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.


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  1. Yeah, that’s true. I myself has the same experience with you. People may say that it is easy to do the project if we scientists know the best way to do it, but here is the problem—”If we know”. No one can understand how hard it is to find “the best way” except those who have the same experience.

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