I was one of those people who wrote in their college application essay that since I was seven years old I wanted to cure cancer. And I truly did (long story for another post). Somehow, I thought it would happen by the time I graduated from college. I was convinced that all cancer needed as a “fresh pair of eyes” and it would just come to me. Looking back, I want to pat my teenage head and sigh at what a cute idea that was while being incredible proud of my idealism.
So with this goal in mind, I thought I should be a pharmacist so that I could do pharmaceutical research, until I asked a pharmacist what they did all day and decided that would be incredibly dull. So I started Boston University as a biomedical engineering major – it included the words “bio” and “medical” so I assumed that it would be perfect for me. This was a fabulous plan until I took physics. This was the first time I realized that not every scientist was the same kind of scientist. I was a scientist who had a lot of trouble understanding physics – specifically electromagnetism. I still don’t understand why the electromagnetic vector was sometimes going into and sometimes coming out of the board.
I distinctly remember the day I decided to switch my major to biochemistry and molecular biology. I called my parents and they told me to tell them 10 reasons why I should switch major. They understood what a person could do with a degree in biomedical engineer (create prosthesis or design medical devices), but what in the world would a biochemistry and molecular biologist do? And so I explained…
Cells are the building blocks of living organisms and molecules (whether DNA, RNA or proteins) are inside of the cells essentially either doing things (in the case of proteins) or directing the creation of these proteins (in the case of DNA and RNA). Biochemistry explains the mechanisms of how these molecules function. So by understanding how cells and molecules work through research, I could better understand how life works. And even more interesting, you can study what happens when these mechanisms break down to cause changes in the cells that result in diseases like cancer. Cells and molecules are also what are targeted by drugs, which fit right in with my goal of developing a cure for cancer.
As I reflect on this early “scientist” moment, I’m thinking about how the public views scientists and how it could be confusing that different kinds of scientists are not at all interchangeable. Do people lump all scientists together? Is it confusing that as a biochemist, cell and molecular biologist I know so very little about physics? Or climate change? Or medicine? And even though I’ve taken classes in neuroscience (and neurons are cells that are filled with molecules), I’m no neuroscientist? There’s so much information and scientific knowledge, that I’m actually grateful that there are experts in other fields…if for no other reason than so I don’t have to understand physics.
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