Blog Posts

Why do I write as a scientist?

Alara Tuncer

Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. 

Perhaps I was three, maybe four, sitting in a tub, soaking in bath water. The first memory I have of my existence is one where I am sitting surrounded in bubbly splendor, holding tiny little tubes filled with color. My already large eyes grow in the reflection of the glass bottles as I hold them closer, observing the color and viscosity changes as the contents drip, drop, drip, drop. I remember it so well; the photographic evidence taken by my parents has likely helped. I’ll spare you the sight of seeing baby me—in my birthday suit. Feeling like something between a magician and a cook, it was then that I realized—sitting and mixing little hotel shampoo bottles—that I was going to become a scientist. Now that I’ve lived enough to have strong and informed opinions, I hate people thinking of science as magic. All I want is to write about how science—completely un-magical—can solve all our problems and shape the world we live in for the better.

A few months ago when President Trump was asked about climate change after the California wild-fires he stated comfortably: “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.” The corresponding officer responded, “I wish science would agree with you” to which Trump replied, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” The group of experts laughed, tittering nervously. What can you do when the President of the United States—one of the few people in the world who has the power to dramatically alleviate the world’s climate change problems—doesn’t trust science? The urgency of the situation has become crystal clear, even Pope Francis gave a TED talk, calling for action on climate change.

I’m not an environmental scientist, nor am I an expert in geology nor climate change research. However, by virtue of scientific training, I have seen firsthand the rigour of the scientific process and can trust in its findings. I can say that I’m a biochemist and biologist having studied biochemistry as an undergrad and in pursuing a master’s in biology. But you don’t need to believe in science to feel something about the dark auburn skies that collapsed over the west coast just a few months ago. Still—when I close my eyes—I can’t forget the images I saw as I scrolled down my Instagram feed, California choking in orange soot. And unless you blame the deceptive nature of photos on Instagram, you must be feeling similarly.

Amongst the disparities by which we are surrounded, there is one in particular that damages us all. That is scientific illiteracy. When science can be the solution to our contemporary problems, our lack of trust and misunderstanding of the subject makes us deficient in solving our most prominent concerns. We dismiss it because we don’t understand it. Or we belittle it, labeling it as ‘magic’ because we need to simplify the complexities of our reality.

In the era of technology, there are so many voices, loud and quiet. They echo, they leave victims behind in the form of scorched trees, species on the verge of extinction, and loved ones lost to coronavirus. Despite these costs, this loud and ringing noise of the world never grows silent. It’s hard to step back and separate what is right from what is wrong. And we find excitement—and surprisingly—comfort in believing in conspiracies. Coronavirus is a Chinese attack. No, it’s a hoax. Climate change is a lie. Teenagers play with fire all the time, they must be the reason for the California wild-fires. So what, who cares if Polar Bears go extinct? And so, during times of global crisis, science often becomes an afterthought, second to emotion and rhetoric.

According to Jon Miller, a professor of Investigative Studies at Michigan State University, 70 percent of Americans do not comprehend the science section of the New York Times, Science Times. Is this because we’ve made science look so difficult? Or is it because people are naturally disinterested? This is a problem that impacts our society and policy making. So, why do I write, when nobody seems to be listening? Because amongst all the opinions and the loud noises, there is always one constant that pushes ahead—science.

Science has been the explanation for everything since the beginning of time and it will be the explanation until the end of time. The apple will always hit whoever is sitting under the tree. And all of our “good” and “bad” behaviors will have psychological and psychiatric explanations. And despite their bad rap, vaccinations will continue to have the life-saving potential to prevent disease.

Tik. Tok. Tik. Tok. We’re running out of time.

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They’ve repurposed the clock installed on a building looming over Union Square in New York City, to remind us of the time remaining to act on climate change before it becomes an irreversible burden. Sadly, that’s all it is. A reminder. And unfortunately, climate change will continue so long as we remain distracted by louder voices.

Despite being the natural reality of our existence, science will only have an impact if we extend the conversation to the general public and politicians. So, let’s write, read, and advocate for science!

 

Edited by Eliza Neidhart

 

https://nerdist.com/article/union-square-metronome-climate-disaster-clock/

Help! The Tricky Task of Communicating to a Broader Audience

By: Jay Kang

“This is it! This is the moment I have been waiting for!” I thought loudly, as I waited in front of my research poster for the Montclare lab. I was finally ready to present my work at the 52nd MACUB Research Conference. Looking around, I saw students standing in front of their posters, each displaying interesting results, schematics, and graphs. As attendees began to mill about, I was excitedly preparing bits of what I might say to an interested viewer. I got my hopes up as someone seemed to approach, but at the last minute they settled into conversation with a nearby presenter. I tried, but failed to wait patiently in front of my poster.

Finally! After what seemed like half of the session, a woman holding a clipboard approached my poster. Suddenly, I was concerned. My thoughts started running, “How do I explain so much information concisely?” I was comfortable explaining my work to colleagues, but had absolutely no experience conveying my message to someone outside of my specialty. My stressed stream of consciousness continued, “Does this person understand amino acids? Do they know the objective of circular dichroism experiments? Do I have to explain part 1 of the schematic, or should I skip to part 2?”

Wanting to start simple, I began by explaining blindness, how it can be treated using a drug called DENAQ, and the obstacles faced in delivering this drug. Then, I transitioned into the specifics of our research. As I was explaining how we genetically engineer novel protein Q, I noticed that the viewer was still reading the abstract of my poster. She stopped me and asked, “What are rods and cones?”. I was surprised, but I kindly explained the functions of the rod and cone photoreceptors in the human retina. She nodded her head, wrote a few things on her clipboard and walked away. At that moment, I felt very frustrated because I had not been able to share the full story of my hard work.

Soon, a young student approached me. She vivaciously explained that she was interested in the field of biotechnology and the NYU logo on my poster caught her attention. She was “dying to know” about my research, so I tried my best to eloquently explain the purpose of the research project and our experiments. Judging from her expression, she seemed to have understood and was impressed. I felt grateful for her attention because it made my hard work in the lab feel validated.

What did I learn from this somewhat unpleasant, yet enlightening experience?

 

  1. I should ask the listener about their background, so I’m not making assumptions. That way, I won’t be speaking an unknown scientific language, nor will I waste their time with fundamentals they already understand.

 

  1. My goal as a presenter is to have an exchange with the viewer that is impactful, interesting, and educational rather than trying to impress. Next time, after learning that a viewer isn’t familiar with rods and cones, I’d avoid terms like photoreceptors or retina, instead selecting more common language.

  2. It is very rewarding to present to someone who is knowledgeable and interested, but I must be adept at explaining my project in accessible language in addition to specialized conversations with scientists in my field. If I have a deep enough understanding of my research, I can explain it to anyone.

 

Edited by Eliza Neidhart

The Not So Final Version !

By Priya Katyal

After months and months of performing arduous experiments and data analysis, the time finally comes when you turn a disorganized pile of results to something orderly and beautiful. You sort and group results and put together all your scientific discoveries, piece by piece. And after multiple writing sessions that includes writing, rewriting, revising and writing again (and again!!), you get a full draft of manuscript ready. As you read through the draft, you feel pretty darn proud of yourself. This is it, the time is now to submit the final version to your PI.

Your PI reviews the draft with a critical eye and sends you a collection of edits. As you go through the comments, you start to feel that:

“Oh, how did I miss this?, and that too”, “did I send the wrong version?”

You too realize that there were some key concepts that you thought you explained, only to find that important pieces of explanation were missing; in next round of edits you realize that you forgot to refer a critical article, next you observe examples of redundancy.  As weeks pass by, you come across new literature article that needs to be included in your manuscript. As you are going through multiple rounds of edits, you start creating new names for your doc. The nomenclature includes various adjectives, short phrases and even time of the day as you are continuously editing the draft. A personal favorite of mine was “2018mmdd_manuscript_430am_livingroom_coffee3_HereWeGoAgain”.  After endless rounds of edits, you finally chop off the jargon and replace it with “FINAL” and the manuscript is ready to be sent out to the journal. (Chances are you’re still only just beginning…)

 

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive/phd101212s.gif

[Picture credit: PHDCOMICS]

 

After weeks/months of waiting, you will receive reviewers’ feedback. If you are lucky your manuscript will be accepted ‘as is’ (congratulations, this is one of the biggest accomplishments and I suggest you immediately buy a lottery ticket!!!). However, most of the times the finish line is within your sight but still further away. You may feel writing/editing fatigue but soon you will realize that editing will rather raise the standard of your work. You persevere and make all of the revisions suggested-strengthening your own work. You go through few more rounds of edits with your colleagues/PI (perhaps at this point you would have developed a thick skin). You submit your FINAL, FINAL draft and hope for acceptance. When your manuscript is accepted, you will be very relieved and exhilarated. But wait, there’s more!

As you continuously refresh the google search of your name to see your manuscript online, you will realize that it is not over yet!! You still have to proofread!! This is one of the important steps as you read the ‘FINAL, FINAL, FINAL” version of your manuscript. While the reviewers seem to have pointed out everything, there are bound to be some minor typos that leak through. Once you submit your edits, no further changes are allowed to be made so you need to read absolutely EVERYTHING. And voilà, your work has been published- yay it’s party time!!

Writing and editing a paper can be extremely exhausting, however the sense of accomplishment and relief makes you come back for more. While I learn many things in the process of writing/publishing, the most useful assets I learned are patience, perseverance and persistence.

 

Livin’ Like a Protein

Livin’ Like a Protein

Joshua Senior

Would you believe me if I told you that during Career Day in fourth grade, I told my homeroom teacher I wanted to be a protein when I grow up?

 

Neither would I. That is why I’m saying it now.

 

Don’t worry, you read that correctly. As a seventeen-year-old, I currently dream of becoming a protein when I grow up (even though I’m ‘grown’ in my sister’s eyes). Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “This kid’s absolutely insane.” My answer? Maybe. See, this isn’t the typical profession you would fill out a job application for, yet this hasn’t inhibited my imagination from chasing the impossible.

 

Sadly, my career aspirations of becoming a fully-functional protein don’t involve physically interacting with DNA histones or translocating across numerous cellular membranes. In fact, my fascination with becoming this macromolecular complex rests not in the specific operations of the protein molecule, but simply in its multifaceted nature.

 

Similar to proteins, my intellectual building blocks significantly contribute to my profound attachment to science. Since the age of eight, I’ve always been captivated by science. It wasn’t the vibrant school science fairs or the endless Bill Nye episodes in science class that caught my interest. No, my love for science came in the form of storytelling. Equipped with her daily experiences in the OR, my mother’s “bedtime tales” were engaging recounts of hospital cases she handled. Her medical sagas not only intrigued my sprouting scientific imagination, but her soothing voice always put me fast asleep.

 

As I grew older, this budding curiosity for science soon flourished, folding like proteins into an extensive love for Biology. During high school, I have found my personal active site in the major of Biological Sciences, and I plan to never unbind from this substrate of knowledge. Although I am one of few African-American students in the world of STEM, science has provided a channel of comfort. No matter if I am learning about the denaturing of enzymatic proteins under various pH environments in the classroom, or implementing mutations to Phosphotriesterase Enzymes sequence for computational research from the comfort of my home, my passion for STEM continues to break down the obstacles I confront being the an underrepresented minority student. There’s something therapeutic in studying science, and in doing so, I’ve discovered a very important theory: I already embody a protein.

To test this conjecture, I’ve decided to create an experimental design comparing me to two of the main types of proteins (Membrane proteins already have enough going on). Since I am a “scientist”, I thought I would provide to you with a detailed representation of the rigorous complexity of my testing.

 

 

Experimental Test 1: Globular Protein- Phosphotriesterase Enzymes

 

Like the Phosphotriesterase Enzymes I work with in the lab, which are globular proteins crucial in the enzymatic activities of the metabolic reactions all throughout eukaryotic organisms, I’m motivated to be a catalyst for change. Whether I’m volunteering at the soup kitchen during school holidays, or simply helping my sister with her biology homework every night, I relish in helping to activate positive change throughout my community. My pursuit to catalyze these outcomes has also propelled me to actively advocate against the detrimental impacts of climate change and environmental racism on underrepresented minority communities. Pushed by my power of service over self, I plan to use my “protein-like” functions to effectuate beneficial transformations greater than myself.

 

Experimental Test 2: Fibrous Proteins – COMPcc and Elastin Proteins

Cartilage oligomeric matrix (COMPcc) proteins and elastin proteins are fibrous proteins that play a key biological role in structural support in the body. In ways alike, I parallel their important responsibilities on the basketball court. As a point guard, I consistently provide foundational support to my teammates through signaling defensive play-calls and pointing out directions to initiate our offensive strategy, all while making sure our team-chemistry stays optimal. With my voice, I am able to bring the important directives of my coach to my teammates in quick fashion, carrying out our key plays in order to beat our opponents. The significant functions of these fibrous proteins is exemplified by my basketball identity, and I plan to add more qualities to this identity to create better victories not just for me, but my teammates.

 

 

While interning in the Montclare Lab, I have found that my “protein” aspiration extends far beyond myself and these three proteins. Through my protein computational design work, I’ve developed quite a remarkable hypothesis: we should all be proteins! With the twenty-one essential amino acids there exists hundreds of thousands of diverse protein structures, and I’ve theorized that there is a protein molecule to symbolize every one of our diverse characters. Through these protein identities, we will find new connections among each other stemming from the unique backbones we hold. We all hold a piece to a puzzle, a substrate to an enzyme, an important responsibility to another person, so let’s link our diversified personalities together like amino acids on a peptide chain to synthesize ravishing multi-dimensional complexes that will never denature. After, we can all share my dream of becoming a protein, and I can make my fourth grade teacher proud.

Using Science as a Foundation

Lizbet Rodriguez

If I had been asked to categorize myself before this summer, I would have responded, “student” or potentially “intern”. I wouldn’t have dared to define myself as a scientist. During my summer internship with the Montclare Lab, my mentor often referred to my lab partner and me as scientists. I was uncomfortably aware of my feeling as an imposter. However, being labeled as a scientist did get me thinking about who can be a scientist; I was reminded of an experience I had years ago.

When I was seven, I remember my dental hygienist asking my dentist, “What made you want to become a dentist?” Contrary to what I had imagined he would say, the doctor responded, “Actually, I chose to become a scientist first”. As many do, I overlooked doctors as scientists. Doctors might have a different specialization, but they are first trained in the field of science. Some doctors even dedicate their time solely to scientific research! I had defined too narrow a scope for scientists, both excluding my doctor and myself.

 

            

                  ARISE participant Lizbet Rodriguez presenting her virtual poster

 I never imagined I could possess the knowledge it takes to become a scientist. However, as I explored deeper into my lab assignments, I came to the beautiful realization that being a scientist does not necessarily mean being the most brilliant. Being a scientist means having the patience to conduct thorough research and experiments. It means having the ability to persevere despite setbacks or flaws. It means being an inquirer about the unknown. Although my biggest dream is to one day become an Optometrist, I am happily realizing that just like my dentist, I too have chosen to become a scientist first. Slowly, yet proudly, I am beginning to identify myself as a real scientist.