“A confusing experimental result almost always means you’ve stumbled upon something interesting and maybe even exciting. I think that’s what makes science fun,” says Lauren Parker Jackson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Jackson to learn how she became a biologist and what she studies in her lab.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: I credit my high school chemistry, physics, and biology teachers with getting me interested in science. They were quirky, they were talented, they were energetic, and they weren’t afraid to push us. As a teenager, I did a lot of science fairs and quiz bowls, where two teams compete to answer academic questions. As a high school junior, I took part in the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering, where I spent a month at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, studying chemistry in a lab. That exposed me to research for the first time.
Like skin that covers and protects our bodies, membranes surround and protect cells and organelles. Membranes are semi-fluid barriers composed mainly of lipids and proteins. They provide structure; control the import and export of molecules such as ions, nutrients, and toxins; and support cellular communication.
The lipids that compose membranes are primarily phospholipids. (Cholesterol is another lipid often present in membranes that helps regulate their stiffness.) Phospholipids have hydrophilic (water-loving) “heads” and hydrophobic (water-fearing) “tails.” Within the human body, a water-loving environment, they line up so that their tails face one another and their heads point outward. In membranes, this alignment makes a bilayer barrier that is two lipid molecules deep.
For many people, the word pathway may bring to mind stepping stones in a garden or a trail through a forest. But when biologists talk about a pathway, they’re referring to a series of actions among molecules in a cell that leads to a certain product or change within that cell. Pathways maintain balance during walking, control how the eyes’ pupils respond to light, and affect skin’s reaction to changing temperature. They control our bodies’ responses to the world, and errors in them can lead to disease.
Your body is made up of trillions of cells that all originate from just one—a fertilized egg. The massive multiplication of cells after conception is possible thanks to cell division, which occurs when one cell splits into two. Cell division not only enables growth but also replaces damaged or dead cells and makes reproduction possible. There are two kinds of cell division: mitosis and meiosis.
Mitosis is shown on the left, and meiosis is shown on the right. Credit: Judith Stoffer. Click to enlarge
In everyday use, most people understand translation to mean converting words from one language to another. But when biologists talk about translation, they mean the process of making proteins based on the genetic information encoded in messenger RNA (mRNA). Proteins are essential for virtually every process in our bodies, from transporting oxygen to defending against infection, so translation is vital for keeping us alive and healthy.
Apoptosis is the process by which cells in the body die in a controlled and predictable way because they have DNA damage or are no longer needed. The term comes from a Greek word meaning “falling off,” as in leaves falling from a tree.
When a cell undergoes apoptosis, it shrinks and pulls away from its neighbors. As the cytoskeleton that gives it shape and structure collapses, the envelope around the cell’s nucleus breaks down, and its DNA breaks into pieces. Its surface changes, signaling its death to other cells and leading a healthy cell to engulf the dying one and recycle its components.
What looks like a bubbling lava lamp is actually part of an egg cell’s maturation process. In many animals, the egg cell develops alongside sister cells. These sister cells are called nurse cells in the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), and their job is to “nurse” an immature egg cell, or oocyte. Toward the end of oocyte development, the nurse cells transfer all their contents into the oocyte in a process called nurse cell dumping. This video captures this transfer, showing significant shape changes on the part of the nurse cells (blue), which are powered by wavelike activity of the protein myosin (red).
“A scientific career is really worth it,” says Hong Liu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Liu below to learn about his journey as a scientist and his advice for students.
Q: What makes a career in science exciting?
A: I think there are at least two things that make a science career very exciting. The first is that doing science means you have freedom to explore a lot of new ideas. The second thing is it’s rewarding. The “rewarding” I’m talking about here is not like how much money you can make. It’s rewarding in the answers you find and the new knowledge you reveal.
Did you know that the lack of a single enzyme is responsible for lactose intolerance, a common condition that causes people to have trouble digesting milk? Fortunately, the enzyme is available in an over-the-counter pill for lactose-intolerant people who want to enjoy dairy products. Enzymes are molecules—almost always proteins—that speed up chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reactions to proceed. Without them, many processes in our bodies would essentially grind to a halt.
Our blood appears red for the same reason the planet Mars does: iron. The element may bring to mind cast-iron pans, wrought-iron fences, or ancient iron tools, but it’s also essential to life on Earth. All living organisms, from humans to bacteria, need iron. It’s crucial for many processes in the human body, including oxygen transport, muscle function, proper growth, cell health, and the production of several hormones.
Iron is the reason both our blood and the planet Mars appear red. The element also makes up the majority of Earth’s core and generates the planet’s magnetic field. Credit: Compound Interest. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Click to enlarge