It’s Not All About the Facts…

By Jen Nguyen

In many ways, I am living a dream. I’m content. I don’t at all mean that I wish to remain a grad student forever. And I realize that my day-to-day is imperfect. But ask me how I’m doing, and I would tell you I’m “great!” and truly mean it.

There was a point though, when I was pretty down. I had started a new project and felt way out of my element. I couldn’t see where it was going. And as I tried to push through it, I only sank deeper into this sense of detachment. I felt myself changing, but in ways I didn’t desire. (It didn’t help that it freakishly cold outside.)

Thankfully, around that time, I encountered a series of reminders about what I love about science and what I want from my PhD.

One came in the form of the most powerfully affecting talk I have ever experienced. In presenting her work, the speaker reminded me of the fascinating miracle that is life, and why I’d chosen to commit a great deal of my own to study a very small slice of it. Yet, while her work was of considerable merit and her scientific interests aligned nicely with mine, it was how she spoke of them that struck me. I found myself motivated, shaking with energy, brimming with tears.

How did she do this? Never would I have expected to feel such emotion in response to data …or I should say, someone else’s data. (I’ve certainly felt surges of adrenaline when looking through my own.)

It’s not that my chosen questions are of greater “importance,” scientific interest, or social impact than (most) others. (Please afford me a few biases.) I also don’t believe that I have a greater personal investment in my work than others have in theirs. The difference, I think, stems from the widespread notion that science is purely objective.

Of course, there is great precedent for objectivity. I too admire the elegance of those who win us over, not with flourish, but with reason. During this talk however, logic, clarity, and rigor (while exceptional) were not what caused me to well up inside. The trigger, again, was her description of her subject matter. To her, it wasn’t “matter”. It was alive. It fascinated her, and she spoke as if unable to suppress her regard for it.

Kathryn’s seminar reminded me that I’m after not just results, but an experience. In a few years, I don’t want to measure the significance of my PhD by what I learn about bacterial growth (though it’s pretty damn incredible) or by who I can persuade into caring about it. Instead, I want to recall how I did it and why I loved it. With these, I know I will leave MIT more capable and confident than when I started. To uncover some earth shattering science, or to convince the world of the power of microbes – well, that’s the icing on the cake.

Artwork: David Goodsell

The science of disbelief

By Sarah Spencer

In late January, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of the American public regarding their views on science and society.  The results showed strong positive support of the scientific endeavor, with 79% of adults claiming that science has made life easier for most people, and 72% stating that government investment in research pays off in the long run.  So why the pushback?  Why is government funding stagnating while huge public campaigns propagandize against scientific results?

Of course these issues are complicated, but a core driving force involves the psychology of how we maintain and reinforce our beliefs.  And the truth is, we maintain and reinforce our beliefs (yes, even scientists).  Pre-existing belief structures have a strong influence on the facts we consider important, the methods we employ, and what we conclude from data.  This ‘motivated reasoning’ underlies the difficulty of arguing about ideas with facts.  A fact, or even a paper, cannot easily overturn a lifetime of built-up belief structures.

There is support for belief-driven fact filtering from many, many social psychology studies over the past 40 years.  A foundational 1979 paper gathered a group of individuals with strong beliefs either for or against capital punishment.  The researchers exposed the group to fake research articles either supporting or discrediting the ability of the death penalty to reduce crime.  As expected, individuals thought the article supporting their beliefs was more convincing, and strongly criticized the article which refuted their beliefs.  Since this publication, researchers demonstrated belief-directed reasoning in just about any issue you can think of: affirmative action, gun rights, weapons of mass destruction, etc.

A common argument against rampant ‘motivated reasoning’ points to an individual’s level of scientific training.  Can people without deep scientific training truly quality-filter scientific evidence and avoid being misled?  A recent Nature Climate Change letter discredits this idea using climate change as an example.  Surprisingly, members of the public with the greatest scientific literacy and technical reasoning became the most polarized on the issue.  More training resulted in stronger opinions on both sides of the argument.  These knowledgeable individuals simply used the facts to support their pre-conceived beliefs.

Does this mean we’re all inherently illogical?  Of course not – people still accept new evidence and change their minds every day.  It just means we have a multitude of priorities to maintain.  There are people who care about accuracy, supporting a conclusion, maintaining connection with their friends, and/or bolstering their own sense of identity.  Any of these priorities can, at some point, interfere with perfectly logical interpretation of fact.  Combine personal priorities with this whole underworld of instantaneous emotional response to contrary evidence, and it’s understandable why we have a hard time always reaching the same conclusion.

Thankfully there are ways to get the facts straight, but they sometimes rely on setting facts aside.  We live in a world where facts do not reliably persuade, so one useful alternative is to appeal to values.  As an example, if you present a group with the same article under two titles:

“Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming”

“Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming”

the latter title results in more people convinced that humans are causing global warming (Kahan et al., 2007).  Something about the focus on industry appeals to the emotions and priorities of climate change disbelievers.  Sure, things are complicated and messy and hard to measure: it’s human psychology.  Still, the next time you’re arguing for a controversial idea, consider structuring around values and then adding data.  This might avoid immediate denial and get more people appreciating the scientific endeavors they implicitly support.


Should I do a postdoc?

By Felix Moser

In this post, I examine the “postdoc” as a step in a young scientist’s career. A “postdoc”, or one’s time as a Postdoctoral Associate in a lab, is traditionally the phase of a scientist’s career immediately after graduate school that precedes a career in academia. But due to sparse availability of faculty positions and plentiful PhDs produced by graduate schools every year, a career in academia is no longer a realistic option for the vast majority of new PhDs. In the face of this fact, does doing a postdoc make sense? When is it valuable for a new PhD to pursue a postdoc?

There are essentially four reasons to do a postdoc:
1) Because you want to.
2) To get additional training (even though you may not want or need it).
3) To prepare for the next step.
4) Your PI kicked you out and the coffee shop next door ain’t hiring.

The first reason is perhaps the most obvious and least acknowledged. Many people take postdoctoral positions simply because they like the features of such a position. Because we scientists and engineers are driven primarily by our curiosity, we tend to want to learn new things. So, getting additional training outside of our graduate field is exciting to us. Some people relish to opportunity to hone their skillset. Others get excited about a particular project, lab, or location. Some people simply love the freedom of the academic environment, and, barring available faculty or scientist positions, find the postdoc as the easiest way to extend their time in academia. Looking only at these features, a postdoc may seem like a great job. Unfortunately, with a pay of ~$40k/year, the risk of a bad PI, poor funding, or bad project, and slim chance at career advancement in academia, these features come at some cost.

The second reason to do a postdoc, additional training, is typically the official one given by academic institutions and companies who won’t hire people straight out of grad school. Even the lucky few who get hired to faculty straight out of grad school are often asked to postdoc in another lab for a year to round out their experience. Part of the reasoning for the additional training is that science is so much bigger and complex now than it was ~30 years ago that it simply requires more experience in different subjects to really produce someone that can lead a research program. The unofficial reasoning is market forces. In a market where there is no shortage of excellent people WITH postdoc experience, why hire someone without it?

The advantages to additional training are obvious. Developing skills and knowledge complementary to your current skill/knowledge set should add to your value as a scientist. You’ll be more likely to build bridges between fields and carry out true innovation. You should become a stronger analyst and problem-solver by learning new systems, different methods, and new lines of thought. However, some drawbacks should be acknowledged. An old adage about young scientists maintains that “they don’t know what can’t be done”. Someone who has been around the block a few times might know the neighborhood very well, but they might be less inclined to head into a new part of town. Also, not all training is equally effective or useful.

The third reason to do a postdoc is to prepare for the next step in your career. The postdoc should position you for the job you want after. Because of this, you should tailor your postdoc to land the job you want. Regardless of whether you are targetting an academic or industry positions, plentiful innovative research, publications, and excellent communication are a must.

If you want to become a professor, a successful postdoctoral period is a cornerstone of your application. Unless you’ve had an exceptional graduate career, don’t bother applying for faculty without at least one postdoc under your belt. The postdoc is in part considered a time in which you are thought to be skilled enough to be fairly independent. Hence, it is a type of trial period for you as an independent researcher and a glimpse at what you would be like as a group leader.

BE faculty have told me that the most important thing for a postdoc is to “make your project your own.” This speaks to the independence and ability that’s expected of an academic researcher to develop their own science and put together a compelling story. A really successful postdoc will take a project idea and develop it in a way that is characteristically their own, so when people read your published work, they will link its ideas to you. A successful postdoc will set your faculty application apart from the 200+ others an institution will receive. It will do so foremost in 1) ability to publish excellent science, 2) creative, thought-out ideas, and 3) the ability to tell a compelling story (translates into good grantsmanship). Even with these, an excellent rec letter is required to seal the deal. The rec letter, like any networking connection, should be from a recognized and trusted PI. If this comes across as a sort of “good ol’ boy” network, that’s because it is. When there are 200 CV’s on the table, 10% of which excel in #’s 1-3, the one that’s picked will likely be on someone’s recommendation. Because of this, an academic postdoc is best done for a PI who is well-respected in the field in which you intend to become faculty.

To tailor your postdoc for an industrial positions, there are some things to keep in mind. For one thing, the rec letter doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does when you’re applying for jobs in academia. Industry mostly cares that you can do your job well and less so about what your PI thinks of you. Also, the PI may not be well known in industry, despite stardom in academia. You should also be mindful that some industry positions require specific skills which, if you lack them, you should seek to acquire during the postdoc.

The length of a postdoc that prepares you for an industry job is another key difference. Depending on your goals for an industry job, the postdoc can be more flexible in length. If, for example, you are looking to postdoc solely to learn a skill-set, then you should call the postdoc complete as soon as that skillset is learned and a job is secured. If your goal is ANY job, then the postdoc is merely a stepping stone. Once that first job is locked down, you’re done. The postdoctoral advisor should be kept in the loop at all times, however. You don’t want to burn a bridge with a connection that could be a great help to you later.

Doing a postdoc for preparation for an industrial job may lead to some friction with the academic advisor. Old-timey measures of success value placing students and postdocs in academic positions. An industry position is considered a failure. This is an antiquated attitude and any advisors that retain or propagate it should be avoided, if not confronted. Their perceived interests are completely misaligned with that of the postdoc seeking an industry position, and the postdoc should not expect support from them. Advisors that are supportive of your goals, whatever they are, should be sought after. However, it is up to the postdoc to be as clear with the advisor as possible about their goals. The key is to be proactive and open in communicating with the advisor.

Industrial postdoc positions should be approached with special caution. If you are angling for a faculty position, you want to make sure an industrial postdoc will allow you to publish. Be aware that if and what you publish is often strictly controlled. The company IP lawyers may very well veto any publication that divulges sensitive information. If you are angling for a permanent position in the company, you should get explicit confirmation that similar positions have in the past led to permanent hires. Try to find and talk to people who previously completed postdocs with the company. The worst industrial postdoc programs (may also be called “internships”) are simply ways to get a scientist on the cheap. These may string you along for years without any promotion and offer little real security. Also be wary of signing a “non-compete” agreement. These agreements will bind you legally from working in your field outside of the company. Because scientists are typically highly specialized, resigning your right to employ your skill set outside of one company can be deadly to your career (unless you move to CA, which doesn’t enforce non-competes).

Finally, it should be acknowledged that a big reason many people do a postdoc is because they simply can’t find any other work. Today’s market for scientists is more competitive than it has ever been, both in academia and industry. The market is flooded constantly with many more PhD’s than there are available positions. Because the NIH and other funding agencies set the floor for postdoc salaries well below industry standards, it is much, much easier to find a postdoc position (~$40k/year) than a full-time scientist position (~$70-80k/year starting). If you remove the postdoc from the table of possible next steps for graduating PhDs, then becoming a barista starts to look like a plausible alternative.

PCR of the heart, a REFS story

By Scott Olesen

If you’re the kind of scientist who does a lot of PCR, a common experimental method for making a few strings of DNA into many strings, you’re probably worried about chimeras. PCR makes many faithful copies of the original DNA strings, but is also makes a few chimeras, combinations of two or more of the original strings. It’s like you tried to clone a human and a horse in the same vat and ended up with many human clones, many horse clones, and a few centaurs.

One way to remove chimeras is to look at each string of DNA in the PCR product and ask, “Is this string just a combination of two other (more plentiful) strings?” Thankfully, only a few strings in the product are chimeras: it’s easy to notice that a centaur is half human, half horse when there are many more humans and horses than centaurs.

It’s tempting to believe that we are dispassionate observers of facts, that we perceive humans and horses but not centaurs. After I took conflict management training as part of the REFS program, a confidential conflict coaching resource for BE grads, I knew the opposite was true. When it comes to interpersonal matters, the facts—who said what, when, with what tone and what facial expression and in what context—get all jumbled.  I remember a few of the bare, dry facts—the humans and horses—but most of what I have in my head are centaurs and reverse-centaurs and other monstrous things that look nothing like the humans and horses they supposedly come from.

Take me and my parents, for instance. When I was a teenager and my parents fought, I would protect myself and punish my parents by withdrawing into sullen, spiteful silence. I’ve tried to give up that tactic, and I’d thought I’d succeeded, but from time to time through the years my parents have said and done things that made me sure they thought I still tried to punish them with my sullenness. I experimented with a number of schemes to un-convince them—like cheerily breezing past their connubial spats or, when the mood was bright, talking in the abstract about “how much I’d changed” since my teenage years—none of which involve actually talking about the behavior in question.

With DNA, you just look at each string of DNA and check if it’s a combination of other strings. REFS taught me how straightforward, effective, and incredibly terrifying it can be to just ask, “Hey, are you a centaur?” During a car ride during Christmas break, my parents had a little fight with each other and I activated my defense mechanism, sullen silence. In that moment, I thought “Oh no, they’re going to think I’m trying to punish them!” I decided I hadn’t had 40 hours of conflict training for nothing, so I took a deep, emotionally-laden breath and blurted, “I’m worried that, when I’m quiet, you think I’m being intentionally sullen.”

My parents were surprised. “Oh, we don’t think that! I mean, you definitely were when you were a teenager, but not any more.” Poof. Adios, centauro.

My point is that what the Refs have to say about conflict—basically, to get in there and say how you feel—will probably sound really obvious. The hard part is doing what’s obvious. In science, it’s often easy to do the project if you know the best way to do it, but it takes a year to troubleshoot the protocol. In life, I think the best way is often the most obvious and the most difficult.


A lesson I took from ancient Romans and The Terminator

By Scott Olesen

A few months ago, I told my advisor about my planned path to graduation. One paper on this, one paper on that, and a third paper about this other thing—that makes a thesis. “You will certainly have enough stuff to graduate,” he told me. “Now you should start thinking about doing the project that will get you your faculty job.”

I had a short celebration—I was going to graduate someday!—but then I thought: the things I had been doing were just “stuff”. If I’m going to pursue a faculty job, I want my research to be a clear and present benefit to society, so I heard my advisor’s words as an exhortation to do more than stuff papers into a thesis. I suffered a small crisis of faith. A political hack is someone who works in the public sphere but is motivated by selfish goals. Had I become a scientific hack? If so, how could I have avoided this foray into hackery?

I thought about the history of hack prevention (“prophyl(h)ac(k)tics”?). Thomas Jefferson once suggested that Virginia state senators be limited to a single term. If re-election were possible, state senators “would be casting their eye forward to the period of election (however distant) and be currying favor with the electors…” A single term would keep senators focused on governance rather than re-election.

Jefferson greatly admired the Romans, including the quasi-legendary Cincinnatus, whose story probably figured into Jefferson’s idea about term limits. Early in its history, Rome fought many wars against other Italian tribes. Cincinnatus, who had formerly held the highest Roman political office, was on his farm when a military disaster struck. The Senate appointed him dictator, a position of nearly unlimited power, for six months so he could resolve the crisis. A delegation went to Cincinnatus’s farm and told him about the Senate’s decision. He stopped hoeing and called to his wife Racilia for his toga, the appropriate dress for a man in a position of power. In the version where Cincinnatus is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, he declares, “Racilia. Fetch me my toga. And my can of whoop-ass.” Fifteen days later, after opening said can, the disaster was resolved, enemy armies were utterly defeated, and Cincinnatus, rather than riding out the six months of power his position allowed, resigned and returned to his farm.

In light of Cincinnatus’s story, Jefferson’s plan sounds like a good idea. Why shouldn’t our Congresspeople take up the toga for a short time, execute the electorate’s mandate, and then go home? If Congresspeople spend about half of their time preparing for re-election, then a one-term limit would make them—by my naïve calculus—twice as effective.

I felt pretty good about myself for having this opinion until I had the “stuff” conversation. The disgust I felt for my self-diagnosed scientific hackhood motivated me to think about more challenging projects. I’m now tempted to tell more junior grads to focus only on challenging, obvious-good-for-the-world projects, but I’m not sure if I could have come to this attitude without having heard “you have enough stuff”. I would truly be a hack if I told people to get down to work when I’m the one who needed an assured re-election before feeling confident enough to try and smash Rome’s enemies.

In a recent Science editorial, the journal’s editor-in-chief suggests that “[t]here has been too much emphasis on bibliometric measures” when evaluating young scientists for grants. “What if, instead, we assess young scientists according to their willingness to take risks, ability to work as part of a diverse team, creativity in complex problem-solving, and work ethic?” It’s foolish to believe science can be a perfect meritocracy, but I think the changing face of the journal and the paper is a glimpse into a brighter future with less hand-wringing over h-indices and more doling out of whoop-ass.

Biology needs a Grothendieck (or at least a Hilbert)

By: Tony Kulesa

Recently passed away last month is the storied mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, who, in between his early quest to personally assassinate Hitler and his later (asc)descension into anarchist hermitdom, amassed a Christ-like following of mathematicians to rebuild entire fields of mathematics into a single theory of sublime generality, starting with the definition of a point.

Steven Landsburg gives a fitting layman’s description of Grothendieck’s profoundly powerful approach to mathematics:

“Imagine a clockmaker, who somehow has been oblivious all his life to many of the simple rules of physics. One day he accidentally drops a clock, which, to his surprise, falls to the ground. Curious, he tries it again—this time on purpose. He drops another clock. It falls to the ground. And another.

Well, this is a wondrous thing indeed. What is it about clocks, he wonders, that makes them fall to the ground? He had thought he’d understood quite a bit about the workings of clocks, but apparently he doesn’t understand them quite as well as he thought he did, because he’s quite unable to explain this whole falling thing. So he plunges himself into a deeper study of the minutiae of gears, springs and winding mechanisms, looking for the key feature that causes clocks to fall.

It should go without saying that our clockmaker is on the wrong track. A better strategy, for this problem anyway, would be to forget all about the inner workings of clocks and ask “What else falls when you drop it?”. A little observation will then reveal that the answer is “pretty much everything”, or better yet “everything that’s heavier than air”. Armed with this knowledge, our clockmaker is poised to discover something about the laws of gravity.

In other words, [Grothendieck’s] philosophy was this: If a phenomenon seems hard to explain, it’s because you haven’t fully understood how general it is. Once you figure out how general it is, the explanation will stare you in the face.”

To me, this analogy begs the question, what would have happened had the Isaac Newton of the apple-falling legend been one of today’s molecular biologists? Rather than writing down a new theory of gravity, would he have been looking for the genetic mutations that lead to the apple’s fall from its tree branch (armed with a tree farm, apple collecting robots, and a MiSeq, all on the NIH’s tab)?

What, as Landsburg puts it, is staring us in the face if we could just figure out how to ask the right question? In simple concepts like the definition of a point, Grothendieck saw the potential to build entirely new ways of thinking about geometry that turned long outstanding problems into obvious truths. What would a person like Grothendieck make of the basic axioms from which we build biology? Perhaps there are alternative ways of thinking about the basic building blocks, a gene, an enzyme, an organism, a species, that freshly reinterpret their functions in a way that would reinvent our field.

There are likely many reasons why Grothendieck was able to do what he did for mathematics, but many that knew him suggest the most significant to be his courage. Not only is it tremendously risky to spend years trying to reinvent existing fields, but its also lonely, and surely he would not have achieved anywhere near as much without the support of his peers. There are some biologists that come to mind, indeed even in our own department, who have voiced or even dedicated bodies of work to theoretically “out-there” ideas, and are widely dismissed by their colleagues. In light of Grothendieck’s triumph in mathematics, maybe we shouldn’t so quickly dismiss wild theories, but embrace and encourage them.


Steven Landsburg’s piece on Grothendieck:


For the love of pipettes and alchemy

By Diana Chien

One of my friends once asked her dental hygienist how she had chosen her career. With cheerful satisfaction, the hygienist replied, “I like it when things are really clean.”

When I heard this story, I was charmed by a) the hygienist’s honesty and b) the non-grandiosity of her answer. While I’m sure she’s also invested in healthcare, quality of life, and patients’ teeth not falling out, the basic motivation for her day-to-day work remained a very personal, low-level satisfaction in removing schmutz from people’s dentition.

Hearing this story sparked an appreciation in me for the littler motivations in life – for the way that our career choices are often informed by personality tics and hankerings that can seem silly and inconsequential, yet can generate a surprising amount of satisfaction, even delight, when fulfilled by daily work.

When I first had the chance to do work in a molecular biology lab, back in high school, I loved the intricate genetic systems we worked with, the sleek experiments and sharp people. All par for the course for a future grad student.

The part that I haven’t admitted to many people is that I also simply liked doing the labwork. I like playing with gadgets and glassware. I like organizing complex assortments of physical stuff. I like fine motor tasks. (My hobbies include knitting and drawing.) When I was exhausted and overwhelmed by classes in undergrad, doing lab chores could even become an imaginative retreat: making media and cleaning glassware allowed me to pretend that I was a medieval alchemist.

While all of the above remains subordinate to the desire to do good science and make a contribution to my field, my years of life in lab have been made far more agreeable by my recognition that I locate substantial enjoyment simply in working with interesting tools and materials, and in finding opportunities for imaginative play. fact, I’m sure I would have had fewer tense, unhappy days in lab had I reminded myself more often that I’m allowed to enjoy labwork, and to actively seek out opportunities to do so. (This is in the past tense because I’m presently in a long spell of computational work, and hence considering my relationship with labwork at a fond distance.)

A concluding anecdote, because different strokes are for different folks: one of my grad-school friends is a lifelong math-y person, turned computational biologist. Last year, he completed his first-ever internship in a wet lab. Of his experience, he offered the following summation: “I learned how to pipette this summer. I hated it.”

Image credit: Arturas Slapsys

The true champions of biomedical research

By Sean Kearney

Historically, Thanksgiving has been one of my least favorite holidays. I love to eat, but I’m vegan and it can be really unpleasant to be around carnivorous family members constantly remarking on my dietary restrictions, saying, “Life would be so much easier if you just ate butter.” I often feel like a maverick, the Lorax, if you will, proclaiming, “I am the Sean and I speak for the animals!”

In reality, I don’t speak for the animals, and I don’t think there are many people who do. Despite our technological advancement, we’re still so barbaric and, in a sense, backwards that we forcibly impregnate animals, steal their babies, and use them for whatever purposes we see fit. It’s especially poignant in scientific settings, where we not only forcibly impregnate animals, but also then use them to test the effects of drugs or to see how we can reverse cancer or fend off infections that we gave them in the first place. We may have come a long way in being more conscientious in our care and use of animals, but in many ways the scale and scope of animal experiments only makes it more likely that we’ll inadvertently or, in some cases, intentionally harm or misuse animals just to please an intractable reviewer.

We’re often at a distance from the animals in our lives – it’s easy to view the hamburger you’re eating as never having been an animal who lived, breathed, experienced pain, joy, frustration, and ultimately death. With lab animals, we remove this distance. We interact with them and sometimes get to know them. But with large experiments, the interactions become more transient, and I think it’s easy to become complacent, to view the animals as objects of a research goal rather than the enablers and, really, champions of science they are.

I’ve wondered if we could honor experimental animals by recognizing them more explicitly in papers; in addition to mentioning (n=5) the animals used in successful experiments, also recognize the others that died only to produce inconclusive results. If nothing else, it may encourage authors to reconsider whether they need 100 mice for an experiment that only calls for 10. When we acknowledge the contributions of animals in our work, we stop perpetuating the notion of animal as object and encourage stewardship and respect for the lives of others.

I’ve worked with experimental animals – as much as I hate to admit it, certain scientific questions are today (and maybe for a long time) impossible to answer without the use of animals. I love animals, and I’ve never felt more uncomfortable or conflicted than when working with lab animals. I still haven’t found a way to justify using them in this way, and I don’t think I ever will. But I’d rather the people doing these experiments today are the ones who really care about animals and care that the work they’re doing will make it so that we don’t do these things to animals in the future.

As biomedical scientists, we’ve committed ourselves to bettering the lives of others. We should keep this commitment in mind and treat animals as the living, feeling beings they are.


Lappe, Frances Moore. Diet for a Small Planet. 1971. Ballantine Books.

Safran Foer, Jonathan. Eating Animals. 2009. Little, Brown, and Company.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. Doubleday, Jabber, and Company.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 2009. HarperCollins.

Image credit: 23 and me

Life in fluctuating environments

By Jen Nguyen

Lately I’ve been caught up with bacterial growth. Like the kind that spreads over raw cheese, forming a rind and eventually flavor. While the development of this colony is in itself fascinating (and delicious!), it’s not what particularly gets me – I’m amazed that growth even starts.

During my last visit home to California, I toured Cowgirl Creamery and sampled Red Hawk: a lovely cheese with a lovely story. The rose-orange color, corresponding bacterium and taste were all a product of an accident. A protocol gone wrong. (Or right, depending on your perspective.)

As the story goes, a batch of aging cheeses was neglected and the culture overgrown. In a half-ditch effort to save the batch, the rounds were scrubbed in salt water and left out to sit. An unusual blush developed, someone dared to taste it, and – as chance would have it – a novel market item was born.

Red Hawk’s unique appearance, odor, and funk derive from a marine bug of the genus Brevibacterium. Apparently these bacteria float around in the Point Reyes air, drifting until they encounter a round of adolescent cheese.

This is incredible to me. Not the part about marine bacteria in air; waves break, droplets dry, and particles aerosolize. But that a bug isolated from seawater and fish guts can then travel via air to grow in a substantially different habitat, is that not remarkable? This bug didn’t book a plane ticket to Cowgirl. Rather, it was repeatedly thrust into new environments and succeeded greatly.

Now I risk anthropomorphizing, which is a dangerous thing, especially with microbes. Our intuition about the world largely fails if we try to impose it onto theirs. But be as it will, my awe stems at least in part from my attempts to empathize. Sure, life happens. But I don’t imagine I’d do all that well if I was unexpectedly cut off from food for even a handful of hours.

By comparison, our lives seemed too good to be true. A reliable food supply, the promise of shelter – what luxury! Especially as a middle-class resident in the Golden State, which boasts only a miniscule fraction of the country’s farmland yet produces a hefty claim of the crop. With naïve nostalgia I would refer to California as “the land of wonder,where everything grows. That was until I realized that I – like bacteria depend on resources that are not under my control but the environment’s.

Last month, my family sent me a box of persimmons grown from a tree in our backyard. (For those who have never tried a persimmon, I highly recommend.) Happy nevertheless to have had them, I couldn’t help but notice their meager size, odd texture, and poor taste, presumably an effect of California’s now three-year drought.

Because the West depends on accumulated snowmelt for a majority of its water, the climate largely affects key commodities, such as sanitation and agriculture. As our reservoirs diminish, the availability of water changes. And when the available water becomes sufficiently mismanaged, we’ll find ourselves cast in a real-life production of Urinetown (a musical, also recommended), whether we like it or not.

While we can’t force snow to fall, we can control how we respond to environmental limitations. During the Big Dry, a drought that lasted about a decade, the Australian government spent billions on support packages for farmers. In California, farmers are investing into new groundwater wells. Will these actions succeed over the timescales we require?

This brings me back to bacteria and my ever-deepening respect for them. Their solutions may not be ours. (It may not matter to them if a skewed resource distribution forces the majority to die. And they are likely less fickle and demanding than we.) But this uncanny ability to live – and perhaps thrive – in wild fluctuating environments is an admirable trait.

Perhaps limiting ourselves to one song in the shower, or pay-per-use toilets, or choosing desert stargazing over desert golf, seems somewhat restrictive. But life on Earth has existed for billions of years in exceedingly restrictive environments, probably even more so than that of marine bacteria today (no cheese). The world fluctuates. Life learns to live within nature’s limits, and I realize I am no exception.

Image credit: Benjamin Wolfe

Two PhD students walk into a bar…

By John Casey

While quietly reading in my favorite watering hole recently, I was accosted by a well-lubricated and gregarious compatriot. Steve scooted over several bar stools and introduced himself as a PhD candidate at Harvard. He proceeded to interrogate me with shotgun queries about my own graduate work – e.g., “so what’s the difference between a virus and a protein?” and, eventually, “how many RNAs do you need to make a peptide?” After significant explanatory efforts, punctuated with rough sketches of molecular structures, I grew impatient and asked him what, specifically, he studied. I was met with a dramatic pause. “… Time.” Further exchange made it clear that Steve was not studying time as one thread in the four-dimensional fabric of physical reality. Rather, he sought to challenge our culture’s (apparently) rapacious, exploitative tendencies to measure it in the first place.

Of course, most of us need not know precisely what an amino acid looks like. And perhaps one can articulate useful ideas about the perception of time while entirely oblivious to physics. The conversation nonetheless reminded me of a frustratingly stubborn, population-wide level of scientific illiteracy. Technological advances are the only real solution to maintaining or improving quality of life in the long term, and it is critical that the citizenry develops a basic fluency in scientific issues.

There are two arms to my argument that public scientific literacy is more important than ever, and growing more important by the day:

1) Worldwide population growth heavily strains our standards of living, impeding our abilities to feed and empower ourselves, with attendant risks both acute (Ebola) and chronic (water shortages); and

2) The nations with the greatest power to confront these strains, aside from China (for now, CPC…), are democracies which rely upon citizens to select policy makers.

Science, alongside a period of relative peace, has allowed humanity to cross 7 billion souls. We know how successful fields like agriculture and disease theory have been – happy 100th birthday, Dr. Salk. In this sense we as scientists can congratulate ourselves for perpetually snowballing our own importance. Fewer infections translates to more cancer research; greater crop yields will indirectly boost energy demands. On and on, science pushes back a hypothetical Malthusian equilibrium. In managing safe food options, the budgetary effects of the drug development industry, or the long term implications of various energy options, science has by necessity migrated to the core of national and international policy. Yet those ultimately responsible for 21st century science policy – the electorate of the world’s democracies – remain vulnerable to cynical politics due to a sore lack of science education. And no, scientific incompetence isn’t partisan: for every climate change skeptic on the right, an anti-nuclear energy advocate on the left charges his electric car with coal-based electricity. Neither is the problem domestic. Europe seems as unreasonably obstinate about “genetically modified organisms” as the US is about its energy sources. China has, perhaps similarly, determined that GMOs are an American conspiracy to poison their population. Fear of modern science allows polio to linger at civilization’s edge in places like Pakistan (sorry, Dr. Salk). Skepticism toward modern medicine seems also to have exacerbated the spread of Ebola in regions of West Africa; the coming decades-long boom in Africa’s Sub-Saharan population is likely to accelerate future disease outbreaks if that populace remains poorly educated.

Even the gravest security issues of the day are interwoven with science and technology. The highest hurdle to Ukraine’s autonomy, in the face of Putin’s quiet insurgency, is its reliance on Russian fossil fuels for energy, a situation shared by most of Europe. The ongoing conflicts in places like Libya and Syria are thought to have been potentiated by frustrations with local food and water shortages, and Iran’s own putative energy needs complicate any clean resolution of the region’s chaos. Scientists employed at the US State Department are playing larger roles as international relationships struggle in the face of, for instance, violent cross-border conflicts over deforestation.

Here I argue that we, on any long term scale of society, can maintain neither peace nor our standards of living without more scientifically literate decision-making; it is equally essential that we, as scientists, engineers, and medical professionals minimize our own biases. Allowing any contaminant ideology or self-interest in proffering our science will only lead to greater distrust on behalf of those we need most: the voting and taxpaying public. While efforts within US science agencies to improve communication between its scientists and the broader public are gaining momentum, immense gaps seem entrenched for the foreseeable future.

All of which brings me back to Steve. It’s disappointing enough that a student as successful as a PhD candidate, humanities or not, at the world’s premier university has not been asked to learn the most basic concepts of life science. After all, if a highly educated millennial student can’t remember the difference between nucleic acids and viruses, why shouldn’t most people be terrified of GMOs and viral outbreaks? What’s also disappointing, though, is my own clumsiness and impatience attempting to fill in his porous grasp of biology. It will require a stronger, broader effort from many of us, not only to enhance scientific development during K-12 education. Hopes for prosperity will also require that we help the public understand, at a functional, sociopolitical level, the implications of contemporary science & technology.