... of Molecular Biology, that is. In brief, it deals with the transfer of information between DNA, RNA, and protein. The "backbone" of modern molecular biology, it was first articulated by Francis Crick in 1958 in the famous paper entitled "On Protein Synthesis."
I am leading Journal Club for first-year medical-students this semester, and that was our first paper. Since I am only 2 years ahead of my students, I am quite sure that many of them are older in age, wiser, and far more knowledgeable than me. So I brought in bagels and orange juice. Nothing works better than food, especially at 8 AM. But it has gotten me thinking a lot about what it means to discuss molecular biology.
I am a biologist. It goes far beyond my job. I am the girl who wears an engagement ring with a DNA design. My husband proposed marriage by appealing to my appreciation of complimentary base-pairing in the DNA helix*. And I can tell you with absolutely certainty that one does not become a biologist by memorizing pathways in a textbook. It does help to know the vocabulary, and I am certainly the proud owner of many textbooks – my addiction to them being almost as bad as my addiction to shoes **. But it’s not enough.
I learned biology one afternoon many years ago when I took a break from reading textbook to attend a talk by Joan Steitz on mRNA and ribosomes. To be honest, I did not understand much of her data. But Joan’s voice was filled with passion, and I understood then why she dedicated her whole life to the exciting study of such small molecules. And I learned biology in college, when I took a job in the Department of Biology hoping to make some extra money to buy textbooks***. In the prep-room, I spent hours imagining every experiment the professors would do with the hundreds of agar plates I was making. Some day, I would tell myself, I am going to do these experiments too. And I learned biology when I started working in the lab of Doug Robinson. On my first day, Doug sat down with me at the bench, picked up a pipette, handed me another pipette, and talked to me about our project. We worked late into the evening, me stumbling with my first mini-prep, still in awe that Doug was seriously asking my opinion. Doug’s lab studied cell division, and I remember walking home in the rain, watching every rain drop breaking into half, but seeing the fluid mechanics of a dividing cell.
I give teaching a great deal of thoughts not because I can’t explain the details of the Central Dogma (there’s always google for that kind of thing :-)), but because I struggle with whether I can adequately convey the excitement of molecular biology. On my first day, I quoted The West Wing. “Do you know how they say when you go to the West you should always visit the Grand Canyon, because it’s one of those few things in life that don’t disappoint when you actually see it? THIS is one of those things.” Some of his predictions were spot on, others were off base. But his paper demonstrated how one can truly shape an entire direction of science and of humanity, just by careful observation, data synthesis, and a bit of clever reasoning. And if that doesn’t make you want to jump in excitement, what else?
At the end of our hour, someone mentioned the famous Einstein quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” I may not have adequately explained the Central Dogma. But I knew then that for at least one of them, I have done my job that day.
How did you end up in the career of your choice? Leave a comment and share with all of us!
*N. tells that story far better than I do – perhaps I can convince him to post it another day.
** Almost, but not quite. Shoes always win.
*** and shoes.