Thursday, December 20, 2012

Science is for Cool Kids

I just finished my first semester of graduate school, studying biology and trying to reconcile myself with my new title of "scientist". I figured I would share a bit of what I've learned...

1.       Graduate school is the last form of a dying thing called apprenticeship. As a grad student, you join a lab and the PI/s (principal investigator/s) becomes your mentors. Apprenticeship is a strange relationship. Like most relationships it is built on trust and destroyed by assumptions and miscommunication. But it’s unlike most relationships. Because you are younger, and they tell you what to do, you start to feel like their pseudo-child. Before you know it, you see them as parents, and spend your free time thinking of how to scramble into their good graces, and escape the dark abyss of their displeasure. Of course, to them it is a healthy relationship of teacher and student, (or genius and sponge) but to you it is a lot more twisted.
2.       It is good for the one to die for the many to be saved.
There is a form of DNA damage called alkylation. A methyl group (Me) is added to our DNA, and that’s not good. When this happens, it’s directly reversed by something called the suicide enzyme which has a sulfate group (SH). The “S” takes the “Me” off our DNA and allows it to keep replicating in a happy, normal manner. Why the killer name? Because once the enzyme takes the “Me”, it can no longer function; it basically sacrifices itself for the sake of the DNA.  
3.       If you go the wrong way, you can go back to where you started and try again.
Proteins have 4 levels of structure. The first (Primary structure) is formed, and has to be formed properly before the second, which has to be formed properly before the third, and so on. The protein has to go through pathways for each structure to get to what it needs to become. But as in life, mistakes happen. It can go down the wrong path, and become the wrong protein. Much like a confused young person, it often goes down the wrong path. Then what? Our amazing bodies have a repair mechanism for everything. If it goes down the wrong path, there is another pathway through which it can go back to the beginning and start over!
4.       The fruit you bear depends on the ground that you’re connected to.
 So genes have all the information we need to make proteins (which is what most our bodies is made of). These genes are called DNA. DNA gets turned into RNA, which is what actually gets translated into proteins. RNA is translated into protein by proteins (go figure) called ribosomes. In humans (and most large complex organisms), this RNA has to be recognized by things called Eukaryotic Initiation Factors. One of which is called eIF4G. We’re going to call it 4G to make things less complicated. 4G connects to the top of our RNA and allows translation to happen. Sometimes, when a virus comes into our bodies, it wants to have its own proteins made instead of our own. One of the things it can do is get itself recognized by 4G instead of our RNA. Whatever source 4G is connected to is what gets translated. So if it’s connected to the wrong source, like the polio virus factor, then polio proteins get translated and we get sick.
5.       Many parts, each doing their work and supporting each other, make a functioning body.
You know how in daycare, there are just a bunch of babies, all pretty much the same, who can become a million different things when they grow up? The equivalent in early development of a person (or any organism) is pluripotent cells. These cells are all the same, but can grow to become any of the God-knows-how-many cells that make up our bodies. They start of the same, and then branch of pretty quickly to each have their own characteristics and behavior that makes them what they really are. All the parts, after they have found their pathway, and what they are meant to be, become the body. In some species, if one group of cells gets destroyed for one reason, the rest can work to regenerate that part, making up for the lack in body.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Goodbyes and Kind Things Like That

Today I taught my first college class for the last time. Towards the end of the session, something weird happened. An outlandish desire to hold on to these 20something’s who wouldn’t be able to tell anyone anything about me, in whose faces I saw not names, but percentages. As they left, they turned in their papers, gave me the 5-second-American-smile and walked away. In a moment of spontaneity, I wondered if I should bar the door with my body and demand hugs, against everything in the professional conduct code. I looked down, gathering papers, and marveled over the end of things, why it means so much. 

My favorite student came up to me. Yes I know, it’s not right to have favorites. You have to treat everyone the same way. Perhaps I still have favorites because I’m new at this, or maybe it’s because with no explanation, those who draw us draw us, and those who put us off put us off. He came up to me and took his quiz. I prepared myself for the casual nod and smile, and he said, “thank you for this semester, have a good life!” I laughed, replying “Good luck on the final!”, and loved him for a brief second. That’s how I will always remember this day now. 
In the poetic words of Dostoyevsky, “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” Goodbyes mean so much. Ask the person who loses a loved one to some form of ending, and there’s a high chance you will hear them say “I never got the chance to say goodbye.” There is a mark for the beginning, but without a sort of goodbye, in the end everything seems to float away, without cause, without any definition; an incomplete circle. The ends of things are hard enough, and like any other kind of pain, ignoring them only makes them hurt more.

Because we live, we get the opportunity to make a mark. Not just in the things we endeavor to make a mark in - sometimes we never get that priviledge - but in everything we do. Not only in the things we say, but in the times when we stay silent. You may never get to be the third world activist you want to be, cure cancer, or fulfill even simple, perfectly reasonable dreams, like being a good father. But there are dreams all around you. Not yours sometimes but by some twist of fate, in your power to fulfill. There are always open places for you to make a mark. So be kind in your words and silences. Express the things in your heart to the people who flutter through your life, while you have them. Live well. Leave well.