Jan 242011

Lynne Quarmby is a gene biologist who  runs a research lab at Simon Fraser University and lives in West Vancouver; she’s also a painter (see five water colours earlier posted on NC), a musician and a big-time outdoorswoman. DG briefly attended Simon Fraser in the summer of 1969 as a graduate student in philosophy. That summer he won the British Columbia 5,000m track championship, climbed the Lions (the twin snowy peaks you can see in the distance from downtown Vancouver), and went to San Francisco and hung out on Haight and Ashberry (where nothing much happened). Lynne’s “What it’s like living here” essay reminds him of the past (although it was summer and it didn’t rain much, and he lived on campus on top of Burnaby Mountain and didn’t have to commute). Vancouver really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, with English Bay out in front and the beaches and the ships and the great bridges and the snowy mountains just behind.



The one thing everyone seems to know about Vancouver is that it rains. It’s true. It is raining now, as I look from my 4th floor apartment in West Vancouver across English Bay to Kitsilano. The glow of streetlights at 11 am this January 7 morning emphasizes the daytime darkness and feeds the sense that the soft rain will continue unrelenting for weeks to come, socked-in, drizzling, misty, foggy, dark and wet. When days are this dark melancholy seeps in – you’ve been forgetting to dose with vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunlight (and thinking too much about the lack of research funding). But Vancouver is a coy place. It relents, the clouds thin and lift and you thrill to the spectrum of grays – oyster, pearly, mousy, leaden, silver. It’s 3 pm and the continuously changing light makes it difficult to stay focused on the lecture that needs to be written.  I relent and head out for a walk, knowing that I will be up late working.


Balcony in the sun

The Sun

2 PM Saturday, January 8. I sit outside, soaking up sunshine. The surprise arrival of this sunny day demands attention. The sun shines directly onto my building, and because the heat is absorbed by and radiates from the concrete building, my balcony is warm. I’ve eaten lunch outside in my shirtsleeves, absorbing the warmth, absorbed by the view of sky & sea. I watch the freighters at anchor as they swing with the flow of the tide. One steams into port for its turn at the docks. The seagulls cry. A lone kayaker paddles up the coast. I am watching through a curtain of rain. At this moment I am the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow. I look across the bay to the city – whose rainbow?  I close my eyes and focus on the warmth of the winter sun. I breathe deeply and slowly, savoring the air – cleaner than we deserve, refreshed daily by the mountains and the sea breezes. It is all too much, and soon it will be gone again. How long can I sit here absorbing paradise? About 30 minutes. If you were here perhaps we’d sit for a while longer.

The Lions from Sky Train

The Forests and the Mountains and the Sea

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve driven the 15 minutes up the mountain directly behind my apartment. The open area around the parking lot is a zoo. Families with sleds, tubes, dogs, and kids running wild  – everyone is manic with the sunshine. We all act as though the sun never shines in the winter, that this is remarkable, spectacular, something to write home about. And it is, even though it isn’t really all that unusual. It is my first ski of the winter and I feel awkward as I set out cross-country into the forest. Within 500 meters I find a deep quiet and feel the peace.  I try to ski high enough for a view across the ocean as we roll away from the sun, but I am too slow.


Cypress Mountain

The Commute

West Vancouver is a small town; a city distinct from Vancouver. Here I walk the seawall to wherever I need to go – yesterday 0.5 Km west to the village of Dundarave where I picked up a roll of quarters for the laundry. Frequently I see seals, but on this walk I saw a sea otter. Later I took my backpack and walked east 1 Km to the village of Ambleside to buy groceries from Mitra’s, a Persian market. There was a heron fishing in the intertidal. There are usually bright scooters, occasionally bald eagles, and always seagulls. Last week I watched a seagull swallow a starfish. Perhaps next weekend I will walk a little further to the sailing club to ask about kayak rentals. During the week I leave this idyllic community and commute to Simon Fraser University where I am a professor of Cell Biology.

Although it takes twice as long as driving, I commute by public transit. I take a bus over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, through Stanley Park into the city (by which we mean downtown Vancouver) where I disembark to a chorus of “thank you” “thanks” “have a good day” – riders here acknowledge the driver as they exit the bus. Buses that pass you by because they are out of service or full announce “Sorry” on their destination screens.   From downtown I take the sky train out of the city. Twenty-five years after Expo ’86, riding the sky train still feels futuristic.  It is a clear day and Mt Baker, a large (inactive?) volcano about 100 Km southeast in Washington State, hangs in the sky like a rock & ice metaphor for our big brother to the south – always there even when we don’t see it. Out the north window, although small & distant the snow capped coastal range captures my attention. The people-watching is fabulous, but the listening isn’t. It helps to have a great set of headphones – every commute is a movie and I get to choose the sound track.

Bookclub Dessert

Lemon meringue pie
Bus with standing room only
Serve “transit rider parfait”

Lion’s Gate Bridge and Stanley Park from the seawall in front of my apartment

The University on Top of Burnaby Mountain

Tuesday January 11. This morning I delivered a 2-hour lecture to ~70 Molecular Biology & Biochemistry majors on how cilia – those tiny rod-like structures that protrude from the surface of almost every cell in your body – function as cellular antennae. In particular, I was reviewing for the students some recently published data that (almost) reveals how urine flow through the collecting ducts of the kidney causes cilia to bend and send signals to keep the cells small. When this flow-induced signalling pathway is defective, as it is in patients with Polycystic Kidney Disease, the control of cell size and division is disrupted and ducts bellow into cysts. We work through the evidence to decide whether there is causality behind an intriguing correlation.

After lecture I stop by my lab. We are feeling a little lowly these days because last week we learned that my application for the renewal of the federal grant that funds our research was not successful. The application scored in the “excellent” category but research dollars are short.  The reviewers raved about the proposal, but they want more preliminary data to demonstrate that our ideas are on the right track. I’ve had to give notice to three people. Today I have only 30 minutes to spend in the lab because I am on the examining committee for a thesis defense this afternoon. When I get to the lab I find everyone waiting expectantly. There is excitement because Laura has obtained a new result.

Laura loading gel

Laura is a self-confident third year graduate student who isn’t yet sure whether a life in science is worth the sacrifices. She prepares a slide for me and we go to the microscope. She doesn’t tell me which sample is the control but the result is so clear that it is obvious. All through the thesis defense I jot notes. This new data is a big boost for the renewal application and I am trying to decide how it affects where to put our efforts over the next six weeks. It is important to only do experiments that can give us informative results before the application is due; it is also important to do the key experiments. Which key experiments are most likely to work and to work quickly?

Wednesday, January 12. SFU gets a snow day while the rest of the city goes to work. More commonly we go to work like everyone else and then get stranded on the mountain when the roads close. I make sure I have snow boots with me so I can walk the 45 min down the trail into the rainy lowlands and catch a bus home.

The Future

Friday, January 14 the rain is back in spades. In the evening I decide to go for a swim – in the summer that would mean the ocean, but tonight I pull up the hood on my raincoat and head across the road to the Aquatic Centre.  It feels good to be in the bright light, listening to families splashing in the play area next to where I swim lengths. As I leave the Aquatic Centre, Brenda is arriving. A fellow resident of Surfside Towers, Brenda is in her 50’s, or maybe 40’s – it’s difficult to tell. She is about 5’2” and has puffy features with small squinty eyes. Brenda speaks in a mumbling nasal voice, but her manner is caring and gentle. I learn that she swims every Friday night. She tells me about the sauna and the steam room – I’d missed those. After running home through the rain, I arrive at our building at the same time as Steve who is returning from an event at the Legion. He is a tall man in his 70’s with a dignified carriage and a gracious manner. Tonight he is in uniform with medals on his chest. At first Steve doesn’t recognize me (we’d met at the Christmas party). Then he sees that I’ve been swimming. He tells me that Brenda swims every Friday night. On our way up in the elevator he pushes “G.” It is nice, he explains, for people coming home in the evening to have the elevator waiting.

Shades of gray from my balcony

Tomorrow I will take the ferry to visit friends on Bowen Island. I’ll break my mostly vegetarian routine to share a meal of wild venison.  We’ll talk of recent shows we’ve seen in the city – whenever Bela Fleck or Chick Corea comes to town we’ll all be there. We may try out the new Sauna they’ve built of driftwood.

—Lynne Quarmby

  14 Responses to “What it’s like living here — from Lynne Quarmby in West Vancouver, British Columbia”

  1. Beautiful writing Lynne about a place I’ve always wanted to see but have never managed visit. I especially love “I’m the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow,” and your descriptions of an elusive sun.

  2. Vancouver is one of my favorite places (based on the approximately 10 days I’ve spent there), and I love the way you captured it.

  3. Gently uplifting, in spite of all. Vancouver, like God, like everything, must be in the details. Thanks, Lynne

    “It is important to only do experiments that can give us informative results before the application is due; it is also important to do the key experiments. Which key experiments are most likely to work and to work quickly?”

    I’m sorry to see, however, that you’re under the same arbitrary pressures as the rest of us.

    • Hi Gary,
      The “arbitrary pressures” part of your comment has been following me around. I noticed in the news this morning, this being Robbie Burns day, that SFU cannot afford the haggis for tonight’s big Pipe Band party. Times are tight and everybody is feeling it. I do get frustrated with the grant situation – our government could do a much better job of distributing its research allocation – but I also feel privileged to be a scientist. It is obvious to all how we need farmers and plumbers and skytrain builders. Isn’t it our responsibility to show society how they need us artists and scientists? Why do we think that eating faux food and consuming McArt isn’t the way to go?

  4. Natasha, Jeanie & Gary – thank you for the kind words.

  5. Great reading, here, on a day in the Adks, that hit minus 20 degrees (Fahrenheit)!

    The other end of the rainbow, I think, is all of us -our kidney cells and urine 😉

    THANK YOU for all your work!

  6. Beautiful writing – infused with an awareness of natural surroundings that inspires. Your word choices are spectacular – even the “spectrum of grays – oyster, pearly, mousy, leaden, silver” dazzle.
    So much to love: “At this moment I am the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow. I look across the bay to the city – whose rainbow? The sense of discovery permeates this piece connecting work, nature, place, community, and self.

  7. Ooooo-eeeee. Thank you JfJ. You’ve brightened a dark (and very wet) Vancouver day.
    Yours in joy,

  8. I lived in Burnaby in the late ’80s, riding the Skytrain rails every day to an office tower downtown. My prairie kin always mocked my choice of residence, not understanding how I could tolerate the winter rains. Yet, I loved it, and your beautiful piece describing the “spectrum of grays” revived my fond memories of skies with texture, of air that always settled comfortably into my lungs, of grass that was an impossible emerald in the middle of winter.

  9. Nice writing Lynne

  10. Thank you for your beautiful writing. 🙂 I am looking for an area to live in Greater Vancouver and your blog has helped me understand more about your area!

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