Two books that made me a biologist and the common ancestry of me and my not-especially-adorable study organism

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Last year on Darwin day I had the time to write a personal reflection on my Darwin fangirldom. This year, I have no experiments to tend to, but I still have six impossible deadlines to make before breakfast (seriously, I do). So, with no time for reflection, I’ll just recycle my thoughts from a year ago, warts and over-earnestness and all:

———————

203 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. Darwin’s most wonderful idea, evolution by natural selection, eventually became the organising principle around which the field of biology is built. But from a more self-absorbed perspective, that idea is also what first attracted me to biology.

I’m wearing my ScienceOnline2012 temporary Darwin tatoo for the occasion.

In high school, I wanted to grow up to become either a filmmaker or an English professor. But I was also a giant nerd, and in Year 11 I won an award for biology, the prize for which was a book voucher. For the sake of the award ceremony I decided I should choose a book about biology–The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould. The cover featured a panda intensely inspecting its thumb, which resembled another intensely focused panda displaying another thumb, which was yet another panda, and inside were 35 essays on topics close to the paleontologist-writer’s heart: evolutionary theory, Darwin, the history of science, and the politics of human difference. Frankly, to my teenaged eyes it looked boring, but I read it anyway. I had long known the principles of natural selection, but in school the ideas seemed dry and cramped. My dinosaur phase had come and gone without me ever thinking too hard about the processes that turned the descendants of walking reptiles into flying birds. Gould’s reflections, on the other hand, gripped me with an intensity that I think is best encapsulated by the expression of the panda from the front cover. He (Gould, not the panda) made me think about adaptation and change in new ways. He used unforgettable stories from nature, like bacteria that sense magnetic fields, the pseudogenitalia of female hyenas, the mites that die before they are born, and of course, the panda’s ‘thumb’ that is really a modified wrist bone. He turned the bearded anonymity of Darwin into a tangible person, one that grappled with real data and put together his ideas as best he could. He picked apart those ideas with fire and grace. He drew me in to a world of scientific debate and I couldn’t get enough.

I quickly read every Gould essay I could get my hands on, and because I was spending so much time browsing the biology shelves of the public library, I started picking up other books on biology.  One day, I came home with The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind by Steven Rose (fully illustrated). The book was not only about the neurobiology of memory, it was about what it meant to be a scientist. It opened with a kind of ‘day in the life’ of a neuroscientist and an extremely memorable description of a two-scientist production line, in which one person was responsible for cutting the heads off baby chicks, and the other scooped out the brains for analysis. As a vegetarian, and a snuggler of all things adorably fluffy, that book made me squeamish, but it also gave me the strange idea that I too could be a scientist, chipping away at our understanding of the world.

Factoid that connects the two books that made me a biologist: Rose was a Marxist. Gould was not, but was often accused of being a secret Marxist by his detractors.

But the book also made me sad. I thought science was out of reach for a book geek like myself. One night, at a gathering of restless teens, I told a friend about my new idea.

“I want to be a neurologist. But I can’t be, because I don’t think I could cut the heads off chicks all day.” My friend looked like she wanted to shake me.

“You could totally be a neurologist,” she insisted. “I want you to be one. You could employ me to deal with the chickens for you.”

Although that didn’t sound like a practical solution, the more I talked about my idea, the more confident I became. I asked my school’s vice principal if it was too late to drop my humanities electives and pick up chemistry. It was. He talked about how many months I’d missed, and how I would have to catch up by myself with the textbook. Then he told me that he knew I could do it.

So, fifteen years later, here I am, a soon-to-be-unemployed biologist. I lost interest in neurology at some point, but I never lost my love of Gould, and of Darwin, and their beautiful ideas. I tried, briefly, to become an evolutionary ecologist, before I realized I didn’t have enough maths training. Instead I find myself a specialist in the ways of the bakers’ yeast (brewers’ yeast, to its friends). Yeast are fungi, like mushrooms, but single-celled and not especially adorable. However, they do have their benefits as a study organism. The most important of those benefits, for my line of work, is that like every other living thing on earth, yeast are my relatives.

IMG_2222

OK, I guess giant yeast can be cuddly. Photo from flickr by piefairy.

About a billion years ago, there was a free-living, single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a yeast, or a cell from my body, or one of the rat cancer cells in petri dishes that I will feed  as soon as I have finished this post.  That ancient organism had a nucleus, which is to say that a membrane separated its DNA from everything else inside the cell.  That cell also carried a vital, energy-generating, pet bacterium (the mitochondrion). It also had a system for transporting things in and out of the cell in bubbles of membrane (the endomembrane system). At some point in its life cycle, it must have had a single, whip-like flagellum that flapped from its posterior end. This busy cell was the last common ancestor of  both me and of the yeast I have just arranged onto a nutritious bed of jelly to be ready for an experiment next week.

Because we are related by heredity, many of the things I learn about those yeast cells will also be true of my own cells. I take advantage of this fact to study a human disease called antitrypsin deficiency using quickly dividing, cheap-to-grow, non-adorable yeast cells. When I make a discovery in yeast, I test whether it might also hold for mammalian cells by repeating the experiments in those rat cancer cells I should be tending. If my ideas are borne out by those experiments, then I turn them over to the medical scientists that study antitrypsin deficiency in the millions of humans that are afflicted by the disease worldwide.

Without an evolutionary framework, the way that I study antitrypsin deficiency wouldn’t make sense. It’s thanks to Darwin’s ideas that I became a biologist, but it’s also thanks to Darwin’s ideas that my work has value. So, please raise a glass of whatever you like to drink on a Sunday and wish a Happy Darwin Day to biologists, to all of humanity, and to our Opisthokont* cousins.

*Opisthokonta is a class of organisms that includes fungi and animals. Yeast and I are both opisthokonts because we are eukaryotes, but are more closely related to each other than to plants and our other, weirder, eukaryotic cousins.

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Scientists juggling work and family life: it’s not a girl thing

I’ve just had an article on scientists juggling work and family life published in ASBMB Today, the magazine of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. My goal was to share the stories of early career scientists (i.e. grad students, postdocs and untenured faculty) who are dealing with these issues right now, as opposed to the retrospective advice of superstar scientists whose kids are safely dispatched to college, and who no longer have to carry around spare sweaters to cover up baby vomit.*

I also deliberately included both men and women in the article because the issue of work/life balance is nearly always cast as a “women’s issue,” when this is actually an issue for society as a whole. Women clearly bear the brunt of the problems that I mention in the article–uncertain and inflexible career paths, inadequate or unclear benefits, time poverty–for the simple reason that they typically spend more time on child-rearing than men do. This was obvious to me in the responses I got, with male respondents often sounding more upbeat than female respondents (disclaimer: small sample size). But, this doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer too. For instance, the study I quote at the beginning of the article (“Scientists want more children”) also found that:

the effect on life satisfaction of having fewer children than desired is more pronounced for male than female faculty, with life satisfaction strongly related to career satisfaction.

I know men that are angry at the fact that they are expected to leave child rearing to their female partner for the good of their career. I know men that are angry that their partner feels forced to choose between work and family. I know men that feel guilty that they’ve somehow got the ‘balance’ of work and life all out of whack. But if you leave all this stuff about men and women aside, everyone in society suffers when we demand that people choose between work and family. Think of all the collective tiredness, grumpiness, guilt and regret we are creating, the lost talent and the damage we’re doing to the progress of science. I don’t have kids and I’ve recently quit bench science, so don’t take my opinions as those of a woman/parent/scientist. Take them as the opinions of someone that wants to benefit from scientific research.

*Actual advice offered by a respondent.

 

Huh, PhD. What are ya good for?

Last Friday, some fine postdoc colleagues and I hosted an ASBMB-sponsored career symposium with the title “What can I do with my PhD?”

I know the title just invites unsavoury answers, but I chose it because it’s a burning question among the grad students and postdocs that I know.  Most of us have accepted that we’re not going to become research academics like our bosses. But  it’s not obvious what else we are qualified to do.

So, to answer that question, we invited local(ish) speakers who have both biomedical/chemical PhDs and jobs. Yes, actual jobs. We heard from a professor and department chair, assistant professor from a liberal arts college, industry research scientist, textbook editor,  high school outreach co-ordinator, career coach, freelance writer, communications manager, tech transfer manager, regulatory affairs director, project manager and a career coach.

You can read more about the event at the Storify, but I also wanted to share an additional piece of advice that cheered me up after a pretty trying week. It actually came from an informational interview that I had with one of the speakers, after the event. I wanted to learn more about his field, and the different sub-categories and specialties within it. He cut off my sob story about choosing the area I am most qualified for, with something along these lines:

When you change careers, everything is going to be very difficult at first. Why bother going through all that hassle for an area you’re not interested in? Why not start with what you like?

The truth, fellow PhDs, is that we’re not technically qualified for all that much. But for most employers, we’re still a bargain, because we’re smart, numerate, independent, hard-working and have absurdly low salary expectations. So, if you can find a way to wedge a toe in the door, you’re probably going to do just fine, and wouldn’t you rather do just fine at a job that you wanted in the first place? I recognise that we can’t all have dream jobs. But I don’t intend on starting my search by looking at the bottom of the pile.

Two books that made me a biologist and the common ancestry of me and my not-especially-adorable study organism

sciseekclaimtoken-4f5d592d5a2f7

203 years ago today, Charles Darwin was born. Darwin’s most wonderful idea, evolution by natural selection, eventually became the organising principle around which the field of biology is built. But from a more self-absorbed perspective, that idea is also what first attracted me to biology.

I’m wearing my ScienceOnline2012 temporary Darwin tatoo for the occasion.

In high school, I wanted to grow up to become either a filmmaker or an English professor. But I was also a giant nerd, and in Year 11 I won an award for biology, the prize for which was a book voucher. For the sake of the award ceremony I decided I should choose a book about biology–The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould. The cover featured a panda intensely inspecting its thumb, which resembled another intensely focused panda displaying another thumb, which was yet another panda, and inside were 35 essays on topics close to the paleontologist-writer’s heart: evolutionary theory, Darwin, the history of science, and the politics of human difference. Frankly, to my teenaged eyes it looked boring, but I read it anyway. I had long known the principles of natural selection, but in school the ideas seemed dry and cramped. My dinosaur phase had come and gone without me ever thinking too hard about the processes that turned the descendants of walking reptiles into flying birds. Gould’s reflections, on the other hand, gripped me with an intensity that I think is best encapsulated by the expression of the panda from the front cover. He (Gould, not the panda) made me think about adaptation and change in new ways. He used unforgettable stories from nature, like bacteria that sense magnetic fields, the pseudogenitalia of female hyenas, the mites that die before they are born, and of course, the panda’s ‘thumb’ that is really a modified wrist bone. He turned the bearded anonymity of Darwin into a tangible person, one that grappled with real data and put together his ideas as best he could. He picked apart those ideas with fire and grace. He drew me in to a world of scientific debate and I couldn’t get enough.

I quickly read every Gould essay I could get my hands on, and because I was spending so much time browsing the biology shelves of the public library, I started picking up other books on biology.  One day, I came home with The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind by Steven Rose (fully illustrated). The book was not only about the neurobiology of memory, it was about what it meant to be a scientist. It opened with a kind of ‘day in the life’ of a neuroscientist and an extremely memorable description of a two-scientist production line, in which one person was responsible for cutting the heads off baby chicks, and the other scooped out the brains for analysis. As a vegetarian, and a snuggler of all things adorably fluffy, that book made me squeamish, but it also gave me the strange idea that I too could be a scientist, chipping away at our understanding of the world.

Factoid that connects the two books that made me a biologist: Rose was a Marxist. Gould was not, but was often accused of being a secret Marxist by his detractors.

But the book also made me sad. I thought science was out of reach for a book geek like myself. One night, at a gathering of restless teens, I told a friend about my new idea.

“I want to be a neurologist. But I can’t be, because I don’t think I could cut the heads off chicks all day.” My friend looked like she wanted to shake me.

“You could totally be a neurologist,” she insisted. “I want you to be one. You could employ me to deal with the chickens for you.”

Although that didn’t sound like a practical solution, the more I talked about my idea, the more confident I became. I asked my school’s vice principal if it was too late to drop my humanities electives and pick up chemistry. It was. He talked about how many months I’d missed, and how I would have to catch up by myself with the textbook. Then he told me that he knew I could do it.

So, fifteen years later, here I am, a soon-to-be-unemployed biologist. I lost interest in neurology at some point, but I never lost my love of Gould, and of Darwin, and their beautiful ideas. I tried, briefly, to become an evolutionary ecologist, before I realized I didn’t have enough maths training. Instead I find myself a specialist in the ways of the bakers’ yeast (brewers’ yeast, to its friends). Yeast are fungi, like mushrooms, but single-celled and not especially adorable. However, they do have their benefits as a study organism. The most important of those benefits, for my line of work, is that like every other living thing on earth, yeast are my relatives.

IMG_2222

OK, I guess giant yeast can be cuddly. Photo from flickr by piefairy.

About a billion years ago, there was a free-living, single-celled organism not too dissimilar from a yeast, or a cell from my body, or one of the rat cancer cells in petri dishes that I will feed  as soon as I have finished this post.  That ancient organism had a nucleus, which is to say that a membrane separated its DNA from everything else inside the cell.  That cell also carried a vital, energy-generating, pet bacterium (the mitochondrion). It also had a system for transporting things in and out of the cell in bubbles of membrane (the endomembrane system). At some point in its life cycle, it must have had a single, whip-like flagellum that flapped from its posterior end. This busy cell was the last common ancestor of  both me and of the yeast I have just arranged onto a nutritious bed of jelly to be ready for an experiment next week.

Because we are related by heredity, many of the things I learn about those yeast cells will also be true of my own cells. I take advantage of this fact to study a human disease called antitrypsin deficiency using quickly dividing, cheap-to-grow, non-adorable yeast cells. When I make a discovery in yeast, I test whether it might also hold for mammalian cells by repeating the experiments in those rat cancer cells I should be tending. If my ideas are borne out by those experiments, then I turn them over to the medical scientists that study antitrypsin deficiency in the millions of humans that are afflicted by the disease worldwide.

Without an evolutionary framework, the way that I study antitrypsin deficiency wouldn’t make sense. It’s thanks to Darwin’s ideas that I became a biologist, but it’s also thanks to Darwin’s ideas that my work has value. So, please raise a glass of whatever you like to drink on a Sunday and wish a Happy Darwin Day to biologists, to all of humanity, and to our Opisthokont* cousins.

*Opisthokonta is a class of organisms that includes fungi and animals. Yeast and I are both opisthokonts because we are eukaryotes, but are more closely related to each other than to plants and our other, weirder, eukaryotic cousins.

Don’t be a pony: media training for scientists from Liz Neeley and Ed Yong

I have a scientist friend whose work received a little mainstream media attention last year. He surprised me by telling me that even though he was fielding interview requests from a variety of hallowed and respected magazines and radio shows, he was saying no to all of them. He had several reasons for not wanting to engage, but even when he put those aside, he still felt something that many scientists articulate in his position: there was no chance of the coverage benefiting him and there was a good chance it could hurt his standing amongst his colleagues.

Although I agree that this is true for scientists in many fields, I also think that pretending media coverage isn’t happening isn’t the right response. If your research or field is newsworthy, a journalist will write about it, irrespective of whether you co-operate. Scientists owe it to the public—who probably funded the research—to promote decent reporting of their work by communicating clearly with the media.

Of course, I can act all high-and-mighty on this issue because I’ve never done any research that would be of the slightest news interest. So I was completely unprepared when I was interviewed in an unfriendly tone by the otherwise friendly journalist Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus. He asked me something about the motives of scientists working on GMOs; I replied with silence and a look of terror. Of course, Seth was only pretending to be evil as part of a workshop I attended last week, which was designed to help terrified scientists regain their confidence during an encounter with the media.

The workshop was On the Record – a Media-skills Workshop for Scientists and was just one of the many amazing sessions at ScienceOnline, a beloved annual gabfest for science bloggers and other people with a stake in the communication and practice of science online. Hopefully I will eventually catch up on enough sleep to tell you more about ScienceOnline, because it was awesome and I hope I get to go again next year. The media skills workshop was moderated by Liz Neeley, who trains scientists to communicate without shooting themselves in the foot, and Ed Yong, who used to be a spokesperson for a cancer charity and a science blogging wunderkind, and is now a freelance journalist and a science blogging rockstar. The main thing I took from their advice, the subsequent discussion, and Seth’s mock interview, was that you can have more control over the process by being prepared and by being clear.

Liz particularly stressed the importance of understanding the nature of the relationship between you and the journalist. In most cases, they are not your enemy and they want an excellent and accurate story too, but they are also not your friend and their goals are not identical to yours. This is why it is crucial that you do your background before doing an interview. You need to know exactly who you are talking to and what their goals are likely to be. If someone calls you up and asks for an interview, don’t start answering questions until you have know who it is, who else they have interviewed, when the deadline is, what the piece is about and what type of piece it is. You should also follow up after the interview—ask them for more details about the story, offer recommendations for who else to talk to, and of course, check the published piece for errors.

She also pointed out that scientists can be surprisingly obedient in interviews, waiting for the interviewer to lead and ask all the questions, when it should really be a conversation. This is the point at which Liz pretended to be a pony to illustrate that you should not be one.

Ed had ten tips that went something like:

1) Be aware of the medium (e.g. print vs. TV) and do your background on the journalist.

2) Just consider everything to be ‘on the record.’  If you really want to say something off the record, you will need to negotiate the meaning of ‘off the record’ in advance.

3) There are obvious questions that would arise for any non-specialist hearing about your work, and a good journalist will definitely ask you those questions. You could ask your Mum what those questions might be.

4) Rehearse some lines or answers to the obvious questions, not because you want to come across as a robot, but  because it can help with nerves and deer-in-the-headlights panic.

5) Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, especially when being filmed or recorded. Sometimes the journalist will need a nice soundbite and will ask you the same question until you say something that is intelligible.

6) Explain your work as you would to a child.

7) Don’t get distracted and don’t distract others. By which he means don’t have other stuff going on during an interview (like your Twitter feed) and don’t wear distracting clothes on TV or make distracting noises on radio.

8) Expect dumbass questions. Don’t be thrown, you can always try to answer a different, more sensible question.

9) If the journalist keeps asking the wrong questions, don’t be afraid to suggest the right questions.

10) The most important, most unbreakable cardinal rule is: Don’t get angry. No matter what. No matter what the provocation, you will always end up looking like a dick.

Amen to that.

The session was interesting and useful, and was one of several spurred by the repetitive cycles of debate on the relationship between the media and science. Ed has summarized the state of the recent discourse in handy diagram form (on the suggestion that emerged from another session, during a discussion of how to get people to click on links, I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO IMMEDIATELY CLICK ON THE LINK RIGHT NOW AND READ ED’S EXCELLENT EXPLAINER THANKYOU KINDLY). If you still can’t be bothered to click on the link, I can paraphrase the worst of the mood as:

Scientist: Journalists are hacks. They get everything wrong and don’t care about science. They should stop questioning us and just write what we tell them to write.

Journalist: Scientists are whiney babies. If we didn’t keep them in line they would go around being all fraudulent and blowing stuff up.

Public information officer: Why doesn’t anyone listen to us?

Even though the debate does get totally pointless sometimes, there are important issues hiding in there. One of those is that scientists have a real, and occasionally justified fear of being misquoted or duped. Unfortunately, if every good scientist gave in to that fear, then we’d be left with the agenda-pushers and self-promoters as the only scientists doing the talking.

-186 days. Miscellaneous Things I Will Miss About the Bench

There are 186 days left before I leave bench science.

There are some things I can’t wait to leave behind. Like beta-mercaptoethanol. But there are a few things I’ll miss about not being in a lab everyday.

The ability to vortex my hand in moments of boredom

Using lab supplies for side-projects

Intriguing contaminants

Cravings for salt’n’vinegar-flavoured chips

Things that change colour

Fantasies about making a prom dress out of leucine crystals

Yellow-capped tubes with blue labels

Machines that only I can use (and select others trained in the Way of the Jedi)

I guess I’ll miss the science, too. But mostly the yellow-capped tubes.