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A day in the life of a scientist….

By Alara Tuncer

 

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https://pl.pinterest.com/pin/36451078205754885/

Beep Beep Beep. I woke up punching my alarm from a vivid dream of me in the fifth-grade science fair—sheepishly presenting about tungsten lamps. This is when I should’ve known that I was going to become a scientist. What kind of 10-year-old tries to build a light bulb with tungsten filaments?

 

It’s 9:20 am. I rub my eyes and pull the curtain reluctantly—yet—firmly and the light begins to illuminate my room. Hoping the sun does a better job at waking me than my alarm, I yawn. I feel sleepier than usual. It’s unavoidable for me really, to go about my day without dividing the total amount of sleep I’ve got the previous night with a single sleep cycle (roughly one and a half hours) to evaluate if I’ve gotten enough sleep.

 

I walk into the bathroom and turn on the tap to wash my face. I hear the faucet dripping, while I’m keen on avoiding scientific explanations for this, when I turn to observe the water sneakily escaping between my fingers from the hand I’ve been holding out—I’m caught in the flow of my thoughts just like the water, liquidious. I wonder why? Still, I carry on about my day, walking around on my tippy-toes so that my roommate doesn’t wake up to my creaking footsteps. Still, I hear noises caused by the unwilling force I’m exerting on the floor that is defiantly causing a surge of vibrations to travel along the floor, sharply cutting through the silence of the air.

 

I brush my hair and my teeth. You would’ve thought that my mind wandering into nothingness—thoughtless and lacking the natural scientific inferences and inquiries that would normally be generated—would cherish the emptiness of my mind but instead, when I don’t make scientific assumptions about my surroundings everything I do feels a lot louder. While slipping into my clothes, the zipper of my pants and the button above gets tangled in my hand and I’m only more aware of the constant sounds of my surroundings. Regardless, the rest of my morning ritual becomes increasingly easier as I get into the rhythm of something I’ve been doing for days, and then I’m finally caught in my natural tendencies and am reminded that this is some sort of muscle memory. Aha! It’s like how I can play Amelie Comptine d’Un Autre Été on the piano even if I don’t have the notes in front of me or haven’t played in a while.

 

I’ve always been naturally curious about the world I live in—searching for meaning and reasoning behind everything—which is what made becoming a scientist like second nature to me. It makes sense to become something that’s always in search of answers if you’ve got a lot of questions to ask about the world. Additionally, the weird approximation questions discussed regularly among my parents over breakfast were a kind of a Sunday ritual. One week it was estimating “how many water molecules there were in a standard glass of water” and another week it was “the total surface area of all the leaves in the world” which aided my becoming. Inherently questioning the big and small questions in my life surrounding me I became increasingly curious about the world we live in.

 

We are only limited to living in a world we can truly understand. What makes us “superior” to any other species is consciousness and consciousness manifests itself by compiling knowledge and information about our surroundings in our minds. I don’t want to be defined by the limitations of my knowledge and understanding. The world might feel small when you’re travelling but there are still questions waiting to be asked and solutions waiting to be sought.

 

So, as I walk down from my apartment located on the 6th floor, when you know the scientific reasoning behind certain things, it’s tough to avoid thinking about the energy that is added to my body with gravity as I step every step down the stairs—which makes going down the stairs faster and easier unlike going up the stairs.

 

Luckily, when I put on my headphones and deafen the notoriously clinging scientific thoughts circulating my mind, the rest of the day slowly unfolds. I step onto Thompson street and walk down along the grey concrete until Washington Square Arch becomes visible before my eyes. I decide to grab my daily cup of coffee with an extra shot of espresso today, I’m craving the extra caffeine. The coffee is warm between my palms, energy transfer…I breathe and take a sip and start walking.

 

There’s a man holding a sign that reads “the virus is a hoax, take off your mask.” He is also screaming at the top of his lungs “the vaccine is made to track us.” “Lady” he calls me “take off your mask,” he says, spitting out his words spitefully as it seems. He follows up with “the government is controlled by evil Democrats and China, they’re going to track you if you get the vaccine!” to another stranger persistently arguing with him on the side. Aha! So, it’s not about science, it’s about politicizing science.

 

There are several problems with politicizing science. Firstly, the science presented by politicians is merely controlled by scientists and experts. Often, it’s the people who know how to talk and present themselves in a certain way that becomes politicians and consequently support those with similar characteristics. It’s like a cycle feeding itself based on presentational merits! When this is the case, it’s unlikely for scientists who’re busy dealing with long experiments and complex datasets to get out and advocate for science to the general public while being convincing. And when science and politics combine with the intrinsic fears of certain individuals—somehow—the scientific research that’s created to help guide us through our hard times creates fear in scientific public policy.

 

Trying to avoid the spit that is flying out of his mouth and COVID-19 simultaneously—obviously—I walk away from the increasingly intensified man and make my way to the subway to go to work. I think about how the rest of my day looks like with experiments when I’m disturbed by the sound the train makes as  it arrives—an amalgamation of surface tension and air resistance.

 

When I get out of the subway I find myself amidst New York’s first snow. I take a video and post it on my Instagram story like a typical millennial. It’s barely snowing, the flakes can be easily mistaken for rain by the camera lens. I’ve always liked snow, growing up in Poland, moving to California for college, and now having lived in New York just a few months—this is my first snow in awhile—I’ve missed it! Also, a weather condition with an intricately beautiful scientific cause involving pressure and condensation, but let’s not get into that now…

 

At work, once I set up E. coli to express the proteins we desire, I sit by my computer when I get an ad pop-up for one of those websites skeptical of science and climate change. Before I click, fearing that the algorithms on my computer will re-write me as a science skeptic for the future, I go incognito. I note down the feeling of uncertainty when I’m confronted with the possibilities of science and technology. I come across a blog that’s named “Watts Up With That?” —masked with scientifically misrepresented data—a blog dedicated to promoting climate change denial. Advertised as “the world’s most viewed site on global warming and climate change,” I read through the headlines and tabs of aggravating and false claims.

 

Just as I’m going down a rabbit hole of false claims with the contents of my readings getting increasingly political—Bing! I get an Instagram notification. A friend of mine working for Rainforest Foundation US has sent me a picture of New York under a pile of snow in 1948 in response to the Story I posted earlier. Below her message reads “it doesn’t snow like this anymore, climate change. ”

 

Later in the day, I leave work exasperated with my mind circulating with thoughts of climate change deniers and coronavirus disbelievers. Why are there so many deniers of climate change? What about anti-maskers? All the snow from earlier has melted and the lights coming from lampposts and buildings smear as reflections. The overwhelming set of colors and the alarming noises echo as the cars pass. That’s when I notice the light bulbs of the lampposts taking my thoughts back to my dream from the night before about tungsten lamps.

 

Clarity. I have a vague memory of myself when I was 10 years old, knocking on my dad’s office door with a too-bright-of-an-idea about what I should be doing for the upcoming science fair. I remember telling him “I want to build a TV.” Despite being a successful engineer himself he can’t contain his amusement and laughs. “How about you try starting with something simpler this time and we can build a TV another time?” his amusement still lighting up his face. I can almost imagine mini-me searching the room for something that would be simpler yet satisfying for the little Marie Curie inside of me. And all of a sudden, my light-bulb-of-an idea becomes building a light-bulb.

 

In the upcoming weeks, I studied everything there is to know about tungsten light bulbs. Although I can vaguely recall some parts of my juvenile research, what I remember extremely vividly is winning that science fair having constructed a tungsten light bulb. There was an essence of clarity I felt in that moment when the two sizzling tungsten filaments surging with electricity met with each other rejoicing in a faint light that I wouldn’t change for the world. Thinking back to this moment it is more clear what the science naysayers are missing. The knowing.

 

As a consequence of the increasing polarization and politicization, science has gained an increasingly bad reputation. Radical protestors, Twitter accounts, and blog posts casting doubt on vaccines, climate change, and even coronavirus all have something in common. The fear of uncertainty and confusion. But the only solution to this problem is knowing. And science is the gateway to knowing more.

 

We have to constantly investigate and rebuild on our previous findings to let go of this cloud of judgment and slowly achieve clarity. Although you might be aggravated by the constant surge of stimulus you are experiencing—the only way you can make sense of it all—is if you inquire and investigate the reasons behind what’s happening. The dripping faucet, the loud footsteps, the stairs, snow, etc.

 

An apple fell on Newton’s head, he didn’t get angry at the apple, he looked at the reason behind this event and called it “gravity.” Later came Einstein and defined this as a curvature of time and space caused by energy and mass.

 

Neural networks in the brain are created through rebuilding on previous neurons. Similarly, cities expand outwards from a point of origin or by connecting with other nearby cities. Science also develops gradually this way. Rebuilding on what we already know and collaborating with others about the realities of our world, we can find the answers to our big questions. But to do this, we have to advocate for science and make scientific education more accessible.

 

I challenge you to investigate the realities revealed by science surrounding you. You can see the evidence of simple science in your daily life when heating your food in the microwave or turning your light on at night. What makes these simple tasks possible is science used for technological advancement. But you can also be observant of the complexities of the science surrounding you. Its remarkable evidence can be hidden on your child’s face that is combining your and your spouse’s own facial features. It might be harder to visualize the evidence of microscopic molecules such as coronavirus or harder to fathom the glaciers that are melting in places you’ve never been to before. But in this case, you have to trust the experts because they are trying to clarify the realities that surround and shape you. Trust science and believe in science because everything you do has science at its core.

Starting a Postdoc in a Pandemic

By Stanley Chu, PhD

Academia is a nomadic path for many of us who are in the early stages of our career. You spend a few years in one place to get your bachelor’s degree, pick up your life and move to go to grad school, move again for your postdoc (and again for your second postdoc), and then move again for your first job. And each time you move you have to start over, from finding housing to finding new friends. Each time is arguably more difficult as the size of your cohort and colleagues (your natural friends) shrink and you become more specialized and unique in your field.

I began my Postdoc tenure at the Montclare Lab in October of 2019. I had moved to New York City from my home in Atlanta. In the first few months, I did my best to find and furnish an apartment, make friends and explore New York City all on a postdoc budget. I spent my first Christmas in New York City alone, deciding that I could not afford to fly back home for the holidays. Instead, I kept myself busy writing a review paper.

Stanley

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the COVID-19 outbreak was a pandemic. On that same day, the Montclare Labs shutdown it’s operations and we began to work from home for the next four months. Since we are mainly a wet lab, we had trouble finding any productivity at home, not to mention that most of us are in tiny New York City apartments that don’t have suitable working conditions.

I, like so many others who are starting new chapters of their lives, have faced other challenges. Starting a postdoc during a pandemic has significantly delayed my training. While I was lucky enough to have attended my own graduation, I feel a sadness for those graduates who were unable to have an in-person graduation and for those newly minted PhDs who could not be hooded by their own advisors. I have sympathy for anybody, myself included, who moved to a new city, unable to make new friends who can help support each other through this pandemic.

Now with 2021 beginning, the COVID-19 vaccines are heralding a turning point in this pandemic. The vaccines represent much more than the promise of a “return to normal” life. The vaccines are a perfect example of what science really is. Decades of foundational research conducted by many scientists around the world allowed us to respond to a global challenge. I enter 2021 with a renewed optimism for science and humanity with the hopes that my own contributions to science will one day help the world through another crisis.

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…)

 

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[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.