The Museum of Blind Alleys

The Museum of Jurassic Technology
The Museum of Jurassic Technology

In the Palms District of LA, across from an In-and-Out Burger and a vegan cafe by the peculiarly Californian name of “Native Foods,” is a quaint red-and-green façade. Inside the deceptively small storefront is a museum, but one without the monumental wonder of the Smithsonian or the Met, and certainly not the modern crispness of the Getty or the Whitney. The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a curio cabinet, in the tradition of the Alchemists and Philosophes of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Its dark and twisted exhibit halls explore forgotten chapters of humanity from “Dogs of the Soviet Space Program” to “Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home Parks.” Like Hollywood to the north, the Museum exists in a world parallel to, but separate from, the surrounding sun-bleached modernity – and I owe much to that odd world. Continue reading The Museum of Blind Alleys

What distribution classes will make me a better researcher?

How do I square my research with my class schedule — and content?

The University of Sussex, where I spent my Junior Spring, is like many European universities in that its three-year undergraduate courses are focused nearly exclusively upon one subject. Whether they wanted to or not, the third-year chemists I studied with there could never have sampled from the broad menu of courses I have at Princeton. Seeing the alternative, I am more-than-ever grateful to be at a liberal arts university where even the most technical-minded engineers can – indeed must – explore topics far afield from their specialties. As with all exploration, I have found some electives more fruitful than others. But many non-technical classes have been incredibly useful in honing my ability to communicate my research, collaborate with researchers from around the world, and understand the political and philosophical implications of my work. Continue reading What distribution classes will make me a better researcher?

Theological Moments

IMG_2328 copy
It doesn’t quite mean wearing lab coats to church…

It’s late at night in the lab during my spring abroad in England. We’re waiting for the microplate reader to spit out another noisy mess of data, and I’m struggling. Not with any scientific point, but with trying to articulate poorly-remembered details of St. Thomas Aquinas’ teleology to a Muslim grad student colleague. What, you ask, does biochemistry have to do with Thomist teachings? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if the answer weren’t “everything.”

Research, you see, isn’t just something we do in the lab or the archives. It’s a powerful expression of that fundamental human desire to understand the way the world works. It’s about wonder: We wonder where we came from, so we study cosmology and biochemistry. We wonder what came before us, so we study paleontology and archaeology. We wonder who we are so we study history, the arts, and the humanities. And we wonder at our place and our role in the world. And scientific answers lead to scientific questions, which inevitably stretch beyond the lab or the library into life. Continue reading Theological Moments

Doodling in the Lab

The doodles appear everywhere: on whiteboards, on lab notebooks, even on the autoclave tape. Impeccably shaded line drawings of a-helices, the protein structure nearly everyone in the lab works with.  The “culprit”? Ann, the senior grad student in our lab. Her artistic skill is rare, or at least perceived as rare, in science. Rare enough that Grant, one of the post-docs in the lab, complains, besides a few exceptions, science is “full of nerds”, by which he means those without any creativity or broad interest. And that rarity is a shame, because science needs creativity. This isn’t just about a desire for amusing doodles, it’s about building a scientific community full of clear, intuitive thinkers who can communicate their discoveries.

This isn’t quite what’s usually meant by “biochemistry is more art than science”

Once upon a time, the protein-chemistry lore goes, everyone needed some artistic flair. Indeed, Jane Richardson, under whom my thesis adviser did his postdoc, is known as much for her artistic skill – hand-drawing so many diagrams of proteins in her field-defining papers that modern visualization software still largely uses the conventions she developed – as for her considerable scientific talent.

Now, due to that same software, and other software for visualizing other sorts of data, rapid and clean images of nearly any process, relationship, or other data are merely a few lines of code away. But when the graphics are automatically created with software, rather than by-hand, something is lost.  It’s all-too easy to let visualization software become a crutch by presenting colorful pictures without paying mind to the aesthetic or narrative considerations of the medium. Continue reading Doodling in the Lab

On (not) applying to grad school

Was I really ready to commit the next 5 years of my life to another Ivory Tower?

As I’ve muddled my way through three years of college, the questions people have asked me about my studies have changed. It started with possibility and exploration – “what are you studying?” and “ooh, chemistry was my worst subject!” – but when I returned home this summer, the question “and what are you going to do next?” reared its ugly head.

Grad school, followed by academic research, had always been my default answer. It’s what my dad did with his psychology degree, it’s very close to what my mom did with her English degree (until she turned off on a veering path through secondary education, administration, web development, and consulting). Perhaps more importantly, it’s the path most visible to students actually in university, surrounded as we are with, well, grad students and academics. Especially at Princeton (where research in even the “applied” sciences tends towards the theoretical), there’s a dearth of visibility of other paths.

Continue reading On (not) applying to grad school