Monday, January 23, 2012

Building A Scientific Cathedral

A woman came across three men working at a construction site. She asked the first man what he was doing. He replied, "I'm making bricks." She then asked the second man the same question. His reply was, "I'm making a wall." When she came to the third man and repeated her question, he said, "I'm building a cathedral."

Clearly, all three of these men were doing the same thing. But they had different attitudes, different visions, and a different sense of pride, about their work. 

So why am I telling this story? I think that there is a parallel to basic science work here (and I'm not talking about the chemical reactions involved in solidifying bricks and mortar). Like bricklaying, basic science involves a great deal of "manual" labor, which is sometimes repetitive and tedious. If that's all you see about science, though, you're not going to be very satisfied doing it - much like that first bricklayer. If you can make some connections, put the work in context, see it as the second bricklayer did - that you're creating a wall - then it will be somewhat more fulfilling. But if you can continue to do your work while maintaining the sense that you are a part of something greater, that every discovery is built upon the work of so many other people, that you are constructing a "cathedral" of sorts along with other scientists, then the discipline becomes so much more. 

I'm not going to lie. That repetitive work? I know that in my future as a physician-scientist, I may not always feel like doing it, or find it "fun." But there will be a point to it, a greater goal, both within the context of my own particular research and within the larger context of science. And I find that thrilling.

Like the greatest cathedrals, our body of scientific knowledge has been built brick-by-brick. I look forward to laying a few of my own someday.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


I'm no stranger to Excel. I've made plenty of graphs and charts throughout school, especially in the science courses I've been taking in the last two years. But the formulas and functions that spreadsheet programs can do? Not so much. I've always done that work by hand. (Correction, with a calculator.) 

Now that I'm taking statistics, I've got a LOT of calculations to do. So doing them one by one, cell by cell, would simply take forever. Luckily, last Friday my stats professor showed us how to do a number (no pun intended) of basic calculations within Excel itself. (Although at home, I'm not using Excel - I'm using Apple's Numbers program, which is an Excel equivalent. And I've found that the calculations work pretty much the same, thankfully.) 

This is just a basic stats course, and it's the beginning of the semester, so we haven't gotten to anything too complicated yet. But using a spreadsheet program to compute the sample mean (i.e., average), variance, and standard deviation is so handy. I was even kind of having fun doing my stats homework ... really. It was almost like magic. After entering my data points, I'd go to a new cell, hit the "equal" sign, and then do my thing. Multiply, divide, square, you name it. Then click-and-drag to do the same operation down an entire column. Of course, the program is only as smart as you are, so you've got to input everything correctly. And that can take some getting used to. But I think I've got the hang of basic operations, at least.

Now, the question is, what am I going to do with all the time I'm saving? 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lovely Larvae

On Thursday, I started my work in the Genetics research lab. Granted, this may not be everyone's cup of tea, but given that I want to do an MD/PhD, this is the perfect way for me to spend six hours each week (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Thursday). 

Before beginning any actual "research," my professor had me read two of his own published articles as background information. Both had been published in the journal Cell, which, if you're not familiar with it, is quite prestigious. So his work has gotten some attention from the scientific community. He and his colleagues have been looking at olfaction (sense of smell) in Drosophila melanogaster larvae. In the first paper, they identified a set of genes responsible for olfaction in the larvae (previously, it had not been known which genes controlled the sense of smell in the larvae). This was really quite an accomplishment, and the methods they used were pretty amazing. (Don't worry, I won't go into the details unless someone asks!) In the second paper, they looked at behavior of the larvae in response to different organic compounds, both attraction and repulsion. I will be doing an extension of the second work, performing behavioral assays with the larvae and testing their chemotaxis response (that is, movement in response to chemicals). By the end of the semester, I will (hopefully!) have generated quite a bit of data, and will write a formal lab report about my progress.

In addition to doing the behavioral assays, I will also continue to read scientific articles, which will be great - I love getting exposure to more scientists' work, techniques, etc. And there will be some freedom in the work I do as well - if I want to take the work in a particular direction not previously explored, I have the ability to do that, under my professor's direction. Which is pretty amazing.

All in all, I look forward to this semester's work. Who knows what we may find? That is the beauty of science.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just Read It: eBooks

I will admit. I love the feel of paper, of a tangible book in my hands. Flipping the pages, scribbling notes in the margin, highlighting and underlining ... it's a great sensation. After all, I was a Journalism major, with a focus in News Editorial, and I wrote for newspapers, magazines, and textbooks for years.

But. I must say, I am totally into the eReader thing these days. So many books are available in electronic format, and it makes them incredibly portable. Not to mention searchable, in a way regular books are not. Don't get me wrong, I don't think "real" books are going the way of the dinosaur. I believe - and hope - that there will always be a market for them. 

There are, however, a lot of positives about eBooks. Besides the portability and searchability features, there is the cost factor. I've heard that some eBooks are more expensive than the hard copy, but my experience has been the other way around - that the electronic versions tend to be cheaper, on the whole. (I got an incredible version of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species for $2.99.) And some are even free. I recently discovered, via a dear friend, that you can "check out" electronic books, by downloading them, from your local library. Yes, for free. The selection is somewhat limited, but not bad, considering the price. You just enter your library card number and password, click on the title, and if no one else has it checked out - just like a regular book, only one person can have a title checked out at a time - the book goes directly to your Kindle app. Pretty cool. I'm glad to see libraries are keeping up with the times.

You can always buy electronic books, of course; iBooks (Apple's digital "bookstore") and are the go-to places these days, it seems. One thing I really like about Amazon's Kindle books is that you can send a free sample to your device (which includes my iPad) to test out the book before you buy it - just like if you were to go to a bookstore and read the first few pages. Here are a few Kindle titles I've downloaded to sample:

- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
- Genetic Medicine: A Logic of Disease by Barton Childs, MD
- On the Sparkling Nature of Human Origins by Talessian El-Wikosian
- Watson & DNA by Victor McElheny
- Genetic Twists of Fate by Stanley Fields and Mark Johnston
- Inside the Human Genome by John C. Avise

Of course, reading even samples of books requires that you have time ... which, in my life right now, is in short supply. But I hope to check out some of these titles, at least. Who knows what I'll learn?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Great Tutoring Opportunity

My goal, eventually, is to go into academic medicine. In that capacity, I hope to do some teaching. This semester, I will be getting some experience doing just that - by being a tutor for General Biology 2.

I received an e-mail about a week ago from my former Gen Bio lab professor, telling me that because I did so well in the class last spring, she was inviting me to be a tutor for the class this spring (along with some other students). Dominican University offers drop-in biology tutoring at its Academic Enrichment Center, but this will be different - it will be an "invitation-only" small tutoring group for students who did not do so well in General Biology 1, and who might otherwise slip through the cracks grade-wise.

I'm really excited about the opportunity. It will be great teaching experience, and will (hopefully) help these students do better in class. Part of the tutoring will be helping students with concepts, of course. If they come with questions, great; if not, I am supposed to be prepared to lead a discussion about what was covered in lecture that week (no problem there). One of the nice things is that they will be covering basic genetics in the course - meiosis, Mendel, Punnett squares, etc., and I excel at that, especially just having taken an actual genetics course. So I will definitely be prepared for that material. I also made flashcards for the entire Gen Bio 2 class when I took it, so that's another resource I can share with the students. Some of these students may also have issues not only with the material, but with general study skills - how to study, and how much to study, for this class. That's another arena in which I can definitely be of some assistance.

I will be attending all of the Bio 2 lectures (a total of 3 hours each week), and then leading a 1-hour tutoring group one afternoon a week. I even get paid for all 4 hours, which is a nice bonus. (It doesn't pay much, so the monetary part certainly isn't the main reason for my wanting to do this.)

This tutoring project certainly adds to my plate, but in a good way. I'm looking forward to giving back to the Dominican community, a community that has given so much to me.

Background: These are marine diatoms, specifically Pleurosigma angulatum, at magnification x200. Diatoms are unicellular organisms often characterized by a silica shell. This image is from National Geographic. Diatoms, along with other unicellular organisms, and their phylogenetic classifications/relationships, are some of the things I will be helping students with in General Biology 2.