Thursday, March 8, 2012

Searching for zen within genomes

When Siddhartha Gautama fled his princely upbringing in India, it was his disillusionment and confusion that spurred a quest for knowledge. When he reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he gained supreme clarity and finally understood. Buddha's teachings expound our divided nature: our ordinary nature that is driven by emotions such as fear and anger, and our true nature representing an unwavering, universal consciousness.

In biology, a species also has two selves: how it looks, and its genetic code. The vast spectrum of life on earth is completely and utterly driven by four little letters: ATCG. Yet in reality these four letters represent the complex molecular structures found in DNA, which bind, intertwine, and produce sophisticated living beings. Appearances (phenotypes) can be sly and deceptive. Only the genome encapsulates the true nature of life on earth.

Biodiversity accommodates a complex inventory, meticulously accrued, of which humans are themselves a product. It seems perfectly natural that we harbor a perpetual, dormant quest to deconstruct the genomic workings that explain our entire existence.

My scientific career and personal passions have always been driven by an unquenchable thirst to understand. I'm a voracious consumer of knowledge, and I have too many interests for my own good - music, physics, design, theatre, fashion, art, sports, astronomy, biology and the natural world. I can't remember the exact moment I decided to pursue a career in science, but it undeniably occurred during high school. I was entranced by the marine realm, but my obsessions were rather unconventional: I shunned whales in favor of jellyfish, and preferred burrowing through salty mud instead of hunting dolphins through binoculars.

As a scientist, I have always sought to explore the scientific and philosophical nature of life on earth. My internal dialogue is equally comprised of questions such as "Why am I here?" as well as "What makes this work?" In additional to my scientific roles as a marine researcher and computational biologist, I hold a yoga teaching certification and maintain a daily meditation practice.

Any job is stressful—as a postdoc I’m on the bottom rung of the academic career ladder, under constant pressure to publish or perish, fail or find funding. But when you strip away these weights and anxieties, take a deep breath and sit down at the lab bench or computer, the experience can be transcendental: there’s a certain zen to data analysis.

The deep-sea is a vast, complicated ecosystem where we know little about the “big picture”, and next to nothing about the cellular machinery that breathes life into a specialized and sometimes grotesque fauna. Despite my deep-sea yearnings a child, I would have never envisioned a career focused on DNA. My adventures involved scrambling around tidepools, reading books about shipwrecks, and collecting pondwater to gaze at under the microscope. I remember being enthralled by a museum event with a live satellite link to scientists using underwater ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles). I wanted to be one of those explorers on the front lines.

As my educational career progressed, I was often surprised at the topics that unexpectedly seized my attention. The invisible world of genes and proteins was as gripping as any novel, but these modern scientific stories were so new and novel, with most textbook tales lingering unfinished. I still loved the sea, but learned that traditional marine biology is firmly rooted in species descriptions and ecological studies: I knew I didn’t have the patience to sit at a microscope, nor the stamina for long stints out in the field.

An academic career is unlike any other: thrilling and flexible, yet cutthroat and unrelenting. Success requires you to define your own niche—my niche, I’m finding, lies at the intersection of tradition and innovation: using cutting-edge genomics and computational biology to answer longstanding questions about deep-sea ecosystems.

I’ve stuck to a research career because it allows me to continually feed my sense of wonder and awe. No longer am I restricted to reading books and shouting questions into thin air. Being a postdoc at a large research university is definitively empowering. I have control over the direction of my own path. I can identify questions with no answers and finally do something about it. In many ways, technology is the vessel of modern explorers. Instead of sailing to exotic lands, we power-up massive supercomputers to run algorithms that once embodied the stuff of dreams.

Eastern philosophy implores us to recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary. Quantifying simplicity to understand the complex: above all else, this principle is the crux of modern genomics. Mankind’s quest to understand the universe may indeed lie within a single cell.

NOTE: An edited version of this post was originally published at Of Schemes and Memes on the Nature Blog network, to coincide with the Lenses in Biology supplement published in Nature on March 1st. Five scientists were asked to reflect on their career path and choice of research field; this is my story.  

1 comment:

  1. Whoa Holly! Jaya ! I have no idea how this blog got on my screen, but so nice to read it and be in your presence for a bit. Never mind the photo with the full green skirt, white blouse, black belt & outfit Meryl Streep might wear if she were impersonating a mad zen scientist. Warm as June here for the last several successive he 80's & warm at night ! All the plants are responding. We miss you at Snow Lotus !