A Young Lady’s Guide to Science in 2010

So… a long time ago, perhaps when it was still appropriate to refer to 2010 as being in the future, I was asked to write “A Young Lady’s Guide to Science in 2010”.  So now instead of a prospective, it’s more like a retrospective, or if you want you can just think of it as “A Young Lady’s Guide to Science in 5771” since, you know, it was just Rosh Hashanah and all. 

 

I had a draft of this post almost done when I realized I was taking it way too seriously (I do that sometimes, don’t worry).  I was all NIH, DOE, GFP, LHCing it up, when I checked out the previous young lady’s guides, and realized I was being boring as chicken mittens.  And I am NOT falling into the trap of saying that science is just plain not as interesting as sports or oral piercings because we all know that’s not true. 

A few things to mention before we get started: 

  • I will be using a lot of acronyms.
  • Science is mostly funded by the government, whether you are at an institution or at a university.  The government enjoys giving money to the biomedical sciences more than the physical sciences or even agricultural sciences. (For perspective: NIH has a ~$30 billion/ year budget, CERN has a ~$1 billion/year budget,  and check out the NASA budget graph below.)
  • It is pretty cool that we get all this money considering that science is basically the art of manipulating tiny things to tell us secrets about tinier things. It is pretty much black magic most of the time.  Ssssh, don’t tell anybody.
  • Physics studies atoms on down. Chemistry studies molecules. Biology uses chemistry and physics to study organisms.   Biologically relevant molecules are made mostly of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.  Humans have 23 chromosomes. Chromosomes are made of tightly packed DNA. Chromosomes will unpack a little so that the DNA of a gene can be read to make an RNA that matches it.  This RNA holds the code to a protein.  Proteins are the workhorse of the cell.   Check out this video.
  • Also, I am hopefully as informed as I think I am, but if I am wrong about something or have omitted an important detail PLEASE do say something.

Okay, that should do. 

  • The Human Genome Project just celebrated its 10 year anniversary.  The NIH director Francis Collins (who is apparently really controversial because he believes in God) used to be the head of the Human Genome Project and is now all into the future of personalized medicine (AKA this drug is best for you because you have this mutation in your genome).  I feel like most people aren’t as enthusiastic as he is. Probably because the movie Gattaca freaked them out.
  • In May, J Craig Venter, the guy who a decade ago ran the private genome project that was competing with Collins’ public one, made a synthetic cell.  Well… sort of.  He synthetically made the genome of one bacteria and put it into the cell body of another bacteria.  People aren’t really sure why he did this (other than because it is badass).  The pope thought it was cool.   Obama thought it was scary.  Exxon and BP gave him a lot of money.
  • Green fluorescent protein (GFP) is pretty much integrated into every field of biological science. In 2008 it got (well, the people who figured out how to use it got) the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  It is a protein from a jellyfish that they can now use to highlight almost anything (yes, even cancer). It is extremely useful.  Hence the Nobel Prize.  It also comes in a variety of colors.
  • H1N1 was not the pandemic everyone thought it would be. People thought it would suck because it was a combination of swine flu and avian flu.  Flu viruses have 8 gene segments.  H1N1’s segments were a combination of human, pig (swine), and bird (avian).  Avian flu is extremely dangerous, but didn’t have much risk of jumping to human.  Swine flu is not that dangerous, but can swap genes easily with human flu.  So people got really scared when suddenly avian, swine, and human all got mixed together into one megaflu.  But it turned out not to be so bad.   Science is not actually perfect sometimes.
  • Stem cells have been through a prop 8 – like up and down cycle of the government almost doing the right thing and then taking it back.  Read that Francis Collins article I tweeted about if you want details.
  • I think I should make every bullet point have something to do with Francis Collins.
  • Did you know he’s a Rock Star?
  • The Higgs has not been found yet, and turning on the LHC did not destroy the world.   There are four fundamental forces: gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong force, and the weak force.  These forces act through the exchange of things called bosons: the graviton for gravity, the photon for the electromagnetic force,  gluons for the strong force, and the W and Z bosons for the weak force.  There is an accepted model in physics of describing particles and forces and how they act together called “The Standard Model”, and in order for this to work there has to be one more boson called the Higgs boson, which would give the W and Z bosons mass.  The Higgs boson, however, has yet to be observed.  The LHC, or the “Large Hadron Collider” will hopefully find it be smashing protons together (remember how the nucleus of an atom consists of protons and neutrons, yeah, those protons).   Right now the LHC is only running at half energy, hopefully in like 2013 it will start running at full energy and solve all of our problems.
  • According to the postdoc who sits next to me, systems biology is the next big thing after GFP.   I’m not sure I agree with him, but he is probably right anyway.  While I have actually published papers in what I think is systems biology, I can’t claim to really understand the trend/field/whatever it is.  As far as I can tell, it is inevitably going to become the language of biology once it figures itself out (at which point it will probably no longer be called systems biology).  This is because systems biology may just be the best way to make sense of the piles and piles of genomic, epigenomic, proteomic, etc data that are now becoming available to us.
  • The Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2009 was for the discovery of telomeres.  Telomeres are a region of repetitive DNA at the end of chromosomes to keep important genes from being chopped off during replication.  They think this may at some point help explain some things about aging.  Francis Collins also works on this in his spare time.
  • Future Nobel Prize Prediction: Shinya Yamanaka for induced pluripotent stem cells (AKA he figured out how to make any cell into any other cell, holy crap!) This is not my personal prediction, but the word on the street.
  • Other things I should talk about but don’t really feel like it: epigenetics, fusion, health care, metamaterials, small RNA, fMRI, optogenetics, etc.

As you may have noticed by that last bullet point, I have run out of steam.  I think those are the basic facts about the biggest things going on right now.  None of it has much to do with what I’m actually doing my PhD on, besides the general biomedical science theme (I love you physics, but it ain’t the 30’s anymore).  Please do add things, if you feel even the slightest urge. 

Bonus for making it this far: 

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One Response to A Young Lady’s Guide to Science in 2010

  1. Mary says:

    Yamanaka is a robber. Dr. Izumi Arai is the original. Yamanaka steals Dr. Izumi Arai’s brilliant achievements. As a matter of fact Yamanaka does not work. It is Dr. Izumi Arai that really did this great achievements.

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