Beauty is in the Details
During last evening’s mega-lecture to my Anatomy and Physiology night class, I presented my favorite topics; DNA, RNA and proteins. To be fair to my students, I did warn them in advance of my fondness for these topics by saying they are near and dear to my heart, that most of my life has been invested into molecular biology research. Nevertheless, after lecture was over, they gathered around me like wet sheep asking plaintively, “Do we have to know all these details for the exam, like, you know, what the signal peptide does?” and “Do we have to memorize the codons and their amino acids for the exam?” Indeed, last night’s lecture was, for most of them, a very small drink from a very large hose. I am certain this will not be the last time this occurs.
“No,” I responded, feeling annoyed with myself for wasting their precious and limited lecture time on details, annoyed to realize that I was not strictly ‘teaching to the test’ as the other Adjuncts always advise me to do. “No, you don’t have to remember all the details. I told you about some of the details because I think they’re beautiful.”
Realizing that my admission made me sound like an eccentric, I then followed up by describing how learning about the intricacies of molecular biology could help them in their future medical careers, that knowing about DNA could help them explain paternity tests and heritable diseases to their patients, that appreciating the subtleties of protein folding and modifications would give them an understanding for illnesses such as Mad Cow Disease.
This lecture and their reactions to it were a trip back through time for me: I clearly remember hearing my first lecture about DNA, RNA and proteins. In that lecture, I recall that the basement classroom was poorly lit. The teacher paced back and forth in front of us, hands open and moving, fingers grasping at .. what? I sat stiffly in an uncomfortable wood chair in the middle of the second row from the front as if attending the opening night for an epic play. As the mystery was carefully unveiled before me, I forgot to breathe. Every molecule in my being was transfixed: I was unable to move my body, not even to dutifully take notes, but my mind raced across these open vistas with the sudden joy of discovery combined with a peculiar sense of familiarity as my life changed forever.
I told you those details because I am a scientist who is deeply awed and in love with my subject and I wish you to be awed and to love it, too.
I wish my students to see that molecular biology is a bold masterpiece upon which rests the larger masterpiece of life. I wish my students to realize that every gene represents a brushstroke within this masterpiece, each one unique and special. I wish my students to understand that individual genes contain, within their sequences, the record of their passage through time and that deciphering the story contained within our DNA is to learn about our history. I wish my students to recognize that even as our genes disclose our distant past, they also reveal how our lives are intimately intertwined with all life on earth. I wish my students to learn that even though they are defined and described by their genes, their individual fates are not dictated by their genes any more than by the stars. And last but not least, I wish my students to understand that nature is the great scientist and we all are her pupils, that we are trying to decipher her grand and multi-faceted experiments as they unfold before our eyes, each one possessing an itinerant beauty and completeness that defy mere words.
Perhaps one of my students will be changed by the grandeur of all as I was.
Included with the Best of Me Symphony
© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist