Main | March 2008 »

Down to Mexico to Look at Poop

While Brian and Marc got to scuba dive and frolic in West Edmonton Mall’s water features for this latest episode, I scored a plum assignment that took me and the crew down to Puebla, Mexico for a week!

Sure, it also took us deep into the world of what lives in your poop, but the Mexico bit more than made up for that. It came at the tail end of my first round-the-world circumnavigation too – I had been at home in Vancouver, then called to Toronto for a shoot, then on a plane from Toronto to London, England for another shoot, then from London to Hong Kong on UBC business, then back to Vancouver for one day – long enough to refresh my memory as to what my husband looks like and to do a load of laundry. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the fun we had, and I’ve included a few personal photos too...

We had a ton of adventures in Puebla. On our first day, the director spent the day in meetings co-ordinating our week’s worth of shooting and the crew was allowed to run riot on the streets of Puebla. Although we all embarked upon separate exploratory journeys, everyone ran into each other somewhere between the famous cathedral and the fancy coffee joint. We spent the rest of the day exploring Puebla on foot, enjoying many cold cervezas (it was almost 30C while we were there!) and the fact that you can get a 5-course lunch for about $4.50CDN.

The next day was really fascinating. We went off to the countryside to find a quiet, rural, farm-y looking spot to shoot a short interview between myself and Ana. Our local tapeworm guru, Elias, told our driver to head out to a small village called Acajete, maybe a 45min drive outside of Puebla. We picked up Elias' friend Ramirio from his house on the outskirts of Acajete and asked him to direct us to a scenic, rural locale. He guided us to the poorest part of Acajete, a stretch of "farms" on a gravel road leading up the side of a mountain. We found a family who was willing to let us shoot on their spread, so we conducted our interview in the midst of a very, very poor rural homestead.

The 6+ family lived in a single cinderblock room, maybe 10 feet by 20. Using logs and scrap wood, they had constructed several pens for their livestock - a few chickens, a couple of ducks, a veritable parade of dogs, a kitten, a family of sheep, a donkey, and two pigs (one had a brown furry patch over his eye; I named him Pirate Pig). I asked Elias what they earned in a month and he said maybe $350CDN a month. Not much with all those mouths to feed.

We conducted the interview in front of the pig pen, on ground that our Canadian expert, Ana, assured me was undoubtedly contaminated with tapeworm larvae. We chatted about the side effects of tapeworm infection, including epilepsy. At this point, it came out that one of the family’s sons, Gustavo, was suffering from grand mal seizures and the family was spending most of their meagre income on his medication. His Mom brought out his medical records for Ana and Elias to examine.

They spent a long time discussing his condition with the family, and in the end, Elias offered to have Gustavo put into a special stream of the health care system that would mean all his care and medication, for the rest of his life, would be absolutely free. Together with the money we gave the family as a thank-you for allowing us to film on their property, our visit made a real difference in their lives. It was so mind-blowing to think that that morning, when the family woke up, they hadn't the faintest idea that a gaggle of Canadian filmmakers and scientists would wander into their farm and bring about such a change.

The following day, we shot some scenes at Puebla’s medical school in the Department of Microbiology, and the next day was field trip day. We joined a team from the Ministry of Health and traveled a very long way indeed to meet a small-scale pig farmer and see how he checks for worms in his product.

After driving for nearly four hours, we reached our destination, the tiny village of Mitepec, where met up with the farming family we’d be shooting. Immediately upon our arrival, the patriarch of the family whipped out a 2L Coke bottle filled with homemade mezcal. He passed around cups, and we all, partially out of politeness and partially out of sheer curiousity, tried some of his moonshine. He also showed us how his wife makes tortillas - we enjoyed some fresh off the grill - and how they make cheese, which they sell as a side business.

After we all had a little snack, we watched as the family’s three sons, each with a quite deadly looking machete, butchered a pig expertly and quickly. I only had to avert my eyes once, when they approached a rather delicate region of the pig with a very big machete. We saw how the pig was tapeworm-free thanks to the family’s sanitary farming practices, practices which researchers like Ana and Elias are trying to encourage throughout small rural communities.

Following our pig butchering, we grabbed some 70-cent beers from one of the many places advertising "cervezas fria para llevar" and checked out a few other things in town, including a rock that a local had just found that had a pre-Colombian etching on it, and then did the long drive back to Puebla, stopping at a few small clinics along the way so our guides from the Ministry of Health could check up on their rural compatriots. The next day I interviewed Jasper in the comfort of our hotel’s rooftop, poolside bar. Seriously, folks – I have the best job ever!

Invaders of the X Kind

The next episode called “invasive species” was the one we engineers (Marc and I) wondered most about how we could fit a story into an engineering theme.

The first idea was to look at humans as potential invaders and talk about break-ins and burglary. This was fun since I took up the hobby of lock-picking (I’ve now moved on to machining my own lock picks at home, all thanks to Project X getting me started). Later, as the ideas evolved, we started looking into devices that could prevent invasive species from surviving in the ballast water of ships travelling in the Great Lakes.

Marc got to get on some scuba gear for this one, and I just got to grimace: I very recently had broken my right collarbone two days before filming, so my main objective was to act natural. The mean old directors said I couldn’t wear the shoulder brace on TV, so I just had to pretend I wasn’t in continuous agony – they don’t teach you that at acting school. I was able to hold back the tears, but you may notice my right arm doesn’t move much during this episode.

At West Edmonton Mall, my 7 year old son Joel, who came along because I needed him to get my clothes on with my broken wing, got to go swimming while we played with a toy boat in the water. Here I pretend to be a leftie and try to demonstrate why ships use ballast water at all. The reason is simply to keep the boat from getting too top-heavy when it is less than fully loaded. Engineers call this having your centre of buoyancy and your centre of mass the right way around.

When it came to simulating cavitation (that’s where pumps or propellers get going so fast they actually boil the water around them), any serious marine engineers out there will be able to tell we had to “fake” that one, because we didn’t have a strong enough motor to really cause cavitation.

You’ll see we put an outboard motor in the water and it looks like there is a helix of bubbles formed, but it’s really air being sucked down from the surface. Ah my students at the U of A will crucify me now when they hear we faked that one. Had we used a motor that actually induces cavitation, half of West Edmonton Mall would have gotten flooded from all the water spraying around.

Well, as we found out along the way with Project X, sometimes experiments just don’t behave for the camera like you may expect! Tune in and check out our antics. Watch Brian Alters chasing iguanas around Florida, and Jenn interview a guy who walks in poo (hey, I didn’t write the script, if it were us they probably would have made Marc and I walk in it too).

One of These Episodes is NOT like the Other

The astute among you will have no doubt noticed that this week’s episode looks slightly different from last week’s. The set is not quite the same and I dare say our performances not quite as polished. The reason for this, which you blog readers have been told by Brian Fleck, is that the Protective Armour episode is in fact the pilot for the series, and was shot what seems like eons ago, in January 2007 (the rest of the series was shot primarily over the summer and early fall). We were all newborn television hosts (we have since progressed to something akin to the toddler stage, methinks) working on a show that we hoped would be added to the CBC schedule. That “Hello, samples...” bit was my first ever bit of scripted television, and was the first line shot for the whole series, as a matter of fact.

This week’s episode is also notable for the fact that it features my “other job”. Here at Project X, all the hosts are indeed real scientists working in an academic environment, and Dr. Bob Hancock, who is featured in my peptides segment, is the guy I report to when I’m not doing the tv thing. I’ve been a postdoctoral fellow in his lab at UBC for just over two years now, where I work on teasing apart how the mammalian innate immune system works - the body’s front line of defense that keeps all sorts of germs out using things like the antimicrobial/host defense peptides that you saw in the show. We interviewed in him in one of our actual lab spaces, which I can tell you certainly doesn’t look quite as much like something out of CSI during the regular workday.

It’s certainly a funny feeling coming into the lab one morning and instead of sitting down at your desk, you're setting up in another room with a tv crew with your science co-workers peering in at you. It was the hardest interview I had to do because I already knew everything Bob was talking about making it hard to ask the questions that you, the viewer, might be asking yourselves. After it was finished, the crew went off to shoot some of the peptide-synthesizing robots and I just wandered back to my desk and started analyzing some data.

The alligator shoot was a whole other story - that was an adventure and a half! We flew down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, a small college town a little ways inland from the Gulf Coast, where we met Dr. Mark Merchant, a true Cajun and a guy with an endless supply of hilarious stories. We shot the lab scenes in the morning, and then as afternoon neared, we piled in a couple of vans and headed towards the coastal marshland reserve where we’d be trapping and bleeding a few gators.

The drive down was fascinating. The area had been devastated by Hurricane Rita and a year after the storm the effects were still glaringly obvious. At one point, we passed a field that looked as if it had a farmhouse on it. Mark told us that house was originally several miles away and had been carried along to its current position with the storm surge. We passed a few more houses like this. When the owners returned from evacuation, they had to drive around to look for their houses, spray paint their original addresses on them, and send in photos of those to their insurance companies to make a claim. Mark also told us how that parish was so sparsely populated it only had a single streetlight, but that got washed away too.

The boat ride itself was pretty intense – we were flying through the marshlands at top speed, and the misty rain that had been falling turned into a knife-sharp stinging barrage. I was wearing two pairs of tights, two pairs of pants, three shirts, two coats, and two pairs of gloves and still thought I would catch a bit of the old hypothermia.

Thirty minutes into the trip we hadn’t sighted a single gator (we did find a deer, though!) and were starting to worry, but just then, the unmistakeable flash of gator eye and POW! The airboat captain screeched to a halt alongside the gator, Mark leapt into action, and seconds later, he had captured a 3-4ft gator in his bare hands! A strong elastic was placed around its snout to keep it from snapping (they use duct tape for the big guys), and I got to measure and sex our find. It was a dude. You have to use little pliers to open a slit on the alligator’s underbelly and then look around to figure out whethers it’s a boy or a girl, these violent tussle-prone animals rather wisely keep their important bits tucked well inside.

After that, we started seeing a lot more gators, including a real whopper that measured in at around 8 feet! After that guy, we called it a day and drove back to Lake Charles, where we warmed our frozen selves at the all-hot-wing restaurant and plied Mark for more gator stories.

Well, so far on this show, I’ve been centrifuged, floated around weightless in a plane doing crazy arcs through the air, and gone alligator trapping. Will next week bring more Perils of Pauline-esque adventures, or will our heroine be allowed to simply sit back and enjoy some science? Stay tuned to find out!


Armour For Dummies

Thanks Jenn for that succinct chronicle.

Coming your way this week on Project X: Armour for dummies (the mannequin kind).

So this was the pilot episode. That means it was a single test filming of the show to see if the suits upstairs at CBC thought we were worth making a whole series for. So we filmed this episode months before the other episodes and before some of us really knew what we were doing – but boy did we have a good time.

The show looks at natural animal and human armour as well as armour humans have invented themselves. Since Marc and I are the resident engineers (like, the guys who get their hands dirty), we got to make, test and even try on, all sorts of armour from hides to bulletproof vests.

The original idea was to set up an experiment to test protective suits and armour, or in other words, to make some kind of repeatable test for comparing how the armours stood up to impacts of different kinds. We took our idea from experimental machines that are used in material testing to assess the hardness or toughness of materials: you take a sample and hit it with a sharp point attached to a heavy pendulum.

Of course, we found out when we cobbled together our own pendulum at the Mechanical Engineering Building at the University of Alberta, it was really hard to compare the different impacts when they hit a dummy dressed in armour. That darn dummy just wouldn’t sit still! But boy did it take a lot of punishment.

We affectionately named the dummy “Lance” – something about Sir Lancelot and him being lanced over and over in the chest. Lance actually came with us to the other filming locations – he rode shotgun with Marc and looks great in shades. We tried to convince Marc that he and Lance would make fantastic crash test dummies in Marc’s sporty little Yaris, but he didn’t go for it. Maybe on another episode…

Generally Lance was good about not complaining too much when the pendulum armed with a spear point slammed into him over and over. When he was wearing just leather and hides, he ended up with some nasty holes in his chest. After the pendulum tests we got to shoot Lance up, blow some holes in Lance with a 19th century percussion rifle, a crossbow, and some other small arms. It was a rough, rough day for Lance.

We finished with him getting tied to a tree and being battered to bits by a very nasty fellow dressed in his own suit of armour (you’ll have to watch the show to see what I’m talking about). Hey, that’s the kind of sacrifices guys like Lance are willing to make for Project X. What a team player.

Next we were off to Ontario to a real blacksmith to make armour the hard way. Our blacksmith friend makes it look really easy, partly because I bet he could bench press a school bus in a pinch. I almost got my fingers squished when trying to roll the hammer marks out of the breastplate we were working on. We managed to destroy the breastplace first in the rifle range in Edmonton, then make a new one a week later in Ontario – but through the magic of TV editing, we make it look like the same one. Sneaky eh? You wouldn’t believe the air quality in his shop in the winter when it fills with coal smoke and the doors are closed.

The last task for Marc and I was to take still photos for some computer graphics scenes that were a take off on the movie 300. We did that in Toronto that where they had us dressing in some crazy getups. Marc figured I would be invincible in plate armour, so he whacked me pretty hard with the medieval axe. Ouch – those knights must have had a pretty high pain threshold. Don’t try this at home kids! We were joking around doing swordplay with real swords, and that plate neck protector I was wearing was all that kept the studio from being horribly messed up with a lot of engineer’s blood.

I'll will sign off here. I know I can’t compete with Jenn’s loquacity ;) You’ll just have to see the show yourselves.

Fly Me to the Moon

Welcome, reader, to the first installment of the Project X blog. Every Thursday I (“I” being the co-host of the XX persuasion) will be stopping by to leave my thoughts on what transpired in that week’s episode. On Mondays, my charming co-host Brian Fleck will be in to give you a sneak preview of what you have to look forward to on the coming episode. We’ll give you a peek behind the scenes, fill you in on things we may not have had time to cover during the show itself, and will happily take questions.

Now onto the Flight episode, which you have quite possibly just watched and hopefully thoroughly enjoyed. I had an amazing time making it, even though it really doesn’t look like that when I’m being spun around in the human centrifuge. You wouldn’t look happy either, if you suddenly weighed 5 times your normal body weight, had no blood in your head, and had cheeks that were trying their best to make contact with your knees.

I knew this was going to be an interesting episode when, before I even saw a script, I was being put through a couple of medicals by the folks at the Department of National Defense and the National Research Council. Oddly enough, me being subjected to things that required medical pre-clearance would turn out to be a recurring theme in this show – you’ll have to watch the rest of the season to find out what other potentially life-threatening hijinks I get up to.

Having been judged fit for gravitational abuse, my first mission was to report to DRDC Toronto to experience the human centrifuge. I was originally going to be spun through only once at 5Gs wearing the G-pants and doing my breathing maneuver, but when the medical staff realized I was fit as a proverbial fiddle and, more importantly, game for it, they decided to run me through twice (I went through the same testing that Air Force flight medics are required to pass). In the first spin, the guys that ran the centrifuge told me - with biiiiiig smiles on their faces - that they weren’t going to inflate the G-pants, as they wanted me to get as close as possible to passing out without actually doing so. Thanks guys (kidding aside, the centrifuge guys were absolute sweethearts – they trained me well, looked out for me at every step of the adventure, and they gave me an awesome patch as a reward at the end! I still need a flight suit to sew it on to, though…)


As you no doubt saw, I handled both of the runs without passing out, vomiting, or suffering the unfortunate fate that befell one poor centrifugee, who peed in there. The first run was a very strange feeling – there’s an initial dizziness as the centrifuge gets up to idling speed, then as the G-forces increase, you’re pressed down harder and harder into your seat. Around 3Gs I started to lose visual acuity – imagine watching a tv that suddenly becomes very pixellated, and then those pixels start randomly disappearing. At about 4Gs, the blood was draining from the vessels in the back of my eyes, and was as if a pair of black curtains was closing over my field of vision. It was at this point that I knew G-LOC was no more than a second or two away (the speed at which it comes on is frightening – this was all happening over what felt like only a few very short seconds), and I started the breathing maneuver, which mercifully held the curtains at bay until the centrifuge slowed down.

As you’re slowing down you experience something Brian Fleck warned me about – the Coriolis Effect. You can check out the real formula on Wikipedia if you want, but my version is me + slowing centrifuge = tumbly roly-poly bouncy times. It’s like doing somersaults without actually moving, and it was actually really fun and would probably make a genius amusement park ride.

So, despite a bit of initial trepidation, the human centrifuge turned out to be a hang of a good time. The worst part, by far, was when the DRDC staff was reviewing the video footage of my spins on a massive projection screen and left the tape paused for FAR too long at the precise point my face was contorted into the most profoundly alien expression I've ever seen. And any day when a 7-foot-high goofy face is the worst part of your day isn't a very bad day at all, really.

My reward for the whole blood-draining, loss-of-consciousness-threatening centrifuge adventure was a weightless flight! I went from 600lb to 0lb in the space of a couple of weeks. Best. Diet. Ever. This adventure took place at the NRC offices at the Ottawa airport, using one of their microgravity research planes. It's essentially an old executive jet from the 60s that's been modified into the Leatherman of the airplane world - you can configure the interior in hundreds of ways in order to suit whatever is going on in there. The plane is typically used by NRC and academic researchers who are conducting experiments that require altered gravity environments (by varying the parabolas that they fly, they can simulate the moon, Mars, and even briefly produce negative G-forces) - when we were there, a group from my home university of UBC were conducting a series of studies on something chemistry-related.

Three of our CBC crew went up to do the parabolas - soundman Stuart sat directly across from me and cameraman Richard was next to him, with the camera and tripod secured to the aisle of the aircraft. We flew out over the Gatineau not knowing what was in store - all we knew was that we had four parabolas, each offering up 23 seconds of weightlessness, and director Mitch had essentially given us free reign to do what we wanted - there was no script for the parabolas, and my actions had only been loosely plotted out. In the first parabola, I narrated what was happening from the comfort of my seat and let a few Nerf balls go. In the second parabola, the plan was for me to dump a small amount of water out of a bottle, poke at the floating blob, say or line or two, and then gently push against the side of the plane to send myself drifting gently out of frame.

Didn't quite work like that. I dumped the water out and mere seconds later the plane jogged sharply, which caused me to hurtle uncontrollably through the water blob - now a thousand small blobs - and directly into poor Stuart's groin, boot-first. Along with that nasty centrifuge face, this episode certainly led to two of the least attractive moments of my existence thus far. The final two parabolas went nicely however, with no water blobs disturbed nor groins violently assaulted. And I got another patch!

As for how the whole thing felt - it was exactly as I expected. Exciting, liberating, mind-bending. The one thing I didn't expect was how little effort was required to propel oneself through the air - you'd think a gentle push would result in a gentle float, but no. One little tap and next thing you know you've shot down the aisle of the plane and are about to float right on into the cockpit.

So that was the Flight episode - a couple of intense experiences that I feel truly privileged to have taken part in, and a newfound appreciation of gravity. Since those two shoots, I've noticed I've become a lot more attuned to the movements and subtle changes in G-forces during airplane flights, and I have a tremendous respect for what the folks who fly in high and zero-G environments must deal with as part of their daily routine. Also, I realized I have to get myself a flight suit to sew all my patches on to...