Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Lessons From The Petri Dish: In Praise Of Smart Cells And Smart Students
Chapter 2: It’s The Environment, Stupid
Chapter 3: The Magical Membrane
Chapter 4: The New Phsyics:Planting Both Feet Firmly On Thin Air
Chapter 5: Biology Of Belief
Chapter 6: Growth And Protection
Chapter 7: Conscious Parenting:Parents As Genetic Engineers
Epilogue: Spirit And Science
Lessons From The Petri Dish: In Praise of Smart Cells and Smart Students
Trouble in Paradise
On my second day in the Caribbean, as I stood in front of over a hundred visibly on-edge medical students, I suddenly realized that not everyone viewed the island as a laid-back refuge.For these nervous students, Montserrat was not a peaceful escape but a last-ditch chance to realize their dreams of becoming doctors.
My class was geographically homogenous, mostly American students from the East Coast, but there were all races and ages, including a 67-year-old retiree who was anxious to do more with his life. Their backgrounds were equally varied—former elementary school teachers, accountants, musicians, a nun and even a drug smuggler.
Despite all the differences, the students shared two characteristics. One, they had failed to succeed in the highly competitive selection process that filled the limited number of positions in American medical schools. Two, they were “strivers” intent on becoming doctors—they were not about to be denied the opportunity to prove their qualifications. Most had spent their life savings or indentured themselves to cover the tuition and extra costs of living out of the country. Many found themselves completely alone for the first time in their lives, having left their families and friends and loved ones behind. They put up with the most intolerable living conditions on that campus. Yet with all the drawbacks and the odds stacked against them, they were never deterred from their quest for a medical degree.
Well, at least that was true up to the time of our first class together. Prior to my arrival, the students had had three different histology/cell biology professors. The first lecturer left the students in the lurch when he responded to some personal issue by bolting from the island three weeks into the semester. In short order, the school found a suitable replacement who tried to pick up the pieces; unfortunately he bailed three weeks later because he got sick. For the preceding two weeks a faculty member, responsible for another field of study, had been reading chapters out of a textbook to the class. This obviously bored the students to death, but the school was fulfilling a directive to provide a specified number of lecture hours for the course. Academic prerequisites set by American medical examiners have to be met in order for the school’s graduates to practice in the States.
For the fourth time that semester, the weary students listened to a new professor. I briefed them on my background and my expectations for the course. I made it clear that even though we were in a foreign country, I was not going to expect any less from them than what was expected from my Wisconsin students. Nor should they want me to, because to be certified, all doctors have to pass the same Medical Boards, no matter where they go to medical school. Then I pulled a sheaf of exams out of my briefcase and told the students that I was giving them a self-assessment quiz. The middle of the semester had just passed and I expected them to be familiar with half of the required course material. The test I handed out on that first day of the course consisted of 20 questions taken directly from the University of Wisconsin histology midterm exam.
The classroom was deadly silent for the first ten minutes of the testing period. Then nervous fidgeting felled the students one by one, faster than the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. By the time the twenty minutes allotted for the quiz were over, wide-eyed panic had gripped the class. When I said, “Stop,” the pent-up nervous anxiety erupted into the din of a hundred excited conversations. I quieted the class down and began to read them the answers. The first five or six answers were met with subdued sighs. After I reached the tenth question, each subsequent answer was followed by agonizing groans. The highest score in the class was ten correct answers, followed by several students who answered seven correctly; with guesswork, most of the rest scored at least one or two correct answers.
When I looked up at the class, I was greeted with frozen, shell-shocked faces. The “strivers” found themselves behind the big eight ball. With more than half a semester behind them, they had to start the course all over again. A dark gloom overcame the students, most of whom were already treading water in their other, very demanding medical school courses. Within moments, their gloom had turned into quiet despair. In profound silence, I looked out over the students and they looked back at me. I experienced an internal ache—the class collectively resembled one of those Greenpeace pictures of wide-eyed baby seals just before heartless fur traders club them to death.
My heart welled. Perhaps the salt air and sweet scents had already made me more magnanimous. In any case, unexpectedly, I found myself announcing that I would make it my personal commitment to see that every student was fully prepared for the final exam, if they would commit to providing matching efforts. When they realized I was truly committed to their success, I could see the lights flash on in their previously panicked eyes.
Feeling like an embattled coach revving up the team for the Big Game, I told them I thought they were every bit as intelligent as the students I taught in the States. I told them I believed their State-side peers were simply more proficient at rote memorization, the quality that enabled them to score better in the medical college admissions tests. I also tried very hard to convince them that histology and cell biology are not intellectually difficult courses. I explained that in all of its elegance, nature employs very simple operating principles. Rather than just memorizing facts and figures, I promised they were going to gain an understanding of cells because I would present simple principles on top of simple principles. I offered to provide additional night lectures, which would tax their stamina after their already long lecture and lab-packed days. The students were pumped up after my ten-minute pep talk. When the period ended they bolted from that classroom snorting fire, determined they would not be beaten by the system.
After the students left, the enormity of the commitment I had made sank in. I started having doubts. I knew that a significant number of the students were truly unqualified to be attending medical school. Many others were capable students whose backgrounds had not prepared them for the challenge. I was afraid that my island idyll would degenerate into a frenetic, time-consuming academic scrimmage that would end in failure for my students and for me as their teacher. I started thinking about my job at Wisconsin, and suddenly it was beginning to look easy. At Wisconsin, I gave only eight lectures out of the approximately 50 that made up the histology/cell biology course. There were five members of the Anatomy Department who shared the lecturing load. Of course I was responsible for the material in all of the lectures because I was involved in their accompanying laboratory sessions. I was supposed to be available to answer all course-related questions asked by the students. But knowing the material and presenting lectures on the material are not the same thing!
I had a three-day weekend to wrestle with the situation I had created for myself. Had I faced a crisis such as this back home, my type A personality would have had me swinging from the proverbial chandeliers. Interestingly, as I sat by the pool, watching the sun set into the Caribbean, the potential angst simply morphed into an exciting adventure. I began to get excited about the fact that for the first time in my teaching career, I was solely responsible for this major course and free from having to conform to the style and content restrictions of team-taught programs.
Cells As Miniature Humans
As it turned out, that histology course was the most exhilarating and intellectually profound period of my academic career.Free to teach the course the way I wanted to teach it, I ventured into a new way of covering the material, an approach that had been roiling in my brain for several years. I had been fascinated by the idea that considering cells as “miniature humans” would make it easier to understand their physiology and behavior. As I contemplated a new structure for the course, I got excited. The idea of overlapping cell and human biology rekindled the inspiration for science I had felt as a child.I still experienced that enthusiasm in my research laboratory, though not when I was mired in the administrative details of being a tenured faculty member, including endless meetings and what for me were tortuous faculty parties.
I was prone to thinking of cells as human-like because, after years behind a microscope, I had become humbled by the complexity and power of what at first appear to be anatomically simple, moving blobs in a Petri dish. In school you may learned the basic components of a cell: the nucleus that contains genetic material, the energy-producing mitochondria, the protective membrane at the outside rim, and the cytoplasm in between. But within these anatomically simple-looking cells is a complex world; these smart cells employ technologies that scientists have yet to fully fathom.
The notion of cells as miniature humans that I was mulling over would be considered heresy by most biologists. Trying to explain the nature of anything not human by relating it to human behavior is called anthropomorphism. “True” scientists consider anthropomorphism to be something of a mortal sin and ostracize scientists who knowingly employ it in their work.
However, I believed though that I was breaking out of orthodoxy for a good reason. Biologists try to gain scientific understanding by observing nature and conjuring up a hypothesis of how things work. Then they design experiments to test their ideas. By necessity, deriving the hypothesis and designing the experiments require the scientist to “think” how a cell or another living organism carries out its life. Applying these “human” solutions, i.e. a human view of resolving biology’s mysteries, automatically makes these scientists guilty of anthropomorphizing.No matter how you cut it, biological science is based to some degree on humanizing the subject matter.
Actually, I believe that the unwritten ban on anthropomorphism is an outmoded remnant of the Dark Ages when religious authorities denied any direct relationship existed between humans and any of God’s other creations. While I can see the value of the concept when people try to anthropomorphize a light bulb, a radio or a pocketknife, I do not see it as a valid criticism when it is applied to living organisms. Human beings are multicellular organisms—we must inherently share basic behavioral patterns with our own cells.
However, I know that it takes a shift in perception to acknowledge that parallel. Historically, our Judeo-Christian beliefs have led us to think that we are the intelligent creatures who were created in a separate and distinct process from all other plants and animals. This view has us looking down our noses at lesser creatures as non-intelligent life forms, especially those organisms on the lower evolutionary rungs of life.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. When we observe other humans as individual entities or see ourselves in the mirror as an individual organism, in one sense, we are correct, at least from the perspective of our level of observation. However, if I brought you down to the size of an individual cell so you could see your body from that perspective, it would offer a whole new view of the world. When you looked back at yourself from that perspective you would not see yourself as a single entity. You would see yourself as a bustling community of more than 50 trillion individual cells.