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genetic (material) gyrations

10 Jan
Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher

Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher

RNA researchers rejoice! It’s been a good week for DNA’s often-underappreciated cousin. Most people are worried about the genetic material that stays safely tucked in the nucleus of cells, but RNA is definitely the genetic workhorse. Without these molecules, our genetic programs would be useless artifacts locked in the cell nucleus like some sort of museum object. DNA is the storage vehicle, but RNA is the messenger. RNA is cellular middle management, broadcasting the executive order from the nucleus’s control center, passing on the program to proteins, and even getting involved in regulating all those processes from time to time.

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The network of connection

7 Jan

In January, this freelancer’s mind turns to thoughts of networking, marketing and generally making new (hopefully productive, dare I say lucrative) contacts. I’ve been thinking about networks in a variety of contexts, whether it’s been family, friends, social networks, and the ways interactions between people and within systems ping-pong chaotically, but in ways that mathematics can clarify.

In addition, I’ve been working on a story over the last several weeks or so that deals with systems biology– a scientific approach that allows scientists to look at a biological system as a whole rather than the sum of its parts. Instead of isolating how one component of a machine interacts with another one, researchers use math to look at multiple interactions and scenarios and begin to tease out larger questions of complex systems. It’s an old idea that biology researchers have revisited in earnest over the last several years, with the data that overflows in the Era of Omics (genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc, etc).

But today I’m really thinking about networks of people and how our pings off each other shoot us  into different directions, heighten (or dampen) our creativity, and ultimately impact our mood and even overall paths in life.

From New Scientist:

Indeed, it is becoming clear that a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.

This sort of social feedback is mostly good, note these scientists. But though I know I’ve been buoyed by friends who knew how to pick me up when I was down, I also remember the times when a toxic environment or person trampled on both my mood and productivity. My own (purely anecdotal) experience has been peppered with both fertile, creative environments with supportive colleagues and workplaces that verged on septic.

It’s an interesting time for journalists in that regard. I talked to one award-winning newspaper reporter a few months ago who described his work environment as gloomy beyond belief– people were hanging on, doing their jobs, and waiting for the layoff axe to drop all at the same time. In recent weeks, as magazines have halted production and newspapers have declared bankruptcy, I’ve definitely kept a lookout for colleagues with a positive outlook, just for sanity’s sake– my detox method of choice in a crazy economic environment.

But it looks like scientists may have more than social networks to worry about. What happens when the central star of a highly functional network is snuffed out unexpectedly and prematurely? Some MIT and Columbia University economists examined this question, looking at the impact of the premature death of a biomedical scientific superstar on the collaborators and colleagues that orbited her or (mostly) his influence. Apparently if it’s unexpected, that death can diminish their both the productivity and the quality of their publications of their surviving co-authors for years, if not their entire career. It’s not bereavement or even social connections, the researchers write in the study. “Rather, our results are consistent with the idea that part of the scientific field embodied in the invisible college of coauthors working in that area dies along with the star — that superstar extinction represents a genuine and irreplaceable loss of human capital.”

The New Scientist story offers tips for how to maximize positive social connections. It sounds like scientists need more than productive, positive social connections, at least when hitching their research wagon to a superstar. So, Steve Jobs’ health may send ripples of angst through Apple fans and stockholders. But if the same trends hold for tech  and biomedicine. such worries might be rational.

the toy that stumped Niels Bohr

3 Jan

I didn’t make it to the Nobel Prize festivities in early December. But my husband’s Ph.D. adviser (a friend of a 2008 laureate) hobnobbed with the Nobel elite. She brought back a couple souvenirs as holiday gifts for members in the lab. First of all, everyone needs their own chocolate Nobel Prize.

yes, you too can have a Nobel prize

yes, you too can have a Nobel prize

But we were really fascinated with the Tippe Top from the Nobel Museum. It’s super simple-looking, rounded on the bottom with a dowel-like rod for a spinner. As it spins, the dowel moves from the tippy-top of the top, until the top spins on the dowel. Little did I know that physicists have been arguing about the mechanics of this toy since Sir Isaac Newton: though simple-looking, the physics and mathematics that explain this behavior are anything but. As a recovering chemist, I love the idea of one of my scientific heroes, Niels Bohr, a man absorbed with the spinning behavior in atoms, was also obsessed with the physics and mathematics of this toy.

The more I watch it, the more fascinating the problem is. The top appears to rotate in a constant direction, but it actually changes directions as it flips, maintaining the appearance of constant rotation in one direction. In keeping with the Bohr connection, the Danes have a fascinating description of the history and the physics behind the top. It’s all about shifts in the rotational axis and the wonders of sliding friction.