April 23, 2012

Science: Why I do it AND write it

A random sample of Americans was polled a few years ago. The purpose of this poll was to gauge our population's knowledge and beliefs on human life and evolution. Religious beliefs aside, this statement particularly stood out to me:

There's no such thing as a genetic defect. All genetic changes result from the decisions of a God or Intelligent Force.

A quarter of Americans believed that this is true. This absolutely floors me.

But it also has me wondering: do people understand what, exactly, a genetic defect is? Do they understand what DNA is beyond, say, mentionings in the O.J. Simpson case or paternity tests on Maury?

Another poll states that 80% of Americans believe the U.S. should create a "DNA bank" of its citizens. What exactly are they believing in, then?

There is a great divide between the scientific community and the average non-scientific layperson. And just before I enrolled in my Ph.D. program to begin my scientific career, it became clear to me how I'd like to use my knowledge: to educate others, in their terms, about what's going on in their bodies.


There are two truths about which I have been certain for most of my life: I love to write and create, and science is endlessly fascinating.

Back home, a large box is filled to the brim with papers I'd taped together to create books—stories I'd share via illustration before I could write words. As my language skills developed, so did my stories, as seen in the work of art below:

"He wonderd he saw Christol did." I think it's supposed to say something
about a girl named "Crystal" dying. I was about 4 years old here...
I grasped reading and writing early on in school. I was often the "designated reader." As we transitioned into peer review-type exercises in elementary school, I would literally have a line forming at my desk for people to have me edit their essays. The teachers found it amusing. (I never minded, but wished they'd step in and regulate the system a bit!)

Me in 4th grade, around
the time I knew I wanted
to "discover a substance."
I also loved my science classes and appreciated the creativity allowed in science fairs and experimental design. I recently uncovered a school assignment from 4th grade in which I had vowed that at age 25, "I will be a successful scientist," and included an illustration of myself in glasses and a lab coat. Clenched in my fist was a bubbling green test tube exclaiming, "I have discovered a substance!"


I entered college in 2007. The end of my first-semester biology lab had me doing exactly what I wanted to do: I worked in a group to design an experiment, write up a lab report, and present the findings to the class. The experiment itself was boring—to hone our protein assay skills, we ground up apple slices and measured their browning rate by quantifying the amount of the particular enzyme that causes browning.

To spice it up a bit, I suggested to my group that we give our experiment a backstory: the county fair is approaching, and we want to make the 1st place winning apple pie. To do this, however, we must identify which apple has the slowest browning rate to keep the pie fresh and tasty.

Our presentation earned us an "A." In a side note, however, the professor wrote, "Too gimmicky."

In my junior year of college, a semester-long class assignment had us critically review a popular press article about a recent pharmaceutical breakthrough. The article contained so many errors that even my modest knowledge of pharmacy could register them. And among all of the popular press articles I could find for this particular study, the scientists themselves—those who had developed the treatment—authored none of them.

I didn't understand why the researchers weren't translating their own work for lay audiences. I didn't understand why I couldn't write about apple pies in my presentation. As a result, my 50-page undergraduate senior thesis in biology is some of the dullest, most confusing writing I've ever produced. And can you blame me?—it's not hard to be beaten down when reading hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers and their mind-numbing jargon. I'm proud of all the work I put into the project, but, in retrospect, rather embarassed by the final product.


Admittance to my neuroscience Ph.D. program was simultaneously one of the most exciting yet scariest moments of my life. I'm going to be Dr. Gaines! But...oh, crap, I have to be a poor, seemingly perpetual student during the most vibrant years of my young adult life, toiling away in a laboratory to compose a long, exhaustingly dull thesis about the 20% of my experiments that don't fail.

Naturally, as any paranoid soul of the 21st century is wont to do, I performed a Google search and found that scientific writing is...well, it's an actual thing—as in the same people writing about scientific breakthroughs aren't necessarily the same people reporting the scores of the weekend's Phillies/Braves game. And better yet, in many cases, it's advantageous to have a degree in the sciences.

I felt the same as I did when I was 9 years old and read A Wrinkle in Time. I found an intersection between science and words. I could teach people science, like the teaching assistant positions I so enjoyed, but better—for I could reach not just undergrads who voluntarily signed up for a science course, but the Average Joe picking up a magazine or opening their Internet browser to see the latest headlines on Alzheimer's research or advancements in neuroimaging. And I could make them understand it.

And that's the goal of this blog and my research as a young scientist: to make sure people understand what's going on, between the antagonists and deoxyribonucleic acids and medulla oblongatas and other scary words that are actually quite simple to understand.

At the young age of 22 (23 tomorrow!), I like to think I've already found my calling. And if I had to tell the little 4-year old illustrating decapitated girls what she'd have to do to get to this spot, I wouldn't tell her to change a thing.


  1. Good on you- you've discovered something you CAN do and that you LIKE to do & you're being allowed to do it by the world at large! In contrast, I've had more goals for "when I grow up/finish this degree" than you can point a stick at, but only now, at nearly 40 years further along than you, have I decided that writing about science for ordinary citizens is something I can do! Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for the kind words Kay! Best wishes to you!


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