Sorry for the delay, dear readers. Lately, I’ve been feeling like Howard the Duck. “Trapped in a world he never made!” A brief chat with a colleague stirred up my ambivalent feelings about Big Science: awe mixed with skepticism, and spurred this made me contemplative about my own start in lab…
Saw a colleague yesterday headed off to an NIH study section convened on some kind of crazy idea to sequence single neurons from all parts of the brain. After a briefly swinging my…knowledge base…a little bit, shook my head at the idea, “Wow, you neuro guys are crazy ambitious!” It made me think about the contrast between modern biomedical research, and the kind of science I fell in love with.
I’ve loved learning about science for as long as I can remember, but it first dawned on me that I liked life in the lab while a college student labeling Eppendorf tubes in a cold room on 168th street. Years earlier, my 6th grade teacher Mr. Petro-Roy let me take home some beat up astronomy books he was using as bases for a ball game. I’ll never forget what he said when he saw I was assigned to his class, “how did I get blessed with you?!” Important encouragement for a poor kid with no confidence. In 8th grade, my science teacher, Mr. Vreeland, would have the class packed up and ready to go out the door a few minutes before the bell every day, and somehow it became our ritual that I would try and stump him with a question. I loved that. He seemed to too. About 10 years ago, I heard that Mr. Vreeland had died. I get misty thinking about him.
As a college student, I sneered a little bit at professors that admitted they got poor grades in the subjects they were lecturing on. With irony, I confess now I am one of those teachers. When I got to college, I had gotten in to Wesleyan University by the skin of my teeth and was a January Freshman (my roommate, with a wicked grin, for years introduced me as such). I took Genetics along with as many other classes as I could handle and was so stoked to be finally out of a mind-numbing job and a tense home situation. I took too many courses, and tried to cut corners by taking the Genetics lecture without the drosophila lab portion, which was listed in the syllabus as optional. The midterm was incomprehensible, and I confronted my professor during office hours. He told me most of the questions I struggled with were taken directly from work done in the lab, and he was astonished that anyone in class was not also taking the lab. I got a “C” and was devastated. Around the same time, I went to the Science Library and tried to read journals with the word “genetics” in their title. The technical jargon was impossible to understand and in no way resembled the science I thought I loved. So I concluded after my first semester that I was not cut out for genetics and needed a new plan.
My best friend told me he always imagined I’d be a doctor, so I figured I’d try that. I made spending money for college doing temporary clerical work and on fateful week I spent at the Muscular Dystrophy Association helping to unpack and sort grant applications. The head of the office on a tour of the stacks of grants asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up…”Be a doctor, I think.” Well, to get into medical school these days, you need some research background. He picked up the phone and arranged an interview with William Johnson a doctor doing research in Tay Sachs disease. His goofy energy was infectious…”what’s on the docket for today?” he would ask every morning.
In his small lab, I labeled tubes, I ran gels I barely understood. The time flew by and for a change, I felt that I was playing a small part of a worthy, scrappy effort. Once in medical school I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
Grand projects are wonderful. They are stimulus for the economy and they energize the public for the ambitions of science. In my neck of the woods, The Human Genome Project has unquestionably been a boon to life science and biomedical research. But it’s critically important that Big Science is funded over and beyond a stable budget for regular science. If Big Science like BRAINI is going to be funded by stealing money from within the current NIH and NSF budgets, then I am violently opposed.
Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.
The practical application of science to cure diseases for example is wonderful, but a cure for any disease would generate millions if not billions of dollars in profits in our current medical care system. IMHO if the research is “translational,” maybe it should be supported by staggering profits of the pharmaceutical industry.
Anyone interested in science, in working to fight a disease, to help other people and join a team of scrappy geeks, let’s pay it forward. Certainly, I wouldn’t be where I am now without little selfless acts.