Reading biological research papers and hanging at the fringes of the research community, you start to get accustomed to the model organisms used in research (I’m looking at you, D. melanogaster) – the sea urchin, however, was not one I’d ever encountered before. Since starting with the McClay Lab, though, I’ve begun to understand the elegant complexity of the sea urchin. Looking through the microscope on my first day down at newly-fertilized embryos, then watching the first embryonic cleavage, I was struck by how simple it all appeared. Where before there was one circle, now there were two conjoined ovals. Then I swiveled my chair around to look at one of the many copies of the embryonic gene regulatory network posted around the lab, and was struck by the extreme complexity underlying this ostensibly simple process. All of these complex interactions between transcription factors of constantly differentiating cells, all their neighbors, and even cells clear across the embryo regulate this dynamic, yet elegant, process of embryonic development.
This contrast of elegant complexity is the basis of my own work in the McClay Lab for this summer. I’ll be looking at where previously understood cellular regulators (like transcription factors) affect the development of the urchin innate immune system cell types. Over the summer, I want to develop my ability to constantly ask probative questions to fully understand and critically evaluate the logic and discoveries of cutting-edge research, rather than simply accepting previous work as truth. By developing my skepticism and understanding of the research tools currently available, I also hope to become a more independent lab member, even designing some experiments of my own in the future, thus beginning to carve my own path through the landscape of scientific research by asking (and even perhaps beginning to answer) some of my own questions about the elegant complexity of life.
But I know the world of research isn’t filled to the brim with glowing accomplishments, earth-shattering questions, and “Eureka!” moments. I expect to spend a not-insignificant portion of my time just trying to figure out precisely what went wrong, and then trying an experiment again (and again, and again if necessary) to see if something else goes wrong. Humility, particularly the ability to admit that you were wrong, no matter how horribly wrong you were, is integral to science, and I look forward to developing that skill among my immensely talented and compassionate peers in the McClay Lab. By the end of the summer, I want to begin humbly asking interesting and valuable questions, be independent and driven while enthusiastically collaborating with others, and always ask for help when I need it, all while contributing to our understanding of the elegant complexity that comprises life. In short, I want to start to start becoming a scientist.