Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

An explanation shamelessly taken from the Finding Ada website: "Ada Lovelace day is an international day of blogging... to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science."

If anything, I have a surfeit of inspiration; I am a woman in science who has been fortunate enough to have female science mentors from day one. Which makes six strong women who have directly mentored me in beginning my career in science, and at least twice that if you count those who didn't work directly with me on a day-to-day basis but provided support and guidance. Not to mention the myriad famous women-in-science who I read about, and identified with or idolized to greater or lesser extents, or the multitude of relatives I have who went into nursing when that was about as close as a woman could reasonably get to science, without putting up a fuss (or my mother, who did put up the fuss, and probably has had the biggest hand in supporting my love for science). Like I said, a surfeit of inspiration. I have half a mind to write about a couple more people, in addition to my summary below, and if I do I might make some more general conclusions about women-in-science, but that all depends on how long my experiments take this afternoon.

That said, in honor of Ada Lovelace day, I'm writing about Barbara McClintock. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of 'jumping genes'. Her detailed work on genetics was absolutely ahead of its time: she was one of the first people to see meiotic recombination ('crossing over') events occur, she discovered the first DNA transposons, and she practically invented the concept of the distal enhancer or controlling element. In short, her work forced a transition from viewing DNA as a static molecule of inheritance to a dynamic molecule biochemically active within the cell and regulated in various ways. This at around the same time as the 'one gene one enzyme' hypothesis (it has since been rather spectacularly discredited by alternative splicing and noncoding RNAs) and the 'central dogma of molecular biology' (DNA is inherited, and transcribed into RNA which is translated to proteins -- and proteins are the truly functional parts of the cell -- which has also been rather spectacularly discredited). Biochemistry at the time, in other words, had not yet caught up to McClintock's ideas (it's arguable that it still hasn't quite gotten there, and the organization and dynamics of chromosomes is a very active field of study to this day).

McClintock was able to make the advances she did because she bridged cytology and genetics, and directly visualized chromosomes in the process of breaking and reattaching that takes place with every recombination or transposition. In other words, she was able and willing to pore over countless microscope slides, looking for the tiny breaks and joins in mitotic chromosomes, and changes in banding patterns that proved the jumps. Grueling, careful, detailed work to support her groundbreaking theories. However, in the middle of her career, she stopped publishing reports in major journals and instead communicated her findings only to a small group of friends and allies, because she felt her work was being ignored or discounted: "I stopped publishing detailed reports long ago when I realized, and acutely, the extent of disinterest and lack of confidence in the conclusions I was drawing from the studies." Ironic when so many of her theories were proven essentially correct, and largely generalizable, in the years following their discovery.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Alice in Wo-- Wait, what the hell?

As we waited for the new Alice in Wonderland movie to begin, I was giving a friend book recommendations; in particular I was describing what I liked so much about the 'Nightwatch' series of books. It seemed a fitting discussion just prior to watching a Tim Burton movie, in a way, because what I like about the Nightwatch series is that the world has a very unique, and imaginative, set up (mechanic?), which twists the world as we know it into something much stranger, and that every book in the series is unfailingly dark.

And then we watched the Alice in Wonderland movie, which might have looked like something out of the most tripped-out Goth's fever dream, but had the emotional murkiness and darkness of, perhaps, Cinderella. Oh, Disney.

To top things off, I just finished Jasper Fforde's latest book, which is also incredibly quirky (Fforde pretty much defines quirk for me, because everything he does is illogical until you realize it is powered by a pun) and also incredibly dark. Dark in that my vision of the world is mostly in gray scale, with a few bright points of - usually red - color (perfect for a Tim Burton movie, perhaps?) and dark in that after reading it my heart almost broke and I was left blinking and thinking "Oh no, this is the first book in the trilogy. Just how bad is it going to get?"

Which brings me to a bit of a quandary. Tim Burton didn't set out to make Alice dark, he set out "to try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events." (Quoth Wikipedia, Quoth a Comicon 2009 interview). But because it was Tim Burton I guess I pretty much assumed that it was going to be dark, emotionally as well as visually. To be fair, he did make a movie with considerably more plot than the episodic and often diffuse nature of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But given that he wanted a concrete plot, why choose one which ran so shallow? Given that he needed a good-versus-evil battle, why make good synonymous with 'likes fuzzy animals' and evil synonymous with 'callously abuses fuzzy animals'? I mean, I'm all for fluffy puppies, but give me an ethical quandary bigger than "We have to kill this vicious, man-eating dragon in order to end the iron-fisted, tyrranical, and arbitrary reign of Queen Evil McTortureson, but we don't want to kill anything because we're the Good Guys and Good Guys Don't Kill Things (TM)!"

So, a continuum:
1) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the puppies win! Tea and cookies all around!
2) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the puppies win, but sustain heavy casualties! Tea and cookies for those who survive!
3) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the puppies win, but sustain heavy casualties and end up compromising and/or killing other, even more innocent and/or cute, puppies who just wanted to keep their heads down and go about their business. Somewhat tainted tea and cookies for those who survive.
4) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the puppies win, but in the process realize that they're no better than the murderers. By now the tea has gone cold and the cookies are stale bricks of remorse.
5) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the murderers win. Murderers don't so much like tea and cookies, but they have some Lipton and a box of Chips Ahoy for appearances' sake.
6) Murderers versus cute puppies, and the murderers win, and in the process you realize that this is the only possible outcome. Lipton is cold and/or already steeped, and the Chips Ahoy has been left out and gone a bit stale.
7) Murderers versus cute puppies, except the murderers and the puppies are revealed to be exactly the same, and no one wins, because the battle goes on eternally, causing untold destruction for no real reason. There's no one left for tea or cookies, and no tea or cookies to be had anyway.

On that scheme, Alice in Wonderland is reveling in its (1)-ness, I think the Fforde trilogy is (3) or higher, and the Nightwatch series is squarely (7). Does the fact that I like Nightwatch best make me callous, cruel, depressed, or just realistic? (And does the fact that (7) is possibly overrepresented in Russian literature reflective of Stalinism, the cold Siberian winters, or both?)

Monday, March 01, 2010


A drabble. I think I finally have a beginning for the invisible-motorcycle story that has been bumping around my head for at least two years now, but I don't have a middle or an ending. We'll see if I can turn that into anything readable in the near future. Probably not.

Pablum: Something that is trite, insipid, or simplistic.

In other words, you should be very surprised that this is not about DNA. Or a collection of the responses I get when I say "I'm a geneticist."

There’s something that legitimizes dying wishes; your own rosy-tinted memory makes you comply, even if the request is absurd. I think my grandfather knew that, and that’s why he whispered, on his death bed, “Avenge me.”

It calls up all sorts of fairy tales, doesn’t it? Kill the evil baron who poisoned my grandfather’s wine, right countless yet-unknown wrongs, back in time for supper.

But things are never that simple. My grandfather died of a stroke. High cholesterol and higher blood pressure did him in: genetics and a lifetime of smoking, drinking, and eating red meat. Whose fault is that?