Saturday, March 7, 2009


Hey kids! Time to tell you about the totally cool thing I did yesterday. Laurel reminded me that I mentioned it and then left y'all hanging (admit it, you've been on the edge of your seat this whole time), so I thought I'd better get my act together.

About a month ago, I signed up to take a tour of the Tulane National Primate Research Center, which is a slightly mysterious research center across the lake in Covington. It's not really open to the public, so it seemed like a great opportunity to check out something I'd never seen before. And, you know, to see some monkeys. So even though the tiny little part of my brain that's always nagging me to be a better student was screaming that I have two exams on Monday and Tuesday, I ignored it and hopped on a little yellow school bus with fifteen of my classmates and our associate dean, Dr. Kahn.

An hour drive across the lake brought us to a modest sign outside of town, pointing us down a dirt road that ended in a giant fence with guards posted outside. The compound was beautiful--although it seemed so discreet from the outside, the compound comprises 500 acres (huge!), all surrounded by trees hung with Spanish moss. After an interesting talk by the director of the center, we split up into two groups for tours.

I wish I could post pictures of the place to help me explain how amazing it was, but of course there were no cameras (or cell phones) allowed. We first took a driving tour of the breeding colony. Driving into it was daunting--it reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park when they go through the big gates. It's surrounded by a huge perimeter fence with double locking gates, so that you drive into one and have to wait till it closes until you can drive through the second. The center houses a population of 5000 non-human primates, mostly Rhesus Macaques. 5000 monkeys! It still amazes me that here I am in New Orleans, and just across the lake are 5000 monkeys. Crazy! The breeding colony was really cool, although we couldn't get out of the van and walk around (the monkeys are all very healthy and they wouldn't want us to infect them with anything--even the caretakers wear masks and body suits). There's a huge husbandry/veterinary faculty whose job it is to make sure the resident primates are happy and healthy, and to make the living conditions as close to nature as possible. It was amazing to hear about the amount of effort that goes into preserving their natural breeding habits, hierarchies, socialization, etc. We also got to drive by their Krabbe population, which is the only population of monkeys in the US (there are eight National Primate Research Centers around the country) that breeds true for carriers of Krabbe disease. Very cool!

The really amazing part of the day was getting to see their new biosafety level (BSL) 3 building. Luckily they still have a few weeks of construction left, so we were able to get a full tour of the restricted sections before it's up and running. This is the area where they do all of the research with things like West Nile Virus, anthrax, SARS, and other fun stuff. It was jaw-dropping. To get to the most restricted sections of the building, researchers need to walk through about six security checkpoints and wear an amazing amount of protective equipment, including respirators and bulky suits. And if they need to leave (even to go pee!), they have to spray themselves with disinfectant three times AND take a shower! The amount of money and effort put into redundancy of safety procedures was humbling and a little scary. One of the most interesting aspects was the complicated pressurization of each room, depending on how "dirty" it is (or will be). It's set up so that when a door to a dirty room is opened, air from the cleaner room will rush in rather than dirty air rushing out. Incredible!

The whole day left me with a feeling of awe for medical research. Every medical procedure, from hip replacements to cancer treatments, has been developed at these primate centers. They are where the AIDS vaccine will someday be developed, and cures for dozens of other afflictions. It's sometimes shocking to me to think that there are millions of people who are violently opposed to the use of primates for biomedical research, because without it, we would be lost. The faculty that we met talked to us a little about the level of security that the facility needs, although it's considerably less than some primate research centers around the country (such as the one in Wisconsin). Protesters stand outside some compounds every day of the year, and even go so far as to harass researchers' children at school. It's disgraceful that researchers have to endure this behavior from anyone, let alone the people that benefit from the medical advances that they and their colleagues are responsible for.

Anyway, I suppose I've babbled on enough, although I'm sure I could keep going. Breath-taking day, from the tour to the beautiful weather to the free pizza. Any thoughts out there in radio land?

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