Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…

2 Jun

Watermelon watermelon watermelon: it’s the phrase I repeat to myself over and over again when I’m fighting back tears of frustration, pain or feelings of inadquacy. Yes, lovelies. Whoever said big girls don’t cry was bonkers.

Let me illustrate how I got to such a watery disposition by comparing my experience to a scene I witnessed yesterday by the Queen Victoria Building (don’t be fooled, it’s a shopping mall!). Picture this: you have one of the top two buisiest streets in Sydney, with cars screeching and whining as the dark evening has come upon us. There is a church on the right hand side of the street and a stream of touristy restaurants and bars on the left side. And there I am, standing robotically, staring at all of the commotion running around me. Just standing. I’m lost and people are walking past me like I don’t exist – like I’m massless (ha I’ve never been that skinny) – and at the same time, like I’m in their way (and I likely am). This. Is stage 2 of culture shock, ladies in gentleman, and I owe my beginning week woes all to (drumroll please) Sydney’s bloody awful size and transportation services. I was literally in tears (tears exacerbated more tears just in virtue that I was thinking of how embarrassing I must look having lost my cool and all navigating the streets and how I was so reinforcing American stereotypes by being super retarded and getting lost), and I could do nothing to help myself, nor could I control myself enough to ask for it. Twas a mixture of pathetic and hilarious haha!

But don’t be too quick to fold on any bets for a lovely experience abroad: human beings are (on average) equipped with stellar versatility. Going back to the scene on one of Sydney’s busiest streets, where I am standing, embarrassingly anxious and in the midst of a plummet of morale, I see it. The mechanism by which I am saved. This Savior which pulls me out of my deepest feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Haha I sound so dramatic, but really. There it is! It is the church, illuminated with soft purple fluorescent lighting and the sweetest of choirs, filled with beautiful harmonies and lovely smiles. Singing. Singing the most gorgeous song, while the wretchedness of the city drags on in front of them. A crowd is gathered, to witness this small show of inspirational strength. Hope in the midst of pain and sorrow. A silver lining. something that says, “No worries, malady, you’ll get home in one piece eventually.“ And then I move on, with new butterflies in my stomach and a raging desire to do it all again. Ahh, I love it! The whole cycle! And wow am I a soapbox when I’m low, but it makes it all the more fun and adventurous to reflect upon later on. Haha

Anyway, let’s start from the beginning of my week, shall we? Monday we had our internship orientation and we had another chat about excursion opportunities CAPA offers. I really want to go on this weekend excursion trip to Cairnes, but it will cost me $1100 plus another 300 if I want to skydive. The main reason I feel so compelled to shell out such an inexorable amount of money is because I can literally see my Bucket list shrinking exponentially if I were to complete such an amazing excursion. My bucket list specifically calls for scuba diving amidst the middle of the Great Barrier Reef and to go skydiving. Add a rainforest safari and man! I’m so wanting to do this! I slept on it and consulted the parentals, and I’ve decided I’m only in Australia once, and I can so pay it all off with my first paycheck when I get my first real job. What I can’t do? Is fight against the coral reefs’ growing degradation that in 10 years will totally rip to shreds its glorious beauty. That and a little birdy told me to do it. 😛

Anyway, after I was on top of the world with visions of a stellar trip to Cairnes in my head, we headed to the Opera House to check out ticket prices. I’m SO pumped because I got a ticket to see a comedy play of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for only $28 bucks! *bursting with excitement*

In the evening, we headed over to explore Sydney’s China town, and ate at a Thai restaurant. I wasn’t hungry, so I just sampled part of a friend’s dish. It was super healthy and super delicious and engulfed in a broth of tea! Intrigue!

So, yes. I’m totally not a big city gal, so I don’t know how much of my observations are due to big city-ness and which are due to Aussie-ness, but I’ve gotta say once again that Sydney has some serious style! Everything is nice here! Everything!! Haha I haven’t even seen a dirty bathroom yet! My lab (seriously, top-top-top notch!), my apartment, every stinking restaurant you could possibly find, the grocery store, the sidewalks, the parks, the buses (!!!), everything!

However, I must warn you: if you are looking for dirt, you CAN find it, wherever you are in the world. I was walking with some friends around China town the other night, and apparently there was marijuana smoke (I still can’t figure out what it smells like! Any impurity to me smells the same, and I get the same aversive reaction haha!). And I saw two of the city’s first references to sexual “dirt” along the way. That and you’re totally hounded (reminiscent of the “I’ve decided you’re buying this from me” a sales strategy and desperation you may see in impoverished countries).  Overall, China town isn‘t as clean as the rest of Sydney to begin with (though it‘s really not bad at all, especially in comparison to some US cities), so if you‘re with children, you can totally skip China town and not cry too many tears over it. There are plenty of Thai restaurants in other parts of Sydney as well. My naive impressions of my new environment are slowly being unveiled, however, the cool thing is, is that I’m still madly in love with my experiences here.

Haha, okay so Tuesday I had my interview.. Yeah, here’s where my little stage 2 culture shock first hit me. I got lost and was 10 minutes late. I came in crying, a complete mess. How. Embarrassing! haha Thankfully, I have a really cool mentor and he just sent me to the bathroom to clean up and printed off a bunch of maps for next time haha! I still managed to spend the entire day walking around, however, because the campus map was totally inaccurate.

Anyway, so the facilities are super amazing. Maybe it’s a big city thing, or maybe it’s an Aussie thing, but there’s a reason why the Brain and Mind Research Institute is ranked #1 in Australia. Everything was so clean and organized and very nice.

Other than getting lost and using all of my cash on a key card to get into the BMRI building (so I couldn’t eat lunch and was starving when I got home at 7 for dinner), I went to class. To sum it up, it’s a joke and very painful. I already resent having to take it. haha But the good news is it won’t be much work. Ironically, this seems to be the case in every aspect of my experience here in Sydney. It’s not the individual things that are too much to handle: it’s the combination of them all at once. Honestly, I would so love to not have to check my email and stay connected at home while I’m here so I could just be FREE and be immersed into Aussie life. I know that sounds selfish, but it would totally annihilate my acquired neuroticism over here.

Wednesday was my first real day in the lab. I left my apartment around 8:30am and got there around 9:50am. *Sigh* I’ll get the transportation thing down eventually (ahem, I hope :P). I worked from 10-5pm slicing brains and mounting them onto slides. It was SO much fun! Haha I’ve done it before, but man! I’d totally forgotten how much I like doing it. If this is to be my “grunt work” as a researcher, I can totally handle that!

I remember when I worked in the lab at IU that I had the same reaction when I started in a lab at first. I called it “initial lab euphoria” which faded after the 10th repetition of the same task. Hopefully, this won’t be the case again, but if it is, I still think this grunt work is pretty fantastic. It is a fact that my personality loathes repetition, but it is also a fact that with every job comes grunt work. I think the positives that accompany research will far outweigh the grunt work of research. I just need to find my field! Is it weird that I have this strange urge to brush up on my studying of neuroanatomy? Haha I so wish I had brought my textbooks with me! I may have to hit the library after work one night haha. I’m such a dork!

Anyway, let me tell you what this lab is interested in! From what I know so far (which, believe me, is only 10% of what I’ll know tomorrow, my questions grow exponentially by day haha), we’re interested in determining the specific neurological relationship between volitional behavior (a purposed, voluntary action), and how – and more specifically, when – it is distinguished from an automatic (involuntary) behavior. The part of the brain involved in planning an action lies in the prefrontal cortex (the striatum), and therefore, this is the part of the brain we are lesioning in Long Evans rats. A neurotoxin (which kills neurons in the area) was injected in the ventral and dorsal parts of the striatum and a third group controlled for effects that a simple surgery lesion would cause (the scam group), with a simple surgical cut in the area.

I feel very welcome in the lab. I’m so surprised to find that all but 2 are girls (grad students and post-docs, 1 is male and then Bernard Belleine is the second male!). Go women, right?? I know, I know. We rock J . But anyway, they are all so welcoming and friendly! I’m currently learning names haha. They gave me a lab notebook, a pen, and I even have a desk with a computer (and a personalized account and password! haha). It’s pretty much fantastic J .

Wednesday night I had my first breakthrough with the bus systems. It was a small victory, but I was able to recognize my stop ahead of time, so I wouldn’t have to walk an extra three blocks home.

That night, I went to the grocery store again! Twenty-five bucks for a ton of food! I’m very happy. By the way, have I mentioned Coles yet? It’s the Kroger and Marsh of Australia, only Coles is a monopoly here (at least here in Sydney). I actually am having a bit of fun poking around the store trying to find the best deals and “hidden gems” of Australian cuisine. You NEED to try some Tim Tams (rectangular chocolate wafers) and Lemingtons (these square chocolate, coconut angel cake bars). I found it hilarious, actually, that frozen veggies are cheaper here than canned veggies! Isn’t that awesome?!?!? I totally stocked UP on my greens haha! And their lettuce lasts forever! I’m so impressed! Heads up, though. If you’re a Ranch dressing lover, be careful: it’s really sugary over here, and it’s not what you expect. Furthermore, people will look at you funny if you even mention it because it’s totally not popular over here. I suggest Blue Cheese! What else, what else? Ah, yes. They don’t refrigerate their eggs here! Oh, and Coles marks their fresh goods down after 11pm because they can’t sell their “fresh goods” the next day. Oh and try some Turkish rolls! They’re ginormous and very soft and delicious! Haha, and yes, I’ve been eating way too many carbs (they’re the only affordable food group here it seems haha). 😛

Some other things I’ve noticed are that Sydney’s police scene is either very discreet or very small. This is a stellar reflection on the fact that there really isn’t that much crime in Sydney! It’s really a nice city. Smokers come ALIVE at night (especially in China town), so hold your breath, and no one puts their dogs on leashes! Buses are beasts! It’s not like America when a semi is the most likely vehicle to be pulled over for speeding. Here, buses have priority over sedans, in a way that is reminiscent of penal privileges! It’s crazy and a bit intimidating. Besides the fact that I’d wreck a million times driving on the wrong side of the road (if you didn’t already know, they drive on the left side over here), these buses would make sure my heart rate was given the extra beat to put me over the top into cardiac arrest. Skinny jeans and boots are huge here, and makeup isn’t overexaggerated (a very natural look, which I think is lovely!). I was also surprised to see some of my labmates in smart casual wear underneath their labcoats, just as my advisor warned me! I thought for sure, since the chemicals could potentially ruin clothing that casual would be acceptable, but it so isn’t the case! I’m so surprised! However, since I also see hoodies, jeans and sneakers, I’ve decided to wear whatever I like from now on! Comfort and a low-worry vibe is a priority, which I love very much about Australian culture!

Thursday was totally relaxing. It was a very chill day, from its pace to its temperature. The sun was finally out for most of the day (it’s been raining all week, ironically, and technically, AU has been going through a drought for about 100 years now), which was lovely. But ohmanohmanohman are you ready for this EXCITING news?? I (yes I) have finally figured out how to navigate to and from all of my most important destinations in the city. I’m so impressed with myself (haha). Tis quite a happy day!

My victory celebration was a bit stifled when I got lunch, however, because I thought I had finally found “the diamond in the rough” of Sydney’s take out scene (3 dollar chicken sandwich), but tragically found that it was all a scam to get my hopes up. Apparently (and be warned, fellow naïve beings) it is extra to get lettuce, tomato and cheese on my sandwich (2 dollars extra, to be precise). My advice, fellow grasshoppers, while you’re in the States is not to take for granted all of what the dollar menu has to offer, because everywhere else in the world will put a hole in your pocket and keep chirping for more (haha, I sound so cynical right now! Haha I promise I’m not really that bitter about a silly sandwich ;-D). Anyway, after going to class in the morning (which was to be nice, a complete waste of time) and getting over myself about lunch, I headed over to the lab to do more brain slicing (muhaha ;-D). It’s amazing how quickly time flies in the lab! Before I knew it, it was time to go home!

I didn’t do much else the rest of the night, except learn that it’s very easy to burn a thin piece of meat (the hamburgers I bought were super skinny and I lacked the foresight to notice). Yeah, I had to air out the apartment for a bit. My lovely roommates didn’t even notice (haha)!

Friday was a sad day. I just figured out that I’m being charged to read the emails I forward to my phone via text message! That’s 50 cents a pop! Ugh, I feel like such a failure. Just when I thought I was being sneaky and clever and saving a bunch of money, I find myself broken hearted and out a bunch of cash yet again! I’ve already had my pity party for myself, so I thought I’d use my revisitation to this point in my day in a positive way by shaking you to death and instilling the necessity of not repeating such stupidity overseas (haha). So BE WARNED, prospective international travellers: you are not clever enough to save money when it comes to a phone. Get a disposal one, or if you’re not keen on phones like me, get a pay-as-you-go sim card. I’ll be getting one tomorrow.

The lovely silver lining of my day consisted of every waking moment after that painful realization (haha). I had a lovely day in lab staining and cover slipping the sections I had mounted for the previous two days, and I splurged on a lovely lunch (very happily) on what they call a “falafel” here. I have no clue if you can get these in the States, but holy crap! They are so good (and so good FOR you, I’m guessing). It was this wrap with lettuce, tomato, and this pea stuffing stuff with onion or something and this DELCIOUS bread-like wrap substance. Haha, I’m beyond my familiarity here. But seriously, I sooo highly recommend it! Get one (ahem, or else)! 😛

So I learned a ton more about the theory behind what we’re doing here in the lab. Prior to perfusing the rats and examining their brain tissue to see if the lesion existed in the right area of the brain (the connection between the thalamus and the dorsolateral striatum, dorsomedial striatum, ventrolateral striatum, ventromedial etc), we run behavioral tests on the rats.

In this lab, using a within-subjects design (counterbalancing the administration of which type of caloric substance they are given during training and experiments), we are interested in manipulating an instructional behavioural experimental design, which differs from a Pavlovian experimental design in the sense that the rat, rather than an external device (such as a bell) is initiating the explicit behavior being measured. For example, we are interested in observing when volitional, sort of, motivated behavior (e.g. behavior towards satiating hunger pangs/feeding) transfers to habitual behavior (eating when not hungry???).

What we do is put the rats into Skinner boxes and train them initially to associate pressing a lever will dispense a pellet of food, or a stream of aqueous sucrose solution. When the rats have associated pressing the lever with the reward of food (which takes quite a bit of time sometimes), we begin our testing stages. In our testing stages, there are two levers in the box. We are looking to see if the rats can distinguish between the lever that distributes sucrose and the lever that distributes pellets. Prior to testing, the rats are given considerable amounts of pellets. Our reasoning is that the rats would want sucrose solution from then on, and not more pellets. By observing how quickly the rats gravitate towards the sucrose lever instead of the pellet lever, we can begin to measure the effects of the lesions on the rats’ performance concerning higher level planning and motivational reasoning, etc. Haha, I hope that made 2.3456% sense. I’m sure I have some of that wrong, but I’ll be sure to correct myself as I go! Oh and Friday night, I went swimming in the apartment complex pools (did laps). Man am I out of shape!

Saturday I hung out with my Australian friend a bit more and checked out Darling Harbor. We talked philosophy basically all day and just wandered aimlessly across the city. It rained all day, but we got to this this mad (oh man was he crazy!) street performer (the eating fire type with a fake Japanese accent, asking for money throughout his entire act *awkward turtle*) and bunch of guys wreck on their skateboards (oh wow did they think they were a bunch of coolcats)! I had the BEST (youhavenoidea) hot chocolate in the WORLD and this Japanese “Bento” dish, which was like the perfect combination of sweet, protein and salty. I also had these DELICIOUS prawns which I smothered in this unidentifiable (yet a creamfest) salad dressing. Yeah, I was stuffed. I also tried this Australian desert bar, called a “Crunchie”. Holy CRAP. If you come to AU and do NOT try Honeycomb, GO HOME. Seriously what have I been missing out on all of these years??? It like MELTED in my mouth. It was this wafer filled honeycomb bar dipped in chocolate. De. Li. Cious. Haha I say all of this raving, but I promise you I’ve been very healthy (ahem at least for me) while I’ve been here (must be due to fiscal limitations haha). We checked out Paddy’s Market while in Darling Harbor, and it was a bit disappointing. In the predeparture meeting, it was raved about, but it’s really nothing more than a warehouse full of knockoff crap. Haha Aw, I may be being too cynical about it, but it really wasn’t my thing. It reminded me a lot of Italian markets where they come up to you and try to tell you that you’ve decided to buy from them. They promise!

Have I mentioned the pharmacist here is called the “chemist”? Well it is. Haha. Sunday, I wandered aimlessly around the city as well. I got my Vodaphone sim card (Vodaphone is cheapest, people. Don’t buy from Telestra or Opus unless you’re a princess and need top notch coverage). Haha, the rest of the day, I ended up exploring Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It was. Well. I highly recommend it! Haha WOW was it entertaining! It’s so fantastic how diverse and electic artists are. It was like reading Chinese in terms of what I got out of it, but it was like finding the cure for cancer when it comes to entertainment value. Plus it’s free! So GO if you ever get to Sydney! DO IT!

Haha, so that was my lovely week! Til next time!

Lilli :^]

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