Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Science, a Field of Imagination
“I’m not creative, so I think I’ll probably end up going into science.”  “Scientists are just robots.”  “Science is one dimensional, two at best, it doesn’t require creativity.”  “Scientists don’t have to think outside the box.”  
The common misconception that science doesn’t require creativity or imagination is inaccurate.  The word creativity often brings to mind artists and musicians, rather than scientists.  Artists paint on a canvas and musicians play instruments in an orchestra, both of which are perceived as “beautiful,” a word society links to creativity, while scientists must follow the scientific method and use measurements, graphs and statistics, none of which are typically thought of as “beautiful.”  However, while science and art may be different processes that produce different results, science does require the use of imagination and an ability to think outside the box.  
A common argument people cite when making the point that scientists aren’t creative is that science is procedural and the scientist simply follows the steps.  While this argument has some merit, it omits a very important piece: that the scientist chooses the procedure and the tools she’ll use to complete it.  This decision of how to collect data that will provide the best possible answer to a scientific question is difficult and requires creativity, as each tool provides the opportunity to collect different results.   It’s not unlike an artist who must choose whether deep, dark colors of oil paints or the monochrome, stark nature of rusted metal will best portray his message.  For example, when Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase were working to determine whether DNA or protein was the heritable genetic material of life, they had to brainstorm the best methods to go about doing so.  They used new tools, like bacteriophages and radioactive tagging, in a different way, transferring and tracking macromolecules.  They tried various methods, and used blenders in unprecedented ways to separate results (Lee, 2013).  They analyzed results, repeated the experiment and reanalyzed the results to ensure they were correct (Szybalski, 2001), and they found that DNA, not protein is the molecule of inheritance (Brown, 1970).   This thorough search for a procedure to yield the desired data is typical in science, and coming up with each idea requires not only immense knowledge and research, but also plentiful imagination and creativity.  
Once a scientist attains their results, the necessity for creativity continues--the message still needs to be communicated.  Similar to choosing which tools to use in conducting research, there is a plethora of statistical analyses available, and deciding which to use and how to use them based on the data and the goal of the experiment requires serious consideration and thought.  Continuing with the painting analogy, it’s like choosing which color oil paint to apply to the shadows of a woman’s face in order to bring out the sunshine lighting her icy-blue irises.  Should the painter use a deep brown with a red tint or more of a purple so dark it’s almost black?  In both the case of the artist and the scientist, the goal is to most successfully communicate one’s interpretation of the world.  Analyzing data can be especially difficult if they go against what one hypothesized and believed.  When a scientist’s experiment doesn’t come out as expected, first, the scientist looks into possible experimental errors, a process that requires one to be thorough and think of every possible error, usual and unusual.  Second, a scientist must be open, and realize that, while their data may not be related to what they were expecting, it still tells them something important, not unlike an artist acknowledging that a slip of their brush may not have ruined their painting, but simply changed the meaning.  This was the case with Griffith, when he was researching the possibility of creating a pneumonia vaccine using different strains of the bacteria.  He found results that didn’t pertain to the focus of his research, but was able to extrapolate from them an important discovery for humanity: bacteria can transfer their DNA (Griffith’s Experiment, n.d.).  Griffith had to be innovative and think outside of the box to interpret his unexpected results.  
Finally, scientists, like artists, face limits.  Whether these are a lack of tools available or a lack of funding, limits affect the ability of the scientist to complete his experiment as desired, and coming up with alternatives requires a great deal of imaginative thinking.  Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, a major scientist in STEM cell research, had a multitude of difficulties with funding and space when he first started as a STEM cell researcher at Osaka City University in 1996 because he was a mere assistant professor.  He received next to no funding, was given a single seat in a shared laboratory to complete his research, and was not allowed to use embryonic cells in his work--the only way that anyone had conducted STEM cell research at that point.  But, not unlike the starving artist, he made do with what he had and continued his work.  Eventually, by being creative, Yamanaka worked around a lack of funding and materials and finally achieved a previously unfathomable goal: be able to conduct research of STEM cells without using embryos.  He accomplished this by reprogramming adult cells to revert back to STEM cells (Fackler, 2007).  While there is still much work to be done, as many of these reprogrammed cells turn cancerous, Yamanaka has taken the first step, and the rest can also be accomplished with further unbridled imagination and boundless hard work.  
Science, traditionally thought of as rigid, is not so uninventive.  Innovation and the ability to create are at a scientist’s core; without this mindset, science would not progress, just as art and music would not progress.  Science is considered unoriginal is thus uncreative, because it follows rules and builds off of previous research, but, in effect, so do art and music.  This is how humanity develops: by learning from mistakes and using and improving upon what works.  The next time someone says that science does not require creativity or imagination, correct them.  Help them learn that science, like art, requires full use of an innovative mind.  Remind them, in the words of Albert Einstein, that “The greatest scientists are artists as well.”  

Works Cited and Consulted:

Brown, T. A. (1970). The Human Genome. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from
Szybalski, W. (n.d.). Waclaw Szybalski on Martha Chase [Interview]. Retrieved May 11, 2001, from
http://library.cshl.edu/oralhistory/interview/cshl/memories/szybalski-martha-chase/ and
Lee, R. J. (n.d.). Gender Bias in Science, Part IV: Martha Chase [Web log post]. Retrieved October 28,
2013, from http://www.themadscienceblog.com/2013/10/gender-bias-in-science-part-iv-martha.html
Griffith's Experiment. (n.d.). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from
Fackler, M. (2007). Risk Taking Is in His Genes. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from

Thursday, August 25, 2016

More Efficient Than Nature

Wow, this, I guess like every other article I have read so far, is so cool.  I love the idea and concept of a bionic leaf, even if I have sliiiiiight PTSD from the photosynthesis and cell respiration unit--trying to keep all the details of each process straight and separate from each other was hard!  I am realizing that I definitely need a good refresher on all of that though, because when I read that the water-splitting molecule in this artificial process is an alloy of cobalt and phosphorus, my immediate thought was, how does that compare to the water-splitting molecule in natural photosynthesis?  But I couldn’t remember what that molecule is, or if we even learned what it is.

I found the whole idea of being able to take a natural process and tweak things to make it more efficient to be very interesting.  I guess the purpose of this process is different from that of natural photosynthesis--generating alcohol instead of ATP--but it seems like nature would want to be as efficient as possible.  So why isn’t natural photosynthesis more efficient?  Why is it that with a little (or maybe a lot) of messing with nature, scientists were able to make a process ten times more efficient?

Some of the other questions I had were more basic, like what does the bionic leaf look like?  I always find being able to visualize something to be helpful in remembering it, but there was no image of the leaf.  At first I was picturing a leaf that is bionic, but then read in the article that it is called a “leaf” because of its “melding of biology and technology.”  I figured the biology part was the whole idea of using a process similar to photosynthesis, and that it ended there, meaning it probably doesn’t actually look like a leaf.  But I decided to look it up on Google Images just to make sure, and in all the pictures I found, it looked like a little bionic leaf, just as I had originally imagined!  This leads me to wonder, where are these leaves going to be used in our society?  Are we going to start having artists make tree sculptures in cities so that these bionic leaves can be attached to them?  That would be cool!  Or would it be more productive to just make large panels and put them on the roofs of buildings and in fields, like we do solar panels?  If the desired end result of this leaf is alcohol that can be used for fuel, is it going to be produced in liquid form, because it would be at air temperature?  If so, where is the liquid going to be collected?  In little individual compartments for each leaf, or would there be a way to pipe it to one larger tank? I’m very curious as to how these leaves are going to be incorporated into society.

Monday, August 8, 2016

First of all, just because I thought this was great, I want to share how my dad picked up this article, read it, and then kept asking again and again whether I had read it yet.  I guess I know where I get my fascination with biology from!  Second of all, CRISPR sounds like something to do with keeping salad greens fresh.  It is obviously an acronym for something important and relating to the process, but still.  
Ok, now down to article.  The genetics unit was my favorite; I loved how everything went together, how everything to do with how we operate is encoded in our DNA, and how we are still making new discoveries every day.  It just amazed me--and still does.  It is crazy to me, but also at the same time expected, that we can now edit DNA.  (It seems like it would be possible when I think back to the way DNA is unwound and replicated that at some point during that time we would be able to go in there and edit the DNA.  I’m not sure that’s when this gene editing would actually happen, but that would be interesting to know.)  I was wondering when this time would come, but now that it’s here, it’s still hard to believe.  
This whole advancement is incredibly interesting (WE CAN EDIT THE MOLECULE THAT DICTATES WHO WE ARE, WHAT?), but I found it especially so that NYC researcher Timothy Chan says that taking cells from the site of the tumor specifically would improve the method’s effectiveness, as these cells would already specialize in attacking the cancer.  I guess that makes sense, but I would love to know more about why and how that works.  I also found it interesting how involved China is with anything to do with gene editing and how quickly the nation moved ahead with this project.  It’s honestly kind of scary, and I have to wonder how meticulous they were when looking into the safety of the process and the possible side effects.  
So yeah, it’s insane and awesome that we can now edit our genes to delete one and perhaps cure cancer, but I also have worries, and being a bit of an anxious person, these stand out to me.  The issue of editing DNA in the wrong place (apparently a “well known” danger--eek!) is taken care of, because the cells will be examined before being inserted back into the patient, but other problems have not been resolved.  It sounds to me like the PD-1 gene is responsible for preventing cells from launching all-out immune responses and killing healthy cells, and so the fact that the goal of this gene editing is to remove this gene makes me concerned.  Does this mean that our immune system will no longer have limits and will then go kill healthy cells?  Chan has also expressed his worries regarding this, that the immune system will attack “the gut, or adrenaline glands or other normal tissue.”  Would this happen instead of killing the cancer?  Alongside killing the cancer?  After the body has done its job and the cancer has been wiped out?  And since gene editing is passed on to the next generation, what kind of implications would that have?  Would this mean that the next generation’s immune system would not be controlled?  I can only imagine that wouldn’t be good.  
Along slightly different lines, another question I have is what other genes the U.S. will be using in their pending trials, as they said they will be using the gene for PD-1, as well as knocking another one out and inserting a third, and why they are using these genes.  
This is a scary process and I can’t help but worry about the possible negative side effects, but I think that this is largely the case with any new idea.  Of course there are going to be issues with it, but will they overwhelm the positive effects?  That’s what we have to find out, and it sounds like we will be finding out soon.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gene Loss as a Force of Evolution

The first thing that struck me as particularly interesting in the article about gene loss being part of evolution is how the author said that “thinking of gene loss as an evolution force is a counterintuitive idea.”  To me, it wasn’t a counterintuitive idea until I actually thought about what I have been taught.  When I first read this sentence, I immediately thought that, well yeah, of course losing genes can make you more advanced, because a) sometimes you have to lose genes to adapt to your environment, and b) sometimes a gene that you lose may actually be inhibiting some sort of advancement, and therefore losing it would be a step in the right direction in terms of evolution.  Then I started to consider what the article was saying, and this led to me to two things.  The first is the question, what counts as advancement?  Becoming more complex?  Adapting to your surroundings?  If the latter counts, then even if a life form does not become more complex upon losing a gene, it would still become more advanced because it is better suited for survival in the specific climate, right?  I hope that makes sense, because my brain is starting to confuse itself.  The second thing I came to, when thinking back to what I have been taught, is the realization that the idea of becoming more complex when a gene is lost is indeed a counterintuitive one, as I have always been told that more genes usually means a more advanced life form.  However, I found it very interesting that my first reaction was that losing genes can advance a life form.  

The article talked about two ways a gene can be lost, and both contained (somewhat) familiar processes from Bio class. The first way a gene can be lost is physical removal.  Transposition is an example of this, and it made me think of the corn lab, because it dealt with transposons in regards to the corn kernel color.  The second way a gene can be lost is if the gene is not expressed due to mutations, which made me think of the mutations we learned about, like insertion, deletion, substitution, and inversion.  Another point made in the article that reminded me of things I have learned was that losing genes can be beneficial to a life form.  I saw this in my recent science fair project dealing with styrene, where I learned that we are better off if we don’t have the GSTT1 gene, because it breaks down styrene into styrene oxide, which is toxic and carcinogenic, and therefore damaging to us.  

Of course, gene loss isn’t always beneficial.  There are times when it is harmful, and there are times when it is neither harmful nor beneficial.  The latter circumstance, according to the article, occurs when there are multiple genes that do the same thing present, and so even if a gene is lost, there is another one doing its job.  The average human, in fact, has around 20 genes that don’t work, yet there is no negative impact.  This makes me wonder why we have multiple genes doing the same thing in the first place?  What is the point of having these “extra” genes?  I don’t know if there is an answer to that question as of now, but I would like to look further into it.  

Another question I had and would like to look into more is about gene loss contributing to a “new Y chromosome.”  I’m not sure exactly what that means and how it works, but it sounds very interesting. I would love to have basically the whole paragraph containing that piece of information explained, as I didn’t understand it but would really like to.