Monday, November 22, 2010

My Paper: Part 1

Anyone who has watched a TV crime drama has a basic idea of DNA. Your DNA is your genetic fingerprint; it distinguishes you from your neighbor and links you to your parents. Although true, the CSI description of DNA is only a part of the story. DNA is more like an instruction manual, the longest, largest, most detailed instruction manual EVER.

Each cell in our body acts like a large international company with a couple thousand employees and DNA as the corporate handbook. In every large company there is a subset of employees that are responsible for market research; the 'receptors' of information get an idea of the current environment and reports back through the cellular hierarchy to the corporate center, ie, the nucleus. While information is working it way up the ladder, proteins within the communication route become excited, recruit others and sometime even provide feedback. Finally at the end of the communication network is a transcription factor (TF).  TFs are the urgent memo that gets handed directly to the CEO. The TF is special in that it acts as a key to the DNA and only unlocks specific chapters of the manual thus giving the cellular CEO the exact information and instructions to make the necessary changes to the business practices; make the company grow, make more products, expand to a new location, shut down completely.

If you want to get a global picture of what is going on in a company, looking at all the memos that cross a CEO’s desk is a good place to start. Paralleled in the cell, looking at the ‘active’ TFs in the nucleus (how well it can bind to and ‘unlock’ the DNA) gives a good measure of cellular status and of the upstream signaling network. In a company, you can potentially find failures in communication or in the structure of the company by studying the corporate memos; did some information get pass on too quickly? did something important get left out? were duplicate memos received? We can use the same basic ideas to identify markers in disease in a cell. By comparing the TF activity profiles of cancer cells verses healthy cells we can more precisely pinpoint where things went wrong and therefore develop more directed therapy.  
External signals work their way to the nucleus to effect gene regulation.

Friday, November 19, 2010

And now for something completely different...

Mainstream science reporting drives me nuts. Studies are sensationalized, taken out of context, and misrepresented. I blame scientists.

The scientific community is reclusive. We publish in journals with specific audiences that only people affiliated with an organization with the resources to pay for expensive subscriptions can read. We speak is jargon and acronyms. We are best at communicating with other scientists and often expect people who are not in the community to know what we are talking about.  

This needs to stop. The focus needs to change.

We need to learn to communicate with the outside world. We need to stop having journalist reading our papers and try to translate them for a wider audience. We need to write in a way that needs no translation. We need to be more approachable. I argue that if scientist were better at communicating there would be no question to the validity of global warming, parents would vaccinate and people wouldn’t think that stem cell research is equivalent to killing babies.  

I recently published my first paper. I thought it was pretty good. I thought it was written well. I thought my family would be able to read it and understand it. I was wrong. Reading it now I realize that being apart of academia has made me lose touch with ‘normal’ people’s understanding. The average person doesn’t know (and has no need to know) what a transcription factor is or the importance of signaling pathway analysis.

I want to become a better writer. I want to communicate clearer and reach a wider audience.

I have made a personal goal of writing everyday (well, every weekday). I hope that by writing everyday my communication skills will improve and writing will come more naturally (and, cross your fingers, make writing my thesis go a little faster).
Oh, and maybe this experiment will help me get my dream job of being a science correspondent for NPR... hahahaa

My first challenge: Rewriting my paper for a blog audience!