Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists

Lab science cartoon

Carl may not scare her…but did she remember the controls?

Warning: This blog contains stories about phantom serial killers, frankenfoods, mysteriously phosphorylated bands and unrequited ligations that may be disturbing to some people. Children or scientists prone to anxiety over irreproducible results should read this with their eyes shut.

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Clouds hung low in the sky, and the late October wind howled between the buildings, rattling the window panes of the basement laboratory. The grackles cawed in desperate warning, their flocks changing the evening color palette from gray to black. I was as unsettled as the weather, watching my blot slosh back and forth. Continue reading

Conflict, CRISPR and the Scientific Method

Scientific inquiry is a process that is revered as much as it is misunderstood. As I listed to a TED talk about the subject, I was reminded that for the general public the foundation of science is the scientific method—the linear process of making an observation, asking a question, forming an hypothesis, making a prediction and testing the hypothesis.

While this process is integral to doing science, what gives scientific findings credibility and value is consensus from the scientific community. Building consensus is the time-consuming process that includes peer review, publication and replication of results. It is also the part of scientific inquiry that so often leads the public to misunderstand and mistrust scientific findings.

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To Quilt, Perchance to Discover

What is it about Quilting?

Not yet a quilt, this is a stock photo image.

Not yet a quilt, this is a stock photo image.

There is a really big quilt show going on in town right now. The annual Wisconsin Quilt Expo runs Thursday through Saturday, September 8–10, 2016 here in Madison, WI.

This quilt expo is the State Fair for quilters. It is to quilters, what Summerfest, or a Lollapalooza festival is to music fans. It is the Stitch-Stitch fest for those with thimbles (and fabric, of course).

To give you another idea of the size of Quilt Expo, busloads of quilters and quilt fans come to this expo, and there are awards for the best quilt in each of ten categories. Can you imagine the time it takes to judge quilts in 10 different categories?

Quilt Expo is sponsored by Wisconsin Public Television and quilter-in-chief Nancy Zieman, host of the popular public television show “Sewing with Nancy”. Her store, Nancy’s Notions is a destination quilting shop in Beaver Dam, WI. I’ve been to this store twice, both times with dedicated quilters. Each time, my quilter counterpart stopped talking immediately upon entering the store. They looked around once, took a cart and went deep into shopping. I gave up on attempts at conversation, due to a lack of response. Continue reading

She’s Going Soft! – A commentary on “hard” and “soft” sciences

scientific-methodThis week I gave notice that I would be terminating my employment at Promega. This was a very difficult decision as I have really enjoyed the past six years here.  While I am leaving Biotech, I will not be leaving science all together.  Over the past few years, I have used my research, analytical, and organizational skills to assist various non-profit organizations in the community.  My primary focus will be on reform of the criminal justice system and racial disparities.  Spreading the word about this decision has resulted in a number of responses (overwhelmingly positive) including the comment that I am going soft! This got me thinking about where the terms hard and soft science came from. Continue reading

Elegant Experiments that Changed the World

Crystallographic structure of HIV reversed transcriptase. Wikimedia Commons

Crystallographic structure of HIV reverse transcriptase. Wikimedia Commons

Today, reverse transcriptases are commonplace molecular biology tools, easy to obtain and routinely used in labs for everyday cloning and gene expression analysis experiments. Reverse transcriptase inhibitors have also found widespread use as antiviral drugs in the treatment of retroviral infections.

It’s easy to forget that the existence of reverse transcriptase activity—the ability to convert an RNA template into DNA—was once a revolutionary notion not easily accepted by the scientific community. The idea that RNA could be the template for DNA synthesis challenged the “DNA–>RNA–> Protein” central dogma of molecular biology.

The foundational studies that proved the existence of a reverse transcriptase activity in RNA tumor viruses were described in two papers published back-to-back in Nature in June, 1970. Two of the authors of these studies, Howard Temin of the University of Wisconsin and David Baltimore of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work in 1975.

In appreciation of the significance of these papers, the editorial introduction published in Nature at the time states:

This discovery, if upheld, will have important implications not only for carcinogenesis by RNA viruses but also for the general understanding of genetic transcription: apparently the classical process of information transfer from DNA to RNA can be inverted.

Before these papers were published, it was known that successful infection of cells by RNA tumor viruses required DNA synthesis. Formation of virions could be inhibited by Actinomycin D—an inhibitor of DNA-dependent RNA polymerase—so it was known that synthesis of viral RNA from a DNA template was part of the viral life cycle. The existence of an intracellular DNA viral genome was therefore indicated, and had been postulated by Temin in the mid 1960’s. However, proof of the mechanism whereby this DNA template was generated from the RNA genome of the infecting virus remained elusive. Continue reading