Thank you NOVA

[picapp align=”right” wrap=”false” link=”term=graduation&iid=5371271″ src=”7/9/4/0/University_Of_Birmingham_ce0a.jpg?adImageId=8902543&imageId=5371271″ width=”234″ height=”332″ /]You could have knocked me over with a feather when, a couple of weeks ago, my sons came running upstairs with great enthusiasm to announce that they had both decided to go to college to study biology. They went on to regale me with facts about differentiation, developmental biology and genetics. This from children whose ambitions up until that point were to become a professional wrestler (#1 son) and to stay at home forever and avoid college at all costs (#2 son). Why the sudden change?

They had been watching the NOVA episode “What Darwin Never Knew” with great interest. We had tuned in to watch because Promega was a sponsor of the episode, but since it is a well-known guiding principle of my children’s lives that they will not watch any TV show where there is “too much talking”, we hadn’t expected them to pay much attention. Instead they sat through the entire 2 hours absolutely riveted.

The program did an excellent job of explaining basic concepts such as the genetic code, protein-coding genes vs untranslated sequences, structural genes and genetic switches. It held both my interest and theirs. The amazing genetic similarities seen across species, and the puzzles that remain to be solved in the quest to understand the genetic basis of diversity in the context of this similarity, were highlighted. Several fascinating examples were covered where the timing of activation of genes was shown to have a profound effect on phenotype.

I think one of the things the program did best was to illustrate the detective work done by scientists in various fields as, armed with the knowledge from the human genome project, they were able to home in on key differences between species that could be explained by mutations in genetic switches. I think this was the part that captured my children’s imagination. There were profiles of scientists studying species as diverse as fruit flies, finches, chimps, and fish. The process of hunting down clues and comparing sequences until critical differences were identified and understood was illustrated in a way that was compelling to watch. A mutation in a muscle gene in humans was compared to the gorilla equivalent and shown to result in a smaller human jaw muscle, causing a structural change that means the human brain has more room to grow; A genetic “switch” responsible for the “paintbrush” wingspots in Drosophila; Possible regulators of limb development… These examples made my sons want to learn more for themselves. Even better, the program convinced them that there could be really interesting and exciting possibilities for them in pursuing an education. It fired their imagination and left them with a sense of awe at the amazing diversity of the natural world. Thank you NOVA.

A couple of days ago my younger son again stated his new ambition. But this time he got a bit mixed up and said “I’m going to college to study beeography”. “No” said his brother, “You mean biology. Beeography is a badly pronounced word that means a book about dead people”. I get the sense that things are slipping again. (I see the faint outline of a ringside seat materializing in my future). Where is that NOVA schedule? I wonder what’s on this week?

Watch “What Darwin Never Knew“.

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Isobel Maciver

Isobel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh and of Aston University in Birmingham, U.K. She is a technical writer and editor, and is also manager of the Scientific Communications group at Promega. She enjoys writing about issues in science and communication.

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  1. No need to worry, Isobel. Wrestlers retire young, right? There will be plenty of time for bi- (or bee-) ology education after the boys are rich and famous.
    Biology, as you know, is perfect for life-long learning. For many of us, it’s lifelong Re-learning, as many concepts (e.g., microbiological or immunological) have been revised or tossed aside for new ones.

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