Monthly Archives: February 2010

Curious…

I’m fairly well versed in biology, and what I don’t know I can look up and not be confused by the jargon.  So, I have a question to anyone reading this: any questions you have about anything biology (or general science) related that you would like answered by a scientist?

Something you read in the news or a magazine about recent biological advances sound fishy and want to get the to bottom of it?  Ask me.

Hear your dad spout some craziness about one of his “theories” and wonder if it has a grain of truth?  Ask me.

Ever wonder why you have a blind spot in your eye?  Ask me.  (hint: if there’s a god, he’s retarded)

Wonder why researchers still have to kill tens of thousands of animals a year in order to do necessary research?  Ask me.

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Filed under animal research, medicine, morality

Science: it does more than you think

One of the main questions I get about doing biological research is: so what do you actually do?  If my answer isn’t “I’m trying to cure Parkinson’s/cancer/some other disease!” I tend to get one of two responses.
1. Why aren’t you trying to cure (insert disease)?
2. (blank stare)

I don’t blame people for not understanding why I do what I do.  Considering billions of taxpayer money is spent every year on basic research I can see why the general public wants to see tangible results in the form of new drugs and therapies that can help people with debilitating, and often lethal, diseases.  This is why I do everything I can to inform anyone who is willing to listen about the joys and benefits of basic research.

I’m going to gloss over a lot of details, but you have essentially two kinds of research: applied and basic.  Applied research is a program where a finding (lets say a new class of antibiotic) is used to find a direct application that can benefit people.   In the antibiotic instance it would involve first using the new antibiotic on cultured bacteria alongside standard treatments.  Then you move on to animal models and, if it all works out, to clinical studies in humans.

Basic research is, well, for lack of a better term, more basic.  I know you can’t define something by using the very word you are defining, so let me expound on this a little bit.  All basic research is goal oriented in a sense, but the overall goal is much more open ended than that of applied research.  We basic researchers try to figure stuff out just for the sake of figuring it out.  Yes, it may have a practical application down the road that we’re kind of, slightly, interested in but the main goal is to expand humanity’s knowledge base so that even more discoveries can be made.  The key to basic research that everyone should understand is this: no one knows what piece of knowledge is going to lead to useful, practical applications.  Just because we’re scientists doesn’t mean we can see the future.  We make educated guesses based on what we currently know to try and narrow down future possibilities (and we’ve become quite good at that), but we’re far from perfect.

One of the best examples I have ever seen of a basic research finding having profound real-world implications is the discovery of a simple little protein called ubiquitin.  I heard the story of it’s discovery when I attended a lecture by Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover (yes, I had to mention that) and it was essentially this: scientists didn’t know anything about the possible breakdown of proteins in the body at the time, so Aaron and a few others decided to look into it.  There were plenty of theories about what was happening to these proteins, but no one had any solid answers.  Turns out, the protein ubiquitin is critical to the specified destruction of proteins, and when this system gets fucked up, you get fucked up.  However, now that we know what the system does and (mostly) how it works we can now look for drugs to target particular aspects of this system to cure diseases!  Exciting, I know!  But, if the basic research hadn’t been done we would instead be blindly looking for drugs, and even if one were found we wouldn’t understand how it works or interacts with other parts of a system.

These discoveries happen all the time.  Occasionally they directly help humanity, but I would argue that in all instances they, at the very least, indirectly help.

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Filed under animal research, medicine

Evolution and religion

I haven’t formally studied evolution in years now, but it has always been one of those topics that excited me so I do what I can to keep up with the most interesting (to me) literature. It has always been an amazing field of discovery about the origins of all living things we know that only gets more exciting every day.

What upsets me is how people can think they understand it by listening to their pastor, friend, or co-worker, and just take what that person says at face value because of trust or because the “facts” reinforce a particular worldview. Far too few people plead ignorance these days, and that is quite regrettable considering that any given person is incredibly ignorant of most things. So what makes people think that they can understand something as complex as modern evolutionary theory without ever having studied it?

Religion. Now, I’m not saying that ALL people who object to evolutionary theory do so because of their religion, but let’s be honest here, the overwhelming vast majority of people who reject it (whether they outright admit it or not) do so because of their religion. By doing this these people permanently cut off a way of understanding our world. They argue from personal incredulity by saying things such as “this structure/pathway is way too complex to have evolved!” Really?! How the fuck do they know? Have they tried to understand how it could have happened using known routes of evolutionary change? Of course those people haven’t because that would involve delving deep into decades of research that, lets be honest, they wouldn’t begin to understand. Then, they would have to come up with a decent experiment to test their hypothesis that whatever it was they were talking about couldn’t evolve.

Ah ha! But these people have heard about someone who has done (or at least proposed) such experiments. People like Scott Minnich and Michael Behe who have shown evolution to be false!

Oh, if only it were so simple. First, from the standpoint of any scientist, Minnich’s flagellum knock-out experiment was completely fucking retarded and showed absolutely nothing. Evolution 1, Creationism 0. Behe is even worse. He simply proposed a(nother) retarded idea and proposed it showed modern evolutionary theory to be incomplete. Unfortunately for Behe, his idea (that of irreducible complexity) could be shot full of holes by a 2nd grader with a finger up his nose. Even worse is that he didn’t even research the subjects on which he based his arguments (if you read the literature you’d see they actually COUNTER his retarded little idea) and he never even did a single freaking experiment to try and gather evidence for it.

It’s a futile effort to try and prove science wrong because THAT’S WHAT SCIENTISTS ARE TRYING TO DO. We aren’t here to sit around and do experiments, circle-jerking one another along the way. Fuck no, we’re here trying to figure out something no one has ever figured out before, and if that means telling a bunch of people that they’re wrong then so be it. The difference between us and them is that when we say “you’re wrong” we have to back it up with cold, hard data. If you don’t have that data then you have nothing and all the arguments in the world won’t change a real scientist’s mind. But those same arguments may change the mind of a religious person, because due to their very nature they have been shown to accept arguments without any evidence.

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Filed under christianity, religion

Oh god…

Dear lord, why did I go out last night? No good, very bad idea on my part. Pretty sure I just got the gold in the “I made a huge mistake” event.

Fuck.

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My personal life

Dear god my life is fucked up. Unfortunately, it’s mostly my doing. You see, I am one of those people who asks the question “how can I make this situation more difficult than it already is?” and then do that thing. Not sure why I like to make things much more difficult than they should be, but apparently that’s just how I roll. I’ll fill in details soon.

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Time to get back into the fold

I have been terrible at keeping up with this blog and I would feel bad about that were anyone to actually read it, but since very few do I don’t really care all that much.

Essentially, grad school has been kicking my ass all over the place and I didn’t have time to really keep up with writing.  Things have slowed down a bit leaving me with precious free time I can now use to occasionally write.  Unfortunately, in order to get to this slow time took a ridiculous amount of work the past week and a half.  Three exams in six days to be exact.

How’d I do?  I’d rather not discuss that other than the fact that I’m probably going to have to retake one of the two courses (hopefully not both…) I’m currently taking next year.  I will take what responsibility is mine: it was my own damn fault I didn’t get the grade I wanted in my anatomy course.  It was taught very well and I thought I knew the material, but I just turned out to be wrong.  Oh well, no big deal, I’ll just take the two exams next year without going to class, get a better grade, and be done with it.  That was not the case with the other class I’m taking.

You see, in the sciences the professors have two duties to the university where they work.  Their primary purpose is to bring in loads of grant money and do research to get even more grant money.  Their secondary purpose is to teach students (mainly grad students).  This is a FAR second.  Essentially, you can be the worst teacher in the world but as long as you keep bringing in money you can still get tenure, but the school, for some fucking reason, still wants you to teach the occasional class.  In theory, this is a fantastic idea.  World renowned experts teaching students about what they know better than practically anyone else in the world.  In practice, it’s one of the worst ideas ever.  The reason is simple: most people are terrible teachers and no amount of knowledge is enough to counteract that lack of teaching ability.  So what happens is SuperProf comes in to teach a class on something like the somatosensory system and spends nearly two hours going over what appear to be random powerpoint slides.  People ask questions and SuperProf tries to answer, but s/he can’t really get the point across to the students because s/he DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO TEACH.  Then comes exam time, and even though you’ve read the book and spent hours pouring over SuperProf’s slides you still can’t make sense of anything but the most basic information s/he tried to teach you and you get fucked on the exam questions.

Haven’t gotten the grade back on that exam yet, but at least everyone else in my class felt just as clueless as I did on the questions from terrible profs.

/rant

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Filed under crazy, grad school, life