Saturday, December 23, 2006

On The 10th Day Of Christmas, My Students Gave To Me

.....Fantastic Data To Hang On The Tree....

It's a funny thing about the science business.

You spend fifteen years training like a whacked-out obsessive-compulsive to actually do it.

Then, if you are any good at it, you soon stop doing it.


Because if you are lucky enough to start up your own lab (and make no mistake luck plays a huge part in it) you soon find out that it is like running a small business where the papers you publish are the currency you use to get the grants to buy the stuff (like this)(link to Olympus confocal) to do the experiments that are no longer carried out by you but rather by the post-docs and the gradual students that work with you.


I still remember the exact moment I decided to become a science geek for real.

It was a beautiful spring morning in 1986.

I had just started gradual school* and was doing my first big experiment on my own. As such, I had spent the previous day, all 16 hours of it, teasing apart tiny amounts of minced tissue so that I could enzymatically digest them in an effort to release a few hundred thousand steroidogenic cells into a solution containing a magic mixture of insulin, selenium, transferrin, pituitary extract, and fetal bovine serum. After that, I loaded the cells onto a density gradient column and centriguged them before I finally plopped them gently onto coverslips coated with a super-special goop containing extracellular matrix molecules, chief amongst them a variant of Type I collagen that my boss of the time, a crazed women from Yugoslavia by way of Vienna who was both an inspiration and the second smartest person I've ever met**, was convinced would postively regulate the transcriptional expression of the mitocondrial P-450 dehydrogenase.

Did you get all that?

Well, if not, it doesn't really matter because, truth be told, it was nothing but a small indulgence in science-geek flim-flammery/show-offery.

Because on the day in question all I really wanted to know was whether or not I'd managed to isolate a bunch of cells and keep 'em alive overnight.

So, when I looked down the barrel of the microscope and saw those little 10 micron blobs with the teensy-weency refractile droplets of cytoplasmic lipid that signals steroid production, I was hooked for good.


The thing is, when you are no longer actually producing the data yourself, but instead are just analyzing it, you still enjoy it, but you are no longer obsessed by it.

Instead, pretty soon, you begin to marvel at those who are.

And so it was this morning when I stopped by the lab to finish one last administrative duty, a report on a thesis that a colleague had been badgering me about for weeks, before heading off for the duration of the holidays.

When I was done, I wandered down the hall to check on the incubators and heard murmuring from the confocal room.

And when I poked my head in the door, don't forget this is Saturday morning on Christmas Eve-Eve, I found M. and J. jabbering away while pointing excitedly at the dual monitor display.

What they were so excited about doesn't really matter.

Well, actually it does if you care anything at all about small mucins that can regulate how cells interact with that super-goop I mentioned above, but that's another story for another time.

Instead what really mattered at that exact moment was their excitement.

Which is just about the greatest gift students can give to their teacher.


The colorful orb at the top of the piece is not actually a Christmas tree ornament but rather a hollow ball of cells held together by little strips of molecular velcro stuck to their outer surfaces (green). They have a thin layer of mucin on the inside (red) and their DNA is blue. The image was generated by M. on a confocal scanning laser microscope earlier this year.
*Gradual school is a place you go to work and work and work, both with your hands and your head for very little money, until you finally decide that you don't want to go anymore. It's also the place where, if you want, you can find out what University is really supposed to be like, both in terms of really digging into something intellectually (ie. there are no multiple choice exams in a real Ph.D.) and the finding truly kindred spirits (ie. you forge real, lasting friendships with people you are stuck in a hothouse with for 5 years or so - artistic co-operatives are like that too, or so I've been told).
**The smartest person I've ever met was my next boss who was a crazed, inspirational woman from Tehran Iran by way of Boston Mass and Berkeley California.


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