Author Archives: alexfocken

Shape coexistence and nuclear physics at TRIUMF

Our group didn’t know what to expect as we trekked across the rainy parking lot towards the modest entrance of TRIUMF at UBC. The small blue sign seemed like an almost comical understatement to the immense laboratories looming behind it. Having no physicists among us, we thought we were in over our heads with this research. We carried on regardless, and were greeted by friendly faces when we made it inside.


TRIUMF sign Source: self

We were met by Dr. Thomas Procter, a postdoctoral fellow at TRIUMF. Dr. Procter had invited us to the facility and offered to tour us round the facility. Not only did Dr. Procter give us valuable insight into his own research, but he introduced us to the world of nuclear physics at UBC.

TRIUMF Cyclotron

TRIUMF Cyclotron Source:

Nuclear physics is the study of atomic nuclei their characteristics and interactions with the world around them. It is this brand of physics that TRIUMF specializes in. TRIUMF is home to the largest cyclotron in the world: a gigantic machine used to generate exotic nuclei for (among other things) studies in astro- and nuclear physics.

For example, DRAGON (Detector of Recoils And Gammas Of Nuclear reactions) apparatus at TRIUMF is a machine used to examine the formation of the nuclei we see commonly on Earth in distant supernovae (Consider rephrasing sentence). In some cases, the specifics behind the formation of these nuclei would remain largely unknown if not for DRAGON. While we got only a brief insight into the functioning of DRAGON, we were fortunate enough to have a more elaborate look at some of the nuclear structure research at TRIUMF done by Dr. Procter.

Dr.Procter's set up Source: Self

Dr.Procter’s Set Up Source: Self

Dr. Procter is interested in a phenomenon that occurs in the nucleus called shape coexistence. The particular research paper of his that we looked at involved the isotope chain of rubidium 98. Dr. Procter and his team used TRIUMF’s powerful cyclotron to generate many isotopes of rubidium for their study. The video below gives an overview of nuclear shape detection by laser spectroscopy and some of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s research.

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It is important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s work before attempting to understand his methods. The following podcast gives a general overview into the laser spectroscopy used in Procter’s work and at TRIUMF.

Unless you are in the field, particle physics is not something that occurs to most people on a daily basis. One could argue that it has little relevance to their life, but in reality, it may be the most relevant science out there. There would be no life without particular interactions between particular particles that that hold us together. In essence, particle physicists ask the big question: “What are the building blocks that make up everything we can perceive (including us) and why do they behave the way that they do?”


The Benefits of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy and the cognitive benefits of owning pets is something that has touched my life in many ways. Being an animal welfare/pre-vet student and a veterinary assistant, the human-animal relationship encompasses the majority of my professional life; however, perhaps more importantly, pet therapy has changed the life of my grandmother following a stroke. While her motor skills were completely restored, she was constantly wrought with anxiety and depression until my grandfather suggested that they adopt a puppy.

Enter Molly, the West Highland Terrier, who would completely reshape my grandmother’s mental health for the better. Whether it was having something to care for other than herself or simply her affection for the puppy, my grandmother took control of Molly’s care: she started walking, smiling and laughing again, socializing with friends, and feeling less anxious about her health.

Lady and her cat

Lady and her cat. Source: Flickr

My grandmother is among many elderly people who have benefited from exposure to animals. Studies on lonesome, mentally ill, and physically ill people have all been relatively conclusive: exposure to animals improves people’s outlook on life and improves their cognitive well-being. In the case of the use of therapy animals on joint pain, it even reduced the amount of pain medication required by patients. It isn’t necessary for the patient to own the pet: regular visits from registered therapy dogs, puppies, kittens, and shelter cats have all proven therapeutic in various situations.

Recently, animal therapy has been implemented in many situations outside of the ill and elderly. It has been used to help treat people of all ages following traumatic events such as school shootings or dealing with the stress of school exams. The following video discusses the use of therapy dogs for students following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
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PTSD therapy dogs are also becoming popular among soldiers with the disorder. The following commercial describes how these dogs assist PTSD sufferers.

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Elderly lady on a hike with her dog. Source: Flickr

Why do we find animals so therapeutic? How can bumbling little puppies have such a drastic effect on our health? Experts believe it may boil down to the nature of our relationships with animals. Because of our inherent sociability as a species, we thrive on the social benefits of owning a pet. It has be found that pet ownership and interaction with animals is associated with positive feelings and reduced anxiety. Pet ownership has even been observed to increase the life of people who own pets compared to people who don’t.


Molly needs a treat.

While she is just a dog living a simple life, Molly has changed my grandmother’s life for the better- no doubt she has increase her lifespan significantly. I will always be grateful to that silly white dog for what she has brought to my family.

The secrets behind the posterchild of regret: the tattoo.

It took me a long time to finally convince myself to get a tattoo. It wasn’t the potential for it being an overwhelmingly painful experience, but the stigma of having a tattoo on one’s body and the risks associated with it that held me back for so many years. The risks of tattooing are relatively common knowledge: the potential of infection, blood-borne illness, and life-altering regret. What fascinated me, however, was exactly how tattooing works.


Retrieved from “”. Click to view source.

The process of tattooing, regardless of its method of application, involves ink particles penetrating the epidermis (surface layer) and settling in the deeper dermis layer of the skin. The dermis layer is filled with blood vessels, nerves, and glands and is not prone to the same shedding activity as the epidermis. Due to the nature of application, the body immediately begins to treat the new tattoo as a wound and activates the body’s inflammatory response. White blood cells called macrophages  attempt to engulf the offending ink to dispose of it as foreign material. Some manage to consume the ink and carry it away from the tattoo (which is one of the reasons your tattoo will fade over time) and some consume the ink and stay in the tattoo. Scientists also claim that some ink particles are too large to be consumed by the macrophages, so they rest in the dermis. Surrounding skin cells will also absorb the ink and pass it on to other skin cells when they die. Over a period of 2-4 weeks, the damaged epithelial skin peels away like a sunburn revealing the healed tattoo that should remain there for the rest of your life.


Healing tattoo retrieved from “”.

This slow motion video of the tattooing process visually demonstrates the process of tattooing. YouTube Preview Image

This video elaborates on why tattoos are permanent.
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After all of that research, I ended up getting a tattoo symbolizing my cat beneath my right ankle.


My fresh tattoo. Notice how bruised and swollen it is.


My healed tattoo. Notice how much the colours have reduced in intensity.

To be honest, I think knowing exactly what was going on in my skin made it hurt more, but it made the experience that much more exciting.
Alex Focken



The ketogenic diet: the world’s most counter-intuitive diet

Last week my co-workers gaped at me as they watched me pour 33% fat whipping cream into my unsweetened black tea. Their judgemental looks were then followed by choruses of “Wow, what a treat” and “Aren’t you lucky to be able to eat something like that”. The truth was I was not treating myself at all, but trying to get ingest my required fat intake for the day of 137g. Why am I drinking whipped cream in my tea? I have decided to follow the ketogenic diet.

The ketogenic diet is essentially a high fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate diet with most people aiming for about 65% of daily calories from fats and only about 5% of daily calories from carbohydrates. Many people dismiss the idea of this diet as extremely unhealthy due to its almost exact opposite ideology of Canada’s Food Guide which recommends 45-65% of your daily calories to come from carbohydrates and only 25-30% from fats. This is not an unfair assumption as most popular media and famous science seems to tell us that low fat is the key to healthy eating, but recent studies are starting to suggest otherwise.

A ketone

The goal of the ketogenic diet is to achieve a constant biological state called ketosis, in which the liver produces biomolecules called ketones derived from fatty acids to provide energy to the body when glycogen stores in our body are depleted. This results in a shift in our metabolism from carbohydrates as a primary energy source to fats as a primary energy source. This can be done by greatly limiting the carbohydrates in our diets and essentially starving that metabolic pathway. For a more in depth explanation of the biochemical process, check out this video by Khan Academy.

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High fat/ low carbohydrates diet have traditionally been used in medicine for the treatment of various health problems such as epilepsy and obesity. Ketogenic diets have been used in epileptic children for years and has been proven to work as an effective anticonvulsant. In a recent study, researchers compared obese patients on a low fat diet to a low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet. Not only did they find that the patients on the low carbohydrate diet lost significantly more weight than the patients on the low fat diet, but they were more likely to persist on the diet. Perhaps one of the most exciting results of ketogenic diet research has found the diet to have an anti-tumor quality due to the reduced circulation of free glucose in the bloodstream: an essential nutrient to tumor growth and development.

While my days are filled with high fat creams, bacon, steak, cheese, and green vegetables, this diet is not as easy as it may sound. I did not realize how intense carbohydrate cravings could get (as demonstrated by this study that found sweets to have a stronger reward pathway than cocaine) and occasionally find myself staring longingly at the fruit section of the grocery store. But so far I am enjoying this experience and the great thing about diets is that you can always change them if they are not for you.