream. I simply regret that it happened at all. What I must understand is that I did everything I could have done given the circumstances. She was optimistic up until her passing, and she was simply giddy on Christmas Day. She left this world happy and painlessly. What more could I ask for?

Moreover, I cannot let my memories of her be wasted. I must continue along my journey as if she was here. That’s what she would have wanted. Certainly – she will not be here for my graduation, my medical school career, or my marriage in the flesh, but she will be here in spirit.

There is one series of details that I forgot to mention about my dream: the setting. It was in her bedroom. A cinnamon candle burned. Beautiful golden sunlight broke through the blinds, illuminating her calm face as she passed into the afterlife. And you know what? She was smiling. 

Norma Holloway Jordan died on the 27th of December, 2014. She was 57, and the most beautiful woman the world.