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What can your story be in the United States?

16 posts categorized "Ulrika Beitnere"


An Interview with myself

Why did you decide to participate in BAFF?

It all started with a dream, to be more precise a movie, which set an idea in my head about the U.S. It was Woody Allen’s movie „Manhattan”. I was deeply affected and I said to myself that I have to go there someday. I forgot about this idea till some months later I had some money from a scholarship which was enough to afford a cheap flight to New York City. Although I had a limited budget, I felt that this is the chance. Three other friends joined me on this trip. We found ways to stay for free at different places close to NY which turned out to be a great way in which to see more than just Manhattan- Brooklyn (Bay Ridge, Williamsburg), New Jersey and as well Upper Westside, next to the Metropolitan Opera.

While standing in New Jersey and taking in the panoramic view of skyscrapers in downtown New York, I suddenly experienced a moment of clarity. I wished to come back to the states for an Internship and to work at a scientific lab at some point in my life. Two years later I came across the BAFF call for applicants at my universities home page. I started to prepare my application for an Internship in the field of Neuroscience. I was in my last year of Master Degree studies in Biology at the University of Latvia and an Internship in the U.S. after graduation was my biggest dream.


Me on the Brooklyn Bridge, January 2010.

You spent almost a year in the U.S. What were you doing there?

I learned the necessary methods for conducting research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease at two powerhouses of knowledge – two well-known universities in the field of Medicine. When I told my mentor and professor at the University of Latvia Dr. Vija Kluša and Dr. Baiba Jansone about my wish, they told me to go to places where we already had collaborators. I went to places where I could learn exactly the skills required for the work in Latvia. In both universities, they gave me my own projects. My first Internship was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) testing mildronate in Alzheimer’s Disease transgenic mice. My second Internship was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) investigating Alzheimer’s Disease patient brains.

What kind of methods did you learn?

At UAB I learned to perform all kind of tasks with lab mice– starting with handling mice, testing mice in behavioral and cognitive tasks, processing brain tissue and to perform immunhistochemistry and the Western blot analyses and to work with the data. Almost every week there were great speakers from all over the states and the world invited to speak about their research and I could visit the seminars. At UCLA the work involved human brain tissue processing, starting with choosing the right cases for the study and as well performing immunohistochemistry, including a lot of data analyses.


Some pictures from the work at UAB. 

Have you published your study results somewhere?

The first Internship at UAB where I tested mildronate in Alzheimer’s transgenic mice gave an improvement in cognition and showed some changes in biomarkers we checked. One month ago we send a paper to a journal. Now we are waiting for the reviewer answer. The other Internship gave some great insight about the vascular changes in Alzheimer’s Disease patients with different conditions and as well a rare hereditary disease called HERNS. It is now my task to write a report about that as well.

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Tissue embedding in paraffin at UCLA.

You went to Alabama which isn’t the most popular place to go for interns. Was it still a great time?

It was an amazing experience! I think it is only good to try places which not everyone does. Besides the excellent university and the professional experience I gained there, I get to know people who are close friends to me now. My supervisor at UAB - Inga Kadish helped me a lot at the beginning. She gave me advice with the bank, mobile phone provider, took me to places where I couldn’t get without a car.  I was very lucky! In Alabama I got to know people who became my friends and travel companions. At the end of my Internship I was invited to my Vietnamese friends weeding in Birmingham! Because Alabama is a cheaper state, I was able to save money to travel around on weekends. Atlanta, Georgia is in 2 hour driving distance, New Orleans in 5 h distance.



Dr. Inga and me on the second week in Birmingham, Alabama, June 2012.

You mentioned that you couldn’t get everywhere without a car. Wasn’t it limiting your chances to get around?

Maybe at the very beginning I felt that way. I was lucky to get to use my roommates bike which she didn’t need because she was driving everywhere. The apartment was in a 10 to-15 minute biking distance to work and 30 min back because I had to go up the hill.  I liked it and it kept me in a shape.

When I was in California I got to know a Latvian lady who introduced me to a Latvian guy who had a car which I could use for the time while I was in Los Angeles. It was a golf convertible! Can you imagine a better car for California? I was very happy that the Latvian networking helped me a lot to do the first steps in a new place.


The blue baby car I could use in Los Angeles, thanks to some helpful and friendly Latvians, May 2013. 

Does it mean that most of your friends in the U.S. were Latvians?

No, not really. A year is a limited time and I wanted to get to know people from all over the place. I made friends who are Americans, American Asians and people from other parts of the world – Vietnamese, Indians and other nationalities. In my case of course it was a bit easier at the beginning because of Latvian supervisors who live and work there for already some or more years . They were very helpful! When I arrived in L.A., I was happy to get to know Nora who is the connector for a lot of American Latvians or Latvians who come and start a life and business in Los Angeles.  

Me, Nat, Cat, Nikkie, Albert and Andrew after participating in CicLAvia in Los Angeles, April 2013. 


Me with Ashish, my colleague at UAB, visiting Los Angeles, April 2013.

 What are your highlights from this year?

Driving alone my godmorthers Lalita’s car from Jersey City, New Jersey to Manhattan and back during late evening was definitely a big highlight for me!  A lot of New Yorkers choose not to drive in Manhattan, but I had the chance and I survived it safe.

Additionally a highlight was to go to see alligators in the swamps with air boats close to New Orleans, in Louisiana. It was a great birthday gift from my supervisor Inga and Thomas.

Professionally my highlight was to see the biggest Neuroscience conference in the world! 30K neuroscientists in one conference in New Orleans. Not to forget, to see in person the world famous Nobel Prize Laureate James D. Watson at UCLA.


James D. Watson, one of the DNA structure discoverers, visiting UCLA.

 Another highlight was to welcome my family in Alabama after a half year of not seeing them. We went from Alabama to California with a car in 6 days to be on time for my second Internship. On the way we saw the Navajo Indian Reservation, the National Geographic Carlsbad caves, the Grand Canyon and many more places. Our adventure included the typical horror movie scenario when we almost ran out of gas in Texas in the middle of nowhere. We will never forget Bakersfield with it is gas station which looked first like a Fata Morgana in the desert! We did our version of route 66!

Monument Valley, Utah on our way to Los Angeles.

BigsurBig Sur - a place between San Francisco and Los Angeles on the highway 1, March 2013.

 Did you try something completely new while you were in U.S.?

There were many things I tried for the first time in life. One of them was surfing, driving a car with an automatic transmission, American rollercoasters. Thanks to my colleague Lori at UCLA me and my roommates had the chance to have a boat trip with her catamaran on the Pacific Ocean.

First surfing lesson in Venice Beach, Pacific Ocean, March 2013. 


My first ride with a rollercoaster in Santa Monica, 2013. 

What are things you most miss from the U.S.?

Cheap gas. If more serious, I really appreciated smiling people and the eye contact when you pass somebody on the street. I have always tried to be like the smile/ eye contact starter in Latvia, but very often you will not even get to chance to have an eye-contact here. They will look in other direction in situations where they could exchange smiles and maybe say even hello to each other. It strikes me always again in Latvia. The only place where you will see a lot of smiling Latvians is the Song and Dance Festival, but it is only for a week in 5 years.

The promising thing is the generation after Soviet Union who might be able to change the post-Soviet heritage.  I do believe that people start to understand more and more that you have to start with yourself to change something in the society. I definitely will miss the great variety of food I could get in Los Angeles.

What were you eating there?

When I went to L.A, I had the chance to try different ethnic food for my first time in my life- like Indonesian cuisine, Cambodian, Korean BBQ, Philippine fast food with their halo-halo drink, Mexican tacos at their famous food trucks. The southern states are famous for their BBQ and the special BBQ sauces. I also tried the famous ribs. The food was delicious. Of course, the U.S. has also a wide variety of fast food, but there is always also a healthy choice of food. I loved the Indian bistro across the street in Birmingham! I liked the fast food In ’n Out in California time to time as well! But mostly of course I was cooking at home some rice, fish or chicken and veggies.

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Mexican taco, Los Angeles. 

What are the things you are proud of in Latvia? Is there anything that Americans could learn from Latvians?

After coming back I see Latvia’s streghths and weaker points. One of our wins is that Latvia got all the technologies later than in the U.S. and the West of Europe.  We have one of the fastest Internet connections in the world. I also appreciate how fast the Scandinavian banks work here, and the security for the banks seems a bit better with the code cards here. I experienced a treat on my online banking and $700 were gone! My bank in the U.S. was experienced with this and they replaced the money, but anyway my bank there was lacking a better bank security system.

I’m proud of our Song and Dance Festival, our nature, organic food. Americans could appreciate our close connection with the nature – we drink tees from the flower fields when we feel close to getting a cold instead of taking tons of drugs. We have fences instead of guns for protecting our house and family. We tend to spend more time outdoors.

What could Latvians learn from Americans?

Working harder, maybe :) We have much more holidays and vacations than Americans which, of course, I like, but maybe we could get things accomplished faster. Definitely Latvians should learn to be more open-minded to other cultures. In the customer service Latvians should learn that the customer is the king. On the streets we should smile and great each other much more often.

What advice would you give to the next Interns who are going to the U.S.?

Please be very careful with your travel documents! The I-94 form which you receive, when you arrive in the U.S., I lost on the first day because of not being more alert. It cost me a lot of time and money to get a replacement. It happened after the long flight to U.S. I realized it too late that the Immigration Officer wasn’t tacking the I-94 form in the passport as he should, but he handed it to me with all the other travel papers.

I definitely recommend to try for travelling. Try for searching an apartment or Living together with someone is not only cheaper but will give you a great insight of other things around the place you stay. Try to live not too far away from your working place. Find your expatriates in the place you will go. Travel!

What are you going to do now in Latvia?

I use the summer vacations to finish the paper about the work at UCLA - Alzheimer’s Disease patient vascular biomarker changes with CAA and other conditions. In the fall I will start to work at the University of Latvia, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Pharmacology. Basically the place I worked before, but now as a staff member.  I will help the team to test the knowledge of medical students in Pharmacology. I’m planning to do more drug research using the skills I gained in the states.

Did you manage to strengthen the ties between Latvia and the U.S?

I believe I did! There are many reasons to think so. First of all, the projects gave intriging findings and publications (one still needs to be written). I want to invite both my supervisors Dr. Inga Kadish and Dr. Harry Vinters for a seminar to Latvia next year to exchange the latest findings. 

Me and Harry

Me and Harry at my Farewell party and UCLA Medical student Graduation Party in Venice Beach, 2013.

Secondly, our work group wants to send more students to work in Inga’s lab in Birmingham, Alabama. Last but not least, I didn’t come back to Latvia alone. My boyfriend who I met in Alabama came to live to Los Angeles and now to Latvia as well. He will start to study in the fall in Riga. His family is planning to visit Latvia as well.

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Me and Nat in New York few days before going back to Latvia 

The year in the U.S. was definitely a life changing experience for me. I’m looking forward to the next time to prove myself and strengthen the ties between with new knowledge and contacts even more.

Some of the BAFF delegates meeting the Latvian President Andris Bērziņš on the 3rd of July, 2013



Since the end of January I’ve been in the second most populated city in the U.S. – Los Angeles, working at one of the best universities in California – UCLA, with one of the best neuropathologists on the west coast – Dr. Harry Vinters. He is, by the way, of Latvian origin, living in Venice Beach ; he is one of the experts who was called on to solve the mystery of Vladimir Lenin’s  death.

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Me and Dr. Harry V. Vinters at the Latvian Community House in Los Angeles on Easter Breakfast

When I first moved to L.A., I stayed with friends in Burbank and drove more than an hour  to work on one of the busiest highways in the U.S. – the 101 and 405. This was a long and stressful commute so I was very motivated to find a place closer to UCLA. With the help of a friend, I found a great place on craiglist with 2 wonderful roommates - 15 min drive by bus, 25 min away if I bike. The neighborhood is called Palms, it’s not far from Westwood Village, which is full of Persian restaurants, bookstores, water pipe bars,  and rug shops.  Culver City, a film-making hub, is also nearby, and the beach is just a 10 minute drive.

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The entrance of my work place

My project here is different from the one in Birmingham. I’m not working with mice anymore, but rather with human post mortem tissue. I continue to work on Alzheimer’s disease.

Every weekend so far I have done some sightseeing, such as hiking or traveling to other cities in beautiful California. There’s so much to see!

2013-03-09 15.45.38Getty Center

These are some of my favorite places in L.A.: Getty Center (an art museum and an architectural marvel), Griffith Observatory (excellent view on the city and a great hike), Venice Beach boardwalk (great for people watching), Santa Monica 3rd Street Promenade, Mulholland Drive (home of the stars and great nighttime views), downtown (Grand Central Market for Salvadorian food), Angels Flight (the shortest rail line in the world), Walt Disney Concert Hall (designed by Frank Gehry), Our Lady of Angels (a modern church), Little Tokyo, The Last Bookstore). Most of them I have seen/visited at least 3 times.

Not to forget all the wonderful hikes I have done around L.A.: Escondido Falls in Malibu, Palos Verdes Shipwreck, Baldwin Hills and the latest – Topanga Canyon.

Escandido Falls in Malibu with my new friends and one of the roommates

The latest great find with my friend was the Lake Shrine near Malibu, which is a natural amphitheater founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian Swami. It’s a spiritual place for all religions. A really beautiful garden which is a wonderful place to forget the daily stress and free your mind.

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Lake Shrine and the rose garden for all religions

Since I’ve been on the west coast, I have been to two other nearby cities - Las Vegas and San Francisco. Las Vegas was on my list not only because of the famous casinos and nightlife but mostly because one of my best friends from school is living there now. Vita moved to the U.S. 10 years ago, and she has spent the last 5 years there working as a bookkeeper for a big gambling firm.

2013-03-15 23.06.57Friend reunion in Las Vegas or two LV girls in L.V.

The other city was the beautiful San Francisco. I went there by car for a Neurological biomarker conference and for some sightseeing. I liked the Chinatown, North Beach, City Lights bookstore, Pier 39 with the cool sea lions, The Californian Academy of Science (especially the Planetarium which was for me the first time, and the spectacular movie Earthquakes which blew my mind), the Golden Gate Bridge. It was also a one of a kind experience to see the dramatic  Big Sur coast along Highway 1 back to L.A.

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Me and the Golden Gate

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Me and my friend Nat and the sea lions in San Fran

Speaking of first times  – I never have been on a rollercoaster. Just recently I had the chance at the Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier and I absolutely loved it! The other first time in my life was the experience of surfing with Uldis and Lasma. Uldis was a great surfing advicer! 

2013-03-03 13.46.49Me after a surfing lesson from Uldis

As you might have noticed I have seen, been and done a lot since I’ve been here.This post is full of lists! I enjoy every moment and also learn a lot professionally every work week. I have been already to two Nobel Laureate lectures at UCLA. One of them was the famous DNA structure researcher James D. Watson.

I doubt that I will see everything I would like to before my time is over, but that’s okay.  It’s a reason to come back again some day! Some of the places I want to see for sure before leaving are San Diego which is only 2 hours away from L.A., and Santa Barbara which is even closer. I will let you know, if I make it there.

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Big Sur on the way back from S.F.


Hope you enjoyed this little update!



Hello L.A., bye bye Birmingham

After more than 6 months in Alabama, the work was done and I was ready to say farewell to the University of Alabama in Birmingham. I packed my stuff as in the song - Hello L.A., bye bye Birmingham

The good thing is that for the journey to the west coast I was not alone. A long time before I invited my family to come and visit me to make a dream come true - to do our version of the famous "Mother Road" Route 66. After a long time debating and planning, I was very happy that they could make it. I didn’t see them since I left Latvia. Also, this Christmas I celebrated for the first time without them. It was a great reunion!

My family stayed the first couple of days in Birmingham. I showed them my place, the city itself, and then we started our trip. As I mentioned the trip required some good planning - not only to find good offers from rental companies, where to find cheap motels, but also to see some interesting things on the way in a short timespan!

We started on a Saturday morning and went this route: Birmingham > New Orleans > Houston > San Antonio > Carlsbad Caverns (NM) >Roswell > Albuquerque > Kayante, AZ > Grand Canyon > Kingman, AZ > Los Angeles

It was neat to see the Big Easy / New Orleans again. It’s a great city where everyone should go at least once in their lifetime! The Oak Alley Plantation is also a must, especially to try the mint julep, find out more from the era of plantations and slavery in the South. It’s history, you know.

Photos from New Orleans, Louisiana

Houston was more beautiful than I expected! I loved the Mark Rothko Chapel (one of the most peaceful places to go in the world), the campus of Rice University where my friend has studied history.

San Antonio has a Mexican style. Beautiful buildings and I appreciated the time spent at the Alamo church to find out more about the history of Texas. Not to forget- every night we stayed in a different motel. On the road you can always find something for not too much money. Surprisingly for us, Texas had a lot of them with owners of Indian origin. Don’t ask me why there and why motels, but good service for not much money.

Photos from Oak Alley Plantation, Louisiana (right corner); Mark Rothko Chapel (left corner), Houston and Alamo, San Antonio in Texas

Carlsbad Caverns and actually all New Mexico left a very surreal impression. The desert, the emptiness, and lack of civilisation in some ways. It was beautiful, but also very lonely and sad. I had from time to time the scary thought that it would be terrible to run out of gas in such an empty place (something like from the movie Babel, if you’ve seen it and know what I mean). Carlsbad caverns were fantastic! Thanks to my colleague at UAB, Ashish, for the tip! I felt like I was in a National Geographic documentary and I fell in love with geology again. Roswell was a strange place. You can see a lot of green aliens/UFOs everywhere because it’s one of the most famous places in the US where people have seen them. The waitress in the restaurant was also a bit not-from-this-world, because she thought that we will need special assistance from her because not everyone could understand our accent. Ok :-)

Kolāžas1Photos from the Carlsbad caverns  and Albuquerque, New Mexico and a diner between Rosweel and Albuquerque

Albuquerque is unique. It’s a mix of Native American culture, the beauty of surrounding mountains; but it’s also a very artificial neon lightful on the Central Ave from the time of Route 66. You can see a lot of drive-ins like what one associates with America starting from the 50’ties till today. After driving through Albuquerque we went up north, in the direction of Shiprock to get closer to Monument Valley. As it turned out Shiprock belongs to the Navajo Nation and is famous for not having any motels or hotels close by...What?! And we came all this way to find that out! :-)

They have a semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory occupying portions of three states – New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. AS we found out later (we googled it), it is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction within the United States. We were still in New Mexico and it was getting late, we were tired and we didn’t know where to go to find a motel. We stopped in many shops asking for directions but without positive results. We almost felt like we were not welcomed here. In the grocery stores there were mostly only Native Americans working and maybe I’m exagerating but they gave you a look that said – strangers, what are you doing here. As we found out later they don’t sell alcohol in this reservations, because of the dramatic abuse of addictive substances among the native populations. Although I have heard about some genotypes who have problems with alcohol-metabolizing enzymes, this was something new for me.

Thanks to my friend Nat who helped us out by searching for places to go from home and gave us directions to go to Kayante, Arizona on the same night. That meant 1.5 h more driving, but what else could we do? When we finally arrived in Kayante, we were more than happy to go finally to bed. Next morning we drove 20 minutes and saw the movie-famous place – Monument Valley. I remembered one of my favorite movies – Forrest Gump. Take the time to listen to his talk…isn’t it neat where he wants to go back? I was happy that my direction was this time west toward the still unknown :-)

USA1Photos from Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, Arizona and a piece of Utah and one photo also from Route66 sign in NM.

Later the same day we went to the Grand Canyon. No comment can do it justice. You just need to see it.

Kingsman was for us just a place to stop over between the roads to L.A. and Las Vegas, where we decided where to go, how much time we still have. We decided that we were more than enough saturated with all what we had seen so far and also tired of driving, so we decided to go directly to L.A. California welcomed us with a lot of sun and added one more hour to our day. We had crossed two time zones already! The way to L.A. showed a different kind of desert than in New Mexico. In my head I imagined that this could be also the road to Las Vegas, because we all have heard that it’s a gambling, great show, fast wedding paradise in the middle of the desert. “The black hole in the desert” as it’s sometimes called. But now we wanted finally to see the ocean, to see the end of the famous Route 66. 

The first place we made a stop in L.A. was the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was the idea of my sister who is an architecture student in Germany. Now after studying a bit she knows the guys who have made some famous buildings. She wanted to see the famous Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry's work. I like it. It's definitely a place to go for a concert and I will do it while I'm here. After a walk through downtown, we decided that's it's finally time to finish our road trip of the century. Where else when not at the ocean?

It was Santa Monica we chose; the sun was already gone but the color of the sky was still warm. It was Friday evening and we went almost 3000 miles to be here. We jumped and gave hugs of happiness. Thanks to my family who made this trip happen and BAFF who made it happen that my family had the reason to come and see U.S. with me. This trip definitely gave another perspective and tought us a lot.


California, here we come!!! My Internship at UCLA could begin.

I should write about it soon, but I don't see any comments, so I will first wait for some feedback from you guys :-) Would you like to read more?


Let the good times roll!

This is what the New Orleaneans say for the Mardi Gras carnival and I'm using it too after coming back from the magical Big Easy. My first time visiting NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) was for the annual Neuroscience meeting.

There are not many cities that can welcome around 30 000 scientists at one convention. They switch each year to one of three big cities: New Orleans, San Diego and Washington DC.  I was lucky that this year it was in New Orleans. Not only because NOLA is a place you should go before you kick the bucket,  it's also driving distance from Birmingham, Alabama which made it easier for us.

I went there with my colleagues one day after I made it to a quarter century. The trip felt like a huge birthday gift for me - a good mix of professional and cultural events.


This is the convention center which is named after the former Mayor of New Orleans - Ernest N. Morial. It is like an International size airport where you walk for 15 minutes to come to the right place (the front of the main building is 1 km long!)

While my colleagues stayed in a hotel, I went to my couchsurfing host's place, which was about 10 minutes from the convention center. My typical day at the conference was first to go to a lecture, then eat breakfast/brunch and then to talk through the poster area and distributor exhibition. I had an itinerary with me because it's easy to get lost and overwhelmed from too much information. This meeting is also a wonderful oppurtunity for networking with other scientists. This time I had the chance to get to know scientists from Duke University who are working on a spinal cord stimulation for Parkinson's disease. I also heard some interesting lectures about epigenetics and aging, white matter changes, APP processing, smart drugs and neuroethics.

Found some fun times at the desk where your brain wave frequencies are measured and connected to a small ball you can try to move 

After the time spent on science, I also needed some time to rest. Rest is fine, but of course I couldn't miss the city. I followed a friend's advice and walked Magazine Street and hopped on board the St. Charles Ave streetcar and snuggled close to the window while gazing out at the gorgeous houses along  the way down to Audobon park. So magical!

New orleans

I took a look at a New Orleans style cemetery with all the graves above ground, due to the city being below sea level. Another night I listened to some Jazz music at Frenchmen Street and checked out the oldest neighborhood - the French quarter. I especially liked Royal Street which has a lot of art galleries. The famous Bourbon Street was too crowded, too loud for me this time, but definitely a fun place to go through once you are in NOLA.

New orleans1

Some random photos from the French Quarter 

While I was there I tried some of Nawlins specialities: an alligator sausage in a po-boy sandwich, Aunt Sally's creamy pralines, the famous beignets and cafe au lait at the Cafe du Mond, a Sazerac cocktail (it's highly likely that New Orleans invented this cocktail!), a mint julep (this was at the Oak Alley plantation- another story!), an Abita beer and a Hurricane cocktail. As you can understand it's called the Big Easy for a reason - people like to take time, to sip from their cocktails, to celebrate carneval and sometimes also other occasions.

On the last day my colleagues and me went for a swamp tour to see some alligators because it's something you won't see that often. 

Here is one of the videos I got from there:


After saying hi to alligators, holding a cute alligator baby (the intense cuteness is why people sometimes think it could be cool to have one at home, but after a while it's not anymore that cool), seeing pelicans, owls, we went to a National Historic Landmark - the Oak Alley Plantation. The story began with the oak trees in the early 1700's, when an unknown settler planted 28 evenly spaced oak trees in two rows leading from the humble cottage toward the mighty Mississippi (sorry for a little bit of copy/paste from the booklet, but I found it here's the story>).

In 1839, Jacques Telesphore Roman, a wealthy Creole sugar cane planter, lured his young bride from New Orleans to the plantation by building this spectacular mansion. We took a tour in and outside, saw the Slave Quarter and tried also a mint julep. That was a wonderful trip and I recommend that all of you go and see this place!



 The Oak Alley Plantation

So I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip to New Orleans. Actually there's a lot more stories I should share very soon (before the Alzheimer gets me - a neuroscientist joke?). Like my trip to Savannah, Georgia at the beginning of September (after reading the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and seeing so many times one of my favorite movies - Forrest Gump), and my very special trip to the windy Chicago which I enjoyed a lot, and not to forget my second time in Washington D.C., from where I also went rafting with close friends on the Potomac at Harpers Ferry. Don't want to sound like a broken record, but it's very special for me to be here and experience all this. This extraordinary friendship with the US has taught me a lot already - professionally and personally. I find it fascinating that the encouragement of people I have met here gives me a feeling of inner strength and I really want to try my best to make them feel the same.

My deepest gratitude to all of you.


From the Traveler's diary: my time in the capital city of the US (Part II)

Before you read this story make sure you have read Part I where everything began...

When the highways started to be more crowded and twisted, Washington DC was coming closer. The first thing I needed to do when I arrived at the Union Station was so simple and again very annoying – I required to charge my cell phone battery and to buy a prepaid for the phone. It took hours all together and the funny thing is that I couldn’t count anymore on my phone – I didn’t received the text messages from Ieva, where I was going to stay and another friends message that he was ill and couldn’t meet. So I went to Starbucks in front of the bright Chinatown gate, sipped from the frappuccino, read the book Midnight garden of good and evil and waited for my phone to be enough charged. Finally I could call Ieva and find out how to find her place. Ieva is also an Intern of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation. She is a lawyer dealing with international human rights laws.

Dupont Circle was the place where I needed to go. I followed the advice of a man and took the metro. I have to admit that the system for buying a ticket, if you are a visitor was, without exxagerating, not easy in this city. People who didn’t had a refilling card yet, had hard times to figure out how to get out a right ticket and I was not the only one.

It was already dark outside when I lastly met Ieva at a very nice looking building where she was staying while a friend who lived there was on holidays. She could stay there before she finds her residence. It was a neighbourhood of many embassies, it had a little bit the same charm of the famous Art Nouveau style in Albert Street in Riga. Ieva was at that time only a week in DC and it was her first work day when I met her. Although it was kind of a tough day for both of us, we went out the same evening. We found ourselfes in the Adam Morgan district, which was in a walkable distance. The Adam Morgan is called a culturally diverse neighbourhood with many nice bars and restaurants. We went to one pub with a nice porch where other guests were smoking waterpipes. We choose a beer, when the owner asked us in what kind of language are we talking with each other.

„It’s Latvian,” we replyed.

Then he said something very interesting:

”Oh, of course, I used to know this guy Kristaps who owned over there the Pharmacy bar”, he pointed to a place across the street approx. 100 feet away and continued, „he moved with his family to Riga and there he opened a pub with the same name”.

Ieva knew that the Pharmacy bar started somewhere here in DC, but she was not aware that we were so close to this place. The interesting thing was that we both have been to the bar in Riga, so it was intriguing for both of us to go and check out this place. The place looked very much like in Riga– the walls were dark blue and the table tops have been decorated with pills of all different shapes and everywhere you could find some signs in Latvian saying something about the health and pharmacy. As I later read the owner Kristaps grandfather owned pharmacies in Latvia. So this is the background story.

The barkeeper looked a bit bored and for him it was nothing new to see some Latvians with shiney eyes entering this place. He was an american, but he knew the Latvian gang. The pub has an odd style, but it was cool to find out that on Wednesdays they order also some Latvian beer. It was a Monday evening, so I had no other choise to drink an American flavour. And hey, I’m in the US – I want the american experience!

On the next morning I followed Ieva’s advice and took the Big bus tour around the city. The day started with a rain, but it stopped at the same moment when we went out the apartment. It was Ievas second day at the office, my first full day in DC. I loved the tour, although there was an accident what happend some 40 minutes after I entered the bus. After seeing Georgetown from the double-deck, one truck hit the bus and smashed the wing mirror, so I had to wait with my fellows for another bus to switch to. I felt a bit sorry that just before I was thinking with respect how the lady managed to drive this huge bus and talk some interesting historic facts at the same time. But this was definetely the trucks fault.

The first place I hopped off was the Lincoln Memorial, which is an American national monument to honor the 16th President of the United States. It is designed after Greek temples, and was build from 1914-1922. Lincoln memorial is the site of many large public gatherings and protests. This was the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous „I have dream” speech to a crowd in 1963.

Chinatown on the first evening in DC and Lincoln Memorial on the first full day

I took again the bus and passed by the Washington Monument which is both the world's tallest stone structure and the world's tallest obelisk. It was built to commemorate the first US president, General George Washington. Washington DC has no skyscrapers for a reason – in the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910 they limited the height to be no higher than 110 feet. It was a response to the construction of the 164-foot (50 m) high Cairo Hotel. I first thought it was the Monument what made the limitation, but it’s not a building. Because of the latest earthquakes in Virginia in 2011, the Monument remains closed to public.

The Monument, at the Capitol with Jordan, the Archives and the White House

I went closer also to the White House, but I choose to come back later. It was time to go to the Capitol Hill where I had a meeting with an acquaintance who I got to know on one of the first days in Birmingham. Jordan is a friend of Laura, my rooomate, and now he is working for the congress in a building called Longworth House. He had time to have a lunch with me. I was happy that I calculated the time right and was on time there. It was great to see him again and the lunch place was wonderful.

So back on the bus, the sun was shining very bright. I passed by the museums and choose to go later to the Air and Space museum to find out why it’s so popular. The bus made a circle around the Tidal Basin, where is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial. I foun myself back at the Lincoln Memorial where I waited for the blue loop bus which could take me for another round to the Pentagon. After that I thought that it was not really that interesting to see the building and it was funny to see that there were still people who were taking photos of the Pentagon building although it was said that it is strictly forbidden. After the bus tour I went to the Air and Space Museum, took a lot of photos there, and started to feel the sunburn on my skin.

The Air and Space Museum and me after

On the next and last day I went with Andrew, who made it also to come to Washington DC, to the Museum of Natural History. Then we went to meet Ieva for lunch at the Adam Morgan district.

The lunch with Ieva and Andrew and the Museum of Natural History

After that I still had some time before my flight so I suggested canoeing the Potomac River. That was a fun experience!

Dc5Canoeing the Potomac River

It was a bittersweet feeling when I needed to leave from the Reagan Airport to go back to Birmingham. I had the feeling that there is so much more to discover in this place. But I knew that the heart of Dixie with the warmness will welcome me home. As they say: „Sweet home Alabama!”




The ladies with pearl earrings in Charlotte (Part I)

It took same time to write the story about my trip to Charlotte and Washington DC. The reason is the colourful palette of emotions I got from this journey. They all were so wonderful and magical to me.

First I had the idea to go there someday and then by chance I get acquianted with a person who moved from Birmingham to Washington DC.

On the first evening when I met Andrew, an enthuastic couchsurfing member and a lawyer, I ascertained that he will move after a little bit more than a month from this southern city to the capital city. He had spent a year working for a judge at the courthouse downtown Birmingham, and to the next place he was going for a year again. Hearing his story and discovering that he grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, where my mom spent 3 months ending her PhD thesis about 10 years ago, I knew that I would love to see these places while I’m here. I asked him without hesitation if I could join. He also didn’t take time to think about it and answered: ”Yes, why not,” or something similar. This is how I got my first agreement for a trip.

The plan was to go with Andrew by car, because I also wanted to have some experience of the highways in US and to see Charlotte. My plan also included meeting people I know in Washington DC and then flying back to Birmingham. I saw it as a sign, when I found soon a very good flight offer and Andrew didn’t change his plans.

On a sunny Saturday we started the trip. First we went to Atlanta, the capital city of Georgia, which is about two hour drive from Birmingham. We took a walk though the Olympic park, grabbed a burger and talked about the revitalization for a city which hosts the Olympic games. Atlanta experienced it in 1996. Unfortunately we didn’t had enough time to visit the biggest Aquarium in the world – the Georgia Aquarium, but I put it on my to do list while I’m still on this side of the country.

Round trip

Olympic Park in Atlanta


At the border of South Carolina

After going through South Carolina, the ugly sister of North Carolina (this is a joke I have heard), we finally arrived in Charlotte. I could stay at Andrew’s family house. I’m still delighted about this weekend in Charlotte and people I had the chance to meet there. The warmheartedness of the people I met there and the deep conversations we held made the the stay unforgettable.

I call it the highest level of trust, if somebody gives me his/her car, but maybe Andrew was a just naive lending me his car to drive through the city next day (just kidding). Of course, everything went well, I love to drive and it was a unique experience for me to drive through Charlotte. I went to the the beautiful Freedom park which is also a popular place for geese, saw the charming campus of Queen University of Charlotte and went to the Mint Museum of Art.


The campus of Queens university of Charlotte


The Mint museum of Art Uptown Charlotte

After all that I decided to spend the last hour in a shopping mall, so I went there choosing the shortest way on highways. I was so thankful that the GPS in my mobile was working all the time (mostly it doesn’t). After such an intense day I felt like a hero when I came back with an intact car and right on time for a dinner with his family and friends. When we were enjoying our dinner and talking about some ridicolous alcohol laws in some places in the world, including the US, I noticed that all the ladies sitting at the table had something in common. We all wear pearl earrings like in the famous painting The girl with a Pearl Earring by the dutch painter Vermeer.


Ladies with the pearl earrings, Andrew (left) and Jurij (right)

The family invited also the new neighbours next door. The family father Jurij was born and raised in Latvia, Riga. It was nice to meet him. His wife is from Azerbaijan. Both live in the US for the last 15-20 years. Their children grow up with a mix of English, Russian, Azerbaijan and I hope a little bit also Latvian, although Jurij hasn’t spoken it for a longer time. He told me in Latvian that he used to talk lot more in Latvian when he was studying at the Rigas Technical university. It was about 25 years ago. We had a great end of the evening, talking and smoking Cubanian cigars.

On an early Monday morning I left the family house of Andrew to start the other half of my journey to Washington DC by the Megabus. It was a long 8 hour drive. I used the time to read, to sleep and to take a look around on the highways. Mostly it looked all the same, but it was good to stop at Richmond and see the most visible landmark – the Main Street Station which is designed in the Beaux Art style. Richmond appeared very loud. The station was surrounded with massive viaducts.

The megabus and Richmond

I was happy when the bus with me in it went away direction north. I was very excited to see Washington DC, which was said to be more than the capital city of the US. It’s a metropole for politics and embassies, and because of that also a melting pot of all kind of nations.


The hiker girl from UAB

At this point in my experiment in southern living, I found myself spending more time than ever hiking the National parks. For a Northeast European, the weather alone is a good reason to be outdoors as much as possible. This summer so far was not too hot, and never too chilly. I have rediscovered the hiking. It's not all about "becoming one with the nature', but it's an adventure and a great time to rethink your daily life and restart new after.

Up to now I have been to the longest free-flowing river in Alabama - the Cahaba, the largest park in this state - the Oak Montain State Park and the highest natural point in Alabama - the Cheaha Mountain. All of them wonderful places, especially the last one with the panorama view is something you have to see if you come to visit Alabama. 

Swimming the Cahaba with a friend was a lot of fun. After a sunny day, suddenly it started to rain very heavily and we jogged laughing with all our belongings all the way back to car.

The warm day at the Oak Mountain was also very nice. We started from the North Trail Head (see the map), and went for a 2 hour walk taking the yellow trail which turned out to be very hilly. After finding the Old Lake and having a lunch and a swimm, we took the white trail back. On that day I got to know more about the flora and fauna here. The most exciting moment was to see the big black snake which was more than 1,5 m (about 4 feet?) in length and about 4m (about 13 feet?) away from me (I'm still not used to the US customery units). After reading the sign about animals you can find at the park, it revealed to be the Cuttonmouth snake which is a very venomous beast. Later that day I was watching my steps even more carefully - all the cracks of bracking a twig or the rustling from dryed leaves made me cautious.



The day at the Oak Mountain State park


The highpoint for me literally was to see the highest point in this state - the Mountain Cheaha. Here is some info from wiki which explains the geography: Cheaha Mountain is part of the Talladega Mountains, a final southern segment of the Blue Ridge, unlike other elevations of thAppalachians in north Alabama, which are part of the Cumberland Plateau. The mountain also has the unique distinction of being the highest geographical point in the eastern portion of the Sun Belt. Cheaha is an Indian name meaning high.


One of the trails at the Cheaha Park

Hiking the mt
 The top of the Cheaha Mountain and the Tarzan & Jane like mountain creek

After the top we went to a trail which lead us to a mountain creek where we had a refreshing swimm. I felt like in a Tarzan and Jane movie, and I finally comprehend that americans can find everything what they want for holidays also at home. This country is amazingly huge and the nature here is marvellous.

And the hiking goes on! Tomorrow on my schedule/to-do-list is the park inside Birmingham - the Red Mountain Park and later this week also the Rushton Park. 

See you in the parks!



Neuroscience Internship

I feel like it’s time to introduce my dear blog readers to the subject I’m studying and what kind of a project I’m working on here at the renowned- University of Alabama at Birmingham, particularly for its Medical school. So where shall I begin?

I will walk you through my day - my work day begins at 8.30 when I arrive at the Tinsley Harrison building which is named after the famous physician and editor of Harrison’s Principle of Internal Medicine. So I lock my bike to a handrail at the entrance (btw, perhaps I am exaggerating, but lately I’ve been seeing more and more bikers – I guess I’m a trandsetter here- just kidding!), and then I go to the Department of Cell Biology which has a bad network signal for my mobile phone and no windows to the outside (which means that you can really focus on your work I suppose).

So if it happens (and surprisingly it has happened!) that I’m the first one to arrive at work, I unlock the doors of the lab rooms, start the computer, put on my lab coat and I go and make everything ready for the day’s experiments. As I mentioneded earlier, my first project involves Alzheimer’s transgenic mice, which means that they are genetically modiefied to possess the pathology for Alzheimer’s. My project has been to treat these mice with a drug that has already been shown to be effective in a Parkinson’s disease model in rats in a Latvian study.

To find out if the drug really enhances memory in mice, we did behavioral studies for the first two weeks. We began with an open field test to measure the rodents’ locomotive activity and willingness to explore. On the following day, we conducted the „zero maze test,” which measures the time spent in closed and open section. Next, the social recognition test measured the interest of the mice in others and also their ability to recognize a new mouse which is introduced into the test setting next day. Everything is recorded, and from the automated video tracking we get – the magical word for scientists – data, so that one can easily determing whether there has been a significant change or not. After these tests, I conducted one more test – the water maze where the mouse is put in a small swimming pool with a platform. After 4 days of swim training, it should be able to remember that there is a platform where it can swim for safety. And again everything is measured– the time when it locates the platform (if it’s able to), the distance moved, the velocity, etc.  After the behavioral studies, the brain is studied with methods such as I mmunohistochemistry and Western blot. These are methods which I’m going to utilize more often. I’m certain that the experience I’m going to gain here I will also be able to share with my coworkers in Latvia.


To widen my view of the field, my mentor Inga invites me often to interesting scientific meetings/seminars. So far I have heard one PhD defence – it was Jason’s Lowery’s work about the Novel regulatory Motif in the BIG2 member of the Sec7 family of Guanine Nucleotide Exchange Factors and three seminars from outstanding scientists – two were about the pathological proteins involved in the Parkinson’s disease etiology which interests me as well.

On another day I went to one Summer Research Expo for undergraduate students at UAB where one of the Inga’s students – Valentine Nwachukwu, also had a poster. And best of all? He won the first prize from all the other 81 participants! His study was about Small ischemic infarcts increase αβ deposition in C57BL/6J mice. I also went to talk with him, took some photos and was very happy to hear that Inga so far has always taken on good students. So the conditions and environment here are  ideal for me to learn a lot. 


P.s. There is one thing to add. One of the upcoming and most exciting events for my professional experience here will be the annual Neuroscience meeting organized from the Society for Neuroscience. It provides the world's largest forum for neuroscientists all over the world and this year it will take place in the cross-culturual city New Orleans in the middle of October. I'll go there by car with my colleagues. Stay tuned for more blogs from the Intern in Neuroscience!



Ulriga from Ulabama*




Several weeks ago, I came across a very small book while I was out searching for a birthday gift for my roommate. The title seemed promising: „101 Things to Do in ALABAMA Before You Up and Die”. The book contained only a list, but I was inspired, so I decided to seriously devote myself to finding out about the unique and memorable things to do and see in this state with the pleasantly harmonious name - Alabama.

After going through the list I realised that I have done and seen some really southern things already. Here are a few of them (some are not from the book, but suggested by other experts):

  • tried out some fried green tomatoes (even better, I also had some homemade fried pickles),
  • went swimming in the Cahaba River (canoeing it will be the next step),
  • ate ribs and ‘tater salad at the well-known Dreamland barbeque restaurant,
  • had sweet iced tea,
  • took in the view of Vulcan,
  • went to the Museum of Art and acquainted myself with the art of North America and especially art from Alabama,
  • spent an entire day at Oak Mountain State Park,
  • saw a snake near the trail where I was hiking (and I might not be an expert, but it looked like a cottonmouth, which is very venomous),
  • sat on my porch with friends many evenings talking about Alabama society while the crickets made background music,
  • went bowling and had some strikes as well.

And here is the list for the upcoming time (some from the book, some of my own):

  • climb to the top of Mt. Cheaha (I’ll write more about this soon)
  • hear the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in concert (when the season opens),
  • call an elderly woman at the grocery store: „Ma’am”,
  • visit Mobile, so that I can say that I’ve been to the Gulf of Mexico,
  • call someone randomly „hon” (following the guidelines of the book),
  • watch an Alabama football game with Alabama fans (I’ve already gotten to know several),
  • lie in the grass watching a meteor shower,
  • visit the Civil Rights Institute (to better understand this history),
  • master the art of the banana puddin’,
  • visit the ghosts of Sloss Furnaces on Halloween,
  • get lost in a corn maze,
  • write a song about your dog, your mama, your sweetheart, or jail (just writing, you know, without the experience),
  • recognise some of the local plants and trees like the dogwood and poison ivy,
  • sit in a rocking chair on a porch and do nothing after a nice work day at the lab.


* Thank you, friend, for the nice tittle idea, I took it! :)


Cultural events

I can call myself lucky, I have met wonderful people here in Birmingham who keep me busy after work. Together with them I'm enjoying the very best cultural life offers of Alabama's biggest but still village-like city.

On the  first weekend on July my supervisor Inga invited me for an Indian dance event. It was the graduation ceremony of a 16 years old wonderful Indian girl who has achieved to learn the traditional Indian dances called Bharata Natyam. This ceremony has also a special name - Ranga Pravesha what literally means entering the stage or deput. The significance of this is that a dancer, after years of serious study (for her it were 7 years of intense training), presents a maiden solo performance of a full length recital.


I was deeply touched of the performence and the heartiness from all the Indian community. After a 3 hour long (!) performance all the audience - approximately, 200 people were invited to have traditional Indian meal. It was a fantastic evening thanks to Inga who invited me. Whereas she was invited from the mother of the 16 years old girl with the beautiful name Aditi. Aditi's mom can be really proud.



Another cultural event, I want to share, was my visit to the Museum of Art in Birmingham on the next day after the Indian dances.


I was walking through the museum when an elder women with her husband spoke to me. They asked if I would be interested to join them to watch a painting for longer time and to discuss it after. I was on my own, had a plenty of time, so why not? They heard my accent and they were interested to know from were am I.

So this was a nice coincidence. The women was Lithuaninan origin and her father studied also in Riga a long time ago. This was not my first time that I meet Baltic people abroad or found out how small the world is... But such coincidences are always special and worth to be told to others. Latvians (okey also Lithuanians and Estonians) are everywhere! It reminded me of the book I red before I headed to U.S. "Latvians are everywhere" by Otto Ozols. It's a funny thriller. I was amused  when Andrew asked me once: " Do the Latvians have a secret plan?". His piano teacher was a Latvian lady.

So I went with Lithuanian lady and some others and sat down to really understand a piece of Art! This was the picture of Luis Jimenez. His sculpture Steelworker is also in front of the museums building. I found out so much more about him - he was an American sculptor of Mexican descent and his own Art killed him. A piece of an another sculptor Blue Mustang felt on him in his studio. I was suprised how much you can actually be introduced to a painting after sitting and really thinking of it.


And on the last photo mosaic you can see a mix of wonderful evenings. I went to Bottletree - the hypster place of Birmingham to listen to the bands Bre'r and Arborist. I enjoyed the music a lot. I got to know also the artists who were playing  and my number one artist of Alabama (Hi Kevin!). Here you can find his music:

 New folder
I went to a theater (first time on this continent, ha!) to watch Woody Allen's latest movie, went to the Railroad park to play frisbee for 10 minutes before it started to rain and to Good people because "Good people drink great beer", Speakeasy to see where people are hanging out, Al's for having a student gyro close to UAB.

So far this is one of the best summers - I enjoy the work and I'm delighted to the culture here. Full happiness.