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Career Choice

May 21, 2010

At the dawn of the twentieth century, while Albert Einstein and Max Planck were writing mathematical equations that distilled the fundamental physics of the Universe, a biologist was winning the Nobel prize for describing how to make dogs drool on command. [1]

That phrase in a recent Nature news feature caught my attention, since it was a summary of my decision to study physics and materials science instead of biology. In fact, the idea of making a career in biology never entered my mind, but that decision was made in the Dark Ages of the mid twentieth century. At that time, the flashing lights and zapping sparks of a physics laboratory appealed to me more than the formaldehyde stench of a biology laboratory. And that, notwithstanding the fact of my taking BSSC Biology, the New Math of Biology, while in high school; and participating in advanced biology laboratory experiments. Biology in the early sixties was simply boring.

What dissuaded me most from pursuing biology as a career was the imprecise nature of biological experiments. In physics, everything is precise, often to an astonishing degree. In biology, half your rats died, but usually not because of something you did, or didn't, do. They just died, and your results were anything but mathematically satisfying.

Things are quite different, today. The technologies used in the various branches of biology rival those in any physics laboratory. Biomathematics with its eclectic mixture of applied mathematics, modeling and computer science would surely have appealed to me if that career were available in my youth.

The new age of biology began with the 1953 publication of the paper, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," by James Watson and Francis Crick in Nature, the same journal that published the statement at the head of this article. This is, of course, the famous Double Helix paper. The discovery of the chemical origin of genetics came just a few years after the 1947 invention of the transistor at Bell Labs by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley. I dare to admit that the transistor and I are nearly the same age, but I'm happy to say that I was present at the dedication of a plaque, shown below, that commemorates the discovery of the transistor [2].

IEEE Transistor Plaque

Biology has taken another leap into high technology with the creation of synthetic life by a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute [3-4]. The twenty-four author paper describing this work, "Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome," will appear in Science. The research team was able to synthesize the complete (with minor alteration) 1.8 million base-pair DNA genome of the bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, and stuff it into the cell of another bacterium whose genome was removed. The cell divided normally and multiplied. This isn't exactly a de novo creation of life, since the cellular mechanisms of the host bacterium were already in place, but it's quite an achievement. With proper engineering, cells could be produced to aid in carbon-sequestration, production of biofuels, and hazardous material remediation.

Craig Venter, founder of his eponymous institute, is interesting in many ways, but especially for his career path. After graduating from high school at about the same time I did, he served as a medical corpsman with the US Navy in Vietnam. After leaving military service, Venter was initially unsure of his ability to tackle college courses, so he enrolled at the College of San Mateo, a two-year school. Eventually, Venter received a Bachelor's degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from the University of California, San Diego [5].

References:

  1. Erika Check Hayden. "Human genone at ten: Life is complicated," Vol, 464, no. 7289 pp. 664-667.
  2. Anna Bogdanowicz, "Honoring the Trailblazing Transistor," The Institute (IEEE, December 7, 2009).
  3. David Perlman, "Creation of genes in lab raises hopes, concerns," sfgate.com, May 21, 2010.
  4. US scientist creates 'artificial life,' wikinews.org, May 21, 2010.
  5. Alan Kotok, "Craig Venter: A Product of Veterans' Education and Community Colleges," Science Blogs, May 21, 2010.

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