Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why I got into science

I don’t usually believe in fate, but I do believe that I was meant to be a scientist. Whether it’s innate curiosity and logic, or a mixture of other traits, I seem to be very well suited to biology in general and genetics in particular.

The various jobs I aspired to over the years changed as my understanding of science matured. I’ve noticed that young children always want to enter the professions they’re most familiar with. Most kids in my elementary school wanted to be a teacher, nurse, firefighter, train driver - jobs we were familiar with and understood. I decided early on that I wanted to be a vet, preferably in a zoo.

I grew up reading James Herriot’s books and watching All Creatures Great and Small on the BBC. It seemed like such a great job, spending time with all those cute and interesting animals. Then I spent some time volunteering at a vet’s surgery in my early teens, and realised that my career would be an endless procession of overweight cats and dogs getting their annual shots.

My next career aspiration again came via the BBC; I wanted to be David Attenborough. (yeah, OK, I still kinda do). I even entered a couple of competitions through the BBC Wildlife magazine, hoping to win the first prize of a day at Kew Gardens or the BBC Centre with my hero. If I couldn’t be David Attenborough, I wanted to be a field zoologist or marine biologist. Whales! Dolphins! Tigers! Orangs!

Greenpeace membership in hand, I paid extra attention during biology lessons. I was lucky enough to have a fantastic teacher who was a true inspiration to me. (If it wasn’t for her, I might have had to become an engineer instead). When I was about 14, she started to teach us about some monk in Central Europe who bred pea plants in the 19th century. I remember the lesson to this day. She told us what was understood about the nature of heredity at the time. She told us how Mendel designed his experiments and meticulously carried them out. She told us about the famous 3:1 and 9:3:3:1 ratios of different traits that he observed in first generation hybrids. Then she told us how the theory of discrete and independent allele inheritance with no blending was worked out, and showed us how to logically map out all possible allele combinations, according to that same theory, to arrive at a ratio of 3:1 or 9:3:3:1.

Well, I was hooked. It just made so much sense. Subsequent lessons were just as logical. Descent with modification, natural selection? Made sense. The modern synthesis, incorporating Darwinian theory and molecular biology? Yep, made so much sense, how could it be any other way? The more details I learned, the more everything fell into place. I once had a different biology teacher tell me that she felt she never had to teach me anything, that I always seemed to know it already. I explained that partway through every explanation she ever gave, some area of my brain would light up and complete the process before she finished speaking. Genetics was so logical, so elegant, so obvious once you started to think about it.

I went on to study genetics at university, where specific fields started to appeal more than others. I was particularly interested in molecular evolution; viral genetics; cell cycle control; and the transformation from normal to malignant cells. My PhD thesis combined a couple of these areas, focusing on the transformation of chicken fibroblasts by a growth-promoting gene carried by a virus. My data led me into the field of gene expression regulation.

My search for a postdoctoral position had two parameters. It had to involve gene expression regulation, but in an interesting, exotic kind of way. And it had to be in Vancouver, a city I had visited and fallen in love with. An early literature search brought up a paper that fit the bill perfectly, co-written by a graduate student who was later to become a colleague and friend. So a few months later, I was on a plane to Canada to study the evolution of transcriptional regulation by endogenous retroviruses. (More on these fascinating pieces of our genome will come later; anyone who’s interested in them right now should visit ERV’s blog).

I am immensely proud to have contributed, even in such a small way, to the field that has fascinated me ever since my high school lesson about Mendel’s pea plants. My papers are still cited, which brings me more pleasure than it decently should. A newly arrived postdoc in my former lab once told me that one of my papers was a fairly major factor in her decision to emigrate to Canada and join our group. The circle was complete.

As my profile says, I am still a scientist and always will be. However, I am no longer in research. The reasons for that will be the subject of my next post.


  1. Lovely post! Thank you for sharing!

    But I fear what I will read in the next post... I hope its happier than what Im anticipating...

  2. Thanks mate!

    Fear not, the next post will not be too depressing - I jumped well before I was pushed!


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