Tag Archives: protein

Science, Journalism and Inform-vs-Educate

Almost 6 years ago, I attended a conference of scientists and communicators about issues of communicating global warming to the general public.  At that point I was still wearing my graduate student hat and was still learning the ropes of science writing. The issues related to global warming and the public were different– this was before An Inconvenient Truth, and folks were genuinely worried that no one was believing the growing body of science showing that the Earth’s climate was indeed changing, and probably not for the better.

Though I learned a lot that week, the discussion that sticks most vividly in my mind doesn’t specifically relate to climate, but the role that journalists play in that process. When it came down to the question of whose job it was to educate the public about climate change, many of the experienced journalists in the room had a violent, seemingly knee-jerk reaction: “My job isn’t to educate. My job is to inform.”

My scientist-turning-journalist brain did a 180. Huh? I hadn’t come across this cultural tidbit before. I listened for a while and even chimed in at a couple of points. At the time– even though I disagreed– I thought maybe I was just naive and, perhaps, I might come to the same conclusion as these veterans once I had been a working science journalist for a while. But, no, I still disagree, but my understanding of the issues is now more nuanced.

In part, I think the problem is boiling it down to the words inform and educate. In many cases, part of the friction that can sometimes come when a scientist-educator talks to a journalist-informer. A couple of years ago, A Blog Around the Clock described that divide:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

That defines the divide. Journalists have to find relevance and a connection that convinces their audience to read what they’ve written. Scientists sometimes want us to write about information that, while important to their grand vision, may not be relevant to the individual story that we’re trying to tell.

But the problem is that science journalists rarely ever have the opportunity to simply inform, even if that is their stated goal. Even if we have an easy news hook of extending human life, possible life on Mars, or the newest iPhone-type gadget strapped to your thumb, we constantly have to define, explain and educate the public about the nuts and bolts of what we’re writing about. Does a sports reporter have to explain a free throw, a home run, or an ace? Do political reporters have to give a two sentence description of how the Supreme Court works every time we have a new nominee? Generally not– but I can’t write a general news story and use the word protein, DNA or cell without somehow explaining what those words mean and why they’re important.

So, I’ve always considered that part of my role is to educate. Part of that is  my scientific training. Part of that is that I worked in a hands-on science museum and watched kids explore the joy of science. The reason that I do what I do is to make science fun, interesting, useful and relevant to broader society. But to do that, I provide context and connections, the education within the relevant plot points that justify “why now?”

So, I will always embrace education in my work. But I also recognize that I’ve often done my job best when the educator is wearing an invisibility cloak.

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Molecule of the Week: RNA

messenger RNA credit: Wikimedia Commons
messenger RNA credit: Wikimedia Commons

You have it, I have it. Many viruses are based on it. It’s RNA, which stands for ribonucleic acid. It’s DNA’s chemical cousin with just a few slight differences.

While DNA serves as life’s genetic blueprint. RNA is more of a multitasker. DNA stores information in a kind of vault, and the cell makes RNA-based copies that ferry that information to other parts of the cell to provide the program for making proteins, the true cellular workhorses.  RNA’s reactivity also makes it a little like proteins– it’s been shown to actually do chemical reactions.

So, why does RNA make the cut this week? Researchers have found a new way to put RNA together, which may help scientists figure out how life begins. (See the New York Times story here).

Because RNA has many talents, some scientists had proposed an RNA world, the idea that all life was originally based on RNA, that DNA and proteins developed later. But there was a problem. The segments that make up RNA (and DNA) are made from three building blocks. Researchers couldn’t figure out how two of those building blocks could have fit together on their own– there was no way for the reaction to happen without external help.

However, scientists have now realized that maybe they were trying to put the wrong pieces together. Instead of fitting together the three components (a ribose sugar, a base, and a phosphate group), they’ve found a new way to assemble the molecule, by breaking it up into different starting pieces.

iStockphoto
iStockphoto

Think of it like building with Legos. You build each piece on brick by brick. But in this case, two of the pieces just won’t fit together. Instead scientists broke the Lego pieces into smaller parts and found a way to make them all come together to make the right molecule.

It’s a great example of scientists taking a step back and thinking about an old problem in a new way.

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The Art and Math of the Fold

Last night I realized how long it’s been since I last folded a paper crane. The  documentary, Between the Folds, allows origami to explode into this beautiful world of artistic creations and amazing patterns and complexity driven by algorithms– sequences of mathematical instructions– ranging from simple to astronomically complex.

The funny thing is that on its surface, origami is simple– folding a piece of paper, no cutting and no glue. But there’s a beautiful tension throughout the nearly hour-long film between complexity– making a piece of paper as realistic and as complicated as possible– and simplicity, refining the art to be simple, cleaner and also more abstract.

In the trailer, one artist talks about the art of the origami process, the ballet of creating. The film shows him in a pas de deux with paper, with the beautiful score of Gil Talmi in the background. Vanessa Gould has created a beautiful, stunning film.

Beyond the beauty of the art itself, the scientific connections are wonderful. Teachers in Israel are using origami to inspire kids to learn math. In the film, mathematician Tom Hull shows how origami describes advanced mathematical concepts. MIT professor Erik Demaine and his sculptor father Marty (who collaborate), are perhaps the ultimate symbol of this blending of the artistic with the scientific (Erik also talked after the screening at CUNY Science & the Arts in Manhattan). In the Demaine family it appears that art and science are simply a matter of viewing the same coin from the opposite side. They create origami that then lets them test unusual math. It sounds like a wonderful symbiotic relationship.

The beauty of origami also has a practical package. Car airbags rely on the algorithms to fold efficiently into flat spaces. And origami has all sorts of biological implications. Proteins– the workhorses of living cells– are long strings that fold in specific shapes in order to work properly. Genetic material folds into complex shapes to fit inside the nucleus– the command center– of a cell. (I interviewed Paul Rothemund who designs DNA origami a few years ago. The magazine killed the story, but I still find the work fascinating).

And just for fun– Jeannine Mosely gave a lesson in origami: folding 6 cards into a cube (and even learning how to lock cubes with our neighbors). Here’s one I just put together at home with my outdated business cards.

cube made from my old business cards
cube made from my old business cards

Lots of fun. My sister bought me an origami set for Christmas last year. I think it’s time to break it out.

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cheering for my cat's pancreas

Lizzy, the cat with 'tude and a persnickety pancreas
Lizzy, the cat with 'tude and a persnickety pancreas

Cheering for an animal’s organs makes up one of my many badges of geekdom.

In February I found out that Lizzy, one of my 10-year-old cats, had diabetes. Granted, I’d been getting the “fat cat lecture” from vets for almost five years. My black bundle of meows, attitude, klutziness, and a bottomless stomach was overweight. But her brother was normal weight, and I couldn’t figure out how to keep her from being the little glutton that she was (and is).

Lots of cats get diabetes, and I’m both a trained scientist and the daughter of a nurse. So I’ve been surrounded by big medical terms in some form for my entire life. What I really hate are needles (I never considered medical school for that very reason). Logically I knew this was a manageable disease– I needed to monitor her glucose and give her insulin shots. Realistically, this was a living creature who squirms, and she was depending on me to somehow get that insulin inside her.

The vet also held out a carrot of hope– that a percentage of cats reasonable percentage of cats recover. So, if we were careful– kept her glucose under control, and changed her diet– that she might just snap out of it. What? Snap out of diabetes? It seemed too good to be true. Continue reading cheering for my cat's pancreas

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musseling flexible strength with metals

Mussels (and geckos) exploit all sorts of crazy chemistry that scientists are still trying to understand and learn from. Geckos’ feet are the ultimate post-it notes, sticking and unsticking to surfaces without any glue. Mussels coat their “feet” in a natural protein super-glue. Some scientists are even trying to combine the two features. I’ve written about this chemistry before, and I like to keep track of what’s going on with this sticky science.

Credit: American Chemical Society
Damaged mussel byssal thread, Credit: American Chemical Society

There’s been a lot of discussion about mussels, but scientists have uncovered how these creatures marry their super-strength with flexibility on the byssal threads that attach them to solid surfaces. Most human-made coatings have to sacrifice one feature to gain on the other. The proteins on the surface of the threads contain many copies of a sticky molecule, dopa (3,4-dihydroxyphenyl-L-alanine), but that’s not enough to keep the surface hard. The proteins need the power of iron and calcium ions to keep the surface from cracking. The metal ions glom onto (chelate) the many oxygen atoms in the dopa groups and make them twice as hard as surfaces that are metal-free.

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Yay, chemistry, and experimental fish

little did I know that the American Chemical Society was founded in NYC
little did I know that the American Chemical Society was founded in NYC

On Thursday I spent a couple hours at NYU on Thursday afternoon of the Silver Building near Washington Square Park. Completely coincidentally as I was going to the meeting of the Experimental Cuisine Collective, I passed this plaque commemorating the founding of the American Chemical Society. I’d never delved that deeply into the history of the the ACS, though I’m a past member and still do some freelance editing work for them. Yay, chemistry!

This was only my second ECC meeting, and this chemist is still learning a lot about the food world. Andreas Vierstad, the Washington Post’s Gastronomer, talked a lot about the definition of molecular gastronomy. Though I’m not familiar with all the details, I do understand the importance and difficulty of “defining” a field with so many different points of view, but the semantics are a little distracting after a while. One particularly interesting point was the perspective that science in this field once it’s applied ceases to be science. It’s an interesting way to draw the line between art and science, and one of the things I like as a former chemist and amateur cook is the fact that there are fewer consequences to experimenting in my kitchen– beyond bad food.

Vierstad’s schtick is the science of everyday cooking, which he even referred to as “maverick gastronomy.” I might have to try his faux sous vide approach to cooking fish, adding boiling water to fish in a small container and letting that sit until the water cools to room temperature. The trick is in the ratios: 3 to 5 parts water to fish, by weight, depending on how “done” you like your fish. I’m a lazy cook, often too hungry by the time I get to the kitchen to get fancy, but I think I can handle this fish.

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genetic (material) gyrations

Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher
Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher

RNA researchers rejoice! It’s been a good week for DNA’s often-underappreciated cousin. Most people are worried about the genetic material that stays safely tucked in the nucleus of cells, but RNA is definitely the genetic workhorse. Without these molecules, our genetic programs would be useless artifacts locked in the cell nucleus like some sort of museum object. DNA is the storage vehicle, but RNA is the messenger. RNA is cellular middle management, broadcasting the executive order from the nucleus’s control center, passing on the program to proteins, and even getting involved in regulating all those processes from time to time.

Continue reading genetic (material) gyrations

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