Monday, June 15, 2009

change of heart

Very recently I made a decision about my future. For quite some time I have been seriously planning on leaving the bench upon completion of the phd and seeking a job as an editor. I do, afterall, love to edit. However I came to the conclusion that I am not ready to leave experimental research, because I suddenly remembered why it was I started to do research in the first place.

When I first embarked on the journey of becoming a scientist I was driven by vague notions of brining dinosaurs back to life and making photosynthetic people (giving people the ability to make food from sunlight, like plants). However I became disillusioned by the petty things: competitiveness, secrecy, false or inaccurate data in publications, incomplete methods, waste and seeming pointessness, because one scientist can only do so much. And yet science moves forward in leaps and bounds. Cooperation and collaboration are widespread, sought out, incouraged and generally productive. I was blinded to all that by some setbacks I had in my own research.

What changed? I went to see the Star Trek movie. Let me backtrak here and say thay Star Trek TNG was one of the first tv shows I watched (and was able to understand) in the US. I was instantly in love with it. Exploring the vast unknowns in space: what could be better? I particularly like the concept of discovering something noone else has seen or experienced before. I was therefore drawn to science, biology in partcular becuase there is so much yet to be learned; it seemed certain that I would be the first to discover something. My expectations were high, I don't know what I wanted to discover, but something BIG, and as years passed I didn't see that happening. What I completely missed was that scientists make new discoveries all the time. They are often very small, tiny bits of the puzzle and often puzzling themselves, but they are completely new nonetheless. Over time the smal bits accumulate to reveal a whole picture. I missed that at first and really didn't see the wonder of what I do anymore. Seeing the Star Trek movie made me realize that what I do everyday, most people mght regard as science fiction. Cloning genes, making fish cells glow, manipulating enzymes in test tubes to cut and paste pieces of DNA together in exactly the way I predict based on sequence I see on a computer is amazing. I am a trained biologist, I can do and have done a great many interesting and new things. Sure I haven't made the BIG discovery, but if I leave research I never will. I will not give up now, not after I have come so far. I will continue on the path of a research scientist and see where it leads me. In the foreseeable future it is leading me to Japan. I am embaking on a postdoc search in Tokyo. This is exciting and scary. WIll I be able to function as a scientst when I don't speak the languge? Will they even reply to my emails? Only one way to find out. Full speed ahead.



I tend to be slow and resistant to new technologies. I didn't own a computer until I started grad school (2002). I didn't get a cell phone until by parents gave me one on my birthday (2004). I only started blogging last year (very hesitantly at that). Although I've had an apple computer from the onset and have had an ipod for the last three years it was not until last year that I started to explore podcasts. Actually, just one, Japanesepod101 for learning Japanese, and not until last week that I started listening to science related podcasts and realized that I have been missing something great.
A couple of years ago I heard a talk by Peter Fiske. He mostly talked about exploring other careers outside of academia for phds. He described that being a grad student is like living in a small, dark room. You have a very narrow focus and then coming from that into the real world can be shocking. So it is important to keep abreast of the many developments in the scientific world, not just one's own field. Last week I read a discussion of whether listening to an ipod is good for lab work. There was a bit of a debate in the comments, but I was struck by one comment, saying that listening to science podcasts made lab work bearable. I was intrigued. I was resistant to podcasts because I don't like talk radio, such as NPR and I envisioned it to be something similar. However in my beginer experience I found that science magazine editors interview on interesting topics in an inteligent way. It was repfreshing and stimulating. I found that listening to great scientists talk about their work is both educational and inspirational. It reaffirms my desire to do something that educates the publish about life science research.

Update: I've since found that not all podcasts are created equal. Nature has a great podcast, whereas the one made by Science is a bit dry for my taste.


Monday, June 8, 2009

What's in your genome?

A genome is just a word to describe all the genetic (inheritable) content of an organism. It is a way to describe a full set of chromosomes. Each cell in the human body contains a full genome. The cells are different because a different set of genes are active at any given time. That is why a liver cell and a skin cell look different and perform different functions and yet have the same genetic material. An exception are the germ cells (the egg and sperm) that contain half the the full set of chromosomes, so half of the genome. Just a few years ago finding out the sequence of a single gene was a big deal. These days the human genome is sequenced along with many other organisms making it possible to compare genes between species. Genomics (the study of genomes) is becoming an everyday thing. To keep up with all the latest news genomics news check out:the genome web.