“Push electrons, not people.” Lately, more than ever, I’ve been thinking about this bumbling biochemist catchphrase. It’s more than just a witty statement that popped into my head one day, it really is a motto that describes my outlook (and inlook) on life. Focus on helping other people, not tearing them down, and really try to appreciate the beauty of the biochemistry underlying our lives and help others see this beauty. As the world struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, and uncertainty hangs everywhere like a dark cloud, it is so heartening to see the beauty of people coming together to help.
“Electron pushing” is a way that chemists show where electrons are flowing in molecular reactions. We draw arrows from the nucleophile (electron-giver) to the electrophile (electron-taker). One fishhook for 1 electron transferred and 2 for a pair. We care about these transfers because they’re how bonds are made and broken. And tracking the electrons is like the chemist’s version of “following the money” (but we can predict where they’ll go too 🙂 )
In organic chemistry class, my classmates were fretting trying to memorize all these different reactions and I focused instead on following the electrons and logicalizing my way through things. From those early days I started practicing “thinking like a molecule.” By focusing on mechanisms by which reactions occur, you can come to realize that if you understand one, you can reason out the others.
I’ve kept this outlook throughout my scientific journey and, when people ask me for advice in “getting through” biochemistry or ochem I tell them to focus on the mechanisms, the concepts, the “why’s” and then you can reason out the “what’s.” The other piece of advice I give is to try to enjoy the learning.
It’s such a shame that learning all this is such a privilege but while you’re in the midst of learning it it’s hard to just stop and appreciate it. I’ve found myself enjoying biochemistry so much more now that I don’t have to worry about exams. I can just let myself soak it all in. And it feels so unfair that I get all of this knowledge others don’t have access to.
So, I initially started my blog, etc. as a way to explain a huge array of more “traditional” biochemistry topics (I’m just a PhD student doing this as a “hobby” because I really want to help people learn!). But lately, my biochemistry knowledge has taken on a newfound urgency and importance – governments, NGOs, etc. all around the world are issuing guidance and mandates filled with scientific jargon that can be confusing even for someone with a biochemistry background. And when I have to look things up, the sources that I find are often the super-watered-down news blurb version or the super-technical scientific journal articles. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great scicomm work out there and I applaud you all!
But I’ve been working hard to bring you all (hopefully) understandable yet in-depth information about the science that seeks this middle ground. And sometimes I skew towards the too-advanced and I apologize if I leave anyone behind there – and feel free to ask questions.
I’ve been doing a lot of posts covering various aspects of Covid-19. You can find them all here: https://bit.ly/covid19bbresources
My favorite part of the page is that I’ve gotten my infographics on how coronavirus tests work translated into 2 dozen languages (and counting!) It’s so amazing that this initiative is that it’s helped bring together people from around the world – my translators have included everyone from high school students, to undergrads, postdocs, to professors – from 5 continents – and I’m grateful for each and every one.
And the collaborations are in the “real world” too – scientists in labs around the world are racing to develop faster tests, effective treatments, and vaccines – and they’re sharing what they find in real time as well as sharing chemicals, etc.
I find this incredibly heart-warming for so many reasons. One of which is that I love science (obviously), but I really hate the competition aspect. Honestly, I don’t care about honors or prestige. In a grad school interview, when I said that I loved the fact that in science you can contribute “pieces” of a puzzle that can help advance the work of others – that even if you don’t make a ground-breaking discovery, you can still have an impact, building into a collective knowledge. one of the professors I met with basically saw this view as “aiming for the mediocre” – that I should focus on doing something that makes a huge leap.
Who defines ground-breaking anyways? Just because “conventional” ground isn’t being broken doesn’t mean that you aren’t breaking ground somewhere, for some person.
Kinda like opening a jar, you don’t see all the people that loosened it along the way. Things like the Nobel Prize highlight the work of the final opener. And it’s not that they don’t deserve recognition, it’s just that by focusing on them, we lose sight of all the hard work of those that enabled their work.
Even things we take for granted, like being able to stain proteins blue with coomassie dye so we can see them after we separate them by size with a PAGE gel. Or knowing we could separate them that way in the first place. And maybe those proteins you’re running through that gel were recombinantly expressed (you took the gene from one place and stuck it into cells that’ll make it for you). Stop to think about just how amazing that all is. And it didn’t happen because of single people (although some of the people probably were single :P)
So what our society considers breakthroughs couldn’t even happen if people hadn’t have figured out that you can use a dye to bind proteins and then other people had optimized the hell out of it so you didn’t have to spend your time focusing on that.
So I’m fine if my major contribution in life is putting a piece of the puzzle together. Or even just helping someone else find a puzzle piece – or see see the pieces. Because you never know when that piece of a puzzle is part of a staircase.
#365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0