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Meera Bhanu

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A Biologist and a Chemist Walk Into a Bar...

Posted: 06/26/2012 12:03 pm

Being an international graduate student in the United States has several advantages. For one, telling random people you meet at a party that you are pursuing your Ph.D. in structural biochemistry is a great conversation starter, though I'm not entirely sure if the looks and awkward gasps I often receive are more out of sheer awe of my perceived superior intellectual capacity (yes, my dear old chap, E, is indeed equal to MC squared) or out of pity because they think I'm a complete misfit in any group that doesn't include some kind of intellectual or the other (not true, by the way). Or maybe, they just don't know what next to say, because they probably haven't really spoken to a researcher before.

Be that as it very well may, it behooves me, on behalf of the entire biological community (if I were to take that liberty), to try to make all of you non-scientists reading this, understand a little bit more about us scientifically-inclined folks. For starters, according to a national survey conducted last year by the Dunkin Donuts group, laboratory technicians and researchers are the largest consumers of coffee on any given day. That's not too difficult to imagine, given that we spend most, if not all, of our waking hours at the laboratory. Science never stops. Biology, to me, and to millions of others, is sheer beauty in motion. And it's constantly evolving; no two biological systems are the exact same, no experimental result is 100% reproducible. Like one of my professors said, in biology, you can only provide evidence to try to substantiate your claims, theories and hypotheses; you can generally never prove anything beyond a shadow of doubt. This is what makes biology so interesting to me, which is also part of the reason why I am married to a biologist, what better way to spend a romantic evening at home than by brooding over tough projects and experimental failures with your spouse!

With that being said, here's more of a look into what we do on a day-to-day basis. I work in a wet-lab, which means I do experiments using pipets, test tubes, solutions, reagents, live cells and gloves. Several other biologists work in what are known as dry-labs, they spend most of their time analyzing data on their computers, utilizing bioinformatics, mathematical modeling etc. Anyway, as a scientist, you get to work on a project that is actively being studied and scrutinized by an elite group of people around the world. For example, everyone knows that there are millions of scientists out there, working round the clock, 365 days a year trying to find a cure for cancer, but you can break up that list into labs that specifically work on only one type of cancer, then you can breakdown that subset into labs that work on one particular aspect of that cancer, for example one group may work on how to kill tumor cells, while another may focus on how to prevent tumor formation in the first place, or on studying what carcinogens (agents that cause cancer) are implicated in the disease, or to figure out what makes some people susceptible, and others resistant to cancer. (This, of course, is an extremely simplified version of the work being carried out actively in thousands of labs around the world.) Each area of this kind of research is super interesting, and most importantly, extremely pertinent to society in general.

The beauty of biology, unfortunately, is also one of its biggest caveats. Drugs developed for one kind of disease may not work for every patient. Each disease has its own path of progression, each individual responds differently to the ravages of disease. Biological work requires a lot of time, there are cells to be grown, experimental conditions to be planned, optimized, and then tested. This is typically followed by months and years of further optimization, several experimental protocol changes, hours to be spent reading and brainstorming about how to improve upon whatever it is that one is working on, and all of this ultimately results in several sets of multiple experiments that successfully generate reproducible data that supports one's hypothesis. Phew! Top this of, with several rounds and years of testing on mice followed by clinical trials before the FDA finally approves a drug.

Clearly, life as a researcher is no walk in the park, but a passion for science (along with ample amounts of perseverance) can go a long way. We might look like geeks, but it's good to know that the producers of The Big Bang Theory have got our backs!

 

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