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This week was the start of my rotation.  So far, I’ve been playing around with vials of fruit flies that are usually kept just beside the work desk.  Occasionally, lone flies that have escaped land on my laptop while I’m reading.  Funny to think how fruit flies are the kitchen scourge of the summer months, and here I am with my precious bottle trying to grow myself a colony.

Under the microscope, these critters are actually quite cute.  To discriminate between flies that we’ve genetically tweaked and those that are normal, we look at several physical markers.  Some will have red eyes, others white.  Curly wings or straight wings.  Long bodies or tubby bodies.  And even count the difference in the number of bristles next to the eye!  For my project, all the ones with red eyes and curly wings are expressing transgenes, or the genes that we have engineered .

To make specific mating crosses, I’ve learned how to sort out the virgin females.  We need to use virgins because the females that have already mated can store sperm inside their bodies to use overtime.  So to be sure that all the offspring are from a specific male, we separate out the virgins, which are fatter, whiter, and “shinier.”  I place these in vials with males from another strain, and after a day or two, I can see several eggs that have been deposited on the bottom.  And if I look again the next day, the whole culture is crawling with tiny little maggots that make my skin itch just by looking at them.  It’s pretty marvelous.

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Drosophila have a rich background in science.  They were first used by Seymour Benzer to study whether genes can influence behavior, a revolutionary idea at the time when most people thought that behavior was solely a product of our environment.  Using some elegantly designed tests, Benzer demonstrated that fruit flies exhibit simple and reproducible behaviors.  Phototaxis, for example, where flies are attracted to the brighter side of the test tube.  Time-keeping, or circadian rhythm, where flies emerge from their pupal cases (after metamorphosis) always at a particular time of the day.  And memory–flies can recognize an odor that had been paired with an electric shock.

For such a small critter, flies have an amazing repertoire of actions and responses to visual, gustatory, and olfactory stimuli (to say the very least).  But more importantly, Benzer demonstrated that mutants for these behaviors can be isolated and used to pinpoint specific genes that regulate these functions; thus, opening the field for the genetic dissection of behavior.

Another great advantage of the fly system is that the development of the neural system is stereotyped and uniform for every fly.  For example, in the larvae, there are four classes of sensory neurons that innervate the entire body wall.  Each class is characterized by the morphology (or appearance and shape) of the cell.  You can locate the same class of neurons in the same exact location in every single fly.  This makes it very easy to study what genes determine the development of these neurons.  For my rotation project, I will be looking at the interaction of these neurons and the surrounding glia (accessory cells that facilitate the development and function of the nervous system).

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And finally, just to geek out a little, the professor who runs my lab had actually came from the lab of Seymour Benzer during his postdoctoral training.  Which means (if I decide to stick with this fly lab) that I could be a “descendant” of Benzer!  I am a link in scientific history!

Apple and Lemon Cakes from Technicolor Kitchen

Recently, I was chatting with someone who wanted to get out of academic research. First of all, I love science but I know it’s a career choice that’s not suited for everyone. There’s a lot of disillusionment for people who venture into research, who discover that science in the news is nothing like science in the laboratory. It is difficult to reconcile what you hear about rapid advancements in the medical field to the actual day-to-day grind where weeks can go by just to resolve one issue. And it is even more difficult sometimes to see the broader impact of your work when each experiment is designed to unravel a small detail of one aspect in an already narrow subject. So I wholeheartedly encourage people who have decided to go another track, because after all, science shouldn’t be confined to just the laboratory.

Anyways, this person noted how the truly dedicated scientists are the ones who still enjoy the process of research even when nothing works. These are the people who don’t mind investing time into chasing an answer even when it is to find that their hypothesis doesn’t work. They stay long past 5 o’clock because they cannot wait to run the results the next day, and they will spend hours reading “dry” science papers to find inspiration. I have been lucky in the past two years to have so much success in the lab. I can truly say that my work has been uncharacteristically fast-paced and unexpectedly rewarding. It is easy for me to be optimistic when almost everything have worked so smoothly. I can only hope that when the time comes for me to be put to the test, I would find myself steadfast in my passion; beaten down, maybe, but not hopeless.

And that can only come from remembering the reasons for choosing to be here. It has nothing to do with being better or being famous; I do not have to prove myself to be a good scientist by publishing the most papers in the best of journals. But it has everything to do with curiosity, creativity, and a sense of appreciation for life’s mysteries.

It is not about using science for yourself, but using yourself for science.

Medaka

Medaka five day old embryos within chorions

I have one more graduate school interview.  So far this month, I’ve visited three schools and heard back from none.  I know this process takes awhile, but the waiting is killing me.  As I type this, scenes of my past interviews are running through my head and I can’t seem to decide whether I want to jump out of my seat and walk around impatiently or sit here in quiet anguish as I accept the fact that there is nothing else I can do to enhance my eligibility.  I started this month with too much confidence only to progressively lose my cool as I confront the very real possibility that I may not be accepted anywhere.  Maybe I should’ve applied to more schools.

Maybe I’m not good enough to do science.

The thought that I might have to stay at my lab for another year as I reapply for the next cycle mortifies me.  More so because of wounded pride.  I cannot imagine how I would write to my professors again to request another set of recommendation letters.  I cannot even bear to imagine that I would be the only one of my friends still trying to get into graduate school while everyone else is on their way to a medical degree.  What bothers me most is the fact that all the reasons I just listed are so superficial.  Who cares about what other people think when this is MY career? This is when I know I have lost sight of what matters most.

It’s funny how some people say that I’m overly modest, because pride is something that I struggle with a lot, especially when it comes to science.  I think that’s probably true for a lot of people who have ever poured heart and soul into something they really love.  You become so attached to that one thing that it’s hard to face people and circumstances who challenge your sense of entitlement.  As much as it pains me, I’m grateful that God continuously breaks me down in this area so that I can clearly see what has been His all along.

It’s not that I don’t think I’ve worked hard for the things I’ve achieved; but I just don’t think I would’ve gotten this far without His grace.  I think I’m qualified for the work that I do because He has equipped me with the necessary skills and opened the doors to opportunities that led me here.  Even though a lot of other lab techs could probably replace me, I am at a place that best fits my skills and where I have the most to gain from.  As uncertain as the future can be, I think right now I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Exactly where He wants me to be.

Why I want to do science shouldn’t be about prestige or the pursuit of validation.  And maybe it’s not even because science leads to innovations in medicine and health.  But above everything else, Science—either as a way to marvel the natural world or as a humbling career that demands perseverance—points me to the grace that is in Christ, my Savior.

“Now the poor, stand and confess that my portion is Him, and I’m more than blessed.”

Two weeks ago I presented a Nature paper in my lab’s journal club that relates to butterfly research.  It was incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring work in a discipline that is small and often overshadowed by the glitziness of immunology, cancer, and other biomedical research.  And even though this type of “fringe” science doesn’t directly benefit medicine, the coolest research—in my opinion—is the type that delves into nature’s biggest curiosities.  In this case, this paper is about magentoreception (or the ability to sense magnetism) in butterflies, and its possible role in directing the migration of this insect and other animals that exhibit migratory behavior.

Every year during the fall, thousands of butterflies fly from US and Canada down to Mexico to spend winter at the exact same fir grove.  How spectacular would it be to actually witness this sight in person?  Thousands of orange, fluttering leaves that litter the sky, cover the ground, and land on trunks of trees.  The mysterious thing is that this behavior isn’t taught; it is innate.  Some wiring in their brains allows them to pinpoint the correct direction, through disparate weather and rough terrains, to find their way to safe haven.

About two years ago, the same guy who published the paper I presented, also discovered that the butterfly “compass” is time and sun sensitive.  Say, for example, at 10 AM, the butterflies know to steer to the right of the sun in order to fly southwest.  But at 4 PM, they fly straight toward the sun so that they can maintain the same trajectory.  This means that the butterflies have linked the ability to sense the position of the sun in the sky to their circadian rhythm.  If you take butterflies with a skewed day cycle (ie. wake up at 1 PM instead of 7 AM), they would fly to the right of the sun at 4 PM as if they thought it were 10 AM.  And here’s the kicker: the butterflies require their antennae in order to do this.  This led to the discovery of a separate circadian center in the antennae that is also similar to the circadian clock found in their brains.

Besides from the “time compensated sun compass,” the butterflies also possess two Cryptochrome proteins that are known to be magnetosensitive in other animals; however, to my knowledge, it has not been shown whether butterflies use the earth’s magnetic poles in migration.  In the paper that I presented, the scientists use fruit flies, which also possess their own Cry proteins and exhibits avoidance of magnetic fields, to study butterfly Cry proteins.  First, they expressed butterfly Cry in mutant fruit flies that are unable to generate normal Cry proteins on their own.  Amazingly, they proved that butterfly Cry was enough to rescue the magnetic sensitive behavior in these mutant flies even though they are completely different species!  Second, they show that this effect of the Cry proteins is dependent on UV light.  Finally, they also show that the Cry proteins work through a mechanisms different from the one that has been the convention of thought for a long time.

I can’t wait until they finally find how magnetoreception factors in butterfly behavior and how the Cry proteins are involved at a molecular level.  But even as we are closer to revealing the mechanism of magnetoreception, we are still far from understanding all the factors that combine to initiate the butterflies’ southward journey.  What I love about natural phenomenons like this—which seems so astoundingly complex and beyond understanding—is that they may actually have a strong genetic component that is in itself simple yet sophisticated.  This simple yet intricate nature of such natural mysteries is what drives scientists to come up with unique and creative experiments to explore these questions.  Even if you aren’t a scientist, I hope you share my enthusiasm for such outstanding science as this.

Cheesecake Brownies from Smitten Kitchen

This Saturday I stayed home to recover from a cold.  To satiate my chocolate craving, I made cheesecake brownies.  When they’re fresh out of the oven, the brownie part has a more cake-like texture, which I generally prefer.  If you like your brownies chewy, then just cool them in the fridge for a few hours.  But overall, these were yummy.  Especially since it has cheesecake in it, and cream cheese makes everything taste better.  I wanted there to be a clear separation of cheesecake topping and brownie so I tried not to mix the two layers too much while I was marbling them.  I’d eat it warm with a cup of milk. By the way, I love how Smitten Kitchen always has easy-to-make recipes that usually require no more than two bowls to make!