Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Post #40 - Some thoughts on our connections to the natural world

I am a biologist, not in the casual sense, but professionally. In the past 20 years, I have spent time designing and performing experiments to further our understanding of neuronal differentiation, molecular embryology, cell polarity, tissue morphogenesis, synaptic plasticity, small RNA biogenesis, and a host of other fancy-sounding fields that neither of my parents understand. The goal of my collective work, in the end, is to understand how our bodies and those of the other living things around us function at the cellular level. This basic biological knowledge, when applied by others to disease states, has the power to alleviate human suffering in many capacities. When reductionist work such as mine is coupled with the top-down approach employed by organismal and evolutionary biologists, a still more complete biological picture emerges. Beyond an understanding of our own intrinsic biology, we realize that we are actually just a single, though incredibly important and often destructive, player in a carefully coordinated biological dance that has been occurring at the planetary level for hundreds of millions of years.

A particular protein I study fused with a red
fluorescent protein in the C. elegans germline.
The protein localizes to the nucleus of the cell. 

I use this as a backdrop to explain and to explore an experience and series of thoughts I had today. Today is Tuesday, and like most, I find myself in my lab at USC. This morning I was analyzing some DNA sequence data. As per usual, I put some music on my headphones so as to block out any other distraction while I focused on the task at hand. Staring at the biological code as depicted in my sequence data, the seemingly endless quaternary code of nucleic acid bases that defines and dictates much of our biological existence, I caught my own reflection in the screen. Hands extended towards the computer keyboard, headphones upon my head, digital music formed by little more than 1's and 0's playing in my ears, I suddenly felt incredibly detached from biology, the same biology that I have dedicated my life to understanding. For a split second, I felt more a part of the machines to which I was connected than to my own biology, to my own being.

Lesser Goldfinch on Primrose
Apropos of more organismal approaches to biology
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D2
1/4000 AT F/5.6, ISO 800

Beyond a terrifying but altogether temporary experience, I think this sort of moment reinforces precisely why it is important that we maintain some form of connection to the natural world around us. Time with nature and the natural world's constituent organisms - both macro- and microscopic - reinforces the connection that we have to them, a connection that is sadly being lost as the sphere of human influence expands to previously undisturbed regions of the globe. In the digital age, not much of what we touch, see, hear, or generally experience has escaped the heavy hand of human design or manipulation. I am reminded that the time when I am the absolute happiest is when I am in some natural place simply looking at birds. Beyond photographic subjects and ticks on life lists, birds provide one of the most common reminders of the natural world that exists beyond the confines of our usually human-centric horizons. I know that when things in my own life seem their most tumultuous, I recenter myself by retreating into decidedly more natural spaces to sort myself out. Maybe today's brief episode is a reminder that I owe it to myself to do just this every once in a while. Biology is everywhere - inside AND outside the lab.


  1. This was lovely, Dorian! Very well said!

  2. Dorian: Are you back doing the job you were doing before you took a year off to Bike for Birds? I thought that you were casting about for something else to do after you completed your year. Did they hold the job for you?

    This is a good piece, by the way. I work on open space protection, but even my work is mostly office work. People think I spend all day walking around natural areas when, in fact, it happens only rarely while I'm on the job. Thus, I need periodic infusions of "nature" like you do.

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