What secrets do we hold? 

What secrets do we hold? 

Why Science?

My father perennially attempts to convince me to abandon academia for a more lucrative job in the business world by telling me that business is science too. And, for all the important details one must overlook to swallow his argument in toto, he’s right. Because business is science, law is science, teaching is science, performance is science–nearly everything is rooted in some components of science; regardless of one’s field, the research and exposition techniques that form the core of scientific inquiry are integral (but, in many cases, admittedly not sufficient, even for scientists) skills for any serious career-builder. Even landing a job at all tends to require some basic analysis of the position for which one might be applying, which involves the same process of questioning, information gathering, revision of expectations based on new data, and conclusion building that composing a scientific proposal or publication does.

And yet science is not everything; a career in adventuring through the jungles of truth is marked by at least one special feature. Science, or research academia in general, is perhaps more defined by a search for the timelessly novel than many other fields. Taking someone else’s product and reintroducing it with some clever rebranding will not help one achieve much as a researcher; even the most uncreative of cookie-cutter studies must add something to something in order to enter the intellectual fray. Luckily, the world is complex, perhaps far more complex than we can fathom, so even when it seems, as Max Planck’s professor reportedly stated about experimental physics in the 1870’s, that “almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes,” [1] the enterprising researcher generally has room to, ahem, tear someone’s conclusion a new one and get a Nobel Prize anyway. In this way, doing science is a welcome escape from the hamster wheel dynamic that pervades much of human life (even if the day-to-day grind of field sampling, reagent pipetting, program debugging, grant-writing, or some other chosen poison may make it seem hardly so) and a way to leave a lasting and positive mark on the world, however small and niche one’s ultimate contribution may be.

I firmly believe all that I have stated above, but if I were to be honest with myself I would have to admit that it is perhaps not the case that because of these reasoned arguments I have chosen a path in science; rather, the reality is quite the inverse: because I have chosen a path in science I have been motivated to justify it with said reasoning. But if my blossoming passion for scientific inquiry was not constructed on a foundation of logic, what was its first cause?

To the best of my knowledge, the seeds of my love affair with science were planted one autumn day in the sixth grade when our science teacher made us capture and observe insects outside our homes as part of our biology lesson that week. As I had just spent the last two summers happily sneaking up on houseflies, moths, and the occasional bee with my neighbor in order to feed his turtles, this seemed like a great excuse to spend another few hours traipsing through the gardens on my block with nets and cupped hands instead of sitting in my kitchen writing out exercises as the happy noises of friends playing outside drifted in through my front-room window. Needless to say, science was my favorite class that year.

Sixth-grade insect safaris notwithstanding, I suffered through three years of junior high science fair projects, which I hated on account of the public speaking involved, and a year of memorization-heavy freshman biology coursework (sans entomological show and tell) before entering the sophomore chemistry class that sealed my fate for good. Our teacher was a no-nonsense but good-humored man with a Master’s degree and thirty years of high school teaching experience who typed his own worksheets in ten-point Courier and threw the occasional eraser for dramatic effect while lecturing. After making us memorize a slew of metric conversions, solute-solvent associations, and ionic compound names, by the third week of class he had us calculating the wavelengths of photons emitted by excited electrons in Bohr’s model of hydrogen.

Until that point in my education, I don’t think I had ever even seen a Greek letter other than pi on a homework assignment, and the neatly typed, ten-point Courier worksheet that he gave us for that lesson seemed to have nothing but. I was so petrified by how terribly scientific it looked that I checked, rechecked, triple-checked furiously into the night. About my fourth time through the exercise, something clicked (or perhaps snapped), and I suddenly realized that there was a difference between complexity and difficulty, and that the lesson was definitely characterized by the former but, with some thoughtful work, no longer the latter. With that epiphany, I rather felt like I was in my yard again clutching two fists of prized horseflies instead of sitting alone and bleary-eyed under the dim lights over my kitchen table. And that’s when my adventure in science really got started…


Why the Brain? 

The human mind, and the brain from which it arises, is arguably the most complex and mysterious system in the known universe (though the brains of some dolphin species, of a larger absolute mass [2] and higher number of convolutions than ours and only second in size relative to the body [3] are almost equally compelling for many of the same reasons). This enigmatic machine that we carry around in our skulls is, however, a double-edged sword, as every one of its many degrees of motion also constitutes a weak point at which it might snap.

To echo the sentiments of Stanford neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, who declared during an undergraduate course lecture that major depression is the worst illness anyone could contract [4], disorders of the brain are particularly perfidious as they directly attack the machinery that underlies the curiosity, contentment, pleasure, and awareness that make life meaningful—even in such a way that the victim is perpetually unaware of their progress. And yet despite how absolutely debilitating it might be not understand one’s own language or recognize one’s own mother, or to constantly hear ringing, static, voices, or other noises that have no basis in reality, or even feel so demotivated that death seems a welcome alternative to another day trapped inside one’s own mind, we are still far from even a basic understanding of the grand majority of named neuropsychological ailments.

For example, while Alzheimer’s disease reportedly robs one in eight Americans aged 65 or over of their memories, their cognition, and their lives [5], it still does not have a cure. Similarly, major depression, estimated to have a lifetime prevalence of roughly 10-15% [6], leads countless scores to death by their own hands yearly, and yet we are still arguing about whether the most commonly prescribed and ostensibly most effective pharmacological treatments we have are little more than placebo [7]. And chronic tinnitus, a persistent and utterly life-stopping ringing in the ears due to the breakdown of some very specific neural pathways in attention and sensory processing [8] that has been estimated to affect at least 1 in 10 people on this planet [9], is still sometimes not even recognized by doctors as anything but psychosomatic buggery.

The problem is, because the brain is so complex, many of these disorders are marked by a multiplicity of causes, etiologies, and manifestations, making the research, standardization, and mass implementation of effective treatments extraordinarily difficult. And for many disorders like manic depression and ADHD in which illness is perhaps just a quantitatively extreme presentation of qualitatively normal phenomena, even deciding whether a treatable ailment exists is a challenge in itself.

But both for the anguish that we may prevent and the lessons we might learn about the analysis of complex systems, research on neuropsychological disorders is, however difficult and endless it might seem at this point, a cause undoubtedly worth a hard struggle.


What Research?

At the suggestion of my fabled chemistry teacher sophomore year in high school, I began working with another teacher in the department (who himself had a Ph.D. and several years of experience teaching junior and senior chemistry) on a self-designed study on whether self-efficacy affects short-term memory performance. I remember being chagrined that my mentor insisted on running a small-scale test of my darling protocol (developed over many hours of sweat and creative labor because I didn’t quite realize that science is as much about standing on the shoulders of giants as it is about marching to the beat of your own drummer) because at that point I was just an excitable novice unschooled in the mysterious art of pilot studies. I gave a twelve-minute presentation on my findings at the Illinois Junior Science and Humanities Symposium at Southern Illinois University, after which I was never once more afraid to speak to an audience of any size (quite a miracle given that, until then, I had gotten so nervous speaking in public that not memorizing a speech verbatim precluded me from saying anything at all).

Also at the suggestion of my chemistry teacher, the year before college, I worked under the dear and inspiring Margaret Macdonell developing Provisional Advisory Levels (PALs), less conservative and thus more pragmatic toxin exposure recommendations than current EPA disaster guidelines for air and water contamination. Since my interest in the brain had begun to blossom thanks to some important books I had recently read, particularly John D. Ratey’s A User’s Guide to the BrainLeslie Brody’s Gender, Emotion, and the Family, and Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, I focused my efforts on scouring the literature for and charting the dose-response curves of parasympathetically active organophosphates, including sarin, strychnine, mustard gas,  methyl parathion, and especially tetraethyl pyrophosphate.

My first year of college, I worked under the meticulous and unbelievably productive Elizabeth Kensinger in the laboratory of Daniel Schacter researching the interactions among emotional affect, age, and reality monitoring (the ability to distinguish external from internal stimuli and memories thereof), which involved testing a lot of darling senior citizens and not-so-darling college students on computerized batteries as well as my second serious rendezvous with SPSS and my first with manuscript drafting. After Dr. Kensinger moved on from Harvard to a position at Boston College, I continued in the Schacter lab under the direction of the energetic and attentive Jessica Payne in cooperation with Robert Stickgold at Harvard Medical School researching the relationship among sleep, emotional affect, and memory consolidation. This involved more computerized testing, lots of wires and messy EEG electrode gel, and a continued affair with my now very close friend SPSS.

The summer of 2007, I interned at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences under the thoughtful and instructive Jack Tsao researching the effects of unilateral amputation on bilateral dexterity. I also got to peek behind the experimental scenes by composing protocols and grant proposals (one of which used the DARPA Proto 2 motorized prosthetic arm, which was hot stuff [at least to me] back then), assisted in content development for a neurology telemedicine system, and got my first brush engaging with patients in a clinical setting (I expected them to get angry at the annoying intern who kept interrupting their physical therapy sessions for more experiments, especially given that they were soldiers who had just returned from Iraq without some limbs, but they were unbelievably friendly and accommodating). And, yes, more SPSS.

Now I work with the encouraging and fastidious Sungho Maeng at the WHO-affiliated East-West Medical Research Institute of Kyung Hee University Medical Center studying the in vivo efficacy and mechanisms of novel antidepressants. Meaning I spend my days dissolving things and trying to make life as easy as possible for our mice so that they don’t bite me. I also hope to branch out from SPSS soon.

From the brief history enumerated above, it is apparent that my journey through science has been a very personal one, aided by several pivotal people who cultivated my interest and enabled my acquaintance with the field. I owe them the world for the joy that scientific inquiry and discovery bring to my life and thank them wholeheartedly for helping me find a path that makes each day so exciting and meaningful.


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One Reply to “Science”

  1. Kelley these are truly great stories about how you began in the science world.

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