Why does everyone, including me, like astronomy so much? OR – how I became a biologist.

Photo Feb 17, 6 57 16 PMI LOVED SPACE.  I loved space so much that in the sixth grade I spent most of my time at recess – without shame – with a friend planning on how to create a tractor beam (for those who aren’t complete geeks, that’s the force in Star Trek that allowed the Enterprise to latch on to other spaceships).  Our solution – a very big, long rope. Completely ignoring my fear of heights or adventure rides, I was convinced that I was going to be the female Jean-Luc Picard.  And as everyone else wrote in their sixth grade yearbooks how they wanted to be a teacher, doctor or lawyer, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer (and I honestly cannot believe that I’m showing the proof with my sixth grade yearbook photo).

"Aequorea victoria" by Mnolf - Photo taken in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA, USA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aequorea_victoria.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Aequorea_victoria.jpg

“Aequorea victoria” by Mnolf – Photo taken in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA, USA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

With this deep-seeded love of astronomy, you may be asking yourself how I became a biologist?  In my senior year of high school, I attended a Boston University Medical Center program called City Lab.  This was a six week program that my mom drove my friend Missy and me to (an hour each way in rush hour traffic) so that we could do a lab experiment.  Each week, we spent several hours in the Boston University lab doing different parts of the experiment I describe below.

gfprabbitThe goal of this experiment was to take a piece of DNA that coded for the green fluorescent protein (also known as GFP) and put it into a piece of DNA that could make bacteria glow green.  We haven’t talked in detail about genes or protein expression yet, so I’ll stick to the basics. GFP is from a jellyfish called aequorea victoria, and it’s what makes the jellyfish glow green (see above).  A scientist isolated this one gene, and if transferred properly into another organism, it can make that organism glow green.  And yes, people have tried this.  People have created GFP rabbits and mice and…NO, NOT PEOPLE.  Why not?  Well, first, because it’s highly unethical to do genetic engineering in people for no clinical reason (and having glowing eyebrows will not cure any disease).  Also it’s very difficult to manipulate the DNA in humans for a variety of reasons that we will discuss when talking about gene therapy.

So, at City Lab our job was to cut the GFP gene using restriction enzymes (which are essentially DNA gpfbacteriascissors that cut DNA in a specific place) and then insert the GFP gene into another piece of DNA using ligase (essentially, DNA glue).  This  new piece of DNA (called a bacterial expression vector) makes the GFP protein in bacteria cells.  When the GFP protein is expressed in bacterial cells, the bacteria glow green (like the picture to the right).  It was easy to figure out if your six weeks of effort was worth it if your bacteria glowed green.

OUR EXPERIMENT WAS THE ONLY ONE THAT WORKED. Not only had we understood how a piece of DNA worked, moved it from one place to another, but we then were able to get it to do something in a bacterial cell.  At the time, I didn’t realize that this was what scientists called “recombinant DNA technology”.  I didn’t know that this was used all of the time in the laboratory as a foundation of molecular biology studies.  I had no idea that someday I would be managing a facility that stored hundreds of thousands of these pieces of DNA to help researchers worldwide with their experiments.  I only knew the thrill of “discovery” and I wanted more.

That’s how I became a biologist #tbt

You’re what kind of scientist?

I was one of those people who wrote in their college application essay that since I was seven years old I wanted to cure cancer.  And I truly did (long story for another post).  Somehow, I thought it would happen by the time I graduated from college.  I was convinced that all cancer needed as a “fresh pair of eyes” and it would just come to me.  Looking back, I want to pat my teenage head and sigh at what a cute idea that was while being incredible proud of my idealism.

BU terriers

So with this goal in mind, I thought I should be a pharmacist so that I could do pharmaceutical research, until I asked a pharmacist what they did all day and decided that would be incredibly dull.  So I started Boston University as a biomedical engineering major – it included the words “bio” and “medical” so I assumed that it would be perfect for me.  This was a fabulous plan until I took physics.  This was the first time I realized that not every scientist was the same kind of scientist.  I was a scientist who had a lot of trouble understanding physics – specifically electromagnetism.  I still don’t understand why the electromagnetic vector was sometimes going into and sometimes coming out of the board.

I distinctly remember the day I decided to switch my major to biochemistry and molecular biology. I called my parents and they told me to tell them 10 reasons why I should switch major.  They understood what a person could do with a degree in biomedical engineer (create prosthesis or design medical devices), but what in the world would a biochemistry and molecular biologist do?  And so I explained…

Cells are the building blocks of living organisms and molecules (whether DNA, RNA or proteins) are inside of the cells essentially either doing things (in the case of proteins) or directing the creation of these proteins (in the case of DNA and RNA).  Biochemistry explains the mechanisms of how these molecules function. So by understanding how cells and molecules work through research, I could better understand how life works.  And even more interesting, you can study what happens when these mechanisms break down to cause changes in the cells that result in diseases like cancer.  Cells and molecules are also what are targeted by drugs, which fit right in with my goal of developing a cure for cancer.

As I reflect on this early “scientist” moment, I’m thinking about how the public views scientists and how it could be confusing that different kinds of scientists are not at all interchangeable.  Do people lump all scientists together?  Is it confusing that as a biochemist, cell and molecular biologist I know so very little about physics? Or climate change? Or medicine? And even though I’ve taken classes in neuroscience (and neurons are cells that are filled with molecules), I’m no neuroscientist?  There’s so much information and scientific knowledge, that I’m actually grateful that there are experts in other fields…if for no other reason than so I don’t have to understand physics.

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