I LOVED SPACE. I loved space so much that in the sixth grade I spent most of my time at recess – without shame – with a friend planning on how to create a tractor beam (for those who aren’t complete geeks, that’s the force in Star Trek that allowed the Enterprise to latch on to other spaceships). Our solution – a very big, long rope. Completely ignoring my fear of heights or adventure rides, I was convinced that I was going to be the female Jean-Luc Picard. And as everyone else wrote in their sixth grade yearbooks how they wanted to be a teacher, doctor or lawyer, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer (and I honestly cannot believe that I’m showing the proof with my sixth grade yearbook photo).
With this deep-seeded love of astronomy, you may be asking yourself how I became a biologist? In my senior year of high school, I attended a Boston University Medical Center program called City Lab. This was a six week program that my mom drove my friend Missy and me to (an hour each way in rush hour traffic) so that we could do a lab experiment. Each week, we spent several hours in the Boston University lab doing different parts of the experiment I describe below.
The goal of this experiment was to take a piece of DNA that coded for the green fluorescent protein (also known as GFP) and put it into a piece of DNA that could make bacteria glow green. We haven’t talked in detail about genes or protein expression yet, so I’ll stick to the basics. GFP is from a jellyfish called aequorea victoria, and it’s what makes the jellyfish glow green. A scientist isolated this one gene, and if transferred properly into another organism, it can make that organism glow green. And yes, people have tried this. People have created GFP rabbits and mice and…NO, NOT PEOPLE. Why not? Well, first, because it’s highly unethical to do genetic engineering in people for no clinical reason (and having glowing eyebrows will not cure any disease). Also it’s very difficult to manipulate the DNA in humans for a variety of reasons that we will discuss when talking about gene therapy.
So, at City Lab our job was to cut the GFP gene using restriction enzymes (which are essentially DNA scissors that cut DNA in a specific place) and then insert the GFP gene into another piece of DNA using ligase (essentially, DNA glue). This new piece of DNA (called a bacterial expression vector) makes the GFP protein in bacteria cells. When the GFP protein is expressed in bacterial cells, the bacteria glow green. It was easy to figure out if your six weeks of effort was worth it if your bacteria glowed green.
OUR EXPERIMENT WAS THE ONLY ONE THAT WORKED. Not only had we understood how a piece of DNA worked, moved it from one place to another, but we then were able to get it to do something in a bacterial cell. At the time, I didn’t realize that this was what scientists called “recombinant DNA technology.” I didn’t know that this was used all of the time in the laboratory as a foundation of molecular biology studies. I had no idea that someday I would be managing a facility that stored hundreds of thousands of these pieces of DNA to help researchers worldwide with their experiments. I only knew the thrill of “discovery” and I wanted more.
That’s how I became a biologist.
Dr. Cathy Seiler is the Program Manager for the tissue biorepository at St. Joseph's Hospital and Barrow Neurological Institute. She has her BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Boston University and PhD in the Biological Sciences from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Her research and teaching focuses on genetics, cancer, and personalized medicine. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thingsitellmymom