THE NIGHT BEFORE DEFENSE (or A Visit From Citrate)

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Twas the night before Defense, when all through the lab

Not a gel box was shaking, with stain or with MAb;

The columns were hung in the cold room with care,

In hopes that my protein, I soon could prepare;

 

The post-docs were nestled all smug in their beds,

While extracts of barlied hops muddled their heads;

With the tech in the suburbs and PI the same,

I had just settled down to another video game.

 

When out of the fridge there arose such a clatter

I sprang from the terminal to see what was the matter.

Away to the cold box, I flew like a flash

But the stench was o’erpowering and I threw up beef hash.

 

The mould on the dampest of walls which were cold

Had the softness of kittens only seven weeks old;

When what to my view, a thing I despise

But a half-eaten sandwich and four tiny mice;

 

With a little old scientist, so lively and galling,

I knew at a glance, it was Linus Pauling.

More vapid than undergrads, his charges they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them rude names.

 

“Now, Watson! Now Francis! You strange little modellers!

On Luria! On Bertani! You stupid old broth’lers!

To the top of the bench, to the top of the wall!

Purify! Purify! Purify all!”

 

As dry heaves before the committee meeting, bend

A young student’s body and his colon distend,

So up to their earlobes, acytes they grew,

With a sack full of antibodies, their skin turning blue.

 

And then, for a second, I heard from the ‘fuge,

An unbalanced rotor spinning something too huge.

Where I put down my hand, to better hear the sound,

Came the snapping of sparks from a wire sans ground.

 

Pauling’s hair was all wavy, and I thought I must be sick

`Cause the curl in his hair looked just like a helix.

On an arm load of oranges, he started to snack

Recalling his fetish with ascorbate, the quack.

 

His eyes were all wrinkled, but the cheeks were yet red;

Not too shabby for a man who was several years dead;

The leer of his smile was just a tad scary

And the snow on his rooftop made his head yet quite hairy;

 

The end of a pipette, he held in his teeth

And a pile of kimwipes lay around his big feet.

He held a small vial of something quite gel-ly,

A mercaptan no doubt, for it make him quite smelly.

 

He changed `round the columns, adding to the confusion

And I laughed to spite my own paranoid delusion.

A wink of his eye and a rotation of his head,

Told me whatever I drank would soon leave me dead.

 

He spoke not a word, just buggered up my work,

And dried all my resins, that silly old jerk.

And separating his middle finger from first, fourth and third,

That crazy, old bugger, just flipped me the bird.

 

He grabbed up his cohorts and ran down the hall,

And away they all flew, letting me take the fall.

That is why, dear Committee, I am sorry to say,

I need a five year extension, starting today.

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left

Write what you—No!

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The adage I hear a lot in writing circles and books is “Write what you know”. By that, people mean write about the things for which you have a passion, because that passion for the subject will shine through your writing and become infectious to your reader or viewer.

To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment, but I think there has to be codicil. When you know how to write, write what you know.

Let me explain with an anecdote.

When I first started writing, I was coming out of a career as a biochemistry researcher who had spent the bulk of my training in protein biochemistry and genetics. That was where my passion lies. So, perhaps as no surprise, when I decided to become a science writer, I focused much of my initial energies on writing about protein biochemistry. I understood the science; I could see the story quickly; I could write about it with some fluency.

Unfortunately, despite or perhaps because of my passion and fluency, I was completely unreadable to anyone who wasn’t already a protein biochemist. I wasn’t speaking to my audience in terms they could understand but rather in terms I could understand. To a greater or lesser extent, I might as well have been writing in Klingon, which I suspect would have given me a broader audience.

When I finally realized what was happening—thanks to all of the people who beat me about the head—I made a pact with myself. Until I felt that I could really tell a story, I would do my best to avoid writing anything about that at which I was most expert. I had to become my audience: the relative non-experts.

About a year into writing about topics I had to research and for which I had to ask potentially stupid questions, my writing had matured to the point where I could go back to my area of expertise and approach it in the same way. I had finally arrived.

I think the same holds true for any kind of writing, whether news, novels, screenplays, blogs.

Until you are capable of telling a story that your audience can decipher, and more importantly wants to read, you are probably better served to stay away from the topics you know best. To do otherwise means running the risk that you will leave out the “obvious” and the “well, yeah” that you know in your bones, but that could be vitally important to an audience member trying to understand why certain facts or behaviours in your story exist.

Give yourself—and by extension, your audience—a chance to learn your story, to experience it at a visceral level. As you develop your story, you’ll likely find yourself asking questions of your plot or characters that your audience would ask. You want your audience to think, but you never want them to have to research. Until your work becomes part of a school curriculum, it shouldn’t require a study guide.

It is easier to remove the truly superfluous common knowledge or understanding later than it is to convince yourself that the information you need to add isn’t common knowledge.

When you are ready to tackle it, the subject(s) for which you have passion will still be there. Consider them the reward for all the hard work you did up front.

In a future post, I hope to discuss a flavour of this topic: “Based on a true story”.

Maps quest

In another life, I could have been a cartographer. I simply love maps.

Road maps. Old maps. Topographical maps. Biological maps. I love maps.

It is probably truer to say that I love visual information presentation, but let’s stick with maps.

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As a kid, I remember staring at maps that came out of the National Geographic or in my books and literally tracing the courses of rivers with my fingers, trying to understand what their winding patters told me about the lands through which they passed.

I would look at maps in history books, and see how topographical features literally and figuratively changed the course of civilization. There are several reasons, for example, why Montreal sits where it does, but most of them are geographical.

(Magazine art for my article on efforts to understand how proteins bind drug molecules.)

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Later in my life, I would draw maps—at first geographical, but later biological. The biochemical mechanisms that cells and organs use to communicate, to rejuvenate, to function are maps unto themselves, each criss-crossing with others, offering alternate routes to the same destination. The latter point is why diseases like cancer are so hard to treat.

Maps allow me to take journeys, but not just in the physical sense of providing direction. They also give a factual tether to my fantastical imaginings. I can go places I may never visit, understand things unfathomable, while pouring over a map.

And map systems like Google Street View have added to those imaginings. Often, when I write, I will visit the setting of my story on Google Street View to help me paint a more vivid picture of the location. Sometimes this makes my narrative sound more like a travel brochure, but that’s my fault and can easily be handled with editing. The important thing is that the reader gets the essence of what I’m trying to convey.

(Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. Setting for the climax of my murder thriller screenplay)

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My writing itself is a map. Like Google Street View, I am only giving the reader what fits within a specific frame, in essence guiding the reader. But at the same time, I cannot control what the reader thinks or how the reader feels as he or she journeys through my word jungles.

Just as with my childhood adventures of following rivers and mountain chains, the reader is free to layer his or her own imaginings on top of mine. And so, I have written not just one story, but hundreds or thousands.

Hunh?

I guess I became a cartographer, after all.

(Overview of my neighbourhood in downtown Toronto.)

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