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Tag: Science

Paradigm Shift@Home

I recently made a post on Bench Press about the potential for distributed computing (projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home which combine the computing power from volunteers over the internet to do supercomputer style calculations) to help any initiative needing extra number-crunching power, as well as steps that the scientific and distributed computing communities can take to help get us there, as well as what I think is a valuable paradigm shift in science that the distributed computing approach represents:

What impresses me the most about projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home is that they have defined some brilliant new ways to do science:

  • Use the internet – It’s a common theme on Bench Press, but with more and more people having faster and faster access to the internet, the potential for distributed computing becomes greater and greater. As Folding@Home demonstrated, such approaches can produce computing systems as powerful (or potentially more powerful) as leading supercomputer systems at a fraction of the cost.
  • Mobilize the public – We’ve discussed ways for the scientific community to reach out to the public like using social media and creating interactive applications/tools for the public to use, but efforts like Folding@Home illustrate a way to not only reach out to the public but to get them vested in science. In a world where high school science teachers find it difficult to get teens interested in science, initiatives like Folding@Home have created a system where teams of individuals compete on who can contribute the most to the effort! Instead of simply hoping that the public will continue to fund and listen, why not borrow a page from the many existing cancer-walk-a-thons and make it easy for the public to get involved?
  • Leverage new technology – It may not come as a surprise to our readers that a significant amount of the computational power at Folding@Home comes from graphics cards and Playstation 3’s. But, while many “mainstream” supercomputers ignored the new power afforded by these new chip types, Folding@Home developed software so that volunteers could quickly and easily use these powerful chips to boost their Folding@Home scores. The Folding@Home initiative also developed software to take advantage of innovations AMD and Intel included in their chips (new multi-core architectures and special instructions to speed up calculations). Is it any wonder, then, that Sony, NVIDIA, and AMD have all publically announced support for the initiative with their products?

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For more details on distributed computing and some of my thoughts on how the scientific community can better adopt these, check out the post at http://blog.benchside.com/2008/12/distribute-compute/

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Attack of the mini-viruses

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Viruses are fascinating little creatures. They’re like ninjas. Ninjas who sneak into your house, and turn your kids into more house-invading ninjas (that is, if your house were a cell, and the process of raising your kids was the cellular machinery).

They’re sneaky. My thesis was conducted on how living cells respond to ninja attacks viral infection – and while your immune system is smart, the numbers of ways viruses have of beating you are far more clever.

But, what if there was a way to out-ninja the ninja’s? What if there was a virus that could attack other viruses? Just published in Nature (hat tip: R. Boyko), some scientists discovered a tiny virus which they’ve called Sputnik which was capable of beating up other viruses.

They found that Sputnik infects the replication machinery in mamavirus [yes, I know how crazy that name is] and causes it to produce deformed viral structures and abnormal capsids. It had a similar effect on mimivirus [what’s with the crazy names?]. Because Sputnik’s behavior so closely resembles what bacteriophage do to bacteria, the researchers called the new type of virus a virophage, and suspect it may represent a new virus family.

Psh. Virophage is lame. I prefer – super-ninja.

Image credit

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Farewell Jeremy Knowles

image I was very sad to discover online the death of Jeremy Knowles, renowned biochemist and former Dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This is especially poignant for me for two reasons.

The first is academic. Throughout college, I was very interested in the study of chemical biology — the chemistry of living processes. Part of this was due to my fascination with Knowles’ work. Professor Knowles was famous for his studies which bridged our early understanding of chemistry with that of natural biological processes. His work in enzymology helped explain how TIM (triose phosphate isomerase, a critical enzyme in one of the chemical reactions which allow cells to turn food into energy) worked and developed a chemical understanding of how antibiotics like penicillin work and how clavulanic acid helps to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you’re as big a science dork as I am, that is just endlessly fascinating.

The second reason is a more personal one. A few years ago, my roommate Eric and I had the opportunity to dine with Professor Knowles at the Harvard Faculty Club. There we were, face-to-face with a well-respected intellectual luminary and someone who had tangibly shaped the destiny of teaching and student life at the university. I walked away with a sense of wonder at the man — in one short dinner, he was able to imbue in each of us a sense of awe at his sheer brilliance, and all delivered with such charm that you would hardly know he had been the Dean of one of the world’s foremost academic institutions and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen of England.

My heart goes out to Mr. Knowles’ family, as well as to the Harvard community he served so well.

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Door number 2?

image One of the classic examples of un-intuitive probability is the Monty Hall problem whereby an individual is presented with a choice of three doors — behind one is a prize and behind the other two are nothing. After the contestant selects one door, he is shown one of the other two doors which hides nothing behind it. The contestant is then given a chance to change his/her mind. The question is: should the contestant change his mind?

Many people who are faced with this problem oftentimes see the choice as irrelevant — reasoning that they have even odds between the door they have currently selected and the remaining unknown door. This, however, is the incorrect answer. The optimal strategy is to switch. (You can test this yourself if you don’t believe me)

The simplest explanation I’ve heard (courtesy of this New York Times article, hat tip: A. Garvin) for this is that the probability of winning the prize if you don’t switch is 1 out of 3 (the probability that you guessed right the first time). On the other hand, the probability of winning the prize if you do switch is 2 out of 3 (the probability that you guessed incorrectly the first time — in both cases where you guess wrong, the other incorrect door will be shown meaning that switching will get you the right door).

The NYT Article I linked proceeds to talk about economist M. Keith Chen’s use of this simple toy case to debunk a large swath of psychology experiments around the concept of cognitive dissonance (that people forced to choose between things they are indifferent between will rationalize that they actually preferred what they wound up choosing) by pointing out with this test case how the initial choice changes the odds involved in subsequent choices.

Very interesting, very well done, and I think most people would agree it casts a new light on much of the theory behind cognitive dissonance.

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Magneto has arrived

“Magneto man” that is.

From Engadget (hat tip: A. Phan):

A boy named Joe Falciatano III from Pulaski, New York, seems to have simply the worst luck ever — and some think it could be do to an overly magnetized touch. While using PCs at this elementary school, Joe — who dubbed himself “Magneto Man” — found that every system he laid his hands on went totally haywire. Only after a teacher suggested he use a grounded, anti-static wrist strap did the systems experience relief from his Geek Squad-inducing grasp. Apparently, the boy has also disrupted slide show presentations and caused his Xbox to freeze repeatedly.

What do the experts have to say?

Kelly Robinson [who runs Electrostatic Answers] used an electrostatic field meter to measure Joe’s static electricity and determined it was normal. He measured the conductivity of Joe’s sneakers and concluded that they were very insulating, so they might have prevented any static on Joe from passing into the ground; hence, it went to the computer.

Is that the best you got, Mr. “electricity expert”? Psh. We all know he’s going to train an army (or “Brotherhood”) to lash back against the human “flatscans” who have oppressed his kind for so long.

But, I’m onto you, Joe. I’m onto you.

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Snow from Bacteria

image Ice crystals (and sugar and other crystals for that matter) can only form through a process called nucleation. What this means is that snow does not form spontaneously, but instead must have something — could be a speck of dust, could be another ice crystal — from which the crystal can start building on.

The classic “kitchen chemistry” experiment that demonstrates this is the one used to make rock candy — if you boil a totally saturated sugar water solution such that the sugar completely dissolves in the boiled state, and you let the boiled solution cool without disturbing the liquid, no crystals jump out. But, if you stick something into the water (e.g. a popsicle stick), the crystals immediately form on the stick. The stick acts as the nucleator, letting the sugar crystals build onto something.

Tara C. Smith of Aetiology (hat tip: A. Phan) points out that the ice crystals which make up snow often use bacteria as nucleators:

The authors [of the Science paper] were looking at ice nucleators (IN) in snowfall. According to the Science paper, those IN are frequently bacteria, including, as the author notes in the news interview, some pathogens of plants (such as Pseudomonas syringae). Apparently (unbeknownst to me), P. syringae is already used to make fake snow (link), so the fact that it can serve as a seed for precipitation isn’t new. However, the authors note just how important these biological nucleators (including P. syringae) appear to be in the atmosphere:

“The samples analyzed were collected during seasons and in locations (e.g., Antarctica) devoid of deciduous plants, making it likely that the biological IN we observed were transported from long distances and maintained their ice-nucleating activity in the atmosphere… our results indicate that these particles are widely dispersed in the atmosphere, and, if present in clouds, they may have an important role in the initiation of ice formation, especially when minimum cloud temperatures are relatively warm.”

Bacteria… is there anything they *can’t* do?

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"Science" fiction

imageThere is no question in my mind that the high quality of life experienced by Americans today and the dominant position in the world which the United States currently enjoys are in large part due to the nation’s leadership in science and technology.

But despite the importance of science today, and its relevance in maintaining this favorable status quo for America tomorrow, Americans show a bizarre lack of understanding of basic science. This manifests itself in a more serious way in the the sheer number of individuals who believe that evolution and creationism are equivalent in validity and/or who believe that vaccines cause autism — both are quite wrong; both are testament to how little many Americans comprehend of science; and both are signs that this lack of understanding has real political impacts.

On the less serious side, however, this also manifests itself in a number of odd “scientific” beliefs which, although oftentimes having no basis in reality, are actually widely held (from: LiveScience)

Top 10 Most Popular Myths in Science

  1. Humans use only 10% of their brains.
  2. The Great Wall of China is the only manmade structure visible from space.
  3. It takes 7 years to digest gum.
  4. Yawning is “contagious.”
  5. Water drains backwards in the Southern Hemisphere due to the Earth’s rotation.
  6. There is no gravity in space.
  7. Chickens can live without a head.
  8. Eating a poppy seed bagel mimics opium use.
  9. A penny dropped from the top of a tall building could kill a pedestrian.
  10. Hair and fingernails continue growing after death.

And now you are enlightened. Go forth and spread your newfound scientific “wisdom.”

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A case fit for House MD

imageI’m a huge fan of the show House MD. In particular, I love the show’s use of incredibly bizarre, but true medical cases. For example, in one of the earlier shows, House and his team make a diagnosis based on the fact that sleeping sickness can be transmitted by sexual contact. That may sound like nothing extraordinary, until it becomes emphasized that this medical “fact” is actually one reported case in a foreign medical journal. Probable? No. But, fake? Not really.

Unfortunately, consulting does not leave much time in my day for keeping up with scientific papers. I end up accumulating a pile of papers to read which just never seems to shrink. However, I was recently shook from my paper-reading stupor when A. Phan pointed me to one particularly interesting study published in the most recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The AFP article which summarizes the study is simply jaw-dropping:

Girl switches blood type after liver transplant

The medical study details the struggles of a 9 year old Australian girl who needed a liver transplant due to a case of “non-A-to-G hepatitis” (translation: doctors know that something serious is hitting the liver, but they have no clear idea what it is). She is given a liver transplant from a 12 year old boy who died of hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain) and is positive for a normally innocuous virus called CMV (cytomegalovirus). The match is nowhere near perfect, so the girl is treated with immunosuppressants to prevent rejection.

Unfortunately, while CMV is normally harmless, it can cause problems in patients with weakened immune systems. Sure enough, the girl had to be re-admitted to the hospital 2 weeks after being discharged. Her doctors noted that the severe lymphopenia (a shortage of the blood cells needed to fight infection) that was ailing the girl prior to the transplant had persisted even 5 weeks after the transplant. The doctors had simply thought this was a combination of infection and the immunosuppressants they were giving her, so they adjusted the medication they gave her.

7-8 months after that (9 months post-liver transplant), the girl was re-admitted to the hospital for surgery due to a bowel obstruction, and it was then that they noticed that the patient’s blood, which had previously been type O-negative, had tested O-positive! This was especially incredible given that both parents were homozygous O-negative, meaning that there was no way, genetically, that the girl could produce O-positive blood. Typically, the only way a blood type switch happen is through a bone marrow transplant, which replaces the blood-making cells of our bodies with the blood-making cells from a donor — and even then, it’s accompanied by something which the girl did not suffer from called GVHD (Graft-Versus-Host Disease), where the new donor immune system thinks that the recipient’s entire body is foreign, and should thus be attacked.

image A month after that (10 months post-liver transplant), after a mild respiratory tract infection (a cold or cough), the girl started showing signs of hemolytic anemia. Literally, her blood cells were bursting — something you would expect in blood type mismatch problems. Heavy immunosuppressive therapy and constant transfusions seemed only to alleviate the problem slightly. A careful examination of her blood showed that her immune cells were more than 90% from the donor, something which was verified not only by blood type, but also by the fact that these cells had Y chromosomes (results from fluorescence in-situ hybridization to the right; red dot is a Y chromosome; green dot is a X chromosome; the cell at the top is thus XX — female — and the cell at the bottom right is XY — female).

In words that President George W. Bush might understand, the donor’s new blood cells are US forces in Iraq. The remaining blood cells from the girl are scared Iraqi’s who see strangers everywhere and are prone to using guns. The hemolytic anemia is the result of the ensuing fighting. And the immunosuppresants are some magical way (maybe supplying both sides with alcohol?) to reduce the ability of both sides to fight.

The doctors had a choice. Do they:

  1. Give her a drug to wipe out a big chunk of the immune cells from both donor and recipient (nuke Iraq to kill enough people, on both sides, to stop the war)
  2. Stop all immunosuppressants and just let the immune cells duke it out (take off all the handcuffs on US forces and let them wipe out the remaining Iraqi insurgents and hope that Iraq is still in one piece when it’s all over)

They went with the second strategy.

It is now about 5 years after the transplant. The girl is healthy, and no longer on immunosuppressants. Her blood is now completely from the donor, despite the lack of bone marrow transplant. There has been no sign of the GVHD which typically accompanies the sorts of bone marrow transplants which could lead to blood type switching, and it would appear that the girl’s new immune system has been “re-trained” to not recognize the liver or the girl’s body as foreign.

So, the big question in my mind is how? How could a non-bone marrow transplant lead to blood type switching? The only two things I can think of are:

  1. A virus caused liver cells from the transplant to fuse with the girl’s blood-making bone marrow cells. Why it may be possible:
    1. In biology labs, forcing cells to fuse is oftentimes done with viruses
    2. It is known that stem cells like the blood-making bone marrow cells are prone to fusing (a result which confused many early researchers who were positive they found examples of blood stem cells turning into non-blood cells)
  2. Because the boy was so young, it is possible that the transplanted liver still contained blood-making stem cells which were re-activated. Why it may be possible:
    1. The fetal blood supply is produced, at least in part, by cells in the liver
    2. Stem cells which are dormant (e.g. the cells in your skin that can produce new skin) can be activated with the appropriate stimuli (e.g. burn)

This is all just speculation on my part, and I doubt we will ever find the answer in the case of this patient (who is no doubt sick of doctors and hospitals), but things like this are reasons why I love House and why I love science.

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CTLs

One of the most challenging things about the shift from one field to any other field is dealing with jargon mismatch. What’s especially jarring is trying to learn new meanings for acronyms that I already learned different meanings for.

Case in point: at my firm, consultants with MBAs who’ve proven themselves and are on track towards promotion are called Case Team Leaders — signifying their emerging role as workstream leaders in our case teams. Seeing as consultants love their TLAs (three letter acronyms), Case Team Leaders are of course called CTLs.

image On the other hand, in immunology, where I spent a reasonable chunk of my scientific time, CTLs refer to cytotoxic lymphocytes. These cells are oftentimes called killer T-cells, because of their role in seeking out and destroying cells which have been taken over by viruses or cancer.

And, even though the only thing remotely similar about the two different CTLs is a propensity to kill things that don’t quite fit :-), it still takes a reasonable amount of effort for me not to laugh when I hear that acronym being used to describe my supervisors.

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Scientific Dictionary

You didn’t think Consultant dictionaries were the only ones available, did you (although some of these can definitely be applied in Consulting)? (hat tip to A. Phan)

From HealthCare Economist:

The following list of phrases and their definitions might help you understand the mysterious language of science and medicine. These special phrases are also applicable to anyone working on a Ph.D. dissertation or academic paper anywhere!

“It has long been known” = I didn’t look up the original reference.

“A definite trend is evident” = These data are practically meaningless.

“While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to the questions” = An unsuccessful experiment, but I still hope to get it published.

“Three of the samples were chosen for detailed study” = The other results didn’t make any sense.

“Typical results are shown” = This is the prettiest graph.

“These results will be in a subsequent report” = I might get around to this sometime, if pushed/funded.

“In my experience” = once.

“In case after case” = twice.

“In a series of cases” = thrice.

“Correct within an order of magnitude” = Wrong.

“According to statistical analysis” = Rumor has it.

“A statistically oriented projection of the significance of these findings” = A wild guess.

“A careful analysis of obtainable data” = Three pages of notes were obliterated when I knocked over a glass of pop.

“It is clear that much additional work will be required before a complete understanding of this phenomenon occurs”= I don’t understand it.

“After additional study by my colleagues”= They don’t understand it either.

“A highly significant area for exploratory study” = A totally useless topic selected by my committee.

“It is hoped that this study will stimulate further investigation in this field” = I quit.

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Something for Nothing

Where I work, I have instant electronic access to numerous databases. While I no longer have access to Scifinder Scholar (for Chemistry papers and structures and patents) or PubMed (which indexes every biological/medical paper published), my research workhorses are now Factiva (for news and magazine articles), Euromonitor (for economic and market data), and OneSource (for general company information).

Access to these databases cost money. Lots of it. I remember balking the first time I saw the purchase price for a Thomson research report ($10,000 for some analyst’s research on an energy company) that wasn’t covered by the firm’s subscriptions.

And these databases are, if used properly, well worth the cost to the institution in question. But sometimes, you don’t need fancy-shmancy million dollar databases. I’m currently doing research which involves finding historical operating margins and I’ve found the following resources to be very useful and also very cheap (as in free) and just thought I’d introduce three of my best friends from this past week:

  • Google Finance – This is a pretty awesome tool. It’s flashy and aggregates an enormous amount of useful information. You get corporate information, stock price data (back to 1980), a quick summary of the stock performance of related companies, links to recent news articles, and a quick aggregation of top-level income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement numbers.
  • Reuters – I used to think this site was purely for news (I’m a huge fan of Reuter’s Oddly Enough which I guess isn’t exactly news), but it’s a treasure trove of financial information. Most useful of all are its industry profiles whereby it describes multiple industries, what makes them tick, and industry statistics that enable you to compare how a company is doing relative to its industry. It also lists some information for companies that are not publicly traded
  • SEC EDGAR – Any company report that has ever been filed with the SEC within the last 13 years can be found here using EDGAR, the SEC’s report search engine. This was particularly helpful when I was looking up financials for telecom companies that no longer exist because they either went out of business, changed their name, went private, or were bought out by someone else.

So useful are these sites that I’ve actually created Firefox keyword searches for them (except for Reuters where I still can’t get the keyword search to work). Now I can look up Dell’s financials with a simple “fin Dell” (to search on Google Finance) or “sec Dell” (to use EDGAR).

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“Boiling the Ocean”

In many ways, scientific training crosses over very well into consulting. It trains individuals to think critically about the world around them, to take in all observations for careful analysis, to skeptically consider evidence, to craft and test falsifiable hypotheses, and to find rigor in numbers and computation. It is no small wonder that so many science students at all levels successfully make the jump into consulting.

On the other hand, scientific training also instills within trainees a few trends which run contrary to what a successful consultant needs to be. Science emphasizes thoroughness and depth. Your training is not complete until you know every little detail relating to your field of interest — and quite a bit more about associated fields. It is quite inconceivable to the layperson just how much a grad student has to read just to be able to “tread water” in his or her field, let alone be successful at it. To that end, grad students are not only forced to but strongly encouraged to read broadly and constantly, leaving no stone unturned; no tree missed, no matter how large the forest.

Unfortunately, while this focus on depth can lead to very deep insights and very complete analysis, a consultant rarely has the time to “boil the ocean”, or perform an analysis with a thoroughness and completeness which leaves no room for uncertainty. It is simply not feasible for a single consultant to read every relevant piece of literature dealing with a given client or industry or division or even a product and yet still have time to complete a segment of analysis fast enough for a client team to meet a deadline or be agile enough to switch strategies when necessary.

Instead, a consultant (or anyone in a non-research oriented job, really) has to learn when enough is enough — when there is enough information to make a judgement or perform a piece of analysis but not too little such that the judgement or analysis has no possibility of being reasonable.

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Consulto-nomics

While doing research for a secret internal project, I stumbled across a book, The Boston Consulting Group On Strategy, one of the many books that various consulting firms put out on a regular basis to establish themselves as relevant experts on business strategy. The book itself is a compilation of opinion and analysis pieces by various BCG (Boston Consulting Group) partners from the past including a few interesting pieces by BCG founder Bruce Henderson.

Henderson is interesting in that he is one of the “founding fathers”, if you will, of management consulting. BCG history is full of examples of powerful insights: the Experience Curve, the growth-share matrix, “The Rule of Three and Four”, among others. To this day, the public persona of the firm is one of a puzzle-solving/innovative thinking culture dedicated to solving and analyzing complex business scenarios.

Yet, despite his role at the beginning of consulting, Henderson’s writing is distinctively not consultant-like. Nowhere are the excessive TLAs (three letter acronyms) or use of impressive-sounding but utterly empty sentences and phrases which seem to mark today’s consultant. Instead, he is simple. To the point. Decidedly not long winded.

I like him already.

One of the points that he makes pertains to economists. Henderson makes the argument that economics leaves one very ill-prepared for the business world, because economists deal in abstracted, perfect conditions which bare no semblance to the world. In the business world, there is no perfect competition, or information symmetry, or pure rational agent which the economist often relies on in his or her thinking and theorizing.

I took a course in the Fall semester of my last year of college which dealt with evolutionary game theory, and while we looked at very complex bells and whistles (spatial components, strategies, memory, etc.), at the end of the day we were just analyzing the infamous prisoner’s dilemma, a game with only two possible moves, and it was surprising how complex the analysis could be: it was done with mathematical rigor in a complete fashion with hypothesis testing and reasonably advanced computational analysis.

But, ultimately, it was still just a two-move game (tic-tac-toe, by comparison, is an, on average, 5 move game) with idealized assumptions. The business world doesn’t have two-move games. It doesn’t let you make nice assumptions. It doesn’t give you the time to conduct complete analysis. You don’t have a Cray supercomputer at your desk with hours to code to do a hard numerical analysis. You have a deadline. You have gray areas. You have incomplete data. You have to deal with people and their volatile personalities and emotions.

So, yes, a proof, an experiment, a mathematical model — these are certainly beautiful and interesting. But, you just can’t do that in business. You have to prioritize. You have to manage your time. You have to work together to tackle a big, amorphous task. You have to make guesses. You have to sometimes leap before you look. You have to beg, to intimidate, to coax, to laugh and to cry and to smile.

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All Roads Lead to . . .

If you had told me four years ago that I would be working in consulting, I would have responded with a basic question: “What’s consulting? And, why am I doing it?”

As recently as a year ago, I was positive that I would be pursuing a PhD in Systems Biology (or something similar such as Computational Biology or Mathematical Biology). The field was deeply exciting to me. It was (and still is) full of untapped potential. I spoke eagerly with professors Erin O’Shea and Michael Brenner about how I could prepare myself and what I could study. Having worked in the lab of professor Tom Maniatis for almost two years at that point, and having been exposed to the joys of doing collaborative scientific work, I was fairly certain that being a graduate student doing research full-time was what I wanted.

With almost a sense of smugness, I looked down at the more “business-y types”. I thought what they were doing lacked rigor, and was hence not worthy of my time. I believed it was mere mental child’s play compared to the rigor and intellectual excitement of trying to decode complex gene networks and how invisible molecules could determine whether we were healthy or sick.

So what happened? Well, I can think of four main reasons. The first and most immediate was that I was part of the organizing committee behind the 2006 Harvard College Asian Business Forum, which was the HPAIR (Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations) business conference. The experience was very rewarding and eye-opening, but more than that, it was an impetus to follow the paths of the many excited delegates, many of whom were early professionals looking into business jobs like consulting and finance.

The second factor was a growing awareness of what life in academia meant. Yes, I was well aware of the struggles that junior academics had to go through on their way towards tenured faculty. But at the same time, towards the end of the summer, with several experiments facing  setbacks and the doubts in my mind over my ability to be a good researcher, I began looking to other alternatives.

The third consideration stems from the fact that I have always been interested in application. My approach towards science has always been rooted in searching for possible applications, whether commercial or for the public interest. Even the reason that I chose to specialize in Systems Biology stemmed from a belief that traditional molecular and cellular techniques will face sharply diminishing returns with regards to finding the causes and cures for diseases. Having lived almost all of my pre-college life in the Silicon Valley, I was geared to seeing fruiftul science as science that moved from “bench to bedside” and my highest aim was to transition brilliant ideas to profitable ones.

The final factor is of course that it’s always exciting to try something new, especially something competitive — and even though I cursed recruiting at times, it could feel like a fun competition. Although I did not expect to receive a job offer from any firm, I did better than I expected in the interview process and received an offer which I simply found too interesting to turn down.

All roads, at least for me, led to consulting.

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Mr. Hexane

There was a semester where I considered going into organic chemistry. Why not? I had liked the orgo classes I had taken. The subject matter, at least from textbooks, seemed fascinating to me — using the properties of Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and my other friends from the periodic table to either construct or understand molecules of industrial and biological importance — and it seemed so much more creative than the molecular biology stuff that I was beginning to get tired of. After all, my roommate seemed pretty happy with his Chemistry major.

So, I took Chem135 — Experimental Synthetic Chemistry, a much more advanced and realistic look at synthetic organic chemistry compared with the introductory lab sections I had previously taken. Excited, I dove straight into synthesis — my two projects being the synthesis of Aspartame (better known as NutraSweet) which was, incidentally, discovered by a guy doing random amino acid-like fragment coupling who just happened to lick his unwashed hands (not something I’d recommend) and the Wieland-Miescher Ketone, an interesting chemical structure which is used to synthesize taxol (a potent anti-cancer drug) and other hormones.

Excitement is not the same as skill, however, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I was a very poor synthetic chemist. An illustrative example of this was during the Aspartame synthesis project. One of the steps of the project entailed azeotroping away acetic acid (what makes vinegar vinegar-y). Acetic acid does not readily boil off or evaporate, but heptane (C7H16) does and because heptane is known to azeotrope well with acetic acid, one can eliminate the acetic acid by adding heptane.

I, the brilliant and attentive budding scholar that I was, made the mistake of adding HEXANE C6H14 (not heptane), and, while in principle, hexane and heptane can sometimes be good replacements for one another, it did not work quite so well — necessitating me to evaporate off an extra four equivalents of heptane. D. Zhao, wonderful friend that he is, hence dubbed me Mr. Hexane — and from that day forth, I labeled all of my tubes and flasks and vials “Mr. Hexane”.

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Kryptonite

(Hat tip to Eric):
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6584229.stm

Researchers from mining group Rio Tinto discovered the unusual mineral and enlisted the help of Dr Stanley when they could not match it with anything known previously to science.

Once the London expert had unravelled the mineral’s chemical make-up, he was shocked to discover this formula was already referenced in literature – albeit fictional literature.

“Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral’s chemical formula – sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide – and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luther from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

“The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite.”

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The Miracle Year

Albert Einstein is one of history’s most formidable geniuses. What is the most astonishing is that many of his seminal, scientific-revolution inspiring work was published in ONE YEAR (1905 — a year that many now call Einstein’s Annus Mirabilis, or “Miracle Year”).

And did he do this while working at a premier research institute? Working with the best and brightest minds? No. He did this while working as an inept examiner at the Patent Office in Bern, Switzerland working more or less alone. In that one year, he published on:

  1. Photoelectric Effect – The only work of his own that Einstein has ever pronounced “revolutionary”, it used Max Planck’s theoretical work which had, at the time as a purely theoretical manipulation, postulated that energy can only exist at discrete points (ie. 1 and 2 and 3, but not 1.1 or 1.3) to explain an experimental phenomena (blackbody radiation) which scientists could not otherwise explain. Einstein took this work and used it to explain another problem which scientists had been baffled by and postulated the wave-particle duality of light. Interestingly, Max Planck himself wasn’t a fan of his own quantized energy assumption — which became the underpinnings of Quantum Theory — but at a meeting between the two, Einstein was finally able to convince him of its merits. This was a truly seminal work and netted Einstein his only Nobel Prize.
  2. Brownian Motion and Atomic Theory – Although the existence of atoms had been postulated by the Greeks and more formally by the grand chemists of the 18th and 19th centuries, many scientists still considered the idea of the atom to be just a useful theoretical manipulation. Despite Planck’s (reluctant) use of it in his analysis of Blackbody radiation, it was Einstein who was able to finally prove the value of statistical mechanics — the idea of applying quantum theory on huge numbers of atoms to make conclusions about physical phenomena — by showing how Brownian motion, the phenomena where small objects can be seen to “dance” around under a microscope (because they are colliding with too-small-to-see atoms and molecules) could be understood through statistical mechanics. Einstein was thus able to arrive at an actual numerical figure for the Boltzmann Constant (and, as a result, Avogadro’s Number) and provide a real empirical basis for molecular/atomic theory.
  3. Special Relativity – With a single hypothesis that light had to move at a constant speed no matter your perspective, Einstein was able to provide a framework which unified classical mechanics with Maxwell’s equations describing electromagnetic phenomena. Amazingly radical at the time, it was met with quite a great deal of skepticism (after all it postulated some very counter-intuitive consequences) but has been supported by so many experimental observations that it’s now generally accepted as valid today.
  4. E=mc2 – Yet another seminal paper producing what is possibly the most famous equation in all of physics, Einstein proposed the radical idea that energy and mass are interconvertible, thus explaining the basis for nuclear energy and weaponry.

History is full of many brilliant people — but to publish four revolutionary papers in ONE YEAR is incredibly awe-inspiring and indicative of just how brilliant Einstein was!

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Are the Eldest Siblings the Smartest?

If you do a survey of students at an elite college, you’ll likely see a strong overrepresentation by those who are the eldest sibling in their family.

Does that mean that the eldest siblings are the smarter ones? As much as I wish that were true (I am an eldest son), this post from EconLog points out why this is faulty logic:

If you regress real income on birth order, you get the same pattern as my wife’s law school class. The first-born averages $1900 more than the second-born, who averages $1900 more than the third-born, and so on. However, if you regress real income on birth order AND family size, you get a totally different picture. Birth order makes essentially no difference (in fact, the sign reverses), but average income falls by about $2400/child in your family. First-born only child? You’ll make more than average. First child in a big family? You’ll do no better than the fifth-born child – maybe a little worse!

Does this show that big families hurt incomes? Possibly, but the simpler story is more plausible: Poor people have more kids, and kids of poor people tend to be poor themselves.

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My Physics Professor is Rather Quirky

First semester, I had a physics class with Professor Melissa Franklin (the first female physicist to receive tenure at Harvard) who taught a class on Life at Low Reynold’s Number, or essentially life on the micro-scale as low Reynold’s number describes what happens when your mass is small in scale relative to viscosity (ie imagine trying to swim in a vat of tar and that gives you somewhat of an approximation of what your cells and bacteria experience). She was a very quirky professor, prone to making jokes about her terrible French accent and was very laid back — it helped that our class was a very small size, and while the class could be a little disorganized, the interesting subject material and the fact that the class was so small let her get to know us and made the class a lot of fun.

Well, courtesy of this link that Eric provided for me, I discovered just how quirky she is. While I had known she had been a successful high-energy physicist, I had no idea that:

The story behind this seems to be that particle theorist John Ellis and experimentalist Melissa Franklin were playing darts one evening at CERN in 1977, and a bet was made that would require Ellis to insert the word “penguin” somehow into his next research paper if he lost. He did lose, and was having a lot of trouble working out how he would do this. Finally, ‘the answer came to him when one evening, leaving CERN, he dropped by to visit some friends where he smoked an illegal substance’. While working on his paper later that night ‘in a moment of revelation he saw that the diagrams looked like penguins’.

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